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Occupy Wall Street – Turning Pirate on Capitalism 101

The media coverage in the UK has been limited, but I think the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ protest is interesting, and I hope it turns out to be significant.

There was comment on BBC radio the other morning suggesting variously that it was the Democratic equivalent of the Republican ‘Tea Party’ movement  - though I’m not sure if this was a compliment or not – and that without the scandal of police brutality (or inevitability, one might say) it would have already died down and disappeared.

Either way, it’s happening: people are occupying Wall Street, and demanding… well, just some basic justice. Teachers and nurses and factory workers didn’t run up toxic debts – gambles, effectively – that have cost the world economy trillions of dollars and meant spending on services for those less well off has had to be cut. No, that was those in the banking sector. And their reward? Government bail out money, and Christmas bonuses. Privatised profits and nationalised losses. Pretty damned perfect.

If you’ve visited here at all in the past couple of months you’ll know that I’m working on a book on piracy, and why we continue to be fascinated with these maritime thieves. Well, it’s proving to be utterly absorbing, and I’m genuinely excited about how it’s turning out. Don’t get me wrong – it’s a niche area and I don’t expect it to sell hugely – but I do believe that for those out there undertaking activism like Occupy Wall Street, it may contain some very useful stuff.

Here’s the thesis: pirates emerge whenever what has been traditionally in ‘the commons’ becomes enclosed for private benefit. Those who turn pirate are not the powerful, nor the influential. They are the oppressed, those who have simply had enough and have no more to lose. Having been stripped of everything by an unjust system, they decide that they might as well live a ‘short but merry life’ for a while, because they’re dead either way.

This ambivalent affinity with death is important. Pirates sailed under ‘the jolly roger’ – a flag that did not signify so much that they were bearers of death to others, but that they represented the dead, the discarded, the rejected themselves. Because they were already ‘dead’ they had nothing to lose. Now here’s the thing: we tend to think of pirates as thieves, but after the reading I’ve done, I think it’s more accurate to say that their thievery was simply them getting on with what they’d always done, but for their own good, rather than that of the system. Moreover, they did so in a way that was more equitable (their code demanded that profits were shared equally) and more inclusive (they were multicultural, multiethnic and multifaith.)

This is what ended up scaring the sh*t out of the emerging capitalist empires of Spain and England: here were a strata of people who simply didn’t care. They were living ‘off the map’ and outside of the ethical code that reinforced class structures and kept the money flowing to the wealthy princes and merchants, even though the ships – the engines of this new global economy – were run entirely by brutalised sailors.

So here’s my tuppence-worth for those out in Wall Street, or Greece, or wherever:

  1. Ask yourselves this: how much do you still have to lose?
  2. Pirating the bankers will not necessarily mean thieving from them. It will certainly mean carrying on what you do best, but in an economic loop that is more equitable, and better connected to ‘the commons.’ The transition towns movement has a lot of good to say on this.
  3. Appreciate that your occupation is a TAZ. It will meet resistance, and it will be broken, but while it holds you should use the liberated space to create and build social and physical networks that will survive and thrive and regroup once the inevitable enforced clearance comes.
  4. History is with you. But it says this: you won’t win this round, and you’ll be portrayed as losers. It will take time, but good things will come – not at first from above, but among one another.
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2 comments to Occupy Wall Street – Turning Pirate on Capitalism 101

  • Can you clarify some of the commons that are being enclosed? A typical view of a pirate is that they simply plundered the wages of the hard-working sailors. In the British/Spanish historical setting you’re addressing, what would they be plundering? What had been enclosed?

  • KB

    Yes, that is the typical view. But the historical truth is very different: sailors were routinely brutalised, and completely excluded from the profits that the captains and merchants were making. The enclosure here is economic: though they laboured hard, the sailors were not paid properly for their work. The whole system of global trade relied entirely on their skill in keeping a ship running, and yet they remained unrewarded. The plundering was of the natural resources in the New World, and of slaves from the West African coast. All ships were involved in thieving from one another – Royal Naval vessels included. It’s simply that pirates had no royal charter, and were working for themselves, rather than for the state.