A friendly revolution

We live in an era of inequality and face catastrophic climate change. But there is an alternative, says Danish politician Uffe Elbæk

By Uffe Elbæk

Follow Uffe on Twitter @uffeelbaek

We live in challenging times. Our settled ways of life are deteriorating; the systems we have built and the ecosystems we rely on are collapsing. The very limits of the planet we inhabit are being tested in front of our eyes; not just by corporations but by how we ourselves care for our environment. Those are the facts. How we react individually, and formulate our responses collectively, will determine how history sees us; how we manage to change will determine history itself.

As I see it, and as more and more people are seeing it, staying with the status quo is not an option. A few facts to illustrate my point: 62 individuals own half of the planet’s wealth; 65 million people — roughly 1% of humanity — are refugees and estimates show these numbers could at least double in the near future; and we are on a path towards catastrophic climate change expected to displace hundreds of millions, and cause rapid desertification on land, acidification in our seas, erosion of our shorelines and more frequent extreme and dangerous weather events across the globe. It is too late to outsource responsibility for these problems; we have to start with ourselves.

That’s what we did when we founded The Alternative (Alternativet in Danish) in 2013. We had the audacity to imagine a radically different future: greener and more sustainable; full of hope and equal opportunities; a future that lives up to the full potential of humanity coming together. Three years later, after the Brexit referendum, with the popularity of Trump in the US, and the continuing collapse of European leadership, the need for radical solutions is even greater. Our sense of an alternative way of responding to breakdown is growing. And, as history tells us, there is always an alternative.

Lessons from the past

Denmark went bankrupt in 1813. After wars we did not win, and after the nation’s capital was bombarded and left in rubble by the British and there was no money left, we did something courageous and perhaps unexpected. We invested. Massively. And we put education at the core. In doing so, we laid the foundation for a golden age of art, ideas, democratic values and an unprecedented bloom of social innovation.

Attending school was made mandatory and free for all children across the land. Inspired by thinkers and social movements from across the world, adults educated themselves — and each other — in the folk high schools that offered non-formal education, while farmers united in cooperatives and workers formed unions. We created communities and ways of organising ourselves that in turn inspired others around the globe. As we built the welfare state, as we continued to invest heavily in education, healthcare and equality, and as we furthered our civil rights, riding high on a continuous wave of innovation, we secured better lives for most, if not all. Danes benefited. They lived well. Better than before the crisis.

But with the rise of neoliberalism in the 1970s, with the dominance in recent years of austerity, we started becoming enslaved by the economy rather than using the economy as a means to achieve greater things. Parallel to this, it seemed, societies stagnated. As a whole, we got richer (mainly the rich got richer), but we did not get happier, we did not show more empathy and we certainly did not get wiser. Somehow we became disconnected from the meaning and purpose of our work and entered into a trance of achievement and procurement. We got stressed out, and those who could not keep up had to work more jobs to make ends meet. We did not have the time to care for our parents or our children. In an effort to create economic growth, to buy the next iPhone, to get a bigger house, we lost track of what should be most important to us.

“the status quo is not working for most people”

It is not that neoliberalism or even austerity killed off our ability to generate better ideas — because there are still so many good initiatives out there and so many new solutions that show us a different path on offer — but that we became too passive. Or numb, maybe. Even lost, perhaps. In our approach to society-building, we became conservative. In our approach to politics, we — for the most part — got satisfied with preserving the status quo. We were so happy about what we achieved (and yes, we achieved great things) that we stopped dreaming big, stopped rethinking. Instead of changing, renewing and improving, we focused on safeguarding. What a waste of potential and ambition. We set aside the greater vision.

A wave of innovation

That is why we founded The Alternative; to start a wave of innovation like the one that kick-started our progress in the past; to create an arena where dreaming comes naturally; an arena where new ideas are encouraged and where dreaming out loud, with your eyes and ears open, is appreciated.

Today, as it was when it was founded, The Alternative is a value-based movement; a platform for progressives of all sorts and starting points, one that is not blinded by ideologies of the past. On this platform, we plan to build great things: sustainable communities; solar energy projects; urban gardens; publishing companies. We started by building a political party. This might sound like an oddly familiar place to start, but The Alternative is not your regular political party. Our political programme is 100% crowdsourced through ‘political laboratories’, open to all and held throughout Denmark after our launch in 2013.

Our politics and policies are not formed by special interest groups; they are measured against how well they perform on three bottom lines: the economic bottom line, the social bottom line and the environmental bottom line. A good proposal will create surpluses on all three. A proposal that creates a surplus on the economic bottom line alone is not something we would endorse. On top of that, everything we do is guided by our six core values: transparency, generosity, humility, courage, empathy and humour. That means that we do not practise politics in the way that it is usually done. Since we were elected to the Danish Parliament last year, we have insisted on doing things differently: reading poems as part of our policy proposal in our equivalent to the House of Commons; throwing Alternative Parliaments that involve inviting citizens affected by the laws being debated in chambers to have a synchronised debate in a room next door; and inviting artists to work by our side, acting as creative disturbances.

