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Pirate Treasurers (and other absurdities)

The world is absurd, of course. I am trying to re-read Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus, in which he deals head-on with the big question of whether you should or should not commit suicide in this absurd world. As essays go, the conclusion is hardly a nail biter. Camus lived all the way through from writing the first word to writing the last word, so even without reading the essay you know what his conclusion is going to be. In that sense, reading it is about as suspenseful as watching one of those US television serials where an important and popular permanent character suffers a terrible accident that threatens to kill them at the start of an episode. By the end of the show, somebody else will have devised a clever way of saving the stricken character. By the start of the next show, the temporary invalid will be back to full health and completely rehabilitated. So we know that Camus thought we should go on living and doing things, even if he also thought all the reasons for living and doing things are absurd.

I am as inclined to absurdity as the next man. In fact, probably more so, unless the next man is Sacha Baron Cohen in which case I defer to his genius for the absurd. You could regard Sacha Baron Cohen as living proof that Buddhism is in error. If a Jewish comedian leading a hillbilly audience in a sing-a-long of “Throw the Jew Down the Well” is not instant nirvana, I do not know what is. Gautama Buddhaa may have starved and meditated for many a year in order to attain enlightenment, but Baron Cohen turned enlightenment into light entertainment. But after Baron Cohen, Camus and the Supreme Buddha, I feel pretty confident of ranking myself as somebody who thinks life is absurd and its purpose is mysterious. Which, as Wittgenstein might have pointed out, does not help much when deciding what groceries to buy from the supermarket, or whether to spend my Saturday morning writing a blog or doing something which, at face value, might seem equally absurd.

Being an idealist-realist-cynic-romantic in the Humphrey Bogart vein, I often find myself doing things that I know are emotionally and intellectually right on one level, but which I feel are silly and pointless on another level. But then I console myself that Bogart was very popular, so perhaps it is okay to leave some feelings unreconciled. Instead of writing this blog, I should be filling out a form from the co-operative bank (which leads me to notice that they too have joined the cummings-esque craze for dispensing with capitals). I need to fill out the form because, in all likelihood, I will soon be the Pirate Treasurer, by which I mean I will be Treasurer of the Pirate Party UK (although more probably GB, but let us not get into that now). Assuming the role of national Treasurer for a political party has caught me by surprise as much as anyone else, not least because only a month ago I was unaware of the party’s existence. Or, to be precise, I was unaware of the party’s pre-existent intention to imminently come into existence, which hopefully it soon will. It is all the fault of the European elections, and for my web browsing habits, as I could not help myself when seeing the Swedish Pirate Party had won a sear in those elections, and I was curious to see what similar things were happening in my homeland. Perhaps if I had been working, instead of indulging one of my inter-working ‘rest’ periods, I would not have had time to find out more and hence would never have offered to be Treasurer, but I was not, so I did, and soon I will be.

On mentioning my aspiration to be Pirate Treasurer, most sane friends have commented on the name of the party. I like it, not least because of its absurdity. Check out the Electoral Commission’s register of political parties and there are no end of parties calling themselves the People’s this-and-that, National such-and-such or Independent bing-bang-bosh. No Pirate Parties though, which gives us a huge and enormous advantage in having a memorable and unique name. Of course, most people think Pirates are characters like Long John Silver or Captain Hook, which is none too helpful. Associations with Somalian hijackers of container ships are also unfortunate. Taking my queue from the absurdities of political semantics and the gay pride movement in particular, I started rationalizing to my friends that we Pirates are ‘taking back’ the name from the people who use it to oppress us.

Who were the great British pirates of history? They were people like Sir Francis Drake. He stole from the Spanish, but they were a corrupt bunch of buggers who were exploiting the natives in the Americas, so his stealing and robbing was actually a good thing. The British establishment thought of it as a kind of high-risk enterprise on the high seas. Captains were small businessmen and their crew were profit-incentivized stakeholders. So long as they stuck to stealing from Britain’s enemy, Spain, they were called privateers, not pirates. Privateering was private enterprise, not a public ill. Given that Britain was at war Spain, and that the Spanish had all the loot worth stealing, it was a win-win for Queen Elizabeth I’s government to sanction theft from its enemies, and for the thieves to be rewarded with titles and honours. Plus the pirate-privateers proved very handy when the Spanish Armada came to invade Britain, as their skillful skulduggery saved the day.

