I came to the Pirate movement as a film student frustrated with Hollywood and fascinated with the Internet. I stayed for the promise of a genuinely new kind of political thought, and the Pirate Wheel‘s potential to apply to every sociopolitical issue. As institutions fail all over the globe, that holistic approach hasn’t really materialized. Even though we need it more than ever.
Since 2013 I’ve been detached from a lot of Pirate Party discourse, and every time I dip my toe back in the same things frustrate me. Early that year, mainstream media accused the movement of navel-gazing, and I’ve struggled to disagree with that charge. Even almost nine years after this movement began, Pirate discourse hasn’t grown much more diverse than Computery Debate Club. No matter what happens in the world, all many Pirates seem to talk about are copyright, crypto, and companies that make movies.
That seems like an odd thing to complain about, because after all, that’s what this whole movement was founded on. But as Wired reported after the 2014 European elections:
Across Europe, mainstream political parties have stolen Pirate policies wholesale. Net neutrality has been permanently enshrined in law. ACTA was roundly defeated. Copyright law is being reformed. Judges are starting to argue that banning someone from accessing the web is ‘unreasonable’. Telecommunications borders are being torn down. Plus, following the Snowden disclosures, European politicians are queueing up to condemn the level of surveillance that their citizens are subject to and the countries that are making it possible.
Perhaps I’m more upset by this outcome because I live in the US — a country with a hideous, barely-democratic two-party system in which third parties are only ever permitted to act as lobbies on the mainstream Democrats and Republicans, which inevitably leads to no transformative change at all. I may have become more radicalized than my European peers from all the years of disillusionment I’ve suffered under a political system more thoroughly broken and disempowering than their own. But I don’t like the idea of spooking the mainstream parties into placating us by adopting a few of our positions, in the end allowing the old guard and old structures to remain in power. That’s unacceptable to me. Because every day I see the half-measures of the progressive first half of the American 20th century being torn apart, revealing the political flimsiness of laws affirming the rights of women and people of color, of social services that give shelter and healthcare to people for whom capitalism isn’t working, and of the right of the people to have any meaningful say in federal or state governance whatsoever. Pirate political gains won through the approval of the mainstream parties are only good until the mainstream gets bored of them.
So I’m frustrated that the Pirate Party has nothing to say about anything outside of our computery bubble. None of the issues inside of our computery bubble are going to meaningfully change without addressing the larger sociopolitical injustices that cause them.
For the entirety of 2013 and 2014, when Edward Snowden brought what should be a core Pirate issue into the mainstream, the Pirate Party in the US had nothing to contribute to the discourse and had no effect on the aftermath. This isn’t because the Pirate Party in the US is and has always been hideously disorganized (which it has). Even if we actually had a functioning Pirate Party, the tactics popularized by the European movement wouldn’t have done anything. Glenn Greenwald and company did a fantastic job of making the Pirate case for online privacy without our help, but the impenetrable US government would have been just as impenetrable even if we had been chipping away at it too. The American surveillance state is not still in place despite Snowden for lack of somebody wearing an eyepatch organizing against it. The surveillance state is still in place because of a complex system of oppression and inequality that empowers a plutocratic oligarchy to ignore what 99% of the population wants or needs.
This looming behemoth of corporate-state repression is the kind of thing our Pirate Wheel suggests we should be equipped to address. The principle that everyone has a voice and that everyone should be empowered, and the notion that all other policies stem directly from that central hub, is exactly what we need to envision a real alternative to the broken world order that we live with. But all we ever seem to do is complain about the music industry — again. Meanwhile, people lose their jobs and aren’t miraculously saved by post-scarcity, police kill people for no reason and get away with it, fossil fuels make the climate go haywire and extreme weather destroys people’s homes, and bankers go back to building yachts entirely out of $100 bills just six years after nearly destroying all social order on the planet because of their gambling problem.
No wonder it’s hard to get anyone to care about the fucking copyright monopoly.
