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The Pirate party of Croatia - what went wrong

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The context of this article is that it's a sort of a post-mortem written from my own perspective of what …

The context of this article is that it's a sort of a post-mortem written from my own perspective of what went wrong in the Pirate Party of Croatia, now that I've left it. I've been one of the founding members and after more than two years' work I must admit that the number of accumulated problems has surpassed the level at which we can be productive, and that I cannot aid in solving them.

Simply put, people in general (at least in this part of the world - Sweden may or may not be different) are driven more by personalities and inter-personal relationships than by ideas.

We made mistakes, some of them are in hindsight really terrible. I'll try to describe some of those which I feel I've contributed to, their causes and consequences as I understand them. I write this both as a reminder to my future self and as a possible guide to others which may try to do something similar - even though I'm fully aware that they will probably skip reading the manual, as did I :)

I have a chest to unload...

Pirate party of Croatia logo

TL;DR: This is a very subjective text about the things I think went wrong in our Pirate Party, written from my experience as one of its founders and a member of its Governing Board. In short, we had no idea what we got ourselves into and screwed up a lot. Much of what follows is a story about how things started and evolved in the Pirate party of Croatia, but from what I see internationally, we are not alone. I'll try to give some unsolicited advice at the end.

We were young and naive. The story began couple of years ago and I wasn't even the first one to get it started. That was Bojan who met (IIRC it happened over Facebook) Dario and they got thinking along the lines of: fuck it, this country is basically still in the stone age, somebody should do something about it. Bojan invited me and his other friends, Dario invited his, I invited mine, some other enthusiasts joined and before long we had a pretty good, harmonious and enthusiastic team. The people were mostly well educated and capable in their own right so the situation was perfect for us to create a new, revolutionary (in its ideas, not its methods) Pirate Party here in Croatia.

By the way, among those ideas were things like the modernization of the Croatian state and its notorious bureaucracy, as well as its political system (we even thought of an applicable motto: "to guide politics into the 21st century, and to guide the 21st century into politics"). We wanted to reform the copyright and patent laws to benefit the overall culture and encourage creativity (by phasing out the middle-men, not by advocating crazy ideas such as removing profits from content creators and artists). In the long term (since we didn't have experts in these areas of policy) we thought we should advocate a "kinder" capitalism and a more humane approach to organizing a state which would at the same time be much more efficient than today because of endorsing new technologies. On top of it all, we were liberal to the point of extremism - real followers of the "do whatever you want as long as you leave others alone" philosophy, quite unusual in this country in which the right-wing is getting more and more popular.

Not one of us wanted to "go into politics" as it's currently practiced. We hoped we could redefine what politics means by making it less of a interlocked system of Machiavellian strategies, corruption and back-stage agreements, and more as a means to get concrete results. Personally, I hoped we could evolve into a sort of a think thank which could help in the modernization of state, rather than a classical party which would have its leaders go to country fairs for photo opportunities while kissing children and hugging the poor and underprivileged while lying to them blatantly. In this scenario, we could become a natural ally for every party with modernist tendencies, while also keeping our own very specific programme which would become recognizable to voters at large though our successfully delivered projects and services which are otherwise missing from the state, projects such as online voting platforms for municipalities, neighbourhood improvement platforms similar to FixMyStreet, curated on-line political debate, etc. How very idealistic of us.

The start of the fall from innocence was when we heard that another group in the town or Rijeka is also presenting themselves as the "Pirate Party" which caused some temporary confusion in the press as we both already gave some interviews and had gathered some interest. We had some intense debate among us what to do about this change in the situation - should we cooperate with the "new group" and how? It could have gone either way. In hindsight, me advocating for cooperation was my first great mistake, not because cooperation is bad in itself, but because it was a mistake to try and cooperate so closely with people who were completely unknown to us. We sort of "merged", took their president and our Governing Board (it was actually not that clean cut, but the net effect was something like that).

Mistake #1

My own reason for advocating the merger was a dismissive attitude that, even in the unlikely case that "the others" are completely bat-shit crazy, there couldn't have been a large number of them, and since they came from a much smaller town, we could surely outvote them and prevent any serious problems from occurring simply by the virtue of being more numerous.

The reason why this was a mistake is that I failed to account for the fact that people who habitually quarrel and troll over the Internet, and have the time to do that a lot (probably because they don't have anything else to do), will always be perceived the loudest and can easily plug the communication channels with their vitriol.

