Can Europe Make It?

Exploring two Alternatives

openDemocracy meets up with Denmark’s fastest-growing political party, Alternativet, and The Alternative UK, who inspired by them, have just launched their own ‘friendly revolution’. Interview.

Adam Ramsay
Adam Ramsay Indra Adnan Pat Kane Rasmus Nordqvist Uffe Elbaek
28 March 2017

Left to right: Pat, Indra, Uffe and Rasmus, March 2, 2017.Rosemary Bechler (RB): Party-movements interest us a lot in Can Europe make it? , but hitherto we haven’t come across a party in one country with a movement in another – so what is going on?

Uffe Elbaek (UE): It’s important to underline that The Alternative is much more than a political party. When it comes to our self-image and self-understanding, the way we describe it in Denmark is that first of all we are a political platform.  On this platform you can have all sorts of stuff happening. You can have a political party, which we are. We have ten members in the Danish Parliament now. But we are also a movement, and we are also start ups, and we are also education, and we are also cultural alternatives. Everything can happen on this platform as long as it accords with our six values and is going in the right direction in terms of the direction in which we want society to move.

So, for us it is not strange that right now we are sitting here as MP’s alongside Indra and Pat who are activists and movement entrepreneurs, because it all fits into the tendencies we are all of us developing as a political platform. The Alternative is much more than a political party.

RB: Why does that seem necessary nowadays?

Rasmus Nordqvist (RN): Because political change is not just taking place in the old political systems. The change we want to work on but also the change we are seeing now in the world, both in Europe but also globally, is happening in so many different directions!

We see private companies beginning to play a totally new role, good and bad. We see culture also playing a part, good and bad. So when we want to make political change, we can’t achieve that from within a political system, we need to work on political change all in the round.

That is why when we started in Denmark, we said, “This change needs to happen whether we are represented within the parliamentary spectrum or not.”

RB: Isn’t it the case that your starting point also contained a criticism of political parties as currently constructed?

Indra Adnan (IA): In the UK, only 2% of people from the available electorate are in political parties. That is astounding and we have to grapple with it! People don’t believe in politics: maybe they would like to. But they are not giving their time or money to the political parties as they exist now. And the crises in political parties are many: crises in leadership, in culture, of structure. They are not delivering to people.

This is not just a matter of agency – which many people are yearning for. There is none of the feeling for or attraction in this way of life which politics should have if a democracy is truly going to flourish.

RN: But also if we look at political parties when they first started, they were very different from how they are today. They have become very conservative, but before they were part of people’s lives.

They were cultural, educational, people were going on a journey with their political parties, and this was integral to society at large. Whereas today, this career has become very professionalised.

It was the same when we started up in Denmark. I think it is 3.6% of the Danes who are involved. 3.6% are actually electing the people you can vote for, developing our politics. When we started, we were asking ourselves, “Where is political innovation today? How can we work on a broader basis, get a lot more different kinds of people into the political room, and also open it up?” “How can we work on a broader basis, get a lot more different kinds of people into the political room, and also open it up?”

Creating political space

UE: Can we take one step back? Because I think the overall ambition for what the Alternative Party in Denmark is doing and what you are doing in the UK with your newly-launched Alternative movement, is not so much about being the alternative ‘new thing’, but much more about how can we create a space in which citizens can take back their democratic authority.

Of course I like the fact that we are growing in Denmark, that we have 10 MPs, and hope that we will have 20 after the next election, but that’s not really what motivates me.

What motivates me is that we can start to see ordinary citizens talking and asking, how can we have a voice in the way we are building our society? So for me this mobilization of people who start to feel their own power and to understand that they can make a difference, small or big, depending on what is meaningful for them – is much more important for me.

I would also like to say that there is a big difference between our reality in Denmark and your reality in the UK when it comes to the electoral system. If we had started up The Alternative in the UK, we would have done it the way Pat and Indra are doing it, because it is nearly impossible to start up a new political party and get it voted into the British parliament, so the structure in Denmark, and Scandinavia and in the UK is really very different.

But when all is said and done, and this is coming back to you Rasmus, what we do see in Denmark as well as the UK, is that the mistrust between voters and elected politicians is just widening and widening and widening. We had a survey coming out a month ago, and the business that people most distrust was politics, and on top of that was used car salesmen, and on top of that there were journalists! What we do see in Denmark as well as the UK, is that the mistrust between voters and elected politicians is just widening and widening and widening.

So one thing is certain, there is a growing gap of mistrust between citizens and elected politicians, on the national level at least – I have to add that qualification because it is a different game when it concerns local politicians.

