Sunday, October 21, 2012

A conversation with Katja Dahte

Katja Dathe is a genuine Berliner and started her commitment to creativity while studying pattern construction and tailoring in the GDR. After the fall of the Berlin Wall she was referred to as the genius fashion designer from East Berlin. She distributed her label “Karl Faktor” until 1999 and then ended her career in the fashion scene. Thereafter, Katja played an integral role as a production coordinator in my office (that’s how we became best friends) and in 2006 she became the CEO of Parkhaus, a homeware design company. She decided to join the Berlinbased Pirate Party when she began her studies of economic science.The first Pirate Party was founded on January 1st in 2006 in Sweden. The party’s name was derived from Piratbyrån, an organization opposed to intellectual property. Members of Piratbyrån had previously founded the BitTorrent tracker The Pirate Bay. The Pirate Party supports civil rights, direct democracy and participation, reform of copyright and patent law, free sharing of knowledge (open content), data privacy, transparency, freedom of information, free education, universal healthcare, and a clear separation between church and state. In the election for the House of Representatives of Berlin in 2011 the Pirate Party reached 8.9 percent and moved into the state parliament. Even friends in the United States have recently asked me, “What is going on over there in Berlin?” So it’s about time to spread the word for you my friends. I met with Katja to talk about the party’s values and intentions: about equal rights, supporting individual inhabitants of our city, minimum wage, and of course, about Katja herself. Who can be called a lot of things, but not insane.

A conversation about different kinds of democracy, particular social structures and the meaning of the human ego from the point of view of the pirate party.

What do you contribute to the Pirate Party?
For two years I’ve done the finances. Many people join us and think that they can sell their own project as a Pirate Party project. I try to make sure that the basic ideas of democracy are upheld honestly. I try my best to be the internal defense secretary, so to speak. When I joined the Pirates, I felt like I was finally home. Each person I met is very special in their own way and has a particular strength.
The party promotes a form of communication with the motto “I’m okay, you’re okay. I respect you, even if I don’t like you.” It’s awesome — they’re all crazy and they’re all amazing. There are also many new members that have workable ideas: no one will say “This is bullshit.”

What was the spark that convinced you to join?
I chose the party when it was still really young. I thought to myself, “Another strange group of nerds.” I quickly realized that there was something more to it. Since the fall of the Wall I viewed the whole revolution with a “too cool for school” attitude. My part in the Pirate Party could almost be seen as a reparation for this. You have to take your start in politics seriously. After I chose the Pirates I felt a bit of guilt — what had I done with my vote? Realizing I had to follow up on this, suddenly I had this consciousness. I went to a meeting, and there sat these 20- to 50-year old men. Everyone could say what they wanted, when they wanted; everything was totally natural. Then I realized that the treasurer was talking total nonsense, and the others called on me directly to be a candidate for the position. Suddenly I was going to the Berlin-wide Pirate meetings and expressing my opinions. It worked out immediately. Anyone who wants to get serious about the party will find their place.

What made you realize that the Pirate Party stood a chance in the Berlin elections?
First there was the postering campaign and then suddenly we were present. The unofficial postering began on a Friday at 6pm. It stormed the entire weekend and every district worked in its own way. By Monday, 12,000 posters had been distributed across the city. The next goal was “Talk to the people!” Because our ideas were on the posters, we suddenly had a professional presence. Of course, we were unsure about a lot of things, if we could really do this or that. We thought maybe people just didn’t understand, but then theywould just ask someone. We had our slogans, for example: “Networks Under User Control!” or “Minimum Wage is a Bridging Technology.” The latter includes the idea of an unconditional basic income. The time has come to see the minimum wage as something we could incorporate socially. The average person might be confused by that and think, “I don’t have a minimum wage and have never heard of a bridging technology.” It would be easy to feel overwhelmed. However, the hope is that two people could then stand in front of the poster and come together by having a discussion about it. People tend to feel more insulted  being insufficiently challenged than by overly strained. 

