The Rarely Told Story: Pirates as Radical Commoners

Kester Brewin, a teacher of mathematics in South East London, was wondering why his son has been invited to countless pirate-themed birthday parties, but not any aggravated robbery themed parties.  What's the reason for our fascination with pirates?

 Brewin’s answer is an amazing 13-minute video talk  for TEDx Exeter (UK) based on his 2012 book, Mutiny! Why We Love Pirates and How they Can Save Us. The talk is a powerful account of 18th century piracy and a plea for all of us to become pirates as acts of radical emancipation.

For the full effect, I urge you to watch the full video....but here is a key excerpt transcribed from Brewin’s talk:


What I want to propose is that whenever we see pirates, we see a system in some kind of trouble, whether it involves politics, economics, spirituality, culture or the arts.  Pirates send us a signal that something that should be held in the hands of common people, has been taken away.

Now if we look back in history, the golden age of pirates, the early 1700s, we see England, Spain, France and Holland trying to enclose the new world of the Americas into their empires.  At this time we are right at the birth of emerging global capitalism.  The engine of this movement is the ship.  And the petrol in the engines are sailors. 

Like Blackbeard here [powerpoint slide], they are combustible characters.  But exploding because of the huge pressures they were put under.  Sailors were brutally treated.  Whipped, beaten, fed rotten food.  Sailors at this time were rarely paid and regularly injured.  One writer of the day wrote that to be a sailor was to be caught in a machine from which there is no escape except incapacity, desertion or death.  To be a sailor in the navy was to be close to death.  The mark they used in the ship’s log to show a sailor’s death?  The skull and crossed bones.

You see, sailors turned to piracy because of the brutal lives they lived under these captains.  A sailor’s life was going to be a short one.  So if it was going to be a short life, why not a merry one?  And when sailors turned to piracy, they lived a very different life at sea.  Pirates could vote for their own officers.  They ate and drank well.  Pirates were compensated from the common purse if they were injured.  But most importantly, pirates shared equally among themselves the profits of their labors. 

You see, the common misconception is that pirates were just thieves.  But what this misses is that everyone was thieving – the English navy from the French. French from the Spanish.  The Spanish from the Dutch.  And all of them from the land. 

Very importantly:  Pirates were not hated because they stole.  No!  Pirates were hated for refusing to pass on what they stole to the king.  Pirates were hated for refusing to be more than just scum.  That’s what the Jolly Roger screams loud and clear.  The brutal treatment.  The dehumanizing work for no reward....

Pirates come to us as an act of radical self-determination.  To move to piracy is an act of emancipation -- stepping out from under oppression.  And that is why we dress our children up as pirates – to give them a taste of freedom that we should all be thinking of.

Pirates of the 18th Century tell us important things about piracy in general, which is this:  Whenever the resources of the many are enclosed for the benefit of the few, pirates will rise up, break that down, and put riches back into the hands of common people.

Brewin's talk brings to mind the pioneering history of the Atlantic slave trade, piracy and English merchants that Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker have written, The Many Headed Hydra.  Highly recommended.  Brewin's version of this history has a passion and clarity that is quite moving.  .   

More on Brewin?  The notes for his talk explain that besides teaching math in the UK, he is “a freelance writer, poet and consultant for BBC education. He writes regularly on education and technology for the national educational press, and has published a number of highly acclaimed books on the philosophy of religion.”


A Polar Opposite Interpretation

The Pirate Organization: Lessons from the Fringes of Capitalism, published by the Harvard Business Review Press in 2013, makes the case that pirates, contrary to what Brewin believes, are the cutting edge of capitalism.

From the inside flap of the book:

"First published in French to great critical acclaim and commercial success as L'Organisation Pirate: Essai sur l'evolucion du capitalisme, this book shows that piracy is not random.  It's predictable, it cannot be separated from capitalism, and it likely will be the source of capitalism's continuing evolution."

Go to YouTube to watch the video that is associated with this book.  It is entitled "What is the Pirate Organization?"  I'd include a link here, but for some reason the html codes that the site indicates work do not, in fact, work.

What is important to keep in mind when discussing pirates is that the definiition of pirates, like terrorists, depends on your viewpoint.  Pirates are almost always state-supported.  Pirate organizations may have egalitarian social structures, but they work for the State and capitalism could not exist without the backing of the State.

"Ned" Snowden: Hedge-Levellers, Frame-Breakers and Whistleblower

Excellent! This is of course what Peter Linebaugh has written about. Very much in the same vein, David, were the Luddites and the Levellers! Here is a blog post that I wrote today referencing a modern-day "pirate" who is very much in the news.

In a comment a couple of weeks ago at Juan Cole's Informed Comment blog, Warren Lunsford called Edward Snowden a "Luddite": 

In this Snowden disclosures it appears we are finding standard Marketing Science applied to National Security and Federal Criminal Investigations of Enemies of our County [sic]. I would think Snowden is a Luddite. Just as a group of early 19th century English workmen destroyed laborsaving machinery as a protest, we find Snowden attempting the same activity against the application of Modern Technology for National Security.

Lunsford was right but for the wrong reasons. There is indeed an important parallel between Snowden's actions and the frame-breaking of the Luddites (as well as the hedge-levelling of the commoners resisting enclosure). But Lunsford got his chronology backward. The enclosures of the commons and the mechanization of industry were usurpations that disrupted long-established regimes of property and legality. The real innovation here was the criminalization of protest against actions that previously would themselves have been regarded as violations of acknowledged rights.

The law doth punish man or womanThat steals the goose from off the common,But lets the greater felon looseThat steals the common from the goose

Nicholas Blomley (2007) wrote about "the consequential and often contradictory role of material objects in producing enclosure" emphasizing "the important work that hedges did, physically, symbolically and legally, in the dispossession of the commoner." I would argue, as did Marx, of course, that machinery performs a similar function of physical, symbolic and legal dispossession of labor power from the worker as does information technology dispossess citizens of their privacy. This is not to say that machines or IT, any more than hedges, are culpable for the dispossession. That would be to reduce them to their physical aspect alone. Rather it is the interaction of this physical aspect with its symbolic and legal interpretations that resulted and results in dispossession.