The World According to Gnarr
Lady Gaga once said that ‘more mayors in the world should be like Jón Gnarr.’ In June, Gnarr left office after serving a full four-year term as mayor of Reykjavík. His memoir, Gnarr! How I Became the Mayor of a Large City in Iceland and Changed the World, will be published in Britain this week.
Gnarr and his Best Party had promised to do politics ‘differently’. Such a pledge is the bread and butter of modern electioneering, but no one else, from Barack Obama to Matteo Renzi, has made it while gleefully describing their campaign as ‘anarcho-surrealist’. When the Best Party came first in the 2010 Reykjavík city council elections, it seemed to have pulled off the impossible by winning the votes of a constituency which might otherwise be considered ‘anti-political’: disdainful of the ballot box, disenchanted with mainstream parties and hostile to politicians.
Four years later, and that initial success remains unique in Europe. The fallout from the 2008 financial crisis has led to the flourishing of populist, xenophobic parties on the right as well as reinvigorating a popular politics to the left of ‘third way’ social democracy; but Gnarr, even now, seems to be a genuinely new kind of political actor. While the likes of Nigel Farage or Beppe Grillo lay the blame for various problems on specific institutions and interests, Gnarr blames institutional politics itself. In spite of that originality, however, Gnarr’s tenure as mayor didn’t deliver much more than an orderly, if at times colourful, managerialism. His disdain for ideas meant that most policies came from his partners in the Social Democratic Alliance, whose leader, Dagur Eggertsson, has now replaced him as mayor of Reykjavík.
In 2013, Gnarr said that ‘Reykjavík and Iceland are perfect places to experiment with democracy.’ Given his enthusiasm for direct democracy, he can be seen as an electoral analogue to the Occupy movement. In both cases, the process of democracy seems too often to act as a surrogate for advancing any actual objectives, an emphasis on form papering over an absence of content.
Emblematic of this is the derailing, after four years, of the country’s much hyped ‘constitutional convention’. It was nixed by the two historically largest parties in Iceland, the Independence Party and the Progressive Party (don’t be misled by the name), even though the people voted for it in a referendum in October 2012, with 83 per cent of respondents saying that the country’s natural resources should be publicly owned. In his book, Gnarr waxes lyrical about direct digital democracy and participatory budgets, but says nothing about the convention, the referendum or public ownership of Iceland’s abundant natural resources. The oversight reveals the central fact of Gnarr’s politics: as a replacement for ideology he offers ‘process’.
‘One of the most valuable lessons that I have learned is that ideas are dangerous, especially good ones,’ Gnarr said earlier this year. ‘This is why it was so important that the Best Party presented no ideology, no solution. No theory.’ Gnarr’s disavowal of ‘theory’ reminded me of Keynes’s obsevation that ‘the ideas of economists and political philosophers... are more powerful than is commonly understood... Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.’ Gnarr is one such 'practical' man. Like other movements that emerged in the immediate aftermath of the financial crisis, the Best Party thought the solution was action without politics and practice without conflict.
In late 2013 Gnarr decided to not seek re-election. Soon afterwards, the remainder of the Best Party dissolved itself into its ‘sister’ party, Bright Future, founded in 2012. Just how bright their future will prove to be depends on how much attention they pay to the voices for change that spoke in the 2012 referendum, who remain broadly unheard in Iceland’s political debate. Constitutional reform and questions of public ownership are more important than public relations, no matter how funny the front man.