Hard to believe that only four or five years ago the Pirate Party (PP) were enjoying a German honeymoon, winning large numbers of votes and entering four regional parliaments. In the Berlin election in 2011 their results were so strong that they did not have enough candidates to fill all the seats won; candidates who ran with with little hope of getting into district assemblies were instead elected to the major-league Senate – the citywide parliament. But this unexpected triumph was to be their zenith, thereafter the party formed a circular firing squad.
During the five years of the Berlin Senate the PP parliamentary group had five chairs and co-chairs, of these four are no longer members of the party (although all continue to sit as part of the Pirate group) – Alexander Spies is the last of this band carrying a party card. Two of these former chairs were among 35 former Berlin Pirates who published an open letter in January announcing their defection to Die Linke (the Left party) while another flirts with joining the SPD. Three other PP members elected to the Senate have also departed. This means that having started the Parliamentary session with 15 representatives, they now have 8.
A further twist to the current Berlin election is that former national chairperson of the Pirates, Bernd Schlömer, is running as a leading candidate for the FDP (Liberals) having joined them last October. This is less surprising that it may seem as both FDP and Die Linke (as well as the Greens and the Pirates) once participated in the Freiheit Statt Angst! (Freedom Not Fear!) demonstrations, an annual field day of the forces opposed to mass surveillance/social control which used to take place in Berlin each September.
Berlin Election 2016
Polling currently puts the PP on 3%, well below the 5% threshold required to be allocated any seats in the Parliament. As in 2011 they are running an eye-catching campaign focused on issues where they have campaigned effectively: housing, the investigation into the billion euro airport scandal, against racism. But the nature of their public meltdown both at national and local level after 2012 has wrecked their credibility. (If one wants to vote for a neo-Dadaist anti-party Berlin already has one, die Partei, who also have a European MEP!)
The departure of former members for other parties also undermines their position as self-appointed interpreters of the magic powers of technology. This should not be underestimated: until 2012 they were effectively identified as the ‘party of the internet’, the people who wanted to usher in a streamlined tomorrow, the epitome of progress and forward thinking. But this stranglehold on the tech-dream is over.
The Berlin PP was regarded as representing the party’s left-wing and some of its votes will now return to Die Linke or move to the Greens. Meanwhile, populist discontent has shifted decisively right after the controversy over refugee policy met the gunpowder of the sexual assaults in Cologne on New Year’s Eve. electorally this means pay dirt for the Alternative fur Deutschland (AFD), a toxic brew of xenophobes, alienated conservatives, economic liberals and populists, who will almost certainly enter the city Parliament this month.
This post will be updated as more statistics become available. Otherwise I want to ignore the PP for a while, although it’s difficult being currently in Germany.
As predicted the Pirate Party surpassed the 5% hurdle yesterday in Nordrhein-Westfalen (NRW), winning an estimated 7.8% of the vote. This is their fourth successful election since the breakthrough in Berlin last September. That boost entirely changed their fortunes; just two weeks beforehand they had scored under 2% in the regional elections in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, a figure around which they orbited in polls in Bremen, Rheinland-Pflaz and Hamburg earlier in 2011. But since Berlin they have entered regional Parliaments in Saarland and Schleswig-Holstein, and the NRW result is of particular significance due to its size – with 18 million inhabitants it is Germany’s most populous region by far, and has a greater population than all the former GDR regions combined.
Foreign media coverage understandably focuses on the scale of the CDU’s defeat and its consequences for Angela Merkel – its 26% represents its worst result in NRW ever – and the attainment of an absolute majority by an SPD-led coalition with the Greens. Once again, however, the Greens have failed to capitalise on the weakness of the government and the return to prominence of environmentalist themes after Fukujima. Once the voter analysis comes in the reasons for this will be clearer, but it is certain that the alternate pole of attraction constituted by the Pirates is in part responsible.
Analysis of the PP Vote in Schleswig Holstein
Research produced after last week’s election in Schleswig-Holstein sourced the PP votes as follows:
First-Time Voters 6,000
An analysis of voter choices correlated to social position suggested that the Pirates strongest constituencies are amongst workers and the unemployed, where they took 14% and 15% of the vote respectively. Interestingly the two parties most likely to lose votes to the PP were the Greens and the FDP (liberals), but the basic lesson of this research is the capacity of the PP so far to gather voters from across the ideological spectrum.
