Scholars are just now starting to make sense of the Great Recession and its political aftershocks, from the emergence of new social movements to support for nativist candidates and policies in the United States and around the globe. Yet, well before the 2016 election cycle or even the global Occupy movement, Iceland unleashed the first sustained protest wave in the face of the 2008 economic collapse. What started as open-air Saturday meetings in the fall of 2008 grew into more raucous demonstrations by early 2009, with protesters banging pots and pans outside Parliament and eventually forcing the coalition government to step down. In Economic Crisis and Mass Protest, Jón Bernburg chronicles the uprising and presents new evidence on the factors driving citizens to the streets. The book is worth reading for a number of reasons. Iceland was an early riser in the Great Recession protest wave, but it has received relatively little attention, particularly in the United States. It also presents an interesting case for social movement theory, given the lack of any protest tradition or many viable organizations to lead the effort. Why here? How did it happen? In answering these questions, Bernburg provides social movement researchers with much to chew on. Bernburg advances a breakdown theory of mobilization linking the economic crisis and the protest campaign, showing how the economic collapse disrupted people’s taken-for-granted assumptions and routines and ultimately pushed them to action. While breakdown explanations had fallen out of favor with social movement scholars due to limiting assumptions about rationality of protesters in some early works, more and more researchers are turning to the destabilizing effects of economic loss, political threats, and power devaluation to develop sophisticated explanations of protest. Bernburg’s work fits nicely in this group, though instead of explaining right-wing mobilization as is often the case, he develops a breakdown explanation of what turned out to be a far-reaching progressive movement. In advancing this case, he draws on a wealth of data, including police reports, observations of protest events, interviews, and representative surveys with information on protesters and non-protesters alike. The variety of data is a clear strength of the book. One reason the Icelandic experience fits well with a breakdown model is that the usual suspects—pre-existing social movement organizations, trade unions, and political parties—were not driving the protests. Nor was there much of an activist tradition to draw upon. Instead, a loose coalition of intellectuals and artists helped stage mass meetings and framed the economic crisis in ways that moved citizens from a shared sense of disruption to political action. Social media helped too. Notably, the protests were meticulously organized even in the absence of established groups. Bernburg’s interviews with key activists show just how many phone calls and hours of planning went into holding town hall–style meetings, down to the selection of speakers in order to stay on message and to avoid controversy. As the meetings grew in attendance, a division of labor began to emerge between town hall participants and a smaller group of direct action efforts, often led by anarchists. The familiar trappings of social movement organization were there even if the usual players were not. Bernburg makes good use of two representative surveys to supplement the interview data. Some of the findings are remarkable. Roughly 25 percent of the Reykjavik adult population participated in the post-collapse protests, and some 70 percent supported them. We see how activists’ framing of the problem as created by Icelandic authorities and their key demand of the government stepping down resonated widely in the population. The focus on political authorities rather than the banks is strongly correlated with both protest participation and support for the protests. While participation was unusually widespread, it still leaned younger, more educated, and centrally located; that is, it leaned toward the typical protest participant. Participation also mapped strongly onto leftist identity, while economic loss, a key variable for breakdown theories, was not as influential. One minor quibble with the book is that it jumps around between levels of analysis and data sources, sometimes at the expense of the theoretical argument. But this is outweighed by a host of important insights along the way. One interesting thread is on small-state dynamics with respect to both the crash and subsequent protests. When the Icelandic banking sector collapsed in 2008, their combined budgets were about eight times the GDP of the nation of 320,000. The Icelandic bank Landsbankinn had opened branches in the UK and the Netherlands, but Iceland was in no position to compensate the more than 400,000 individuals and businesses who lost their savings in these countries. In a dramatic twist, UK authorities placed Iceland on the list of terrorist organizations in order to freeze assets and bring the country to the table. This is one of many historical details that will be of interest to readers unfamiliar with the Icelandic case. Relative to the protests, activists benefited from a police force in Reykjavik that was too small to deal with a mass insurgency. Even when protests turned confrontational, there were few arrests, as police were badly outnumbered and hesitant to escalate the conflict. At the end, Bernburg questions the long-term effectiveness of the protests. The Pots and Pans Revolution brought down the government and briefly upended conventional party politics. Still, years later many activists were left disappointed by the lack of fundamental change and democratic reforms. Some outcomes just take longer to realize. Shortly after Bernburg finished the book, protesters pushed the prime minister from office after his attempts to shield money showed up in the Panama Papers. It appears that a tradition of protest has taken hold in Iceland. This book provides an important account of its origins. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
Social Forces – Oxford University Press
Published: Apr 19, 2018
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