Pirates as Proto-Marxists, and Why This Shouldn’t Give You a ‘Red Alert’

by , under Economics, Politics, Resources

As I build up to coming over the US to speak about Mutiny in about a month’s time – details to follow soon – I’m going to be blogging a bit more about the book, and the wide themes that it covers.

Reading Tad Delay’s blog today though, inspired me to mention a perspective on pirates that I certainly found surprising in my research, and others probably will too.

In an excellent post, Delay (who has, I have to mention, quite the most brilliantly Pychonesque name EVER) outlines the main thrusts of Marx’s thinking, stripping away the layers upon layers of nonsense that have built up. This has been especially true in the US, where to call someone a ‘socialist’ seems worse than feeding their wife pig swill.

To summarise even further – though I strongly recommend reading the post – Marx’s key point in Capital is about surplus, and where it comes from:

Let’s say I am a cook at a restaurant that makes $10 per hour. I produce 50 dishes per hour that sell for $15. Once we add in all the expenses associated with running the restaurant, the electric bill, buying the raw food materials, etc., the full cost of each dish averages to $13 per hour. The revenue from the 50 dishes at $15 is $750. The $90 profit left over is surplus value.

Exploitation deals with the facet of modern markets that appropriates the surplus from each laborer and concentrates it into the hands of 1) the business owner and his family or 2) a small board of directors/investors.

Capitalism is no more than the summation of all of these small acts of surplus exploitation: taking the profits that each labourer’s work creates and syphoning them off to a small group of owners. The workers, no matter how hard they work, have no greater (or lesser) share in the wealth that their work creates.

And this is where pirates come in.

Sailors turned to piracy precisely because they suffered this surplus exploitation in an extreme way. They were skilled labourers – sailing a large ship was no easy task – who created vast wealth for the merchants and princes who employed them. Yet they were treated savagely – beaten, hardly paid, fed rotten food and given no compensation for injury. The turn to piracy then was not a move towards capitalist greed. Quite the opposite. As historian Marcus Redicker points out:

‘[Pirates] abolished the wage relation central to the process of capitalist accumulation. So rather than work for wages using the tools and machine (the ship) owned by a capitalist merchant, pirates commanded the ship as their own property and shared equally in the risk of their common adventure.’

Pirates rose up against the exploitation of their labour. They saw the terrible injustice of their own impoverishment and brutal labour, and the huge riches and comforts that this labour brought to the few who employed them. And this is why pirates were seen as heroes. Not for their thievery – because they simply carried on the looting and plundering work that they had been trained to do on the merchant ships anyway – but for their resistance to oppression.

This resistance, this move towards fair reward for fair labour, towards the proper distribution of profits to those who served to create them, is not some fearful revolutionary communism. There should be no ‘red alert’ here! It is, instead, about responsible community.

This is just one way in which pirates go beyond the ‘Blackbeard’ stereotype and have some very important contemporary lessons for us – especially in an economic situation in which banks have screwed so many, and continue to exert a terrible stranglehold. I hope you’ll read it and wrestle with it. Get it here in all formats.

[PS – for those wanting to make the connection to some posts on magic, it’s via through here via the communist hysteria of the 50’s and Miller’s The Crucible that we get round to witches – who, I’m going to argue in coming work, function a little like female pirates, and deserve a new reading. I’ll be talking more about this in the US in October.]


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  1. KB

    I’ll say more properly soon, but basic outline: 21st October, NYC at Iconoclast, 24th/25th in LA, 27th in Grand Rapids, then back to NY for the Sunday evening. Be great to hook up!