Berlin, 2014-07-03

How to build a Participatory Political Party

Sorry for writing in English, but this is dedicated to both the progressive platform, which is trying to fix, reinvent or fork the German Piratenpartei (it still has to make its mind up), as it is dedicated to several young Italian projects that are interested in a better democracy through participation technology, such as the Partito Pirata, ALBA, l'Altra Europa, Azione Civile, the Rete dei Cittadini and Democrazia in Movimento, a political stub group of fugitives from the 5 Star Movement.

After five years in the Pirate movement I have come aware of several things we got wrong, and so this is the recollection of things I would do my best to fix if I was to restart a political party, referencing external sources such as Falkvinge's Swarmwise as I go.

Chapter X: Stop the Hurting

Thirty years ago the Greens in Germany went through the same pains, and we have naively repeated their mistakes. History teaches us nothing. In a way, we even made it worse. Since the Greens didn't have the Internet, they didn't have these means of electronically getting at each other's throats in real-time. So the medium, that was supposed to bring the great advancements in participation, has first of all brought a great advancement in the capacity of self-demotivation and self-destruction. Tarzun, former board member, calls the disease that has affected the Piratenpartei an "unheilbarer Krebsschaden", an unhealable cancer damage. I believe there are ways to treat this disease, but the procedure is painful.

First thing, look for the initial patterns: Each online fight starts with some snarky remark, some expression of disapproval rather than a contribution to improve things, or straight with an ad hominem attack, possibly in combination with rhethoric fallacies. This may seem harmless at first, but people engage in such a conversation, quickly leading to a flame war and resulting in demotivation possibly on the targeted side, but especially on the side of the spectators. People who do not have the full picture will always get a wrong impression, and odds are likely, it will harm the project.

That is why the old rule of "Don't Feed The Troll" is actually wrong in a political context. If a troll is not countered, his message will stick at least with a percentage of viewers. Promoting the use of some /ignore function to filter out the annoying person will not change that, many in fact refrain from doing so in order to not miss out on the action.

Also there is a profoundly injust tendency by the viewers to charge both the attacker and the victim of keeping up fights, thus penalizing the victim. This spells success for the attacker. Worse if journalists are paying attention and taking the issue to the media. They will always report the story out of context, inflicting severe damage to the popularity of the entire movement.

It may sound obvious, but the recipe to stop disaster is prevention and immediate intervention. Since the Pirate Party of Sweden is one of the few Internet movements, that has not gone through these pains as much as others, let's look at what they might have done right:

We campaign outward and cohesively, not inward and divisively. In particular, we’re never disrespectful against our co-activists (one of the few things that officers in the [Swedish] Pirate Party will have zero tolerance with). An example is in forums where we find ourselves in a discussion with somebody who seems to be wrong. It’s easy to take on an irritated tone of voice and use condescending language (for a funny illustration of this phenomenon, look up the URL We must avoid this by being aware of the risk and counteracting it. This goes especially for net-only communication, where important parts of communication such as body language, emphasis, and tone of voice just disappear, parts that would otherwise have reduced the experienced aggression in many comment fields. Attitudes are highly contagious, so, therefore, we make sure to have a positive and understanding attitude. We spread love, trust, energy, and enthusiasm.

Indeed it is very hard to communicate when everything that is said is always interpreted in the worst possible way. Switching to conferencing technology such as Mumble can alleviate this, if the session is well moderated. Still, it's best if a positive interpretation of the other person's words is assumed. Only a continuous maintenance of the working atmosphere can create this sense of security.

We speak from our own position. When we perceive somebody as being in the wrong, we never say “you’re stupid” or similar, but start from our own thoughts, feelings, and reactions. We communicate using the model “When you perform action X, I feel Y, since I perceive you think Z,” possibly with the addition “I had expected A or B.” An example: “When you give the entire budget to activism, I feel frustrated, as I feel you ignore our needs for IT operations. I had expected you to ask how much it costs to run our servers.” This creates a constructive dialogue instead of a confrontational one.

We react immediately against disrespect. Even if we have great tolerance for mistakes and bad judgment, we do not show tolerance when somebody shows disrespect toward his or her colleagues, toward other activists. Condescending argumentation or other forms of behavior used to suppress a co-activist is never accepted. When we see such behavior, we jump on it and mark it as unacceptable. In our leadership roles, we have an important role in making sure that people feel secure in their roles, with no bullying accepted. If the bully continues despite having the behavior pointed out, he or she will be shut out from the area where he or she disrespects his or her peers, and if some friend reinvites him or her back just for spite, we will probably shut off the friend, too. We have absolute-zero tolerance for disrespect or intentionally bad behavior against co-activists.

And this is not the first grassroots movement to come to the conclusion that intolerance is intolerable, and the solution taken is to have elected officials take care of the good vibe in the group, hippiesquely spreading love and talking to people immediately when any of the "negative energy" patterns are visible in written speech — asking for clarification when writing could be interpreted offensively. Stopping "bad process" before it engages and leads to tears and damages.

One of the links that floats around the net, when discussing these issues, is Consensus is Not Unanimity: Making Decisions Co-operatively. A document which is quite interesting also for the consensus procedures that I'll address el$ewhere. It is based on the words of a lutheran pastor named Randy Schutt. Even in the most peaceful attempt to reach consensus, the pastor sees an inevitable necessity for a person in charge of good vibes. He calls her or him a vibes watcher:

Typical Tasks of a Vibeswatcher
  • watches the process of the meeting;
  • notices underlying feelings from tone of voice and body language, points out tension and weariness, recommends changes;
  • stops bad process (domineering, guilt-tripping, interrupting, put-downs, bulldozing, defensiveness, space-outs etc);
  • helps to resolve conflicts;
  • helps to work out negative emotions (fears, anger, anxiety, hopelessness);
  • protects individuals from personal attack,
  • reminds group of purpose.

