When I was free once more
I was like Adam when he was first created.
I had nothing at all, and therefore resolved
to join the privateers or buccaneers
– A.O. Exquemelin, The Buccaneers of America (1678)
At the time of writing Anonymous, an umbrella group of digital activists with a sense of humour, have taken down the website of Broadcast Music Incorporated (BMI) by a Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) direct action. This is part of an ongoing battle with private corporations that seek to strangle the free flow of information and data between consenting adults who want to share files BMI are the American agency that collects and distributes artists’ musical royalties. They have released a statement saying “There has not been a breach of security into our systems in any form and access has not been obtained to any secure content. We believe that this attack is part of their misguided campaign to attack creative rights. The group has launched attacks on other agencies around the world representing creators in the past.Other than the website,” said the company, “operations are not impacted by the company’s protective move. BMI plans to resume full service of all online services for its songwriters, music publishers and licensees shortly.” Anonymous have posted this press release for circulation about its action at BMI
“Greetings from Anonymous,
As you have no doubt gathered from various media outlets and our own information disseminated across the internet, we are an internet activist group independent of any and all national, political, or religious affiliations.
Despite our differences, we are united in the preservation of intellectual freedom and fair copyright laws. Too long have the music and cinema industries, among others, abused copyright for their own gain. Legislation serves to protect artists not the companies managing them and should never attempt to prevent the spread of creativity to the general public.
We have seen BMI consistently copyright legislation and consequently have decided to take action against it to show that the people will not stand for its crimes against the public. As of the time of the writing of this letter BMI.com has been taken down by our successful attack. This is a message to you and other corporations like you, we cannot stand this abuse anymore. No company can take advantage of our liberties to churn profits and censor information in any form, this is unacceptable and will be dealt with accordingly by US.
We are not pirates, we are not loner hackers in our mother’s basement, we are your neighbors, your co-workers, your family and your friends; we are omnipresent. We are Anonymous.
We do not forgive.
We do not forget.
You should have expected us.”
Long a source of annoyance to those of us who like to share music and other materials with friends and strangers alike, the major players and beneficiaries of the “entertainment” industry have been working with governments and telecoms companies to shut down file sharing. Indeed they attempt to stop people sharing by making it ‘illegal’. There have been several manifestation of outright resistance to this, as well as ongoing technical walkarounds that either ignore or fall outside the bounds of law makers. In Ireland for instance, one of the main telecoms communication companies, Eircom, have set up a firewall to stop its customers gaining direct access to torrent site Piratebay. However many users just use plugings on their browser that disguise their IP. For instance many people use Expat Shield as it registers the user with an IP address in the UK. This also has the added benefit of allowing people to watch restricted BBC content online usually only accesible in the UK
The digital activists working under the umbrella of Anonymous have certainly been busy as of late, and the scope of their collectively decided and targeted direct actions are impressive in scale and technical capability. They are also, from my own point of view, an expression of political development and social engagement. Whilst they have been lazily laughed off and dismissed as a downtime playground for a nihilistic generation of slackers and goofy geeks by the mainstream press, Anonymous have demonstrated a clear empathy and solidarity with those in immediate struggle against oppression, as well as both willingness and capacity to take on the big guys in an what could be seen as a sustained campaign to claim the internet as a common good for all, rather than a tool to be used for the private accumulation of wealth.
As someone who is involved with social justice activism, anti capitalist organising, radical feminism and direct actions and who has a fighting desire to see an end of all institutions and cultural norms that exploit human beings, I make no pretence of being neutral, or ‘objective’. As Howard Zinn said, you cant be neutral on a moving train. I live in a country,Ireland, that was held up as a poster boy for the neo liberal EU project. Sucessive governments have rammed through neoliberal policies in a country still unable to articulate the profound and socially destructive voilence against women and children from the state inception. As a new government seeks to impose savage cuts to the quality of life of most of its citizens, the political and ecomonic transnational elite see their wealth grow.This is replicated across the globe as societies most exploited and vunerable see their lives shorten and become more precarious. As human being we need to equip ourselves with all the tools we can to defend the gains we have historical struggled for, and make our solidarities with each other as visible, vocal and meaningful as we can.
