08/29 – Future of Democracy and the “Beta-Condition” – The Scandinavian Experience

Teddy Hebo Larsen

Teddy Hebo Larsen

Teddy Hebo Larsen

What lessons can be learned from highly developed democratic societies, and how relevant are those lessons to developing nations?



These most relevant questions are of high interest for (at least) the following reasons:


  1. From a memetic point of view numerous countries in Europe (primarily in Northern Europe) are right now exiting the Green meme and are facing either a fixation at the current level (6’th code), a move upwards the spiral to the 7’th code or a regression to lower levels/codes;
  2. The potential move up-spiral for these democratic countries represents the “momentous Leap” that Dr. Clare Graves wrote about in his famous 1974 article in the Futurist “Human Nature Prepares for a Momentous Leap”1. We are on the run-way but only time will tell if we have the capacity to take off and leap.
  3. For the democratic countries in question there are huge qualitative differences whether the outcome of the attempt to leap will be a fixation, a progression or a regression on the spiral;
  4. The ability and courage to handle and/or facilitate the complexity and dynamics of the contemporary Life Conditions calling for this momentous leap could be a critical and essential learning opportunity for those countries which might face similar challenges sometime in the future;

As a citizen of one such highly developed democratic country/region (Denmark/the Nordics), I am naturally and obviously excited about the opportunities that a potential progression on the spiral (the momentous leap) might represent (not just for Denmark or the Nordic countries but to humanity as such). At the same time, however, I am very much aware and even scared about the potential negative consequences if the necessary ability or competencies to facilitate this momentous leap proves unsuccessful and we end up with a fixation at current level (6th code) or a regression to lower levels/codes. Tough times ahead!

One fundamental question in this regard is whether or not the necessary cognitive capacity and/or leadership is available – in time – in order to begin the climb up-spiral. Only time will tell.

With reference to Dr. Don Beck’s “stages of vertical change” this is what this brief essay is about. Special attention will be given to the beta-condition (ref. 2, p. 87). However, the beta condition cannot be separated from the other stages i.e. “alpha”, “gamma trap”, “delta surge” and “new alpha” but has to be seen and understood as part of an entire continuum. Having said this, though, it is right at the beginning of the beta condition that people, organisations, countries and democracies first realize that something is utterly wrong or not what it used to be. It is a dynamic phase characterised by increasing complexity, chaos, dissonance, loss of control and anxiety.

In their book “Spiral Dynamics, mastering values, leadership, and change2” Dr. Don Beck and Christopher Cowan writes the following about “The Beta Condition”:

A time of Uncertainty, Questioning, and Frustration. BETA is a place of doubts. Something is wrong, but what is it? The older ways of living no longer quite work. A person’s world begins to come unglued. A marriage shows evidence of stress and strain; the family becomes dysfunctional. A company begins to lose key people, productivity drops, or other signs of deterioration appear without clear reasons. A service club loses membership or falls prey to factional turf battles and divisive empire building. A once-healthy community experiences political standards and racial stress as the crime rate mounts and citizen morale suffers. (Ref. 1, p. 87)

Since the Spiral Dynamics book was written back in 1996 the world has repeatedly experienced extraordinary incalculable events that exemplifies the scary, unpleasant and dangerous emotional dynamics of a beta condition. As this essay is being written Europe (EU) is right now witnessing some of the initial signs of a potential and growing beta condition. Key ingredients of this is the high unemployment among the young citizens in the Southern European countries, the challenges with immigration, Brexit, growth in autocratic leaders in some EU-countries, etc. A closer look at the anatomy and physiology of any beta condition might help throw some more light on some of the underlying dynamics/reasons of this unavoidable phase that precedes any surge on the spiral towards the new alpha.

In the case of the Nordic countries which all have values’ Center of Gravity in the Green vmeme the first signs of exiting the Green vmeme has already begun to appear. Despite of the dominant harmonious and humanity-oriented mindset the Nordic governments have all realized how expensive the cost of caring is and that these expenses will keep growing due to demographics. For instance, it is estimated that 20% of the Danish population will be +80 in the year 2040 which will require allocation of increasing financial resources on the annual governmental state budget especially when it comes to nursing homes and the health care sector.

Another vital sign that the Nordic countries are entering the beta condition is a recent national survey conducted by the Danish health authorities which has shown, that the share of people with poor mental health (self rated) among Danish men and women in different age groups was as high as 24% among the young women in the age group 16-24. The same number for the young men was 17%. In the same age groups as many as 40% of young women claims that they live with high levels of stress. These numbers are deeply concerning and tell us that something is not what it used to be. The general anxiety seems to be growing.

