By Masha Gessen (The New Yorker),
Michael Wernstedt lives in the future, in the center of Stockholm. It is a “co-living space,” a former hotel now inhabited by fifty people who share five kitchens and a variety of common spaces on four floors; each tenant also has a bedroom with a private bathroom. All of it is breathtakingly well-designed and meticulously clean. While Wernstedt and I talked, sitting on one of several giant gray couches in one of the common spaces, about a dozen people of different genders and skin colors (though all roughly in their mid-thirties) shared a casual meal in another. During a recent house meeting, Wernstedt told me, someone asked those present to recall the happiest time of their lives—and they all said that they were happiest right now. Wernstedt’s vision for the future of Sweden, and democratic politics in general, resembles this house: it is happy, healthy, sustainable, and co-created.
Last week, the co-living space hosted a press conference, during which Wernstedt and two co-organizers announced the formation of a new political party, the Initiative. Few people in Sweden have heard of the new party yet, though its older sister, Denmark’s the Alternative, has assembled an impressive constituency in just four years. To register as a party in Stockholm, the Initiative had to collect fifty physical, pen-and-ink signatures; it will take another fifteen hundred to get on the national ballot. The Initiative plans to meet the national threshold by August, the deadline for next September’s parliamentary election. Getting into parliament would require winning at least four per cent of the vote. There are about three dozen nationwide political parties in Sweden, but only eight are represented in parliament. The youngest party to break the four-per-cent barrier is the Sweden Democrats, an ultranationalist, anti-immigrant party that was founded in 1988 and has been seated in parliament since 2010.
Wernstedt interprets the rise of the Sweden Democrats, like the election of Donald Trump in the United States, as an opportunity of sorts: “This is scary, but it shows that people want something new. And we have to take responsibility for democracy.” Better yet, Wernstedt wants to reinvent politics. The Initiative’s most important innovation is launching a party without a program but with two lists. One is a list of six values that the Party espouses: courage, openness, compassion, optimism, co-creation, and actionability. The other is a list of three crises that the Party must address: the crisis of faith in democracy, the environmental crisis, and the crisis of mental health. Last year, according to Wernstedt, Swedes missed more workdays for being mentally unwell than they did for being physically unwell; the leading cause of death among people under thirty-five is suicide. Starting next week, the Initiative plans to begin holding workshops around Sweden to develop a political program to address the three crises in ways consistent with the six values.
Wernstedt, who is thirty-five, used to work as an international lawyer. Five or six years ago, he told me, he realized that he found his outwardly successful life deeply unsatisfying. He started casting about for a meaningful project. One happened to be handy: Wernstedt’s grandmother is Nina Lagergren, the half-sister of Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who saved tens of thousands of Jews in Nazi-occupied Budapest before vanishing into the Soviet Gulag. Lagergren had spent several decades working to find out what happened to Wallenberg and to publicize his plight. When Wernstedt was having his crisis of purpose, Lagergren had recently founded the Raoul Wallenberg Academy, a human-rights and leadership school for teen-agers. Wernstedt took over the enterprise and, in just four years, he said, expanded it from fifty to ten thousand students. Then he travelled the world with his partner, Lemarc Thomas, looking for new ways to apply himself. When the couple suggested organizing for L.G.B.T. rights in Kenya, local activists told them to stand down. But when they made it to Thomas’s home island of St. Helena they volunteered their services for a referendum on same-sex marriage; when that failed, they filed a test case, which is currently pending before the island’s Supreme Court. Then they returned to Sweden, and Wernstedt decided to start a political party.
Philosophical inspiration for the project came from the work of Emil Ejner Friis and Daniel Görtz, who together created Hanzi Freinacht, an imaginary “philosopher, historian, and sociologist” who lives in seclusion in the Swiss Alps. Freinacht blogs at metamoderna.org, where he puts forward ideas of a society based on the principles of metamodernism, a school of thought that purports to succeed postmodernism. Metamodernism combines the hope of modernism with the critique of postmodernism. It is both questioning and visionary, and it believes in the future. Most important, Freinacht writes, a metamodern politics moves beyond liberal ideas toward shared responsibility for maximizing the happiness and health of everyone in the world. Welfare, in metamodern politics, must not merely guarantee material well-being and physical health but also “a listening society, where every person is seen and heard.”
A political party born of this philosophy cannot claim to tell people what’s good for them. It is a vessel for their needs and desires; otherwise it must be, as Freinacht puts it, “a party about nothing.” Wernstedt and about forty allies began the Initiative expecting only to design a new way of creating a party. They quickly discovered, though, that there is nothing more difficult than collectively devising a process for collective decision-making. They scrapped the blank slate in favor of a few basic starting points: a party leader (Wernstedt), a governing board of seven, and the lists of values and crises.
Everything else about the Initiative is expected to emerge from the workshops. The Danish Alternative has followed the same process, eventually involving about a thousand people in a series of twenty-five-person workshops led by about seventy party facilitators. Facilitators are to the Alternative what field organizers and political consultants are to conventional political parties: everything. Few observers in Denmark took the Alternative seriously when it launched, in 2013, but just two years later the new party was seated in parliament; this year, it turned in a respectable performance in local elections.