Outside of Germany, no one seems to have noticed the extraordinary efflorescence of a new party, Die Piraten, the Pirate Party. (Also, no one seems to have noticed that the German word PARTEI — political party — is an anagram of PIRATE.) It’s an international movement, of course, and I suppose it started in Sweden, with links to the Pirate Bay file-sharing site. As with many such political movements — fascism and the Green movement are just two examples — Germany has proved a particularly fertile ground, and the most recent state elections in Nordrhein-Westfalen found the Pirates winning 7.8% of the votes, nearly as many as the liberal FDP. Interestingly, that vote has drawn quite a bit of attention in the foreign press for its undermining the ruling coalition, but no one outside of Germany is talking about the Pirates.
There is a long tradition, going back to Cicero — and continuing through Gilbert and Sullivan — of invoking pirates as an ironic commentary on rapacious rulers, extended to rapacious capitalists by Bertolt Brecht and others. The association of piracy with illegal copying of artistic works goes back to the 17th century in England, as I learned from Adrian Johns’s magisterial book Piracy rights, where I also learned that the earliest designation of copying as piracy did not describe neglect of an author’s right to earn a living from his work (which right was nonexistent), but rather neglect of the king’s right to censor. A pirate was not someone who stole a poor scribbler’s hard-fought text, but rather one who arrogated to himself permission to publish without royal license. More recently, pirate radio expressed the opposition between piracy and censorship.
I find myself enormously encouraged by this movement. Their stated goals are ones I generally support: reform of intellectual property laws, data protection, civil rights and government transparency. But there’s not enough there to really make up a political program. I see it in generational terms. It may not be true that all property is theft, but it certainly seems that those who got into the world before us have gone out of their way to make sure that everything that exists has been carved up and allocated to owners, up to and including the land, the sea, their ideas, their music, and their genetic code.
Here’s an election campaign poster of the Piraten in NRW. The Greens on top with one of their solemn eco posters: Windmills and the slogan “Every source of power needs a driving force” (approximately), and then “Green makes the difference.” What does it mean? Damned if I know, but it sounds green!
Below it the Piraten put a graphically much cruder retort to this vaguely pious blather:
“Strengthen education. Understand physics.
You’d rather vote for the Pirates.”