Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Mutiny! Why We Love Pirates and How They Can Save Us

first two disclaimers and an apology...

I received this book for free in return for writing this review.  Second, I have met the author.  A few years ago we met at an event called Soliton and had a few beers together.  I found Kester to be delightful and very bright.  Neither issue will impact any opinions I have regarding the book.   And the apology, I promised to write this review by September 30.  I didn't.  I'm sorry.  Here it is.

The other day I was sitting in front of the television watching a rented movie.  Before the film began there was the typical announcement that "piracy is not a victimless crime."  Of course it is not... we've all imagined the violence of Somali pirates taking hostages of the coast of Africa, families terrified, life disrupted, and on rare occasions, people dying.   But how is that the same as copying a DVD or CD?  And is the situation in Somalia really what we've imagined?

I knew next to nothing about pirates before reading Mutiny.  I do have a friend who is doing her doctoral dissertation on pirates so I've heard a little bit about the way that they were used by the powers that were in the political machinations of the 1600's.  Still, I knew very little more than the cartoonish pictures so prevalent in pop culture.

Brewin has two themes that are central to his argument, the benefits of the commons are being confiscated by those with power and resources, leaving the common people without, and whenever the commons are blocked, pirates emerge to unblock things.  Indeed, his definition of pirate is "one who emerges to defend the commons wherever homes, cultures or economies become ‘blocked’ by the rich." (Kindle Locations 783-784).   He does push the argument a bit further into metaphor as well and talks about the unblocking of the self as a psychological act of piracy necessary for maturation.

The short review of the book is that I loved it.  Go buy it.  The longer review is a little more nuanced.  Brewin clearly says again and again that the pirates are not out to change the game, they have just refused to play.  At the same time, there is more than a bit of romaticization of the pirates, turning them into counter-culture heroes and heroines.  I asked my dissertation friend about Brewin's picture of freedom and equality loving pirates and she reminded me not to forget that they killed people... lots of people.  Evidently piracy was not a victimless crime... but neither were the situations that led to piracy victimless.  That is the message of the book.

In a world where labor and its rewards are more and more separate, where the commons of creative thought and traditions of music and writing, where the power of religion is used to bind people rather than free them, piracy becomes a naturally occurring response.  The questions are many and the answers not simple, but Brewin argues the spirit of the pirate is needed to fix the problems of the world.  What do I say to that?  Argh!


Michael Mahoney said...

I will freely admit, I have not read the book.

I think I would be more sympathetic to the light in which (you indicate) he portrays modern pirates, if in fact it was a "rob from the rich and give to the poor" type deal. The reality is, modern piracy is a multi-million dollar industry, financed by fat cats like the the NVGC and the Marka Group - headed by warlords and the like.

The actual "pirates" on the boats get less than a third of the loot, with the sponsors getting the lion's share. The "commons" get nothing.

At least, that's the situation around Somalia. But I suspect Malacca pirates and others are similar.

KB said...

Thanks Michael - this is a point I do make in the book. While the origins of Somali piracy are in a rich-to-poor archetype, it's definitely not that way now, and organised crime is all over it. Nasty business. Hope you go read it anyway, and thanks for the review Roy!

roy said...

Sorry if I misled a bit regarding Kester's treatment of the Somali pirates. Kester replied, Michael... but I'll expand it a bit. He does say that the origins of the Somali pirates are a clear example of the "blocked commons" scenario, he also acknowledges that the situation is now one of organized crime and I doubt he would define the current criminals as pirates at all. As Kester describes the situation, the Somali folk made their livings fishing the waters off the coast. As the government imploded, foreign commercial fishing companies saw an opportunity and came in and virtually took all of the fish. Then, other countries dumped toxic waste in the area. Together the actions destroyed the livelihood of the Somalis and took away the benefits of the commons from them. Sitting on the beach, watching container ships go by on their dead seas, they began to pirate. At the beginning, Kester notes that they were not violent. It didn't take long for organized criminals to see the potential profits and step in and everything changed.