After the release of the so-called Panama Papers led to the downfall of Iceland’s prime minister, the Pirate Party is poised to take his place in the next election. In a multi-party nation, 43 percent of voters are now backing the Pirates.
They sound dangerous, but they’re not named after the murderous brigands off the Horn of Africa and in the South China Sea. The Pirates are basically a libertarian protest party, and they’re capitalizing on a wave of anti-establishment outrage.
Prime Minister Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson resigned last week when a law firm in Panama City revealed that he and his wife set up a company in the British Virgin Islands that allegedly has a conflict of interest with Icelandic banks. Gunnlaugsson’s Progressive Party—which is actually center-right and classically liberal rather than leftist—is in disarray and will likely collapse, at least temporarily.
Europe has never been fertile ground for libertarians. It is not Montana, and it isn’t Wyoming. But the Pirate Party defies conventional labels and isn’t entirely sure whether it belongs on the left, on the right, or anywhere in particular. It’s not even entirely libertarian. It’s a hodgepodge of libertarians, centrists and left-wing activists. The classically liberal center-right could join in theoretically, but it’s poised to go down with the prime minister.
Iceland’s Pirate Party is one of several in the West. The first was founded in Sweden in 2006 as a protest party. They all started as protest parties, including the Icelandic branch. The Pirate Party also has an American branch.
Its various incarnations differ somewhat from country to country, but most have a core set of ideas in common. Those ideas are these, as cited on the website of the American Pirate Party.
- We stand for open culture. No one should have the power to prevent the free exchange and expression of ideas, tools, or works.
- We stand for transparency and openness. Government activities should not be hidden from the public.
- We stand for individual privacy. The amount of oppression in a society is inversely proportional to its privacy protections. Individuals must be free to make personal decisions that do not harm another person.
- We are anti-monopoly. No monopoly should be able to prevent works, tools, or ideas from: being freely used, expressed, exchanged, recombined, or taught; nor to violate individual privacy or human rights. A creator’s right to be compensated for their work or idea is only acceptable within these limitations.
- We stand for individuals over institutions. Universal human rights apply only to human beings, and not to corporations, limited liability organizations, or other group entities.
- We are a post-ideological values-based meritocracy. We place all options on the table. We choose a specific approach because the available evidence shows that it is the best way to promote our values. We do not make decisions based merely on tradition, popularity, authority or political expediency.
- We are egalitarian. We believe in equality and a level playing field. We accept input from all sources, and we value all people equally.
- We actively practice these values. We hold ourselves accountable for our own adherence to these principles.
Most Americans have never heard of this party. But if the Pirate Party wins an election in Iceland, the other branches may not look so much like protest parties anymore. They might suddenly appear viable everywhere.
Birgitta Jonsdottir founded the Icelandic branch in 2006. She’s a former Wikileaks activist and calls herself a poetess. One of the planks in her party’s platform is granting immediate citizenship to Edward Snowden, who leaked massive amounts of information from the National Security Agency (NSA) about its global surveillance system. Yet in her campaign video, an unidentified man is quoted saying, “information in Icelandic servers would be very much like money in Swiss banks.”
That doesn’t exactly square with Edward Snowden and Wikileaks. The Pirate Party says it wants to protect data, but Snowden and Wikileaks have done precisely the opposite.
She could try to resolve that contradiction, I guess, by saying everyone except government and corporate officials have the right to privacy, but government and corporate officials are citizens too. It ought to go without saying that they shouldn’t be above the law, but they can’t very well be below the law. Either everybody deserves privacy or nobody deserves privacy. (Should Hillary Clinton have released the password on her email account to the public, or should she have used a secure server?) We should expect Jonsdottir’s views on these questions to “evolve,” as she might later put it, if her party wins an election and she find that she’s now the target of leakers.
The Pirate Party is aptly named in at least one way. It openly supports Internet piracy. “The Pirate Party affirms that current copyright law is not good for the public or for creative professionals,” says the American Pirate Party’s website, “and only actually benefits a small minority of corporate executives.”
Sorry, guys, but that’s bullshit. I am no corporate executive. Royalties from my book sales make up a significant portion of my income. Without it, I’d lose my house. Take my intellectual property away, and you owe me a salary for the rest of my life. Just pay for your books and music and movies like everyone else. All of these things are cheaper than ever. Music costs half of what it cost twenty years ago, and that’s without adjusting for inflation. The same goes for e-books.
If creative professionals can’t make a living, the creative professions the Pirate Party wants to steal from will cease to exist.
Anyway, loosening copyright enforcement isn’t what’s mobilizing huge masses of people in Iceland. They’re mobilized by disgust with the status quo generally.
Jonsdottir says her party is part of the same international wave of change represented by Bernie Sanders in the United States and the Syriza party in Greece, but that only makes sense up to a point. Sanders is a socialist—the opposite of a libertarian—and Syriza has Maoists, Trotskyists and other revolutionary communists in its ranks. Bernie Sanders is Jeb Bush next to these people. Libertarian, they are not. They are, on the contrary, the ne plus ultra of statists.
What Syriza has in common with the Pirates, however, and with Bernie Sanders and also Donald Trump, is that they are all anti-establishment.
Much of the Western world is in an anti-establishment mood. Some people gravitate toward the botched ideologies of the past while others are marinating in new ideologies that haven’t yet proven themselves one way or the other.
Why now and what’s going on?
There may be no single cause. John Podhoretz at Commentary thinks the American mood is a delayed reckoning from the financial crash in 2008.
In September 2008, after months of uncertainty following the collapse of Bear Stearns, the financial system went into its terrifying tailspin. A disastrous recession shrank the overall economy by 9 percent, and the unemployment rate rose to 10 percent a year later.
Now imagine that the meltdown had taken place not in September 2008 but rather in September 2006. Imagine that housing prices and stock prices had fallen in the same way—such that the wealth invested in the 63 percent of home-owned American households and in the stocks owned by 62 percent of all Americans had declined by 40 percent.
Further, imagine that serious proposals arose that the 8 percent of homeowners who had defaulted on their home loans be forgiven their debts—the very proposal in 2009 that led investor Rick Santelli to call for a new “tea party” uprising on the part of the 92 percent who paid their bills on time. Only this time Santelli’s comments had been spoken in 2007. Imagine all these things. And then imagine the presidential race that would have followed. Does the rise of Trump and Bernie Sanders suddenly make all the sense in the world? Of course.
But of course the meltdown didn’t happen in 2006. It took place a mere seven weeks before an election.
That’s as good an explanation of any I’ve read for why the United States is a hair’s breadth away from an election between a fake Democrat (Sanders) and a fake Republican (Trump.)
Perhaps we should have seen it coming. The 2008 primary elections were finished before the financial crash hit. Barack Obama and John McCain were chosen for the general election in an earlier era, before the tsunami of economic anxiety that still hasn’t washed out yet.
There were warnings. The anti-establishment mood on the right began with the Tea Party, and on the left with Occupy Wall Street. Pirate Parties have been popping up all over the place, mostly under the radar, in the meantime. Syriza, of course, is a product of problems unique to Greece, which are so catastrophic that hardly anyone will be surprised if the European Union sends it packing.
We shouldn’t read too much into what’s happening in any one place. Every country has its own unique set of problems, and Iceland is hardly representative of anywhere else. There are more people in Omaha, Nebraska, than in all of Iceland.
Still, no one can say that it’s business as usual right now in the politics of the Western Democracies. What the landscape might look like ten or twenty years after an international and trans-ideological spasm of anger and disgust is anyone’s guess.