Immigration is another factor posing a heavy financial burden on the Nordic countries and is causing increasing frustration among large fractions of the Nordic populations. The Danish Ministry of Finance has calculated that the annual cost of immigration to the Danish society is app. 6 billion USD. In the case of Sweden, the annual costs of immigration is significant higher than that of the other Nordic countries.

Similar to some other – if not all – European countries the Nordic countries have experienced a growth in the support for right-wing nationalistic political parties. This growth in support for the political right can partially be explained by the increasing levels of change, uncertainty and anxiety arising from, among other things, a constant media bombardment about the challenges that humanity faces (climate, political oppression, military aggression, ecological exploitation, etc.).

So, there are clear signs that the Nordic countries have embarked on a journey into beta condition land.

The Ingredients of the Beta Condition

I feel certain that few if any will disagree that “polarisation” also is on the increase not just in Europe but all over the world. To mention but a few recent examples of this growing polarisation in Europe one could mention the increasing gap between EU-supporters and EU-opponents. The most obvious example in this regard is Brexit in the UK but recently the political turmoil in Italy (May 2018) when Sergio Mattarella, the Italian president, vetoed a controversial Euro sceptic to serve as the country’s finance minister revealed a deep divide as well in Italy over the country’s inclusion in the euro zone and its membership of the EU. The two Italian political Euro sceptic and anti-Germany parties which proposed the finance minister will no doubt blame the EU for this veto and breakdown which most likely will lead to further polarisation in Italy.

In addition, the illiberal tendencies in countries such as Poland and Hungary have made some political observers question the very survival of democracy in Europe as we have known it since at least WW II. Add to this that sociological studies confirm again and again that there is an increase in the gap between rich and poor people, between people in rural and urban regions in most European countries, between local people and immigrants coming from primarily the Middle-East and Africa with different cultural belief and value systems (primarily founded in purple – red memesv) and now entering Europe. Europe is becoming a melting pot and in this process the trust in the increasingly decaying European institutions pose a severe risk to the future of democracy. If Europe isn’t in a beta condition right now it certainly is on its way towards it.

Some of the key drivers or components associated with any polarisation process – no matter where it takes place – are identity and existential anxiety.

In combination these two key drivers of polarisation represent a dangerous and unpredictable cocktail which has been documented in Dr. Don Beck’s model of ACE (Assimilation Contrast Effect). When one adds to this the acceleration of technological progress at all levels of society (AI, Robotics, Internet, Social Media, etc.) it is quite understandable that citizens across Europe are seeking or searching for new answers, new solutions and new practices.

At this point it would be relevant to discuss the distinction between the feelings of anxiety and fear, respectively. Why? Because most people confuse the feelings of anxiety and fear and there are fundamental differences with regard to the neurophysiological, hormonal and immunological states.

Anxiety is defined as the vague unpleasant emotional feeling that makes us feel apprehensive, dread, distress, and an uneasiness. Anxiety is not focused on a specific object. Anxiety is manifested cognitively, behaviourally, and physiologically.

Fear is similar to anxiety but is focused on a specific object such as public speaking, cold calling, or failure. People can lose their ability to think, act, and perform.

When people are in a state of anxiety (don’t really know what they are anxious about) they will often react to a situation with resignation and defensiveness. At that point it is important to help translate and explain the perceived chaos – in other words to provide insight through education and training. When the level of insight goes up it increases the desire to actively participate and help move through the challenges that the people are facing.

However, the very process and dynamics of the beta condition is not limited to countries or societies but is a prerequisite for meme-shifts and plays an important role as well when it comes to understanding how businesses grow and/or disappear, why and how organisations struggle, why previous successful sports teams suddenly fail, why political support suddenly vanishes, etc.

The beta condition is part of everyday life and should not only be associated with failures, bankruptcies or other unpleasant outcomes. Entering the beta condition is simply a prerequisite for reaching a new alpha phase. It can be a very stressful and frustrating phase to enter and be in – given all its uncertainty and discomfort – but it is a healthy first sign of a starting transition and/or transformation of the business, the organisation, the political party, the society, the nation, etc. A simple necessity in order to begin the climb to the next level of complexity.

