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January 27, 2009

Filed under: culture»internet

A Merry Life, and a Short One

Apparently it's in Wired's lease or something that every year they have to write another article about crazy libertarians who think they can recreate Galt's Gulch on a floating ocean city (this one's the grandson of Milton Friedman, of all people). I assume it's next to the clause requiring Wired to dedicate a certain amount of annual space to Ray Kurzweil, since in both cases there's never anything new, or even remotely feasible, to write about without a legally-binding reason to do so.

The reoccurrence of Rapture is usually a good opportunity to link to China Mieville's dissection of the Freedom Ship just last year. But of course, this year the seas have been uncommonly dramatic, thanks to the rise of Somali piracy. It's hard not to daydream, so long as there could be no actual chance of it happening, of Patri Friedman's Seasteading Institute drifting into the waters surrounding the Horn of Africa--only to be confronted by a very real example of weak governance and market dysfunction, via the business end of a second-hand AK47.

Linking the two together, both Mieville and Johann Hari (who wrote "You Are Being Lied To About Pirates" regarding the Somalian situation) reference the work of Marcus Rediker when discussing their respective sea communities. Rediker wrote The Many-Headed Hydra in 2002 with Peter Linebaugh, examining the lineage of revolutionary thought (including pirates) in the Atlantic, then he followed it in 2005 with Villains of All Nations, which focused on the "golden age" of piracy. Both books highlight the radical political experimentation that arose in the pirate communities of the 17th and 18th centuries: pirates elected their captains, shared their booty equally, and lived in a roughly egalitarian society that was multiethnic, multicultural, and even relatively subversive in its opportunities for women. It was also fervently anti-state, with pirates declaring that they were "from the sea." Before any of the libertarian sailors-to-be consider appropriating this legacy, however, they'd probably do well to remember that the pirates of the Atlantic were primarily opposed to--and spawned from--the rudimentary free market being established as the new social order of the day. They often turned to piracy in reaction to the brutal treatment of their merchant captains, and took great pleasure in destroying property and sinking merchant ships. The pirates were, in other words, early anti-globalization activists of the most violent kind.

As Hari points out, the parallels to the events off the coast of Somalia are striking. In the absence of a functioning national coast guard, the country has become prey for European commercial ships that fish illegally in Somali waters--or worse, use them as a dumping ground for toxic waste. Hari writes: "This is the context in which the 'pirates' have emerged. Somalian fishermen took speedboats to try to dissuade the dumpers and trawlers, or at least levy a 'tax' on them. They call themselves the Volunteer Coastguard of Somalia - and ordinary Somalis agree. The independent Somalian news site WardheerNews found 70 per cent 'strongly supported the piracy as a form of national defence'."

This is not to defend the actions of pirates, but it is instructive to consider the full picture--and to appreciate the use of the terminology. Both then and now, as Rediker says in his introduction for Villains, sea piracy represents "a terror of the weak against the strong." A similar motivation exists for enterprises like the Seasteading Institute, but their definition of the "weak" and the "strong" is very different.

Given those facts, one striking thought after reading these histories is how the use of the word "pirate" in an intellectual property context is an utter debasement of the term. The golden age pirates existed in opposition to the exploitative labor practices and social structure of the day. The Somali pirates exist in opposition to environmental and commercial exploitation. But what exploitation does the software pirate, or the music pirate, oppose? The harsh world of having to pay for goods? Ironically, referring to IP theft as "piracy" serves the interest of both sides. For the thieves, it glorifies their actions by association with a glamorous history of rebellion. For the commercial interests, it distracts from legitimate issues of intellectual property, like sampling and fair use.

I have a solution, of course. We're going to need a very large boat...

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