Herring and Class Struggle

Capitalism came late to Iceland. At the end of the 19th century this large, wind-swept, thinly populated island was made up of small towns, farms and seasonal fishing stations. Then European capitalists saw another Klondike in the herring-rich waters of the north Atlantic..

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Uneven and Combined Development in Iceland: The privilege of historic backwardness

In 2009, as the financial crisis crashed over Iceland, Bourgeois Reykjavik was reassured that Harpa, the half built landmark Concert and Cultural Centre was to be finished despite the country’s effective bankruptcy.

Harpa being built
The housing developments such as Vatnsendi and Flétturvellir were not so lucky, as seen here in Íris Stefánsdóttir’s pictures. 
                                                                   Kópavogur 2009

Finished in May 2011 Harpa is home to the Iceland Symphony Orchestra and Iceland Opera and it reports 350,000 visitors so far. This is about 30,000 more than the country’s population and suggests there have been a great many foreign visitors. It also means that some Icelanders can afford to go back time and again, and further suggests that a layer of Icelandic society is doing well enough out of this crisis, as in the rest of Europe and America where the rich are actually getting richer.[1]

Harpa has effectively been subsidised by the slashed pensions, short hours and unemployment of those now least likely to be able to attend the cultural events in a space that has ‘produced a clarity of acoustic that has reportedly moved some performers to tears of joy.’[2]

Harpa opening night
Well that’s reassuring; nobody wants to think that their deferred wages for their old age have instead gone towards producing the effect of a karaoke machine in a scout hut. In this respect Iceland has benefitted from its backwardness. In the phenomenon that Leon Trotsky called Uneven and Combined development,

‘Although compelled to follow after the advanced countries, a backward country does not take things in the same order. The privilege of historic backwardness — and such a privilege exists — permits, or rather compels, the adoption of whatever is ready in advance of any specified date, skipping a whole series of intermediate stages. Savages throw away their bows and arrows for rifles all at once, without travelling the road which lay between those two weapons in the past. The European colonists in America did not begin history all over again from the beginning.’
Iceland ‘although compelled to follow after the advanced countries’ has enjoyed ‘the privilege of historic backwardness…which permits, or rather compels, the adoption of whatever is ready in advance’.[3] So Harpa is a State-of-the-art sound box.
Trotsky was talking about Russia, in the 19th and early 20th century, then famously the most archaic and repressive part of Europe. But Iceland too was peculiarly privileged in its historical backwardness for hundreds of years. The glory days of The Icelanders' sagas (Íslendinga sögur), the heroic stories recording the lives of ‘the most important families of Iceland’ from 930-1030CE[4] were written down between the 12th and 14th centuries.[5]

Over the next 400 years the country was periodically wracked by Black Death, smallpox[6], and the hardship of the Great Smog (Móðuharðindin) following the 1783 Laki volcanic eruption. In eight months Laki’s volcanic fissures threw so much ash  into the atmosphere as well as spewing out clouds of sulphuric acid that it destroyed the normal summer weather across Europe causing famine. At home over 1/5th of the population died from disease and hunger as the livestock died.[7] 

As a Danish colony under Danish monopoly trade, Iceland was only used as a source of raw materials with almost no capital invested. There were no public works, no large buildings, schools or university. Even in the fishing where Icelanders had exported fish products since the 14th century, simple lines were used and small open boats. A small development that improved the quality of life was when Icelanders learned to knit in the 15th century,[8] though handicrafts did not develop beyond the immediate needs of the homestead. The next major technological innovation was the introduction of the Scottish scythe in the 1860’s.[9]

The Icelandic landowning ruling class was most concerned to ensure that nothing interfered with the labour supply for the hay harvest which prevented any major technical improvements. This meant also that very few landowners would have had any capital to invest had they wanted to, until British dealers turned up in the 1860’s looking to buy hardy Icelandic sheep.[10] These of course were paid for in cash and this was only possible because trade restrictions were finally lifted in 1854.
Over the next 70 years British, Germans and most importantly for the development of herring, Norwegians with money began to see the potential for profit in Iceland. 

But development is not a smooth progression as Trotsky explained,
‘the law of combined development – by which we mean a drawing together of the different stages of the journey, a combining of the separate steps, an amalgam of archaic with more contemporary forms. Without this law, to be taken of course, in its whole material content, it is impossible to understand the history of Russia, and indeed of any country of the second, third or tenth cultural class.’[11]

Rekjavik Museum 1910

This process explains Reykjavik’s astonishing museum built in 1910 whilst most the people lived in turf and stone houses that didn’t amount to much more than glorified holes in the ground.

A substantial farm but still cold and damp.
                       Around 1910

Finally this picture of Reykjavik harbour encapsulates the theory of Uneven and Combined development.

In the foreground the centuries old open rowing boats that used handlines and by the late 19th century, drift nets. Then, the decked fishing boats that used trawls. In their heyday, from 1890-1910 they could operate for about 28 weeks of the year, and the steam trawlers in the background that could operate all the year round and on which by 1920 each fisherman could catch 32 tonnes where the men in the small boats took 3 tonnes.
What Harpa demonstrates however is not the unevenness of the juddering bounds of a backward country catching up, but a society’s growing inequality. So how about free shows, concerts and opera tickets for the recipients of the food bank this Christmas.

[1] http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2011/may/16/high-pay-commission-wage-disparity
[3] Peculiarities of Russia’s Development in History of the Russian Revolution, L Trotsky pg 4
[4] CE = Common Era, a designation of time that mirrors AD but acknowledges that most of the world is not Christian. BC is therefore replaced with BCE - Before Common Era.
[6] 1707 1/3rd of the population died, Iceland in Transition, Magnús S. Magnússon pg 37
[7]  1703 population 50,358. Population did not reach 50,000 until 1820’s Magnússon pg 38
[8] Íslenskur Sögu Atlas pg 45
[9] Iceland in Transition, Magnús S. Magnússon pg 31
[10] Gísli Gunnarsson, cited in Wasteland with Words pg 32
[11] Peculiarities of Russia’s Development in History of the Russian Revolution, L Trotsky pg 5

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