Rasmus, you were talking about the 3.6% involved in political parties in Denmark (Pat said 2% in the UK) – so we see that less and less do people want to be part of a political party. That’s one effect. Then, of the people who are members of a political party, less and less of them wants to be elected to public office. And as that decreases, the people who do want to be elected, these people look more and more the same across party lines, which means that they have the same educational background, the same social and cultural perspectives, they interact in the same kinds of networks and have their own bubble.

So what we see is a growing gap of mistrust on the one hand and then the creation of a political class in itself and for itself. And that is super super dangerous when we want a lively, engaged democracy. So what we see is a growing gap of mistrust on the one hand and then the creation of a political class in itself and for itself.

Take back control

Screen Shot 2017-03-29 at 01.41.51_0.png

Pat Kane and Indra Adnan, 2015.

Pat Kane (PK): This is part of the terrain that we face in the UK.  We had this amazingly divisive, polarising vote over Brexit, and it left 52% disrupting the political order as we know it.

So you can see that as a moment of chaos, meltdown, entropy, disaster. But actually, the phrase that underlay that disruption – take back control – in our opinion, looking at it culturally and philosophically, even spiritually, is one of the most profound things that you can say about one’s life as a citizen. ‘Take back control of what, from whom, to do what ?’– these are the most fundamental questions underlying politics.

So, one can bemoan and remoan the results of the Brexit referendum, but actually it is an enormous opportunity to revivify what we think of as citizenship. Now, how do you do that? There are a lot of people moving into that space. The new right characters like Arron Banks are thinking that they can copy what other network-centric parties in Europe are doing and move in and redefine the terrain. They are actually saying,” Let’s redefine direct democracy!”

There has to be a force countering that, but if it is still on the same battleground terrain as the political parties – “My manifesto is better than your manifesto!” – “My list of facts is better than your list of facts!” – it won’t work. 

So what we think is that there has to be a cultural option. You have to construct spaces that are culturally driven. And not just culture as in arts and culture, but cultures of the locality, for example.

You have to get down to the basic level of saying who you are and what you dream about and aspire to in your society. That requires unconventional techniques.

We tried some of those last night at the launch by mixing together advertisers and policy people and futurists and reformers, and we wanted to give all the input that came into these rooms the same status. Someone with a degree in PPP from Oxford could come into the room but have no more status or impact than a singer or a local activist or a fashion designer, people from the 98% who are making their lives purposeful and meaningful. Now there is a politics in that 98% and we have to find it. But it will not be in the usual ways, with the usual tools and the usual vocabulary. That is the task we have set ourselves, given how broken the representative political system is in the UK. ‘Take back control of what, from whom, to do what ?’– these are the most fundamental questions underlying politics.

IA: What people are experiencing at the moment is profound. The way that politics is occurring is at many different levels. What 2016 showed us and what Trump is showing us at the moment is that the way that traditional politics conceives of the human being is very very limited.

Traditional politics thinks of the human being as homo economicus – someone who needs a certain amount of money and a roof over their head. That’s the unit that we are dealing with. Donald Trump shows us on a daily basis that the human being is a rather emotional creature who can be reached through the emotions. In fact, has always been reached in this way! So what is needed is emotional literacy around our politics.

What makes you feel out of control? And how can you reclaim that control? That means taking back control of your mind, as well as your body, and of yourself as a citizen. That’s the space that I think we are opening up, and that’s why I think the arts are so very important.

PK: We have a very clear adversary in all this. Cambridge Analytica, the company that believes it won both Brexit and Trump’s election for its clients, they believe that they can look at the Big Data derived from use of social media, stick that to a very limited psychological model, and then manipulate the masses with their messages accordingly.

But there is just so much research that says that this is a very limited way of thinking about the ways that human beings respond to challenges. They respond with joy, humility – all the values that Alternative talk about at their core. That is a whole other emotional vocabulary, not one confined to just fear, anger and insecurity. So we must find other ways to get to those places, and our tactic, here, short of a proportional representation system, is basically cultural politics.

RB: You mention a touring company…

PK: Essentially a touring company, that’s right. One that doesn’t just leave people with that enchanted experience and come back in two years’ time, but one that feeds that experience into a network, then generates tools and feeds them into another experience. So it is really a culture-building exercise. André Gorz talked about the necessary move from a work-based society to a culture-based society – but you can cut that bit out if you like…

New hybrid models

Adam Ramsay (AR): Not at all, you are talking to openDemocracy here! We’re very happy with that. It’s all great, and cultural politics is very important, and particularly in England I am always astonished by the lack of shared cultural politics! In Scotland, the idea that what progressive people should do is follow the writings of Gramsci and go into folk and culture and art is always very widely understood, and I’m always amazed that this is not more the case here.

