Why The Alternative in Denmark Failed

In my book The Listening Society, I mention the Danish political party The Alternative (in Danish, “Alternativet”). Although the party never was thoroughly metamodern, it did contain many metamodern elements and showed some very promising signs of becoming a new kind of party. Unfortunately, things didn’t go very well.

The Alternative was founded in 2013 by former Danish minister of culture Uffe Elbæk and entered parliament with almost 5% of the votes in 2015. Since then, however, things have only gone downhill: In 2019 The Alternative only got 3% of the votes, and in 2020 the party’s members elected a new leader, Josephine Fock—a controversial choice resulting in four out of their five members of parliament, Uffe Elbæk included, leaving the party. Today, The Alternative hovers around 1% in the polls, not enough to pass the 2% electoral threshold, while the break-out party Independent Greens (in Danish, Frie Grønne), founded by Uffe Elbæk and two other former MPs from The Alternative, barely registers in the polls.

What The Alternative Got Right

Let’s begin with what I initially found so promising about The Alternative, and what made it metamodern. In The Listening Society I wrote the following presentation of the party:

“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).”

[TLS pp. 109–110.]

Here are the things they got right:

  • Process-oriented politics:First of all, The Alternative had a process-oriented way of conducting politics. The party was founded before it had a political program, for example, and instead of presenting a fixed program, the public was invited to participate in the drafting of the new party’s political agenda. This was done through a series of participatory workshops, or “political laboratories” as they were called. These events were facilitated by skilled people with years of experience in group processes. Many of these were educated at the renowned Kaospilot school in Århus (“chaos pilot” education), Denmark. High-tech stuff indeed. And a very metamodern approach to politics overall. The slogan of the political laboratories was “flere ved mere”, which directly translates into “more [people] know more”—indicating an awareness of, and a willingness to utilize, collective intelligence.
  • Green social-liberal ideology:In The Listening Society I talk about the meta-ideology that conquered Scandinavian politics: Green social-liberalism. This is the idea that the good society is one that has a well-developed welfare system, an efficient market economy, and that the whole shebang is ecologically sustainable. This is the overarching societal ideology all liberal democracies are headed towards, given enough stability and development. And because Scandinavia has been particularly blessed with social stability and economic development, more or less all parties in the Nordic countries, left and right, are converging towards this meta-ideology, disregarding whether they nominally define themselves as socialists, conservatives, or libertarians. What makes The Alternative metamodern in this regard, is the fact that they more or less explicitly subscribed to this ideology: being green, social, and liberal, all at once, and, very importantly, in equal measures.
  • Beyond left and right: Related to the above bullet point, The Alternative also sought to transcend the conventional left-right division and declared to be part of neither block, at least on paper. I write “on paper” since the vast majority of its members were and remain fairly left-leaning, and because, given the party’s progressive agenda, the only viable political allies were to be found in the social-democratic-lead block on the left. Still, of all the progressive parties, the Alternative had the best balance between government and market in my opinion—attempting to go beyond the classic political division, but without being a bland centrist compromise. Instead, The Alternative managed to be a radical and progressive alternative in regards to both market and state related issues.
  • Trans­partisanism: Apart from declaring itself ideologically to go beyond the traditional left-right divide, the party also sought to collaborate beyond the actual party political divides in parliament. This was done most exemplarily by the opening speech following the 2015 election where Rasmus Norquistgave a speech about all the things he liked and admired about the other parties. Norquist’s speech was obviously an invitation to engage in a friendlier and more productive conversation across political divides. The Alternative had a culture of talking positive about others and were not shy about mentioning the things they had been inspired by from other political parties. This non-belligerent approach to working with your political opponents is a very productive way to change the political culture towards becoming more deliberative and intelligent. It’s also another example of process-oriented politics; not focusing on changing particular laws, but on changing the way we do politics.
  • Catering to artists and the creative class:Initially, the Alternative reached out to artists and the creative class for support and vowed to prioritize culture and art. This explains a large part of the initial success. First of all, it’s a great advantage to have a lot of cultural capital on your side. Secondly, the creative class, along with all those broke artists belonging more to the new underclass of the precariat, represents two groups with progressive and post-materialist values who are not adequately represented in today’s politics. And, it is also here you find a great many metamodernists.
  • Transnational: Finally, the Alternative also operated in a transnational manner, attempting to move beyond the traditional confines of national politics by connecting with ideological allies in other countries and by supporting new “Alternatives” and sister organizations.

Now, that The Alternative contained all these metamodern elements doesn’t mean that it should be labeled as a metamodern party as such. Most of its members were solidly gravitating toward the postmodern value meme, and even among its leadership, people tended to express postmodern values. What wasn’t postmodern, however, were many of their methods.

At the time, I actually saw it as an advantage that The Alternative was only kind of metamodern “light”, given that there still aren’t enough metamodern voters out there. To begin with, I thought, the pomos shouldn’t be turned off by too much metamodern content and with time the party could gradually become more and more metamodern. This was, however, very naive of me to consider.

