The Pirate Party Wins Big in Berlin

The Pirate Party won an impressive and unexpected 8.9% of the vote in Berlin's elections on Sunday. This means that the Pirates will have an astonishing 15 seats out in the state parliament, out of 141 legislators. It's the first time that the Pirate Party has won representation in a German legislative body.

To put this in perspective, the German Pirate Party won 2% of the vote in national elections in 2009, but no seats in the legislature. The Berlin election can be chalked up as a regional aberration, which it is, but it also took place in the capital of Germany.  And a bloc of 15 seats can be parlayed into real power in a parliamentary system.

But what's also significant about the Berlin victory is the growing power of trans-national movements that have strong local bases and political and cultural affinities that span national boundaries. This is the new Internet culture emerging. As the blog Governance Across Borders puts it, “The Pirate Party’s election win in Berlin would not have been possible without its relations to a much broader and transnational movement. For one, there are fellow pirate parties in over 40 different countries, most of which are members of the meta-organization Pirate Parties International. For another, the pirate party movement is itself only one of several related and partly overlapping social movements inspired by the new technological possibilities of Internet and digital technologies.” (Governance Across Borders has a useful FAQ on the Pirate Parties and the Berlin victory.)

The other trans-national movements include Wikipedia and its offshoots, Creative Commons and free culture, Access to Knowledge (A2K) and copyright reform/open Internet advocacy.  There are also non-tech movements that are building trans-national political networks with local nodes of activism.  These include campaigns for water access, peasant land rights (Via Campesina), the Solidarity Economy and the commons. What makes the Pirate Parties so unusual is that they are not just an affinity group or advocacy network (although they are that, too); they are an electoral force.

It is rare but not unprecedented for new parties to form out of an eclectic mix of niche players in search of leadership.  The Green Party is an example.  But the strange journey that the Pirate Party has taken since its founding in 2006 in Sweden by Rick Falkvinge (who, incidentally, has a great blog), is truly amazing.  Originally a protest vehicle for people who objected to the abuses of copyright law and Internet surveillance, the Pirate Party received 7.13% of the votes in Sweden's European parliamentary elections in 2009.  This caused some shock waves because suddenly total outsiders had one seat in the European parliament, and then, when a treaty governing representation rules in the parliament went into effect, a second seat. 

The surprising success of the Pirate Party surely has a lot to with the political establishment's sheer stodginess.  It has deliberately marginalized other voices in the political system, making it hard for new ideas and sensibilities to surface and be represented. The establishment still doesn't understand the Internet or open-source culture.  For alienated voters who might otherwise stay home on election day or vote for "none of the above" (were that possible), voting for the Pirate Party has provided a way for citizens, especially younger people, to register a “fuck you” to hidebound, self-serving and often-corrupt political system.  I suspect the Pirate Party is also a vehicle for generational revolt against a tired claque of complacent political insiders who have too much invested in the status quo. 

But is the Pirate Party a serious political player with a serious policy agenda?  Well, the integrity and protection of the Internet are not a bad place to start:  issues that the major parties don't treat very seriously, or if they do, are dutiful puppets of the content industries.  The Pirate Parties are also dead serious about the abuses of democracy and civil liberties inflicted on ordinary people in the name of copyright protection. This includes digital surveillance and other privacy invasions, draconian penalties for alleged copyright violations, and the bypassing of courts and due process in penalizing people that the film, music and publishing industries don't like. A few years ago I briefly met the twenty-something Amelia Andersdotter, the second Pirate Party rep in the European Parliament, and was much impressed.

There is a debate within pirate parties about whether to stick to their core copyright/tech/privacy issues, or whether to develop a full-fledged policy agenda like other parties. The German Pirate Party, for its part, issued a manifesto that has moved beyond Internet/copyright to include support for a minimum wage law, a guaranteed basic income, free access to public transport, free access to education (e.g., no tuition fees) and the legalization of marijuana.

Despite this uncertainty and disagreement about how to move forward, "pirates" have formed officially registered pirate parties in 22 different countries.  Another 25 pirate parties that have yet to register and become official. (More at Wikipedia.) 

It will be interesting to see how the Berlin Pirates evolve politically. Will they be a special case, the product of the cultural hothouse of Berlin that can't succeed in industrial or conservative regions? Or will the Berlin success become a spark and inspiration for something broader, a “European Spring” that frontally challenges the aging neoliberal political system? 

God knows we need the latter.  The old-guard mandarins keep trying to piece together the broken Humpty Dumpty of neoliberalism (fiscal austerity for the masses, bank bailouts and subsidies for the capitalists, free trade agreements for corporations, predatory debt deals for the global South) while ignoring the palpable reality that a new world has already arrived (e.g., global warming, networked innovation, participatory culture, dysfunctional and corrupt institutitions, grotesque social inequity).

It is tempting to dismiss the Pirate Parties as a huge joke -- a protest vote -- and nothing more. While that would be hugely reassuring to the powers that be, it would be a serious mistake. Cultural alienation from conventional politics is only intensifying as the vice of neoliberal austerity gets tighter and tighter, and as “representative democracy” -- already something of a charade -- becomes more distant from the concerns of ordinary people.  The Pirate Parties are a highly credible vehicle for exploring a new kind of politics.

If conventional political parties will not offer bold new leadership and truly new ideas (beyond serving up the usual marketing shibboleths to that effect), then the voices of frustration and alienation and yearning for a better world will migrate to the only two places that commoners have always owned:  the streets and “piracy.”

We've already seen commoners take to the streets in Madrid, Athens, Barcelona and other European cities.  And "piracy" may be burgeoning because neoliberal regimes are putting such a squeeze on the commons that support people's bare subsistence.  Consider those now-famous Somali pirates; they were not always pirates.  Many of them used to be commoners who fed their households by fishing their traditional fishing grounds.  Then huge industrial trawlers from other countries rolled in and essentially enclosed their commons, leaving them with no fish and no livelihoods.   

Historian Peter Linebaugh recounts in his book about the Atlantic in the 17th and 18th Centuries, The Many-Headed Hydra, that commoners who were often abducted into press gangs, or forced into involuntary servitude, to work on the "factories" of the time, ships.  If and when they escaped, many became pirates. “The early-eighteenth-century pirate ship was a 'world turned upside down,'" writes Linebaugh, "made so by the articles of agreement that established the rules and customs of the pirates' social order, hydarchy from below. Pirates distributed justice, elected officers, divided loot equally, and established a different discipline...They sought to prove that ships did not have to be run in the brutal and oppressive ways of the merchant service and Royal Navy.....The pirate ship was democratic in an undemocratic age.”

Linebaugh also notes, “The pirate ship was motley – multinational, multicultural, and multi-racial. Governor Nicholas Lawes of Jamaica echoed the thoughts of royal officials everywhere when he called pirates a 'banditti of all nations.'..."

The sly, ironic edge that hovers around any talk of the Pirate Party is well-deserved:  Supporting the party amounts to saying to the political system:  "If you say that we're 'pirates,' well, then, let's all be pirates!  Arrrghh!"  The point is that the basic meaning of democracy and law -- what shall be legal and what illegal, what shall be considered fair and what unfair, what reckonings shall be made for terrible historical abuses and injustices -- all of this needs to on the table.  If that's what it means to be a "pirate," let's all be pirates -- because it's about time that we move beyond the "kabuki democracy" that now prevails and have some real, substantive conversations in the political forums that matter.