A new-ish political party is changing German politics. Apparently.
A secretive bunch in some ways, who often use “party names” in public and while discussing with other members, yet who at the same time have “transparency” as the main element in their as yet thin political programme.
Largely male, the members use antiquated greetings and — for outsiders — an often strange language, impenetrable to those not in the know and those without the technical know-how to take part.
After elections the group is now taking its maiden voyage in the Berlin city state parliament, further excursions as the kingmaker in North German Schleswig-Holstein, and a success in North Rhine-Westphalia. It may cause two unstable political ships, of the neoliberal FDP and the Left Party, to sink.
I’m not talking about some far-left grouping, though some “abuse” them as such. This is the Pirate Party Germany, who, founded in 2006, recently held their largest ever party conference.
I watched hours of that conference over the internet. It was held in a civic sports hall somewhere in the western German provinces. About 1,200 members were present.
For an organisation which looks set to overtake the Greens as Germany’s third party, while helping the neoliberal FDP into its grave, and at the same time possibly putting the “Left Party” into a permanent vegetative state, and whose main selling point is being dilettantish and “anti-party”, the convention was very old school.
The very idea of delegates is frowned upon — conferences are open to all members and anyone could speak — but there were a lot of technical interventions, some of them bordering on the ridiculous.
For example, a vote was taken on whether during the card votes to the leading committees — there is a chairperson, but no “leader” as such — episodes of “My Little Pony” should be beamed onto the wall.
“Ponytime” is a popular concept among the Pirates, especially when debates cannot be resolved easily.
“My Little Pony” holds important lessons for us all about how people (or unicorns) can get on with each other, despite differences.
There are reasons why and how the Pirates have become so successful. Aside from the German electoral system, which makes it easier for smaller parties to get elected, there is an important “hacker movement”, with structures and organisations of its own.
In Germany in 1984, the “Chaos Computer Club” proved that online banking was anything but safe, by breaking in to the Prestel (basically teletext over the telephone, a forerunner of the internet) account of the Hamburg Savings Bank and transferring themselves 135000 Deutschmarks over one evening. This knocked back people’s trust in state organs — and in the state-owned bank’s trust in the telecommunications system which they had been assured was unbreakable.
Similarly there was a massive campaign against the first census in West Germany in 1987. People feared the state nosing into their personal affairs, the storage of data on (then massive) computer systems, leading to the census being abandoned. In East Germany the “state security” Stasi had a large percentage of the population voluntarily giving information on friends, acquaintances and workmates.
And the Nazis under Hitler used computers from IBM to organise the holocaust.
There is, therefore, a certain sensitivity to technology and the rise of the observation state. When the government tried to introduce laws to block certain internet sites — a legal censorship mechanism — the arguments, familiar from Britain, regarding child pornography didn’t wash. Especially when one minister responsible didn’t even know what an internet browser is.
The campaign argued for “deletion, not censorship” (which could be easily got around anyway). Data retention laws have also not (yet) been introduced in Germany for similar reasons.
Such laws, which are in Britain naively referred to as a “snoopers’ charter”, involve the storage of personal data of basically everyone, regardless of whether they are suspected of criminal activity. They make everyone a suspect.
The current successes of the Pirates in Germany is based on two things: a general mistrust of career politicians and disinterest in career-party politics. Many voters are previous non-voters. The other reason is the public debate on internet and data issues, where the politicians involved have been shown to have been out of their depth.
At some point the Pirates must decide whether they want to develop a political programme.
And whether they are of the left, or of the right. It is still hard to tell.