It gets hippier and hippier, but there is a big unhippie foundation in there: the admission that the anti-authoritarian approach has failed. At a certain point you need to factually stop the bad process:

When one person or a group ( minority or majority refuses or is unable to work co-operatively, everyone else must boldly, yet tenderly resist and challenge them, or if necessary throw them out of the group (ideally, offering support and guidance to their next endeavor).

On the Internet luckily this can be implemented in very unviolent ways such as moderation, yet most young new political projects miss out on this rather simple option because of the ideal of Freedom of Speech. That is however based on a fallacy: Free Speech is your constitutional right to say what you like as a free citizen, but that doesn't mean that a group like us will want and have to continue dealing with you.

Being in a political party is a burden but also a privilege, achieved on the basis of constructive contributions. A party that will let itself be disrupted by anyone on the falsely applied basis of Free Speech, the false decry of censorship and nowadays a false claim of whistleblowing, is largely vulnerable to political infiltration and deception. Andrew Reitemeyer describes the phenomenon in PirateTimes as follows:

In an atmosphere, where trolling is regarded as a legitimate form of Free Speech and character assassination and bullying are ignored, the sensible resolution of differences is difficult. [,..] The result politicking inside the Party by all and any means, including trolling, vicious personal attacks including death and rape threats. Some of this can be blamed on sabotage by trolls, infiltrators from other parties and organisations who are threatened by the Pirate’s politics. However, there is a systemic problem that makes the internal workings of the party prone to self-destructive strife. [...] Now the party is at a crossroads. [...] Only the party itself can make the needed changes through fully a open and democratic process. One thing they might want to consider is a code of conduct. One that includes “not bringing the party into disrepute” in public and “politeness and respect” in dealing with each other.
  • We do not break the law, although we may sympathise with those who feel they must.
  • We do not indulge in activities that bring the Pirate name into disrepute.
  • We do not deviate from our policies and directions that we have democratically decided.
  • We do not prevent our elected leaders from doing the job we have charged them with.
  • We do not want to be a top down hierarchy as most political parties are.

I'll discuss hierarchy and participation el$ewhere.

Another very popular fallacy is to think that the community will be able to intervene against attackers and gently convert them to good contributors or weed them out. In Germany the concept of "civic courage" even has its own word, "Zivilcourage." Berlin needed plenty of that in the aftermaths of the fall of the wall, when authorities were unable to credibly police the entire territory and the youth was responsible for itself. That could be one of the reasons why Berlin has a very special political sensitivity. But even this concept of Zivilcourage depends on enough people to be courageous to physically stop the bad process in action.

On the Internet however, taking on this role usually doesn't work out. The attacker insists and the coureagous civilist is ignored, ridiculed and likely to become her- or himself subject of attack. I believe this has demotivated hundreds of activists in the political projects I participate in. Seeing this happen, or being themselves involved.

So the lesson to learn here is that we need a fine-grained structure of vibes-watching and moderation-power enabled officers in all platforms of aggregation of the political project. To do our best (as legislators of our own regulations) in giving them a rational description of what sort of negative action to intervene upon and of course to give all participants the right to appeal to a court of arbitration in Montesquieu's not so dumb idea of the Separation of Powers, as to avoid these vibes watchers to become too powerful.

There is a frequent resentment at the idea of implementing any sort of police in a grassroots movement, frequently caused by problems of corruption and injustice that activists have experienced in real-life. This is an unfortunate aspect of Montesquieu's idea, that on a communal level it frequently doesn't work out: The judiciary and the executive powers work hand in hand on a daily basis for decades and decades. It is inevitable that the public officers involved on both sides engage in friendship and mutual trust, since they need to get along for the entire time of their career. This will inevitably lead to a by-default assumption that the policeman is innocent and require very solid facts to prove otherwise. And of course there is potential for corruption beyond that.

Another flaw is the way in all current political systems the police is an executional organ of the government, thus it is unlikely for a police inspector to question and investigate the activity of her own government as that would likely cost her job. A further separation of powers could be a good idea here.

In a political party we have a chance of doing better. We can shift the roles around periodically and elect people of opposing factions into these roles, thus reducing the chances of collusion. And we most certainly should do so. Also we can make vibes watchers fully independent from whoever runs the organizational operations. A political party can thus become a role model for how the separation of powers should be implemented or developed further. Unfortunately I cannot name one, where this is the case.

After all of this, some people may still reject the idea of applying moderation to anyone. Everone should always speak freely. These people should seriously consider if they are carriers of GSF1, the Geek Social Fallacy #1: Ostracizers Are Evil (Deutsche Version).

As a final note, the special case of Twitter and other public social media channels: The gentle moderation is not an option when bad process is happening on such channels outside the reach of the party. Constitutionally speaking, this is alright. You have a right to tweet whatever you feel like tweeting, but if that causes damage to the political movement you are supposed to be supporting, or the act of retweeting does so, then it is inevitable for the survival of the political project to think in terms of sanctions and possibly, expulsion.


Stay tuned for further chapters in the series of HOWTO Build a Participatory Political Party as seen by someone who has assisted in some successes and some failures in the past five years trying.

Actually, if you think this is useful please get back to me with feedback and motivate me to write the missing parts.

Paragraphs extracted from the book "Swarmwise" are CC-BY-NC by Rick Falkvinge, founder of the Pirate Movement.

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