As it happened, "the other group" was radically different from ours. They were (on average) significantly less educated and significantly more revolutionary (in the "let's organize protests and throw some Molotov's around" sense). But, they kept assuring us that they either already had the party registered or that they were very close to it, so in order not to have the idea split into two parties even before it got started, we opted for cooperation.

A lesson: sometimes the first impression is not wrong. If the first impression you get of someone is something like "cooperation will be unlikely or impossible here", it may turn out that no amount of idealism can solve such fundamental issues.

Mistakes #2 and #3

Employed, mostly well-off people from the capital city of Zagreb (mostly engineers and similar college-educated people) are not really equipped to cope with "free men", "activists" and "artisans" which are abundant in Rijeka. For a long time I thought it was because we lacked empathy and understanding towards them but now I realize that the process should have been two-sided and it simply never was. In order for people to feel comfortable among each other, they should have genuine desire for cooperation and mutual respect, instead of experiencing thinly-veiled mistrust and constant major disagreements.

It was wrong of me to think that we can get along just enough to do some projects together, while not caring what we though about each other outside those projects, but I persisted in this way because, after all, allowing people to think and do whatever the hell they wanted was kind of one of the ideals I was fighting for. The reason why this was a mistake was that such "cooperation" required a far greater agreement about what the common goals were and a far greater skill at mediation and communication that we had.

To be honest, I sort of liked their visceral, heart-over-brains approach. I knew I wasn't much of a field worker so if they wanted to take over that part of being a party in Croatia - they are welcome to it. Again in hindsight, I think I made a mistake in advocating a hands-off "if you want to work on something, please do" method of organization. I did so because I had previously become a member of a meritocratic international volunteer organization and I was impressed with how much could be accomplished with a model of leadership which only serves to clear the (bureaucratic) path in front of their members, allowing them to work as freely as possible. The biggest reason why this type of organization failed in our case was the huge difference in abilities and even world-view at such an early stage. I have a feeling that the more revolutionary members were intently waiting for the order to "march out into the streets and start a revolution" (not having the balls to do that themselves) but that was an approach foreign to us.

A lesson: the "if you want to work on something, please do" approach only works if there's accord and homogeneity of both goals and methods among the group, and if the group contains enthusiastic, but strong and independent members which are capable of being constructive by themselves. Unfortunately, like 99.99% of people will simply wait for guidance, possibly bitching and moaning while they do so.

Mistake #4

We had great ideas but largely lacked proper experience in dealing with people. I remember my experience while enrolling one particular member into the party: he was excellent and very capable in a certain professional area but was also somewhat "odd" or eccentric in person. To me he seemed so off-putting that I dreaded spending time with him in general. Unfortunately, it turned out that, compared to some other members which came to us later, he could actually be considered somewhat normal and I regret not getting to know him better.

I think this is very analogous to hiring workers into your company, especially in the Croatian environment where laying off workers is so extremely difficult. If you misjudge people at the start, you can get in a lot of problems with them later on.

Our mistake here was not finding someone who had hands-on experience in dealing with HR issues. We sorely needed someone to tell us: "here's how it's done: there will be screening and tests and I'll gather around 10 people who will do them with me." Since we were fairly homogeneous at the start, we thought that simply advertising what we stand for and a list of desirable traits would be enough to attract the sort of people which we could work with, and dissuade the others from joining. We were wrong.

We never had a HR person and we didn't try to attract one hard enough. As a result, we got multiple points of divergence in goals among our members very early on.

A lesson: if the group freely admits eccentric people early on, soon the whole group will be populated by only eccentrics. I think this is simply a matter of psychology: people will seek those with similar interests and world-views. Currently I have great doubt whether a truly heterogeneous group can actually accomplish anything without some sort of external discipline (i.e. without having boundaries and goals set at front). Also, we cannot actually do everything at once. HR exists for a reason.

On the one side, we actually do want members with various interests: some which have LGBT equality goals on their mind, some which consider cannabis issues are the most important, some which crusade for e-democracy, copyright reform, patent laws, etc ... but on the other, we have somehow failed to understand that among those goals there is very little in common, and among the personalities of people fighting for those goal there is even less common ground.

Individual personalities are not terribly important in the case where there are thousands of members and people who can't stand each other don't really have to, but we never got to that point. In our case, much of the cooperation was noticeably uncomfortable.

Mistake #5

A part of the original plan was to have a de-centralized party, with branches which can pretty much do whatever they wanted to (not the least because none of us actually wanted to dictate far-away branches what they should and should not do). The common points would be sharing certain resources such as the bank account, a common PR strategy, etc.

