The Power of Ideas – To Replace the Idea of Power [Pirate Visions]

The Power of Ideas – To Replace the Idea of Power [Pirate Visions]

Pirates have to work in the political environment to order to change it and we must be mindful to exercise that change with ourselves . Matthijs Pontier is a scientist and a PPNL candidate for the European Parliament.

These articles are part of the weekly series ‘Pirate Visions’ from different prominent international pirates. We asked them to write as individuals and not in their official capacities in their party or organisation. We hope you would like to join us in discussing the future direction for pirates internationally by commenting on this article, sharing it and reflecting upon what the author is saying.


The power of ideas to replace the idea of power

The past years, I got the chance to speak to various Pirates around the world. People talked to me about their ideas, the positive things we achieved, and also about some struggles. Additionally, I talked to people from other social movements, about what inspired them, what difficulties they encountered in their organization and what worked best for them in their organization. Below you can find an attempt to connect all ideas I received in one integrated vision.

Effectively communicating about strong principles

The more Pirates I meet, the more enthusiastic I become about our movement. We are quite unique in that we focus on the bigger picture. Therefore, we do not only tackle issues that directly touch on the problems that people experience; we also tackle the root problems that actually cause all the other problems. Focusing on what is wrong in the system is the most effective way to really change things in the long run, but also requires effective communication and strong principles.

Also, I am enthusiastic about these strong principles. All Pirates I met have very strong principles. I believe this is one of our most important properties, and will keep us from making half-hearted compromises in the future (as many other political movements have started doing after some time). However these same strong principles seem to have caused a problem – that people who are active for the Pirate Party need an even thicker skin than people who are active for other political parties. This has sometimes scared away volunteers and caused conflicts, after which valuable people are left angry. To make sure we are an inclusive bottom-up movement, to which people without a thick skin can also contribute, Andrew Reitemeyer rightfully concluded that we need to take personal responsibility for the way we treat each other. Note that this does not mean we should be less principled, however, it does mean that we should communicate productively.

The common ground that binds us

When I talked to people about what caused conflicts within the Pirate Party or other social movements, I mainly heard two reasons: 1) People misusing their position in the organization to push their own agenda, and 2) Conflicts about the political content. I think both these problems can be overcome when we reach a clear consensus about our core ideas and about the common ground that binds us. Additionally, focusing on the common ground that is the root of our core-issues will also help us in effective communication. Most people do not support a party only because of what they want to change. They often support a party mostly because of why they want to change it that way.

It may seem like we are a hodgepodge of people with varying ideas, however, there is a common ground that binds us. But this common ground does not always seem to be clear among pirates, let alone for the outside world that often barely knows us yet. Working in interdisciplinary research projects and volunteer projects with non-homogenous groups, I learned that often a common ground exists, but people do not recognize this because they communicate differently about the same topics. I think there is a lot to win if we reach clear consensus about our core values and about how our ideas arise from these core values. Therefore, I am a big supporter of attempts to make clear how our ideas arise from our core values, such as Rick Falkvinge’s Pirate Wheel. And I especially like his accompanying remark that “this is not an authoritative source over any other, but merely my interpretation — which, in Pirate spirit, is no more valid than anybody else’s.” Below, I will build on this to explain my own interpretation of how our ideas arise from our core values.

Decentralization of power

I think all of our main issues arise from the same core value: decentralization of power. Or, in other words, we all agree that it is not OK if a small group of people in power use this power for their own benefit. Practically, decentralization of power means that on the one hand we should reduce the power of people and institutions that currently hold power. On the other hand, it means that we should empower the powerless. This core value can be used quite well to explain our core issues: We do not only want to protect privacy because everybody should have the right to ‘have something to hide’, but also because it causes an unequal power distribution if one institution has a lot of power over others. Similarly, we do not only like transparent governance because we do not trust politicians, but also because when we give people the power to represent us, we have the right to see how they represent us: privacy ends where representation starts. We do not only strive for democratization because we think ‘regular people’ can often make better decisions about themselves than politicians, but also because it prevents a small group of people having a lot of power, making them vulnerable to corporate lobbying. We understand that knowledge is power, and exactly therefore we want information to be free. It creates an unequal power distribution if only a small elite group has access to knowledge. We support a decentralized economy, not only because it is more efficient, but also because it prevents large multinational corporations from becoming too powerful. Many pirates have a love/hate relation with party politics and dislike focusing on politicians as a persona, not only because we do not like the way current politicians and political parties act. We rather focus on the power of ideas, because this can replace the idea of power. Participating in party politics is a ‘necessary evil’ to come to a better system, in which politics around ideas is possible (and a democratic process it is of course less messy than a revolution).

