One of the key insights of the Pirate community is that power is expected to corrupt people. It is not just that it is possible, rather, it is near inevitable. Therefore, you can’t trust people to not be people; instead, you must design the system to survive human nature.
I had one such epiphany last week as I got a routine mail from one of many seeking contact with me. Since stepping down from party leadership, my role has primarily been to connect people, observe and give feedback, and think aloud — acting as a classic senior Greycloak without any formal decision power.
Now, our movement is clearly in an underdog position against an establishment who are defending its positions of entitlement. We do not want to fix their structures; to them, we are the problem, not the fix. Therefore, being regarded as a disease in the system, you come to expect that your rights are ignored and the privileges of the nobility upheld; a two-tier justice system is enforced with violence. You cannot meet this on the playfield of enforcement violence where you are outnumbered and outgunned; whether we like it or not, we are rightsless. Court proceedings are rigged in every way imaginable; legislative processes scheduled to make it impossible for citizens to be heard. Instead, you must meet this with sunlight and public opinion, which is our home arena where we are unbeatable. Corruption thrives in the dark.
In this, we share a lot with the contemporary Occupy movement.
So I was not surprised when I got yet another mail last week that called my attention to this two-tier justice system. It was from a large bitcoin player in Asia who asked me to put sunlight on the fact that German police are harassing bitcoin enthusiasts, seizing their money and putting them through no ends of trouble just for using a disruptive technology that could upend the privileges of the ancien regime.
Well, this is the kind of things I do. And in this case, it makes sense for everybody. I connect these people with the German Pirate Party, who can call public opinion to this fact and strengthen their role as progressive against entitlements of the old nobility. The bitcoin player gets to strengthen the bitcoin community, the enthusiasts in Germany get to pursue their hobby without clueless police beating them for the fun of it, and the German Piratenpartei gets another feather in the hat with the German public ahead of the next elections.
Then it hits me. It hits me like a truckload of bricks being dumped on top of me without warning; I just stare dumbfounded for several minutes as I try to wrap my head around the concepts.
Damn, I hear myself say. This is what it looks like, isn’t it?
Let me rewrite what happened. A bank of our generation, a net-gen bank in a large economy in Asia, had trouble with law enforcement harassing their customers. “The law enforcement agents are misguided and misinformed in their efforts”, they might have written, “and we would like to help them understand the issues”. Rather than connecting with German law enforcement, where I have no connections, I see an opportunity for personal friends of mine who run a major political party in one of Europe’s key economies to gain from this, embarrassing law enforcement through a public media campaign to stop harassing the bank’s customers, all while gaining votes for the next election. All of my friends win and the Police look stupid.
This is indeed what it looks like, isn’t it? The very behavior we are trying to fight?
Now, I’m not utilitarian to the fingertips. The behavior we are fighting is unjust because it combines the power of lawmaking and law enforcement with that of personal and business interests; we don’t do that and can’t do that. But just because we are underdogs now — everybody in this story from the bank to the bitcoin enthusiasts to the German Piratenpartei — and trying to upend the privileges of the old, that doesn’t give us the right to take their place to defend a contemporary we live in against the next generation after us if we could. We, too, will grow old. Right now, we are saying that sunlight and transparency will prevail. At the same time, those of us who founded and started these movements are getting hyperconnected among ourselves and with all the major players building the structures of the next generation.
(As a measure of the ridiculous extent of connectedness, I’m not only connected to that bank in Asia — I am also a good customer there, and I personally know the people who designed that bank’s security systems. I used to work for them and we have even received the same awards. I don’t think the bank is aware of that fact, though.)
What is to say that we won’t just become the old, behave like the old, in 30-40 years when we have grown into much more senior positions in society where our movements have grown into power, and we all know one another and help one another stand above the law when, like above, there is a “misunderstanding with law enforcement”?
Events like the one last week are tests. Tests of whether we stand true to our ideals. Being aware of our human nature is a first step of standing true to them in the long run.
Most importantly, I am aware that our movements will start to flood with career-hungry people once there are good careers to be made in organizations like the Pirate Parties, and us idealists will gradually grow marginalized. That’s just the way things work. This is why, in my closing keynote to the Pirate Parties International earlier this year, I chose to focus on this fact. “Every 40 years”, I said, “democracy is reconquered by new idealists. Their movements are eventually taken over by career politicians. So will ours.”
Therefore, I ended by asking for a favor. “Forty years from now, those of us who are still around, I’d like to ask you for a favor“, I said. “Odds are that when our parties are flooded with career politicians forty years from now, and we are living comfortably in our retirements, a bunch of spoiled young brats will organize out of nowhere and appear to demand everything for free in ways that are both reprehensible and incomprehensible.”