Boys Pretending to be Vikings

 

viking landing

At the end of Thorgerdur Einarsdóttir’s (professor of Gender Studies, University of Iceland) Beck lecture on the Viking Banksters, she included a poem by Ingibjörg Haraldsdóttur (1983).

Woman

When all has been said

When the problems of the world

Have been weighed gauged and settled

When eyes have met

And hands been pressed

In the sobriety of the moment

–some woman always comes

To clear the table

Sweep the floor and open the windows

To let out the cigar smoke.

It never fails.

Many centuries before, the role of the Icelandic housewife had been described by a German trader, Gories Peerse, who had gone to Iceland between 1554 and 1586. Peerse wrote a long poem about his stay in Iceland. This poem was translated by David Koester from the University of Alaska at Fairbanks.

And there no one stands up from the table [lit. dishes]

who needs to pass water, believe me about that.

The lady of the house must pass him the chamber pot,

and she doesn’t turn away,

and must take it back from him.

They are not ashamed of that.

She must then get rid of it,

that is the manner and custom of this land.

By 1983 the women aren’t passing the pot, but they’re still cleaning up after the men who indulge themselves and leave a mess. By 2008 the mess made by men is greater than it has ever been. Never before has the ability to borrow money at so little cost been possible. Now, the men can borrow recklessly, and borrowing vast sums, can buy recklessly, buy grocery chains, clothing stores, football teams, A Landsbanki employee in Gimli, Manitoba, for Íslendingadagurinn, was heard shouting into his cell phone, buy, buy, buy.

How much brains does it take to borrow money and then spend it? It works all right if it is someone else’s credit card and after paying themselves handsomely for having borrowed as much as possible and spent it by overbidding everyone else, when the bills came due and couldn‘t be paid, they then said, “Hey, this isn’t my credit card. It’s yours.” And walked away with the money they had given ourselves.

What the banksters did or tried to do was privatize profits and socialize debts. Nifty. They made the deals, they paid themselves, they gave themselves vast bonuses, they raked in the money. Woops. It all crashed. Not their problem. Let the tax payer pick up the bill. What a great system for the elite group who have been running an old boy network. Favours for favours. You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. We were good friends in high school and college and we know each other. Never mind merit. Never mind competence. Let’s you and me do a deal.

Bonuses are given for exceptional competence. Or that’s what they are supposed to be for. Nobody is competent who causes a financial crash. Ergo. All those bonuses should be paid back with interest. They were obtained under false pretenses.

Thorgerdur Einarsdóttir, in her lecture ‚“Finance Vikings,Masculinities, and the Economic Collapse in Iceland“, had an interesting thesis. The banking mess was created by a bunch of hyperactive, testosterone driven, vain, self-important men (MEN). Women such as Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir, were elected to clean up the mess. Thorgerdur’s thesis includes the idea that if the exclusive little private group of men were forced to include women some of the juvenile “We’re Vikings and we know more than anyone else, we know more than the credit rating agencies, more than the Norwegian, Danish, Swedish bankers. The Vikings raided the known world and brought home loot and we’re Vikings,” would have some limits put on it. The banksters and businessmen conveniently left out the fact that most Vikings were Norwegian, Danish, and Swedish. They left out the fact that Iceland’s population during Viking times and during the present is too small to have any real impact. Yup, we’re such hotshots that we’re going to sail into Hong Kong and conquer China next.

From the repeated references to the Vikings and how the banksters and businessmen were like Vikings, and the overwhelming sense of self-importance, one wonders that they didn’t take on the names of the pagan gods. I’m Thor. I’m Odin. I’m Loki. If they ran out of avatars, they could have started including fictional characters. I’m Conan. I’m Xena. Oh, wait, no. Well, maybe some of them. It’s hard to say.

Of course, some of them could have taken names from the sagas. Hmm, they probably already had names from the sagas. Maybe that’s why they had juvenile fantasies about being Vikings. When I was a boy and went to see movies (cowboy, pirate, Viking, army), I and my friends played at being cowboys, pirates, Vikings, and soldiers but we had adults around to keep us in touch with reality. “No, you may not borrow your father’s rifle and bullets to play army.” If we’d been to a movie about bankers and wanted to play at being bankers for a few days, my mother would have said, “No, you may not borrow your father’s wallet to play banker.”

Thorgerdur’s recommendations include more gender equality. No more relegating Icelandic women to holding the piss pot. No more relegating Icelandic women to cleaning up after the men make a mess.

Insist on quotas on the number of women on boards of companies.

Monitor big and important companies to keep the old boy network from packing the boards with their friends.

Demand that women be part of state administration, that information and decision making be public.

