The Pirate Party Has Left Me Feeling Adrift At Sea

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.


  1. Caleb Lanik

    There are many parts of this article that I couldn’t agree with more, particularly that the American Pirate Party needs to get organized and actually stand for something. However, there is one aspect on which I disagree with you. You say that all pirates have suggested to struggling artists is “A) maybe people shouldn’t do art (which is a completely stupid idea) or B) an unconditional basic income”, and I think that really misunderstands the position that I at least hold, and that I think many pirates hold.

    Statistically speaking, making enough money from art to have that be your full time job, no matter what kind of art, from video games to sculpting, is akin to winning the lottery. Very nearly everyone who sets out to do so has and likely always will fail to do so. Managing to do so in a capitalistic society is akin to winning the lottery. As such, there are two major options, either we move away from a rigidly capitalistic society by implementing a guaranteed basic income, or, failing that, recommend that people not regard winning the lottery as a sound retirement plan. That doesn’t mean that people shouldn’t create art, but barring a major shift in the basis of the world or national economy, people should assume that they will need a job that more directly contributes to society, with their artistic endeavors being a hobby.

    In any event, good article, it certainly resonates with my own feelings toward the PP in recent years. I still largely agree with the ideology, particularly of the Pirate Wheel, but a lack of meaningful action has left me underwhelmed.

    1. AeliusBlythe

      You are right. But I think, because his theme is specifically issues with the Pirate Party, Zac is focusing on being an artist as only one an example of an activity which is valuable to society, but to which society does not give much value in return. (Even though I think you could argue that art and hobbies DO provide economic value.) The issue of UBI (or at the very least a robust social safety net) would transform out approach not only to artists, but to other activities that don’t generate revenue like volunteering, raising children, going to school, doing research, starting new businesses…. etc.

      I don’t think people should bet on winning the lottery to support themselves. But I also think that, we need to radically reform our approach to how people support themselves – period.

      Having recently come back to school, I can’t tell you how many times I hear the now-default “job” advice: BE AN ENTREPRENEUR! (essentially, monetize a hobby.) While I fully support self-employment and indeed am pursuing it myself, the BE AN ENTREPRENEUR fix continues to ignore the question of who has the luxury to actually develop their own job and who doesn’t.

      I think the main point of this article is that these crucial failures in our political/economic/social system must be addressed if we actually want to progress. And it’s hard not to agree with that.

      1. Eli Cummings

        Entrepreneurs are a specific type of human being. Being one for them is not a fall back position, it is what they are.

    2. Jake Witmer

      Please note that I am a small-L libertarian, and that I personally despise the ex-Republican-tendencies and incredible cluelessness of the US Libertarian Party, although I am currently a member of it. (I believe that without participation there is little hope of change. Organizations tend not to give external critics the time of day.)

      I have successfully helped place the US Libertarian Party on the ballot on the ballot in 15 States. (The current cost of qualifying a political party for ballot access in California is around $5M or so, even if piggy-backed on other “paid-interaction based” political work. The total cost for nationwide ballot access would be around $30M, and around $100M if the person organizing the work is generally strategically delusional. The cost of putting the nationwide US LP presidential candidate on the ballot is around $1M for all 50 States.) I have also successfully helped place several pro-freedom initiatives and referenda on the ballot, and Ron Paul’s delegates in 2008. I have also occasionally failed (both due to personal failings, market causes, sociopathic treachery/personally-motivated backstabbing, and organized totalitarian opposition in the form of restrictive ballot access laws). I have occasionally put less-well-funded Green Party, Constitution Party, Democrat, and Republican candidates on the ballot as well, solely out of an interest in an election that featured multiple choices, no matter how weak they were. (Better than a single “choice” on the ballot, which amounts to pure dictatorship).

      It’s my experience that all third parties are currently inherently delusional. Although no law of nature demands that they must be, “cybernetic laws” + “existing levels of sociopathy” mean that this is the “default” outcome. All other variables being equal, the sociopaths will see the dominant major party in any area as the “most viable path to power.” They will then mirror the dominant polling-ascertained views in that locale,telling the voters what they wish to hear. They will make sure their past histories look similar to previous winners, such as by being a member of the local Elk’s club, a local lawyer with a history of charitable work, etc. Because sociopaths are highly-driven to win, and freedom-lovers are not driven to win, the freedom-lovers who are involved with most “unlikely to win” parties don’t care about winning. They are not driven to win, they are driven to socialize with people similar to themselves. Such people, then, become the majority group of delusional do-nothings on any “board of directors.”

