From Iceland — You Have It All Wrong!

You Have It All Wrong!

Published August 28, 2012

You Have It All Wrong!
Over the last several weeks, there has been a deluge of discussion about the Icelandic Pirate Party. Most has been downright silly, much quite misinformed, and yet some strangely relevant, if slightly off-mark. So let’s clear up a few things.
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 respective founders of Piratbyrån, Pirate Bay, and 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—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. The word “hacker” has been appropriated 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 goals that don’t seem to make much sense.
One of our goals was to make Free Software—computer programs that anybody can use for any purpose—to 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 the Creative Commons: creative works for free public consumption, including the world’s largest and most comprehensive encyclopedia, Wikipedia.
Increasingly large portions of human activity is made possible by stuff that hackers made. We haven’t solved the world’s big problems yet and our anti-authoritarian efforts have been stymied 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 rights of self-determination for individuals, access to knowledge and freedom of thought. These ideals can be summarised 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 and the beginning of an information revolution. We’ve ousted a few kings, replaced them with presidents. We have glorified parliamentary talk shops on almost every self-governing landmass in the world. We have schools, which have confused process and substance for so long that we’ve become blind to institutionalisation and high-modernism.
But even with all the world’s information at our fingertips—sans that which is hidden from us by governments, corporations and others who play power games with the general public—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 we now 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. The overlap is substantial.
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 of strong leadership without independent thought. The Liberal Party is full of social conservatives and the Left-Greens have an alarming number of fascists. And The Social Democratic Alliance? Give me a break. Political parties in Iceland have a long history of adopting the most (oxy)moronic names they can come up with.
We chose no to go with “Sjóræningjaflokkurinn” because it doesn’t sound cool. “Píratapartýið” however came up during a meeting where we had been talking about the ways in which words keep being misappropriated and re-appropriated. 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 favourite is to stick the word “meint” (alleged) in front of anything—a similar thing is happening in English. It’s a dampening word which eliminates certainty.
We wanted to challenge this tyranny of language. We decided to use “Pírat,” a meaningless word burdened with counterfeit meaning, conjoined with “Partý,” which means the fun kind of party but not the political type of party. The name might still change, but it’s hardly the most important thing right now.
I really enjoy that the best people can say against 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 organisation bent on gaining power (take a hint!).
Actually, people have found one other thing to complain about. It’s one of our members—my colleague Birgitta Jónsdóttir. I’ll admit that in many ways it would be a hell of a lot 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, she is a valuable asset for a party like ours.
Birgitta gets this flak because she’s a renegade MP. Public figures should be criticized. It would be nice if it were levelled at her ideas instead of her persona, but that would require a political discourse way above the current level. Some have pointed out that she’s been a founding member of four political parties now, including The Citizens’ Movement, which was taken over some weeks after the last elections, causing the MPs to split and form The Movement; and Dögun (“Dawn”), which, let’s face it, was really disappointing.
Freethinkers love to exalt the right to self-determination, which includes a right to free association. That means you can join as many clubs, collectives, parties and organisations as you want. Harrison Owen suggested that “if at any time… you find yourself in any situation where you are neither learning nor contributing, use your two feet, go someplace else.” I wish this were common practice in politics—although it might leave the Parliament building empty quite a lot of the time.
Many are confused by our governance model. It’s not entirely ready yet, but it’s more or less emerging as a flat structure.
Individuals are the fundamental unit of society, not hierarchies and 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.    
Every member has voting rights on every subject and can propose ideas to their liking. If people need to discuss ideas and come to conclusions, we have workgroups. Their existence is announced on our mailing list and a page created for it on our wiki—a kind of permanent political memory—for posterity. One or more individuals can decide to form a workgroup. At least one person from the workgroup shall submit a final report to the party.
This is different from a committee because anybody can found one and anybody can join one, and anybody can report from one. Workgroups neither need nor require legitimacy—their only purpose is to expand our knowledge base. If they want to make proposals, they do so as individual members.
A lot of fear and loathing is directed at pirate parties for our alleged interest in “copying with impunity.” That would be silly, as everybody already copies wildly; it cannot be stopped. It’s how the universe works. Human societies could not exist without copying and remixing. Impunity is not required.
We do support intellectual monopoly reform. We see copy rights as detrimental to artists, consumers and the economy, and letters patent are useless and harmful. It is possible to fix society such that everybody benefits, but we can’t do that while intellectual monopolies are being granted. It is an unwritten rule that in democratic societies we do not allow monopolistic behaviour, and yet we grant companies the right to claim rents on cultural artefacts made by starving artists for up to 70 years? What kind of madness is this? We can do better.
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.
Our question: How can any government function be improved by adding more information?
It doesn’t take a Pirate to see that this makes sense.
Smári McCarthy is a freedom of information activist who works for IMMI. You can follow him on Twitter @smarimc
The picture above shows (l-r) Björn Þór Jóhannesson, Birgitta Jónsdóttir, Smári McCarthy and Helgi Hrafn Gunnarsson as they meet at the University of Reykjavík to figure out how to build a decentralised political party from scratch and embed it into an oversaturated society.
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