The Danish Alternative, a Party about Nothing

What kind of political movements are going to address the developmental aspects of human psychology and their societal consequences I have put forth in my book The Listening Society? Who will embrace the long-term vision herein for cultivating a deeper kind of welfare that revolves around looking after the personal development of citizens in an open and democratic way? And what kind of phenomenon is going to emerge in party politics to work in accordance with the framework of co-development, democratization and deliberation described in my other book Nordic Ideology? In short, what’s the political party of the metamodern age, the one to take the victorious meta-ideology of green social-liberalism to the next level? The answer to this is the process oriented political party – a party that is less about con­tent, and more about the political processes that lead up to the best poli­cies. A party about nothing.

The following is a slightly edited extract from Hanzi Freinacht’s book ‘The Listening Society: A Metamodern Guide to Politics, Book One’. This is the first book in a series on metamodern thought, a work of popular philosophy that investigates the nature of psychological development and its political implications. What you will read below is from the chapter on new and important agents on the political playing field such as process based parties, metamodern activists, transnationalism and the emergence of the metamodern aristocracy.

”The party re­presents a merger of the artistic, digital and sustainability-concer­ned elem­ents of society. It is, in a way, the party of artists and their often eccentric, play­ful, post-materialist lifestyles.”

The closest thing to a truly process oriented political party to date is the Danish party The Alternative, founded by the former minister of cult­ure Uffe Elbæk in late 2013. The party was ridiculed in the press and by members of the other parties upon its founding, partly for not having a fixed program to begin with, but entered parliament less than two years later with about 5% of the votes (2% is needed to enter parliament) and has since gained in the polls. Apparently the Danish public was ready for a “party about nothing”.

Instead of being based on a readymade political program, the party was formed around a set of principles and values for how to conduct good politi­cal discourse and dialogue. The party also has political content, of course, a program with things they want to change, but this was subsequ­ently crowd sourced by its members after the party got founded. Most central to the party’s founding and organi­zation is still the how, rather than the what.

Starting with the what, the party has three main issues in focus.

  • Transition to a sustainable society (drawing partly on the Transition Town movement, originally from the UK);
  • supporting entrepreneurship and social entrepreneurship; and
  • changing the culture of political dialogue (as well as supporting art and culture in general).

As you can see, at the time of writing, the party has yet to discover the idea of the listening society; but still, it is a quite promising movement. Let’s hope some of the members read my book.

The Alternative has its electoral and organizational base mainly in the urb­an creative class – or the triple-H (triple-H“>hipsters, hackers and hippies). Thereby, the party can employ a lot of its cultural muscle to compete in the world of mass and social media – not least with the help of gifted design­ers working for free, people who are sensitive to cultural trends and currents.

The old Left intellectuals of Denmark tend to stay with the socialist mov­e­­ments, whereas The Alternative steals away the triple-H and others with post-materialist and environmental values, creating a platform for their interests and expressions. The party re­presents a merger of the artistic, digital and sustainability-concer­ned elem­ents of society. It is, in a way, the party of artists and their often eccentric, play­ful, post-materialist lifestyles.

”In a media landscape where everyone competes for attention, the people who are more fun and imaginative get an upper hand – not the richest and ‘most proper’ people.”

Why has the Alternative Become a Success?

The party is successful because it represents the new interests being born in a postindustrial society: not only the creative class but also what British economist Guy Standing elaborated and popularized as the pre­cariat (people in precarious economic and social positions, who fall outside the classic class categories). The precariat is supported by an ambi­­­tious program for simpli­fying life for the often surveyed and cont­rolled unemployed, who get stuck in nasty bureau­cratic state prac­tices that in reality seldom lead to employment.

A second reason for the party’s early success is that you have so much cultural capital gathered in once place, so much know-how about making the best meetings, dialogues, media events, parties, campaigns, posters and so on. In a media landscape where everyone competes for attention, the people who are more fun and imaginative get an upper hand – not the richest and “most proper” people.

In a way, you could say that The Alternative represents the revolution of cultural capital against economic capital. The Conservative party of Denmark had much greater campaign expenditure and all the contacts with Danish industry, but still a much less successful election campaign. The Alternative beat them in many different ways. For instance, they had smaller, shrieking green election posters and made a point of not rushing the publicly designated starting time for when putting up posters was allowed. When all the other parties had cheated their way to all the most prominent spots, they calmly squeezed their smaller green posters into whatever cracks remained with the message “There is also The Altern­ative”. A happy, kind-looking 20-year-old reported to the rolling TV-cam­e­ras that there is no need to cheat, because “there is room for everyone”. When the party was widely accused of being “clowns” in the press, members scrambled to create a YouTube video (at the end of the election I recall it had about half a million views, 10% of population, don’t know why it only shows 20K here) featur­ing the lead­ing candidates performing all manner of clown acts while reciting that they are happy to be jesters if that’s what it takes to get their serious policy issues, such as trans­ition to a sustainable society, on the agenda.

