Towards a Society of Individuals: On "Pirates of the Caribbean"

"Pirates of the Caribbean 3: At World's End" (an excellent, smart title) is about the struggle between a society of individuals and a corporate state structure.

In the film, we can't separate corporations from the state. The trading company, understandably, wants its trading routes safe (and wants the pirate booty) and hence wants the pirates exterminated. I have no problem with this: let the corporations and the pirates battle.

What gets creepy is that the state, too, wants the pirates exterminated. But why? What this film makes obvious is that the interests of the state are identical to the interests of corporations. In fact, it is not corporations that exist at the behest of the state; it's that the state exists at the service of corporations. And so rather than there being a more or less equal battle between the trading company and the pirates, we get the battle between the state, its legislation, its mass army and its funds.

From when its army? From whence its funds? From the citizens. But who is harmed by the pirates? Corporations.

(Look at how the Somali pirates were handled — by governments and by the press: it was assumed that the pirates were bad and the corporations were innocent and good. Listen, I know nothing of these pirates. But I was surprised at the assumptions that crimes against corporate property are covered by the press necessarily as crimes and not actions that need to be considered. Which is to say, our press is another wing of corporate interests, of the interests of Capital. I'm not saying the Somali pirates were good or bad. I'm just trying to point out the "environment" — as McLuhan might say — in which these events happen and how our assumed interests happen to be corporate interests.)

Where does this leave our pirates of the Caribbean? They are radically individualistic, roaming the last terrestrial frontier, the ocean. As the massive corporate sponsored state navy takes to the sea, each pirate in his or her place stands little chance of survival. This is the way of the modern state: total coverage.

And so the pirates bond together, reluctantly. And what I love is that they don't surrender their differences; they don't unite to form their own nation: they work together,as individuals, to fend off the State.

Their politics are inevitably complex, not always pretty, and at times violent. But it is not the terrible, merciless violence of the State.


Jeff M. said...

"What gets creepy is that the state, too, wants the pirates exterminated. But why?"

Does the state exist somehow outside the system of economic exchange?

Ultimately, states that function within capitalistic societies are dependent on entities like corporations for escalating production, so that potentially dangerous groups within that society (i.e., people who have the power to stir up revolutions; cf., Egypt) enjoy a certain standard of living: an iPod in every home or whatever. Thus, more often than not, states make and enforce laws that protect the interests of whoever control the means of production.

Pirates are merely free riders on the supply chain of a particular kind of economic exchange. Free riders tend to jack up prices. Thus, from the state's POV, pirates are bad. I don't see what this is creepy.

Daniel Coffeen said...

Just because this is what states do doesn't make it either necessary or not worth noting. I understand why governments side with corporations — although I believe there are more complex historical reasons (see Rushkoff's talks; me, I know very little of history).

So, yes, once again, I know why the state seeks the extermination of pirates. But by calling it creepy, my hope was to reveal that our assumptions are actually corporate — that they are not natural per se but are ideological.

Clearly, my strategy failed in this case.

Let me ask this: if pirates payed takes, would you still consider them freeloaders?

Jeff M. said...

Freeloaders has a pejorative connotation that I didn't intend to convey. In my conception of the term, free riders are to an economic system what heat loss is to a thermodynamic one. It is a variable that the system must cope with if it is to maintain equilibrium.

Unlike a thermodynamic system however, economic systems do not arise wholly out of nature. In large part, they arise out of the social relations among human beings. So I take your point that they are shot through with ideological assumptions. Moreover, we are able to moralize about economic systems in a way we can't about natural ones. If I fall off a cliff, we can't say it was immoral that I bashed my brains out, but if someone pushes me off a cliff we can say (and in almost every case will say) that the push that caused me to bash my brains out was immoral.

I don't know if I answered your question about pirates paying taxes, but let me ask you a question. The masses in America have had an ongoing fascination with pirates, Robin Hood and gangsters. One might even say that Americas find outlaws sexy. Is this fascination in any way related to the fact that there are a little over 2 million people in prison in the U.S.?

Daniel Coffeen said...

To try to answer your question....are you suggesting that people's interests in gangsters leads to violence and criminality? Really?

I would argue that people feel castrated — yes, castrated — by capitalism, by the endless humiliations suffered day in and day out, and hence find refuge a) in fantasies of gun slinging; and b) in actual gun slinging.

The realities of labor — the endless work days, the lack of privacy — coupled with the unsustainable demands of bourgeois home life, give rise to the fantasy of others who live in a different system, who still have sex, who still have some dignity. And, alas, by definition in a system such as ours, these things are outlaw.

Ruby said...

When Jeff says the state needs corporations for economic equilibrium (the system’s interests), maybe Robin Hood bank robbers and gangster figures restore a sense of social equilibrium for the non-rich?

For example, in Ireland successful bank robbing was typically considered a clever feat until a rising middle class, heavily invested in the economic system, preached otherwise. In the ‘folk sentiment’, the planning and brains required for bank-robbing indicated that these under-privileged criminals could have been valued members of society had the social conditions been different. Also, the fact that white collar bank criminals rarely make it to prison creates a sense of social imbalance.

Bank robbing, sadly, no longer makes people smile because the banks are now robbing us.

Jeff M. said...

"Are you suggesting that people's interests in gangsters leads to violence and criminality?"

No, I'm not suggesting that. I don't really have a satisfying answer to my question, but I do find it peculiar that Americans love to romanticize outlaws, yet the "lock 'em up and throw away the key" philosophy seems to rule the day in our politics. The only politicians who are willing to advocate prison reform, for instance, are the ones who been to prison!

Daniel Coffeen said...

@ Ruby: Have you seen Public Enemies? In a way, that's what it's about. Dillinger goes from sexy man of the people — yet outside the people — to being a public enemy. Corporations have done a good job of controlling the media — not how in Public Enemies, they deploy the movie theater. Now, all crimes against Capital are always considered just that, crimes.

@ Jeff: It's true! I think it's the same tension: people want to love criminals for the freedom they represent, the release of rage the represent. But the politicians, who are corporate foils, all, decry gangsters.

Of course, when I'm the one who might be hurt, I decry gangsters, too! I just want them to steal the bad guys' money, not mine!