Iceland’s “peaceful revolution” – Myth and reality

Hordur Torfason, soon to tour Aotearoa/NZ

Hordur Torfason, soon to tour Aotearoa/NZ

Writers for Fightback

Those following Occupy circuits, and other forums concerned with economic justice, may have heard notions of an “Icelandic revolution.” In this narrative, the Icelandic government refused IMF conditions, nationalised the banks, gave debt relief to its citizens, and ‘crowdsourced’ a constitution. With Icelandic activist Hordur Torfason soon to tour Aotearoa/NZ, this narrative is worth investigating.

There are elements of truth to this story, elements of mystification, and some lies. In reality, the Icelandic government has always accepted the terms of the IMF. However, a dispute over Icesave – a dodgy “savings” scheme that frittered away billions of dollars – caused an internal crisis over the terms of repayment. The British government demanded that the Iceland government pay back the debt in full. When the people of Iceland rebelled, the conservative president refused to sign the agreement, forcing a referendum. As Icelandic blogger Baldur Bjarnson notes:

The Icelandic governments have always accepted the terms of the Dutch and the British… The voters disagree and only get a say because the president is keen on making everybody forget that he is a bankster collaborator (

The referendum concerned the terms of repayment, particularly interest, not the fact of repayment. Although Iceland’s internal political crisis has forced negotiation, it is not true that the government has blanket refused IMF conditions; as in Greece, Spain and elsewhere, they are negotiating. Bjarnson also notes that while the government wrote off the banks’ debts, debt relief for the people of Iceland has been more tiered and less accessible.

It’s also said that Iceland ‘crowdsourced’ a new constitution. An article entitled ‘A Deconstruction of “Iceland’s On-going Revolution,”’ on free alternative magazine the Reykyavik Grapevine, notes that the reality is more complex. Iceland held a non-binding referendum to elect a Constituent Assembly of 25 people, to write a new constitution – however when this process collapsed, 25 were ‘appointed’ to draft a new constitution.

Although the government is seeking submissions via social media, the constitution is now being written and amended by politicians and government bureaucrats. It has not been co-written by the masses, as is often implied. The Reykyavik Grapevine notes how this myth inspires those fighting austerity, dictatorship and capitalism worldwide:

As a publication we strive to practice good journalism, though we have to say that a part of us is reluctant to correct these kinds of articles, as it is nice to see citizens of other nations, like Spain and Portugal, being inspired by our story. Hope has to come from somewhere (

Although we certainly need inspiration, simplifying (or lying to ourselves) can be dangerous. No “peaceful revolution” has taken place in Iceland; no benevolent government foregoing debt to relieve its people; rather, the people of Iceland have forced the government to give some concessions, in a contradictory political crisis that could present opportunities for revolutionaries.

See also
Iceland: Become Part of the Heard, Jessica Ward
Iceland: There are no peaceful revolutions (a reply to Jessica Ward), Ian Anderson


  1. Thank you for this information, I always like to have the whole story. Your country is still an inspiration to those of us disillusioned and angry that our politicians are not working in our country’s best interests. It is getting worse for the poorest New Zealanders every year and the govt/media here are degrading the unemployed, disabled and those that need state assistance as bludgers.

  2. >25 were ‘appointed’ to draft a new constitution.

    appointed by whom?

  3. @joao: Majority vote. But more crucially the process is now directed by parliament per se, and the right wing parties are pushing for amendments. Here’s an article from Al Jazeera, from someone involved in the process:

    Why’s that?

  4. I would just like to point out that this article is extremely misleading. I went to the talk by Hordur Torfason today at the Dunedin School of Art and think this article misses the point…There is hope for the 99%. Iceland’s peaceful Revolution (although not entirely successful) is proof of this.
    1. The Icelandic people through peaceful protest achieved their goals of forcing the parliament and the board of directors of the national bank to resign.
    2. These people are now being tried for their crimes against the people
    3. All this was achieved with the only casualties being 1 broken arm and 5 broken windows.
    Hordur Torfason is an amazingly inspirational leader who had activated the people of Iceland to make change which they are continuing to do today.
    We can make change. Kia kaha

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