Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Iceland’s Pirate Party on Systemic Change in Developing Democracy

Rarely does systems theory become a political issue; instead, political parties and their respective candidates brandish policy positions geared to fixing particular issues (i.e., parts of systems). In Iceland, the Pirate Party proffered an exception leading up to the 2016 election. “We do not define ourselves as left or right but rather as a party that focuses on the systems,” said Birgitta Jónsdóttir, the party’s leader.[1] In other words, the party made system itself the issue. “We stand for enacting changes that have to do with reforming the systems, rather than changing minor things that might easily be changed back,” she said.[2] Even if the minor things could not be easily changed back, I contend that fixing them is still sub-optimal when the systems of which they are part are warped, and thus deficient as wholes. Therefore, a political party’s emphasis on systems as themselves being in need of reform presents the world’s population with a practical way to redress systemic problems.

In Iceland alone, the economy collapsed after the banks failed in the 2008 financial crisis, and in 2016 the prime minister resigned after being named in the Panama Papers scandal. The corruption itself indicates that the political economy—as a system—was broken. The nexus of business and government was particularly in need of reform beyond little fixes. Hence, the Pirate Party’s platform included “advocating for direct democracy” and “total government transparency.”[3] Wikileaks had already given the world’s population an idea of just how valuable transparency can be; at the very least, it had shown just how corrupt the world’s political elite was.

The move to direct democracy makes sense under the circumstances. Were major policy decisions themselves taken by electorates on election day—rather than lumping such decisions with those of which candidate to vote for—the political elite, including elected officials, would have less power. Given the level of corruption revealed by Wikileaks, reducing the power makes sense. Were electorates able to vote on major policy positions, the winning candidates would be obliged legally to implement the winning policies because the popular sovereign (i.e., an electorate) is the source of governmental sovereignty (i.e., the power of governments in republics).

Were policy positions distinguished from the question of who should fill a public office, no longer would voters be put in the position of voting for a candidate in spite of disagreeing with some of his or her policy positions; the decision on candidates would pertain to them (e.g., competence and trustworthiness). Voters not in favor of any of the candidates (e.g., they are all corrupt) could bypass that line and still vote on policies, and thus still participate as a citizen. I suspect that many Americans could have benefitted from such a reform in 2016.

The Pirate Party was essentially saying that humanity needs to catch up with democratic theory; existing systems being warped by political and business elites. Because a given candidate typically takes positions on several issues, a voter is essentially voting on all those positions in voting for the candidate even if that voter does not agree with all those positions. This is a structural flaw in representative democracy that stems from putting too much emphasis on office-holders. To be sure, they could still have discretion on policy matters not on the ballet that are either minor at the time of the election or come up during the term of office. Separating out the policies from decisions on candidates for the offices would provide a closer fit for the voter’s preferences on the major policies as well as the candidates—including on their judgment, which would theoretically apply to the remaining discretion on minor or upcoming policy matters.

To the extent that democracy, which can be viewed as a hybrid of direct and representative, reflects the will of the people, that system of government is rightly deemed legitimate. Given the spread of democracy in the world since the early modern age, addressing the system itself of how candidates are elected and major policies are adopted and implemented would represent a major step in political development for our species.

Unfortunately, systemic change is labeled “radical” by the interests of the status quo. In its article on Iceland’s Pirate Party, USA Today begins with “Iceland’s radical Pirate Party.”[4] The value-judgment that goes with radicalism antedates the judgment of the Icelandic people and thus subtly works against systemic change even though there is a good case for it. The world could do worse than read of a party whose platform makes systemic change explicit (and as being valuable).

Ideally, electorates, as the popular sovereign in democracies, will someday take up the power to decide directly rather than by party (or candidate) on alternative systemic changes. Even the question of whether major policy decisions should be made by electorates on election day apart from voting for candidates for public offices could be put before the electorates in a binding fashion. Few political elites would willingly cede such power willingly, without pressure from an electorate. This is why Iceland’s Pirate Party is so significant; in short, it may show the way.

[1] Kim Hjelmgaard, “Hacker-founded Pirate Party Could Win Iceland’s Election,” USA Today, October 28, 2016.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.