Ouch. I can't believe I was so naive to think it would be easy to find compatible members in various parts of the country, which would share the central goals with us and be capable of individual productive action. We have greatly overestimated the population of such individuals.

This plan fell apart in two extreme situations: in first, new branches required complete guidance in setting up, while our energy was wasted in internal squabbles and organizational problems, and in the second, new "branches" wanted to be immediately created from experienced people, but they were composed of already active politicians, sometimes from notorious right-wing parties, which wanted the "Pirate" moniker to continue working as before.

In the first case, people trying to form new branches lost interest when we couldn't give them the level of attention they needed, and in the second case, even if we rarely accepted such proposals, it almost never ended up well for the party. There are some cases where we endorsed such "new" members to participate as candidates in the local elections, and after they won a seat we never heard from them again (of course we tried contacting them through the members which knew them, without success).

It was a mistake to expand the membership before having a strong, homogeneous base which could smoothly accept them. A consequence of this mistake was that we ended up with members with drastically divergent opinions on what the party as a whole should do, and who do not recognize other options as worth pursuing (to be fair, I'm also in this group).

Mistake #6

From the more activist members we got the idea of implementing direct democracy for intra-party decision making. At start we had a more-or-less fluid system, with people working on whatever seemed a priority for them, but after a while we had to design some kind of official governance system.

Since we were already planning on decentralization and extreme liberalism, it was a small step to adopt some form of a more direct democracy for internal decisions. Since the traditional party structure in Croatia is fairly strict and top-down, we thought that any improvement would be welcome and well-accepted. Our team in Zagreb never seriously considered pure direct democracy ("one man one vote without exceptions for every decision"), some of us because we saw it's not practical and some because they saw such systems fail before, so we decided to implement a liquid democracy system. In liquid democracy, voters can optionally delegate their votes to whomever they want to, on specific voting topics. There can be delegates which vote with the strength of X votes, together with voters which have not delegated their voting rights and vote with their own single votes. Marko spearheaded this idea and we started implementing our own web application for "e-Democracy".

A significant problem which liquid democracy was supposed to solve was the lack of quorum. We discovered that, unexpectedly so early in the party's life, that most of the members simply didn't bother voting or showing up. To allow their votes to count towards the necessary quorum, we needed to establish some kind of a "default delegate" setting for all the members which did not care to vote directly (of course, this was only a default which every member could change at will). We proposed that this default delegate be assigned to the virtual voter which represents our Governing Board (for disclosure I note I was the member of this board), as it was a directly elected body anyway. The proposal was implemented but was extremely unpopular with our more revolutionary members which proceeded to contest every voting we had with the system, effectively deadlocking us again with the lack of quorum. They were really really interested only in the "pure" form of direct democracy.

My own opinion on the subject is that, for pure direct democracy to work in a positive and constructive way, the voters would need to behave mostly like Dr Sheldon Cooper - they would need to be perfectly objective and informed, as well as willing to participate. I simply don't think it's doable in practice.

To increase the level of informedness in the voters, our e-democracy platform was envisioned to support a kind of "crowd-sourcing" approach of creating voting proposals (documents). The idea was to have interested voters create modifications to proposals (e.g. new versions of certain articles of documents under consideration) as needed, to have those modification up for voting and finally to offer the whole collected document for voting. (Note that this happened at at time LQFB itself was in very early stages).

In regards to voting, we made a really unfortunate and (in hindsight) catastrophic mistake about a year ago which haunts us to this day. In the single most popular direct voting (this was before our platform with liquid democracy was ready), on the topic of pre-election coalition with similarly progressive parties for the previous EU elections (Croatia had special EU Parliament elections just before joining the EU), we fibbed and disregarded the results of this voting. It was a massacre, an extremely ugly campaign of extreme pressure and personal insults was carried out by our Rijeka branch, in public on our open Facebook group, and in private channels. Because of the onslaught, we basically folded under pressure and withdrew the proposal after the voting was technically over, and the proposal for the coalition technically accepted (but with a hair's breadth of votes). To make the matters worse, the loudest opponents were opposed it because they themselves where kicked out of one of the parties which would enter the coalition.

This was a very costly mistake. The reason we folded was because even though the proposal passed, it passed with an extremely slight majority and there was a realistic threat of splitting the party again. So in the interest of keeping all of us together under the single party, we chickened out under mobbing.

