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Thursday December 11, 2008 7:56 pm

Werd: Pirate - Part Four


So in case some of you didn’t get the subtle satire, Part Three of this week’s Werd said that pirates can’t exist without capitalists.  If we want capitalism, we should expect pirates; if we want to rid ourselves of pirates, all of the laws and security in the world won’t ever get rid of them, so long as we still cling to capitalism. 

Today I received my copy of the January issue of Harper’s Magazine.  The very first entry I read is by former Editor-in-Chief Lewis H. Lapham, who writes about the financial crisis, etc.  Spurred by Thomas Friedman’s myopic quote that says Americans need to get back to their roots and “thinking about how—not just how much,” Lapham notes that the foundation of America’s independence from Britain was largely due to America’s embrace of privateers, who attacked British merchant ships and sold the profits of the booty to the French to support the revolution.  Loathe as I am to include huge block quotes of pirated text, I can’t help but reprint part of Lapham’s opening editorial that relates directly to this week’s Werd and essentially proves the subtle slants of arguments about pirates that I have been setting up all week.[1] Lapham, better than I, writes my perfect and fitting conclusion.  Here we go…:

Read More | Harper's Magazine

...they may wish to consult Robert Patton’s Patriot Pirates, a history of the Revolutionary War at sea published in a timely fashion last spring soon after the prize crew from JPMorgan Chase swarmed aboard the wreck of Bear Stearns.  Patton suggests, and offers a good deal of evidence to demonstrate, that our war of independence was won by the stout-hearted greed of New England ship captains licensed by the Continental Congress in the autumn of 1775 to plunder, burn, or sell at auction British vessels bringing munitions and military stores to the king’s regiments quartered on the merchants of Boston.  The colonists at the time had few other means of acquiring weapons with which to give voice to their rebellion, and General George Washington understood that his ill-equipped and untried troops were not likely “to do much in a land way” against the superior force of the British Army.  It occurred to the general to admit the servants of Mammon to the kingdom of Heaven with the thought that a squadron of privateers steered on the compass bearings of murderous self-interest might inflict enough damage on Britain’s overseas trade to persuade the British Parliament that war with it’s North American colonies was a losing proposition.

Opponents of the policy thought it unworthy of Christian gentleman, one likely to encourage practices both vicious and depraved, tending to “the destruction of the morals of the people.”  ... the objections were overruled by the advocates of piracy as public service, among them John Adams, who informed his fellow representatives in Philadelphia that the innovative investment strategy securitized the criminal collateral.  “It is prudent,” he said, “not to put virtue to too serious a test.  I would use American virtue as sparingly as possible lest we wear it out.”

The voyages were rigged as venture-capital deals, the richest share of the spoils reserved to the managing partners who advanced the money to build and provision the ships, lesser amounts distributed to the offers, the subcontractors, the accomplice politicians, and the crews.  The work was not without its difficulties.  Great Britain in the 1770s was the world’s superpower, its navy equivalent to America’s twenty-first-century Air Force, and for any privateer coming within range of the broadside from a British frigate the end was as certain as foreclosure on a California mortgage armed with a subprime loan from Countrywide Financial.  But for captains able to avoid unlucky shifts in the wind, the rewards were of a match with those achieved in the Civil War gold rooms, the 1920s Wall Street rise, and the Internet boom of the late 1990s—many times the cost of setting sail from Plymouth or Newburyport—and during the course of the Revolutionary War the winnowing of what came to be known as “the golden harvest” at sea developed into a big business.  If in the autumn of 1775 as few as ten or twenty small schooners were cruising the Atlantic coast, by 1783 as many as 4,000 investment vehicles had been licensed to practice the art of piracy as far offshore as the West Indies and the Mediterranean.

Better yet, the costs often were defrayed by the semblance of a government in Philadelphia, the profits taken by the speculators in Boston, Providence, and Marblehead.  The contracts specified a transfer of the proceeds to the Colonial war effort, but the agreements tended to go AWOL when it came time to offload the boodle, preferably gunpowder but also African slaves, tobacco, sugar, table linen, Spanish wine, and anything else that traffic happened to be bearing.

Which isn’t to say that the sparing use of virtue didn’t prove to be “the pivot,” as Adams had foreseen and Washington had said, “on which everything else turned.”  The putting of country second instead of first brought with it change believed in by electorates both domestic and foreign.  By 1776 the British were losing cargoes valued in the millions of dollars; by 1782 the destructive presence of American privateers in the English Channel had dismasted the British public’s enthusiasm for what was no longer a splendid little war.  More importantly for the American love of liberty and pursuit of happiness, the lessons learned in the oceangoing counting houses of the Revolutionary War furnished the new republic with risk-management models that over the course of the next century settled the trans-Mississippi American West, built the steel mills and the railroads, financed numerous richly rewarding stock-market schemes, and by 1899, the year that Thorstein Veblen published his Theory of the Leisure Class, advanced the country’s market society to a stage in which vendible capital had replaced vendible labor as the product that turned the wheels of fortune.  The pirates no longer went down to the sea in ships, but neither did they go about the getting of an honest living.  Reconfigured as predatory financiers embodying the ethic of what Veblen called “the higher barbarian culture,” they lived off the work of the lower industrial orders, concerning themselves only with the pleasantries of how much, never, God forbid, with the indignity of how.

I did not say it better myself, but there you go.  Pirates: the foundation of America.

[1]  And let me note that I literally received this on Thursday, after I had already wrote Part’s 1-3 of this week’s Werd: Pirate.  So during the various times that Lapham’s piece contains thoughts that mimic mine from earlier this week, they are all due to providence, not pirating.  That is, until I stole it for this particular piece.  As soon as this appears online at the Harper’s site, I will insert the appropriate link.  Thanks, Lewis!

Pirate - Part One
Pirate - Part Two
Pirate - Part Three
Pirate - Part Four
Pirate - Part Five



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