We are deeply serious about what we do, about the radically different future we want, and about the real and sustainable transition that we want to drive forward as fast as possible. And we insist on doing it differently because the way we have been doing things up till now is what has got us into this mess.

A new political culture

Most revolutionary of all, at least to the system, has been our insistence on a new political culture. Media, fellow politicians and the public in general have been stunned by our refusal to participate in the blame-game of politics, our commitment to stopping the name-calling and our readiness to be curious and non-judgemental about the position of a political opponent. When we are proposing new initiatives, we lay out the pros and cons, we acknowledge the grey areas and admit when we were wrong or have changed our minds. In most walks of life that would be totally normal. In politics, not so much.

When we spin, we are open about it. We publish media declarations on our website, chronicling how we talk to journalists on specific stories that we place in the media, what our considerations are and what we aim to achieve.

These approaches are certainly new, at least by Danish standards. And against all odds, or more precisely against the odds of media pundits and their low expectations, we have been successful. We got elected to parliament in our first try last year, have experienced rising polls ever since and our membership base is now fourth among the nine political parties in the Danish Parliament.

I believe this success (and the success of other new parties like ours) has many causes. First of all, many people are tired of the old version of politics (a large percentage of our membership base has never been politically active before). Second, we address other problems and have radically different solutions than most other parties. Third, we have proven that politics can be fun, inclusive, thought-provoking and action-orientated for all. Fourth, and most important to us at least, we want change. We are not satisfied with the status quo. Why should we be when the status quo is not working for most people?

Instead of focusing on austerity alone, we see the real challenge as the empathy crisis, the systems crisis and the climate crisis. And our responses are action-orientated. So, for example, we want our agricultural industry to go 100% organic; we want experiments with basic income for all; we want a 30-hour work week to give people more time for themselves and each other; we want all our energy to come from renewable sources by 2040 or before; we want to phase out fossil fuel cars by 2025; and we want to stop using GDP as the most prominent indicator of the progress we make. Most of all, we want to establish new economic thinking that makes sense on an international scale and can replace the blind trust that most politicians have in economic growth as the only solution.

Each of the three crises indicates the potential for change; the potential to renew our society as we did in 1813. We welcome the chance to build new, sustainable systems that respect the planet’s limits, that prioritise wellbeing over wealth, and that further civil participation — by and for the people. If we fail to do so, we don’t deserve any better.

The rise of progressiveness

As discouraging as it is to see some leadership hopefuls trying to make us smaller than we are; trying and succeeding in instilling fear over hope; and trying to make countries isolate and work less together, we are nevertheless encouraged to witness the rise of progressiveness around the world: Bernie Sanders in the US; Podemos in Spain; Syriza in Greece; the Five Star Movement in Italy; the Pirate Party in Iceland; sister parties of The Alternative in Norway and Nepal. All of these movements are different, but all have a progressive vision of a future that matches the 21st century and beyond.

Even in the UK, progressives are re-emerging and forming new alliances. I was happy to contribute a chapter to a book co-edited by Lisa Nandy (Labour), Caroline Lucas (Green Party of England and Wales) and Chris Bowers (Liberal Democrats) called The Alternative. The campaigning group Compass, led by Neal Lawson, has taken on the ambitious and overdue task of facilitating a Progressive Alliance — including the three just mentioned, but also the Scottish National Party, Plaid Cymru and others — to stand together against the Conservative Party in 2020.

In addition, in a radical bid to change the context of British politics altogether, a group of creative political actors — artists, technologists, globalists — are setting up a platform in the UK that will be similar to The Alternative. Working alongside the Progressive Alliance, they will focus their appeal on the 98% of people who are not members of a political party, hoping to identify entirely new starting points for politics in the UK.

Rather than set up a political party, they will begin with political laboratories and offer play spaces of all kinds for incubating social change that will be showcased in a Carnival of the New Politics in 2017. Like The Alternative in Denmark, the framework will be six values — courage, empathy, transparency, humour, humility and generosity — and the experience will be unlike any political event you’ve been to before.

Some say we are overdue a revolution, others that we are already in the midst of one. What we want is a friendly revolution, in Denmark and throughout the rest of the world.

This article originally appeared in the RSA journal Issue 3 2016

Uffe Elbæk is the leader of Danish political party The Alternative and a member of the Danish parliament. He is the former Minister of Culture.