Andrew McCallum: A New View on the Pirate Movement [Pirate Visions]

Andrew McCallum: A New View on the Pirate Movement [Pirate Visions]

This pirate vision comes from a new set of eyes, someone who recently became a pirate because of the visions we have. Andrew McCallum is a poet with a PhD in philosophy, in his own words “I’m a fat, middle-aged thinker and a writer with a dicky ticker, who still dwells existentially in a largely analogue world. “

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 reasons I turned into a Pirate

This is a long story; I hope you’re sitting comfortably!  (For a shorter read, you can always skip this background section and start reading at the ‘My hopes and expectations’ paragraph.)

On 18 September 2014, the Scottish government held a referendum on the question ‘Should Scotland be an independent country?’  The vote was preceded by more than two years of campaigning, which engaged the Scottish electorate to an unprecedented degree.  The overall turnout for the vote was 84.6%.  This is very high for Scotland, where turnout for elections to the Scottish and UK parliaments is normally around 50–60%; for local elections it is even lower, at around 39%.

From the outset, however, I had grave misgivings; not so much about whether Scotland could be an independent country (of course it could), or even whether it should be an independent country (of course it should – if that’s the expressed will of the people who live there). My misgivings were more about the process of the referendum itself and the process by which any subsequent nation-building would be carried out.

I remember when the question was announced. I thought, ‘Is that it?’ Call me old-fashioned, but I believe a referendum is a direct vote in which an entire electorate is asked whether they’re for or against a particular proposal. But there was no particular proposal; just a general question whose vagueness only prompted (at least in my mind) a whole raft of further questions rather than a definite unequivocal answer. Questions like: in our increasingly joined-up, interdependent global village, of whom and in respect of what should Scotland be independent?

I was deeply disappointed. I began to complain to my ‘Yes’-minded friends that I couldn’t give a simple ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ answer to such a question. The only answer I could give was ‘It depends’. My ‘Yes’-minded friends advised me not to worry about the detail; that would be worked out afterwards; the important thing was to win our independence and then we could begin to shape our own destiny.

This brought me to my second cause for concern. If there was a ‘Yes’ vote, ‘we’ (it seemed) wouldn’t be deciding anything.

Scotland became part of the United Kingdom in 1707 with the Treaty of Union. It was what my old history teacher called an ‘incorporating union’, by which the separate kingdoms of England and Scotland came together to form a joint multinational corporation called The United Kingdom of Great Britain (to which Ireland was also later incorporated in 1801). Presumably, therefore, our leaving the UK would have to involve a treaty of ‘disincorporation’ (a ‘divorce settlement’, which would divide up the powers and responsibilities as well as the assets and liabilities of the former ‘marriage’ between the ‘divorcees’), and the terms and conditions of this treaty would be what in effect defined our independence from the rest of the UK.

It appeared to me that what we were actually voting on in the referendum was whether or not to give the Scottish government a mandate to negotiate this treaty of disincorporation with the UK government. ‘We’ were to have no say in the shape and substance of the independence that a ‘Yes’ vote would subsequently deliver; there was no mention (let alone a hard-and-fast promise) of a direct vote in which ‘we’ would be asked to vote for or against the particular proposal for independence that the negotiated treaty would represent.

Likewise, a new ‘independent’ Scotland would require a constitution.  We were told by the Scottish government that this would be drafted by a constitutional convention made up of ‘the great and the good’ of civic society.  Again, ‘we’ were to have little if any meaningful say in the drafting of ‘our’ constitution; and again there was no prospect offered of a direct vote in which ‘we’ would be asked to vote for or against the proposed constitution of ‘our’ government.

It increasingly seemed to me that the whole ‘independence’ movement, while framed in a rhetoric of ‘popular sovereignty’ and ‘empowering the Scottish people to determine its own destiny’, consisted in nothing more than a proposed transfer of powers, from a UK government in London to a Scottish government in Edinburgh; a Scottish government that was at the same time, on the ‘domestic’ front, centralising more and more power to itself at the expense of our local councils and, ultimately, of ourselves.