So you see, pirates are really very good to have around, when circumstances require people with a more adventurous, unorthodox, independent and rebellious streak to their nature. I do not know my mizzen mast from my poop deck, but I do know that now is the time for a few people of piratical instincts. In an absurd world, we crave money and possessions above all other things, to the point where many of us have become indentured slaves to the legal persons we created. By legal persons I am referring to the legal personage of an incorporated business. Big companies have become so important that, although they are the immaterial inventions of human minds, we owe them money, are controlled by them, and are incapable of stopping the harm they cause. When these companies behave badly, they go unpunished. They are instead rewarded with gifts of money taken from real people, because we cannot live without them any more. When these companies destroy our confidence in the fiction of money, we solve the problem with quantitative easing, a fancy name for a process where a man in the Bank of England presses a button on a computer, and hence magically increases the amount of money the Bank of England says it has. Piling absurdity upon absurdity, the legal fiction of a company can own and exploit the legal fiction of a possession, in order to extort real money from real people. These possessions are so expensive to own and exploit that real people cannot afford to own or exploit them, even though real people are needed to create them. Of course, I am talking about so-called ‘intellectual property’. At the summit of the pyramid of absurdity, the legal fiction of a company will complain about losing some of the legal fiction of money for things they did not sell and would never have sold, because real people used some ‘intellectual property’ without asking for permission or offering payment. This intellectual property is made from the same thin air as used to make money and make laws, yet to some people it is more real than the real suffering of real people all over this world. In this world, poor people suffer. They suffer because of the lack of cheap drugs, because of the premium that must be paid for intellectual property. They suffer when they are economically exploited by the wealthy nations that own all this so-called property. Now is the time for some good, old-fashioned real people to stand up to all this corrupting nonsense. If they get called pirates, so be it. Pirates are not just works of fiction. Real pirates were real heroes. We need some heroes to launch a broadside on this tyranny of legal fantasies and the deadly, dehumanizing devastation they cause.

People used to believe the world was full of spirits. I think they still do. Animism is the proto-religion where stones, the sun, the rivers and the natural world is full of spiritual life. We stopped believing stones have spirits, but whilst our intellects have developed, our instincts take longer to evolve, and lag behind. Now, our instincts tell us that everything must have a legal underpinning if it is to exist. We can barely imagine what it means for something to exist, without first knowing what its legal status is. Legality has become the immaterial fabric which supplanted spirituality. Without legality, we feel like the universe will tear itself apart, as we face an abyss of meaninglessness. The law has become our comforter, solving Camus’ problems by reducing every question to one of what the law says is right or wrong, exists or does not exist. Our ontology is a list in a law book. Our ethics are the distribution of justice in terms of penalties and compensations handed out by our courts. Our philosophy of science is to have blind faith in legal institutions.

I, like everybody else, am afflicted by the delusion that laws exist. Responsibilities tend to force you to think clearly about things, and recently I had to think clearly about the question: ‘what is a political party’? I know what a registered political party is, and recently I have been reading the laws regarding registration in order to aid the registration of the Pirate Party. But what is a political party, without registration? Does it exist? Can it do things? Can it own things? These have been questions in my mind. Now, I feel quite stupid and ashamed for wondering about such silly things. My first good answer was to think that political parties are unincorporated associations. In short, they are not separate legal persons from their members, but they are governed by an agreement between its members. That answer is a good and correct answer, and befits someone like me with professional training. But really that answer is a fancy way of saying a political party is something that a group of people decide to do collectively. Suddenly all the mystique disappears, and I am confronted with the crushing banality that comes hand-in-hand with absurdity. If a group of people decide to do something, they decide to do something. Everything else is detail. The same is true whether we talk about political parties, or governments, or laws. Everything comes back to us all making collective decisions. The greatest trick played on mankind was convincing mankind that something greater than mankind exists. I blame animism, or whatever instinct causes us to ascribe causes to non-existent powers. All we have done, in our clever, modern way, is to transplant that fantasy to laws and business and money and government and all the other human inventions that we allowed to become our masters when they should always have remained our servants.

Pirates were not immoral people. Obeying the law and doing the morally right thing are not the same. Sometimes they coincide, at other times they are in opposition. Real pirates often ran their ships in very democratic fashion, as might be expected when you realize that there is no greater legal force that will hunt down and punish the mutineers if they get fed up with the captain and throw him overboard. Pirates were often lawbreakers, unless their actions were convenient to the lawmakers and hence they were rebranded as privateers. Sometimes breaking the law is necessary, to do the right thing. It turns out that now, increasingly, the law is bad, and needs to be changed. However, it is upheld by corrupt people who profit from the law. Just like slave traders and slave owners saw no advantage from prohibiting slavery, our corrupt rulers and corrupt business leaders see no advantage in changing the thoroughly rotten way our world economy controls and exploits us. Did you notice my slip up in my last sentence? Again, I was caught by the delusion that the law is real. Slavery cannot be prohibited because there is no thing in the real world which you can point at and say “this is what it means for a man to own another man”. Slavery can only be repealed. There were corrupt and unjust laws that said one man could buy, sell, and own another man. We stopped using those laws. We stopped following them. We stopped accepting them. We did away with a bad fiction that had terrible consequences for real people. We need to do the same again, to our companies, to our markets, to our money, and to our property. We must reform these legal fictions so they serve people, instead of enslaving them. Pirates were free, in a very true sense of the word. We need that sense of pirate freedom to liberate us all. The alternative, as Camus might have pointed out, is to imbibe the anesthesia served to us by all our legal fictions, and sleepwalk our way to our deaths.