You have here a party formation born out of the progressive values of the urban creatives, people who are generally rather privileged, happy and funct­ional. Naivety is also part of such progressiveness. At its best, this kind of movement combines the childlike openness of the idealist with a shrewd political pragmatism that comes with high concentra­tions of cult­ural capital. Cultural capital, as you may know, is a measure of the extent to which people possess a sensitive, intimate understanding of the time they live in.

As in the 2011 Metamodernist Manifesto we can see “info­rm­ed naivety”, or “prag­matic idealism” – terms expl­ic­itly used by the Alternativists, although coined indep­endently from meta­mod­ernist scholars.

At its worst, this amounts to good old uninformed naivety and un­work­able idealism (for instance, too much yoga woo-woo and too little intell­ectual rigor, or stifling moralism and what I call game denial). On the worrying side, the party also attracts its fair share of over-spiritual, pot smoking conspiracy theorists. We’ll see which way it goes. Probably both.

”As voters, many of us often recognize that we cannot know the answers to all the complicated societal questions. And frankly, neither can the pol­itic­ians reasonably be expected to.”

What’s Unique about the Alternative?

A unique thing about this party is its central focus; as mentioned, not its content, but rather its form or process – its how. It is based explicitly upon the idea of harnessing the collective intelligence of citizens and using their insp­i­r­ation and creative ideas to achieve a transition to a sustainable society – ecolo­gically, socially and economically. The party members use so-called “political labor­a­­tories”, and an “alternative citizen parliament” (in the real parliament build­ing) to invite ordinary citizens into dialogue and delibera­tion, gathering ideas and popular impulses, with relatively simple entry paths to participation and responsibility.

The most central tenets of the party are a set of six core values: courage, generosity, transparency, humility, humor, and empathy. These do not pro­mise the voter a certain political program. Rather, they promise a kind of social envir­onment within which the program is brought into being. The members of the party commit first and foremost to these values. This avoids some of the com­plications for the voter in an increasingly complex and contradictory political reality of postindust­rial society, in which it’s often very difficult to even know what one’s own inter­ests are and the effects of policies are difficult to overview. When a party promises a better democratic process, you at least know what you get – albeit in a some­what more non-linear fashion. If politicians act better, you will get smarter politics by means of increased collective intelligence. So let’s take a further look.

In addition to the core values, the party representatives are committed to six “dogma of debate”. Notice this wording, “dogma” (a word with a more pos­itive meaning in Danish as it has been used by progressive film makers to refer to a certain artistic method); it suggests some­thing immutable and strict­ly upheld. This is where you can see meta­modern logic in action. The party has rather loose policies, but does not shy away from hold­ing its mem­bers to strict “dogma” when it comes to behavior and demeanor. Indeed, you will find this structure nowhere within the Left or the environ­mental move­ment, where beliefs in specific policies dominate but everyone would never­theless be deeply allergic to words such as dogma, or prescriptions for peo­ple’s behav­ior. Neither could you find anything like it in the many NGOs informed by more postmodern thinking.

Metamodernism, as a cultural logic, creates new forms of politics. The Alt­ernative is putting culture first. They are committed to the deliberate shaping and development of political culture, by means of participating in the public debate in a trans­parent and kindly fashion. Thereby, they lift their gaze from the concrete issues of ecological sustainability, and target the cultural context within which such long-term politics become possible and meaningful.

For instance, at the party’s inaugural address upon entering parlia­ment, one of the newly elected MPs, Rasmus Nordqvist, gave a speech in which he comm­ended the differ­ent qualities and perspe­ctives of all the other parties – including their ideo­logical Nation­alist adver­saries. This is a sign of trans­partisanism – the prin­ciple of seeing the inter­change of all parties as vital to democracy, and to seek to implement one’s policies by means of affect­ing the other parties (rather than antagonizing them). The Alte­rn­ative can thus be descri­bed as a trans­partisan movement.

