All politics: swarm intelligence and subterranean politics in Germany

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The Pirate Party does not stand for certain policies, but for a new way of doing politics that challenges established notions of parliamentary democracy with new modes of decision-making.
David Budde
9 October 2012

Framing the Crisis[1].

Frames are a key word when we want to know how people perceive policy problems. Frames are made up of cognitive images and associations: they are the cultural reference points that we apply to make sense of the world. Different frames offer different versions of how to think of political problems and the way to solve them. When talking about ‘the crisis’ in Europe, we have been exposed to the frame of the ‘economic’ or ‘fiscal’ crisis, which is reiterated in media outlets, statements by politicians, and research by scholars throughout Europe. Undoubtedly, the stagnant economies in the Fiscal Union, volatile financial markets and heavy public debt burdens pose existential political problems for the European Union and its citizens. But the economic crisis frame also implies that the ‘fixes’ required are economic in nature. According to this narrative, all it takes to solve the crisis is to make the right adjustments to the national economies and to European economic policies. The trans-European research project on ‘Subterranean Politics’ of which this study is a part proposes a competing frame to think about this crisis: It’s all about politics.[2].

Subterranean politics refer to a wide spectrum of activities that are not captured as political by scholars so far because they fall outside the established realms of formal (party) politics, associations and organized social movements. The twenty-first century is already rich in examples of people participating outside parties, NGOs or other organizations. The most recent examples are Occupy activists in the United States and Europe who have deliberately defied hierarchy, formal structures and organization and opted for spontaneity, voluntary commitment and radical democratic decision-making.

If we apply the predominant economic crisis frame to Germany, one would hardly expect there to be discontent or protest, given the country’s relatively solid position in the midst of the European ‘debt crisis’. I aim to show here that Germany offers intriguing examples of subterranean politics in Europe, as part of a report which explains why a concern over democracy is at the heart of contemporary protest activities; how a new generation of activists engage in new modes of organization, which we label ‘swarm intelligence’; and how the newly emerged Pirate Party is already reconfiguring established modes of democracy in German politics in this direction.

It’s not the economy

Germany arguably presents a rather exceptional case when it comes to subterranean politics in Europe. Compared to, among others, Greece, Italy, or Spain, politics and public life in Germany are functioning in a routine way. The country has recovered rather quickly from the global financial and economic crisis of 2008. Since then, the economy has grown slowly but steadily and experts expect it to grow by another 0.9 per cent in 2012. The budget deficit was in compliance with the upper limit of the EU stability pact for the first time in three years and in November 2011 the jobless rate reached its lowest level since reunification.[3] It is therefore not surprising that Germany has not seen protests on the scale that has occurred in Greece, Italy or Spain. But while the German case may be exceptional in these regards, our research indicates that Germany makes a strong case for the fact that subterranean politics in Europe are fuelled by discontent and distrust in the way political institutions function – and not an automatic trigger response to austerity politics and redistribution, as the economic crisis frame suggests.

In 2011, thousands of citizens in the south western city of Stuttgart took to the street to protest Stuttgart 21, a large-scale project to reconstruct the city’s main train station by lowering it under the surface. It was first conceived in 1994, enjoyed bipartisan support and was a ‘non-issue’ until construction actually began and cost projections went skyrocketing. Stuttgart 21 soon became a prominent metaphor for the way decisions are made without transparency and legitimate interests ignored. And this is just the most prominent example of German citizens protesting former ‘non-issues’, usually large scale infrastructure projects. The Society for the German Language tellingly coined the term Wutbürger, referring to the ‘angry citizens’ suddenly taking to the street to protest these and other projects, as Word of the Year 2010.

Why are these protests noteworthy? For one, consider what it takes for people to turn out and vent their anger at projects that have so far proved uncontroversial. This is a way of saying ‘not in my name’. These actions symbolically sever the bond of legitimacy with elected officials of whatever affiliation who decide on massive and expensive infrastructure projects. Also note that research into the Stuttgart 21 protests revealed that about 90 per cent of protesters surveyed were satisfied with their personal situation, but that 90 per cent were simultaneously dissatisfied with the current political, economic and social condition of Germany.[4].

According to the dominant frame for understanding the crisis, these citizens lack any reason to turn out and protest. And yet they do – at considerable personal risks. Their actions make sense only if they are interpreted as events within a larger context, which we label - subterranean politics.

Swarm intelligence and the ouster of a Defense Minister

What is characteristic about subterranean politics in each country is the way in which they connect with existing cultural norms and political values on the one hand, and reaffirm or reconfigure them through new modes of political participation on the other. In Germany, we have identified these modes as being modeled around the idea of ‘swarm intelligence’. A good example of this point is the Guttenplag wiki.

