The fact that leading lights, Anke Domscheit-Berg and Christopher Lauer, have left the Pirate Party of Germany, a political movement formed in 2006 to campaign for an open information society, marks the end of a very surprising and unique political project.
Only two years ago Ms. Domscheit-Berg sat on a bench in front of the Unperfekthaus, a restaurant, hotel and art gallery in the city of Essen, and talked about her hopes for the Pirate Party. The well-known Internet expert had just joined the political party; she was in her mid-40s, with a penchant for big hats and colorful coats.
She was in Essen to attend a workshop for the state elections in North Rhine-Westphalia, which would later bring the Pirates 7.8 percent of the vote. Beaming, and with a self-confidence which shone on talk shows and podium discussions, she spoke of “transparent politicians.”
The Pirates hoped that citizens would better understand politics and would participate more often.
The Pirates, she hoped, would enable citizens to better understand politics and participate more. As she spoke at the workshop, Ms. Domscheit-Berg was surrounded by election volunteers who looked like people one would meet at a school parents’ association: engaged citizens, many had gray hair and did not even have Wifi at home.
It was a time when the media was full of praise for transparency in politics, celebrating such innovations as LiquidFeedback, a piece of free software designed to promote democracy. The Pirate Party looked like the political answer to the digital revolution, like children of this revolution whose tools could be used to make traditional but boring politics more modern and exciting again.
The state elections in North Rhine-Westphalia were the high point for the Pirates. It was their fourth successful state election in a row. But it was also the last election in which they surpassed the five-percent vote-share, a hurdle necessary to get seats in government. In hindsight, it was the beginning of the end.
As a Pirate politician, Ms. Domscheit-Berg had often spoken out about open government or the protection of whistleblowers. Her husband Daniel was once a close confidante of Julian Assange and was the German spokesman for WikiLeaks.
But over time, the party began to react to her involvement with criticism and malice. The Pirates had such distrust of politics that they rejected any politician with a mandate – even their own.
In their heyday, the Pirates had a lot of demands – data privacy, ticketless travelling on public transport – but no clear goal. Essentially they were operating like an Internet campaign: quick and creative when mobilizing a project for an election campaign. And because they did not have an over-arching worldview like other parties, a collective never emerged out of the swarm.
As a result, the transparency that Ms. Domscheit-Berg had wanted produced the opposite effect. Instead of drawing citizens closer to politics, the Pirates scared them away.
The constant live streaming, endless Tweets and numerous leaks aimed at proving their transparency credentials revealed two things. First, that the details of a party caucus are not really that exciting. And secondly, that amateur politicians really aren’t better people than professional politicians. Ms. Domscheit-Berg, a well-known feminist and former manager at Microsoft, was often disparaged as being a “femi-Nazi,” or “careerist.”
The Pirates had such distrust of politics that they rejected any politician with a mandate – even their own.
In perhaps its greatest irony, the party that wanted to show Germans how politically useful the Internet could be, demonstrated instead that the internet can be used to spread hate. The Pirates could have set an example for how one promotes freedom of expression on the Internet. But party trolls often got away with attacks because the leadership hid behind the maxim: “We don’t censor.”
Mr. Lauer, the second departing party member, helped to capture its first seat in a state parliament in Berlin in 2011. He has since lost his belief in transparency. “It is good that other parties discuss certain things behind closed doors,” said Mr. Lauer. “The idea that a politician will be monitored by a host of enlightened citizens isn’t true.”
Such a statement is tantamount to a vegetarian declaring a love of steak. In reality, the Pirates tried to compensate for their lack of confidence in politics with the most brutal transparency possible. The hope that politics could be done in a more modern, human way has been shown to be an illusion.
The 30-year-old Mr. Lauer had wanted to make transparency a nationwide, permanent coordination tool of the party, but he failed in doing so. The Pirates’ warnings about state surveillance – the majority of members posted, tweeted and chatted on the subject – seemed not to acknowledge that the debate had moved on in the light of Edward Snowden’s leaks. And the topic of illegal downloads, which had once so occupied Mr. Lauer and many others, has since been resolved through streaming services such as Spotify and Netflix, without the help of the Pirates.
“It is good that other parties discuss certain things behind closed doors.”
The Pirates were never capable of making a clear, emotional slogan, such as “Nuclear power? No, thank you!” They found no position on their central issue, much less embodied it. When a surveillance state is so powerful should we all make our data anonymous? Or should we accept the inevitable and make our sleep habits, account balances and depression public? The Pirates have many different answers to that, but not a joint solution.
When Mr. Lauer is asked today, why he joined the Pirates, he talks about a study trip to China. He believed that Germany must be prevented from becoming an undemocratic surveillance state. “I returned with a large degree of idealism,” said Mr. Lauer. “It was nice.”
Earlier this month, he left his party after fighting with the national leadership, but is keeping his seat in the Berlin state parliament. His exit led to a wave of departures from the party, and there have been talks about starting another party. He knows it must be different from the Pirates in order to have a chance: more professional and hierarchical. Just like the other parties.
The disenchantment with the Pirates is also disenchantment with the idea that the Internet could revolutionize politics. That, unfortunately, is the largest legacy of the Pirates.
This article first appeared in the newspaper Die Zeit. To contact the author: email@example.com