July 12, 2020

What Pirates Taught Me About Anarchism

tango down

From A Beautiful Resistance (Gods and Radicals Press)

Anarchism for Civilians series

This is part of a series introducing aspects of anarchism for those new to the idea. As I wrote in Part 1, it is inevitable that there will be some people who will disagree with my representation of anarchism here. And I could never do justice to the complexity of anarchism. So rather than attempting any kind of authoritative definition of anarchism (which would really be contrary to the spirit of the thing), I want instead to dispel some of the myths that I had to unlearn in order to grasp what anarchism is about—this time by talking about what I learned from pirates.

Lesson 4: Civilization does not protect us from violence. Civilization is itself violent.

The violent nature of civilization is everywhere around us, if we are willing to look. In the homelessness of people sitting and standing on city streets. In the shootings of Black men by police. In the burning of the Amazon rainforest. In the poisoning of the drinking water in Flint, Michigan. In almost two decades of American occupation of Afghanistan. In the incarceration of 1 in every 140 people in the U.S. In an industrial agriculture system which destroys biodiversity, topsoil, and human health.

We are taught that these are exceptions. But this is the rule of civilization. This really came home to me, oddly enough, while watching a television series, called “Black Sails”, about pirates in the West Indies during the early 18th century. What struck me was how the pirate characters talked about “civilization” as being something oppressive and violent. Though the pirates themselves were very violent, they also had communities and practiced a form of democracy. The show inspired me to learn more about historic piracy.

Pirates, unlike many depictions of them, were actually quite organized, despite the fact that they could not resort to state institutions (i.e., police, courts, etc.) to enforce order.

“Amidst ubiquitous potential for conflict, they rarely fought, stole from, or deceived one another. In fact, piratical harmony was as common as harmony among their lawful contemporaries who relied on government for social cooperation.”

— Peter Leeson, “An-arrgh-chy: The Law and Economics of Pirate Organization”, Journal of Political Economy (2007).

Pirates used democratic practices, like constitutions and checks and balances, to constrain the power of ship captains and minimize conflict among themselves.

The violence of civilization came into stark relief for me when which I learned how people actually became pirates. Some were escaped slaves. Most were first sailors in the “merchant marine”, the private shipping industry. Merchant ships were owned by wealthy capitalists who purchased shares in a vessel and financed the voyage. Some men joined the merchant marine willingly, but many others were forced to join. Press gangs would roam cities and snatch up any poor male who seemed unlikely to be missed. They were then sold to ship captains and forced to labor on the ship for little or no compensation. It was effective slavery. Some later expressed the wish that they had been sent to prison instead.

Much like the navy, the crew of a merchant ship was organized hierarchically. The captain, who was chosen by the ship owners, had absolute authority over their crews, and they often exercised their power tyrannically. Order was maintained through corporal punishment. Captains could abuse, and even kill, sailors with little cause and little risk of consequence. So when a merchant ship was captured by pirates, it was not uncommon for the sailors to volunteer to join the pirates without any threat of violence. Little wonder that these men rejected civilization.

On a pirate ship, their lives were very different. Captains were elected and could be removed from office in the same manner. Their authority was absolute only during times of battle. And all the sailors had an equal stake in the profits.

“The early-eighteenth-century pirate ship was a ‘world turned upside down,’ made so by the articles of agreement that established the rules and customs of the pirates’ social order. … Pirates distributed justice, elected officers, divided loot equally, and established a different discipline. They limited the authority of the captain, resisted many of the practices of the capitalist merchant shipping industry, and maintained a multicultural, multiracial, multinational social order. They sought to prove that ships did not have to be run in the brutal and oppressive ways of the merchant service and the Royal Navy.”

— Linebaugh and Rediker, The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (2013).

According to some historians, piracy represented a threat to the state, not just because it interfered with commerce, but because pirates challenged the obviousness of the need for the state, and they raised the possibility of an alternative to civilization. As one of the characters on Black Sails explains to the leader of a colony of escaped slaves (maroons):

If no one remembers a time before there was an England, then no one can imagine a time after it. The empire survives in part because we believe its survival to be inevitable. It isn’t. And they know that. That’s why they’re so terrified of you and I. … we are able to expose the illusion that England is not inevitable.”

— Captain Flint, Black Sails (Starz)

We have been taught that our only choice is between civilization and something called “barbarism” or “savagery”. We have been taught that, in the absence of civilization, human beings would devolve into characters in a Mad Max movie. And yet, the truth is that, for most of the history of humankind, there was no civilization. And yet life went on—and for most people, it was much better.

People had communities, just not large-scale, complex social organization. People had social order, but not massive bureaucracies. People had economies, but not stock exchanges. People had healers, but not HMOs. People had human-scale tools, but not tech startups. People had art, but not philanthropic foundations.

For most of history, civilization has been the exception, rather than the rule. Even after the appearance of the first city-states, the vast majority of people continued to live outside of the reach of civilization for millennia. Until the 17th century, at least one-third of the globe was non-civilized.

We tend to forget these facts, because history was literally written by the winners. Most non-civilized people had oral cultures. Writing developed out of civilization because the elites needed a technology to keep track of their surplus property and to tax people. Because we are “civilized”, we tend to only recognize “history” after the advent of writing.[FN 1] But what we call “pre-history”, is just the time before written records. Before “history”, people still had society. They still had art, religion, technology, economies, and so on. They still had joy, love, beauty, meaning, and all the rest.

Civilization brought large scale violence into the world. While war and slavery did exist before civilization, these forms of violence were systematized by the state. States carried on large-scale warfare in order to increase their populations through the taking of slaves, as well as the plunder of other forms of wealth. Citizens of states were then forced to farm monocrops—usually grains, because grains are easily measured and, therefore, easily taxed.

