No Bright Future: A Cautionary Tale
This is a tale of the rise and fall of a progressive political party. It’s a story of optimism turned sour and of promises broken. It’s a cautionary tale of the emptiness of value-based politics. I’ll set the scene, tell the tale and then explain why is has made me stop and think. We begin in Iceland, only a few weeks ago…
Óttar Proppé peers out from behind thick rimmed glasses in a photograph captured on his day of defeat. His thinning platinum blonde hair catches the Icelandic afternoon light. His yellow turtleneck sweater and polyester blazer bunch up around his hunched posture. He’s a different sort of politician for a party that wanted to reinvent the political game. It is his last day as leader of Icelandic party Bright Future.
Óttar Proppé led the young self-described “super-green liberal center party” into a coalition government in 2016 with the conservative Independence Party. Óttar’s career until 2010 was as a sales clerk in a bookstore and lead singer of alternative rock bands. After three years in the Reykjavík City Council, and three years in parliament, Óttar was appointed Minister of Health. Only 8 months after he took his seat, his own party withdrew from government after an endless row of scandals on the hands of the Independence Party. Bright Future claimed that it was their unwavering honesty that made them pull out of government. In the following snap election, they were obliterated with only 1.2% of the vote after just five years in parliament. But how did it all begin?
Bright Future began in 2012 when two members of parliament from opposing sides of the aisle joined forces. Combining elements from both left and right to present a new kind of politics, Bright Future wanted to be a progressive force. With support from people in the cultural sphere, the party became a darling of downtown Reykjavík hipsters. Their political program was vague but optimistic. Iceland should have a “stable economy and currency” and “more democracy and deliberation”. They would “focus on human rights and the environment” and ensure “rich diversity in all aspects of life” as well as a “more honesty”. In retrospect and taken out of context, it might be hard to see how such a hollow platform survived scrutiny. But four years had passed since the financial crash of 2008 and people were tired of anger and bickering. Voters wanted something new, and Bright Future delivered. Balancing sincerity with tongue-in-cheek humor, they sometimes made promises for comical effect. With Bright Future they joked that Iceland would win Eurovision and become a “happier place with less fuss”.
In the 2013 elections, Bright Future secured 8,2% and six seats in parliament. During the coming two years, Bright Future would poll well, peaking at over 20% in mid 2014. As the Pirate Party started to rise in the polls in 2015 to over 30%, it was at the expense of Bright Future and the lackluster Social Democratic Alliance. Dissatisfied Icelandic voters were becoming accustomed to jumping from one new party to the next. When results were in from the 2016 elections, Bright Future had won 7.2% of the vote. Their campaign focused on feminism (“Less mansplaining — More Bright Future”), honesty (“More Bright Future — Less empty promises”) and environmentalism. Óttar Proppé, coming across to many as a sensible aging hipster in TV debates, had inspired confidence.
Early elections had been called in response to the Panama Papers, and few progressive voters wanted either of the two government parties at the time to stay in power. In the coming months, the four parliamentarians of Bright Future took part in coalition talks on all sides. When they entered into talks with the Independence Party, their voters and many of the founding members protested. When they then formed government, progressive voters accused them of being a crutch to the Independence Party.
Many of the original members of the party resigned, as did two of its former parliamentarians, one of whom called the coalition “treasonous”. But Óttar Proppé and his group stood their ground, stating that a government with them was better than a government without them. Only eight months later, they pulled the plug and withdrew after a particularly nasty scandal involving the prime minister covering up that his father had recommended pardon to a convicted pedophile. Óttar Proppé and his party claimed that this was the ultimate proof of them standing by their word of changing the culture, but the voters thought otherwise and regarded them naive and flaky. Bright Future lost all seats in parliament in the subsequent snap election.
So what is the lesson to be learned from Bright Future? This is where I need to disclose my own bias. I’ve worked with the Icelandic Pirate Party for the last two years, and I’ll admit that there is no way for me to stay completely impartial. But I’ll give my analysis, which will also address the strengths and shortcomings of the Pirate movement, for you to make of it what you will.
Politics is about shifting and distributing power. Without having models to explain how power flows, one cannot propose ways to change that flow. We call these models ideology, and it is this sort of ideology that Bright Future is lacking. Bright Future does not have an ideology. Instead, Bright Future has values. Values like courage, balance, warmth, understanding, trust and responsibility. Exchanging ideology for values has become fashionable as the old ideologies are outdated and nobody is willing to commit to another “ism”. This is understandable, but unwise. Values are not a strong anchor, because their relativity allows for too much ambiguity. Bright Future’s values can support entering into government with the Independence Party to ensure these qualities or support staying clear of such a government. And it’s not until you actually get into the position of forming government that your resilience and staying power is actually tested.
