In this series for Emerge, Indra will be exploring what is emerging in politics at this crucial moment in human history. This is part 13. Read the rest of the series here.
Most of the time I don’t know what you’re talking about. When you say you’re on the Left I feel like you just pushed me into the Right – which is where the racists live. I’m not racist! But I don’t agree with your way of doing things either – makes me feel oppressed.
He had her in his grasp. The politician was floundering, clearly unable to answer the question. He repeated it again, still nothing but obfuscation. As he saw her squirm he knew this was great TV: time for a pay rise!
If we add up all the factors described so far in this series of articles
, how might it look as a politics?
If we could somehow capture the complex lives of individuals, working together in fluid community – on and off line. Using their soft powers of play, story-telling and experimental prototyping to build new social enterprises, constitutes (fluid institutions) and networked governance systems which allowed everyone to participate as much as they like in decision making.
Bringing the full psycho-social health of every citizen into alignment with social and planetary health. Sounds ambitious!
We’re either getting ready for something new or we're already lost to chaos.
At the same time, it could be a simple description of how our public space is actually unfolding right now. If we think of the rapidly evolving well-being sector now reshaping our health services, the proliferation of social media channels offering learning and connection to people whatever their conditions, the TV reality shows turning us all into observers of human social behaviour, annual real-time festivals that draw people into play spaces from across world, the petition sites that mobilise opinion at national and global levels.. we are in a revolution of sorts. People everywhere – not just in the white western nations – are developing their capacity for agency. We’re either getting ready for something new or we're already lost to chaos.
What is still missing, clearly, is the political action that can integrate this activity, so that its burgeoning, human centred soft power can meet the hard power available to deliver much better results for people and planet than ever before. Not as a homogenous entity – the illusion offered by the American Dream. But as a fantastically diverse global citizenry moving into relationship for the first time. Each town, city, and region delivering on its own vision in ways that benefit the rest.
Politics in this sense is the governance systems that link the deliberated will of the people to institutions with sufficient resources to help deliver on them. That may or may not point directly at government as we know it – some might describe Facebook, for example, as that kind of governance. Absorbing the newly liberated energies of billions of people and linking them in all their diversity to corporations intent on capitalising on them. Unfortunately this is only accelerating the crises we are in.
What is needed at this point in history – with the multiple crises fully in view - is a new kind of democracy architecture that connects the flourishing of the people to the flourishing of the planet through the flourishing of communities. To do that it has to bypass the current political and corporate cartel which is failing to deliver for people and planet. Or hijack it.
I first met Uffe Elbaek in 2015 when I was on the management board of British progressive think tank Compass. I was already disillusioned with mainstream politics, having written two papers – New Times
and Is the Party Over?
– which drilled down into why Westminster was neither representative of UK citizens nor capable of responding adequately to their needs or potential.
When he spoke he didn’t sound like a politician – he had a playful, creative energy.
Uffe had been invited to speak at one of our events because he was leading the ‘fastest growing party in Denmark’. When he spoke he didn’t sound like a politician – he had a playful, creative energy that engaged each of us personally. He shared his dilemmas, didn’t have all the answers and talked as much about why he loves to dance as what ‘a radical green party’ means. And indeed, Uffe’s history was not the political ladder.
He started life as a social worker because he needed a job. From that platform, he invented a Youth Club called Front Runners and developed a training to build confidence and creative capacity on the streets. The wildest thing they ever did was drive with a bus load of young people to Russia – before the iron curtain came down – to help put on a rock concert. Just, in his words, to impress “the one girl who wouldn’t join in”.
Uffe went on to found Kaos Pilots
, a masters level three-year training to equip young people to live creatively and effectively in the 21st Century. Rather than a static, exam-based course, KP is project and context led, moving each cohort of students into different hot-spots around the world. Teaching them how to learn from and respond to the global cutting edge of change. Never part of any state or major institutional budget, KP has always been a social enterprise with a roller coaster budget. That eventually spread to hubs in 20 countries and schools in Norway, Sweden and Holland - and continues to thrive.
Having undergone an inner revolution of his own – coming out as gay to his wife and two children – Uffe became CEO of World Outgames and put on the Gay Olympics in Copenhagen
. In what was to become his trademark style of symbolic action, Uffe explained "We are trying to build a bridge between the LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] community and the rest of the city," Elbæk says. “Our intention is to make this a celebration and a signal to the rest of the world that this is a tolerant city that we are proud of."
Because you can in Denmark, Uffe was poached from KP and WO by the Social Liberal Party in 2011 and in a hop, skip and jump became Culture Minister. But before the year was out he was completely disillusioned with what could be achieved in that position and left to create a new party of his own. He stood with no manifesto or political programme of any sort, only a set of 6 values:
Courage. Courage to look problems in the eye. But also courage about the future we share.
Generosity. Everything which can be shared will be shared with anyone interested.
Transparency. Everybody should be able to look over our shoulders. Both on good and on bad days.
Humility. To the task. To those on whose shoulders we stand. And to those who will follow us.
Humour. Without humour there can be no creativity. Without creativity there can be no good ideas. Without good ideas there can be no creative power. Without creative power there can be no results.
Empathy. Putting yourself in other people’s shoes. Looking at the world from that point of view. And creating win-win solutions for everyone.
In interviews he rejects the idea that MPs are the experts, the holders of knowledge and wisdom.
He won his seat and then began the process of building The Alternative Party. Opening political laboratories around the country with the invitation – Come to a Party! – his small team crowd-sourced a political manifesto directly from the grassroots. It turned out the people wanted a radical green party, capable of connecting the health of the people to the health of the planet. In their first General Election – under a proportional system – they won nine seats in Parliament.
