The members of the Occupy Movement have a long winter ahead of them. It would be a winter well spent if they used it to read and discuss the work of Halldor Laxness.
Laxness experienced firsthand a society where the one percent exploited and abused the ninety-nine percent in ways that, today, are shocking. It’s what made him, for a while, interested in Communism. His fascination with the ideals of communism was, in turn, destroyed by the reality. As brutal as capitalism was, communism proved even more brutal for there was even less accountability. Dictatorships of any kind have no room for dissent and have control of the police and the armed forces. There are no rules except the ones the dictators make to benefit themselves.
The land owners in Iceland frequently exploited and abused those who owned no land. They also controlled the political process so they could make the rules that would guarantee their remaining in power and have cheap labour. The vast majority of people were little more than indentured servants.
When Laxness writes in Independent People about Bjartur of Summerhouses and his relationship to the people at Myri, he is writing about the exploitation of ordinary people by the rich. Bjartur has worked for eighteen years as a hired man in order to save enough money to put a down payment on a piece of poor land. He buys the land from his former employer, he takes a mortgage from his former employer and, although it doesn’t say so explicitly, he probably also rented the sheep and paid as much as sixteen percent interest on their value. When the crash at the end of WW1 (there are always crashes and the people who benefit from them are always the rich since they have the capital to buy the wreckage cheap), Bjartur, like all the people many decades later, in 2008 in Iceland and the United States, who lost their homes, loses his home. He has nothing to show for his years of work, first as a hired man and then as a crofter. The landowner at Myri takes back the land. Bjartur is left with nothing. Sounds like a bank in your neighbourhood, perhaps?
In Paradise Reclaimed, Laxness writes about Steinar of Hliðar a farm owner who has fared better than Bjartur. He has inherited a small farm. He manages to take care of his family through hard work and a meticulous maintenance of the land and animals. However, he leaves his family to go to Denmark and then the United States. In his absence, an unscrupulous Icelander, Björn of Leirur, who works as an agent for Scots buyers of cattle, destroys the precious home field of Hliðar. Without the grass it provides, Steinar’s wife and children cannot support themselves. Björn of Leirur also gets Steinar’s young daughter pregnant. He is an older man and she is so young that she has just been confirmed. That means she is possibly about fourteen. Sound familiar, the sexual exploitation of the children of the ninety-nine percent, by the one percent who feel the law does not apply to them? They can hire our sisters and daughters, our nieces and cousins as bunga bunga girls for orgies, they can have sex with our male children. After all, they’re rich, they have political power, they believe they are entitled to have whatever they want.
No police sauntered through the brokerage houses casually pepper-spraying the brokers and bankers who created and exploited low interest rates and who created and sold worthless subprime assets. No police have gone to Penn State to spray those accused of child molestation and cover up. No police went to Italy to spray the former Italian prime minister and his colleagues who are charged with sexual misdemeanors. No police in Europe pepper sprayed the politicians who have come close to destroying the world economy. That’s not what the law is for.
In Christianity Under the Glacier, Laxness presents a clear picture of the one percent in the form of Godman Singmann. He is an Icelander who has gone abroad and made a fortune. He builds a house on church land, something he has no right to do, a house so large that it over shadows the church. He believes that his wealth has given him the ability to replace Christ and to resurrect the dead. Godman is a picture of the Icelandic bankers whose arrogance was so great that they felt they were invincible. Laxness, time and again, in his novels, does not just give us a picture of what has been in the past but presents us with pictures of our present and future. It’s not just the Icelandic bankers that believed they were Godman. They exist in every country.
The exploitation of Bjartur, the destruction of Steinar´s family and farm, the appearance of Godman with his belief that he and his money can replace God, is all about us and our lives.
There are a thousand lessons and revelations in the books of Laxness. Perhaps a thousand thousand. What he has to tell us is not less relevant because of when they were published but more relevant today. He is prescient in even the smallest things. For example, some sociologists believe that you can see a society’s values by looking at its architecture. I would agree. When Laxness describers the church at Glacier and the larger structure built there by Godman, he foretold the future. When I was a child in Winnipeg, I used to wait at a downtown bus stop in front of a church. The church was the largest building in the neighbourhood. Now, just as the church at Glacier was made smaller by Godman’s much larger house, the Winnipeg church is smaller than all the secular buildings around it.
There are no churches as large as the temples built by oil companies or banks . The money changers, tossed out of the temple, have created their own temples and we know who is worshipped there. These temples dominate our skylines and our lives.
During the coming winter, read Laxness, Occupiers. Not quickly, not skimming, but slowly and thoughtfully, so you can learn the lessons of Laxness, the Icelandic Nobel prize winner . He will help you to understand a great deal about our society today.