Despite the brashness of our name, I sense a timidness in the Pirate Party to examine anything truly radical. Most glaringly, we question the idea of intellectual property but fear exploring what this implies about capitalism itself (which I’ve been guilty of too). Socialists have described the German pirates as “calling for more democracy while ignoring the real class antagonisms which prevail in society,” and whether you’ve socialist sympathies or not, they’re right — we Pirates have a pretty awful understanding of class. From the beginning we lumped together Hollywood fat-cats with struggling indie artists when we condemned people in favor of copyright, and rarely dig any deeper to realize how artists are victims too. We fall into that tone-deaf trap of saying that “real artists aren’t in it for the money,” just like every smarmy corporation that refuses to pay its interns despite being able to afford to. We’ve always been quick to make fun of anyone whining about being a failed entrepreneur, disregarding whether that person is a rich venture capitalist with very little to lose or a disaffected kid on welfare with little hope of self-sufficiency other than some guitar skills.
To the question of how artists can be self-sufficient without copyright monopolies, we have nothing transformative to suggest other than A) maybe people shouldn’t do art (which is a completely stupid idea) or B) an unconditional basic income, which will always be a half-finished proposal until we figure out what to do with the landlords.
The funny thing is that intellectual monopolies — our core issue — are a pretty good microcosm of almost every major socioeconomic issue out there. If we’re going to start looking around and seeing all the parallels, we really need to get a more nuanced view of class, and a more coherent vision for the future. Otherwise we’re just going to be selling vaporware that pisses off 99% of society.
But we do need to start looking for those parallels and figure out a more comprehensive vision for the future, because otherwise the Pirate movement is going to be irrelevant. Broadening a party platform is a good start, but it really needs to come with a deep understanding of what we’re trying to do and why. Instead of just parroting platitudes about getting rid of creative monopolies in the market, let’s deconstruct what a monopoly is (and what the market is, for that matter), and figure out what causes and maintains it; then maybe we can work to end concentrations of power everywhere. Take the ideals of open source and study them, find out what enables people to contribute and collaborate effectively, delve really deep into the sociology of it; then maybe we can work to create governance where everyone truly does have a voice and the ability to meaningfully contribute.
And let’s please consider the fact that technology may not be the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end. We should all be growing tired of techno-Messianic worship of “disruption,” and the belief that you can change humanity with the right lines of code in an app. Far too often, Pirate rhetoric has been something like “direct democracy wouldn’t work before, but we have the Internet now!” Bullshit. Direct democracy worked in ancient Greece. Maybe voters would be too uncomfortable to confront the idea that we’ve all been manipulated into accepting an inherently corrupt indirect “representative” system that was always meant to concentrate power in people who’ve had it for centuries because “it’s for our own good” — but if that’s our excuse for using the “we have the Internet now” line, let’s at least privately not drink our own Kool Aid. The Internet was a wonderful, powerful equalizer for sure, but it didn’t change humanity, it just amplified aspects of ourselves that were already there. If the Internet has done anything for direct democracy, it’s simply reminded ourselves that we were capable of it this whole time. Internet direct democracy would certainly work faster than it could have 100 years ago, but let’s not kid ourselves that the whole thing would be impossible without electricity.
That goes for Bitcoin too: it shows a lot of promise for making open governance easier, but it’s not inevitable, and it certainly won’t turn out equitable or enjoyable without a social movement that affirms what we should actually do with the technology. This is another thing some Pirates seem afraid to do: assert the fact that we, human beings, actually have control over our own destiny in regards to technology. Which is kind of the entire point of forming a political movement telling governments that they’re doing the wrong things with technology.
Whatever principles we choose, we need to make sure that they still make sense in the event that a giant solar storm wipes out all the electronic devices in the world and leaves us back in the dark ages. We’re all still human, and it’s naive to think that technology has made us into a radically different species than we used to be. In thinking about how to run society, technology is wonderful, but sociology has to come first. Otherwise we’ll barely know what technology we’re supposed to be building for ourselves. If your killer direct democracy app can’t crudely run on Sneakernet, it’s not going to work.
If you’re reading all of this protesting that you already think this way, then louder, I say, louder. In just 9 years this movement has grown from a single-issue party about downloading movies into what has the potential to be an entirely new political ideology, if only we assert ourselves. I want capital-P Pirate to mean something. It doesn’t have to be about what issues we stand for, it can be about how we approach everything. To be a Pirate is to have a certain outlook on what power is, what laws mean and what it means when they’re broken, what justice is and how to achieve it, and what it means to have freedom.
Now let’s act like it.