Want to read: Pirate Enlightenment by David Graeber 📚
I’ve long been fascinated by the idea that piracy in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries included various forms of political experimentation. If piracy was a kind of organised crime, as Peter Leeson claims pdf, we might ask what the organisation entailed. Surely there’s more to it than a simply a series of experiments in contract theory (the ‘pirate code’). But calling piracy organised crime is a circular argument. Of course it was illegal, but very often pirates were doing what nations themselves sanctioned: comandeering enemy ships. The line between privateer and pirate was a faint one.
But for many of the poorest people, leaving home and joining up with the pirates would have been an attractive opportunity - the least bad option in some cases. Since there was nowhere in Europe that people could live free of despotic regimes, the high seas must have presented quite a few possibilites.
Certainly I’ve been suspicious of the designation ‘pirate’. It seems as much an excuse to torture and murder people who ask questions as the designation ‘witch’ has been. If you doubt that piracy might have been a convenient category to condemn your opponents, rather than an accurate description of their activities, consider this: the entire state of Texas was once condemned for piracy, having declared a republic independent from Mexico.
Besides the Republic of Texas, there were other experiments in nation-building, such as the Nassau pirate republic in the Carribean. But David Graeber writes of the fabled Liberalia, a semi-mythical location on the East coast of Madagascar, where pirates set up their own rule on land.
I think this matters because contemporary democracies are really nation states first, and only secondarily are they democratic. This priority, in my opinion, should be placed the other way round. Otherwise, state power tends to be defended, at the expense of democratic checks and balances. We need more democracy, not less. and this is difficult when the state sees itself as self-evidently right, whether or not it promotes democracy. As imprisoned Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan says:
“Our idea of a democratic nation is not defined by flags and borders. Our idea of a democratic nation embraces a model based on democracy instead of a model based on state structures and ethnic origins.”