However, I was at your launch last night – and there were a few things that did trouble me a bit more. You talked about being neither left nor right, and today, you are talking about radical democracy, empowering people and taking power away from elites. Clearly historically these are leftwing ideas and people would associate them with the left. So how do you square that circle?

On the other hand, when I look at your values, I could interpret nearly all of them in ways that are quite worrying and right wing. For example, when you say, openness – that could be open markets for people to plunder other people’s lives. I don’t think that is what you mean by it. But don’t you have to spell this out?

So I was left with this slight sense, Pat, that you weren’t really saying exactly what you really thought… and that you have a lot more politics, Uffe, than you are letting on?

UE: If you look at the founding team of the Alternative in Denmark, most of us have had a long history on the left! Oh, maybe not you Rasmus? Yes you are an old squatter!

RN: I’ve been an anarchist and a conservative…


Rasmus Nordqvist, 2015. Wikicommons/FInn Årup Nielsen. Some rights reserved.

UE: Yeah yeah. Well, I’ve had a long history, including on the far left when I was young and was part of the squatting movement in Denmark. If I have a political role model it would be Emma Goldman, so when we are talking about values, of course we have our history with us.

But what we also have to say is that if you look at our economic policies, we think equal societies are good societies. And if you look at our finance policies, our proposals as a party to Parliament are really far left. But at the same time, we have this feeling that to solve the issues we are facing, we need a much more creative, entrepreneurial society. Normally, as a political journalist, I might then conclude, “ OK – then you are really liberal.”

In economic terms, you will see that we are standing up for a totally new economic model based on three important lines: there should be black figures on the economic bottom line, on the social bottom line and on the environmental bottom line. We are really trying to figure out what the new economic model must look like: how can we change the old understanding of the GNP.

At the same time, my old colleagues on the left have this picture that if the public sector just grew and grew, then everything would be fine. Our understanding is that the market itself can’t solve the problems we are facing, but that the public sector in itself can’t solve it either, and that neither can civil society solve it on its own. So the complexity and cross-border element of these challenges are calling for new hybrid models and solutions. The complexity and cross-border element of these challenges are calling for new hybrid models and solutions.

Historically, I you look at it from a Danish point of view and ask, have you seen some of these problems, and discussions and proposed models before, then the answer is yes, we have, one hundred and fifty years ago in Denmark. 

We saw the rise of the co-op movement, what we call the folk high school system for public enlightenment, we saw the emergence of totally new media, new artistic movements, a new democratic movement and a labour movement. So we saw new solutions which didn’t exist before they were put on the table. That’s where we see the need to have another ‘take ‘on it, besides that of the traditional left.

RN: You question this formulation – we say we are neither left nor right – but we say this because we don’t have an understanding of politics which is two dimensional. If you are not left, not right, it doesn’t mean you are in the middle. It also means that when we changed from being a culturally-based society to an industrial society, many things changed, not only on two dimensions but on three or four dimensions, and this is the same scale of changes that we are seeing right now in society. If you are not left, not right, it doesn’t mean you are in the middle.

We have to understand politics as something else apart from left and right. This does not mean that we don’t want to take a position, that we are hiding something, but that we seek a new paradigm and that it is necessary to be undogmatic if you want to find solutions for this new paradigm.

AR: It was Mussolini who first denied the difference between left and right…  I don’t mean that you are fascist, but what does it mean to say that? I balk against it when people say that.

RB: But Adam, you aren’t the only person in the world. How does a leftwinger work with and persuade other people, this is the issue, isn’t it?

IA: Let me follow up on this. My starting point, and this is something that we share, is that we are really in a very urgent situation. The planet is burning. We face multiple crises and we look at societies that are in thrall to the people who are in charge now, including that new administration in the United States. So we have to find a way to harness the 98%. We have to ask how can they hear us. If we can only offer them the trap of the binary option that you are articulating, we won’t reach them. We have to find ways of reaching them, and Alternative has begun to find a way. Alternative has begun to find a way.

AR:  Desmond Tutu said that in a situation of dispossession if you don’t take sides, then you are siding with the powerful. And, it seems to me, traditional left politics is the organisation of the dispossessed.

There have always been discussions about what that means. Does that mean going with the state or cooperatives, towards anarchism or more centralised, whatever. But when people say, “I’m not left or right” – what I hear from that (of course I absolutely understand that other people hear different things) is that we are refusing to take sides in a struggle with those in power.

