Mozart Olbrycht-Palmer: Responsible Participatory Democracy [Pirate Visions]

Mozart Olbrycht-Palmer: Responsible Participatory Democracy [Pirate Visions]

If we want to have a fluid democracy we have to take responsiblity writes Mozart Olbrycht-Palmer. Mozart was, until recently, deputy secretary and media officer for PPAU. Currently he is touring Europe and working for the Pirate Times.

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.


Over the past three and a half years I have met and worked with a number of pirates from around the world. This has given me the opportunity to see how different Pirate Parties operate, and how a Pirate Party in one country can impact others right around the world. As a result of these experiences, I am convinced that there are three things we need to do:

  1. Increase deliberation as well as participation in politics,
  2. Build structures that help us achieve our goals rather than limiting us, and
  3. Think before we speak to reduce damage to our collective reputation.

Increasing deliberation

Fluid democracy systems, such as LiquidFeedback, are attractive but often poorly implemented. The hybrid between direct and representative democracies (the ability for individuals to choose whether to vote themselves or delegate their voting power) allows potentially millions of people to influence politics on an unprecedented level.

The shortcoming of fluid democracy systems is that they provide little more than a voting mechanism. They are thus a poor replacement for representative democracy on their own. To rely solely on voting and not to include important aspects of representative democracy like debate and amendment is extraordinarily shortsighted.

When Pirate Parties began experimenting with fluid democracy, many of us waited and were not prepared to follow others down the rabbit hole. Predictably, relying on a mere voting mechanism led to instability within most Pirate Parties that adopted it in that way.

And so, I and others concluded that “we need something robust. We need something that prevents potential abuse. We need a deliberative mechanism.”

It is my view that the goal should always be to maximise agreement, particularly with regard to policies. I consider that if greater than 85% of Pirate Party Australia’s members vote in favour of a policy, there is sufficient agreement to avoid factionalism. The only way to achieve this is to discuss, debate and amend policies in such a way that compromise and consensus can be achieved. I have found that stability can be easily attained through both participation and deliberation, which ultimately is likely to lead to a near-complete agreement.

Building structures to achieve goals

I believe that the fundamental problem with Pirate Parties International is that it was not designed in a way that allows the organization to achieve its goals. PPI is structured in a way that limits the participation of its members and emphasises the importance of the administrative organ. It is as though PPI’s statutes were written by someone who understood how most NGOs work, and assumed that model was appropriate.

One of the things I did as Press Officer for Pirate Party Australia was to disband the Media Relations Committee and replace it with the Press Team — a more flexible, less formal group of people that had minimal administrative requirements and could respond quickly to breaking news.

I realised that the Committee structure was inappropriate for achieving what I needed the Press Team to achieve, which is why I rewrote the terms of reference with that in mind. Pirate Party Australia has adopted the Team structure for several subordinate bodies. Permanent groups are either Committees (rigid and formal) or Teams (flexible and informal), and temporary groups are called Working Groups.

An executive board, like the seven member board of PPI, works for NGOs and political parties where the primary goal is to manage the affairs of the organisation so that it can maintain external activities and influence. PPI is not about this, however. PPI’s primary goal is promoting cooperation between its members. Why then is this function given to an executive organ? Why are PPI’s members not engaged in the daily affairs of the organisation?

This is why I support the proposal to “overhaul the statutes” and put the members in more direct control of the organisation. I believe the proposed structure — a central steering committee comprising of a delegate from each member — is a far better way for PPI to achieve its goals.

But, the lessons I learned in Pirate Party Australia, and the lessons we are learning from PPI, can be applied more broadly. It is vital for the future of the pirate movement that we all start thinking outside the box and organize ourselves in a way that assists us in achieving our goals.

Thinking before we speak

There are two incidents that have occurred over the last two and a bit years that have made me really wish people would think before they speak. Both involved members of the Swedish Pirate Party publishing tactless articles without stopping (it seems) to think about the consequences. This is a movement, and it is international — the actions of prominent individuals can cause widespread problems that reach around the globe.

The first incident was Rick Falkvinge’s ill-titled and ill-timed essay “Three Reasons Possession of Child Pornography Must be Re-legalised in the Coming Decades”. The title was unfortunate, as the essay’s contents were not nearly as horrendous as the title, and the title was the only bit the media seemed to focus on. It was ill-timed because, probably unknown to most, at that time Pirate Party Australia was running an election campaign in the Australian Capital Territory. Suddenly we were put in a position where we had to defend ourselves from the Australian media because of something someone half the world away had said.

The second incident has been much more recent, and is Amelia Anderdotter’s article “Pirate Party MEP fails to deliver true copyright reform” on TorrentFreak. I don’t think this article has done the Pirate Movement any favours; or Amelia herself for that matter, as it reads like a jealous, infantile rant. There are far more tactful ways to criticise what someone has done without resorting to ad hominem and aggressive language. Thankfully, the impact of Amelia’s article has been small.

Free speech is great, and I wouldn’t dream of muzzling anyone. Free speech does not mean, however, that everything you say can and will be forgiven. What you say has the potential to create profound and unintended consequences, so I would like to see more pirates thinking before they speak. We’re already in a tough war, let’s not give up too much ground voluntarily. You might think it’s clever, but it affects far more people than just you.

My vision

“Adapt or die” we often say to the copyright industries. The Pirate Movement has always offered alternatives in different areas: alternatives to strict intellectual property regimes, alternatives to censorship, alternatives to governance, and alternatives for law enforcement and intelligence gathering (that don’t involve highly invasive techniques).

I have a vision of the International Pirate Movement developing into a mature and robust collection of loosely-affiliated organisations capable of working together. But we have to offer a real alternative. This means going further than what we have and thinking through what we do.

Direct democracy can be impressive, but it can be equally unimpressive when it is poorly implemented and leads to the fragmentation and eventual collapse of organisations. Likewise, a structure that does not facilitate the achievement of an organisation’s goals will only turn people away when they become frustrated at the same old bureaucratic struggles. Being tactless in our approach to the image we project to the media, to the public and to each other will spell doom.

We need to ensure that our members are not just given an opportunity to vote, but to genuinely participate in meaningful discussion, debate and consensus. We need to ensure that our structures maximise participation and aid us rather than hinder us in achieving our goals. We need to ensure that what we do and say is considerate of the impacts it may have on other members of our movement.

If we can do this then we will be more than just an alternative: we will be a truly viable alternative.