Edward Snowden: Modern-Day Pirate?

Over the past 48 hours the number of countries saying ‘no’ to Edward Snowden’s application for asylum has grown rapidly. From Austria to Brazil, Finland to Spain, it seems that representatives from nations on Snowden’s list have been queuing up with their statements and sad shakes of their head.

Attempts have been made to place Snowden’s actions and predicament in the context of history, with comparisons to other whistle-blowers and truth-tellers. I want to argue that he can also be viewed as part of a long line of outcast agitators: Edward Snowden is a pirate.

With Jolly Rogers plastered onto everything from baby-bottles to skateboards, the pirate label is cast around so liberally now that it can be almost impossible to work out what it really designates. My young son has been invited to countless pirate-themed birthday parties; given that he has yet to be invited to an ‘aggravated robbery’ party, one has to ask why it is that these characters who have been vilified by governments and monarchs for centuries – and continue to raise the ire of corporations through their often violent thievery even now – are suitable role models for a bunch of 7 year olds. (Perhaps the next time he is invited to one I should hold off on the eye-patch and cut-off trousers and send him along in an inflatable boat with an AK-47, or just with a carrier bag full of knock-off DVDs.)

Yet if we dig back into history I believe we can see that Snowden stands in continuity with the sea-faring pirates of the 18th century, the pirate DJs of the 20th century and the young Somali men of the 21st.

The popular view of the Atlantic pirates of the 18th century is that they were simply opportunistic thieves. As I outlined in my recent TED talk on piracy, this misses two things. Firstly, everyone was thieving from one another: the Spanish navy from the English, the English from the Dutch – and everyone from the lands they had ‘discovered’ in the New World. Pirates were not set apart because of their theft; pirates were despised for not handing over what they stole to a monarch. When they did they were conveniently re-named ‘privateers.’

Secondly, sailors turned to piracy in order to step out from under oppression. The men who worked the naval ships and created huge wealth for kings and aristocrats got nothing for their troubles. They were brutalised by their merchant captains, fed rotten food, rarely paid and regularly injured. A writer of the day commented that sailors were ‘caught in a machine from which there was no escape, bar desertion, incapacitation, or death.’ To be a sailor was to be close to death – their life expectancy on the naval ships was a few years at most – so many calculated that, given they were likely to die at sea anyway, they might as well live as well as they could while they survived. When these men became pirates they modelled a totally different life at sea. Pirates could vote for their officers, they were compensated from the common purse if they got injured, they ate well and, most importantly, shared the profits of their looting equally among themselves.

In this sense pirates are about radical self-determination. Rather than meekly accept the awful life that the authorities set out for them, they rose up at great risk to themselves and decided to do something about it.

In economic terms what their acts of piracy did was to break open system that kept wealth enclosed for the privileged few, and it is this act of smashing down enclosed spaces that hallmarks pirate activity in so many spheres. Where the resources of the many are being exploited for the benefit of the few, pirates will emerge to break down barriers and release riches back into the hands of the common people.

We see this same principle at work in the pirate radio stations that emerged in the 1950’s. The BBC had a total monopoly on broadcasting, and would only play ‘pop music’ for an hour or so each week. Radio Caroline, a pirate station, came along and broke open this enclosed state, handing back the music of the people to the people.

Though they have now been taken over by criminal gangs, we also saw the same principle at work in the early pirate activity in Somalia. Here were young men living in a failed state whose livelihoods as fishermen had been destroyed by industrial trawlers. Watching billions of dollars of goods being shipped by their shores each week, their turn to piracy was an act that said that they had had enough of being alienated by international trade.

Initially, the price pirates pay for these actions is usually very high, although, if they fight for long enough they often end up changing the system for good. The British government worked very hard to close down Caroline and criminalised those involved. In the end it had to back down, the BBC was overhauled and Radio 1 was launched – employing the same pirate DJs who had been vilified for their actions before.

Pirates, we can generalise, emerge whenever the social contract between ordinary people and states or multinationals breaks down. They are those who are prepared to stand up for fair treatment and access to resources, regardless of personal cost, in the hope that their resistance will eventually force those in power to reform. Perhaps this is why we want our children to emulate them.

Snowden fits this model perfectly. The nature of his work has not changed: using technology to gather information. What has turned him from treasured government specialist into vilified turn-coat is simply that he has now stopped handing over what he found to ‘the King,’ and placed it in the public domain instead. Tired of the way the state has worked to enclose information and steal from others, Snowden has put personal cost to one side in the hope that his small act of mutiny will bring about reformation.

These costs have always been terribly high. In his excellent work on the subject, historian Marcus Rediker calls pirates ‘Villains of All Nations,’ noting that:

‘the pirate’s enemies had slowly but thoroughly disconnected him from the social order, showing him to be the enemy of individuals, property owners, the colony, the empire, the King, the British nation, the world of nations and all mankind. It remained for the pirate to be “hanged like a dog” and his corpse put on public display so that everyone could learn the lessons of property and order.’

This is the work that authorities in the United States appear to be doing so well behind the scenes: pressurising country after country, alienating Snowden until he becomes ‘villain of all nations.’

In 1726 the notorious pirate William Fly was marched out for public execution, and given his chance to repent. The authorities hadn’t gambled on his resolve. Criticising the poor workmanship of the executioner, and re-tying his own noose, he put it round his neck calling for sailors to be paid and treated better, arguing that ‘nothing was said to our captains when they abused us and treated us like dogs.’

Snowden is right to run because poor treatment is still on the menu for those who threaten the state. Bradley Manning is already in custody and been held in conditions that have garnered wide criticism. His crime? Opening up for public scrutiny the brutal actions of the military, confirming that the horrors of Abu Ghraib were not isolated incidents and that wider abuse and poor treatment went routinely unreported.

History tells us that, as a pirate being excluded from more and more nations, Snowden’s own future looks difficult at best. In his own opinion, his life may well be in danger. However, his brave stand to open up to public access the reach of government infiltration of private data should be commended as a virtuous act of piracy and, standing in the long line of such actions, hopefully lead to reformation and better treatment and a helpful renegotiation of the contract each of us makes with those in power over us.


One response to “Edward Snowden: Modern-Day Pirate?”

  1. The TED talk is excellent. I watched it some time ago. I like how you’ve tied Snowden to the character of the pirate, and I agree with you. Well said.