I subsequently coined the term ‘pseudorendum’ to describe this process by which, as I saw it, our national government was seeking to aggrandise itself at the expense of our (albeit) unequal multinational government (with which I didn’t have a problem) and our popular sovereignty (with which I did – big time!). The movement for independence, far from expanding freedom and democracy as it claimed, was actually contracting them. The ‘pseudorendum’ was tantamount to the Scottish government asking us to entrust it with a blank cheque, which I was cynical enough to suspect it would only cash to its own benefit.

In the end, I voted neither Yes nor No, but cast a blank vote.

While the pseudorendum campaign was going on, I was also witnessing the rise of the Citizen’s Movement and Pirate Party Iceland, in the wake of the Pots-and-Pans Revolution.  I was impressed and excited by the Icelandic Pirates’ platform of direct democracy and transparency (both of which were conspicuous by their absence from the pseudorendum process), their insistence on the protection and enhancement of civil rights (as a necessary prerequisite of free, equal and informed participation in the decision-making process), and their call for the use of 21st century technology (to make our decision-making processes as inclusive and, therefore, as democratic as possible).  All of this spoke to my experience and disenchantment with the politics surrounding the pseudorendum on Scottish independence.

And the rest, as they say, is history. Through the Pirate Party in Iceland, I discovered the International Pirate Movement, and through the International Pirate Movement I found the Pirate Party UK, which (after much humming and hawing since I’m not a born activist) I decided to join in January 2015. In May I volunteered to be part of the Pirate Times team.

My hopes and expectations when I became a Pirate

I joined hoping to be able to do something to promote direct and liquid democracy in the conduct of our civic lives.  I wanted to contribute to the revolution.

I thought long and hard about what I could contribute. I’m not an activist. I don’t have that particular skills-set; I’m more the shy, retiring type.  I’m not a ‘geek’. My children have even stopped laughing at my pitiable attempts to get to grips with digital technology; now they just shake their heads in despair. I’m a fat, middle-aged thinker and a writer with a dicky ticker, who still dwells existentially in a largely analogue world.  I have a PhD in philosophy; I’m a widely-published award-winning poet.  These are the talents I can bring to the table; hence my volunteering with the Pirate Times.

I hope that the Pirate movement can achieve change both locally and internationally.  I hope that the movement can help change both the political culture and the political systems in our limited democracies, by encouraging and facilitating increased participation by ordinary citizens in decision-making, and by campaigning for the reforms needed in our decision-making processes to make that increased participation both practicable and meaningful.

Some of my experiences with the Pirate Movement

I’ve not been around the movement long enough to have garnered much experience of being a Pirate.  I joined the Pirate Party UK almost five months ago; though it hasn’t yet managed to sort out my username and password, so my involvement so far has been extremely limited.  (I couldn’t take part in the collaborative process of drafting the Party manifesto for the 2015 general election, for example.)  In contrast, I volunteered to be part of the Pirate Times team a few weeks ago, and the guys there have been extremely friendly, patient and supportive.  So my experiences, though limited, have generally been good.  I’ve already met lots of kindred spirits.

I have been taking a bit of a ribbing from family and friends over the name ‘Pirate’.  There have been lots of Captain Pugwash jokes and the like.  Initially, people think Piracy is a bit of a joke; not serious politics. But this provides a talking-point; a route into subsequent explanations and discussions of Pirate core policy and platforms, and of new ways of doing politics more generally.  So, in this respect, as a ‘brand’, the name works.  It arouses curiosity, and as Walt Disney said somewhere:

We keep moving forward, opening new doors and doing new things, because we’re curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.