In response to the electoral emergence of the PP the debate around copyright in Germany has restarted in earnest. On Thursday the weekly newspaper Die Zeit published a letter titled “We are the Creators” where they condemned the ‘profane theft’ of intellectual property – characterised as a ‘great achievement of bourgeois freedom against the dependency of feudalism’ – defended the role of the publishers and other intermediaries commercially exploiting copyrights, and decried those who would use the net as an excuse for ‘stinginess and malice’. The coordinator of the letter campaign is himself not a ‘creator’ but rather a literary agent, suggesting a simple, albeit cynical, explanation for the vehement justification of the publisher’s function. In any case more than 3000 ‘creators’ signed up to the cause.
How such generalised reprimand of the public will be digested amongst the hoi polloi remains to be seen. History may have created a class of authors and publishers with the coming of bourgeois society, but it might be that in the digital era the masses have decided that they themselves are creators, and that the time for a further alteration of property and power relations has arrived …
For the moment however the talk is not of a revolution in property rights, but rather copyright reform: ‘We are the Citizens‘. Likewise the PP’s current copyright policy is distinctly moderate:
- shorten the term of protection from the (current) life of the author plus seventy years to life plus ten;
- terminate all transfers to an intermediary for exploitation after 25 years, returning the rights to the author;
- make any licensing assignment valid for those media known at the time
- stop prosecuting/pursuit of filesharers on the basis that it is merely reflects the current industry’s incapacity to satisfy demand.
Henceforth the policies of all political parties as regards the internet and communications will be a matter of public scrutiny, and irrespective of how one may feel about the Pirates in a more general sense, for this at least we have them to thank. Effectively they have attached a cost to coziness between political parties and the vested interests who would seek to have the net regulated for their profit. Last autumn members of the CDU were still floating proposals for a local version of the Hadopi/3 Strikes regime, but in the light of the election results, and the scale of the protests against ACTA, such a proposal is now clearly toxic and can be excluded.
While the political strategies of the copyright lobby find themselves blocked, the situation in the courts remains a concern. In April, for example, the regional court in Hamburg found in favour of the German rightsholders organisation GEMA, imposed a form of secondary liability (Störerhaftung) on Google for works posted on Youtube without authorisation. The court required that they institute measures in addition their existing content-id system to keep works off the site, specifically a word filter which would block other versions of songs for which GEMA hold the rights, and that GEMA are not obliged to use content-id as a means of controlling infringing uses. The continuing failure of GEMA and Google to reach an agreement on royalties means that pop music available on the platform elsewhere in the world remains blocked on the German site. Other authorised services such as Hulu and Netflix are not available either.
Domestic Trifles Over: Please Return to the Economic Meltdown
With the elections are over discussion will return to the Eurozone clusterf*ck, a matter to which most Germans seem to pay little heed at least while the economy remains strong. This week however the matter may receive some attention as social movements mobilise for demonstrations against the European Central Bank and financial sector in Frankfurt, protests already forbidden by the city…
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.
Early last August Pirate Party posters appeared in large numbers throughout Berlin in anticipation of the city elections in mid-September. Since the Federal elections of 2009, where they reaped much media attention as new contenders, things had been quiet. On that occasion their final vote came in just under 2% nationally, but this concealed a vote in Berlin that was nearly double that level, with local support in the constituency of Friedrichshain/Kreuzberg reaching 6.2%, promising them seats in the next local election.
The 2009 campaign marked the first time that online public sphere began to be taken seriously as a factor in the vote, and through a combination of their intense social media presence, popularity amongst young voters as expressed in online polls and the general emphasis on network politics the PP became positioned as the ‘party of the internet’. Germany has a distinct engineering culture due to the scale and centrality of its technology-driven industries, and the PP drew heavily from this pool both in terms of activists and policy relevance, but this narrow techno-fetischism also constituted an inbuilt limitation to their appeal.
2011 was different. What was immediately striking about the PP’s poster campaign was its playful tone, self-irony and lack of focus-group sleekness. So much so, that the whole thing looked initially as if it might be a prank. Notable also was the expansion of the issues addressed: this was not an agenda of pure technophilia: posters laid out their support for a guaranteed basic income, decriminalisation of drugs, secularisation and increased transparency in political administration. In addition they proposed the introduction of city-wide free public transport, and set out alternative ideas about education in a country witnessing declining graduation at third level in comparison with the preceding generation.
How the Right Came Unstuck
I think it’s difficult to grasp what happened in Berlin without an understanding of the wider national political climate as well as local factors in the city itself. Since their election in 2009 the CDU/FDP coalition has met a series of defeats on a regional level. Two issues in particular have occupied public attention with devastating consequences for the government.
