My Two Cents on the German Pirate Party

They're Behind You

Lots of discussions about the Pirate Party (PP) lately, and their role in German politics. With federal elections coming up in late September and some very salient web issues like data retention and planned legislation to block (supposed) child abuse sites with very little judicial oversight, the PP is in an interesting position.

A), they’re still tiny by numbers of members, but growing fast in relative terms.

B), the established parties have been struggling with net politics. Besides genuine differing political positions, there’s also some weird lop-sided hardliner rhetoric going on that I suppose makes it hard for regular members of parliament to really see what’s going on online and behind the scenes. (Admittedly, a fair bit of technical background is needed to really understand how the web works.) Add a good measure of generation gap and some fights between different wings of the parties and you get an idea.

(Basically, Conservatives have shown support for IP blocking lists; Social Democrats have by large majority supported the legislation, too, although there has been a small, but strong resistance within the party; the Green party been divided, too, with a strong voice against this planned legislation, but a lot of members of parliament withholding their votes. And so on. Opposition in parliament, online community (including yours truly), and most experts agree that the legislation will cause much more damage than it will do good.) An online petition has gathered more than 134.000 votes against the legislation.

C), the Pirate Party is a strong and very vocal opponent of said legislation, and they’re getting plenty of media attention right now as a new player in the political spectrum, partly pro and hyped, partly disregarded as a simple candidate for protest vote. They have a clear position on this issue – a clear advantage.

So the Pirate Party is under some pressure to evolve from an obscure single issue/protest party to – well, we’ll see to what they’ll evolve to – in very short time. What is it going to be, a year from now? That’s really the question here. Is the PP going to be a once-off single issue / protest vote? Are they going to become the representative of a whole cluster (maybe even a generation?) of web-savvy folks who feel under-represented by the established parties?

Sometimes the PP is compared to the Green party in their earliest stages: About to grow from single issue to a more all-encompassing, more mainstream party that applies a new kind of thinking to well-known fields of politics. Can the PP be this kind of phenomenon? I don’t know. But here’s what worries me and what intrigues me.

First, I strongly welcome the Pirate Party because they give voice, and a point of focus, to some very important points of our lives which have long since grown into the online sphere as well. And they’ve been doing so in a way that the established parties couldn’t because they don’t have the grown structures (political, personal, demographic etc) that the other parties have. They started with a clean slate. No matter what the outcome will be, the emergence of the PP has sent an important signal: There’s a large, and growing, and well-organized and active group of citizens out there that can be activated around issues. And they’re increasingly political. In this sense it doesn’t even matter much (to me personally at least) if the Pirate Party is going to last and evolve into a party that’s here to stay, or if they’ll be absorbed by another party. (On the European level, the PP member of the European Parliament has joined the Green group.) Even if the PP dissolved after the elections, they already have built a certain legacy.

Second, the PP has been trying to stay outside the traditional left/right spectrum of party politics, trying not to get bogged down by the distinction. Motivated, I guess, by the assumption that issues like freedom of speech and expression, like the fight against censorship, transcends the left-right axis. And maybe they do. But then again, they don’t.

In my opinion a party cannot not have to choose between left and right in some way or another. Even if they’re trying their best to stay out of this, trying not to be pigeon-holed, someone will pull them back in. In other words: If they don’t choose sides, someone will do it for them. Because some more radical group will eventually try to hijack the party and push their own agenda. No matter if that agenda will be left or right, it will become the Pirate Party’s, and in the worst case all this will happen under the shield of no-left-no-right policy that they’re trying to apply. It might just be under their radar. Next thing you know the PP is pushing for legislation that some obscure right-winger has introduced as part of his larger hidden agenda.

(As David Weinberger pointed out at Reboot11 (video), you can either stick with the assumption that every tool is neutral, not morally charged. A knife’s a knife. It’s the person holding it that makes the difference. Right? But that, says Weinberger, would be a bad idea. Because in fact a lot of tools have morals written into them. Nuclear bomb = neutral? Hardly. It sucks, badly. It’s a technology with death and destruction embedded in its very structure. The internet, on the other hand, is something that we can shape ourselves. It’s one of those tools that, given the right handling, can be a tool of great positive moral implications.)

My point being that a party in today’s political system has to pick a place, and a political direction. Right now, that includes a decision on the left/right scale. Personally, I hope the Pirate Party makes a few smart decision that include clearly stating that ultra right wingers (and nazi sympathizers) aren’t welcome. Because quite simply, even if these right wingers, too, support some of the basic goals of the Pirate Party that I would also support, I will always choose not to vote for someone sharing a bed with them. Like a tool, a party is an inherently moral construct. And a party that could be hi-jacked by nazis would, as Weinberger called it, suck.

That said, I’m curious to see how the PP evolves and which path they choose. They’re focusing on some incredibly important issues, and they’re in a position to tackle them without any historical legacies bogging them down. So this should be interesting.

Full disclosure: I’m an adviser to the online youth election campaign of SPD/Jusos. This is a paid gig. This post expresses my personal views only. It’s not part of the election campaign, just my personal thoughts.

Photo by Jonathan_W (Creative Commons)

Update 15 August: My contact form has been being spammed badly, which led me to switch WordPress plugins. The switch led to some issues with the comment sections on this site, too. In short: it seems impossible right now to post a comment because there’s a broken CAPTCHA that seems not to be displayed correctly. (Haven’t figured out why yet.) Still, since I got an email with a hint to these technical problems and comment about my blog post, I don’t want to keep it from you. Thanks Jan H. for your email – I’ll post your reply below because it’s valuable feedback. And I’ll try to sort out my technical problems asap. My apologies for the inconveniences.

Update 15 August (continued): Here’s the rebuttal by Jan Huwald (thanks Jan!)

Update 18 August: Contact form trouble seems to be under control. Moved Jan’s comments down to the comment section.

1 Comment

  1. Thanks for your fresh perspective on the German Pirates.

  2. I disagree with your thought that the Pirates have to define their selves using a point on the left right continuum. Some ideas to contrast your arguments: a) that continuum is a distraction from political realities, which in 9 out of 10 cases do not fit it. All agenda items of the PP can be argued from a traditional, a left wing or right wing position. b) The pirate politics is ideology free in many aspects and the remaining parts of ideology are orthogonal to the classical left-right ideologies. c) the PP will get external assignment on the left right spectrum – usually hostile, from people claiming to sit on the opposite end of the continuum. Choosing a “side” will be of no benefit for the PP – their supposed same side allies would disapprove such a statement and the opposite side would bash them even more.

  3. The German PP has already excluded any kind of totalitarian agendas (including right wing) in their statutes. Their forum has a long history of “mobbing” right wing poster away.

  4. Your point of hijacking the pirates is in fact a very interesting thought. I did fear such tendencies a lot, when the pirates where no more then a few dozen net activist. But they managed to concentrate on the core issues without any dilution. Now with approaching 10.000 members it is much harder to introduce a hidden agenda in the short run

    • especially because of the open, distributed (if not to say scattered) discussion and decision infrastructure. In the long run every party becomes corrupted anyway :-)