Pirates and Politics

Pirates and Politics

I was struck by the irony this week when Disney announced that it had been hit by hackers threatening to illegally release one of their upcoming hit films. Apparently the film in question is the new Pirates of the Caribbean film. Surely there is something quite ironic that a film about pirates being subject to piracy?!

Pirates have a wider ranging remit in the contemporary world – from ‘Talk like a Pirate Day’ (19th September this year if anyone cares to observe it) to a theme for children’s party, pirates are often a source of enjoyment. However, there are also cases of piracy in Somalia and other sea straits around the world – a fair more gritty reality than Captain Jack Sparrow.

Pirates have a long tradition in history as well. Kester Brewin argues that pirates were often sailors that escaping the harsh regimes of the Navy having been press-ganged into service. He writes about the life of a naval sailor that ‘it was a tough life, with pitiful pay (that was regularly not paid at all) and rotten rations . . . their superiors were brutal men, who used violence to enforce discipline, ate fine foods in luxurious cabins.’ (Mutiny, 17) It is in this context that Brewin surmises that it’s not difficult to see why the sailors often talked of mutiny or escaping to pirate colonies.

In the pirate colonies, the pirate code was upheld and enshrined a certain type of civility. Equal voting rights; a fair share of monies; and support if there was injury or illness – a far better deal than the life of a Navy sailor. Of course the pirate regime was not all happiness and light, but it was an attractive alternative to the oppressive regime of the power-hungry, wealthy naval captains. In this light, Brewin argues that piracy was an act of rebellion against an oppressive system. He writes,

‘sailors saw the enormous profits being made by merchants and princes, and knew it was their slave labour that was sustaining this New World economy and the emergence of global capitalism. By turning pirate they were rejecting the system that had led to their oppression, and creating a life for themselves that stood in stark contrast.’ (Mutiny, 25)

So rather than piracy being seen as the terror of the high sea, it could be argued that pirates were the freedom fighters of their day. Admittedly, it’s an optimistic picture to paint, and perhaps not wholly true throughout, but it is an interesting perspective to consider for our world today.

Disney are facing the pirated release of their film on pirates – and why are Disney worried? Simply because, if released, it would cause them to lose a whole lot of money. Instead of paying to see the film in cinemas, many people might opt to choose to watch it free of charge. Disney are short of money of course with their $10 billion income and nearly $100 billion assets!! As we pay our money to see Pirates of the Caribbean, we fund Johnny Depp’s $20 million (approx.) to star in it. Of course, you might argue that actors need payment, in the same way that any creative needs rewarded for their artform and, furthermore, copyright is there to protect the theft of ideas. And there’s a case to be made for these practices. On top of that, most people like what Disney do and we don’t think of them as oppressive monsters. But perhaps it does highlight that even favourably-viewed businesses are not serving the common interest, entertaining for entertainment’s sake or serving for serving’s sake, but rather it comes down to making more and more money and protecting the ability to do so. This is the way that our world is ordered.

In recent months there has been a lot of political ‘chatter’ and rightly so given the gravity of decisions being made. In America, Donald Trump rode a wave to power promising to ‘drain the swamp.’ In the UK, Jeremy Corbyn is purportedly fighting the establishment – Labour’s recent manifesto is ‘for the many’. Two ends of the political spectrum in many ways, and yet similar themes of giving power back to the people. I’m not wanting to endorse or discredit any political position, but rather to point out an observation common to current cultural discourse. Many people are not happy with the way the world seems to be ordered. Is ‘piracy’ ready to make a comeback?

Of course, Brewin’s argument in Mutiny has, broadly speaking, echoes of what would eventually come to be known as Marxism. Whether intentionally or unintentionally, his reading of pirate history has that familiar air to it (and I’m also not calling for an endorsement of Marxism, at least uncritically). So you might be wondering, where the theology is in this thought-experiment (or perhaps ramble, perhaps tirade!) Brewin, himself, in Mutiny does not labour the theological, but I think underneath all of this is the question: what sort of world are we wanting to see become a reality? If our goal as Christians living in the world is to usher in the Kingdom of God (Luke 4), modelled on an eschatological vision (Rev 21) of freedom, equality, and solidarity, then we must take seriously the ordering of our politics, economics, and societies.

As we heed our call as Christians to be peacemakers, perhaps we also need to think about our place as theological ‘pirates’.

For more on Kester Brewin’s ideas on Pirates:

Kester Brewin, Mutiny: Why we love pirates and how they can save us?

Listen to Kester’s TEDx talk on Pirates here

Author (and views!): Graham Meiklejohn (graham.meiklejohn@uws.ac.uk)

(Ideas and reflections in this post are personally-held so if you’d like to interact with any of these thoughts then please get in contact / comment – let us keep the conversation alive!)