By David Hoggard
The European elections of last week have been a goldmine for opinion-merchants, providing a rich seam of data that can – if you squint – support whichever theory you have been pushing for the last five or ten years. While the rise of dreaded right-wing populists is overstated in some quarters, the decline of traditional class-based parties remains a valid talking point. This is particularly true among the younger generation: a serious segment of the voting population now has no memory of the days when welfare states and trade unions were vital bastions against barbarism for one side and authoritarian bogeymen for the other. In these elections – to commit grievous sins of generalisation – centrist liberals have therefore seen significant success, as have Greens in northern Europe. Voters are making decisions along different axes of opposition than they followed a few decades ago.
Perhaps the oddest of these emerging tribes is the Pirate movement. It is a recent ideological innovation, beginning (to all intents and purposes) with the founding of the Swedish Pirate Party by Rick Falkvinge in 2006. Falkvinge was a former member of the Moderates, Sweden’s main centre-right party, and was a moderately successful IT entrepreneur. Interestingly, he had spent most of his life as Dick Augustsson, but changed his name in 2004 because he was unhappy about being bullied for being called ‘Dick’ and preferred to be bullied for choosing the name ‘Falcon-wing’.
Falkvinge’s refreshing ability to change when his previous attitude hadn’t worked was a major contributing factor to the early success of his party – along with an interesting party name, sympathetic media coverage during a quiet week in the news cycle, and a genuine demand for cyber-libertarianism. A few months after the Pirate Party was founded, the Swedish authorities raided the Pirate Bay, a file-sharing service, and the Party got some real momentum from people who didn’t approve of the state interfering with their right to illegally download bad films. As well as boosting the party in Sweden, the drama also incited the creation of similar parties all over the world.
The Party would have to wait until 2009 for any real success, though, and in the meantime Falkvinge maxed out his loans and had to survive on donations from party members. The 2009 European elections saw him saved from penury, as he led the Pirate Party to over 7% of the vote and two seats. His admission of financial hardship, ironically, seems to have helped him to achieve this – he gained the reputation of being a man willing to admit mistakes to the public, which tends to appeal to the knee-jerk anti-politics crowd. Although, on the other hand, one academic has compared it to a technique used by pick-up artists.
This was pretty much the high-water mark for the Swedish Pirates. Falkvinge lost a lot of cachet after coming out in favour of a manga artist who was found guilty of possession of sexually explicit drawings of minors. Coincidentally, a German MP defected to the Pirate Party in that country in 2009 but resigned later upon being discovered to possess child pornography.
Falkvinge stepped down as Leader shortly after failing to break through into the Riksdag and is now very interested in cryptocurrency. The new leader, Anna Troberg, lasted three years, but failed to broaden the Party’s perspective to more general liberal issues, including sexuality and gender policy. When she quit out of frustration in 2014, she called on the Pirates to become “something more than a mere social club for white, heterosexual men with an interest in technology”, and expressed her boredom at talking about file-sharing all the time.
The question of whether a broader libertarian agenda was a good idea also gripped the German Pirates, who started winning state-level seats in 2011, against the backdrop of a precipitous decline in the polls for the Free Democrats and, to a lesser extent, the Greens. The Pirates broke through in Berlin by sweeping up votes in reasonably prosperous areas full of young, upwardly mobile bohemians. Those who preferred to focus exclusively on digital rights and privacy were known as Kernis, while those who wanted to broaden the policy offer to include Universal Basic Income and drug legalisation were called Vollis – it was all very reminiscent of the internal Green debates of the 1980s.
Unlike the debates between the Fundis and the Realos, however, the strife within the German Pirate Party sank it without a trace – along with inter-personal struggles and bizarre scandals. No state seats were won after 2012, due to the toxicity which comes when a bunch of technology enthusiasts with no entrenched political platform are suddenly thrust into positions with actual responsibility, media oversight and the need to communicate effectively with other human beings. One of their Berlin representatives even murdered another Pirate and pushed his body around the streets in a wheelbarrow before taking his own life.
In truth, there was always going to be a limited shelf-life for exclusively copyright-based policies. Fairly soon after the big pirating sites were taken down, file-sharers moved to more anonymous ways of sharing copyrighted material, while the market also provided cheap access to media through apps like Spotify. There was no real demand for the sorts of policies that Falkvinge had initially called for. Instead, Pirates had to broaden the message in order to remain relevant. In Iceland, the Pirate Party broke through based on their identification with an abandoned process of constitutional reform which had nothing much to do with privacy or the Internet. Then they became a potential alternative Government when Iceland’s Prime Minister was named in the Panama Papers, although this hype wasn’t borne out by the final results.
The Panama Papers were one entry in a long series of leaks which paint governments and businesses the world over in an extremely poor light. Figures such as Julian Assange, Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning and Glenn Greenwald burst onto the scene a few years ago and were hailed as heroes or reviled as devils, depending on whether one had sympathy with them or with those harmed by their leaks – who weren’t always guilty. Voters were presented with a world in which powerful people abused their power and suppressed those who spread the word about their abuse – and some of those voters took the side of the suppressed by voting Pirate. The German Pirates elected an MEP in the 2014 European elections, and the Icelandic Pirates did well in the 2016 elections there.
