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The Pirate Party Rises360°ANALYSIS

A new force is rising on the European political landscape. The Pirate Party—an anticopyright amalgamation of politically active digital natives, most in their twenties and early thirties—stands at the precipice of finding a permanent place in Continental politics. The party emerged in the wake of protests of antipiracy legislation that brought tens of thousands of Europeans into the street as well as ongoing frustration with the euro-zone crisis and the monopolistic nature of European political parties.

The next months will bring regional elections in three bellwether states in Germany, and each is expected to result in substantial gains for the Pirate party. Its rise has led many to compare the Pirates to an earlier iteration of issue-based iconoclasts, the Greens. Could Europe see the creation of the first durable protest party of the millennial generation? And if so, do the Pirates represent a successor, challenger or ally to the Greens?

The New Digital Counterculture

The European press has highlighted the political clash between different generations of the counterculture, pitting the millennial Pirates’ rise against that of the baby-boomer Greens. There is evidence that both see the other as a direct competitor; in an open call for party slogans in North Rhine Westphalia, one person suggested “Torture the Greens, Vote for the Pirates.”

Nevertheless, the similarities between the Greens and the Pirates are striking. Both are intensely subversive in content and means of action. Both names hint at antiestablishmentism. In U.S. political terms, the Pirates seem to tap into the libertarianism of Ron Paul supporters, the collectivist ethos of the Occupy Wall Street Movement and the distrust of institutions seen in both. As such, the Pirates defy the normal ideological spectrum. But as with the Greens in the 1970s and early 1980s, today’s Pirates have only a proto-ideology with a fungible value system, which makes the party look disparate and almost schizophrenic.

The bêtes noires of the Pirates are patent and copyright laws, which they claim are antiquated and antithetical to the creative process. Many of the party’s supporters are, after all, consumers of illegally downloaded music and movies. And by injecting a new element into European political life and inevitably the Continent’s foreign policy, the Pirate Party is forcing an accommodation similar to the rise of ecological politics a generation ago.

Like the Greens, the Pirate Party has international appeal, reflecting political memes taking root across the Continent. The Pirates’ first prominent representation was not in a national parliament but in the European Parliament. The most vociferous debates on party issues—the anticounterfeiting treaty ACTA, net neutrality, data transfers between governments, and common patent and copyright standards in the European single market—take place as much in Brussels as in national capitals. And the party has natural reservoirs of support from its Nordic base to the postcommunist countries of Central Europe, where residual suspicion of government censorship and domestic surveillance is high.

And even though the Pirate Party arose in Sweden and has representatives throughout Europe, the ultimate political laboratory for its success or failure will be Germany. The proportional voting system there has often allowed the country to serve as a testing ground for movement parties — some fleeting, others permanent.

Origins: Nothing New under the Sun

Since its 2006 inception, the party’s development has been anything but linear. It was founded in reaction to the European Union’s Copyright Directive, a 2001 mechanism for enforcing the World Intellectual Property Organization Copyright Treaty. Implemented across the EU in 2005, the law tightened enforcement of copyright violations on the Internet. Because Sweden hosted a number of media-sharing sites that suddenly found their activities branded illegal, many were galvanized to become more active at the European level.

The term "pirate" was first used to refer to unauthorized music downloaders in Sweden in 2001, when the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry launched the Anti-Piracy Bureau to combat illegal downloading. Later, a group of artists responded with an art installation called the Piracy Bureau. Hence “pirate” became a protest moniker and was most prominently used by the Swedish file-sharing website Pirate Bay, a hotbed for the digital-rights movement.

In 2009, Swedish courts, under legislation drafted as a result of the EU Copyright Directive, handed down a series of jail terms and fines to Pirate Bay founders. The move led to a swelling of the party’s membership and the election of two members of the European Parliament (MEPs).

In their first major showing in the Swedish European Parliament elections in 2009, the Pirates garnered 7.1%. But among voters under thirty, they were winning 65% of the vote. Public Radio International described the party as a “political force of 20-somethings” whose masterly use of social networks, marketing and participatory governance taps into the vanguard of modern electioneering from the United States to Tunisia and Egypt.

The party’s emergence could not have had better timing. Like the Greens before them, the party includes a mélange of political inclinations converging throughout Europe. According to Amelia Andersdotter, the party’s second Swedish MEP, the party took a consciously Continental approach to governance. The politics were local, but the strategy was European. And the party might represent the first truly European party, given that its origins are a response to EU law.