It’s a telling sign that the Independent Greens, the party Uffe Elbæk founded after his departure from The Alternative, simply brands itself as “Denmark’s new Leftwing party” with their main program being about anti-racism and protection of the environment. As commendable as these causes are, it doesn’t get more postmodern than this and it seems that they have given up on the difficult idea of creating a new kind of party. Having been there myself, however, (trying to create a new kind of party) I can hardly blame them.

What Went Wrong?

On a superficial level, the main reason for the decline of The Alternative owes to one person in particular, namely Josephine Fock, one of the three initial leaders of the party alongside Uffe Elbæk. Apparently, Mrs. Fock had quite a temper and became infamous within the party for transgressive behavior, yelling at people and threatening them. As a result, many people with executive functions left the party. She was also accused of backstabbing her political peers within the party and using dirty tricks to get more power. So when she finally outmaneuvered Uffe Elbæk’s faction and managed to be elected chairman of The Alternative, Uffe Elbæk and three other MPs left the party, declaring that they simply couldn’t accept working under Fock’s leadership. I don’t want to dwell more on the details here. It’s a very sad story, and if you care, you can always google what happened.

In any case, despite all the things Josephine Fock has been accused of, it seems to have worked—for a while. She got elected leader of the party in 2020, but only remained in charge for a little less than a year until the whole thing came crashing down and she had to step down. It’s self-evident that internal chaos like this is very harmful to a newly established party. And as of today, the Alternative has never recovered.

Yet, if we were only to blame a single “bad” person for everything that happened and simply conclude that we should avoid such persons in the future, we wouldn’t have learned much. Instead, we should look at the structures, or lack of same, which gave rise to such a bad fit. From where I stand, the whole thing seems to have suffered from a pretty bad case of inclusion without proper integration. Let me explain:

Fock came from the worker’s movement and had been working for labor unions for most of her adult life. I take it that Uffe & Co. wanted to balance out their entourage of fluffy too-cool-for-school kaospilots with someone more grounded in down-to-earth mainstream politics. On paper, it seemed like a sound plan. On paper.

The Alternative came into this world as a revolt against the crude and antagonistic nature of modern politics and thus attracted a lot of idealistic hipsters and hippies with little to no political experience. Naivety, idealism, and a rejection of political power games were ingrained into the party’s DNA from the beginning.

That all sounds good, right? Everyone playing nice and refusing to turn politics into a brutal and cynical bloodsport. Well, without proper measures to counter that one person who doesn’t intend on renouncing the use of dirty tricks, the field becomes wide open for that very person to play everyone out of the game until he or she has reached their goals. And this is exactly what happened when Uffe Elbæk invited an experienced, largely modernist, power player from the worker’s union into a political setting consisting mostly of tender and idealistic postmodern hipsters and hippies. It really was like letting a fox into a henhouse.

Yet, from a traditional political perspective, I can’t blame Josephine Fock. Politics is about power, and if you can win without breaking the law, then you haven’t really done anything wrong. It’s not Josephine’s fault that everyone around her was so miserable at playing the game. All she did was play the game she had learned from her long career in the worker’s movement. And then she won.

She only made one grave mistake, and that was to expect that the kind of game accepted in mainstream society would be tolerated within a party like The Alternative.

Diversity is sometimes good, sometimes bad. And when it’s good, it’s because we have managed to successfully integrate different kinds of people into a greater whole.

Integration is essentially about setting boundaries—and in the case of Josephine Fock in The Alternative, there were no efficient countermeasures in place to put checks and balances on her and thus facilitate the proper integration of a staunch political bulldog into a whole consisting of well-mannered poodles. In short, inclusion without integration.

However, apart from this sad case of all-too-human political bickering, I believe there were three structural reasons for the decline of The Alternative:

1) Becoming just another Green Party:

I remember back in the early days that I was invited to a meeting with The Alternative in the Danish parliament. One of the things I wanted to discuss was the danger of the party becoming “just another green party”. I praised the methods they were using, but also had to raise my concern about the party becoming a conventional green party. At the time, there was no green party in the Danish parliament, which meant that any party choosing green as their party color and emphasizing environmental issues would be seen as the green option that was missing. Thus its voters would expect it to become just that.

To my relief, this was already something the leadership within The Alternative was very much aware of and wanted to avoid. At least that’s what I was being told. But if we look at what happened, The Alternative became more and more akin to a traditional green party. As time passed by, you would hear more and more about climate change and ecology and less and less about fourth sector enterprises, social entrepreneurship, process-oriented politics, and so on.

Today, The Alternative is known as Denmark’s green party, similar to that of Die Grüne in Germany and Miljöpartiet in Sweden. This wouldn’t have been a problem in itself if it weren’t for the fact that there was a reason why Denmark didn’t have a green party proper before The Alternative: The issue had been thoroughly absorbed by the other left-leaning parties, all competing about being the greenest of them all. As such, there wasn’t really any raison d’être for a young green party with a dysfunctional past.

