The failure of the Pirate Party’s direct democracy based on the Liquid Feedback system

Excerpted from Evgeny Morozov:

“Where exactly would Johnson’s “liquid democracy” lead us? In a footnote, he notes that “the German Pirate Party has implemented ‘liquid democracy’ techniques with some success in recent years.” “Some success” is a gross overstatement, as their unlikely success in Germany appears to have been rather short-lived. Yet in many ways, the Pirates have self-consciously adopted all the imagery and rhetoric of the Internet; they are the living embodiment of Internet-centrism. Obsessed with process—decentralized and horizontal, of course—they offer little by way of goals and policy positions. Worse, they think that such vacuousness is actually an asset; as the party’s spokesperson declared in 2011, “What we’re offering is not a program, but an operating system.”

A party with no strong stance on issues beyond copyright, censorship, and privacy, the Pirates remain a mystery to most German voters, who have lost their early enthusiasm for the cool young kids. Once polling in the double digits, the Pirates today are unsure of even passing the 5 percent threshold needed to get into the Bundestag in the upcoming elections. The lack of leadership and basic discipline within the party—some of its members show up at legislative sessions in shorts—has turned them into a national joke.

The Pirate Party of Western Germany finds itself losing political power. (Getty/Patrik Stollarz) The Pirates’ rhetorical embrace of “liquid democracy,” where everyone can participate and delegate votes to each other, has not worked in practice; even almighty software cannot excite ordinary citizens about the humdrum and arcane issues of which most politics is made. By October 2012, in North Rhine-Westphalia—a region with eighteen million inhabitants—the Pirates used their trademark Liquid Feedback software to gather opinions on only two issues. A poll on one such issue—the controversial ban on circumcision—attracted only twenty votes. As Der Spiegel dryly put it, “It’s a grassroots democracy where no one is showing up to participate.”

Anyone familiar with critiques of direct democracy would not find this surprising. The attempt to reform politics needs to start with some basic account of the very limitations of politics itself, and not just salivate over the infinite opportunities of digital technologies. The Pirates took the idea of the Internet seriously—only to discover that the rhythms and rituals of old-school politics do not stem merely from inferior technologies, but rather reflect assumptions about human nature, power, and justice. Relations among humans have many more layers of complexity than those among ants; there are inequalities, asymmetries, and grievances to be found at all layers—and what might seem like inefficiencies or gaps in participation or transparency might, on second look, prove to be the very democracy-enabling protective tissues that allow liberal societies to function.”

3 Comments The failure of the Pirate Party’s direct democracy based on the Liquid Feedback system

  1. Zacqary Adam Green

    “This lack of curiosity about how the world works is the most pernicious feature of Internet-centrism.”
    “The Pirates took the idea of the Internet seriously—only to discover that the rhythms and rituals of old-school politics do not stem merely from inferior technologies, but rather reflect assumptions about human nature, power, and justice.”

    This lack of curiosity about how the world works is the most pernicious feature of Evgeny Morozov’s critique of liquid democracy.

  2. Zbigniew ?ukasiak

    I have to agree with this critique – but the German Pirates are not the only force inside the Pirate Movement and I hope that a more educated, more sincere approach will eventually gain ground. We are working on that. The number of pirate parties is growing with over 50 now it becomes a significant force – lets make it more hacker ethics based and less populist!

  3. David Bovill

    I’m a big believer in “liquid democracy” – but while I’ve no wish to discourage people working in these early experiments – I have very little confidence in current systems and practices. I started working with the core concepts that are at the heart of liquid democracy in the late 1980’s – applying these to peer review in science. Later in the late 1990’s and early years of this century I worked on code, and art projects with LD principles at their heart. So I am not a sceptic.

    However, these ideas appeal too much to the introverted, and autistic mind – and this is the Achilles heel of current implementation and practice. The heart and soul of the new form of democracy, some may say the historically authentic form of democracy, that internet based communication and delegated voting can support is rich interactive dialogue, what Michael Allen calls “communicative ascent”. This term describes the natural emergent property of votes following paths of rich interactive dialogue – one which emerges over time, and only when properly facilitated and implemented at sufficient scale. It is only when the technical ability to delegate radically and freely, is combined with a rich face-to-face culture of debate, personal acquaintance and physical meetings that the real value of such systems emerges. This is the emphasis of my blog Parliament of Things – Liquid Democracy is not understood, and every encouragement should be given to current experiments – but it’s time will only come when we get the fundamentals of distributed debate right first.

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