Of course, what we should have done is accept the risk of a split, even encourage it because it would have left us much much stronger without the majority of the destructive members.

A lesson: if you agree to an inconsistency in application of your own rules, especially under mobbing, it will simply open the doors for more inconsistencies later on.

So, our single most important application of pure direct democracy was sabotaged by the members who were its most vivid proponents. Go figure.

I have a special feeling of guilt on this topic because I was one of those in favour of folding in the interest of maintaining unity. Bojan was right on this one. I was naive and thought that people who thought that strongly on a particular topic had to have good reasons for behaving that way. Instead, it turned out it they were just quarreling for the sake of disagreeing with us and were generally toxic. Instead of being anarchists with whom I disagreed, they were sad and angry people.

I think I need to add that not all the members from Rijeka are bad, especially now that most of the distruptive ones fortunately left the party (but they also caused good, quality members to leave during their escapades). Now it's more down to having a few loud, obnoxious and egocentric people who habitually disregard the effects their actions have on other people. I'm just tired of their drama and I left.

Rijeka has some of the best people I ever met and overgenralizations are not applicable. I wouldn't call a person "bad" because he/she holds an opinion I happen to disagree with, but it comes down to the fact that organizations are not populated by ideas but by concrete persons, and if these people have really incompatible personalities and world-views, abstract ideas will not hold them together. Thousand flowers might bloom but we really should have been ready to expect that some of them are weeds which will strangle others and are not equally productive.

A lesson: one of the fatal flaws with which a bunch of geeks can fail in their endeavour is the attitude that having an idea and a skeleton of on organization is enough to succeed - "if you build it, they will come", which apparently is very different from how the rest of the population works, requiring much personal contact, persuasion and hand-holding, and without an inclination to be persuaded to change their opinions and beliefs even in the face of evidence.

Mistake #7

Status quo? Just say no. For far too long I contributed to the status quo in the party, hoping that something external will happen - a critical mass of compatible members or a person charismatic and diplomatic enough to reconcile the warring factions, so that we could finally start working on real projects.

I should have left some time ago (maybe 6 months or a year ago), if even just to let fools to their own games. Instead what I went though what could sort of be called a founder fatigue and even the productive things I managed to do had no good effect.

The ideas of the Pirate party in general are great and I fully support them. Through our own local party I've learned a lot and met some wonderful people and I hope the party will eventually become what its ideas give it the capacity to become. If not, I really think that these are the ideas whose time has come and would not be at all sad if some other parties pick up on them and carry them out (a good idea with a good implementation is generally a good thing, no matter who implements it). Some day, if the party grows stronger, I may return.

Finally, I must also accept the very real chance I and my colleagues were wrong all the time and that it would have been better to go with the Rijeka group's approach. It could realistically end up so that I'm the bad guy in my own story, and that's just one of the reasons to leave and let others consolidate and try to implement their ideas as they see fit. Time will tell.

What we managed to do

Amidst the squabbling, we actually managed to do some fairly impressive things. I'll make a list here, ordered by my own interpretation of how important they are:

There are probably more I can't think of right now. Obviously there's more space for such activities, if only there was a group that could work on them :D I hope that the things we did influenced the politics in our country at least a little, for example speeding up the creation of the Croatian government unifying portal, but I really can't even speculate on that idea.

I am definitely not sorry for participating - I am sorry if we (or I) disappointed people who expected more of us, but who knows - maybe this can mark the beginning of the "golden age" for Croatian Pirates.

What I know is that I now have more free time and interesting ideas to work on :)

Addendum - what being a "Pirate" even means?

These are of course only ramblings from a guy on the Internet, but I'll use this opportunity to express some things that I see in hindsight from this adventure.

As I see it, the whole concept of both how a Pirate party is organized and what it should do was mostly left completely undefined by those who started it. There are of course some general guidelines and even attempts of treaties which seek to establish minimum common goals but for the large part, a Pirate from one country can arrive at another and feel completely like a fish out of water.

Some influential national Pirate parties have felt the pressure from their voters and introduced serious additional baggage to their programs in the attempt not to be seen as a "one issue party". Take from it what you will but I think this approach is simply wrong, as it sends a muddled, unclear message. I think those parties were greedy, attempting to gather votes from voters which have no interest in modern culture, the freedom of creativity and the Internet.