2) Pomo-diluting:

One of the primary dangers of creating a metamodern party, and a reason why I believe it’s too early to do so, is the issue of postmodernly inclined people joining and out-numbering the metamodernists.

Since the ethics of metamodernism isn’t that different from postmodernism, pomos have a hard time telling postmodernism and metamodernism apart. What differs between the two are mainly the methods. Pomos will thus join metamodern projects, since they agree with their overall goals—but they will dismiss the methods and ways of reaching those goals, often succumbing to game denial, and thereby effectively blocking any real change from happening. Since the pomos outnumber metamodernist by a factor of at least 10 to 1, the metamodernists are doomed to be outnumbered if they don’t put mechanisms in place to counter this development.

Another problem is that people on the lower levels of complexity also outnumber people on higher levels of complexity (see my article about Michael Common’s Model of Hierarchical Complexity here). As such, in a structure that prides itself on being non-hierarchical, welcoming to everyone, and open to change, there is a risk of things getting “dumbed down” over time. Just as there is collective intelligence, there is also a thing we could call “collective stupidity”. This happens when the methods to utilize the collective intelligence fail and instead a race toward the lowest denominator takes over. In this case, the highest unifying principle had to do with shifting the nature of political communication across the board, thereby contributing to increased self-organizing capacities of society—while the lowest common denominators spells biodynamically grown carrots.

Obviously, I don’t have any scientific data to prove it, but my own strong impression is that over the years, many of the really smart and metamodern people left The Alternative, while the not-so-smart and not-so-metamodern became more numerous. As a result, The Alternative began to lack much of the political talent that is necessary to succeed.

3) Cultural Capital Leaving:

Back in 2015, I wrote an article in which I ascribed the success of The Alternative to the party’s access to high cultural capital. This was evident in the 2015 election campaign where The Alternative had by far the best videos, posters, and events going on despite having a vastly smaller budget than the big established parties. This was possible because The Alternative deliberately catered to artists and the creative class, and thus had access to highly motivated volunteers from the cultural sector and the advertising industry.

I deliberately wrote that piece to make the good folks at The Alternative aware of their good fortune, but also to warn them that they shouldn’t take their access to the finest and best from the cultural sector for granted. On multiple occasions, I voiced my concern that the cultural capital would leave if nothing was done to make it stay. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to have worked.

With time, and as the internal struggles within the party dragged on, The Alternative seems to have lost its cultural capital as the creatives left a party that became more and more of a traditional, “boring”, green party. On one side we had the faction that wanted to make the party more “respectable”, more “normal”, represented by Josephine Fock, and on the other the many people who just wanted the party to be about environmental issues and not all that artsy fartsy stuff.

I noticed how The Alternative’s website became more and more mainstream over the years. It started out as this avantgarde neon green (which became the party color) art project thing and ended up looking like just about any other dullsville party out there (with very little neon green). In their second election campaign in 2019 it was also clear that much of the edge the party had had in the previous election had been lost, and much of the campaign material was just old stuff from the last election. People were also asked to be less freaky, more respectable—which is a very efficient way of getting rid of creative people.

However, with this push to make the Alternative “normal”, the party lost the very thing that made it special and which offered a particular segment of the population something they couldn’t find anywhere else. This is what I wrote in The Listening Society:

“The old Left intellectuals of Denmark tend to stay with the socialist mov­e­­ments, whereas The Alternative steals away the triple-H and yoga bourgeoisie people, 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.” [TLS p. 110.]

These are the people they lost. Some might have stuck around if it weren’t for the internal chaos later on, but the decline of The Alternative was already a fact prior to that. In the end, the triple-H (hackers, hipsters & hippies) and yoga bourgeoisie people went back to the traditional left-leaning and center-left parties they came from—at least those of them who didn’t give up the habit of voting which is sadly widespread among especially the triple-H folks.

In my upcoming book The 6 Hidden Patterns of History I make a great deal out of explaining that art is always first. With that I mean that the first elements of a new emerging metameme (societal stage of development) are always to be found within the arts. As such, since we live in a society that is just in the middle of becoming postmodern metamodernism barely exists—and where it exists, and where it can exist, is mainly within the realms of artistic and philosophical expression. If we are thus to create a metamodern party today, we will need to start with first things first, which are: art and culture.

The Alternative seemed to intuitively have sensed that aesthetic expression of the future was necessary in order to create a new kind of party, a political party beyond the postmodern, but that wisdom seems to have been lost along the way of the party’s short and turbulent existence.

So basically, if you want to quote me, what went wrong was that The Alternative sought to conduct politics in a kinder way, attracting people wanting to play nice, but without any mechanisms to fend off power players playing dirty and hard. And then it attracted a lot of pomos thinking that this is just another green party. And then it became just another green party. And as the party became dominated by a former union boss with anger issues and your typical manic-organic crowd dismissing all that artsy fartsy elitist stuff, the cultural capital left—and with that, one of the most important recourses for succeeding as a new kind of party.

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 Facebook, Twitter, and Medium, and you can speed up the process of new metamodern content reaching the world by making a donation to Hanzi here.