The recent actions against the right wing neo liberlal Koch Brothers in support of workers rights in Wisconsin, (blogged here) the ongoing work of skilled digital activists in providing vital communication channels and physical tools for the revolutionary popular movements in North Africa and the Middle East can only be applauded. Equally so the direct actions against the large private corporations who are part of a corporate driven intelligence ecosystem, in a symbotic relationship of supply/demand to the US government. The recent hacking of HBGary and other quasi private “intelligence” companies who, responding to demands by the US government and Bank of America to find ways to discredit and destroy the framework of pro transparency organisation Wikileaks is ground breaking in many ways. It is a successful propaganda win in the battle, in that it showed the subversive and dangerous egomania that lies at the heart of “intelligence” firms quite willing to lie and damage innocent people in the quest to bring down Wikileaks. No doubt there is much with the 35,000 emails hacked from HBGary that has yet to be explored. And iv’e no doubt this will be a folkstory that will be told again and again. Everyone I’ve spoke to about it had a beaming smile from the sheer audacity of people putting manners on the private/corporate spying community. And given the recent uncovering of police undercover operations that had embedded itself in the anarchist/environmental/anti capitalists networks of Europe to gather ‘intelligence’ of those of us the state decides to call ‘subversives’ we know all too well the very damaging and manipulating impacts that covert intelligence entails. Earlier this month Anonymous also annouced Operation Bradical, a collective action to ensure Bradley Manning, alleged leaker of US diplomatic cables to Wikileaks. “be given sheets, blankets, any religious texts he desires, adequate reading material, clothes, and a ball. One week. Otherwise, we continue to dox and ruin those responsible for keeeping him naked, without bedding, without any of the basic amenities that were provided even to captured Nazis in WWII.”
So from me, Nice one Anonymous!
Its interesting that the statement above from Anonymous says “we are not pirates”. Obviously it is a word that in past few decades has been associated almost exclusively with the internet and ‘illegal’ downloading and sharing of music, films, and all sort of data. It was not until coastal marginalised communities in Somalia organised themselves and began hijacking ships loaded with bullion headed for an already rich West – while they remain impoverished – that the term ‘pirates’ was actually used in the way in which it originated. . Ok maybe Jonny Depp and Pirates of the Caribbean, and many a swash buckling adventure on the TV has shaped our impressions of what pirates where/are too but that was just the fun.
In some ways its quite fitting that piracy is a term used most frequently by corporations and mainstream media to describe the free sharing of information, knowledge, digital copies, and products that they – the capitalists – seek to have make private gain by claiming exclusive ownership off. Obviously they use it in a derogatory and negative sense. And I guess it’s in that common way that Anonymous reject the label. Its cartoon and dismissive, a claim to illegitimacy
However, it’s pretty illuminating to look at the context and situation where the term, and indeed pirates themselves came from. The Many Headed Hydra : Sailors Slaves and Commoners and The Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic by Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker is the best book ive found on the time. Its a fascinating look at what where the radical social movements of time. Its available for free download from here* ( via library.nu – its free and has lots – and I mean lots – of amazing books)
It would be a massive injustice to simplifying it down. (and i’ll use a few long quotes in a bit will show that). It shows that the period between the 1670’s and the1730’s marked a new phase in the history of Atlantic capitalism. The British empire was expanding and the Atlantic ocean itself became something like a nation state. “The work, cooperation, and discipline of the ship made it a prototype of the factory. Indeed, the very term factory evolved etymologically from factor, ‘‘a trading representative,’’ and specifically one associated with West Africa, where factories were originally located.” And just like todays workplaces and nation state, they where spaces of contention and struggle.
The authors say that there were
“two related developments of the late seventeenth century: the organization of the maritime state from above, and the self-organization of sailors from below. As the strong hands of … sailors made the Atlantic a zone for the accumulation of capital, they began to join with others in faithfulness, or solidarity, producing a maritime radical tradition that also made it a zone of freedom. The ship thus became both an engine of capitalism in the wake of the bourgeois revolution in England and a setting of resistance. During the pause when revolutionary ideas(France etc) and action seemed to be missing from or muted in landed society, hydrarchy arose at sea to pose the era’s most serious challenge to the development of capitalism”
I tend to groan myself when analogies are stretched to fit too much, but I cant help but I think about the similarities between this historical situation and the current battle from above for domination, control and regulation of the internet and the flow of information by governments and corporation, and the battle from below by those who are trying to ensure that it remains a free, autonomous, self organised zone.
Of interest perhaps more so to Irish readers it also states
“If Cromwell inaugurated the maritime state and Charles II realized its promise, finally displacing the Dutch as the hegemonic Atlantic power, it was because of advisers such as Sir William Petty the fatherof political economy or, as it was called in his day, political arithmetic. Petty, who wrote the Political Anatomy of Ireland for Charles II, had begun his working life as a cabin boy at sea. He was part of England’s conquering army in Ireland, serving as physician general in 1652 and cartographer of confiscated lands in the Down survey of 1654 (he took fiftythousand acres for himself in County Kerry, where he organized hewers of wood, fishermen, quarrymen, lead miners, and iron workers.) Such experiences gave him a clear understanding of the primary importance of land, labor, and transatlantic connections. Labor, he believed, was the‘‘father . . . of wealth, as lands are themother.’’ Labor had to be mobile—and labor policy transatlantic—because lands were far-flung. He advocated shipping felons to plantations overseas: ‘‘Why should not insolvent thieves be rather punished with slavery than death? so as being slaves they may be forced to as much labour, and as cheap fare, as nature will endure, and thereby become as two men added to the commonwealth,and not as one taken away fromit.’’ He noted the increasing importance of the slave trade to imperial planning: ‘‘The accession of Negroes to the American plantations (being all Men of great labour and little expence) is not inconsiderable.’’
