Talk Like a Pirate

     Pirates – classical, Internet, intellectual or industrial – work at the fringes of the law. But they’re not bandits.
     Bandits break the law. Pirates work in uncharted waters.
     Pirates prey above all on monopolies, which is why there still is a glamour about pirates.
     The word pirate comes from the ancient Greek peirao, which means “to put to the test,” business professors Rodolphe Durand and Jean-Philippe Vergne wrote in their recent book, “The Pirate Organization: Lessons from the Fringes of Capitalism,” from which all the information in this column is taken.
     In the Classical world, entire villages were considered pirates if they resisted control. So piracy could be on land or sea. Cicero called pirates the common enemies of mankind.
     Because pirates obeyed no laws, they could not be negotiated with. Nor did they control any land. They were “denationalized.”
     But unlike today’s terrorists, some of whom lack official backing from any recognized state, pirates were not in it for the violence, or for political reasons. They were in it for the money.
     The most interesting aspect of the professors’ book is their insistence upon studying pirates as an organization. Pirate organizations forced governments and businesses to adopt some pirate rules: popular election of leaders, distribution of profits, women in the workplace, even social insurance.
     The Golden Age of piracy came during the heyday of the Dutch and British East India Companies. Pirates looted the government-granted monopolies and laid claim to their “denationalized” spoils.
     Capitalism was denationalizing the products of the Earth: its ores, its dye woods and spices. It denationalized workers: freeing them at first from their feudal lords, then sending them – or enslaving them – to work abroad.
     Monopolies were the “conveyor belt” of capitalism, denationalizing and grabbing anything that could be turned to a profit, including human beings, their work and their bodies.
     Like pirates, capitalism has always operated on the fringe of government, though today the two have merged – and who is calling the shots?
     It’s in the interest of capital to submit to the state, though capitalists surely did not relish the forced loans to kings during the first centuries of the system.
     Whether capitalist pirates have captured the state, in our country, China or elsewhere, is a question the professors do not address.
     In fact, it’s a constant negotiation.
     And though one supposedly cannot negotiate with pirates, we all do.
     Piracy today occurs in tiny spaces – in biochemistry, in DNA, in the Internet ether and in software codes. Soon there will be piracy in outer space.
     It’s in the nature of government, and business, to claim monopolies on profit-making enterprise. The patent system is just a monopoly limited in time.
     Less than 100 years ago, AT&T claimed a monopoly on radio. The BBC claimed monopoly rights to it in the empire, and the British government acceded.
     Pirate radio stations – actually broadcast from sea – and the popular support they gained by broadcasting rock and roll broke the radio monopolies.
     It took years for popular pressure – and pirates such as Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak – to break the monopoly of the Bell System, which claimed ownership not only of the phone lines, but of our telephones.
     More recently, Internet piracy forced government and businesses, belatedly, to craft a licensing system for MP3 downloads, popularized by the pirate Napster.
     The omnipresence of tech pirates forced the impossible: an international consortium of giant tech companies cooperating to create standard for Blu-Ray discs, rather than cutting one another’s throats all along the way.
     Pirates are still a creative force, which will not be destroyed, but digested into the state – to become a part of it: “Ultimately, they represent a threat to the state because they upset the very ideas of sovereignty and territory by contesting the state’s control and the activities of the legal entities that operate under its jurisdiction, such as for-profit corporations and monopolies,” according to the professors.
     Right, matey?

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