I have been listening to the BBC Reith Lectures recently. In them, Professor Michael Sandel talks on the theme of ‘A New Politics of the Common Good’. He raises good questions, but often stops short of giving good answers. Such is the problem of unpacking a complicated topic of how to live a good life, when there are evidently many competing interests in what is good, and who gets what. One lecture, however, had particular relevant for my personal struggles with the absurdity of the intangible forces that now seemingly govern all human life. Amongst other things Sandel’s lecture discussed marriage, and the legal fight for same-sex marriages. Once again, law was the final arbiter of what was right, and what was wrong. In Sandel’s example, the lawyers looked at the purpose of marriage, and hence the purpose of a same-sex marriage and concluded that the purposes were sufficiently common that having the same sex should not be a barrier to marriage. It would be tempting to pick through the legal arguments, and I am convinced that many people have. However, there is a flaw in that approach. Whatever the lawyers argue, they are prisoners to the flawed method they use. Either they follow legal principles to a logical conclusion, or they do not. If they follow legal principles to a logical conclusion, they are prisoners of an irrational system, that starts from arbitrary first principles that were never agreed, and may not be shared by real people. People married before there was a law for marriage. In history, laws followed behaviour. What people did came first, and laws to govern what they did came later. It is only in recent times that we seriously expect laws to determine behaviour. Now we pass laws without caring about people, and use the power of the state and enforcement to make people change to suit the laws. Whatever the original purpose of marriage, nobody was thinking ahead and trying to devise principles to be followed by lawyers in centuries to come. They were just acting on their instincts to settle down with a companion. So lawyers can expand upon the law in a rational way, but they have no point of view on the essential irrationality that underpins it. If, on the other hand, lawyers do not follow legal principles to a logical conclusion, they are arbitrary, and their arbitrary decisions are in no way superior to any other arbitrary decisions. Whilst we let them pontificate on what is marriage, we forget that we, as ordinary people, determine what our human relations really are. The laws that surround us are a cage of our own making, with the lawyers playing the part of well-paid gaolers.

The instincts to marry, whether between a man and a woman, a man and a man, and a woman and a woman, are particular to the individuals whilst universal to our species. Legal arguments serve no great benefit other than to demand changes not in how the married people see each other, but in how everyone else sees them. They too are falling prey to the delusion that law binds and controls everything, and everybody. Of course they are right that law binds and controls, but only in as much as we accept and condone the law. Its power to bind has a limit, and when tightened too far, it snaps, and loses all force. The law can bind but it must be elastic too, and fit the shape of the people it binds.

If the law works as it should, then principles are followed to a conclusion. In this regard, the outcome of the law is as predictable as Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus. What beguiles are the many steps between. Lawyers walk each step to see where the conclusion lies. But this is folly. This is artifice, and no person thinks in the way that a lawyer pretends to. Either their conclusions are morally right, or they are morally wrong. Either same-sex marriage is morally right, or morally wrong. Either enforcing intellectual property is morally right, or morally wrong. Either the recent actions of bank are morally right, or morally wrong. Legality is a confusion, treading a rational path from an irrational starting point, and feigning surprise when it reaches its destination. It pretends to travel aimlessly, with no idea of where it wants to go and no idea of where it will end up. We, as people, can see if we arrived where we wanted. Just like pirates, we all navigate and all must take responsibility for where life takes us. The wind may buffet us, and the sea may swell, but we are the ultimate masters of our own fates. It is not satisfactory to play the part of the lawyer, reach the end of a journey, discover we are in a bad place, and say we went the right way but must have started from the wrong place. We must pick our destinations and our destinies, and not let blind justice take us on a journey that leads to the reward of wrongs and punishment of what is good.

So now, in this absurd world, I am set to be a Pirate Treasurer, and I will using one of those horrid banks to manage our horrid money and change those horrid laws. I will be managing legal fiction upon legal fiction in a quest to change some other legal fictions. Worst of all, I will be making myself even more subject to the law than before, as I will be have to pay heed to all those laws about party finance (you know, the laws that mainstream parties pay lip service to, then diligently work around). I do not have a cutlass or a parrot, but I do have a calculator and an understanding of double-entry bookkeeping. With them I intend to wage war on the corrupt businesses, rulers, and laws of our land. The Pirate Party stands for reform. Our chances our slim. Our enemies are numerous and powerful. Yet I gladly set sail under the Pirate flag. It is as an absurd world. If it lacks reason, I must compensate by giving it reason. Camus would have understood. Baron Cohen probably understands (if anybody knows his number, ask him to join us). Buddha doubtless was thinking along similar lines to me whilst he sat under his banyan tree. And those other legends of absurdity, Monty Python, got there before I did. I may have a serious intent to scuttle corruption, but I might as well enjoy the process too. This clip is from Terry Gilliam’s The Crimson Permanent Assurance. “Oh, it’s fun to charter an accountant, and sail the accountant-sea…” As Pirate Treasurer, I will be adopting that as my signature tune.

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