Revenge of the nerds

It's been one year of the Pirate Party in the Berlin parliament after winning an astounding 8.9 percent of the vote. In the run up to The Exberliner Pirate Night this Wednesday (Oct 24) at Kaffee Burger we explore what they wanted and achieved.

Image for Revenge of the nerds
Photo by Ben de Biel

One year of the Pirate Party in the Berlin parliament.

“Those nerds are a threat to our way of life,” fumed jock Stan Gable in the 1984 classic comedy Revenge of the Nerds. More than a few German politicians must have had the same thought in the last year. On September 18, 2011, the Pirate Party was catapulted into Berlin’s parliament with an astounding 8.9 percent of the vote. Nerds, long condemned to administering the networks of other political parties, now had their own.

The Pirates, who started out on an anti-internet censorship platform, have become more like a ‘Party 2.0’ in which rank and file determine policy in real time via social networks.

Germany’s established parties are rushing to catch up: the SPD and the FDP have introduced internet platforms to discuss policy; the Greens are holding a members’ referendum to select their leading candidates for the next elections. For politicians to connect with their constituencies, it used to be enough to shake hands at a Volksfest every couple of months. Now, they are all expected to tweet.

But what have the Pirates actually accomplished?

The story so far

The Piratparti of Sweden was founded in January 2006, and its German offshoot was born 10 months later at the Berlin hacker club c-base. Every time governments moved to censor the internet, the Pirates received a boost.

In Sweden, a verdict against the owners of filesharing site The Pirate Bay helped the Pirates get 7.1 percent in the June 2009 European elections. Likewise, the German Piratenpartei made a splash at demonstrations against the government monitoring of the internet proposed by then-Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, who by his own admission didn’t even use email. They won two percent of votes in the national election of September 2009 (in their words, 847,870 ‘Likes’ from voters), still well below the five percent threshold to enter parliament.

But the Pirates were evolving. While talking about the endless possibilities of free access to information and instant collaboration on the internet, they started to develop virtual platforms for direct democracy within their own ‘participation party’.

When they switched on this giant hive mind in the run-up to the Berlin elections, a new kind of political programme emerged. While in 2009 the party’s platform was limited to internet questions (including some very detailed proposals on IP addresses, but leaving out topics like unemployment and the environment), by 2011, the Berlin Pirates had developed some unique ideas for the entire city. Some were less radical, like free wi-fi throughout Berlin; others were more so, like a “basic income” for all people regardless of whether they work or not. And many were crowd-pleasing, like making the BVG free and legalising drugs.

Breakthrough in Berlin

The Pirates’ new platform, explained via 12,000 posters put up during the Berlin election campaign, led to the group’s breakthrough into the mainstream. Developed by the members instead of an advertising agency, these posters presented demands along with a healthy cynicism towards the existing political system.

The posters resonated with voters, fuelling the fire of the Occupy movement. The day before the Berlin election, protests began in Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park. In Spain and Greece, young people were crowding public squares and chanting that “they” – the political class – “don’t represent us.”

The Pirates drew on some of the same disdain for ‘them’, but instead of trying to physically occupy the parliament, as tens of thousands of protesters did in Barcelona, they got elected into it.

On election night, their 8.9 percent result surprised them more than anyone: They won 15 seats in the Berlin parliament, having presented only 15 candidates. (With a few more votes, the Pirates actually would have gotten another seat, which would have remained empty!)

To celebrate, they didn’t go to a stuffy hotel, but instead to the club Ritter Butzke in Kreuzberg. The 15 new representatives – among them students, computer programmers, unemployed people and even a woman! – looked like normal (if somewhat nerdy) Berliners. One of their first proposals was to replace the official car for the faction with bicycles or monthly BVG tickets.

Now Pirates are present in three more regional parliaments in Germany: the Saarland, North Rhine-Westphalia and Schleswig-Holstein, and are well on the way to getting into the Bundestag next year. This is a big deal, as political scientist Oskar Niedermayer pointed out. “We have a hardened party system that is difficult to break into. The Pirates are the third party in half a century to manage that.” The ‘chaos butterfly’ – the one that flaps its wings in the Amazon and causes a storm halfway around the world – would be proud: shutting down a file sharing site in Sweden has changed the German party landscape significantly.

Liquid Democracy

Since the elections, the Pirates’ popularity has only gone up, now hovering around 14 percent in the capital. Have they changed parliament by boarding the enemy ship? Pirate Fabio Reinhardt (31), who one year ago was unemployed, spoke with Exberliner in an office in the Berlin parliament.

With a history degree and several international championships in the fantasy card game Magic: The Gathering behind him – “I guess I am a nerd in some aspects” – he admits that the Pirates haven’t won a lot of legislative victories yet. “We still need to learn the ropes.”

