Return of the Pyrats
I started reading The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic about a year ago. At some point I put it down to read another book, and then another, you know how it goes. For whatever reason, I decided to pick it up again the other day. I just finished a chapter on the impact of piracy in Africa on the slave trade there. My mind drew some parallels to the slave-trading forts on the Western coast of Africa and on the steadily growing belt of concentration camps in the US for migrants from South of the border.
What can we do to not just resist but sabotage the machinery of deportation/migrant-processing centers? I think a lesson can be drawn from the history of piracy in the Atlantic.
Firstly, pirates were not some morally pure class of revolutionaries purely concerned with fighting the newly emerging capitalist system and empire. Their first priority was their own freedom and pleasure. They were comprised mainly of pressed men, runaway or liberated slaves, free blacks, Indigenous people of Turtle Island and especially of the Caribbean, and many others, including the odd woman or two who wanted to escape the strict gender roles of her day. Freedom was the first priority for a pirate because many of them lived with brutal conditions and cruel poverty. Pressed men were mostly commoners from Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and England who were captured by armed gangs and forced to serve as sailors for the rapidly growing aquatic English empire. Only one in four pressed men would survive even a year aboard their ship. Those who did survive were rarely paid, their employers with-holding their pay until their service was completed. And those who survived were often left maimed and disabled, the classic image of the pirate with missing limbs or eyes is no exaggeration. Food was often rotten and strong drink rare or absent aboard ships. It goes without saying that those who survived slavery or a genocidal invasion of their land also lived poorly. Enter the pirate ship.
The pirate ship was “a world turned upside down,” when compared to the typical merchant or navy ship. The captain was chosen democratically and could be removed or punished, even executed, if he became too tyrannical towards his crew. A captain had total control over his crew only while attacking or fleeing a ship (those who have read their Clastres are probably seeing some similarities here with the chiefs of Amazonian tribes). Food and drink were infinitely better, the literature on pirates from that era often focused on how festive their meals were, musicians were especially prized and loved members of the crew. The brutal work machine that was a merchant or naval ship was replaced with a much more relaxed system of labor aboard the pirate ship. Often pirate ships had crews much larger than their mercantile or naval counterparts of the same ship size. This was chiefly so that each crew member could do less work, not to mention have more warriors for boarding, more musicians and cooks for making merry, and more skilled artisans to outfit the ship. Here we see, in contrast to the life of a slave or pressed sailor, a life of freedom and pleasure. This merry life was one that made “going on the account” very appealing. And once onboard and fully accustomed to the life of freedom and joy, a pirate fiercely defending that life, their ship, and their comrades.
I begin with this brief outline of what the authors of Many-Headed Hydra call “hydrarchy from below” because today we have no pirate ship to flee to from our modern day slave galley or merchant ship. Empire, Civilization, Capital, or whatever you want to call the beast, has grown greatly in its dominion over space, time, and even the bodies and minds of zeks it holds within its belly. Here is where I muse on the return of the pyrat; here be dragons.
We have no equivalent to the pirate ship. There are no “crews” of anarchists who live so well and love one another so dearly that they go on raids together. We are fragmented from one another and spend most of our time trying to pay rent or bills. What “crews” we have that exist are almost always solely digital. Very few of us even rendezvous to make merry or mischief. Leviathan has got us all on our spinning-wheels and gives us only enough rest to poorly reproduce ourselves and often that involves commodified activities. If we want to build our pirate ship, a metaphor for a gathering of friends and lovers willing to fight for one another, not just those who share an affinity for anarchy, there must be a deeper bond forged through lives intertwined together over time and space.But how can we forge those bonds if, like me, most of us are treading shark-infested water? I honestly don’t have an answer, but I have some theories.
Dropping out seems the easiest solution. Have a shit job and shittier social life? Walk away from it. Keep walking until you find some place pleasant. Sit down there for a spell. If more and more of your digital “friends” decide to do the same, or if you are already so lucky to have real friends and lovers, not just those who hang out with you because they don’t want to be alone, plan a rendezvous somewhere. You’re probably hungry by now, what cash you had has gone towards good walking shoes, bus or train tickets, and probably a lot of booze to making sleeping hard easier. Maybe you’re in some suburb that has a lot of woods or other land that is sparsely populated and, more-importantly, poorly policed. Let’s put some food in that belly, some fire in your soul, and forge those newly formed bonds of love with your companions a bit stronger!
Rob a grocery store, doesn’t have to be a big sexy raid with guns and ski-masks. If you’ve done your homework you hopefully have learned the fine skill of shop-lifting. It’s far easier to do it at a grocery store. If you’re a bit more cautious stick to dumpster diving or robbing farms or even community gardens. Now head back to your hide-out and have a feast, make love, dance beneath the moon, howl together. You’re a crew and you’ve successfully carried out your first raid. Now gather some XP and keep grinding with these raids until you feel ready to take on more risks with your crew.
The pirate ship rarely attacked an armed enemy. The plot of the TV series “Black Sails” had a pirate captain scheme to capture a Spanish man-o-war so that they can defend their anarchic pirate utopia from the navies of Spain and England. Unless you and your crew have liberated a tank from the local army base, please don’t try any attacks on armed enemies. You or your companions will die or worse, end up in prison for a long time. When pirates disrupted the slave-trade along the coast of Africa they didn’t have battles with naval vessels. They attacked traders, merchants, and empty slave ships headed towards Africa. Trader and merchants have a lot of goods that can be sold on the black market and very rarely did they have much of an armed force to protect them. Slaver ships without slaves meant that you could capture a ship loaded with food for a long journey. After a slave ship was captured off the coast of Africa, pirates burned or sunk them. It took a major war effort by England to end the menace of piracy to the slave trade. After piracy was wiped out in Africa the impact could be well seen, slavery increased by 27 percent without the menace of pirates.
Right now, we have no pirates menacing capitalism and the processing of captured humans. I am not advocating you and your crew go make a liberating raid on a migrant detention center. You probably won’t do much against the well-armed forces posted there. Instead, attack the merchants and the empty slave ships headed to load on human cargo. These are much easier ways to sabotage than some doomed vainglorious street battles with riot police outside a migrant concentration camp.
Today there is a planned walkout of 500, and growing, employees of Wayfair in Boston and Maine, a company that supplies beds and other furniture to the concentration camps. What if even one of those employees, who mainly work as programmers at the Boston office, were to sabotage the computer infrastructure of their corporation? What if they leaked some confidential documents to the press? Listed the address of the CEO who has refused their petition to end business with the concentration camp administrators?
I’ve typed a lot here and I am sure it sounds like rantings of a mad man. That’s because they are. You have to be mad just to live in this world without blowing your brains out. I will end with a vision.
I prefer the pre-standardized spelling “pyrat.” It gives me a vision of rats sneaking into and out of buildings without being noticed. Shitting in the gears of machines, pissing on computer circuits, gnawing at power-cords, multiplying, carrying plague to civilization. “Pyrat” also conjures up images of pyros setting fires for pleasure and revenge. Wild-eyed demons sulking in the darkness, waiting to move. Shadows moving and then bright red flames birthed from nothing. Soon a whole yard of vans and other vehicles are ablaze. The ICE logos slowly melting and peeling off in the inferno. The next day I awake to reports of similar fires and countless tire-slashings of vehicles connected to concentration camps and prisons across the continent. There are even reports of armed battles carried out at the southern border of Mexico… An age of howls and fire to melt the ice.