I was recently elected as the Communications Manager for the Pirate Party of NZ. One of the regular responses I get when I tell people I’ve joined the Pirate Party, is a suggestion that pirates are a negative stereotype - both in the classical and contemporary use of the word - and that it’s political suicide to identify oneself with them. Even within the free culture movement, there are divergent views on this. For example, while the Swedish “Piratpartiet” embraced the term as a statement of identity (perhaps in a similar way to other counterculture movements reclaiming words like “punk” and “queer” which also began as terms of abuse), free software founder Richard Stallman explicitly rejects the use of the words “piracy” or “pirate” in relation to digital copying. In a typical example, in a July, 2000 talk, he said, “the word ‘pirate’… is used to give the impression that making an unauthorised copy is the moral equivalent of attacking a ship and kidnapping or killing the people on board”.

Stallman’s definition reflects the way pirates tend to be represented in popular culture, as unruly mobs engaging in a combination of anti-social violence, cut-throat ruthlessness, irrationality, and organisational incompetence, the classic example being the arch-villain Captain Hook and his crew in Peter Pan. However, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this negative propaganda image of pirates is almost identical to those mobilized against anti-authoritarian rebel movements throughout history; from the Luddites and Diggers in the early 19th century, to anarchists and trade unionists in the late 19th and early 20th century, to “socialist” and “communist” revolutionaries like the Sandanistas and FARC in the post WW2 Cold War years, to indigenous independence movements like the Zapatistas, and the decentralized direct action networks of the global justice movement (”anti-globalization movement”) of the late 20th.

Historically though, piracy included at least some qualities which a philosopher of the time, with Stallman’s inclinations, might well have championed, for the same reasons that Stallman defends those smeared as “pirates” today. There is a fascinating hidden history of piracy as a rebellion against oppressive authority - particularly slavery and forced labour - organised through direct democracy, and autonomous communities (”free ports”). My attention was first drawn to this possibility by the poetic ranter Hakim Bey, who begins his sketch of the  “Temporary Autonomous Zone” with a chapter called “Pirate Utopias“. Soon after, I got hold of a copy of a pamphlet called ‘The True History of the Pyrate Captain Misson, His Crew & Their Colony of Libertatia’, originally published by a situationist-influenced entity calling themselves ‘Spectacular Times’, which described the democratic inclinations of certain pirate crews, and the onboard democracy of their “floating republics”, leading to the founding of the libertarian island port of “Libertatia”. Inspiring and fun as these stories of maritime anarcho-syndicalism were though, they were not really presented as serious history, even by those who distributed them, and it would be easy to dismiss them as a romanticized caricature.

More recently however, I discovered some academic respectability has been bestowed on this intriguing picture of pirates as egalitarian democrats, thanks to the essay ‘There Never Was a West’ by anthropologist and Occupy veteran David Graeber, published in a book of his essays called ‘Possibilities: Essays on Hierarchy, Rebellion, and Desire’. Graeber quotes historian John Markoff from an essay called ‘Where and When was Democracy Invented’:

“…that leadership could derive from the consent of the led, rather than be bestowed by higher authority, would have been a likely experience of the crews of pirate vessels in the early modern Atlantic world. Pirate crews not only elected their captains, but were familiar with countervailing power (in the form of the quartermaster and the ship’s council) and contractual relations of individual and collectivity (in the form of written ship’s articles specifying shares of booty and rates of compensation for on-the-job injury).”

This seems to confirm that historical pirate captains bear a closer resemblance to Captain Mission, than to Captain Hook. Graeber follows up this quote by saying:

“…the typical organisation of eighteenth century pirate ships, as reconstructed by historians like Marcus Rediker, appears to have been remarkably democratic. Captains were not only elected, they usually functioned much like Native American war chiefs: granted total power during chase or combat, they were otherwise treated like ordinary crewmen. Those ships who captains were granted more general powers also insisted on the crew’s right to remove them as any time for cowardice, cruelty, or any other reason. In every case, ultimate power rested in a general assembly that often ruled on even the most minor matters, always, apparently, by majority show of hands.”

Keeping this in mind, could it be that mainstream society has something to learn from the current exponents of this pirate democracy, and their experiences of sailing the high seas of the world wide web on “open source” ships? If Aotearoa was run more like the model of Libertatia, a network of autonomous free ports, could this be an improvement on the military-industrial neo-colonial model that’s been imposed on us for at least the last 30 years? I tend to think so.

Filed July 31st, 2013 under Uncategorized
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