The first is the fight over the construction of a new central train station, Stuttgart 21, in the regional capital of Baden Wurttemberg. Opposition by a broad alliance of environmentalist groups culminated in the occupation of a green area, subsequently evicted amidst massive police violence. Clashes on demonstrations are not unusual in Germany, but on this occasion the victims were not principally anticapitalist youth, but middle class ‘civilians’ – with disastrous consequences for the local junta. As a result the CDU lost control for the region for the first time in more than half a century.
Then came the nuclear accident in Fukushima, which intensified an already stormy and longstanding political debate on nuclear energy, leading to the reversal of the government’s policy postponing reactor closures. The most immediate beneficiaries of this events were the Green Party which saw instant growth both at the polling booth and in opinion polls. Combined with an array of smaller controversies the governments popularity sank, with the SPD also putting a floor on their recent decline in support.
Wir Sind ein Volk: Ihr Seid ein Anderes!
“We are One People: You Are Another!”
Anti-gentrification poster on the streets of East Berlin, 2009
A reminder is in order here that the German economy has significantly outperformed the rest of Europe in the last couple of years. 1998-2003 was a period of recession, after which growth improved until 2009 where there was a sharp contraction in GNP of 5%, directly linked to the fall in global demand for Germany’s exports. Since then however, exports have recovered both to other EU states and emerging markets. Low levels of home ownership and the difficulty of accessing mortgage finance sheltered Germany from the financial events which have unfolded since 2007, although German banks and investment funds have been damaged due to investments made overseas, notably in the US sub-prime market.
What is poorly understood overseas however is the regional nature of the German economy, and the degree to which it continues to be centered on key nodes in former West Germany: a Munich-Nuremberg axis in Bavaria, Baden Wurttemberg, Frankfurt (finance), Koln, Hamburg and the Ruhrgebiet. Berlin is cut off both in terms of human capital and infrastructure from these areas, and struggles as a result. The local economy is heavily reliant on public sector employment in government and administration, tourism, and construction. While there is some software, pharmaceuticals and media production, they are in relative terms discrete employers. The biggest new employer is the German intelligence agency, the BND! Consequently local unemployment remains stubbornly high, over 13% according to official figures, and wages are low.
A corollary of the weak economic situation has been the relatively low cost of living, especially in terms of rental rates. Notoriously this has attracted a lot of under-remunerated cultural producers to make the city their home. But in the last four years rents have increased precipitously, between 15-20% annually in some centrally located areas, and when combined with weakened tenant protections and reduced investment in social housing; the result has been significant levels of displacement. New construction is occurring but is confined to apartments marketed to investors from other areas of the country and abroad. In fact this process has been underway since the 1990s, but had abated during the 1998-2003 slump – now it is back with renewed vigor. Local conflicts over urban development and planning have intensified and drawn in wider tranches of the population. The failure of the local administration – a coalition of the Social Democrats and die Linke – to respond to the resultant insecurity, combined with the poor economic opportunities available have opened the door to other forces. Previously the Greens would have been expected to clean up in this scenario, but they are perceived increasingly as the party of a lifestyle-defined middle class which has jettisoned its radical DNA, and in Berlin this doesn’t play as well compared to prosperous regions in the west.
In sum the conditions for a new protest party were ripe, and the Pirate Party were there to capitalise. They took more votes off die Linke proportionally than from anyone else, especially in the constituencies in the east. In areas characterised by a high level of conflict over housing such as Friedrichshain, they scored their highest results in absolute terms, hitting up to 17%. This area had been the scene of a massive campaign in defense of a squatted ‘house project’ (where people live collectively and conduct cultural and social activism), Liebig 14, which was evicted in February of this year. One element of the PP’s programme is to enable access to loans for tenants who want to buy their houses out from their owners rather than there being released on the open market. Meanwhile, on the border of Prenzlauer Berg and Wedding one of the city’s most popular parks is slated to be partially developed as condominiums, provoking anger and regular demonstrations in which the PP have been active. Along the site of the former wall, what was once social housing (built during the massive architectural project of the 1980s, the IBA) is in the process of reverting to private ownership, with increases in rents of up to 200%. This does not mean that the PP is a new Tenants Rights Party, but simply that the failure of the historical ‘alternative’ and ‘left’ parties has alienated many and opened the door for others.
