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Pirate party: Children of Marx and Microsoft

20 September 2011
Süddeutsche Zeitung Munich

They demand transparency and direct democracy, and almost one in ten voters in Berlin gave them their vote. The Pirate Party is no longer just a party for Net-nerds in hoodies, but represents demands from across society.

Only in two things do the voters of the city of Berlin, which breaks down so distinctly into several different ‘milieus’, seem able to agree: no one likes the FDP, which even in the middle-class western districts pulled in no more than three percent of the vote – and the Pirates lie well above the five-percent threshold in all parts of the city. In some corners they are ahead of the Greens, in others even ahead of the CDU. The prefabricated blocks of flats of Marzahn-Hellersdorf and the bourgeois avenues of Berlin-Steglitz, however, are so far removed from such young digital bohemians that the voter base of the pirates cannot be reduced to some form of sworn ‘net community’. The emphatic concept of freedom put forward by the Pirate Party appears throughout all society to be more realisable than the hair-gel-and-tie-liberalism of the FDP.

The party principles and the electoral programme of the Berlin Pirate Party, including points such as free public transport and the right to an unconditional basic income, were tagged as ‘radical left’ by commentators on election night. The hoodie-wearing habits of some members might reinforce such an impression. But the basic values ​​of the Pirates escape classification according to the classic right-left split.

‘Free’, ‘open’, and especially ‘transparent’ are the buzzwords that have been shaping the platform of the Pirate movement since it first took shape five years ago in Sweden as a party born out of the struggle against existing copyright laws. One of the most important founding texts of the movement was the ‘Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace’, which the former songwriter for The Grateful Dead and co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, John Perry Barlow, published in 1996. Railing against state efforts to regulate the Internet, he invoked the name of the great liberals Thomas Jefferson, John Stuart Mill, Alexis de Tocqueville and Louis Brandeis.

Doctrinal loyalty is not exactly a virtue

“These increasingly hostile and colonial measures place us in the same position as those previous lovers of freedom and self-determination who had to reject the authorities of distant, uninformed powers”, the manifesto goes. And: “We are forming our own Social Contract. Our governance will arise according to the conditions of our world, not yours. Our world is different.” The thinking is deeply rooted in America, where it is known as libertarianism. From a high appreciation for the freedom of the individual derives an extreme scepticism towards the state and government, which receives legitimacy only through direct participation. In Germany, the best it had done till now was as the hobby horse of a kind of fundamentalist grouping within the Liberal Party. But libertarianism in the U.S. is a very broad movement. To it belong both disciples of Ayn Rand, the prophet of a radical egotistical capitalism, and libertarian socialists guided by anarchist thought from the turn of the 20th century. Such theoretical roots should not be overestimated. Doctrinal loyalty is not exactly a virtue among the pirates. Among the new Berlin deputies are some who are passionate about Karl Marx, and the national chairman of the party was previously in the CDU. What’s libertarian about the pirates is their penchant for the most direct form of democracy possible. The delegates will have to represent the explicitly articulated will of their voters, which is always in flux and can be changed by the tools of public participation. The conviction that the resources of the Internet can be used to come up with superior solutions for each individual problem is rooted firmly in Barlow’s cyber-libertarianism.

Take a chance on more democracy

That this is so readily agreed on is also down to the reality that a whole generation has now been socialised under the laws of the Internet. If to start up a business in the Internet a person needs neither a building permit nor approval from the labour inspectorate, that same person will not want to see any sense in bureaucratic regulations. Anyone who has learned that at the click of a mouse he can pursue the trail of every euro paid out by the government will not understand that the authorities will force through “official secrecy” at every opportunity. Some in the established parties, as was shown after the killings on the island in Norway, still perceive the Internet as a threat and want it to submit to the laws of the offline world. But a significant portion of the electorate seems to want to take the opposite approach and expand its sphere of freedom beyond the Internet. ‘Take a chance on more democracy’ is the most famous slogan from Willy Brandt. The Pirates have made it their own. Demands for openness and transparency are no longer a few special concerns of an Internet community. In the platform of the federal Pirate Party, whistleblower protection stands as a separate point. And in the post-Wikileaks era, that all sounds good – especially in a city in which a referendum forced the Senate to reveal the privatisation of the water works contracts.

Translated from the German by Anton Baer