Another example of transpartisanism. During the increasing pressures of migration, party leader Uffe Elbæk wrote an open letter in the paper, kindly asking the center-right prime minister (who is rather restrictive on immi­gration) for a dialogue on how to avoid bitter polarization of the Danish public on this hot topic. So what are the dogmas of debate? There are six of them, renamed “debate principles” on their English homepage:

  • We will openly discuss both the advantages and the disadvantages of a certain argument or line of action.
  • We will listen more than we speak, and we will meet our political opp­o­nents on their own ground.
  • We will emphasize the core set of values that guide our arguments.
  • We will acknowledge when we have no answer to a question or when we make mistakes.
  • We will be curious about each and every person with whom we are deb­ating.
  • We will argue openly and factually as to how The Alternative’s political vision can be realized.

As voters, many of us often recognize that we cannot know the answers to all the complicated societal questions. And frankly, neither can the pol­itic­ians reasonably be expected to. But what we can know with some relia­bility is that if politicians are more humble in their opinions – and more open to new infor­mation and thereby more intelligent in their dialogue and debate with others – we are likely to get more balanced and sound politics.

And we can know that the process oriented party vouches for a better dialogue, thereby improving the climate for discussion and deliberation throughout the political realm, not just within that particular party, but within and between all parties. Hence, this approach speaks to the tend­ency of the electorate to be increa­singly disen­chanted with the ongoing debates in post­industrial party politics. It targets a deep nerve within the population of a liberal democracy, where the Left and Right no longer repres­ent clearly defin­ed class interests, and people long for a more honest and nuanced disc­ussion.

”When they state that they will meet their adversaries where these are coming from, they are impli­citly saying that they must be able to understand and see the per­spect­­ives of others, but don’t expect the same treatment in return. A subtle hierarchy is being introduced.”

The Introduction of a New Hierarchy

A party like The Alternative can only pop up once there is a significant population with a certain set of values, norms and social skills. If you scratch the surface of this party, it is both highly egalitarian (spreading power, includ­ing people in dialogue, etc.) and built on the implicit crea­tion of new hier­archies. Of course, almost all the members of The Altern­ative would ob­ject violently to that last part, as they tend to be deeply egal­i­tarian and against hierarchies and elitism (their current leader Uffe El­bæk half-jokingly calls himself a Buddhist anarchist). But look at their dogma of debate. When they state that they will meet their adversaries where these are coming from, they are impli­citly saying that they must be able to understand and see the per­spect­­ives of others, but don’t expect the same treatment in return. A subtle hierarchy is being introduced. When they say that they will accentuate values, they are in fact saying that they will hold a more abstract and general level than others in their thinking. Another subtle hierarchy.

We are here approaching one of the strange paradoxes of our time, one of the many cases where a both-and thinking is required. The paradox is this: We need to simultaneously deal with increasingly clear and well-defined hierarchies, and we need society to become more demo­cratic and inclusive.

The people who end up on top in this strange new hierarchy are the most democratic ones – the people who have the personalities, skills and cultural codes necessary to create social settings that are more inclusive and nuanced. Such social settings can handle contradicting views, allow for more autonomy and experimentation, and can handle a greater number of relation­ships with fewer conflicts. Conflicts are resolved with greater openness and less carnage. In other words, this is the golden age of caring, creative, socially intelligent, psychologically healthy beta boys and girls.

This tendency spills over into other areas – the new main agents of the symbol-based informational economy have the same profile. The artistic, sen­si­tive, complex and multitalented social entrepreneur is increasingly becom­ing the ideal type of the new economy. Social entrepreneurship, peer-to-peer production, sharing economy, democratic dialogue techni­ques such as Art of Hosting – this is part and parcel of The Alternative’s ideology and movement.

The Alternative is also looking for ways to form a commercial com­pany and an NGO. In tune with the metamodern cultural logic, you see how the process oriented party works to reinte­grate the personal, civic and profess­ional aspects of (late) modern life.

Stressing political process, debate culture and democratization is going to be a highly competitive feature amidst the confusing circumstances of late-modern post-industrial societies where more discontent stems from the way politics is conducted than the contents itself. But it’s going to be those who are most knowledgably about efficient methods of deliberation, most skillfully master the ability to co-develop in a transpartisan manner and those who have the best understanding of the perspectives of others who will reap the greatest benefits. These are some of the skills the triple-H possess, and since political parties like the Alternative attract the largest numbers of these people, this will put them at a very favorable position in the political game despite their smaller size. As such in will be in and around the process based parties we’ll find many of the members of the metamodern aristocracy in the future. In fact, if you look closely, you’ll already see that is the case today.

Hanzi Freinacht is a political philosopher, historian and sociologist, author of ‘The Listening Society’, ‘Nordic Ideology’ and the upcoming books ‘The 6 Hidden Patterns of History’ and ‘Outcompeting Capitalism’. Much of his time is spent alone in the Swiss Alps. You can follow Hanzi on his facebook profile here.