Saturday, January 31, 2009

Learning from Pirate Communities - Democracy

Have you ever caught yourself wondering why our societies zigzag all across the ideological spectrum? This political party is too conservative!! No, it's too liberal!!! We love the environment and must save it!!! But wait! Not at the expense of the economy!!! Taxes are too high! Cut the GST! Dammit, if we'd been paying 7% instead of 5% over these past two years, that would have made Canada's future deficit so much lower - taxes are good!!! I love the Olympics! I hate the Olympics!!! Oh, democracy, how did you get this way?

At times, our communities seem to be steering a wayward, unpredictable course through ideology and governance in the world around us. Not unlike a pirate ship.

You see, the Royal Navy and Merchant Marine sailed straight, authoritarian courses. But not pirates. No way. And do you know why? Because the crew, not the captain, decided where the ship was going. In fact, the captain couldn't even be captain until the crew voted him into, um, office. Because, my little scallywags, pirate ships were bastions of democracy!

One hundred years before the French Revolution, pirate ships - or pirate companies - were run on the ideals of liberty, equality and brotherhood. It was the rule, rather than the exception. According to scholar and fellow Piratologist, David Cordingly, author of Under the Black Flag: The Romance and Reality of Life Among the Pirates, at times, it was difficult to even get a pirate ship going anywhere. You see, the crew actually voted on a destination before the captain set a course; arguably, this accounted for pirates' time being spent in warm places like the Caribbean, Gulf of Aden and the Strait of Malacca.

Like our Charter of Rights and Freedoms or our American friends' Constitution, pirates drafted and signed "The Articles of Piracy" before each voyage. These articles regulated the distribution of plunder, the scale of compensation for injuries in battle, and outlined basic rules for shipboard life (ie. no one is allowed to drink all the rum and/or molest the goat) as well as punishments for those who broke the rules (ie. you molested the goat, now it won't give milk, so we're going to squeeze you in a vice until you give milk). After the articles were written, every pirate aboard signed them.

Given all this, when it comes to democracy, what have we learned from pirate communities?
  • The onlooking attraction of democracy: when a pirate ship attacked and captured a merchant vessel, the crew of the merchant ship was given the chance to join the pirates. Most sailors did. As with any country's immigration tests, processes and required cultural-acceptance, new members of a pirate brethren were expected to behave accordingly. Just like today, people working and living in corrupt oligarchies (like the merchant marine, epitomized by the East India Trading Company or Venetian salt merchants) or authoritarian regimes (like the Royal Navy) can't wait to jump-ship and join a democracy, where everyone got a share of the loot (more or less...just like a modern democracy!)
  • Democracies facilitate social and cultural leveling: pirate ships yielded a collection of multi-cultural castaways, escaped African slaves, openly homosexual seamen, and even women. Did they all get along all the time? No, absolutely not. However aboard these ships began the wonderful journey towards equality and multiculturalism.
  • Democracies aren't getting us anywhere fast: pirate ships were aimless, inefficient over the long term (though incredibly productive in the short term), and were constantly in search of stuff - or 'booty'. As with our modern democracies, pirates were - and still are - driven by a romanticized concept of consumerism. Treasure - be it gold or silver or slaves or tobacco or sugar or rum - gave them purpose. They lived day-to-day, and weren't terribly concerned with the big, long-term picture. Captain's were worried about getting re-elected (or not killed by their crew), not about a sustainable policies that involved immediate sacrifices for long-term profits. Kinda sorta like our leaders today, who can't make any progress on meaningful environmental stewardship. They're a little too concerned about boot-, err, the economy and it's short-term, re-electing significance.
So there it is. Pirates, democracy and our seemingly pirate-like communities in Canada. If you'll excuse me, I need to go draft February's "Articles of The Gumboot" before Kurt organizes a mutiny. Thanks for your time. Watch out for pirates!

- Sir John the Pirate Piratologist


Theodora Lamb said...

Okay, so now I'm thinking about e-democracy and how Barrack Obama brought the practice to a whole new level during his campaign.... connecting with what you wrote about present day leaders and "bootie", perhaps you could argue that President Obama is the new image of a modern day pirate! The ultimate pirate and we all want in on his ship... Too out there? I think I will explore this idea with a future post.

John Horn said...

Finally! Finally someone called Barack Obama a pirate. This is groundbreaking, Theo Lamb. I mean, you dream about this stuff - and maybe scrawl it in your journal or something - but, wow, you never think the day will actually come! So, by surrounding himself with advisers that run the gamut - not "gambit" - of ideology as well as being wired-for-real-time-feedback from the American people, is he, um, the greatest pirate of all?

Probably. But only time will tell. The greatest pirate in history was Madame Cheng. At one point in the early 1800s she took on the British, Dutch and Portuguese. When the dust settled, she negotiated the truce from a the position of power, and carved out a nice little city-state for herself and her much, much younger man-friend. Point being, she democratically united a lot of different people from a lot of different places against a common threat. Obama is uniting different people from different places to fight poverty, terrorism and climate change.

This is an age-old comparison, but historians have consistently argued that the late-eighteenth, early-nineteenth-century equivalents to poverty, terrorism and climate change were in fact the British, Dutch and Portuguese. So, once again, the past-present-pirate-Obama comparison is totally and unequivocally apt.

And it's a beautiful thing!

Kurt Heinrich said...

I like your example of the goat...