      The criticisms that Zacqary has about the Pirate Party are comparable to the problems that the Libertarian Party faces. (They are also similar to the problems that the Green Party and Constitution Party face, but those parties don’t even claim to stand for freedom, so my only reason for mentioning them is to note that all “smaller opponents to the incumbent power,” face a similar set of cybernetic laws, or “economic laws,” or “economic pressures,” or “incentives and disincentives” that shape —and reduce— their likelihood of being a serious strategic threat to the incumbent power.)

      Zacqary’s suggestions in this article are good. They are not delusional suggestions. Additionally, they are suggestions that are holistic, and hence transplantable across disciplines, as a means of finding the correct domain to solutions.

      That’s a huge start.

      Most big-L Libertarians I speak with lack the “common sense” of the great majority of “potential small-L libertarians” I meet on the street while petitioning, training petitioners, or canvassing a neighborhood. What is generally understood on the “street-level” is almost never understood in a decision-making meeting of high-ranking Libertarians. This is because not one, but several filters have been applied to the decision-making meeting of high-ranking libertarians. One such filter is the “knowledge of bureaucracy” that tends to entrench decisions. So, if a decision is being made about how to spend money, and someone wants to put out a newsletter (that no-one will read), that person fights for the money to be allocated to a newsletter, regardless of more pressing “life-or-death” priorities, knowing that a decision that’s been made is hard to reverse. Another such filter is that all of the people in the room chose to be involved in an organization that does not normally win elections, and is not expected to win office in the next election (an expectation-shrunken and self-label-shrunken talent pool). Another such filter is that the guy who’s capable of winning often suggests data from reality that make winning harder, unless the label is “re-branded” (but everyone in the room thought it was important enough to show up for the label as it stands, so they’re self-selected for not having that much of a problem with the label). There are more such filters, but you get the point.

      The common man and common politician both prioritize strategy over principle. The common political petitioner (the person who asks members of the general public to sign ballot access petitions) rapidly becomes aware of the inherent limitations of political solutions. The common principled political petitioner (principled petitioners are very rare) rapidly becomes aware of philosophical and strategic limitations of political solutions. A simple “revealed preference” filter separates the principled petitioners from the unprincipled: will they work on initiatives and referenda (single issue subjects) that are contrary to their stated political beliefs? If not, they are “principled,” for the purposes of this discussion.

      Principled petitioners want change, but they recognize certain aspects of reality that make change (according to a given strategy) impossible. Rather than alter strategy in such a way that it obeys the current political reality, Libertarians tend to say “If it requires us to alter our message even slightly, then to heck with it, let’s just lose. We’d rather lose while staying true to our message.” This is always a false choice: the outcome need not reflect the change in message. In fact, the outcome is largely independent of the message. (An unpopular message will require more political work to identify and mobilize sympathizers, and a very unpopular message will require a cost-prohibitive amount of political work. Nonetheless, messages that are totally delusional generally lack even the ability to get past the planning stages, unless there is a single immensely wealthy donor who is in close sympathy with the delusional message.)

      Something that all petitioners learn: It’s possible to create a successful political party with any label, no matter how goofy, weird, or delusional it sounds. As famous conservative political consultant Morton Blackwell famously wrote:

      “It came down to this: What is the real nature of politics?

      Here was our first great conclusion: Being right in the sense of being correct is not sufficient to win. You don’t win just because your heart is pure, even if you can prove logically that you are right.

      What, then, does determine victory?

      In our frequent meetings and discussions, we came to our second great conclusion: The winner in a political contest over time is determined by the number and the effectiveness of the activists and leaders on the respective sides.

      That fundamental understanding changed our thinking. It explains why the side that’s right doesn’t necessarily win.

      Next we considered the vital question of what determines the number and effectiveness of the activists and leaders on a given side. Clearly, numbers and effectiveness do not depend on which side is right.

      Our third great conclusion was: The number and effectiveness of the activists and leaders on a given side in a political contest is determined by the political technology used by that side.”

      I highly recommend that those interested in libertarianism read the rest of what Blackwell wrote. To the extent the pirate party is libertarian or “classical liberal,” I hope they investigate the same. (As far as TPB:AFK revealed, the Pirate Parties are fairly libertarian. I’m not an expert on the Pirate Party movement, but I probably would sound like one to most totally unaware people.)

      In any case, cybernetics, sociology, economics, history, philosophy, and law should all inform one’s political message. The superdiscipline is philosophy, the subdiscipline is cybernetics, which is then further broken down into history, sociology, philosophy, evolutionary anthropology, economics, and law. Of course, all of these things are divided by blurred lines, the way two nearby-but-separate networks are linked.