The Guttenplag wiki is a website anonymously created after a prominent law professor voiced his suspicions of plagiarism regarding the doctoral thesis of the then-Federal Minister of Defense, Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg in February 2011. The minister declared this accusation to be absurd. Subsequently, unknown activists drafted a Google Docs online document to collectively detect plagiarisms in his thesis. Soon Guttenplag had to deploy a Wiki platform to enable more than 100 users to work simultaneously on the document. The evidence for plagiarism became so strong that zu Guttenberg resigned from office on 1 March 2012.[5].

This shows two things. First, it’s a prime example of how cultural and political values matter to subterranean politics. While in some nations, copying and pasting in a doctoral thesis may be considered a minor mishap, if any, in Germany this type of ‘cheating’ is taken as a measure of dishonesty in a society in which academic titles are still regarded with a sense of reverent respect and recognition. This cheating was only made worse by lying publicly about the authenticity of his work. While politicians in Germany easily get away with, for example, adultery or occasional substance abuse, being caught ‘cheating’ and ‘lying’ renders a politician unable to serve in public office. Guttenplag hence created a way of reaffirming this set of German civic virtues through a new and collective effort by the crowd.

And this leads us to the second point. Guttenplag was open for everyone to participate. In a transparent way, activists marked the plagiarized parts of the thesis and inserted the original sources. The initiators and actors remained anonymous throughout and acted individually for a collective outcome. This is where the ‘swarm intelligence’ comes into play. The term ‘swarm intelligence’ is adopted from biology – usually referring to bees, fish, ant swarms, bacteria or cells, but recently has been increasingly applied to electronic engineering and computer sciences. It generally refers to actions by individuals based on simple rules. Groups organized by swarm intelligence are usually self-organized, adaptive and when one individual drops out, another individual can take its place. Problems are solved by the group as a whole, without hierarchies or leaders. Every member can participate in solving a problem just as much as any other member might. And this was the way in which the Guttenplag Wiki was organized: in this it is similar to the structure of other swarm intelligence groups, like Anonymous or Occupy.[6].

The Pirate Party: a party without policy?

While the Guttenplag wiki is an example of how swarm intelligence groups are organized and engage in activities online, these groups have also made a real impact on the public sphere. The German case study explicitly focuses on Occupy and the activists, motivations and topics driving them. Most of the public attention, however, has been on a hybrid example of subterranean politics: the Pirate Party and its surprising series of electoral successes in Germany.

A Pirate Party was first founded in Sweden in 2006 to organize interests around the issues of freedom of the internet and copyright on behalf of online users whose practices of filesharing were under increasing attack. Similar parties by the same name were soon founded worldwide, championing civil liberties in the internet age. In Germany, the Piratenpartei rose to sudden prominence when it crossed the five per cent threshold in the Berlin State elections in 2011 and won seats in the State parliament. Similar successes have followed since then in the States (Länder) of Saarland, Schleswig-Holstein and North-Rhine Westphalia.

The Pirate Party is a hybrid example of subterranean politics because, technically speaking, it is a party just like any other, playing by the same rules of parliamentary politics. However, it is remarkable how a party rose to success which has yet to formulate a comprehensive party platform that addresses all traditional policy fields. What makes this an interesting example of subterranean politics when it comes down to it, is the way that this party connects with the notions of protesting politics as usual and experimenting with new modes of democratic decision-making. There is some evidence to argue that what has made the Pirate Party so attractive to many voters was exactly the lack of substance in terms of policy proposals.

Instead, the party stands for transparent and fluid decision-making processes, in which the base gets to discuss and decide on issues always and at any time in-between elections. For example, using an internet tool called ‘Liquid Feedback’, users can weigh in and ultimately vote on how the party group in the State Parliament votes on issues.[7]. The Pirate Party does not stand for certain policies, but for a new way of doing politics that challenges established notions of parliamentary democracy. This strikes a chord with the Stuttgart 21 protesters and the anonymous activists of Guttenplag. And in fact, studies have shown that up to 60 per cent of Pirate Party voters come from the group of voters who didn’t vote in previous elections because they didn’t feel drawn to any party.[8].

It is possible that the Pirate Party could turn out to be a temporary fad of disenchanted voters who want to protest the status quo, but are not committed to the party and its organization for the long haul. But regardless of the footprint this party may or may not leave in German politics, it shows how subterranean politics are indeed ‘bubbling up’ and testing the spheres of established politics.