What I want to get across is the complexity of trying to analyse the Pirate Party’s extraordinary result. While no enthusiast for electoral politics, I have been involved in the fight against intellectual property expansionism and have thus paid attention to the progress of the various PP’s since the start. But the copyright question which instigated the organisation’s creation was a footnote in the election. Nonetheless there has been enough happening in the copyright and surveillance realms to steel activists attracted by this issue. Germany, in fact, has had one of the most frantic enforcement campaigns in Europe in recent years, with the development of what is widely referred to as an enforcement industry where IT companies are contracted to trace those sharing files online so that lawyers can then make demands of ‘compensation’, an approach exemplified by companies such as Constantin GMBH, rights owners responsible for the famous sweep of Downfall videos from youtube. In October CDU politician Siegfried Krauder floated a proposal for a three strikes style law also in Germany, even though this would go against the coalition agreement made with the FDP (which contains a determined civil libertarian faction). Elsewhere, the campaign against intrusive surveillance was enlivened by revelations that police in Dresden engaged in generalised interception and parsing of mobile traffic and SMS during popular demonstrations against a neo-fascist rally in Dresden last winter.
The Pirates took 8.9% in the Berlin election. So unexpected was this that they cannot in fact fill all their seats. Every candidate for the City was elected, but several of them were also elected to the local councils in their areas, and due to the prohibition on dual-mandates some will go unfilled. Opinion polls have put them on 8% nationally, but it will be difficult to sustain this if they do not transform novelty into meaningful intervention. The crucial question is what would a meaningful form be. Events elsewhere such as the Occupy movement reflect a general distrust of the political system and its modes, a humor which arguably is analogous to the motivation driving the Pirate Party’s success. If this is so, then there is a case that the PP would be best served not by playing the Parliamentary game with too much earnestness, but rather should expose it and demonstrate the castrated notion of participation which it represents.
Following the election a debate kicked off in the TAZ newspaper regarding the left-wing credentials of the party, or lack thereof. Opinions vary, as do the self-descriptions of prominent party members. Current leader Sebastian Nerz is a former member of the conservative CDU, and the party also includes many former liberals; he prefers to charcterize it as a socially liberal progressive party. From the other side of the spectrum the Pirates have picked up members from all over the left, including a former chairperson and MEP of the Green Party, Angelika Beer, and former MP Herbert Rusche.
Parallels have been drawn between the struggle between ‘vollis‘ and ‘kernis‘ in the PP and the earlier fight in the Green Party between ‘realos‘ and ‘fundis‘. In the PP context this refers to a tension between those favouring a minimal program based on technological issues and those who want the party to develop a full programme, including the thorny issues around the social state. A congress in Bingen in 2010 grappled with these issues unsuccessfully, but the question was resolved at another meeting later that year in Chemnitz. On that occasion the membership endorsed a proposal to support a guaranteed income and to back the introduction of a statutory minimum wage in the interim. This move was actually opposed by the then leader Jens Seipenbusch. The result in Berlin clearly favours the more expansionist current in the organization.
On the back of their gains, however, the PP has now also made itself a target for more calculated attacks. The Greens and die Linke will be ruminating on how to deal with the threat they pose, with Renate Kunast (the local Green leader) quipping to a business audience before the election that they could be ‘rehabilitated’, and presumably co-opted. This is unsurprising, seeing as in absolute terms the PP took more voters from the Greens than any other party.
Subsequent attempts to smear them mediatically may not be unrelated. One instance of this has been the attempts to link their activists with the far-right NPD, on the ground that a couple of their members had a previous involvement in that organisation. Having seen Pirate Party members in Berlin on grassroots antifascist demonstrations in the city, inches from braying boneheads, I would give this no credence. In every political organization there are those with flawed pasts – it’s no grounds to censure them forever. But the circulation of this story speaks to the new seriousness with which the Pirate Party are being treated, and they can afford to be sanguine about it. As disreputable friends in Italy would say: molti nemici, molto onore – many enemies, much honour. 🙂
- A 2016 Almanac
- The Machinic Sewer
- A Yahoo User’s Journey through the Unknown
- Filmpiraten Crush Austrofascists (at first instance…)
- Pirate Residuum
- Readings from the Book of (library) Genesis
- Cyberspace – the Fifth domain of Warfare?
- Demystifying AdTech
- The Hymn of Acxiom
- Knowledge is born free, yet is everywhere in chains…
- Adam Curtis in Berlin
- Baking Privacy and User Choice into the Web with Do Not Track
- civil liberties
- Data Protection
- European Court of Justice
- european directives
- european regulations
- european union
- material culture
- open video
- Pirate Bay
- Pirate Party
- social cooperation
- steal this film