A Plea for Christian Piracy [3]

by , under Blog Series, Politics, Theology

[ Piracy 1 ] | [ Piracy 2 ]

somali_pirates

In the previous two posts I’ve been trying to build an argument that piracy functions not as the enemy of all mankind (hostis humanis generis) but as the shadow of mankind: umbris humanis generis. As rebels against a social order that is oppressing them, those who turn to piracy are critiquing the economic and political systems that have seen them disenfranchised. It was precisely in the emerging capitalism of the 17th and 18th centuries – in the golden age of exploration, where empires fought to expand their dominions and wealth by exploiting colonies – that we saw the golden age of piracy too. Fed up with making greedy princes and merchants rich through plunder, they decided to rob from the plunderers.

Somali piracy can be read in this light too, and one interesting episode is worth noting here. The French luxury yacht Le Ponant was captured in 2008 by a group of pirates. Le Ponant was the picture of the good life: a mixed crew of young men and women, sailing a fabulously luxurious boat to the Med to pick up passengers – with a good chef and plenty of wine on board. When captured, the crew hid the women of the boat in the bows, but, unable to last out they emerged after a few days. The pirates were furious, as William Langewiesche described in his article for Vanity Fair:

“We do not touch women! We want money!” Referring to himself and his men, he said, “Robbers! Not terrorists!” Ahmed escorted the group aft to the luxurious lower lounge, where he ordered that the women be provided with water and food. When the water arrived, he sent it back for being lukewarm.

The picture-perfect scene that the pirates had disturbed was not quite what it seemed though. Le Ponant was registered in the far-flung French protectorate of Wallis and Fatuna. This meant that they could fly the French flag – very nice for the tourists – but didn’t have to abide by any French employment or tax laws. As Langewieshe describes conditions for the crew:

The wages were low, the hours were long, and no retirement benefits were provided. During rotations ashore there were no wages at all. These terms were non-negotiable. They stemmed from the culture of a global shipping industry which over the past 60 years has pursued profit and efficiency in part by ridding itself of labor unions, and more fundamentally by freeing itself from the constraints of the nation-state and its laws.

So, although they initially feared for their lives when attacked, one could even push it a bit and say that the crew were in some respects more free during that time of occupation than they were under the oppressive regime of their employers. Either way, this leads us to a clue about why pirates remain so fascinating to us: they offer us a life that is more free.

The pirate life was a short one by all accounts, but it at least had the advantage of liberty – and merriment. For those living in the shadow of St Paul’s cathedral in London, reading Captain Johnson’s bawdy book on pirate exploits was an escape from the drudgery of their pretty grim lives. Working like dogs, with the twin powers of the merchants and the priesthood ready to pounce of them if they stepped out of line, here was a breath of fresh air – a short and merry life by proxy.

This then is also why pirates are equally hated by the establishment – and suffered such brutal punishments. They represented a sniggering critique of the system, a heretical, subversive alternative existence which threatened the very hierarchies and power-structures that kept them rich and comfortable. If the poor couldn’t be made to behave, they might have to do some work themselves.

And so it is to this idea of piracy as heresy that we will turn next… noting as we go that today a band of subversive musicians were found protesting at the government’s plans to go hell for leather after music pirates. Why would musicians not want piracy stamped out? We’ll try to answer that later in the series.


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  1. Jeff Luce

    I wasn’t sure where you were going when you started, but this is getting good (awesome).

  2. Nic

    Kes, could I mention the shadow of the shadow (something that haunts me— a lot)?
    That is, that piracy might coincide with the logic of capitalism. So I’m not so sure (any more) that piracy is a critique of the social order. It might well be a symptom— part of the chronic inertia that permeates us all, the ‘nostalgia mode’.

    This spins out of the ‘hauntology’ arguments that are currently ricocheting around the web.

    The fear is this. That: piracy, sampling, cut-ups, hacking, bricolage, sampling, mash-ups, quoting, referencing, appropriating, ‘perruque’, adjusting, collaging, diverting, intervening, subverting etc… …are the inevitable spasms induced by an implacable and unassailable capitalism. It certainly felt that way, up until last year’s wobble and near meltdown. We were ‘at the end of history’ unable to imagine genuine change and innovation, a Groundhog Day of constant novelty and eternal recycling— the appearance of change rather than structural change; capital inoculating itself.

    It makes you think more and more about the validity of Zizek’s notion of withdrawal. A complete disengagement with the cultural landscape in preference to viral engagement.

  3. KB

    I’d agree that piracy arises naturally out of capitalism, but I don’t think that that invalidates it as critique. Any system will contain within its DNA the nature of the most effective critique against it, but that doesn’t mean that the critique is therefore neutered and ineffective.

    And I’m pretty sure Fukuyama wouldn’t really hold to the end of history hypothesis any more. Capitalism does need ripping apart, for sure. But I’m not totally pessimistic about the chances of that.

  4. Nic

    Is critique still possible? Is change still possible? Is Justice still possible? I’m not sure? “Trompe-l’oeil negativity” Your critique has already been mimicked and emptied of any force.

    I buy the principle of an immanent critique but its the holy grail and I wonder if plunder is the answer any more.

    Re Mr Fukuyama, Derrida used hauntology to critique his stance. Hauntology is now being used to explore the cultural doldrums we find ourselves in.

  5. KB

    The only way to answer that is to ask the question at the personal level. Can you change? Can you still be just? Do you still critique? I think the answer in the personal has to be yes, so that leaves me with hope for the bigger picture.

  6. Gary Manders

    Excuse my ignorance but what is hauntology, or am I just reading the wrong things? If change is not possible, then we may as well give up now,it just gets so pessimistic.I refuse to give up on hope, its more robust than any dystopia. Thanks Kester for some innovative thinking riffing on that pirate theme.

  7. Nic

    “The only way”— tad too dogmatic for my liking. Also, is this your assumption of a whole, discrete, soul-bearing human subject?

  8. KB

    Just answer the bloody questions! Give us a run-down of hauntology. And tell if you – the thing your kids point to and say daddy – can change. Of course it’s too dogmatic to say ‘the only way’ – but it is certainly one way. And an important place to start.

  9. Nic

    This is lazy, and don’t really like doing this, but written stuff on hauntology here at these two posts:

    HauntedGeographies posts 86 + 87:
    http://hauntedgeographies.typepad.com/basho/2008/06/index.html

    It coincides with some of your thoughts, re the power of appropriation to initiate change. However, I am beginning to move away from this position. As you can see!

    A lot of this revolves around Jameson’s notion of PoMo being the hand-maiden of capitalism. We’ve probably had about a 100 years of cultural piracy, taking Duchamp as the prince of plunder and the urinal as piracy’s ground-zero. It’s a rich vein, but is it working?

    BTW, ‘Daddy’ is just one role or performance that constitutes Me++. I am multiple and schizoid. I would also argue you are the same too.

  10. KB

    Actually folks, the wikipedia entry helped me a lot more: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hauntology

    The basic idea:

    “The present exists only with respect to the past, and that society after the end of history will begin to orient itself towards ideas and aesthetics that are thought of as rustic, bizarre or “old-timey”; that is, towards the “ghost” of the past… The name and concept fundamentally come from Marx’s assertion that a “spectre is haunting Europe, the spectre of communism.” Derrida holds that the spirit of Karl Marx is even more relevant after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the demise of communism, that the West’s separation from the ignorance of the suffering still present in the world will “haunt” it and provide the impetus for a fresh interest in communism.”

  11. Nic

    Cheeky monkey—
    That explanation makes little sense to me.

    Is hauntology a symptom, a method, a critique—
    all of the above?