While Germany has not seen the masses out on the streets as in Italy, Spain and Greece over the past month, this report foregrounds some prominent examples of protest and subterranean politics, which indicate that anger and disappointment are not exclusive to the aforementioned. Of all countries in Europe, Germany should be the most docile in terms of protest if we hold the dominant economic crisis frame to be the most accurate. It has a strong economy and stable finances. And yet a political crisis seems palpable in various events. These events and activities seem to indicate that this crisis is all about politics after all.

In Germany, citizens now turn out to protest former ‘non-issues’, symbolically severing the bond with elected officials and calling for more participation and transparency in decision-making on all levels of government. On the web, the Guttenplag wiki, is a prime example of how cultural and political values are reaffirmed and reconfigured using novel modes of participation, namely those that are organized around concepts of ‘swarm intelligence’ or the ‘wisdom of the crowd’, in which individuals work together to reach a collective goal without formal hierarchies. And finally, the electoral successes of the Pirate Party show how suddenly subterranean politics can bubble up and alter the fabric of established formal politics, introducing new modes of decision-making such as ‘Liquid Feedback’ – and actually bringing disenchanted voters back into the political process.

This report is a call for scholars and policy-makers alike to reconsider whether this crisis is truly economic and fiscal at heart. While there are urgent governance challenges that must be met with sound policies, it may be time to bring democracy back into the equation. All the various examples of subterranean politics seem to indicate a desire to talk about democracy anew and experiment with new modes of decision-making.

Perhaps most worrisome from our study as well as from other European observations, is the conspicuous absence of Europe from this conversation among activists. But if democracy is to be reinvented again, it will have to address the European level.


1. This Report is based on research conducted by Anne Nassauer (Berlin Graduate School of Social Sciences), Prof. Helmut Anheier and David Budde (Hertie School of Governance) on ‘subterranean politics’ in Germany as part of a trans-European research project funded by the Open Society Foundations. The full research report will be published in an edited volume edited by Mary Kaldor and Sabine Selchow in 2013.

2. For preliminary results of this research project see Kaldor, Mary and Selchow, Sabine and Deel, Sean and Murray-Leach, Tamsin (2012). ‘The ‘bubbling up’ of subterranean politics in Europe.’ Civil Society and Human Security Research Unit, London School of Economics and Political Science, London, UK. Available at: http://eprints.lse.ac.uk/44873/.

3. See Zeit online (2012). ‚Konjunktur: Starkes Wachstum drückt deutsches Defizit.‘ Die Zeit, 11 January 2012. Retrieved 1 March 2012 from http://www.zeit.de/wirtschaft/2012-01/deutschland-wirtschaft-wachstum. See also Statistisches Bundesamt (2012) ‚destatis Arbeitsmarkt.‘ Retrieved 1 March 2012 from http://www.destatis.de/jetspeed/portal/cms/Sites/destatis/Internet/DE/Content/

4. For these findings see the study by Göttinger Institut für Demokratieforschung (n.d.). ‚Neue Dimensionen des Protest? Ergebnisse einer explorativen Studie zu den Protesten gegen Stuttgart 21.‘ Retrieved 3 March 2012 from http://www.demokratie-goettingen.de/studien/neue-dimensionen-des-protest ; and Rucht, Dieter, Wolfgang Stuppert, Britta Baumgarten, and Simon Teune (2010). ‚Befragung von Demonstranten gegen Stuttgart 21 am 18.10.2010.‘ Retrieved 28 February 2012 from http://www.wzb.eu/de/forschung/beendete-forschungsprogramme/zivilgesellschaft-und-politische-mobilisierung/projekte/befragung-zu-st.

5. For analysis of this case see Dempsey, Judy (2011). ‘Plagiarism in Dissertation Costs German Defense Minister His Job.’ The New York Times, 2 March 2011, p. A4.

6. For more on this notion of the wisdom of crowds, see Surowiecki, James (2005). The Wisdom of Crowds. New York, NY: Anchor Books.

7. See the blog and website on Liquid Feedback: http://liquidfeedback.org/.

8. For more on the electoral success of the Pirate Party and their profile see the study by Borchard, Michael and Stoye, Sabine (2011). ‘Einzug in das Berliner Abgeordnetenhaus – eine Analyse des Wahlergebnisses’. Parteienmonitor Aktuell 21 September 2011. Berlin: Konrad Adenauer Stiftung. Retrieved on 2 September 2012 from: http://www.kas.de/wf/doc/kas_28957-544-1-30.pdf?110930114956. For an English analysis see Dowling, Siobhan (2011). ‘Pirate party snatches seats in Berlin state election.’ The Guardian, 18 September 2011. Retrieved on 2 September 2012 from: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/sep/18/pirate-party-germany-berlin-election.

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