Could you clarify the term “unconditional basic income?”
This comes from the American economist Milton Friedman’s idea of “basic income” in the 1950s. The political or philosophical idea behind it is: we are rich enough to guarantee the survival of every human being. We have enough of an economy that we can all live from it on a basic level. When your basic expenses are covered, you can begin to develop as a person. If everyone had a basic income, society would be more profitable than it is now. For example, when I have 1000 Euros a month, I can study what I want to study, and I don’t have to go to work at a bakery at six in the morning. Then the question is, “Who will do things like garbage disposal?” Well, then garbage men have to be paid enough of a salary so that it is an attractive job option. Then, to support these higher salaries, the production of garbage would also cost money, resulting in the people producing less of it. The counter-argument is: “Then there will always be someone who is doing nothing other than just laying around.” Sure, but these kinds of people exist now. And? The funny thing is that people will experience an unbelievable wave of innovation, because this feeling of “We have to think about jobs” disappears. Suddenly, money is not the main motivator. There was a study where people were asked, “If there was an unconditional basic income, would you still work?” Eighty percent said “Of course. Maybe I would work in a different field, maybe I would take a break, but I would need to have more to my life than just this basic income. Work helps to define my identity.” The same people were asked if they believe that other people would also continue to work. Eighty percent answered “No.” This means that the basic belief is “I would work, but the others are too dumb, too lazy, too stingy.” I think that if this idea came into fruition, people would choose their jobs not only based on money, but because they’re actually interested in what they’re doing. It’s also about the things that I experience through my job — knowing moments of happiness that have nothing to do with money.

Tell us, what are you working on at the moment?
Liquid democracy. It’s the attempt to link direct democracy with the current political system of representative democracy. Presently, we vote for representatives who will act for us for the next five years. Direct democracy includes the popular vote, referendums on different levels where your vote directly impacts the decision making process. Liquid democracy attempts to unify these two forms. With a tool like LiquidFeedback where we can bring our vote in directly, or delegate the vote to someone. For example, with issues of health, you could delegate to your sister, or when it comes to business, you could delegate to someone you believe has expertise in this field, and so on.

This obviously requires a lot of initiative on the part of the voters. How is it implemented?
This principle is actually used within organizations and companies — it will be used for civic participation by the local government of Friesland in Northern Germany. Most important is that you establish a primary group of participants. You log into an account where your information is verified and have one vote. Say the theme is fiscal policy and I have no idea about it. I would then search for a delegate and put my vote in their hand, even if it’s just my neighbor. These votes can be passed on. This means — if I delegate my vote to my neighbor who knows a professor from the field, my neighbor could pass it on to that professor, and that professor could pass it on to someone else, and so on. As a result a concentration of experts arises. The best part of the system is that it is “troll”-resistant. During the discussion phase you can’t be against issues, only for them. You can support things, ignore them, or express your alternative position and try to find supporters for it — which many find very difficult in the beginning. At the end of the process the participants can vote for or against different positions.

I imagine that there would be a lot of chaos — too much freedom and too much democracy. In your opinion are there weak points?
I only know this as a tool for the internal structure of a party. Within the Pirate Party the voting results are not necessarily the grounds for a decision. The difference with direct democracy is that with a referendum, you can only say “yes” or “no,” within our structure the themes are discussed and developed. It’s a very long process and I don’t want to suggest that at some point it will entirely replace our political system; however, in the two years that I’ve worked with it, I’ve never experienced a foolish result.

Do you think other forms of democracy see the public as inherently dumb?
The civic model that is currently in place is one that takes care of others, where someone has or is able to pretend to have the power or intelligence and knowledge of what is good for other people — the model of the good king, the benevolent dictator, the chosen few in parliament. But things
have changed through the Internet, mainly because on the Internet, there is no good or bad. The information gap between representatives and normal people is about to be closed. The majority of the Pirate Party believes that competent individuals are able to take responsibility for themselves. Everyone has some form of specialization and has a viewpoint in that field. This means that no one would find themselves in a superior position; rather, they could benefit from the expertise of others. In point of fact the interests of strong groups stands before the interests of the whole. Now we have the technical  possibilities to develop new forms of democracy where people can participate and share responsibility. Representatives in Germany are paid so poorly, that you really can’t have an ego to want to do this job. If you want to earn money, you go into business.

How will the party develop its image in the future?
You’ll definitely find diversity. In general we don’t concern ourselves with traditional questions of structure. We will continue to be flexible so we are able to directly react to continuous demands, as directed by the people.

What’s next? What are your goals?
To secure seats for the Pirates in the Bundestag at the next federal election — everything else is a cherry on the sundae.

Interview: Christiane Bördner
photo: Marcus Gaab

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