Pirate Party: giving politics a jolly roger

The cyber-rights obsessives are not a ‘fresh wind’ - they just show how much politics is screwed.

Once upon a time, the kind of people who thought big political ideas were irrevelant and who spent all their time obsessing about processes and structures were regarded as superficial technocrats. Not anymore. Now they are deemed to be at the cutting edge of political life.

The technocratic bunch in question is the Pirate Party, which has enjoyed considerable electoral success, not to mention media coverage, in Europe recently. The Pirate Party franchise started in Sweden in 2006 before, in the 2009 European elections, winning seven per cent of the vote. In Germany, the Pirates won 8.9 per cent of the vote in the Berlin state election in 2011, 7.4 per cent of the vote in Saarland, 8.2 per cent in Schleswig-Holstein a couple of weeks ago, and 7.8 per cent of the vote in North-Rhine-Westphalia last weekend.

However, the rise of the Pirates is far from a ‘hostile takeover’. In fact, the Pirate Party has been sucked, almost against its will, into the policy vacuums of modern Western parliaments. It is not the Pirates’ fault that neither a political programme nor any real ideas were necessary to get this far. Indeed, despite their self-proclaimed meaninglessness, their emptiness and their lack of direction, the Pirates are treated as a breath of fresh air. However, even this is a wrong interpretation. Wind implies direction – something the Pirates don’t have. Rather, they circulate around the rotting old political parties, keeping themselves aloft on the noxious fumes. In the eye of this (shit-)storm, it isn’t only silence that reigns, but also emptiness and confusion.

For the Pirate Party, the emphasis is on new forms of political process. This does highlight an obvious weakness of the old parties: their inflexibility and inability to motivate and engage with people. However, while the Pirate Party may have made some initial gains, the party is itself a perfect personification of contemporary politics. It possesses no real political principles and aims, and delights in programmatic vagueness. The party places much emphasis on its structural flexibility – or, as they say in Pirate circles, how ‘liquid’ it is.

The Pirate Party claims to promote a ‘new political operating system’, but if the Pirates represent a sleek and modern interface for politics, we should be nostalgic for the clunky, slow old system. What does the ‘new political operating system’ come with? Beyond a few cyber-civil rights here, a little unconditional basic income there, there’s a bit of protesting in the medium of dance and, of course, a good dose of GM-free foods. This is not revolutionary thinking, it is cut-and-paste politics.

It may seem daring, freedom-loving, and boundary-breaking, but the Pirates offer freedom without substance, the form without the content. Democratic control depends on the virtual ‘Pirates collective’. The modern term for this is ‘swarm intelligence’, but all this really means is conformity, not revolution. In their political instincts, the Pirates do indeed remind one of a swarm, a swarm of fruit flies attracted by the decaying carcasses of the political parties. The happy picture described by the ‘liquid’ structure is actually a good one, but not in a flattering way: fluids always flow downhill, avoid obstacles and look for the easiest path to the valley. Political campaigners usually talk about ‘mountains to climb’ to reflect the difficulty of their mission, but overcoming difficulties is clearly not the Pirate way.

Superficially, one might concede that the Pirates play an important role in breaking down traditional party structures, creating the possibility of something better. But unfortunately, this is not the case. On the contrary, the Pirates can only degrade political life further in the name of ‘transparency and process orientation’.

Ultimately, the Pirates do not have the capability to take decisive action or come up with new ideas. And it appears that they are not even willing to take any decisions. After the recent election in North-Rhine Westphalia, the party applauded the clear victory of the Social Democrats and the Greens despite it meaning that the Pirates themselves will now not be needed to secure majorities. Behind the unconventional, high-tech revolutionary image of the party, that ‘operating system’ is too feeble to develop its own answers to the pressing issues of our time.

The Pirate Party owes much of its success to the political and media classes, who view its ‘open’, ‘flexible’ and ‘unfinished’ nature as wonderful things which enrich the political landscape. Yet those, like Thomas Schmid writing in Die Welt, who criticise the party for infantilising politics and society are also wrong. It is the established parties and their inner emptiness that have made the Pirates appear attractive, that have turned the party’s ignorance and refusal-as-politics into something pseudo-critical and innovative. Celebrating the Pirate Party’s rise as a revival of democracy is like confusing the undertaker with the doctor.

Matthias Heitmann is a freelance journalist and an editor at Novo. This article was first published in Novo and in the Austrian weekly newspaper Die Furche.  Visit his website here.

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