There is, of course, a weakness here. The early Pirates saw no utility in private ownership of media or data, and the Swedish Pirates even sought to abolish patents. Later Pirates support the private ownership of data, free from surveillance by companies or governments. The only tenuous link they can point to is that surveillance is often used against file-sharers.
Subsequently, this anti-surveillance vibe has developed into a more general libertarian distrust of government databases. Swedish and German Pirates now argue against centralised databases of any kind. But this brings them into conflict with the Czech Pirates, who have grown up more recently and still have a naïve love of technological solutions. The Czech party wishes to institute a ‘digital identity’ for every citizen, controlled by the state, to be used in every context from banking to elections (including, of course, online voting). In other words, they want a large, inherently hackable database containing the details of everybody in the country, and they want to trust this system with the private property of the entire nation, as well as its very democratic process. This would be a goldmine for the NSA, and most other Pirate Parties oppose online voting.
The Czech Pirates are also unusual in that they’ve broken through in a country which didn’t even have copyright legislation until the fall of Communism. Their 2014 manifesto barely mentions the concept upon which the global Pirate movement was predicated. Instead, they hark back to the heroic resistance of Czechs during the dictatorship: Czechs who spread the truth and gave the lie to state propaganda. They now put a lot of stress of Free Speech issues.
Despite – or perhaps because of – these issues, the Czech Pirates have grown slowly but firmly in recent years. They first won a Senate seat in Prague in 2012, and subsequently got 11% of the vote in the general election of 2017, essentially cornering the urban liberal market in a fairly liquid party system. They increased this to 14% in the 2019 European elections, which translated into 3 MEPs – although this was judged to be an underperformance compared to the polls. The Icelandic Pirates also suffer from being overestimated in polling, presumably because most of their voters are younger and therefore less likely to turn out on the day.
However, we can say with a reasonable amount of confidence that the Pirates are on a slow upswing marked by sharp surges and equally sharp deflations – see the initial excitement over the Swedish party, the polling surge of the German Pirates in 2012, and the anticipation of the Icelandic Pirates leading a coalition government. However, the trend can be marked by European election results: two MEPs from Sweden in 2009 (with one only taking her seat after the Treaty of Lisbon came into effect), one from Germany in 2014, and three in Czechia and another in Germany this year. The German MEPs have been elected only because of the abolition of the electoral threshold.
However, with the exception of the German MEP and some of the Icelandic MPs, the Pirates have very rarely managed to win seats in two successive elections, instead tending to flare and die away. The overall trend towards growth is fuelled by parties breaking new ground in different countries, not by long-term entrenchment – although this may be changing as parties like that in Czechia take a longer route to power than did the original Swedish version.
Which voters do Pirate parties attract along this route to power? Well, the easy answer is that they predominantly appeal to young, urban, digital natives to whom traditional political battlegrounds no longer feel relevant. Part of this feeling can be traced to relative affluence within our current class structure: the people who voted for the Czech Pirates in 2017 had most often abstained in the previous general election, but the next-largest group was formed of ex-voters for TOP 09, a conservative party with a bit of liberal rhetoric. In early elections, the Czech Pirates engaged in electoral alliances with both Greens and Christian democrats.
Mostly, though, Pirates appeal to people who don’t trust the system – to protest voters or serial abstainers. It is their opposition to the power of the government to interfere in the lives of ordinary people which gains them their better voteshares. They are an anti-party movement with nods towards the direct democracy and libertarianism that characterises parts of the populist Right, and yet they manage to also appeal to the Left and to liberals with the social liberalism (on, for instance, drugs policy and immigration) which they appropriated after the file-sharing issue was rendered less emotive by changes in technology, society and the market.
Last year, the Pirates unexpectedly got into the Chamber of Deputies of Luxembourg with 6.5% of the vote, and improved this to 7.7% in the European elections – if you compare the heatmap of their performance with that of the Greens, you will see that where the Greens are weak, the Pirates do best. Both are protest parties, but the Greens have used their urgent policy platform to entrench themselves as a seemingly permanent feature of the landscape, leaving the Pirates to seek out similar types of post-materialist voters who have, for whatever reason, failed to be pulled in by the Greens. Whether this niche can be exploited over the longer term depends on the competence of the Party and on the tides of public feeling.
The next few years will show us whether Pirates can do well over the long-term and outside of wealthy corners of Europe. In a sense, there are political PoDs happening all the time at the moment, although the ones with more relevance to the Pirate movement probably date mostly from Germany in the early years of this decade. On the other hand, the debate on the nature of a hypothetical Icelandic Pirate government will never get old.
Pirates are instinctively liberal or libertarian, and by their nature they are technophiles – although their general scepticism towards online voting shows that they are more aware of the fallibility of technology than some mainstream politicians. But like all Extremely Online Libertarians, their greatest problem is their frequent failure to relate to the concerns of people outside of their in-group and communicate without seeming slightly creepy. This is the issue which ended the careers of Rick Falkvinge and most of the German state politicians. And it will always be a limiting factor when voters can opt for Greens or for generic liberals instead – once they get bored of the novelty of Pirate personalities. Perhaps the electorates of individual countries will tend to get bored of the novelty of Pirate policies as well, but it is too soon to be certain of this.