What the Yes campaign can learn from Iceland, Occupy and anarchy

Academics Ruth Kinna, Alex Prichard and Thomas Swann explore what recent events in Iceland and the 2011 Occupy movement can teach Scotland about anarchism, participation and radical democracy

BEFORE Iceland’s parliamentary election on Saturday, hopes were being raised at the prospect of a centre-left coalition, led by the Pirate Party, passing Iceland’s crowdsourced constitution. 

While the centre-right government lost its majority, the Pirates did less well than expected (although still growing from three to 10 seats) and the centre-left coalition that was expected to take power fell five seats short of a majority. 

This puts the new constitution in a precarious position, and it is unclear whether it will receive the support in parliament that it needs.

Read more – Iceland faces coalition talks after inconclusive election result 

In 2012 this constitution, the result of four months of active consultation and methodologies based around participation and consensus, was approved by a two-thirds majority in a national referendum only to be rejected the following year by the centre-right government which has just been unseated.

The constitution's backers have since directed their efforts to securing parliamentary ratification. Anticipating the horse-trading that lies in wait for Iceland as a coalition majority government takes form, members of the Constitutional Society are heartened to see that there is strong support to get the draft constitution passed.

While the centre-left has fallen short of a majority, there is still, in theory, a broad agreement in parliament to get the constitution through within two years.

The new constitution includes clauses on environmental protection, puts international human rights law and the rights of refugees and migrants front and centre, and proposes redistributing the fruits of Iceland’s natural resources – notably fishing. 

As important as these measures are, the participatory nature of its writing really sets it apart from other similar documents. As Eileen Jerrett’s film, Blueberry Soup, which was screened in Scotland before this year’s Holyrood election, makes clear: the post-economic crash soul-searching and the drafting of the new constitution offered a chance to reassess what Icelandic society stands for. 

From left to right: Alex Prichard, Thomas Swann, Ruth Kinna (picture courtesy of Eileen Jerrett of Wilma's Wish Productions)

This existential reimagining is the heart of the constitution and cannot be underestimated. The Icelandic experience should inspire participatory and radically democratic attempts at defining both the political foundations of communities and the rules that govern them. 

Nevertheless, the shift from support on the streets to the deals made between political parties trying to form a coalition doesn't only risk watering down the protections embedded in the constitution. 

Taking the constitution from the field of mass participation to that of political trade-offs jeopardises the radical edge of the constitution: the continued active involvement of the population of Iceland in its constitutional rules.

Popular change is often virtually impossible. Elites can sometimes overrule or ignore constitutional provisions. This permanence is represented as a robust protection of the rights of the individual.

Our research on the anarchism at the heart of the Occupy movement suggests that, for radical politics, legitimacy comes not simply through single-shot participation, be that in the form of elections for parliaments or drafting a new constitution, but through a continued involvement in 'constitutionalising', in the processes of rule-making and defining the identity or ethos of a particular community.

In mainstream liberal politics, constitutions bring social order through the agreement of a single set of principles and associated rules. Once these are decided on, they are often fixed (think of the way the US constitution is used as an unquestionable governing rule-book and how hard it is to pass amendments). 

Popular change is often virtually impossible. Elites can sometimes overrule or ignore constitutional provisions. This permanence is represented as a robust protection of the rights of the individual. The cost is that flexibility in the face of social and political change and entrenched inequality is denied.

For anarchists, in contrast, 'constitutionalising' is not about finding one way to manage all social orders but of finding ways of expressing change through durable and rule-governed processes. 

This does not stop after a certain point but continues as a fundamental part of social and political activity. The commitment to non-domination, in the hands of the anarchists, demands checks and balances through vigilance and responsibility, an active participation in systems of governance. 

For anarchists, in contrast, 'constitutionalising' is not about finding one way to manage all social orders but of finding ways of expressing change through durable and rule-governed processes. 

Rather than relying on institutions like parliaments and courts to which we hand over our collective responsibility, protections are achieved through changing constellations of rules we all consent to and have a hand in designing, challenging business as usual through direct action. This is democracy at its most participatory and radical.

In the Occupy camps that sprang up around the world at the end of 2011, this continual participation and constitutionalising was realised through open decision-making forums called General Assemblies, and the consensus procedures and agreed-upon rules that facilitated collective decision making.

The participatory nature of the drafting of Iceland’s crowdsourced constitution is protected and made constitutionally permanent in the provision it contains for citizen-led initiatives to propose and alter legislation. 

This citizen-led policy initiative is something the Pirate Party is also committed to. The great promise of this next phase in Iceland’s politics is not simply a social democratic consensus around financial and industrial regulation and human rights. 

It lies, too, in redressing the balance of power between citizens and government and in extending participatory involvement far beyond the writing of the constitution. 

In the Occupy camps that sprang up around the world at the end of 2011, this continual participation and constitutionalising was realised through open decision-making forums.

In this way, the Icelandic experience suggests ways in which participation is seen as central to the constitutionalising activities that run through society and that are not limited to moments of democracy that are few and far between.

It is here, too, that we find the importance of the Icelandic experience for Scotland (and elsewhere). On the one hand, elements of the Yes campaign in 2014, such as the Greens, have continued to propose a participatory approach to writing the constitution of an independent Scotland and indeed suggested a role for citizens’ initiatives in proposing legislation. 

On the other, the SNP’s white paper on independence made only vague assertions about a citizen-led constitutional process without saying what that would mean in practice, and said nothing about the expanded role of participation in legislation. 

This year’s SNP manifesto included little on participation and nothing on a written constitution. If independence is to offer genuine advances in the very nature of what democracy means for Scotland and how people in Scotland can participate in discussing and defining policy and the rules that govern them, then an approach that learns not just from Iceland but also from Occupy and the anarchists needs to be a central plank of a radical vision for independence.

Undoubtedly, this is a departure from how anarchist politics is usually practiced, and we are not suggesting for a minute that the beginning and end of anarchism lies in participatory approaches to drafting state constitutions.

The Icelandic experience suggests ways in which participation is seen as central to the constitutionalising activities that run through society and that are not limited to moments of democracy that are few and far between.

Instead, we want to argue that if democracy and non-domination are central to radical and even mainstream politics, then how anarchists keep these alive through constitutionalising processes certainly has something to offer non-anarchists.

The authors of this article are working on the Economic and Social Research Council-funded project 'Anarchy as a constitutional principle: constitutionalising in anarchist  politics'.

The project uses participatory, co-production research methods and works with anarchist and radical groups to examine the nature of constitutionalising processes.

The website of the project is www.anarchyrules.info

Author bios: Ruth Kinna is professor of political theory at Loughborough University. Alex Prichard is senior lecturer in International Politics at the University of
Exeter. Thomas Swann is research associate at Loughborough University.

Picture courtesy of Glenn Halog

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