Smári McCarthy

Building social, political and technical infrastucture

So What’s This Pirate Party You Keep Hearing About?

Kári Túliníus’s incredibly dismissive, if not outright stupid article in the Reykjavík Grapevine today suggests that “free speech”, “transparency of governments and corporations”, and the right of individuals to “speak anonymously” are euphemisms for bizzarre sex acts. Whatever he’s smoking, it didn’t come from our treasure troves. Also, the word “avast” means “stop”, so saying “avasting of mateys” makes no sense – much like the rest of Kári’s article.

An Oddly Stated History

Let’s clear a few things up. Pirate Parties derive their name, originally, from Piratbyrån, the swedish organization set up to counteract the Hollywood-funded lobby group Antipiratbyrån. The Pirate Bay also got its name from there. The founders of Piratbyrån, and of the Pirate Bay, and of the Pirate Parties, came from a group of people who have for the last several decades been doing what they can to stem the tide against growing government surveillance, and limitations on the freedoms of individuals.

These people are called hackers. They are people like myself who enjoy learning the details of systems and how to stretch their capabilities, as opposed to most users of systems who prefer to learn only the minimum necessary. Originally, the term “hacker” was somebody who created furniture with an axe, but the word has since been reappropriated by two distinct groups. One uses it derisively, to refer to people who break into computers. The other uses it constructively, to refer to the tendency to expend effort towards seemingly useless goals – at first.

Examples of seemingly useless goals we have engaged in over the last decades include making Free Software – computer programs that anybody can use for whatever purpose, study and learn from, share with their friends, and improve upon at will. This is distinct from proprietary software which restricts a user’s freedom. After that, we started building a creative commons: an increasingly big collection of creative works, including the world’s largest and most comprehensive encyclopedia, Wikipedia.

Nowadays the average individual is using our creations every day. From the phone in your pocket to the websites you visit to the top hits of almost every online search, increasingly large portions of human activity is made possible by stuff that hackers made. Despite all of this, we haven’t been able to solve many of the world’s big problems yet. Our anti-authoritarian efforts have been stymmied by a dangerous lack of government transparency and accountability.

Back when there were real pirates on the high seas, the world was undergoing a transition. The enlightenment was in full swing, along with its rallying calls for greater right of self-determination for individuals, access to knowledge and freedom of thought. These ideals can be summarized in two requirements: democracy, and enlightenment.

Now we’re a couple of centuries down the line, and we’ve had an industrial revolution, two world wars, 48 world economic collapses (that is to say, big ones: I’m not counting the 96 banking crises and 176 liquidity crises that have occurred since the ’70s), the beginning of an information revolution, and what? Sure, we’ve ousted a few kings, replaced them with presidents and now have glorified talk shops in almost every self-governing land mass in the world. Sure, we have schools which have confused process and substance for so long that we’ve become blind to institutionalization and high-modernism.

So here we are, with all of the information in the world at our fingertips (with the exception of all of the information which is hidden from us by governments, corporations and others who play power games against the general public), and we still haven’t really gotten democracy or enlightenment.

Hackers like solving problems, and over the last several decades hackers have become increasingly open about their political motivations. So much so that now we have our own political arm: Pirate Parties.

Now, let’s not get confused here: Not all Hackers are Pirates, and not all Pirates are Hackers. But the same core mentality permeates through both groups, and the overlap is substantial. Here’s a diagram:

What’s in a name?

So what’s with the name? I don’t know, really. I’m as confused as you are. Nobody criticises the “Progressive Party” for being one of the least progressive and most repressive parties in Icelandic politics. Nobody criticises the “Independence Party” for fostering a culture without independent thought. The Liberal Party is full of social conservatives and the Left-Greens have an alarming number of fascists. And “Samfylkingin”? Give me a break. Political parties in Iceland have a long history of adopting the most oxymoronic names – or at least the most moronic names – they can come up with. With one exception.

We didn’t choose to go with “Sjóræningjaflokkurinn” because it doesn’t sound cool. Also, we don’t condone theft, only piracy. The law of the sea is quite clear in it’s Article 101 definition, and it does not apply to us.

“Píratapartýið” however came up during a meeting where we had been talking about the ways in which words keep being misappropriated and reappropriated. In Icelandic, the word for “casino” is “spilavíti” – literally “game hell”. The word for drugs is “eiturlyf” – literally “poison medicine”. Icelandic is very direct about its meanings – the language is very actively used as a tool of political manipulation. The current favorite is to stick the word “meint” (alleged) in front of anything – a similar thing is happening in English. It’s a dampening word which makes all certainty go away. The people at that meeting rather enjoyed challenging this tyranny of language, so we decided to use “Pírat”, which is very much not an Icelandic word (and is, as is rightly pointed out, meaningless), conjoined with “Partý”, which means the fun kind of party but not the political type of party. The name might still change, pending election from our members, although honestly I haven’t heard any good counterproposals.

