In this essay, I argue that pirates are space traitors who trespass legal and economic boundaries to achieve individual or collective gains and destabilize a society. The popularity of the concept of piracy in cultural representations such as films, fashion, comics, and literature highlights changes in society that mirror the legal-economic happenings during the Golden Age of Piracy. At the core of the pirate culture is the concept of neoliberalism, which is understood as the promotion of ideas of individual freedom that favor market-based initiatives and limited governmental role in social welfare.[1] Neoliberalism removes business barriers and seeks to privatize and monetize sectors of the economy, such as education and healthcare, that are ordinarily the preserve of governments. Piracy is, “a form of morally ambiguous property seizure committed by an organized group which can include thievery, hijacking, smuggling, counterfeiting, or kidnapping.”[2] Although the definitions of pirate culture and neoliberalism appear pejorative, these concepts have rekindled discourse on contemporary pirate culture in two ways: (1) They have created conditions that mirror the high seas, which was the primary arena of piracy, and (2) They have led to the emergence of a class of “traitors,” or people who are bent on undermining the neoliberal order. This essay examines some of the neoliberal practices that have sustained piracy in our contemporary culture.

Both piracy and neoliberalism occupy ambiguous positions within capitalism. David Harvey shows that from the late 1960s and through the 1970s, world economies stagnated, unemployment and inflation skyrocketed, and governments such as Britain borrowed from international bodies such as IMF to take care of rising welfare expenditures. The United States of America’s inability to control the flooding of the dollar led to the abandonment of fixed exchange rates. Moreover, the oil crisis of 1973 shattered many economies and marked the beginning of a rapid economic decline in both developed and developing countries. The welfare state that was the hallmark of European and African countries could no longer be sustained in a world that was shifting emphasis from Keynesian policies that privileged society, to neoliberal policies that put individuals at the center of economic planning.

People have adopted pirate culture as a response to nonemployment, low welfare, and high cost of living. It is arguable that the pirate culture inspired the Occupy Wall Street movement. It was a movement attempting to destabilize capital while calling for an end to economic inequality. The pirates of the Caribbean directly opposed the violent control of labor and merchandise by nationalist mercantile companies and what they viewed as “tyrannical” inequalities.[3] Thus, protests or initiatives such as Occupy Wall Street are organized around the idea of opposing monopolies, colossal capital, and corporate practices that have shrunk the labor market. Pirates reduced the profits of privateer companies, including slave ships. Similarly, in our contemporary world, pirates devastate governments and businesses through attacking websites, hacking banks, and calling for boycotts.

Interestingly, even though neoliberalism purports to lift trade barriers, the age of intellectual property protection has enacted many laws that punish people for attempting to access knowledge from an unauthorized avenue. Modern companies, similar to the privateer companies during the Golden Age of piracy, are increasingly becoming monopolies that control patents for innovations. Furthermore, corporations such as big pharmaceutical companies are involved in biopiracy, which is the act of extracting indigenous medical or science innovations without compensation. Piracy has become the contemporary moral response to these inequalities.

We can draw parallels between the internet and the high seas. The high seas were the arena for the Golden Age of piracy, but in our contemporary world the internet has created “nationless” pirates. Businesses are increasingly shifting their operations from brick-and-mortar buildings to virtual spaces. Some of these businesses have considerable advantages that have enabled them to create monopolies that offer commodities without competition. An example of this type of company is a record label. These businesses own all forms of artistic works and attempt to have exclusive rights to specific spaces of art performances to gain complete control of capital flow within the art industry. Additional examples include online retailers, movie streaming services, and book publishing industries. Pirate culture in these sectors has become a form of redistributing commodities that people can no longer afford. Scholars have pointed out that the core values of pirates were “collectivism, anti-authoritarianism, and egalitarianism.”[4] It seems that the Golden Age of piracy was conceived as a socialist utopia where people distributed property equitably. Whether they achieved this goal is debatable. However, what is important is the notion that pirate culture in the contemporary world operates on the same principles.

Pirate culture in the contemporary world, like that of the Golden Age of piracy, is becoming more organized and highly coordinated. The internet allows pirates to create a sense of brotherhood. There are aspects of the pirate culture that are less known in scholarship communities because historians and cultural analysts are yet to reconcile their research with the idea that pirates create unique work culture, complete with language, music, rituals, and a sense of brotherhood. Pirate culture is organizing as a social order with rules of governance.[5] The Disney World frenzy and the rise of the video games industry have broadened the platform for this culture to flourish.

[1] Harvey, “Neoliberalism as Creative Destruction.”

[2] Dawdy and Bonni, “Towards a General Theory of Piracy,” 675.

[3] Dawdy and Bonni, 667.

[4] Dawdy and Bonni, 680.

[5] Dawdy and Bonni, “Towards a General Theory of Piracy.”

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