Assembling an Assembly: What Occupy can learn from Medieval Iceland’s Althing

June 8, 2012

It is not obvious that one needs a sovereign for a society to organise itself or to address its concerns. The Occupation movement has drawn attention to the possibility for people to assemble, discuss, vote on and implement actions that have local and national significance when no leaders are present. The lesson learned is also that political participation and determination does not rely upon, nor is it exclusively embodied in, a Nation State. Occupy presents, at least in theory, an incipient form of alternative government.

To see how those ideas have manifested themselves in practice for hundreds of years, we can turn to the example of the Icelandic Althing, an annual public gathering conducted in the open air at Pingvellir (meaning ‘assembly fields’), 45 miles east of Reykjavik. In its early phase, in the years 930 to 1260, the assembly was the formal manifestation of government in a decentralised free state. The Althing was proto-democratic and egalitarian in nature, with republican tendencies, and consisted only of a legislature and a judiciary. There was no sovereign, no state bureaucracy, no police, no army. Instead, the Althing was in practice an event for discussing matters of concern, settling disputes, formulating laws and implementing standing courts. It resembled a kind of festival where people met their future spouses, bought and sold their wares, and where social life took place.

The Althing was also representational. Although great efforts are (rightly) made to refute contemporary representative government, the form of direct democracy practiced within the Occupy movement does not elide the fact that something like one per cent of activists represent 99 per cent of the people. The strategy of representation itself is not ‘evil’, and is implicit to politics in many ways: individuals represent their interests publicly, members of a collective represent the group’s interests, and so on. Currently, liberal democracies practice a representational system that is dysfunctional in part due to the imbalance between elected members and the population they are supposed to represent.

However, the concept of representation need not be seen as an obstacle to developing a legislature and judiciary within grassroots activist assemblies. The example of the Althing highlights a few parallels which may illustrate the leverage activists can have over governments. Activist movements often lack the formalisation of a legislative and judicial process that can replace the state whilst retaining the autonomy and plurality of its members’ voices, support the dynamic of mutable organisational networks and focus on the issues that drive the politic. Activist networks need to gain real purchase over the state and the machinery of corporate capital to counter the void that has resulted from the state’s systematic deregulation of the financial markets and its reneging on its democratic commitments. This requires establishing alternative avenues for justice.

Though medieval Iceland was far from an ideal state, their Althing allowed individuals to retain their autonomy while at the same time providing a voice for, and a political system responsive to, the needs of individuals within society. Assemblies were events held at the local level (called Varthing) as well as the national level (Althing). Both consisted of representatives (Gothar) who were equal in status and, unlike their counterparts in Europe, were neither war lords nor petty kings. The Gothar differed from their European contemporaries in that they acted as representatives of small groups of farmers rather than as overlords, and so communicated the farmers’ concerns at the annual meeting of the Althing in Pingvellir. Selection of the Gothar was not via elections but was based primarily on kinship; however, it was not tribal – in theory, anyone could change their allegiance to a different Gothar. More significantly, the selection (or deselection) of a Gothar depended upon interdependent allegiances between ‘citizen’ and Gothi; allegiances which could also be broken. The system of assemblies drew together, educated and informed society, and legislation emanated from this widespread practice of assembling. Similarly, in activist circles: Online and offline assemblies discuss problems and issues, share information and collaborate on organising events – all key characteristics of Occupy.

The structure of the annual Althing combined two elements. Firstly, it was a forum for discussion that brought together local representatives who communicated the issues and problems of their network and formulated laws that emerged from those discussions. Secondly, it was an event that facilitated the settling of disputes through standing courts. The law that developed was a set of guidelines that were valid in virtue of their having emerged from discussion within the community as a whole, and by incorporating the lessons learned from deliberating, analysing and judging cases. However, with regard to carrying out a judgement, the Althing had no power to execute and police its will: the law was not enforced. It was up to the individuals involved in a dispute to manage the resolution of their affairs following the deliberation of a court. This is deeply significant for activist organisations not only because it allows for the epistemic dimension of justice to come to the fore (all involved come to understand and witness the law and its operations), but it also places the power of the law and its responsibilities in the hands of individuals, actualises equality between members and prevents the establishment of an ‘authority’.

At the Althing, the law council (Logretta) reviewed and made laws annually. Local Gothar gathered to discuss emendations with other representatives and their advisers (who were called Thingmen). The proceedings of the Althing were conducted by a Law-Speaker, a chairman, who was elected for a three year period. The Law-Speaker’s job was to proclaim the laws at the opening of the Althing, to manage the proceedings of the Assembly, to furnish information about any part of the law that was needed in deciding new legislation or settling disputes, or when difficult points arose, to consult five or more legal experts (Logmen).

Courts were conducted in the open air and in public. There were two levels of courts: local courts called the Varthing and four regional courts called Quarter Courts. If a dispute was too serious or not resolvable at local level, then the case would be heard at the Quarter Court. To ensure impartiality, a case would be heard in the Quarter Court of the defendant’s domicile. Panels of judges would be selected annually and were assigned by lots drawn from all parts of the country. They had the power to operate as a kind of jury, as knowledgeable witnesses, as investigators weighing evidence, and to deliver a verdict. Proposed judges could be disqualified where their impartiality was in question. By holding courts at the Althing, farmers were exposed to cases from across the country which in turn standardised the law and shaped Iceland as one legal community.

The Althing example offers a model of a legislative and judicial system that is at least potentially a natural development of what activist organisations already have in place. It is entirely plausible for activists to establish a judicial system independent of the nation-state – to form a state within a state and to challenge the powers of the multinationals through a system akin to the Althing where those who benefit from the inequities of capitalist production are directly called to account by those who are disenfranchised by it.

Activist movements have already vividly demonstrated that the act of assembling is a puissant tool in critiquing defunct state assemblies, and that protests and encampments are effective symbols of the problems and issues that people face in their daily lives. There is a real opportunity for a legal and judicial system to be developed within activist assemblies and from the ground up within the encampments and social networks. One notable quality of the Occupy movement is that it stakes a claim in the public space but not a claim on property per se. This opens up the possibility for a judicial system to be realised as an event (rather than as an ‘institution’) in the public space akin to that within the ‘free state’ of Medieval Iceland.

The current plurality of activist voices is an ideal precondition and foundation for a new form of judiciary to evolve and to meet the genuine need for answers to social problems and issues such as wage slavery, discrimination, the exploitation of migrants, the corporatisation of education, the stripping away of pensions and welfare, state securitisation, the loss of homes to the banks and so on. If justice is to be “of the people and by the people” then let it be just that – independent of a degenerate Nation State and free to formally judge neoliberal policies and rampant capitalism.


By Daphne Plessner