Will the Pirates democratise Europe?

Overnight the Pirate Party has become a third political force in Germany, and has become much more than a dragnet trawling protest voters. According to Die Welt, the Pirate Party could be the pioneer of a new democracy in the post-industrial era, and indeed throughout Europe.

Published on 12 April 2012 at 14:29

The jury is still out on whether from the Pirates will prove to be more than a footnote to European democracy. But if the Pirates are not crippled by growing pains they stand a good chance of formally transforming democracy in the 21st century, mastering the end of the era of growth, achieving a sharing of burdens between the generations – and becoming the first genuinely European party.

The concept of representation through mass organisations is as old and outdated as the industrial age. The unbundling of once neatly wrapped-up packages has already hit the music and tourism industries, and a similar fate is now staring political parties in the face. Online systems such as the “Liquid Feedback” of the Pirates can break down, and with great efficiency, those bundled-up politics of the old days of “minimal democracy” (Paul Nolte).

In politics too, then, the strict separation between producers and consumers will be nullified, as it has been in other areas. That has been particularly evident in the media sector, and it’s currently underway in the power industry, where intelligent grids in which households can both produce and consume electricity are breaking down the quasi-monopoly of the existing electricity giants.

Transparency and citizen participation

Just as with the German power utilities like RWE and E.On, political parties like the SPD [social-democrats] and CDU [Christian-democrats] must, given the new situation, reinvent themselves. As advocates of competition on the playing field of the former monopolists, the Pirates will make sure this actually happens.

Many political experts up till now have believed this to be a race to the bottom, or amateurisation of politics. But it may be the best chance to ride out the coming economic crash with a functioning democracy. The problem is that the existing political systems of the West, although reasonably well suited to organising a society with a growing national product, quickly run into heavy seas when it comes to dealing with a steadily shrinking domestic product. The riots in Greece and the strikes in Spain are a foretaste of what happens when, after years of austerity and cutbacks, there is still no light at the end of the tunnel.

In the ongoing “Age of Less” (David Bosshart) there will be no return to the old economic growth model, and that reality requires a new political model. If it is to remain democratic, this model must be more transparent and involve more citizen participation than the mainstream parties, in Germany and throughout Europe, are willing to grant.

Transparency and citizen participation are the best ways forward out of the crisis of the European currency and the European Union. The issue here is how democracy can ride out the foreseeable failure of the technocrats. The solution will probably not come from the Pirates themselves. But the path towards the solution might.

A willingness to choose something different

And so, across Europe, the youth of the continent – a group currently on the outside, to all intents and purposes – could be integrated into society and its decision-making procedures. Almost everywhere in Europe the economic crisis has led to a disproportionate rise in youth unemployment, peaking in Greece and Spain at more than 50 percent. The baby-boomer generation of parents are holding on tightly to their jobs and their positions of power; their children have only the street. It is these young people who are the core target group of the Pirate Party.

This “generation of losers” tried out its first rebellion in 2011. It began in May that year with the sit-ins of public squares by the “Indignados” in Spain, and spread across the continent as the Occupy movement. The movement’s followers were united by a shared feeling of opposition, but failed to come up with any concrete goals. With no possibility of joining the political process, this feeling will intensify and could be discharged in destructive actions. To involve this movement constructively in the political system, one would have to invent something like the Pirate Party. If it didn’t already exist.

For a breakthrough at the European level the party now has a window of two years: namely, until the European elections in the spring of 2014. That’s enough time to develop an effective international party structure. The scale of the elections is big enough to make a brilliant showing.

Elections are also seen by many Europeans as so unimportant that the willingness to choose something different may be huge. So far, European elections have been seen as a test run for new parties at the national level. 2014 could be the first time that a new political party makes the breakthrough at the European level.


The new party of the petty bourgeois

In a column in the Frankfurter Rundschau German futurologist Matthias Horx remains sceptical of the Pirates and the future of the Internet as a platform for a new participatory democracy. The word “participation” evokes for him memories of his student life in the 1970s:

Sometimes I get the queasy feeling that the internet might not be the glorious tool for sharing human knowledge and bringing humanity together digitally, but is simply a medium amplifying immaturity and adolescent callowness. The future may not belong to the pirates but to the trolls, those who attack each discussion until it shuts down. They are the shit-storm brigade, the army of bitchers. […]

With cheerful horror I think back to my Wohngemeinschaft (community living) in the 1970s, when everyone could participate in everything, but no one wanted to do the dishes. Without emancipation, there is no transformation. This is one of the most intelligent bits of wisdom I retain from my turbulent youth.

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