Insist on breaking down gender stereotypes in rural areas.

Given the juvenile behavior of the banksters and the business boys, it might be a good idea to place women in charge who could give them time out for bad behaviour, send them to their rooms, and take away their salaries and bonuses.

The problem, of course, is that this behaviour has been going on in Icelandic society since Gories Peerse’s time. Let’s say from 1500 to the present. That’s 513 years. The self-important group with the big egos have family histories of cosy relationships, privilege and the absolute belief they have the right to be privileged. The strange idea that North Americans of Icelandic background have had that there were no social classes in Iceland and everyone was equal left out who owned the keys to the food cupboard, who owned the land, who did the hiring. Just because the boss is poor, doesn’t mean he isn’t the boss. He still decides whether you are employed, what and how much you eat, what clothes you get to wear, how much work you have to do, how much you get paid.

Icelanders make a big thing out of genealogy. Hey, hey, my lineage leads to a bishop (got his privileged position by appointment from the Danes), a public official (got his appointment from the Danes), had a business (probably in partnership with or funded by the Danes). My ancestors were privileged and that makes us an important family and I, therefore, have the right to be privileged and the rest of you whose ancestors weren’t as important (your ancestors weren’t as good at sucking up to the Danes) as mine, have no right to make decisions, no right to all this money, no right to trophy wives.

Thorgerdur’s right, of course. Get women into the decision making process and some of the I’m- a-Viking fantasy will be shrunk. Break up and refuse to allow the old boy network to function and when it starts, have laws in place to stop it. No more attitude such as we were so impressed by these really, really important people we were supposed to be supervising that we really, really couldn’t bring ourselves to pick up the phone and insist that we have a meeting and find out what they were doing. After all, they were important.

For a long time in Iceland, people who weren’t large farm owners endured dreadful treatment. Many came to see the elite who ruled did so by a kind of divine right. The church supported the elite. It knew on which side its dried cod was buttered. That kind of situation creates an attitude among some people that says those people really are more important than us. We don’t deserve the things they deserve. They do have the right to take what they want and, if we’re lucky, they’ll throw a few dried cod heads our way. It’s the trickle-down-dried-cod-head effect.

God, if only we could bring Laxness back from the grave.

 

 

The Viking Banksters

Thorgerdur-UVic-2

Photo by P. Baer

Thorgerdur Einarsdóttir, professor of Gender Studies, University of Iceland, gave a Richard and Margaret Beck Lecture today, Feb 8, on “Finance Vikings, Masculinities, and the Economic Collapse in Iceland“. It proved to be a popular title for the audience kept arriving and arriving and arriving. People made Viking forays to nearby rooms for chairs, sat on the steps, stood against the walls. As John Tucker said, pleased as punch but bemused, “You just never know how many people will turn up.“

As I´m sure everyone knows, there was a special Investigation Commission in Iceland to investigate the banksters. However, readers may not know that there was a gender review of the SIC done by Einarsdottir & Pétursdottir.

The banks grew 20 times in size in seven years. The economic policy from 2004 contributed to the imbalance in the economy. Deregulation and financial liberalization meant a  lack of control over the bankers. The employment policy, the lowering of taxes and the financing of  houses plus the political ideology mindset contributed to the crash.

How does gender matter? The events leading up to the crash was controlled and directed by men. National ideas of masculinity fueled the ideology behind the events. Rah, rah, we‘re Vikings, lets go raiding. One gets the feeling that some of the bankers had read too many sagas when they adolescents.

Transnational business is largely male and within that context, Icelandic men saw themselves not just as bankers but as the Financial Vikings. Their financial exploits were a way of showing everyone how powerful they were.

There was nothing to stop all the testosterone fueled risk taking. The business tycoons were praised by the media, by politicians, by the bankers, the president himself. Wow, look at our Vikings! From 1997 to 2008, magazines chose the financial Vikings as Man of the Year. As I listened to the lecture, I got the image of the banksters arriving on the shores of Iceland in Viking long boats while worshiping crowds sang their praises.

The Viking heritage was seen as strength, daring and sound knowledge of business that created success quickly in investing abroad. Björgvin G. Sigurðsson, the Minister of Business Affairs praised the Viking qualities of the businessmen who were taking huge financial risks.

Ölafur Ragnar Grímsson repeatedly praised the so-called Viking qualities of Icelandic business. He said “Icelanders focus on the result rather than the decision-making process…go straight to the task and do the job in the shortest possible time“.

He also said, “Elements in our culture and history have played a part …qualities we have inherited from our ancestors give us an advantage in the international arena“.

