The Capitalist Paradox of Piracy
Pirates have been icons for centuries, either to be revered or reviled. Be it from ancient Greece to the celebrity of Blackbeard, pirates have captured not only our imaginations but also impacted our world. There have been many centuries of piracy across the globe; China historically has dealt with formidable pirates. However, in the European imagination, it is the image of the ‘golden age’ of piracy which is so often invoked in our minds. Ranging from the 1650s-1720s, we envisage captains and sailors living on the waters of Central America, the yo-ho-ho life and a bottle of rum, pirates (quite literally) of the Caribbean.
Often portrayed as outlaws, we are uncertain about whether we can trust pirates. They are criminals but are charming and glamourised, perhaps we are jealous that they lead their own lives packed with independence and without the commitment and responsibility of everyday life. However, the traditional rebellious depiction of piracy is more nuanced than first thought. There is a complicated relationship between piracy, the state, and economics which is in constant flux and can be both conflicting and reinforcing all at the same time.
To understand this intricate relationship, it’s necessary to understand how most pirates came into being. Within the European conception, pirates were more often than not privateers or sailors first. To become a pirate, one often had to be middle class and educated as it was a skilled profession. The role of a privateer was to be a hired mercenary of the state and carry out state sanctioned war like actions on enemy ships. The use of privateers was highly popular in the British Empire and featured heavily in the Spanish War of Succession.
Once the War of Succession was over, many did not want to give up the life they had led as a privateer.
Piracy became increasingly attractive. Sailors often struggled with extremely poor living conditions and low wages that were often ‘taxed’ by senior ranking members. While the majority of successful pirates would receive, at least once in their lifetime, payouts that would reach into the millions. It is not hard to see why piracy began to flourish. This was the case of Benjamin Hornegold who enjoyed training up idle sailors; he took both Edward Teach and Blackbeard under his wing. Furthermore, piracy had a strong egalitarian aspect. Its spoils system was redistributive, and it was the most egalitarian form of employment of the era, meaning even low-ranking pirates took home substantial amounts.
If the state played such a pivotal role in the conception of ‘golden age’ pirates, why is it that the state sought so hard to eradicate them? It is at this point when economics comes into play. On the one hand, rather than perceiving pirates at the margins of society, and therefore the margin of the economy, it is possible to view piracy as an extension of capitalism. There are many lenses of which pirate capitalism could be viewed; pirates were often socially pushed into piracy due to poor living conditions, which is still a main driving factor today, Sugule Ali – a pirate who, in 2008, captured the Ukrainian ship Faina – claimed ‘[w]e only want money so we can protect ourselves from hunger’.
Arguably, pirates are punished due to their anarchistic resistance against the crush of capitalism. However, they can also be viewed as a fully functioning arm of capitalism.
Amilcar Cabral stated that ‘imperialism is piracy transplanted from the seas to dry land’, which fits with Marx’s dialectical theory of the economy, in which imperialism is the highest form of capitalism. It is for this exact reason that piracy is so despised by the state, as it demonstrates what capitalism truly is. Private accumulation of capital can be described as an ongoing process of state violence used to police and reinforce the separation of producers and the means of production. What is unique to piracy, is that it actively engages in this practice. During this process, the weaknesses of the state are exposed, as piracy demonstrates the state’s inability to govern outside of its own territory, but it also exposes the state’s power to determine who is or who is not the enemy of mankind. State use of private accumulation assumes that capital works seamlessly with the state to enclose the commons – be that land, production, or resources. Piracy makes explicit the violence in this process. This is the necessary violence of capitalism utilised in capital production and circulation. Consequently, the state seeks to punish pirates as to defend and protect its own vested and coercive interests in capitalism
Once more, we can turn to the modern-day example of the pirated Faina. We see that, although the pirates made the headlines as criminals, threatening the stability of society, conveniently little was said of the suspicious Ukrainian company making ‘underground arm shipments’ into a war zone in violation of international law.
As markets and the economy continue to develop, the liminal distinction between piracy and capitalism becomes increasingly blurry. It is not unusual that we now see pirates occupying more and more spaces in our world, such as cyberspace. Rather than viewing pirates as criminals or vandals, terrorising each step of development, it is possible to view pirates as norm-generating entities directing the next step of the economy. It is not by accident that at every stage of capitalist expansion pirates have emerged. Be it, when they were attacking monopolistic companies trading routes in the 17th century or challenging ownership on the internet. Pirates tend to emerge at points when there are questions about legitimacy and tend to advocate for general access to monopolised areas.
But, again, we see the co-option of piracy into capitalism through the appropriation of innovation. If pirates are used as navigators of the future of the economy, it is not surprising that their innovations become privatised and monetised – the majority of ideas in history have begun either as illegitimate or illegal. Today online piracy has driven technological advancements. For example, through creating a large open-source pool of knowledge, online piracy has driven the evolution of file-sharing technology. In fact, the public does not consistently view online piracy as a crime. When significant barriers are placed on consumers, the majority accept or engage in piracy themselves! Simply consider the amount of times music, TV shows, or films have been illegally streamed or downloaded.
Throughout the ages, pirates have been perceived as criminals and champions as well as senseless assailants or conscious activists. It seems that as, piracy continues to spread beyond its traditional shores, pirates’ roles in society will become ever obscured. As piracy has developed both in opposition to and as a part of capitalism, it is unlikely we see any disentanglement any time soon. Instead, the state will continue to be complicit in the conditions that create piracy, and it will be up to us to determine whether pirates deserve to be heroes or villains.