One of the first symptoms of any beta condition is the initial dissonance i.e. the feeling that something is not any longer what it used to be. In most instances at this critical and determining moment the majority of impacted people don’t really understand what is going on. They haven’t got the necessary insight or imagination in order to understand the dynamics of the increasing unexplainable gap between the old and the new reality. The language to explain what is going on doesn’t exist. Instead the persistent dissonance leads to increasing levels of anxiety which typically results in behaviour characterised by resignation and defensiveness. One scary part of this entry into the beta condition is that there is absolutely no guarantee of a desired, predicted or successful outcome. A key lesson from Dr. Don Beck to be learned in this regard is that “because you get rid of what you don’t want doesn’t mean that you necessarily get what you DO want“. It was maybe exactly that which the famous American architect, systems theorist, author, designer and inventor, Buckminster Fuller (1895 – 1983) meant when he once said:

“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

Depending on the speed of change the outcome of a beta can go in three different directions. It can either result in a process of “reform” (evolutionary change) or its opposite “revolt” (revolutionary change) or it can result in what we typically name the “gamma trap”. The final outcome – reform, revolt or the gamma trap – depends on the available competencies, the courage and the leadership to navigate and facilitate the prevailing chaos.

What Lessons Can Be Learned?

In their 2018 book “how democracies die”3 professors Levitsky and Ziblatt from Harvard University claims that democracies can die with a coup d’état – or they can die slowly. This happens most deceptively when in piecemeal fashion, with the election of an authoritarian leader, the abuse of governmental power and the complete repression of opposition. All three steps are being taken around the world (Russia, Turkey, Hungary, Poland, US) and there is an urgent need to find ways to oppose, dilute and fight these tendencies. As previously mentioned, insight and education, might be one key antidote to the spreading of these trends. Other key initiatives relate to the defence of law and order, free speech, the combat of corruption and the promotion of general trust in the public.

At the same time, however, we might have to admit the fact that contemporary representative democracy seems to be tired, vindictive, paranoid, self-deceiving, clumsy, and frequently ineffectual4. Most of its time it is living on past glories. This sorry state of affairs reflects what we have become. But current democracy is not who we are. It is just a system of government, which we built, and we can replace. There are many reasons why we don’t want to replace the democracy we have developed and got used to since W.W.  2. It has served us well in the past and we would be much worse off now if we had to abandoned it too soon. However, there are far more brutal assessments floating around. Some believes that democracy will soon be the death of the civilisation as we know it. But let us not forget Churchill’s celebrated remark about democracy:

“Many forms of government have been tried and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

To live in a democracy is to be given certain guarantees that you will be respected as a person, because every vote counts. You have the right to speak up and you will be treated in a fair way by the state institutions and the courts. The media has the freedom to express opinions which goes against the politics of the government.

As a final remark to this essay let me emphasize the importance to combat the growing inequality and polarisation across Europe. This can only be done by imposing a second tier mindset in order to do what needs to be done to save the system and democracy.

Whether we will have or see such a new type of mindset and leadership in time to avoid a collapse of democracy remains to be seen. However, for Europe and for the Nordic countries, the beta condition is knocking on our door.

Will we be able to manage/facilitate through the chaos. Personally, I am optimistic since “we are still here”.


  1. Clare W. Graves. Human Nature Prepares for a Momentous Leap, (1974);
  2. Don E. Beck & Christopher Cowan. Spiral Dynamics, mastering values, leadership, & change (1996);
  3. S. Levitsky & D. Ziblatt. How democracies die (2018);
  4. D. Runciman. How democracy ends (2018);

About The Author

Teddy Hebo Larsen is a DVM (Doctor in Veterinary Medicine) and has been employed with Eli Lilly & Co. where he has held positions such as R & D Manager, Nordic Area, Managing Director for Eli Lilly Denmark and Norway (1997 – 2005) & Director, Cultural Transformation, Europe, 2005 – 2009. In this last position Teddy was responsible for a huge European business transformation process comprising all major financial, admin, marketing and sales processes of Eli Lilly, Europe. In 2009 Teddy joined the Danish pharmaceutical company H. Lundbeck as a Senior Vice President for Corporate Human Resources including leadership development. Since January 2014 Teddy has been a full-time Partner in the MedTech start-up company, Re5.

Teddy is a fully certified expert in Spiral Dynamics integral and has worked closely with Dr. Don E. Beck, the founder of the Spiral Dynamics Group.  Teddy has worked with both the theoretical as well as with the practical application of the principles of Spiral Dynamics in large organisations for more than 15 years. Teddy is a co-author of the book “Spiral Dynamics in Action – Humanity’s Master Code” which was published in April 2018.

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