Frankly, I really enjoy the fact that the best people can fling at us is that we have a silly name (oh noes!). A foreign name (gasp!). A name that doesn’t fit acceptable political doctrine (shame!) or befit an organization bent on gaining power (take a hint!). If they can’t find anything better to complain about…

Oh by the way, here’s some Shakespeare:

‘Tis but thy name that is my enemy;
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
What’s Montague? it is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!
What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;

Controversial Free Association

Actually, people have found one other thing to complain about. It’s one of our members. I don’t mean me, although Kári took the time to say that my credibility in nerd circles was so high that if I were a Pirate, my beard would catch fire. I’m no specialist in historical sociopolitical biothermodynamics, but I’d say that’s a stretch. My credibility in nerd circles has not reached the point of spontaneous poganotrophic self-combustion. Next year, maybe, if I keep using words like “poganotrophic”.

Nay, the member people keep complaining about is my colleague Birgitta Jónsdóttir. I’ll admit that in many ways it would be a helluvalot simpler if she weren’t a member of the Icelandic Pirate Party, because then self-righteous pundits would have even less to bitch about, but frankly, her knowledge, her passion and her history make her a valuable asset for a party like ours. Controversial as she is, she’s done a whole lot of good for the world while the selfsame pundits have been sitting on their arses. If actions must spark controversy then let them be good ones. On the other hand, I’d like to see more controversy and dirt dug up against the rest of our members. I’m sure somebody who’s come to our meetings is now or has at some point been a communist. Perhaps somebody made out with the wrong person once, or mispronounced something. Why is Birgitta getting all the heat? She’s just another member.

Partially because she’s an MP. Public figures should be criticized. But it would be nice if it were leveled at her ideas instead of her persona. Kári points out that she’s been a founding member of four political parties now: Borgarahreyfingin (which was taken over and had their mandate changed some weeks after the elections which gave her her seat, causing the MPs who were elected on a different platform to split and form:), Hreyfingin (of which she is still a member and MP), Dögun (which, let’s face it, was a really disappointing idea, really), and now Píratapartýið (which doesn’t actually exist yet!).

There’s this wonderful thing that we free thinkers love to bandy about: the right to self-determinination. It includes a right to free association. That means you can join as many clubs, collectives, parties and organizations as you want. Harrison Owen turned this into an “open space technology by stating:

If at any time during our time together you find yourself in any situation where you are neither learning nor contributing, use your two feet, go someplace else.

This is something I wish were a more prevalent practice in Politics – although it might leave the Parliament building empty quite a lot of the time.

Democratizing Democracy

One thing that appears to confuse the fuck out of everybody: Our governance model. It’s not entirely ready yet, but it’s more or less emerging as a flat structure. What does that mean? No leaders? No gods, no masters? How can this be?

Individuals being the fundamental unit of society, we’re basing the entire thing off individuals, not off hierarchies and committees. We don’t do committees. Committees explicitly give people authority instead of implicitly allowing them to garner support for ideas. A lot of the really bad things in any governance structure stem from explicit power relations.

We’re doing things differently. Implicit all the way. The way this works is that every member has voting rights on every subject. They can join or withdraw from subject areas to their liking. They can propose ideas to their liking. If people need to discuss ideas and come to decisions, we have workgroups. The rules are:

  1. A workgroup is founded to discuss a particular subject.
  2. When a workgroup is convened, its existence shall be announced on the mailing list and a page created for it on the wiki.
  3. A workgroup exists for the time which is is needed.
  4. 1 or more individuals can decide to form a workgroup.
  5. 1 individual from the workgroup is its rapporteur, and shall submit their final report to the wiki and the mailing list.
  6. 0 or more individuals from the workgroup can be shadow rapporteurs, giving independent reports to the wiki and mailing list.
  7. Workgroups keep their minutes and content on the wiki.
  8. When a workgroup disbands, it hands over its final report to the mailing list and onto the wiki.

This is different from a committee because a) anybody can found one, no mandate is needed, b) anybody can join one, no permission is needed, and c) anybody can report from one, no authority is needed. Workgroups do no need or require legitimacy – their only purpose is to expand our knowledge base. If they want to make proposals, they do so as individual members through the same mechanism as other members can propose ideas.

I’ve written a lot about these ideas before, sometimes more explicitly, othertimes less so. Check the books I’ve contributed to for details.

Trying Something New

We’re not just trying to get to “copy with impunity”, as Kári suggests. That would be silly – everybody already copies wildly, it cannot be stopped. It’s a part of the way the universe works, and human societies could not exist without copying and copymixing. Impunity is not required. Sure, we are in favor of intellectual monopoly reform – we see copy rights as detrimental to artists, consumers and the economy, and letters patent are completely useless and very harmful. There are ways of fixing society such that everybody benefits, but we cannot approach those solutions while there are intellectual monopolies in place. It is an unwritten rule that in democratic societies we do not allow monopolistic behavior, and yet for some reason we allow companies to retain the right to claim rents on cultural artifacts made by starving artists for up to 70 years? What kind of madness is this?

We can do better.

And that’s a general statement, you see. Pirate Parties are formed around the idea that traditional politics is a forlorn mess, and that a dash of ingenuity, a bit of playfulness, and a whole lot of hacker ethic can help us get somewhere else. Our ideas aren’t all about copy rights and other intellectual monopolies. They’re about information politics in general: transparency, accountability, individual freedoms, liberal markets, few and well understood regulations, and resilient social infrastructure.

A question each person should ask is: How can government function X be improved by adding more information?

It doesn’t take a Pirate to see that this makes sense.

(It’s worth noting that the above is my opinion, and not necessarily the opinion of the Icelandic Pirate Party. Parties don’t have opinions, people do.)