It does not make sense to try to capture this core principle of decentralization of power in a left-wing versus right-wing model. Many of our ideas can be seen as left-wing (if we explain them as empowering the powerless), but at the same time as right-wing (if we explain them as reducing government power). Many of our ideas could even be classified as outright libertarian. However, in my experience the main difference with libertarians seems to be that they often do not acknowledge that decentralization of power goes further than only government power. I believe that decentralization of power does not only mean we should decrease the power of the government over the people. It also means we need to make sure that other institutions, such as multinational corporations or criminal organizations, use a lack of (democratically controlled) government power to increase their own power positions.

Rational, but not dehumanizing

Additionally, most Pirates like rational, evidence-based policies. Also our core principle of decentralization of power stems from evidence: there is lots of both historical evidence and evidence in psychology that power regrettably corrupts most people eventually; especially when people organize themselves in a group. However, where in other political parties, rationalization often leads to cold, dehumanizing, technocratic decisions, we as Pirates are able to put human dignity central to our decision making. Often in political debates I found that we stand unique in this as Pirates. Other parties often either try to protect human rights by symbol politics, thereby ignoring large groups that not easily fit into these symbolic examples, whereas others make cold, technocratic decisions, thereby victimizing many people, who are often relatively powerless. It seems that as a Pirates, we have quite a unique vision here that can address many people if we communicate it from our core belief of ‘rationally putting human dignity at the core of our decision making’.

Critical but optimistic about technological developments

Another unique property of the Pirate Party seems to be that we are optimistic about technological developments, while remaining critical about how technology can be misused by people in power to strengthen their position. We are critical about how governments and multinational corporations misuse technology to invade our privacy and control us, whereas we also emphasize that the same technology can be used to empower people, for example by making information freely available for everyone and setting up e-democracy systems to facilitate collaborative bottom-up decision making. It is for a reason that journalists often conclude that we are years ahead of other political parties. Not only do we have enough ‘nerds’ that keep track of technological developments and research, we also have a culture in which we openly welcome positive change, rather than reacting anxiously to technological developments because of stifling ideology.

Cooperating with other activists

I noticed some Pirates have the tendency to focus on ourselves rather than reaching out to cooperate with other parties and organizations. It is a commonly used tactic of people in power to divide people challenging the status quo into groups, so that they will fight among each other about their differences, rather than team up and cooperatively change the status quo. I think that we as Pirates should not be seduced into this pitfall. We can operate more effectively when we cooperate with other groups, conjointly challenging the status quo. Personally, I have very good experiences teaming up with the bottom-up movement against TTIP, and the ‘Maagdenhuis’ movement for more democracy and decentralization at universities. Not only can we accomplish more if we work together on the same agenda, but we were often also praised for how we let the promotion of ideas surpass the promotion of the Pirate Party itself. Not only is this in line to be a party that is about accomplishing ideas rather than party politics, I think it will also work to gain more support for the Pirate Party in the end, when people notice that we actually care about the content, rather than about ourselves.

Additionally, and perhaps more controversially, I also have positive experiences cooperating with other political parties. Among others, I spoke about drug policy, ethical use of technology in healthcare and debated copyright with a BUMA/STEMRA lobbyist at events of the ‘young democrats’ (youth organization of D66, the Dutch liberal democrats). I spoke about CCTV at an event of D66 itself,  I spoke about alternatives for repressive policies at the scientific bureau of the green left party and I exchanged ideas at a Podemos meeting when I was on holiday in Spain. Collaborating with the Greens on ‘activist politics for a global future’ even resulted in a seat at the local ‘water-board’ elections. Not only is this in line with making ideas more important than party politics, it is in line with our ideal of sharing information. Exchanging ideas is something that is beneficial for both parties in the exchange.


I think we will be most effective as a party when we keep track of our common ground. If we agree that this common ground involves decentralization of power, this will prevent both conflicts about content and conflicts about misusing positions of power. In line with this conclusion, the above described vision is my personal interpretation, and no more valid than anyone else’s. Debate will always stay necessary to ensure that we agree on our common ground and how we develop our ideas from this common ground. Therefore, I would like to encourage everyone to do so; in a productive manner, of course.