More Booty for the Pirate Party in Germany
Last Sunday state elections took place in Schleswig-Holstein (SH) in Northern Germany. When the votes were counted the Pirate Party had taken 8.2 % of the vote, thus entering its third State Parliament after earlier successes in Berlin (8.9%, September 2011) and the Saarland (7.4%, March 2012). Next weekend is the turn of the biggest German region to vote, Nordrhein Westfalien, current polls put the PP at around 9%. On this form they will easily surpass the German electoral threshold of 5% and enter the federal parliament in 2013.
Losers in this election were the liberals (FDP) and the Left (Die Linke). The Green Party increased its vote only marginally, haemorrhaging support to the PP – amongst the six Pirate representatives elected in SH is Angelika Beer, a former national chairperson of the Greens. Given the latter’s intention to form a coalition government with the SPD in 2013, the continuance of this slippage to the Pirates is the most significant fallout of the election. In the case of SH, the SPD & Greens will now only have a majority with a third coalition partner, the Danish minority party, SSW.
Who Are the Pirates Anyway?
So far the actual political character of the PP has remained unexplored. In the first place because media attention has focussed on their novelty, a sort of ‘party of the internet’, and predictable jokes about, well…. pirates. Secondly, their development of a full electoral programme is recent and their membership is increasing rapidly, so it’s difficult to anticipate where things will settle. Thirdly they have not been cónfronted with the dilemmas of power such as to force them to reveal what unnegotiable convictions, if any, they hold. As the current beneficiaries of the floating vote, this enigmatic aspect is undoubtedly useful.
The strange alchemy of the organisation is indicated by the composition of its new national leadership. Bernd Schlömer, the new party chairperson, studied criminology and is now employed at the Department of Defence, responsible for academic training at the University of the Federal Armed Forces. Meanwhile Johannes Ponader was elected as political secretary, an unemployed actor who has a past in the Basic Income Network and was a prominent representative at the Occupy Berlin! encampment last winter.
Buzzwords: ‘Participation’,’Feedback’, ‘Transparency’.
What binds together the disparate elements seems to be an enthusiasm for process, modernising zeal, and a jejeune conviction in the possibility of rational solutions to social problems. And of course affection for machines.
This process enthusiasm is materialised in Liquid Feedback, a software tool for grassroots policy formation and debate. The system enables a multi-level delegation of one’s vote to others whose opinion one trusts. This is understood as an instrument of internal democracy and a channel for ‘feedback’ – a term rooted in cybernetics where information outputs are recycled for purposes of system self-correction.
‘Engineering culture’ is also visible in the party’s emphatic attachment to evidence-based positions; against drug prohibition; secular; in favour of markets where they work; open to alternatives where they don’t. Questions cannot be answered in the absence of data, consultation and logic. Such a mode of discourse allows a form of self-presentation as pragmatic and beyond left/right – a profitable attitude for a group currently taking voters from all parts of the political spectrum.
Paradoxically, for a party nominally identified with pirates, its members express great enthusiasm for citizenship, ethics and reason in a period where such traits seem a bit quaint and certainly in decline. It will be thus interesting to observe how the PP deals with the irrational, shady, treacherous reality of Politics, where being just piratical is common coin.
So what of this cybernetic rhetoric of deliberative democracy?
Critics of cybernetics have argued that taking the machinic as the metaphor for the social leads its adherents to relegate agonistic politics to an anachronism, capable of being transcended or side-stepped via technical refinements and better information. Fred Turner has offered a critical history of the utopian rhetoric of ‘cyberculture’, tracing its rhetoric of participation, frictionless markets and self-organization to the encounter of one part of the sixties counterculture with the post-war scientific community, an encounter enabled by the universalizing metaphor of systems analysis and the language of cybernetics.
In “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace”, filmmaker Adam Curtis takes Turner’s narrative and extends it to critique the claimed political potential of network orchestrated action, taking the failed uprisings (?) in the Ukraine & Kyrgyzstan in 2004/5 as emblematic. In his view, the weak structures of technologically enabled self-organisation form an inadequate counterweight to the power of the vested interests who currently dominate decision-making.
What this analysis elides is that self-organization need not be limited to online ‘movements of opinion’ and occasional mass theatre. Digital tools are, and will be, central to any mobilization which entails the formation of real-world social bonds. Recent social movements such as M15 in Spain and Occupy Wall Street prefigure this, as does the PP in the realm of classical politics. Whether either can be effective in achieving their ends is another matter.
Reality is not a Perfectible Machine
Any temptation towards cybernetics in the PP is leavened by the desire for a new public sphere – the net as the new coffee-house of bourgeois democracy – and experience of political institutions and processes which have impeded or warped the potentials enabled by technology and networks.
Nine pieces of European legislation have extended the scope and duration of copyright in the last twenty years, fruit of private sector lobbying. Their beneficiaries, owners of the media platforms which have dominated public imagination (and politicians’ careers) since the war, are understandably unreceptive to arguments as to their own obsolescence. In Germany copyright enforcement has become a veritable industry of ‘notice and shake-down’. Elsewhere, the PP are deeply opposed to the collection of personal data by state and private parties, and to the extension of surveillance culture.
These issues are enough to provide a thorough lesson in the dynamics of politics and the non-neutrality of state action. Should the PP hold the balance of power in 2013 I would expect these two themes to be the ones on which they refuse to budge, and if they play hard they could achieve a result. But the limits to their oppositional nature are illustrated in Schleswig-Holstein where they have offered limited support to the new coalition provided neither increased state surveillance or data retention are part of the programme for government. Some of those who voted for them as a protest may be disappointed, ultimately the PP are more pragmatic than refusenik.
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