Of course, there were early limitations to how much one new party could fundamentally change politics. Taking part in the establishment meant submitting to its rules and structure. PR obliges every party to compromise and fall under the old banners of Left and Right.
Yet they didn’t have to buy into the political culture. In the aim of establishing a genuinely new politics, they seized on every opportunity to take symbolic action. Crowdsourcing the political programme was a clear first step. But infecting the political culture with everyday actions that indicate change could be take in much smaller ways too. The change that could be initiated from such a visible place was more to do with how to be with power – your behaviour, the feelings you generate, the space you offer others.
For example Alternativet challenged Parliament’s seating conventions. Instead of his MPs being arranged in a point with the leader at the front, Alternativet MPs sit in a straight line along the back. Another example would be how Uffe portrays his own power in the public space. In interviews he rejects the idea that MPs are the experts, the holders of knowledge and wisdom. Instead he suggests a more fluid and reflective kind of leadership – often replying to hard questions with “I don’t know” or “let’s see what the people want”.
The famous Alternativet campaign video
presented the candidates as circus performers – able to fly through the air and perform amazing stunts. While all the while narrating a steady, solid political message. What was on offer was what academics might call an ontological shift – a new way of being and feeling in the public space.
On the other hand, representing the people in such a new and original way gave Alternativet the momentum and attention to really shift the dial on climate awareness. In 2019 they published a paper called The Next Denmark that described radical shifts not just in tackling the crisis, but in transforming the whole socio-economic system to be able to deliver on the necessary targets – including ideas like Universal Basic Income. On the strength of the popularity of that paper, in the most recent election, Alternativet decided to stand as Independents – with Uffe standing for PM – in the hope of really raising the bar.
My time with Alternativet was pure energy. Playful, artful gatherings eliciting unusual responses from audiences all too ready to join in.
It did – but not quite in the way expected. Every other party matched Alternativet’s climate ambition, almost robbing them of their USP. As a result, they lost rather than gained seats. Even so, with a net gain for Denmark, the party was satisfied. After announcing he was stepping aside as Party Leader, Uffe was proud to point at a transformational green budget as his legacy.
I first met the Party on an island called Bornholm where an annual politics festival takes place. Picture politicians from all parties wondering about taking part in discussions with people of all ages and backgrounds, sharing a pint. My time with Alternativet was pure energy. Playful, artful gatherings eliciting unusual responses from audiences all too ready to join in. Serious subjects tackled with unpredictable outcomes. At the end of each day in the Alternativet tent, five different artists would do a summary of the day’s events – an opera singer, dancer, musician, painter and actor – facilitated by a comedian. On the final day of the festival Uffe hosted a ‘dance-off’ in a father-son battle of the generations. Joy.
On Day three, seven days before the Brexit referendum, on Uffe’s invitation I was chairing a meeting on EU/UK futures, when the news came that Remainer Labour MP Jo Cox had been murdered. The whole island seemed to slow down: everyone seemed to be sharing in the grief of Britain’s very broken political life. It was the moment I jumped ship from Westminster and began the journey of discovery which manifested, together with Co-Initiator Pat Kane as The Alternative UK.
Very soon we understood we couldn’t replicate Uffe’s achievement easily. Not only because our political history – and baggage – makes for a very different landscape, but also, with a first past the post voting system, any new party will suffer a similar fate as the Green Party in the UK. Unable to muster more than a single MP despite garnering 5million votes.
So, with Alternativet modelling how a political party could subtly change politics from the top down, The Alternative UK began to work at the other end of the equation. Without the pressure of competing for Parliament, we have had the space and latitude to think about and develop the infrastructure of a new politics from the bottom up. What kind of incubators and architectures are needed to bring a new kind of agency to people. What new intelligence about human capacity and needs should power these systems?
We concluded that we need to operate on three fronts at once. Firstly at the level of narrative we knew it was vital to offer alternative media. Only 2% of the people are members of political parties, which means the political discourse is very narrow. What lies outside the Westminster bubble that might give people a very different idea about power and agency? Hence, since March 2017 we have been delivering a Daily Alternative with Weekly Newsletter and Editorial. Joining the dots on the solutions to our crises that are already available. From this new narratives of change can arise.
The key challenge is how to bring all the solutions into better relationship with each other.
Secondly we network the networks, bringing together not just the actors in a new political system, but all those that might constitute what Buckminster Fuller might describe as the new socio-economic “system that makes the old one obsolete” -that a new politics might serve. In December last year we convened 30 key members of this group – each with network systems of their own – in an inquiry we called The Elephant. Can we see and name the system that will integrate the flourishing of I, We and World? That a new politics might serve?
And thirdly, as described in the last Chapter, we source and create the conditions for Citizen Action Networks in communities around the UK. At a time when the climate crisis is competing for attention with the divisions caused by Brexit – as well as the longer-term crises in poverty and well-being – the key challenge is how to bring all the solutions into better relationship with each other. And then how to connect all the people in a city, town or region to that ecology of cosmo-local actions.
CANs are not a campaign, a protest or even a movement: they are a container for people power. Like Alternativet, they focus as much on the ontological shift needed as the manifestation of new systems connecting the flourishing of people with planet. With methods, practices, mechanisms and resources for stepping up to responsibility for addressing the multiple crises in the age of waking up.
But it’s early days. Somewhat trapped by the word politics in trying to create a ‘new politics’ we find it’s hard to lift the table while you are standing on it. The trick will be to effectively serve and platform the many creative energies rising up below the political structures and cultures that exist today. So that the word politics can be re-purposed as a vehicle for 21st Century people power. Illustration for Emerge by Christopher Burrows.