Tuesday, May 12, 2009


In a strange convergence, it turns out that the disgraced financier Bernie Madoff and the young Somali sea bandit Abdul Wali Muse have both been held in the same New York detention center, prompting the question who is the bigger pirate?

Indeed, where once they were celebrated as wizards, the financial whizzkids of Wall Street, or of corrupt behemoths such as Enron, are increasingly being condemned as pirates. "Make Enron Pirates Answer" demanded the LA Times a few years ago, and now we find that Enron has "gone global" as "hedge fund pirates" stalk the world economy. The comparison with the dangerous seas off the Horn of Africa is made explicit again as we're told that "Like Somali Pirates, Wall Street Holds U.S. to Ransom".

None of this, however, should be any great surprise. As Tom Wolfe reports, financiers have long self-consciously struck a "pirate pose", not least the Hedge Fund that unabashedly goes by the name of Pirate Capital, its website featuring a series of images that switch between wooden-masted sailing boats and computer print-outs of financial accounts. As Wolfe describes the firm:
The 41-year-old hedge fund founder Tom Hudson [. . .] struck a Blackbeard pose right out in the open—Blackbeard, the pirate who took what he wanted and was accountable to no one. When Hudson launched his company in Norwalk in 2002, he named it Pirate Capital and called its hedge fund the Jolly Roger. Outside the door to his office he installed a life-size wooden figure of a storybook pirate, in full color, wearing all the pirate’s rig: the patch over one eye, the golden hoop earring through one earlobe, the tricornered hat, Captain Hook’s hook instead of a hand on one arm, the pantaloons, the peg leg, and the cutlass. He handed out baseball caps and T-shirts emblazoned SURRENDER YOUR BOOTY!, which was funny but no joke.
Of course, those who live by the sword also die by the sword: even before the current downturn, Pirate Capital faced mutiny as it tried to make its own staff walk the plank. But you could never suggest that the firm ever hid its piratical intentions. Rather, it gloried in them.

And now comes The Invisible Hook by Peter Leeson, who is apparently "Professor for the Study of Capitalism" at George Mason University. His website too is adorned with pirate imagery, and no wonder: his book is a whole-hearted celebration of piracy as a model for free-market economic practice.

Eighteenth-century pirates, Leeson want to argue, were the very model of rational economic actors whose bloodthirsty ways were merely the outcome of a commendable search for profit. Moreover, in balance pirates in fact did more good than harm, precisely thanks to their clear-eyed desire to maximize their personal earnings. Contrary to reputation, they were peace-loving democrats who merely cultivated a violent image as part of an enormously successful brand-management campaign. If we study Golden Age piracy, Leeson suggests, we learn the universal truth of the adage that "greed is good":
Pirate greed is what motivated pirates to pioneer progressive institutions and practices. For example, this greed is responsible for pirates' system of constitutional democracy [. . .]. Pirate greed is also responsible for some sea rogues' superior treatment of blacks. (179)
Mind you, Leeson also warns us that we should be careful not to learn too much from pirate self-organization: just because they arguably instituted a form of "workers' democracy" doesn't mean that contemporary corporations should feel constrained to follow suit; after all, workers would tend to support "risky decision making," while external financiers rightly reject such risks as they have "to bear the full costs of failure" (183). Oh, just imagine what a pickle we'd be in now if risk-loving workers held sway over the sensible inclinations of finance capitalists!

Ultimately, this is a superficial and even silly book. It's an exercise in market-choice dogma rather than a real investigation into the economics of piracy. Though it claims to overturn the ways in which we think about sea banditry, the version of piracy that it promotes is on the whole as abstract and idealized as the Disney caricatures that apparently first inspired the author's interest. It's just that these are idealized rational economic actors, rather than barbarous if comic exotic rogues. Either way, we get caricature. Pirates are merely the ruse for a not-so-very hidden agenda: here, a sort of duffer's guide to economic dogma.

In some ways, the failures of Leeson's book are predictable. Piracy has long served as a screen on to which all sorts of prejudices or idées fixes can be projected. As Leeson himself notes almost in passing, pirates have been cast as proto-communists as often as they have been presented as neoliberals avant la lettre; they have claimed for gay rights and queer theory as much as they have been condemned for their barbarous machismo; and they have been cast as forming ideal democratic societies as frequently as they have been represented as savages who care for neither morality nor legality.

But rather than repeating his own simplistic morality tale of greed is good, Leeson might have explored the fundamental ambivalence that enables piracy to serve as a Rorscharh Test for so many distinct political and social positions. If, for instance, the joint stock company incarnates what Marx termed the "communism of capital," perhaps these "sea-going stock compan[ies]" (41) have something to tell us about the capitalism of communism, or about a certain indecideability between a line of flight that seeks to escape all constituted authority and a constituent power that creates ever-new constitutions.

Leeson is really no more interested in politics as such than he is in history; the whole point of the book is show the purported superiority of classical economics to explain any aspect of human behavior. But he has to tangle with politics from time to time. Leeson's manifest libertarian impulses, that lead him to disparage the notion of state regulation at almost every turn, also force him to suggest a fine distinction between state government and private governance. If greed is good, then government is generally bad; but governance is praised as a form of privatized, self-regulating government. And this idealized conception of governance comes to sound remarkably like hegemony: it is voluntary, non-coercive, and contractual. For Leeson, pirate ships are not only exemplary instances of economic rationality; they are also (almost) perfectly functional hegemonies. And perhaps it is this, rather than the economic as such, that explains piracy's strange allure: it offers a counterpart to the pseudo-hegemony of the nation state, a romanticized conjunction of liberty and self-organization.