When the bankers were borrowing and buying there was complacency and arrogance: the Icelandic Chamber of Commerce said Iceland should “stop comparing itself to the other Nordic countries since Iceland already is way ahead of them anyway“.

Thorgerdur showed a video called Mindset made by Kaupthink bank. (www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rkz-hipch38)that drew a lot of laughs. The laughter was because the claims are so vain, so unrealistic, so absurd that one could do nothing but laugh. I have been told all my life that the worst sin an Icelander can commit is to brag but self-importance and vanity drip from the film.

After the collapse, the former chair of the Financial Supervisory Authority, Lárus Finnbogason, said that maybe the supervisory authority over the banks should actually have been in direct contact with the top managers. The statement seems utterly bizarre. What he was saying was that the people trusted to supervise the banking system had no direct contact with the people who were borrowing vast sums of money and creating schemes like IceSave. They were too impressed  by them.

A Norwegian bank specialist said after the collapse that “Icelandic bankers…seemed to hold the view that they had invented something new, that they had superior competence and a better understanding of risks and profit possibilities as compared to more traditional and conservative bankers, and that, in their view, the sky was the only limit.“ This was the view of one of those other Scandinavian bankers that the Icelandic chamber of commerce thought were so far behind.

The view of the Icelandic banks was not as flattering as the banker‘s view of themselves. The Trade Council´s report said Icelandic companies “were young companies with young management“ and there was “Something infantile and nouveau-rich about the expansion.“

What allowed the disaster to happen was that there was an old boy´s network made up of friendship and family ties and the gender review showed that it was very definitely a boy´s network. No girls allowed.

When the banks were privatized, people were told that there was clear understanding that the state getting out of the financial markets and allowing private business to run the banks was highly important. However, in actual fact, the two state banks were divided between the ruling parties. This was cronyism at its worst. When I heard this I thought this was every bit as bad or worse than the cronyism of the Southern American states at the beginning of the 20th Century. So much for all the times I had been told while I was growing up in Gimli, Manitoba, that Icelanders were so  honest that they only had one jail and had no need for policemen.

How much the system was dominated by a few members of Iceland´s elite upper class could be seen by a statement by Sigurjón Þ. Árnason, CEO of Landsbanki. “Generally speaking, David didn´t call  me. This is the way the system worked: David spoke to Halldór, Sturla spoke to Jón Thorsteinn or to me. Me and Stulli are friends, we sat side by side in college, that´s the way it is in Iceland, therefore, we know each other pretty well, even if we are not friends today but we know each other, historically speaking, and we can therefore talk to each other, independent of work. Therefore, we sometimes talk to each other, but generally speaking Jón Thorsteinn communicated with him.“

If you lost money in the crash, your savings, your investments, your house, anything, this statement by Sigurjón Þ. tells you exactly how it was done with backroom deals among the power elite who think no rules apply to them and that they are entitled to take anything they wish. When Thorgerdur showed us this statement, I thought about my research into the 1800s in Iceland and thought also of Laxness´s novel, Independent People, and thought Icelanders may have more cell phones than anyone, they may have a computer in every home, but nothing much has changed. The elite still believes that it has the right to take whatever it wants. The ordinary people are still Bjartur of Summerhouses. The rich give themselves money and the ordinary people are dispossessed.

Prime Minister Geri Haarde said “Sigurjón Þ. Árnason CEO of Landsbanki is my neighbour… and I got him to walk over to my place three times in the month of March…to discuss the Icesave accounts“.

After the crash, The Observer said “Iceland´s spectacular meltdown was caused by a banking and business culture that was buccaneering, reckless — and overwhelmingly male.“

One of the most interesting slides that Thorgerdur showed was a diagram of the relationships of the various men involved in creating the crash. It was shocking. It made clear that a small group of privileged men created the boom, benefited from it and caused the crash is made absolutely clear.

Thorgerdur ended with a set of recommendations to include women in decision-making roles in government and business so that the testosterone fueled disaster won´t happen again.

After the lecture, I was fortunate to have lunch with  Thorgerdur and some members of the audience. She is charming and intelligent. She has done a good job as both an investigator and a reporter of the follies of the testosterone driven crash. However, I came away from this lecture saddened. It is obvious from this lecture and from others I have attended that the Icelandic elite believed it had the right to take and keep whatever it wanted during the 19th C, that it believed it in the 20st C. and that it still believes it.

Unfortunately, it looks like many ordinary Icelanders still believe that this select few do have the right to take what they want and will vote them back into power. In this, they are not unique. It is often the working class, the underprivileged, the exploited, who support the Republican party and the right of the one percent in the United States to have and to hold their wealth and privileges no matter how they got them. Why should it be any different in Iceland?