So what has this got to do with the free flow of information, piracy and Anonymous? Its not even an immediately comfortable parallel for me right now, but it is an area to I think worth comparing our own evolving situation, as big business has done quite a good job of enclosing the internet, shaping its use through social media products on a mass scale like Facebook, Twitter, blogs etc. Yet they are also spaces of contention and tools to use to fight back, to talk to each other and share our ideas and visions of a world in a much more horizontal way than way available to people two decades ago. I can hear directly from people in Egypt and Libya directly at within the moment of revolution. I can speak to people in the middle of revolutions and share voices from inside countries and share them to people in a matter of minutes. But also, more importanty people are able to directly communicate to each other within and across continents to ensure access to communication tools for example even after Mubarak shut down mobile and internet access for most. That’s of course is an example in immediacy, the power to create a focus of attention which itself becomes powerful. This is in no way to suggest that Mubarak was removed because of internet activity, merely that it played a role.
However it is the long term effect of horizontal, unmediated (unmoderated?) communication between people(s) that allows us a greater opportunity to make sense of our world around us, and to begin to understand our collective capacities to resist our oppressions and remake our world.
Im sure this might have a resonance for many people today in our globalised, multinational workplaces of wage slavery.
Even though the Navigation Act of 1651 stipulated that three fourths of the crewimporting English goodswere to be English or Irish under penalty of loss of ship, tackle, and lading, English ships continued to be worked by African, Briton, quashee, Irish, and American (not to mention Dutch, Portuguese, and lascar) sailors. Ruskin was therefore correct in saying, ‘‘The nails that fasten together the planks of the boat’s bow are the rivets of the fellowship of the world.’’ Ned Coxere, who went to sea in 1648 and ‘‘served several masters in the wars between King and Parliament at sea,’’ wrote, ‘‘Next I served the Spaniards against the French, then the Hollanders against the English; then I was taken by the English out of Dunkirker; and then I served the English against the Hollanders; and last I was taken by the Turks, where I was forced to serve then againstEnglish, French,Dutch, and Spaniards, and all Christendom.’’Alexander Exquemelin remarked on the mingling of cultures among the buccaneers in the late seventeenth century. William Petty also understood the international reality of the lower deck: ‘Whereas the Employment of other Men is confined to their own Country, that of Seamen is free to the whole world.’’During the 1690s, English sailors served under all colors, for, according to John Ehrman, ‘‘the interchange of seamen between the different maritime countries was too widespread and deep-rooted a custom’’ to eliminate. The ship was thus not only the means of communication between continents, but also the first place where working people from those different continents communicated. All the contradictions of social antagonism were concentrated in its timbers. Imperialism was the main one: the sun of European imperialism always cast an African shadow. Christopher Columbus had not only a black cabin boy but an African pilot, Pedro Nin˜o. As soon as the Mayflower discharged the pilgrims, it sailed for the West Indies with a cargo of people from Africa. Forced by the magnitude of its own enterprise to bring huge and heterogeneous masses of men and women together aboard ship to face a deathly voyageto a cruel destination, European imperialism also created the conditions for the circulation of experience within the huge masses of labor that it had set in motion.”
From these experience over time sailors, across cultural boundaries got organised, rejected the slavery or indentured work and began to create living ship in the Atlantic where they began to set their own terms. The created a ‘world turned upside down’ in the early C18th. This took a quite a will, and even the generation of a dialect, pidgin, that facilitated both a common identity below deck and a beginnings of confident desire to break from the heirarchy.