Thursday, May 07, 2009


Edmund Fuller's edited collection Mutiny! The Most Dramatic Accounts of the Great Mutinies--On Land and Sea--of All Times was published in 1953, and you can tell. In fact, most of the individual contributions were written in the 1920s and 1930s (1907 in the case of the account of the mutiny against Henry Hudson). Hence there is much talk of "tittle-tattle" muttered by dastardly "curs" against "true-hearted Englishmen." We are in most cases to sympathize with the beleaguered authorities and to despise the knaves who conspire against them.

Still, Fuller's introduction, "The Nature of Mutiny," is of some interest, and undercuts (perhaps better, explains) the fierce dichotomies that will follow. For in Fuller's view, "mutiny is apt to have an intimate, familial quality about it" (xii). In other words, the opprobrium heaped on mutineers comes from the trauma of discovering yourself betrayed by your most intimate companions.

Hence there is an affective distinction between mutiny and revolution:
A man seldom knows personally, or is associated with, the people against whom he is moving in revolution. In most cases of mutiny a man not only is acquainted with, but is in some manner of working relationship with the persons against whom the mutiny is directed. (xii)
Moreover, this is why the shipboard mutiny is paradigmatic: at sea, men are confined together in close quarters for months or even years. And this forced intimacy is two-sided: "It can increase tensions by the inability of people to separate from each other. At the same time it offers a closeness well adapted to conference and conspiracy" (xiii).

Fuller makes a couple of other points. First, he wants to distinguish mutiny from labor disputes. Mere refusal to serve is not mutiny; it is a strike. I think the point here is that a labor dispute is not a wholesale assault on constituted power. Myself, I wonder how far this distinction can be upheld. And second, he argues that the days of mutiny are in effect over: "To all intents and purposes the traditional mutiny at sea has gone out of existence. It died with sails. Technology ended the era of mutiny" (xi). By this he means that mutiny can no longer be sustained, as there is no place to hide: "it just is not practical any longer to try to seize a ship and take it over on an impromptu basis. There's no future in it" (xi). And indeed its striking that may of the mutinies described took place so far from home that the mutineers could either try to disappear (as in the case of the Bounty) or could spend the long homeward voyage perfecting the stories they would tell before the coming courts martial (as in the case of the mutiny against Henry Hudson).

More importantly, however, Fuller suggests that it is the massification and division of labor that makes mutiny impossible on a modern ship: a few renegades may be able to take hold of a sailship, but "to seize a steamship is another story. It would take a full complement capable of the necessary engineering skills involved" (xi).

In short, for Fuller at least, mutiny is pre-industrial. It involves betrayal within the family (or the gang, the tribe) rather than insubordination from the masses within the workplace.

Monday, May 04, 2009


Ursula Biemann's Performing the Border is an exploration of the gendered space of the high-tech maquila zone on the US/Mexican border. It focuses particularly on the murders of young women committed in and around Ciudad Juárez, arguing that this serial sexual violence is of a piece with the serialized assembly work performed within the factories themselves.

The film also examines the notion of the border and the ways in which it is represented. It opens with the notion that the border is portrayed as a wound that has to be sutured, not only by the construction of physical obstacles (fences, walls, and so on) but also through constant electronic surveillance. Yet the film further suggests that were it not for its perforations, the multiple crossings to and fro, then the border would not exist as such: it would be no more than the sum of its physical obstacles.

Hence the notion of the border's performativity, by which Biemann means a conjunction between material space and discursive space, as well as the tension between the two. The border as metaphor depends upon and is in some sense parasitical upon the gendered bodies that traverse it.

The space of the border is highly gendered in that it draws and exploits a migrant female labor force that works either in the factories, or in domestic employment, or in prostitution. For Biemann, these three placements of female labor and sexuality are complementary, not least in that the low wages paid in the factory system practically compel many women to turn to prostitution to supplement their income, but also more generally in the highly sexualized spaces of entertainment (bars, nightclubs) that have sprung up around and about.

Ironically, some of this sexualization is a result of the ways in which the maquilas' remapping of gendered relationship allows also for the expression of women's desire in new ways: it is women who are now the bread-winners of the family, or these are women who have been disconnected from the families that they have left behind in the migration north.

Overall, Biemann suggests that in the border zone a series of fundamental distinctions become blurred: the boundaries between self and other, subject and space, city and country, inside and outside, nature and artifice are also questioned as robotic, repetitive assembly work fragments women's bodies, making them disposable and marketable components.

Finally, these are the conditions in which a new kind of serial killing emerges. Serial murder is traditionally connected with industrialization and urbanization. It echoes the repetitious dehumanization typical of the assembly line. Biemann implies that this new mode of postmodern industrialization, outsourced to the fringes of the nation state, also enables a new type of serial murder in which the killer is as anonymous and interchangeable as the object of his violence. There is no one serial killer in Ciudad Juárez; there are many, perhaps a majority of whom have themselves killed only one women but who insert themselves into a standardized pattern established for them by an economic and technical logic of outsourcing.

In the border zone, as all boundaries are in flux but gender is insistently performed and gender relations brusquely refashioned, dispossessed men who find that their identity has been reduced to statistical quantity, or to the simulation of patriarchy, violently seek to demarcate the one fundamental difference that remains, that between man and woman.

YouTube Link: the film's opening few minutes.