They’ve already changed Germany’s political culture. Johannes Ponader, the newly elected party secretary, appeared on a political talkshow in sandals, using his smartphone to correspond with followers on Twitter while others were talking.

In the Berlin parliament, the Pirates say “Scheiße” a lot, and SPD leader Torsten Schneider worries this means that “the parliamentarians will lose their function as role models.” But who exactly sees them as role models?

The Green Party entered parliament 30 years ago with peace signs, bushy beards and frisbees, and their first minister was also known for inappropriate footwear (tennis shoes at the swearing-in ceremony). Party leader Joschka Fischer once called the parliament’s president an “Arschloch”. And he made it to foreign minister!

Outside of parliament, the tone is rougher still. The instantaneous communication of the internet facilitates democratic processes but just as easily leads to so-called ‘shitstorms’. Pirates’ criticism of their leaders turns into a public feeding frenzy. And the leaders, political newcomers almost to a man, have certainly had their share of flubs. Martin Delius (28), another Berlin representative, told a journalist: “The rise of the Pirate Party is as rapid as that of the NSDAP between 1928 and 1933.”

Delius apologised for the remark but published his own gaffe on Twitter in order to be ‘transparent’. Precisely this openness about their weaknesses makes the Pirates so likeable: they are happy to declare when they don’t have a position on an issue or don’t know an answer, kind of a “Know Nothing Party” of the 21st century. This love of transparency led Delius to spearhead the parliamentary commission investigating the ongoing delays with Berlin’s new airport.

Balance sheet

“When things get serious, the Pirates don’t have an opinion,” wrote Günter Schupelius, a commentator for the right-wing tabloid B.Z. Instead of celebrating the anniversary of the election, he proposed, “They can mourn the fact that they wasted the first year in parliament in full view of everyone.”

The Pirates have made a number of proposals – including voting rights for non-Germans, important to many readers of this magazine – but only the most minor ones have been adopted. In numbers, they made 52 motions and posed 113 questions. That’s less than half as many as the Greens, with 94 motions and 298 questions. “But the Greens also have twice as many representatives,” Reinhardt points out. “And they have been in parliament for 30 years.”

The Pirates were able to change parliamentary rules to allow laptops anywhere in the chamber, and now only eight instead of 10 representatives are needed to make a motion. “Not exactly the whole world,” admits Reinhardt. They’ve been better in pressuring other parties to make changes. The coalition government of SPD and CDU has committed itself to establishing free wi-fi in Berlin.

But the Pirate Party is more about forming a ‘parliament in the parliament’ with their faction as a voice of the citizens, making decisions via virtual democracy. For this, they use Wikis, Twitter and a platform for collaborating on texts called the PiratePad. They have also developed software called Liquid Feedback so that members can vote on individual initiatives or delegate their vote to someone whose opinion on a particular topic they trust.

In the election campaign, the Pirates declared themselves “the ones with the questions” and their voters “the ones with the answers”. But have they gotten many answers so far? At a regional party congress in September, representative Christoph Lauer complained that the Pirates’ base should interact more.

An initiative on Liquid Feedback might get 80 or even 200 responses – but from 3500 members in the city. Only one-third of the Pirates’ 30,000 national members have even signed up for the system. “Of the members, about 90 percent are inactive,” explains Reinhardt, “which is the same as in any other party. If out of 350 active members, 200 participate in a Liquid Feedback initiative, that’s pretty good.”

The Pirates are still trying to find themselves. The question about whether right-wing extremists and former members of Nazi organisations should be allowed to join the party led to a series of ‘shitstorms’ and the resignation of a Berlin chairman, before a majority at a party congress distanced itself from the far right.

The party is also a bit of a boy’s club – women make up only 10 percent of the membership. But, according to new party member Anke Domscheit-Berg (see interview), a consultant promoting transparent government, the party’s reputation for ‘postgender sexism’ is no longer current. “It’s changing. There are quite a few women who are visible.” She points to 25-year-old Marina Weissband – Germany’s most prominent Piratin, and Julia Probst, the famous deaf blogger who joined last September and will be running for next year’s parliamentary elections. “If these self-confident, intelligent, cool women are there it cannot be a sexist environment anymore.”

Revenge of the Nerds, of course, ends with the former losers inviting everyone who ever felt “stepped on, left out, picked on or put down” to join them. With intelligence, perseverance and nerdy skills, they upend their university’s power structures. Will the Pirates beat the ‘jocks’ from the established parties and get into the Bundestag in 2013? The poll numbers, so far, give them excellent chances. 

The Exberliner Pirate Night features panelists Anke Domscheit-Berg (Piratenpartei), Jan Hemme (Piratenpartei) and Robert Levine (Journalist) | Kaffee Burger, Wednesday, October 24 20:30, Torstraße 60, Mitte, U-Bhf Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz, Entry €2. RSVP on Facebook.