Pirate politics

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Jun 17, 2009 GMT
Bruce Byfield

One of the most interesting talks at last week's Open Web Vancouver conference was the keynote by Rickard Falkvinge, the leader and founder of Sweden's PiratePartiet (Pirate Party), which recently won its first seat in the European Parliament. Ordinarily, politicians are not people I respect, but Falkvinge and the Pirate movement won my grudging respect for at least two reasons. First, the gleeful chutzpah of the movement's name shows a rare kind of courage at a time when most politicians are obsessed with marketing and optics. Second, for the first time in years, I was hearing a politician talk about issues like copyright and patent reform that have considerable influence on people in their everyday lives -- and do so with considerable realism.

The Pirate Party did not choose its name. The name came from the movement of which it is the political arm. The copyright lobby had already set up The Anti-Pirate Bureau, so what would be more natural that its opponents should call themselves The Pirate Bureau?

Still, using the name carries a certain defiance (and the Pirates know that, or else their supporters would not have been waving the Jolly Roger on the night of the European Parliament's elections). In effect, the name says, "You think that calling us pirates will insult us? Okay, we'll be pirates, then!"

Accepting the name amounts to a detonation of the word in the sense that Lenny Bruce suggested: using it over and over until it loses its stigma. Some might think that the stigma remains -- for instance, the journalists who repeatedly ask whether the Pirate Party has any connection to the Pirate Bay -- but such people immediately reveal themselves as ignorant of the issues. If you do understand the issues, then the name becomes an insider's joke, a shibboleth that identifies one supporter to another.

Ordinarily, I tend to side with the Richard Stallmans of this world, who insist that accurate terminology is the necessary beginning of any discussion. But I admire courage and defiance, and this detonation seems to have plenty of both.
But the main reason I admire the Pirates is that they are talking about issues that concern me greatly yet are rarely discussed by mainstream. The issue, of course, is not file-sharing as such, but the efforts to destroy personal privacy and basic civil rights in order to ensure that large industries continue to be profitable.
Traditional political parties never discuss such concerns. Mostly, they are unaware of them, or influenced by lobbyists or their own fears of appearing too left-wing (yes, even the supposedly left-wing ones).

The result is that a certain falsity has crept into political discourse around the world. Borrowing a term that Gwynne Dyer first used about conventional forces in the nuclear age, I like to call this falsity "keeping the old game alive." By that, I mean that traditional politicians are pretending that large chunks of daily life simply do not exist, and that the solutions that have worked in the past will work in the future. Such an outlook is so obviously untrue that it explains why voter turn out is declining in most places in the industrialized world where it is not compulsory, and that voters under thirty are especially hostile to politics.

By contrast, the Pirate Party chose to talk about issues that affect the online generation in their daily lives. Moreover, they do so with a certain hard-headed realism that contrasts favorably with the imaginary, truncated world of average politicians.

For instance, alone among political parties, the Pirates realize that the time to debate file-sharing is long past. It exists, and, as Falkvinge likes to say, "being for or against file sharing is like being for or against blueberries growing in the forest." Both file-sharing and blueberries exist, regardless of what you think of them, and any rational view of the world has to begin with an acceptance that this basic fact is not about to change. Just as the banning of the printing press in sixteenth century France did not destroy that technology, attempts to eliminate file sharing is not going to stop it from happening -- although the efforts to do so can make life temporarily unpleasant.

Naturally enough, these changes in technology can make business models and corporations obsolete. As Falkvinge said in his keynote, "there's no such thing as right to profit." Just as the ice-cutting industry in nineteenth century Sweden was made obsolete by refrigerators, so record and music corporations are being made obsolete by computers and the Internet.

"It's understandable than an obsoleting industry is fighting for its life," Falkvinge says, "But it's up to the politicians to say, that, 'No, we're not going to dismantle civil liberties, just so you don't have to change. Get out, and adopt or die.'"

This message sounds a little too laissez-faire -- I for one, would suggest programs to help companies threatened with obsolescence to find new business models. But at least it has the virtue of being based on the reality of how the world works.

Where the Pirates will go from here is a question that I can't begin to guess. However, I suspect and hope that the rise of the Pirates will become as important to modern political discourse as the rise of Labour and the Greens have been in their day. We could use a political party or platform that has some relation to reality.

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