“made so by the articles of agreement that established the rules and customs of the pirates’ social order, hydrarchy from below. Pirates distributed justice, elected officers, divided loot equally, and established a different discipline. They limited the authority of the captain, resisted many of the practices of the capitalist merchant shipping industry, and maintained a multicultural, multiracial, multinational social order. They sought to prove that ships did not have to be run in the brutal and oppressive ways of the merchant service and the RoyalNavy. The pirate ship was democratic in an undemocratic age. The pirates allowed their captain unquestioned authority in chase and battle, but otherwise insisted that he be ‘‘governed by a Majority.’’ As one observer noted, ‘‘They permit him to be Captain, on Condition, that they may be Captain over him.’’ They gave him none of the extra food, the private mess, or the special accommodations routinely claimed by merchant andnaval captains. Moreover, as the majority gave, so did it take away, deposing captains for cowardice, for cruelty, for refusing ‘‘to take and plunder English Vessels,’’ or even for being ‘‘too Gentleman-like.’’ Captains who dared to exceed their authority were sometimes executed. Most pirates,‘‘having suffered formerly from the ill-treatment of their officers, provided carefully against any such evil’’ once they were free to organize the ship after their own hearts”
There is something about the above description that also relates to our own notion of democracy common today, or more specifically about the understanding of democracy as spoken by the political elites in the US and EU, that is the ‘leaders’of the western societies. At the onset of the popular uprisings and revolutions starting in Tunsia, then Egypt and Libya and having a rippling effect across North Africa and the Middle East, Obama, and all of the leaders of the EU did not come out in vocal support. Instead they initially offered support to all the dictators with whom capitalist owners of energy resources and military industrial products have very good relationships with. Moreover one of the first coordinated response of the EU was to ensure Frontex got more money. Fortress Europe drawbridges was pulled up. They acted as the captain of merchant ship did, profit at all cost and only when its clear those relationship cannot be sustained under public scrutiny shall they change. It wasnt the captains who offer support, solidarity, practical assistance and who helped spread the word of the pro democracy movements. It was the sailors online who made it impossible to ignore the people narratives. Al Jazeera deserve significant credit for shaping European and US media reportage, but it was the people within Tunsia, Egypt and Libya making and pushing their revolutions, people from below telling their world as it is, and their experiences being amplified by ordinary folks who care enough to do just that that provides inspiring moments about the possibility of what can occur when we have control ourselves over the tools of online communication. What kind of world would it be?
At the back of it all there is a fundamental premise that is an essential component of all system of oppression, be that dictatorships, be it capitalism and neo liberalism, be that violence against women or racism. It is the unarticulated belief that you are in power because you ‘deserve’ to be and that those ‘below’ are not able to manage their affairs with out your paternal guidance and assistance. All forms of oppression and exploitation create external cultural artefacts, and words of ‘logic’ that are at times seem as much about sustaining internal mental integrity as they do about shaping public discussion.
Pirates aren’t like that though
The pirate ship was egalitarian in a hierarchical age, as pirates divided their plunder equally, levelling the elaborate structure of pay ranks common to all other maritime employments. To merchant captains it was galling that ‘‘there is so little Government and Subordination among [pirates], that they are, on Occasion, all Captains, all Leaders.’’ By expropriating a merchant ship (after a mutiny or a capture), pirates seized the means of maritime production and declared it to be the common property of those who did its work. Rather than working for wages using the tools and larger machine (the ship) owned by a merchant capitalist, pirates abolished the wage and commanded the ship as their own property, sharing equally in the risks of common adventure. Pirates were class-conscious and justice-seeking, taking revenge against merchant captains who tyrannized the common seaman and against royal officials who upheld their prerogative to do so. Indeed, the ‘‘Distribution of Justice’’ was a specific practice among pirates. After capturing a prize vessel, pirates would ‘‘distribute justice’’ by inquiring about how the ship’s commander treated his crew. They then ‘‘whipp’d and pickled’’ those ‘‘against whom Complaint was made.’’ Bartholomew Roberts’s crew considered the matter so important that they formally designated one of their men—George Willson, who was no doubt a fierce and lusty man—the ‘‘Dispencer of Justice.’’ Still, pirates did not punish captains indiscriminately. They often rewarded the ‘‘honest Fellow that never abused any Sailors’’ and even offered to let one decent captain ‘‘return with a large sum of Money to London, and bid theMerchants defiance.’’Pirates thus stood against the brutal injustices of the merchant shipping industry, with one crew’s even claiming to be ‘‘Robbin Hoods Men.’’The government often told pirates that ‘‘they [had] no country,’’ and the pirates themselves agreed: when they hailed other vessels at sea, they emphasized their own rejection of nationality by announcing that they came ‘‘From the Seas.’’ ..as a mutineer muttered in 1699, ‘‘it signifiednothing what part of the World a man liv’d in, so he Liv’d well.’’
Maybe we need a little more piracy in our lives. Like the historical development of any technology, the internet and tools of communication – as well as the social power they can be used to help create, – its ultimate usefulness or indeed social dangers are something that is still largely undefined. And much like 250 years ago, the parameters of the battle are being primarily shaped at the edges of existing empire by those deciding to fight back rather than submit to enclosure