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Can the Commons Go Electoral?

photo of Franco Iacomella

Franco Iacomella
12th April 2012


Source: David Bollier

From an American perspective, it would seem unlikely that the commons could become a topic of mainstream electoral concern in the near future.  The cultural base just isn’t there.  Yet the surprising success of the Pirate Party in Europe suggests that a new cultural cohort – politically disaffected, digitally networked, culturally independent – is beginning to find its voice.  Such voices can be tremendously viral as the Arab Spring and Occupy movements have shown, and moreover, crash the insider games of mainstream politics.

My colleague Michel Bauwens has written a very thoughtful essay on this topic for Al Jazeera, in which he predict that a win by the German Pirate Party in 2012 elections would set the stage for a European coalition of the commons.  He sees a “new majority in the making” if the Pirates, the Greens, Labor and Social Liberals can find a way to come together in support of “a commons-centered transformation of European politics.”  Bauwens writes:

Opinion polls [in Germany] predict an average support rate for the Pirate Party hovering around the 10-12% range, making their victorious appearance in the German national elections almost a certainty.  The importance of this can hardly be overrated. If the Pirates are needed to form a national coalition government, which is likely, Germany would no longer be a player in imposing further IP restrictions on behest of the U.S. conglomerates, and would equally certainly start dismantling already existing restrictions to a substantial degree. With dominant Germany out of the game, and Eastern European states already mostly opposed to further IP repression, this also means the end of any EU support for international IP strengthening. In other words, a victory of the German Pirate Party is actually a global victory for the forces favoring information commons.

This political scenario presumes, however, that a cultural re-alignment can be pulled off. As Bauwens notes, “The Greens are the party of the older knowledge workers, relatively well off professionals, while the Pirates attract the precarious youth who are now the majority of the new cohort of knowledge workers.”  The Greens, once a disruptive force in parliamentary politics, have more or less made their peace with it and even with the Market/State agenda.  The Pirates have a far greater sense of urgency and impatience, and a greater commitment to fundamental, systemic change. 

That said, many elements within the Greens have shown a keen interest in the commons in all its forms, and would be a natural ally of the Pirates.  If labor, social justice movements and liberal/progressives were to forge a coherent coalition with the Pirates and Greens, they could achieve a powerful working majority for a very different agenda.

The beauty of this scenario is that it doesn’t take all that a huge electoral showing to have a disruptive if not transformational impact.  If the Pirates can make a significant enough showing – say, 10-15% of the vote – they demonstrate a clear, plausible alternative to politics as usual and begin to attract new voters to vote and pick off existing voters who had voted for other parties because they felt they had no other choice.  The rise of a viable alternative is itself catalytic because it gives voice to subterranean cultural convictions that have been ignored or suppressed by the major political parties, who are more focused on their parliamentary peers than the public.   

The Pirate Party’s reassertion of the cultural, in other words, has enormous potential for tipping the political scales in a new direction, much as the Occupy encampments changed the American political conversation far more than effectively traditional advocacy groups could.    

A realignment of hidebound political agendas with contemporary cultural sensibilities is long overdue.  It happens every generation.  The tectonic plates of 20th century political culture — slow-moving centralized institutions dominated by “experts” and political elites controlling geographic territories — are in profound tension with the networked culture of the 21st century — rapid, distributed empowerment and bottom-up innovation on a global scale. 

Now that the latter is starting to become political in ways that matter – legislation and elections – the tremors of a coming earthquake can be felt.  A similar warning temblor earlier this year was the Internet-driven defeat of Hollywood’s SOPA/PIPA copyright-maximalist legislation in the US Congress.

The problems of the world are too urgent for people to put up with a kabuki democracy, an empty, ritualized formalism that ignores substance.  Too many real problems need urgent attention.  The Pirates deserve credit for throwing open the windows and helping to launch a new conversation and political realignment.  

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