Monday, May 19, 2008

The Politics of Pirates (Should Johnny Depp be a Founding Father?)


"No honor among thieves" the old saying goes, suggesting that those labeled by society as criminals have an inability to work together. Cooperation, as Thomas Hobbes indicates to us, is a feature of developed human civilization as it binds us into webs of mutuality and trust. Outside of those ties, human beings will quickly turn on each other to achieve their selfish purposes. Without law, we are animals preying on one another.

This view, so deeply ingrained in modern democratic theory and the basis of liberal democratic thought, may be pure ideology. A new book by Peter Leeson, The Invisible Hook: The Hidden Economics of Pirates, argues that we might look to pirate ships for more interesting models of working democratic practice.

It turns out that pirate crews of the 17th and 18th century are not entirely best described as lawless bands of cutthroats. These pirates developed various ways of working together that might be seen as social democratic: worker's compensation and health care for injury during service, kinds of checks and balances among pirate officers to keep tyrannical behavior to a minimum, and jury trials for deciding the fate of captured sailors.

Works like this suggest that perhaps we need to stop looking deeper into the legacies of Pericles, or reading more Hobbes, Locke and Mill, for new and interesting understandings of democratic politics. Looking to the margins of society, or to societies that are out of view of major metropolitan, First World, perspectives might bring fresher comprehension of the nature of the state, political power, and control over tyranny. This is part of the argument by anarchist scholar David Graeber in his essay "Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology". (You can dowload the entire essay from there.)

An interesting question might be: where else can we look for examples of this kind of marginalized democratic practice?

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1 Comments:

At 3:22 PM , Blogger Dennis said...

As usual, things move from the fringe into the mainstream (I've been exposed to a lot of mainstream media recently, and it sounds a lot like what us dirty hippies were saying six years ago).

Have you ever read any anything by Hakim Bey/Peter Lamborn Wilson?

Check out this page for a list of his essays. Under the Temporary Autonomous Zone, there's a bit about 17th and 18th century pirates that seems relevant.

As to your question, I would have answered 'pirates!' and gleefully. But you had to go and use that as your example, and off the top of my white middle-class head, I've got nothing else.

 

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