      1. Jake Witmer

        Sorry for the few non-editable typos above. I was in a rush. 🙁

        Here’s a link to the rest of the famous Blackwell article. It contains a great many truths that are transplantable across political philosophies.

  2. Pirate Neewbe


    This is much like a debate we’ve had last year with a “socialist party”. While we were preaching that 3D printers, the Internet and such would change the world they were saying that we should look beyond technology, because it is just one more product of capitalism. Being “capitalism-driven” for anything is almost a guarantee of not being able to question capitalistic thinking and our times.

    Good article.

    1. gurrfield

      Yes. Technology probably won’t change human nature. Unless we apply it to change our biochemistry… There is usually more money to be made in confusing, restricting access etc than enlightening, making stuff available etc. Many cool things could have been made at this point in time technologically speaking. But politically so much more money is spent on protecting the way money flows in this world than to actually build new useful things which people are allowed to use..

  3. jcm

    i agree the PP should stop focusing only on the “computery” side of its vision. i believe the strongest part, the unique proposal, of the PP is the swarm idea. this fits naturally into the information/computer/freedom-of-speech area, but i think what attracts people is the means to it: it’s a popular/public agenda with demands that create positive feedback and ensure the survival of this method. the PP is a renegade/alternative institution in that respect, but many people have more pressing concerns. there are many hot topics today: drugs, mass killings, scarcity, corruption (just look at Venezuela, Mexico and Spain), hotter than ever. they can all be folded into the PP vision and strategy before they are sequestered by political parties. the PP can be a vessel to a global revolution but may be getting to “established” for its own good.

  4. Ben

    To be honest, I think it has something to do with the name.

    The word ‘Pirate’ conjures up images of swashbuckling renegades swinging on rope from the starboard bow onto a merchant ship and plundering goods.

    When faced with options on the ballot, I imagine the average voter mistakenly sees it as some kind of joke. Names like “Liberal Democrat” or “Labor Party” lend weight and give an idea of legitimacy, whereas “Pirate Party” almost seems like a parody.

    Don’t get me wrong now, if I had the option on the ballot I would vote PP no question. I feel like the Pirate Party would best represent my interests. But most folk don’t really pay attention to the ins and outs of politics, or take time to fully research their options.

    The Pirate Party’s ideas, Net Neutrality, protection of Civil Rights, Direct Democracy, Privacy rights.. They’re all extremely popular ideas. If the relaxation and reform of intellectual property laws is what you’re aiming for, I would suppose shedding that ‘shiver me timbers’ image is probably what’s best if you want a significant portion of the population to vote for you all.

    Another problem is our ‘first past the post’ voting system. You more than 50% of the population in a given district to vote for you to get a seat. Unlike other parliamentary systems(especially in Europe), generally speaking, if 7% of the population votes the X party, 7% of your representatives will will be from the X party.

  5. Roel

    As a Dutch pirate I am struggling myself with ‘our’ seeming incompetence to claim Pirate victories.
    So many activist organisations and political parties claim ‘our victories’ as their own and take full credit. Rightfully so, since we fail to do so ourselves. Don’t blame anybody but us!
    Voting citizens all over the earth cannot be persuaded to vote for and join the Pirate Fight with Capital P, flag and colours.

    Yes, The Pirate Wheel can be applied to everything.
    But it is so seemingly simple that is needs much contemplation on the consequences.
    And with the Pirate=Nerd image and other parties stealing our ideals, most voters will not take PP seriously enough to do enough thinking on them to switch camps and join the fight.
    So my thoughts on how to change our fortune: Claim victory louder indeed!
    But not by shouting Arr Arr, but with explanation in explain in layman’s terms.
    Get all voters, activist organisations and media to understand us, embrace us and link our themes to our name when we deserve it! And do not let local rules keep you from fighting.

  6. Autolykos

    Other parties “stealing our ideas” means that we are winning. Maybe not as a party, but as an idea. We might get more out of it if the ideas weren’t distorted by others, but we already got more than most of us hoped for ten years ago, just with the threat of taking over if the old parties don’t adapt.
    It’s a distribution of work: The top guys in the old parties have very little in the way of ideals, but an impressive will to power. We idealists can’t match that and out-compete them at their own game, but we can (and did) exploit it to make them carry our ideas to preserve their “power”.

  7. frank87

    A few points: the artists should start realizing the publisher is the customer. Copyright is generating money for his customer, not for him. It could easily be replaces by hourly wages for artists. It’s not the system, it’s the fact the industy is taken over by salespeople.

    It is a microcosmos of a lot of economic problems: sales is dominant and production has to pay for that.

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