UE: If you hear that then I haven’t been good enough at explaining what we are all about. But I understand your question and it is an ongoing dilemma that we also have in our daily work. We are part of the opposition, and at the moment we are partisan with the social democratic party and the social liberal party, so we are part of the opposition bloc against the present liberal conservative rightwing government. That is the political landscape we have to navigate in.

But we know that there is something that is not dynamic enough about simply operating in that loop. It doesn’t really work. We can’t create the conversation we need with the people we need to talk to in the right way unless we get out of that loop.

So I understand your question and I also have to say that we are totally aware that there are economic forces and very powerful political forces that don’t want us to succeed. If you just look at the priorities of our programme, our priorities will go up against some very powerful vested interests in our society. Just take the fossil industry: they hate what we are doing. The traditional farming industry: they hate what we are saying. And so we know exactly what sort of interests we have to deal with. We are totally aware that there are economic forces and very powerful political forces that don’t want us to succeed.

But we just want to get out of this loop that we are continuing to discuss in, to allow ourselves to occupy a new place. You are totally right, Rasmus, that being neither left nor right does not mean you are in the middle. I don’t want to raise the spectre of Tony Blair, but we do actually want to talk from a third position, if we can figure out what that is. And maybe from a fourth and a fifth position…

PK: This is the point. One of the most interesting discussions on what you might call ‘the left’ is : “What does a post-capitalist society – not an anti-capitalist, socialist or even a social democratic society – but post-capitalist look like?”

We ask this because where we are now is at a very complex point. Networks can be as powerful as markets. And networks are at one and the same time the complete liberation of people’s self-expression and the complete surveillance of people’s self-expression. They can be the most anarchistic things and the most surveillant thing.

Is it helpful to approach that from a classic left/right binary? You can be a constitutionalist, and say, ”Well in a network society, we need to devise more capacious and enabling structures.” But that just indicates how complex the question is about where power is and who exerts it. If you corral everything into a ‘left test’, and I have as strong a ‘left test’ compulsion as anyone does, you may shut down many ways in which people can exert and express their own power as mothers, artists, people who make food well, as people who live rich, unboxed lives, self-defined and with a lot of awareness in them that allows them to re-story themselves…

If you don’t find a language that can tap into the general sense that people have quite a lot of expressive power in twenty first century society, then they will be deaf to you. We have to find a language of empowerment that communicates with people in the complex spaces that they are in. I think that is what we have to explore with the Alternative in the UK. We have to find a language of empowerment that communicates with people in the complex spaces that they are in.

It’s difficult for natural leftists to abandon the sense that they must always be tilting against the hardest sources and core of power, and attend instead to the powers that people already have, that are surprising, unusual, unpredictable and creative – it requires me to shift my gaze to some degree. I support a left party being a party of labour – yes go and do it. But there are other problems in terms of mobilising people that are not covered by a traditional left/right binary.

Universal basic income and possible alliances

AR: Last night you seemed to me to be going back to an old debate with the talk of, ’not left not right, but forwards’. In the greens we decided some time back that it must be ‘ Left and…’ – so, of course.  But when it comes to key struggles in people’s lives, I want to know what side you are on. I feel I do know from other things that you say, and that you are on the same side as me. But then why do you pretend, why say you’re ‘not left’?

PK: We discussed a universal basic income last night – a policy supported by the glitziest moguls and the most determined anti-poverty campaigners…

RN: But not by the traditional left…

PK: Now, if you are not alive to the possibility of an alliance that could profoundly shift political support in favour of this way of dealing with fundamental questions of security for people, if you don’t capture that moment and that wide range of energies, wouldn’t that be foolish? To be discussed.

RB: I have some sympathy with Adam here, because the key issue is the nature of the alliance isn’t it, and of course what it is really up against at any one time? It is one thing to exhort the left to take on the rich challenge of liberal individualism in their forms of political organisation. But look at the populist challenge: when advocating a form of ‘Gramscian hegemony’ can so easily tip into a dangerous rightwing nationalist stance, given the pull of the monocultural National Us in our societies… don’t we have to be very careful indeed about where we think ‘the people’ and their energies are?

Or take the issue you raised of networks. Maybe big data is there to empower us. But if ‘five eyes’ surveillance can track how people in resistance are organising themselves almost before they think of it… this is not an opportunity to get everyone into one big alliance is it?  Instead, we may be staring at an immobilising defeat. So what kind of political movement will capture creative end confident energies, but also ask those questions?

PK: That’s what we are trying to do. This is why we responded to Alternative. Denmark, thanks to those folk high schools and that national moment, is a much more egalitarian society than here in the UK, so you can appeal to people’s creativity and aspirations.