In a seminal speech on Internet policy, the party’s founder and political evangelist, Rick Falkvinge, called for a rupture in communication between “downloading” — with the monopolistic control of the “old mass media” model that relies on a hub-and-spoke system — and “file sharing,” where content is generated in a diffuse, decentralized manner. He traces the notion of “monopoly over culture and knowledge” from the church of the Middle Ages through state licensing of printing presses, copyrights, to today’s control over content distribution. “There is nothing new under the sun,” Falkvinge declares defiantly.

Wiki-ocracy and its Discontents

As it was with the Greens, Germany will be the testing ground for the Pirate Party. After their insurgent performance in Sweden, the Pirates had an eye-opening national showing in the 2009 German federal elections. Soon thereafter, the movement began to change the tenor of the debate on Internet policy in the Federal Republic.

In a political U-turn, the German government in 2010 reversed a law blocking sites that hosted child pornography. Opponents argued it was a move toward greater online surveillance by the German Federal Criminal Bureau. Their efforts led to legislation allowing the Bureau to delete rather than block such sites, a move seen by online political activists as a lighter touch.

The Pirates have continued to build on their success with a string of strong regional showings, including in Berlin and Saarland, where they had no infrastructure in the state a month before the elections were called. This has led to a groundswell on the national level, where the party now polls 12%, and many predict they will enter some state legislatures in May.

What explains this national rise? The Pirates might be the product of a bit of political creative destruction, benefiting from the slow erosion of Germany’s two “people’s parties,” the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats. But it is the smaller parties that are feeling the heat of accommodating the Pirates in the German political system. The dramatic national collapse of the centrist Liberal party has provided a natural space for the Pirates to fill with their civil-libertarian message.

Ultimately, it could be the Greens who have the most to lose. Many Pirates distrust the professionalization of politics, and they see the Greens, now a permanent fixture in German politics, as co-opted into the system. While the Greens boast promising young talent, the leadership is still overwhelmingly comprised of aging baby boomers whose political street cred is based in the protests of 1968 and the environmentalism of the late 1970s and early 1980s.

The Greens once represented the vanguard of Internet policy. But one Green party leader recently suggested vaguely during a television interview that the Greens have “a young legislator” who will address Internet law. At a postelection party in Berlin, the room erupted in guffaws when the Green mayoral candidate defensively claimed that the Greens are also “tech savvy.” The laughter quickly turned into derisive chants at the television screen: “You’re all old! You’re all old!”

But the fact that both parties are targeting the same electoral cohorts — young, educated, urban, Left-leaning, moderately disaffected with the larger peoples’ parties — belies a purely intergenerational explanation.

Crowdsourced Democracy?

Growing pains have become evident as the Pirates’ success in Germany has led to public scrutiny and more strident attacks. The party’s political vision — beyond transparency, creative ownership and Internet governance — is still underdeveloped.

The Pirates’ advocacy for open-source software in local and regional government could be one of the first tests of its policy mettle. Studies cited by Pirate leaders show that local administrations using open-source technology make it easier for smaller enterprises to access public-procurement contracts, a significant part (19%) of the European economy. But can open-source governance, an emphasis on libraries and free knowledge address basic political questions — those related to healthcare, highways and education?

Pirate legislators use a tool called “liquid feedback,” an evolving online barometer of party members’ opinions on issues, as a significant basis for their votes in parliament. The aim is to deconstruct the boundaries between representative republicanism and direct democracy. While this communitarian approach to governing represents one of the party’s primary attractions, it is also a source of weakness. Frenzied, unfocused debates among Pirate Party members in Berlin have taken place on a host of issues, from free public transportation to the legalization of marijuana. Many in local government have complained that Pirate legislators cannot make decisions without returning to their base for protracted discussion and debate.

In its short life, the party has rallied supporters around fundamental policy questions related to Europe’s increasingly wired society and advocated a libertarian approach to creativity and commerce. But is the Pirate Party a basket case or the birth pangs of a new movement? Europeans—and especially Greens—will grapple with this question in the coming years. Nevertheless, It’s clear that the Pirates are a rising force in German and European politics—and a test of whether the Internet can both inspire and sustain a major political party.




*[This article was originally published by The National Interest on April 18, 2012].

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.