In Iceland, the Panama Papers mega-scandal has already claimed two casualties: the prime minister, Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson, and the idea that corruption is nearly extinct in the Global North. My piece in The Nation, just out, looks at Iceland in some detail. I point out that other Icelanders, politicians and former bankers, have also popped up in the Papers, so the scandal is far from over.
A leading academic who studies the right-wing cabal that got control of the island nation in the 1990s and ran it into the ground in 2008 argues that in the days and hours before the big collapse, elite insiders sneaked their money out to safety. Professor Silla Sigurgeirsdottir, a professor of politics at the University of Iceland, told me with some bitterness, “In four or five hours, some people set up big pension funds for themselves overseas.”
One difference with the US and Europe is that Iceland did put some of their banksters on trial; more than 20 were convicted and some are still in prison.
Iceland’s experience should prompt some humility in the rich world. There is a strong tendency in America and Europe to blame poverty in the Global South on cultural backwardness, on uneducated, superstitious people, inexperienced in democracy, who permit the rise of greedy, corrupt leaders.
By contrast, Iceland is a highly educated nation, which supposedly incarnates Protestant virtues of rationality and honesty. The striking 240-foot spire of the Hallgrimskirkja Lutheran church is the most prominent landmark in Reykjavik, visible from 15 miles away. But for some years now, many in the Icelandic elite have turned out to be just as greedy and dishonest as their criminal counterparts in Mexico or the Democratic Republic of Congo.