Civilized societies are not less violent than non-civilized societies—though they may appear so to the more privileged citizens. Not so much to the citizens who are not privileged. One of the defining characteristics of civilization is the depersonalization of violence. In a civilized state, there is social stratification and a division of labor that separates those who command the violence and those who carry it out. This gives the violence the appearance of inevitability and the mask of “justice”.

The actual historical pirate Captain Samuel (aka “Black Sam”) Bellamy expressed this well in a speech he reportedly made to the captain of a captured merchant ship:

“You are a sneaking puppy, and so are all those who will submit to be governed by laws which rich men have made for their own security. … They vilify us, the scoundrels do, when there is only this difference, they rob the poor under the cover of law, forsooth, and we plunder the rich under the protection of our own courage. Had you not better make then one of us, than sneak after these villains for employment?”

“But without the state, who will protect the vulnerable? Who will protect the rights of minorities?” I wonder.

“Who protects them now?” responds the anarchist.

“The courts. The police.” I respond.

It’s a knee jerk reaction. The response I’ve been taught my whole life. But when I think about it, I realize I know better. As a lawyer, I know perfectly well that the courts are not accessible to most people and they are not treated equally even when they do have access. Courts protect the rights of minorities imperfectly at best.

As for the police, well, I’m White and economically privileged, so naturally, for most of my life I have had a positive view of the police. They have protected me, or so I believed, from a mass of invisible people who wanted to hurt me or take my property. But participating in public protests brought me face to face with the reality that the police don’t exist to make me safe.[FN 2] They exist to protect the wealth of the over-privileged. And they do this by carrying out a campaign of terror against the under-privileged.

The police are used by capitalist elites as a means of quashing protest by workers. They are used to systematically enslave people in a for-profit prison system. They are used as a means of checking rebellion during a time of social collapse brought on by the end of cheap oil. They are used to redistribute wealth in the form of fines from poor communities and communities of color to the state (and hence to the wealthy).

Even for most wealthy White people, the police only provide the illusion of safety. About 90% of police time is spent penalizing infractions of administrative regulations. As David Graeber has observed, the police are essentially bureaucrats with guns. Of the remaining 10% of their time, during which they are responding to violent crime, they are largely ineffectual or actually make things worse. Most of the time, the police don’t really make anybody safer. And some of the time, they make people a lot unsafer.

Anarchists challenge the idea that civilization actually protects us from violence and invite us to consider all the forms of violence which are perpetrated by elites in the name of civilization.

Conclusion to the “Anarchism for Civilians” Series

As I said above, this series is not a complete introduction to anarchism. Instead, my hope was to debunk some of the myths that we have been taught about anarchism and about civilization: the myth that anarchy is social chaos and hyper-individualism and the myth that civilization is healthier, happier, and more peaceful.

One of the defining characteristics of civilization is the domestication of human beings—both physically and psychologically. In order to accomplish the psychological domestication of people, civilization constructs a mythos to justify its existence. People come to accept their bondage because they believe there is no real alternative. I hope that I have helped open some cracks in that mythos for my readers.

Many of the examples I’ve used to illustrate my points above aren’t actually of anarchists. Neither Unitarians nor midwives, and not even pirates, were necessarily anarchists. (Not the bonobos either.) But each of these groups embody certain anarchist values. And learning about them challenged some of my assumptions about civilization.

Unitarians taught me about small-scale democracy. Bonobos taught me about the naturalness of taking care of others. Midwives taught me about the availability of alternatives to the state and capitalist order. And pirates, those violent criminals from our bedtime stories, taught me about the violence of civilization itself.

Current Affairs writer, Nathan Robinson, suggests that the motto for anarchists should be, “Actually, Both of Those Things Are Bad.” Whenever we are presented with two things and told one is good and one is bad—like civilization versus Mad Max, capitalism versus tyranny, competition versus poverty, police versus riots, or hospitals versus death in childbirth—the anarchist invites us to question whether there is a false dichotomy and shows us how the one often creates the conditions of the other. Often, the dichotomy conceals a third (and maybe a fourth and fifth) option. These other options, if they are even acknowledged, are usually rejected out of hand as “unrealistic” or “utopian”. And it is the job of the anarchist to ask, “Why?”

“Freedom doesn’t mean choosing between options, but formulating the questions.”


1. James Scott explains how state societies came to dominate our history books in site of the fact that, for most of history, they were “tiny nodes of power surrounded by a vast landscape inhabited by nonstate peoples”:

“That states would have come to dominate the archaeological and historical record is no mystery. … Aside from the utter hegemony of the state form today, a great deal of archaeology and history throughout the world is state-sponsored and often amounts to a narcissistic exercise in self-portraiture. Compounding this institutional bias is the archaeological tradition, until quite recently, of excavation and analysis of major historical ruins. Thus if you built, monumentally, in stone and left your debris conveniently in a single place, you were likely to be ‘discovered; and to dominate the pages of ancient history. If, on the other hand, you built with wood, bamboo, or reeds, you were much less likely to appear in the archaeological record. And if you were hunter-gatherers or nomads, however numerous, spreading your biodegradable trash thinly across the landscape, you were likely to vanish entirely from the archaeological record.

“Once written documents—say, hieroglyphics or cuneiform—appear in the historical record, the bias becomes even more pronounced. These are invariably state-centric texts: taxes, work units, tribute lists, royal genealogies, founding myths, laws. There are no contending voices, and efforts to read such texts against the grain are both heroic and exceptionally difficult.10 The larger the state archives left behind, generally speaking, the more pages devoted to that historical kingdom and its self-portrait.”

— James Scott, Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States (2017)

2. See my essay, “The Police Aren’t Here for You”.

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