Everyone said it couldn’t be done. They said if you weren’t already dead politically, you’re super dead now,” says Uffe Elbæk with a laugh.
We are sitting in an alcove in the upper level of parliament’s gallery to talk about his new political party Alternativet, The Alternative. Launched in November with an ambition to secure greater economic, social and environmental sustainability, it was immediately derided as naïve. Lacking a political programme, professing values that include humility, humour and empathy, and with a plan to develop its politics with the general public through meetings and workshops, it’s perhaps not hard to see why.
But the unorthodox approach has yielded results. In June the party finalised its manifesto, increased the size of its board and is halfway to securing the 21,000 signatures needed to stand in next year’s expected general election. Elbæk apparently isn’t alone in thinking that Denmark needs a new political culture and measure of societal growth.
“People are fed up with the neoliberal competition paradigm. Finance Minister Bjarne Corydon recently said that the welfare state would soon become a competition state. But shouldn’t it be about helping each other create a better society and finding ways of sharing knowledge in ways we have never done before? Parliament is still so old fashioned, it’s like the youth rebellion of the 1960s never reached here despite making an enormous impact on the rest of society. So I hope Alternativet will be a Trojan Horse that can bring a cultural vibe in here,” he says, gesticulating at the gallery’s high ceilings and the people moving hurriedly about.
Elbæk is a relative newcomer to national politics and was unaffiliated with any political parties after breaking away from the far-left Venstre Socialisterne in the early 1980s.
“They were too dogmatic and lacked a focus on developing positive future scenarios. I believe in the common good and I wanted to come up with concrete examples of solving complex problems,” Elbæk says.
Entrepreneur turned politician
To tackle high youth unemployment in Aarhus, he established the community centre Frontløberne (The Frontrunners) in 1986 that gives advice to youth on how to develop their projects, ideas and business plans. And in 1991 he established the creative business school the KaosPilots that specialises in leadership, project management and entrepreneurialism. Students graduate with a qualification equivalent to a bachelor’s degree and are currently involved in projects around the world.
Elbæk’s political career started in 2001 when he was elected to the Aarhus City Council as a member of the centrist Radikale party, serving on the schools and culture committee. In 2007 he moved to Copenhagen to head the World Outgames before moving to Toronto in 2009 to take a break and write his most recent book, Leadership on the Edge.
In 2011 he was elected as an MP for Radikale and was appointed culture minister. The following year he was accused of nepotism for hosting dinners at an organisation where he had once served as a board member and where his husband had also been employed. The story quickly developed into a media frenzy and, to protect his husband, he chose to resign.
The state auditor soon after cleared him of any wrongdoing but the experience with the press only served to justify his suspicion that something was amiss with Danish political culture, which had become too focused on personal attacks.
The following summer he began sketching out the idea for a new political platform. Realising that he wanted to take it further, he left Radikale in September, though there were a number of other reasons that sped his departure.
Earlier in the year his party voted in favour of a revised freedom of information act, which reduced the level of oversight the public had of MPs. The same year Edward Snowden – who Elbæk unsuccessfully petitioned parliament to offer asylum to – also started to release his documents that demonstrated the vast and unchecked surveillance by the NSA
“When you put these issues together, we end up with a system where governments are protected from oversight, while they have enormous power to watch over their citizens. Despite good arguments about terrorism, we are going in the wrong direction,” Elbæk says, explaining why transparency became one of his party’s six core values.
From the outset, Elbæk wanted sustainability to occupy a central position in Alternativet’s political platform. He wants us to achieve a higher standard of living using fewer resources, and to stop measuring the success of a society based solely on its economic and material growth.
“We think it is true to a certain degree, as quality of life is definitely linked to having material resources. But while material growth and quality of life increased at the same rate until the 1970s, quality of life hasn’t increased since, while material wealth has continued to grow. We have more flat screens, computers and cars than before, but we are not relatively happier. We believe that if we want to increase quality of life, we need to decouple it from material wealth. Quality of life is more affected by whether our existence is meaningful and whether our community recognises the value we create. It’s about having a sustainable private and social life. We need this new understanding of growth, because if the whole world were to have the same level of material wealth as we do, we would need four earths to sustain it.”
But doing more with less isn’t straightforward, and will require Danes to adopt a more proactive, inventive and entrepreneurial mind-set. Environmental and social solutions can be found without throwing money at the problem. Art and culture plays a central role here, Elbæk argues, both in developing our understanding of what is actually valuable and developing answers to the questions they pose. For example, instead of medicating people suffering from anxiety and stress, they could be encouraged to join a choir. People afflicted with Alzheimer’s, who are starting to lose their memories, could connect with people through dance.
A global movement
Alternativet’s cultural platform calls for cultural and creative institutions to become more integrated into educational institutions and schools. Elbæk says it was a success at one adult education centre in the city of Odense that invited the art group Sister’s Academy to contribute with their methodology and creativity.
“These artistic people took it over and turned it into a magical place using really simple elements. The subjects were the same, but the context changed. The students felt like all of their talents and intellect were activated during the two weeks the project lasted,” Elbæk says, adding that he feels we need to be more willing to challenge conventions.
“We have become so used to keeping ourselves in defined boxes when we need to tear them down and connect with each other. The recent reform of public schools had some really great elements, because it suggested that schools should work together with theatres, sport centres and libraries more. We would achieve so much more value if we pooled our resources together. We have a lot. We need to connect the dots and get knowledge and experience to flow on a totally other level. Denmark would be a so much more interesting place if people dared to see the opportunities in having fun and had the courage to look each other in the eyes.”
While Alternativet’s success as a political party remains to be seen, it is best seen as a movement, rather than a traditional political party. Elbæk says its message can be unfolded in a variety of ways, through a think tank or media platform, and that the party is its bridge into society’s primary power domain, parliament.
Their mission is not restricted to Denmark, and on its website, Alternativet declares itself to be “an international political party for those who want to work for a sustainable, democratic, socially just and entrepreneurial world.” The problems affecting Denmark are not unique, and global problems need global solutions.
“We are in the midst of a huge crisis. On the surface society seems to be doing all right, but with climate change and increasing pressure on our resources, we are undoubtedly experiencing a global systemic crisis. The old system has managed to protect itself so far, but the new system is starting to emerge and is struggling like hell to gain acceptance.”