Instead of accepting that the few places they could win should be genuine and sincere, from the (admittedly small) percentage of voters who actually put such ideas on the top of their list of priorities, they went for the broad election base. Instead of working on projects which are specific only to them and which which would get them visibility (like, their own small-scale Wikileaks, or a Pirate bay instance, or a "talk-to-Snowden" event, or a free public Pirate WiFi network, or working on implementing FixMyStreet everywhere), they ventured into hard-core politics and so became no different than all the other parties.

Looking around at international Pirate parties I see discord and baggage. As a whole, they (we) have attracted mostly extremists of all sorts: anarchists, socialists, libertarians and generally angry people, and now have a problem reconciling those differences, while the reason for the Pirate Party to exist in the first place has, lets say, fallen in popularity. An acquaintance, first seeing the Pirate Party when he was visiting Berlin told me he is considering joining us "because we are the only proper socialists these days." I have no intention of debating the merits of socialism here, it's just an example - but, really?

On the one hand, it could be argued that the "real" essence of the Pirate Party should be its malleability, adaptability to whatever the people really need at any one point in time, but how is that different from each and every other party, most of which are hugely more successful than the Pirate party? What is it that makes us actually different and new, today as well as 12 years from now? Are we happy to disintegrate into just a "brand name" which hovers over whatever political options are most popular at any given place at any given time?

I realize that it may be too late for the answers to these questions to matter any more, and so, if someone wants to create a Global Modernist Party or Next Generation Party (the name "Internet party" seems a bit silly - it's not about the Internet, it's about what we can do with it), or something like that (but this time have an actual PR team pick the name - most people really can't get the negative connotations of the word "pirate" out of their head), I'll gladly join you. Hell, I'll even "pull a Falkvinge" and start one for you if you fund me :PP

Thanks for reading, and good luck!

Addendum #2 - My answers to a survey

A person who read this text sent me his survey on the culture and the politics of Pirate Parties, and some of the questions got me thinking even more than before about the topic of what it means to be a "Pirate". Here are some of the survey topics and my answers (he encourages everyone to take the survey):

"The pirates' movement are cooperating with a consumers' ideology and collaborating to increase the digital monopolies".

Every group which advocates certain approaches can be accused of helping companies which happen to profit from those approaches. It's the same thing with medicine, agriculture, organic food industries, etc. It's simply bad reasoning. There are many problems with the "consumers' culture" today, much deeper than simply choosing a political system.

“The pirates have a messianic confidence in information sharing and in the technology as the only resources capable to fully empower citizens and give back to the society, justice, peace and brotherhood”.

I'd say we have a confidence in human progress in general, and information sharing is just one of the most important topics right now. A lot of Pirates are trans-humanists and idealists, but they also see that it will be an extremely long journey until we get to such a state, if ever. I view most of the human history as cultural and intellectual progress, and now more than ever we see a greater need to harmonize what science and technology have made possible and what the society in general needs.

“The pirates have no care about important themes, like welfare, palestine's question, immigrants, gender's question, labor division, etc...”

I would rather have a party which is focused on a small number of issues, but handles those issues extremely well and can collaborate with other parties on issues where it cannot be productive, than a "generalist" party which does everything badly. But I think that the Pirate parties generally do have certain opinions on those topics which are usually the result of their members being mostly liberal and accepting of different cultures. The main issue here is practicality: if a Party is too small and too unknown to realize a part of its program alone, it should cooperate on such parts with other compatible parties. Also, the idea that a single party (whichever one) needs to hold an absolute majority of seats anywhere to be productive is outdated - small, specialist parties with a small number of seats should be able to make a difference in specialist areas.

“They claim to be possible to create a "Liquid Democracy" and a State with transparency, but we have experience for many years as a political party, and we know that it is completely utopic because people do not worry about their rights or a political participation, just about their direct needs”.

Liquid democracy allows such people which do not want to participate (or worry about their rights) to continue as usual, but it greatly empowers those who want to participate. There will always be a certain percentage of people who have no wish to participate, and I think it is obvious that as more and more people have their basic needs (food, shelter, health etc.) satisfied they will care less and less about politics, but enabling more of those who want to participate is a good goal.

What is the reason to be a pirate? How do you convince someone to become a pirate?

I think the populations in general are sick of the bureucracy and nontransparency of politics and that they see that a more modern approach is needed, and that they already understand that this approach must use the opportunities offered by modern Internet communication. A "Pirate" can be anyone. A "Member of the Pirate Party" should be able to be constructive and participate in reaching its goals. I am still a Pirate, though (maybe temporarily) not a Member.

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