The future of the Pirate Movement

It’s often said that we live in a ‘postmodern’ age, which is sometimes defined by ‘digitality’ or the increasing power of personal and digital means of communication. Digitality enables individuals to manipulate virtually every aspect of the media environment, which means that our access to information and decision-making can no longer be controlled by governments or corporations without them doing violence to freedom and democracy.

Digitality has brought producers into conflict with consumers over intellectual capital and intellectual property, and led to the creation of a new kind of ‘free-exchange’ or ‘low-cost’ information and cultural economy. This new economy promises to alter society fundamentally. Our ability to manipulate cultural artifacts (through practices such as sampling and remixing), the ‘capture’ of all human knowledge in the World Wide Web, the use of search engines to ‘index’ that knowledge and the ubiquity of media appliances (which enable anyone, anywhere to access that knowledge) – all of this is producing an ever increasing ‘convergence’ of producer and consumer, government and citizen, author and reader, artist and audience, and the rise of a more participatory culture.

I see the future of the Pirate movement as pioneering new ways of doing politics that reflect this convergence and culture of participation. I see it working to advance direct democracy and improve transparency in government at all levels, to defend and extend the civil rights that are a necessary prerequisite of free, equal and informed participation in decision-making processes, and to promote the use of digital technology in facilitating a more direct and liquid democracy.

To do this, the Pirate movement has to be active at all levels of our political systems.  But as well as campaigning on issues such as digital rights and surveillance, civil liberties, freedom of information, etc., as well as spreading its culture through engagement and collaboration with other kindred movements, and as well as seeking to influence policy through election to representative assemblies, the Pirate movement must also ‘walk the walk’ as well as ‘talk the talk’.  It can do this by becoming exemplary in its own practices.  Like the sort of society we would like to see, the Pirate movement should

  • be critical and evidence-based rather than dogmatic and ideological
  • be open, transparent and responsible
  • be participative in its decision-making
  • apply the principle of subsidiarity to its own organisation, with decisions being made as locally as possible, and ‘higher’ levels of Pirate organisation being subsidiary syndicates of more local autonomous Pirate communities, which come together on an ad hoc or (where necessary) on a semi-permanent basis to achieve shared goals they could not achieve by themselves
  • be pluralistic, allowing for diversity, dissonance (restrained only by the practicalities of constructive interaction), acquiescence in difference (as opposed to a missionary zeal to convert others to some sort of Pirate orthodoxy), and respect for the autonomy of others

These are the principles and behaviours I envision for the Pirate movement in the future.  Nothing too controversial I think, since I don’t see anything in this vision that isn’t already part of the aspirations of the Pirate movement going forward.

From this vision it follows that the PPI would have a subsidiary role. Organisationally it would at any one time be syndicates (note the plural!) of autonomous national Pirate Parties, which come together to achieve shared goals they could not achieve by themselves. Whether these syndicates are temporary ad hoc project groups or semi-permanent arrangements would depend on the nature of the task on which they’re collaborating. The point is that the PPI wouldn’t be a single constant ‘standing committee’, but would be a protean entity whose constitution is continually changing as syndicates form to do the work required of them and then dissolve on the completion of that particular piece of collaborative work. Some permanent administrative function might be needed to facilitate the fluidity of such an arrangement, but this would remain minimal to protect the ‘bottom-up’ principle of subsidiarity and guard against the Pirate movement becoming a ‘top-down’ organisation of powers.  Minimally it might even be little more than a cluster of virtual chat rooms, address books, noticeboards and resource libraries.

Like any organisation, the PPI needs a structure.  But to exemplify the culture of Pirate politics, this structure must itself ‘walk the walk’ choreographed in the bullet points above.

Perhaps this latter part of my vision for the international Pirate movement is a wee bit more controversial. But I hope that what I’ve written is accepted in the spirit in which it’s been offered: not as presumption from some cheeky wee blighter who’s just walked up the gangway, but as a contribution to an ongoing discussion from someone who, being brand spanking new to the Pirate movement, perhaps comes to that discussion with a fresh pair of eyes.