A set of values is a lofty ideal, but it’s no replacement for ideology. For example, values do nothing to explain why groups turn against each other or why inequalities arise, in the way that socialism could. Nationalism, liberalism, fascism, socialism and neoliberalism are all models that have, in that order, shaped western society. These models and the forces that employ them have not gone away. Politicians without ideological backbones risk becoming useful idiots for those with stronger spines. A party based on vague ideas like “changing the tone”, “offering another narrative” or “participatory processes” runs a real risk of becoming a vehicle for those with a clearer and simpler agenda. Bright Future is a cautionary tale of what happens when you tell yourself that tone and choice of words is more important than content. It’s a warning to those who want to attempt to “change the culture” without doing their homework on what it is they want to achieve.
So where does this leave a movement like the Pirate Party? I argue that the resilience of that movement is due to it having an ideology at its core. First, we need to acknowledge that despite the best efforts of the establishment, Pirate Parties have been represented in EU and national parliaments since 2008. Even as the movement slows down in one place, it has emerged in another, recently gaining 10,8% in the Czech national election. The Pirate movement is the most successful new political force since the rise of the environmental green parties.
What all Pirate Parties have in common is an ideology based in network thinking and freedom of information. Like all ideologies, it has its roots in a canon of thinkers including Larry Lessig, Richard Stallman, Eben Moglen and Yochai Benkler. These shared models lead to conclusions that all Pirate Parties must share to justify their existence. A Pirate Party must oppose censorship. It must fight for transparency and be ruthless against secrecy and corruption. Pirate Parties all believe in some form of collective intelligence to inform decision making. They oppose surveillance and work to expand human rights into the digital sphere. Pirate ideology leads to the right to be forgotten online, policies on cyberwarfare, e-government and data retention. Network thinking leads Pirates to expose flaws in the political process, in parliament and in electoral systems. Pirate Parties have a clear and coherent ideology when it comes to information as a resource, and they see political processes and economic policies as systems that can be hacked for better or for worse. In some cases, as with tax evasion and other white-collar crimes, Pirate Parties have been more adamant critics than left wing parties as they see this as a lack of transparency. That being said, there is much that can not easily be addressed by the core Pirate ideology, like income inequality, class and the environment. But having at least one heavy anchor keeps Pirate Parties on course. Indeed, in Iceland the Pirates have been clear about not going into government with the Independence Party, not because they are fiscally conservative, but because of differences over transparency and reforms of the political system.
Although Pirates have a unique and useful ideology, there is much work to be done. Pirate ideology is based on models of how information flows, and sees information as resource so different from other resources that it must be considered separately. This insight into the nature of information and its effect on power is what defines the Pirate ideology, much like how the most defining insight of Marxism is how material capital affects power. But the ideas and models of Pirate ideology need to be researched and developed to stand the tests of time. Deep and careful work to define the theory is needed to give it staying power.
Parties like Bright Future that completely lack an ideology are likely to disappoint their voters by unexpectedly changing course. But here’s the kicker — it’s not only the new parties that suffer from lack of ideology. Especially on the left, most parties are built around the collective memories of ideologies long gone. Decades of third way politics and trying to meet neoliberal trends has eroded the left. The left now lacks the grand visions it was once (in)famous for. It is not surprising that it’s right at the time when the ideology of the left was crumbling in the 2000s that identity politics gained ground. When the left lost its models of class and inequality to explain why groups are being exploited and turning on each other, we got an uprising against the symptoms of those inequalities, based in values but without vision for how to achieve change. And those who benefited most from this turn of the left were the capital interests that the left tried to meet half way with third way politics.
Pirate ideology puts more emphasis on information as a resource than any other ideology. Indeed, most ideologies before it handle information as an afterthought. As information becomes an increasingly dominant resource, ideologies that have models to deal with it will gain ground. However, there are many issues to which the core pirate ideology struggles to come up with answers. These include some of the most pressing issues facing our societies, like climate-change, migration and income inequality. To address these questions, Pirate parties rely on the collective intelligence of their members to come up with answers through online policy formation. But lacking shared models to understand and address these questions, policies run the risk of becoming a mishmash of fashionable and often incoherent opinions. We can also expect disappointment when Pirate politicians in government are forced to make decisions on issues not covered by party policy. Voters will be disappointed to find that in areas where the party does not subscribe to ideologies, the ideologies of their representatives can differ wildly from their own.
Pirates will need to work this out to succeed. We might start seeing Pirate parties that also subscribe to other models, like social democratic pirates and explicitly anarchistic or libertarian pirates. But in a sense, this is just procrastinating the problem. Our representative democracy is broken and needs a radical overhaul. It’s a huge project that will need both compelling models and a powerful narrative to be successful.
So where does all of this leave Iceland, where we started this cautionary tale? Indeed, after the snap elections in October this year, the Left-Green Movement is now in coalition talks with the Independence Party, looking for “common ground around the issues”, to the dismay of most of their voters. We’ll see what follows if that unholy alliance is struck. What has become clear to me is that we cannot afford to keep fumbling around in the dark. At least two major mechanisms need revision — our progressive ideologies are outdated and our representative democracies keep leading to broken promises. We don’t need value based politics, we need ideological direction and new models. I think the Pirates have a part of the puzzle. Now let’s find the rest.