Democracy field notes

Democracy field notes

Pirates Ahoy! A New European Challenge to Party Politics

Pirate Party campaign ‘ship’, Cologne, March 2008. Tobias Walter/flickr
Is there life after conventional parliamentary politics? That’s the intriguing question on the lips of many German citizens this weekend as supporters of the Pirate Party assemble in the north German city of Neumünster to discuss tactics and policies. Their national conference will attract several thousand participants and tens of thousands of on-line supporters, many of them reportedly bemused by recent stunning political victories.

Founded by a circle of hackers in a Berlin pub in the summer of 2006, the rag-tag Pirates managed last year to capture 15 seats in the local city parliament. They went on to scare the living daylights out of the dominant parties in Saarland; with over 7% of the vote, they entered its state parliament for the first time. Polls now show that almost a third of German voters fancy their libertarian style. In a federal election (due later next year), the Pirates would poll 13% of the vote. That rivals the Greens and is potentially enough to form a coalition government, though with which rival party or parties remains unclear.

How to make sense of this orange-tinged Pirate upsurge? They’re certainly not a freak ‘German’ phenomenon, as you might think. Their inspiration stems from prior developments in Sweden, home to Piratebay.org, a website that hosts torrent files, and to an active Piratpartie, which won seats in the 2009 European elections. Critics of the Pirates, in the hope of explaining them away, dish out epithets in all directions. The party and its supporters are denounced as anti-political neophytes. They are called policy-free techno-wizards, or monomaniacs fixed on a few crackpot policies, among them a guaranteed basic income for citizens, instant on-line voting and full Internet freedoms.

The complaints are understandable. But they serve to fudge the point that the Pirates are symptoms of several deep tremors currently shaking the social foundations not just of German politics, but of many other European democracies as well. Support for the Pirates feeds upon disaffection with mainstream parties and official ‘politics’. In Germany, as elsewhere, lots of survey evidence shows that citizens, although strongly supportive of democratic ideals, have grown distrustful of politicians and governing political institutions. The Greens, partly due to tactical mistakes, now find themselves targets of the disaffection, which elsewhere on the European continent is fuelling support for xenophobes and populists hell-bent on shaking up the way political business is done.

Professor Martin Haase, prominent Pirate Party champion of its liquid feedback platform dapd

The Pirates are different, better educated and more left-leaning in their egalitarianism. Yet they draw strength from the same fatigue with mainstream politics. The disaffection has much to do with another trend putting wind in the sails of the Pirates. They’re arguably the first political party, if party it can be called, whose core supporters are digital natives united not by content but by form. They stand for extending the right to have a say and to participate in party affairs to all who have access to a computer.

The Pirates have grasped that we live in an age of communicative abundance, media-saturated societies defined by information tools that are cheap, portable and defiant of space-time barriers. Messages become memes, sometimes rapidly relayed by power-scrutinising networks and organisations that specialise in reining in unaccountable power. The constant feedback effects ensure that muckraking becomes rife, which is why the old representative institutions find themselves outflanked from all sides.

Politicians become sitting ducks. Parliaments, with their mostly limited media presence, are vulnerable. Political parties, despite efforts at harnessing new digital media, seem flat-footed. They neither own nor control their media outlets, and that’s one key reason why they’ve lost the astonishing energy they displayed at the end of the 19th century. That was a time when parties like Germany’s SPD, at the time the greatest political machine on the face of the earth, were powerful champions of literacy and leading publishers of books, pamphlets and newspapers in their own right. That spirit, along with control over the means of communication, has all but disappeared. It’s the key reason why the Pirates are experimenting with liquid feedback voting, Pirate pads (online documents to which anyone can contribute), locally produced campaign posters and various other crowd-sourcing strategies designed to foster a sense of inclusiveness.

A more sinister trend keeps the Pirates sailing, this time against the tides. They’ve spotted that smart phones and other digital tools are double-edged, super-sharp swords. They potentially empower citizens, yes. But new methods of cheap storage and easy retrieval of information, coded according to the secret algorithms of businesses and governments, have harmful effects. That’s why the Pirates complain loudly that personal data has become the new engine fuel of concentrated power – and why they’re viscerally opposed to the creeping erosion of privacy and web-based censorship in all its forms.

Digital natives celebrating political victory, 2011. dapd

Do the Pirates have a future in high politics? Will their popularity spread? Party supporters are for the moment on a roll, but what’s clear is that tricky dilemmas await them. From the outset, the Pirates spoke of themselves as a ‘soft’ party and not a ‘clear issues’ party. Like the Greens before them, they rejected the principle of representation in favour of ‘direct’ or ‘grass roots’ democracy. They’re now finding that principle doesn’t sit comfortably on parliamentary seats. How will their commitment to conscience voting square with coalition government, supposing they go for that?

What about the boycott of mainstream media outlets by elected Pirate representatives? Doesn’t it produces a curious flipside version of the very thing they oppose: leaders dressed in friendly but faceless smiles because they duck controversial issues out of fear that speaking out will cause what the buccaneers call ‘shit storms’? And in the coming federal elections, what if the Pirates so badly stripped votes from the Greens, the SPD and the Left Party that Angela Merkel was returned to office?

Hefty challenges. They shouldn’t blind us to an elementary lesson: whatever happens to the Pirates as a party-political network, the disaffection endemic within many democracies, plus the longing for systems of communication that are in the hands of citizens, not businesses or governments, will not go away. The Pirates are not simply strange political neophytes. They’re a warning that meaner and more manipulative ways of handling power may be just over the horizon, heading our way.