I’m scared that if there are no optimistic processes and we don’t generate resources for hope, to use Raymond Williams’ phrase, in British politics – maybe Scotland is another case – but acutely in crisis conditions in England and in Wales – the routes to despair are obvious. Either riots or drugs, or numbness, or disengagement or anger, and that is already out there happening in the small towns and the big cities of Britain. Literally something has to be started at the bottom of the curve that just presumes that we can access people’s creativity.

IA: It is not us starting something. We are revealing what is going on. It is our sense that there is so much going on, but that it is all siloed. And because people are disillusioned with politics and they don’t want to be members of political parties, there is no political representation. It is our sense that there is so much going on, but that it is all siloed.

But we have been in this revolution, the revolution of connectivity I call it, for ten years. People can mobilise, people can work together and these new networks are springing up throughout the country in many different ways. People feel that they have the tools now to do their own thing. Flatpack democracy gets patronised by official politics, but we think that this desire, this need and this capacity are being echoed all over, and it is a slow movement in which people treasure the slow development of new relationships and bringing these together with new tools in their local politics.

They are loving what they are doing. And what we want to do is to connect the dots on all those things, and say, there is already a countermovement under way to what we read in the newspapers.  The libertarian invitation to tick the boxes and we’ll represent you has to be countered by something that is slower, more deliberative, that shines a spotlight on something that is really happening in society. We want to platform the many ways that people are responding at this moment in time to the crisis that we sense. There is already a countermovement under way to what we read in the newspapers. 

It is very important that we don’t fall too much into the left/right way of categorising people. Because many of those people who voted for Leave, for example, are caricatured as rightwing. But what use is that when they are with us? They want the same things that we want. They want control, devolved power, power in their own hands. Why make these artificial boundaries? At this point we want to open a space which says, “We are not going to pre-categorise you. We are going to welcome this very real flowering, this awakening.”

Meaningful community

UE: One more statement, but this is interesting. For me, I will always stand on the side of the marginalised, the powerless, and the voiceless. There is no question about it… that’s where I am speaking from.

IA: We all are.


Uffe Elbaek, Alternativet.

UE: Just to make that clear, if it makes anything clear..  The other thing to say is that from Denmark, we look to what you are trying to do with the Alternative in the UK, to inspire us in turn.

Because, for good or for ill, we are living in a very homogenous society in Denmark – all the conflicts going on now with refugees and immigrants just emphasise that point. But suddenly, we have a return echo from something you are saying which frames things in another way for us, something that we have been talking about.

You put it differently because you have other social, cultural and economic realities. So for us, I just wanted to say that it is really inspiring to have a conversation partner in our deliberations from here in the UK, who see the world from a different position but on the basis of the same values and understanding.

For us in Denmark, it was hard a few months ago when we took stock of what was happening in Denmark.  All Danes have the feeling that we have created this really solid welfare state. It took us one hundred and fifty years to do it. But we have the feeling now that we are standing on the crest of the wave and looking down, and “Wow!” everyone is panicking, “How can we reorganise? How can we be more efficient? How can we make sure we only spend the money on the right stuff?”

So everyone is standing, looking down, and then we start asking, “Well what does it actually take to start the next great welfare wave? Was it a big master plan that kick-started it last time?”  No, actually not. The history we saw in Denmark was that the country literally went bankrupt in 1813. It was a huge trauma that shocked the whole of society: we couldn’t pay the wages of our public sector employees. But what is even more important is what happened a year afterwards in 1814. 

In 1814, we created a public school system so that everyone would have seven years of school education for free. This was the year after! We decided to invest in the public good. Out of that started all kinds of different, new initiatives: the golden age of Danish culture was from 1800 – 1850; the democratic movement inspired by philosophers leading to new constitutions in Norway and Denmark; the co-op movement, the folk schools, new media and workers’ movement a few years later: and there was no big masterplan. “Well, what does it actually take to start the next great welfare wave? Was it a big master plan that kick-started it last time?”  No, actually not.

But what was common between all these initiatives was that people came together to discuss these important public questions and issues in a meaningful community. So there were a lot of different, meaningful communities created around important issues. That is why we are so keen on these laboratories, and on creating spaces where people can talk about important public issues and questions. It is a critical mass of all this that maybe can kickstart the next welfare state model in Denmark.

This is the Danish reality. Maybe it has nothing to do with where you are at in the UK. But just to say that rather than cling to fixed models, we are open for experimentation, and open for something to come forward which we hadn’t expected. It is the sum of all these experiments, and political laboratories, and discussions and dialogues, that maybe, in our opinion, something can kickstart again.

RB: From fear to hope. Let’s finish there. Thank you very much.

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