The first Pirates of the Caribbean movie was an hour and a half of dumb fun, and the Tribe of Anthropik is looking forward to more dumb fun with the sequel. Giuli may have shot down my (mostly joking) aspirations of a pirate wedding, and Talk Like a Pirate Day is still months away, but I want to do my part to stop global warming. So, with the Bay’s victory over its scallywag enemies, I’m tempted to change my affiliation and become a registered pirate.
That was a fun paragraph to write, but to cut to the serious issue at the heart of that fun, what is it about pirates that continues to lure us? In his classic essay, “The Temporary Autonomous Zone,” Hakim Bey offers an explanation:
Fleeing from hideous “benefits” of Imperialism such as slavery, serfdom, racism and intolerance, from the tortures of impressment and the living death of the plantations, the Buccaneers adopted Indian ways, intermarried with Caribs, accepted blacks and Spaniards as equals, rejected all nationality, elected their captains democratically, and reverted to the “state of Nature.” Having declared themselves “at war with all the world,” they sailed forth to plunder under mutual contracts called “Articles” which were so egalitarian that every member received a full share and the Captain usually only 1 1/4 or 1 1/2 shares. Flogging and punishments were forbidden—quarrels were settled by vote or by the code duello.1
Pirates were bandits that lived outside the law, refusing to acknowledge the “property rights” of others, but the constant hunt of the state made it a life that many would eschew—whether for fear of personal life and safety from the violence of the state, or simply from fear of personal reputation and shame, or anything in between—made it a life that few had the courage to follow. Yet, secretly, even the most upstanding citizen could not help but notice that which Captain Bartholomew “Black Bart” Roberts said openly: “In an honest Service, there is thin Commons, low Wages, and hard Labour; in this, Plenty and Satiety, Pleasure and Ease, Liberty and Power; and who would not ballance Creditor on this Side, when all the Hazard that is run for it, at worst, is only a sower Look or two at choaking. No, a merry Life and a short one shall be my Motto.” Pirates lived a life everyone wanted, but few had the courage to follow—that made them simultaneously the subject of envy, and admiration, the powerful mix of ambivalent emotions that resonates even all these centuries later.
The sea-rovers and corsairs of the 18th century created an “information network” that spanned the globe: primitive and devoted primarily to grim business, the net nevertheless functioned admirably. Scattered throughout the net were islands, remote hideouts where ships could be watered and provisioned, booty traded for luxuries and necessities. Some of these islands supported “intentional communities,” whole mini-societies living consciously outside the law and determined to keep it up, even if only for a short but merry life. …
The medieval Assassins founded a “State” which consisted of a network of remote mountain valleys and castles, separated by thousands of miles, strategically invulnerable to invasion, connected by the information flow of secret agents, at war with all governments, and devoted only to knowledge. Modern technology, culminating in the spy satellite, makes this kind of autonomy a romantic dream. No more pirate islands! In the future the same technology—freed from all political control—could make possible an entire world of autonomous zones. But for now the concept remains precisely science fiction—pure speculation.2
Hakim Bey’s essay moves on to describe how we can create a space for freedom, a temporary autonomous zone, defined not only in time, but in space, to create a pocket beyond the controls of the state. Of course, we all do this—all the time.
Let us admit that we have attended parties where for one brief night a republic of gratified desires was attained. Shall we not confess that the politics of that night have more reality and force for us than those of, say, the entire U.S. Government? Some of the “parties” we’ve mentioned lasted for two or three years. Is this something worth imagining, worth fighting for? Let us study invisibility, webworking, psychic nomadism—and who knows what we might attain?3
Bey questions why we wait for a revolution which must always come back around to something resembling the present order, rather than seeing to regular uprising.
If History IS “Time,” as it claims to be, then the uprising is a moment that springs up and out of Time, violates the “law” of History. If the State IS History, as it claims to be, then the insurrection is the forbidden moment, an unforgivable denial of the dialectic—shimmying up the pole and out of the smokehole, a shaman’s maneuver carried out at an “impossible angle” to the universe. History says the Revolution attains “permanence,” or at least duration, while the uprising is “temporary.” In this sense an uprising is like a “peak experience” as opposed to the standard of “ordinary” consciousness and experience. Like festivals, uprisings cannot happen every day—otherwise they would not be “nonordinary.” But such moments of intensity give shape and meaning to the entirety of a life. The shaman returns—you can’t stay up on the roof forever—but things have changed, shifts and integrations have occurred—a difference is made.4
The “peak experiences” Bey mentions refers to Abraham Maslow’s notion of episodic self-actualization, ecstatic moments of harmonization and unification in which we achieve the fullness of our potential. Call them religious or spiritual experiences if you like; they are the moments that redefine and reshape the rest of our mundane lives, the moments of clarity that put the ordinary into its proper perspective as simultaneously sacred and profane.
What such experiences are for the individual, the temporary autonomous zone is for the society. The TAZ can go on for hours—a party—or days—a festival—or even longer, as with the pirate utopias we started with.
Anthropologists, folklorists and others who study culture have long noted the liminal nature of the festival: a time “in between” when the regular rules do not apply, a temporal space outside of the usual society. In essence, a temporary autonomous zone. In many societies, festivals occured between months or seasons, not belonging to any given season but comprising their own. The example which would be most recognizable to a Western audience would be the liturgical calendar of the Roman Catholic Church, where the Easter Triduum of Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday comprises a season unto itself. In Afterculture, artist Michael Green offers as succinct an explanation of the primitive festival as one could ask for: “Our longing for the vital and unexpected exchanges that occur in cities will be fulfilled by these joyous gatherings. Springing up and dispersing before any serious damage is done to the environment, they bring together all the nation in happy tummult and solemn rite.”
Is this where we see the origin of civilization? Throughout the Paleolithic, there are many archaeological sites that were obviously places of convergence for such festivals, and the early settlements at Çatalhöyük have been described as the “Vatican” of its time. Some archaeologists have suggested that Çatalhöyük began as a settlement for priests, who remained there even between festivals, with agriculture developing to meet the needs of a sedentary population, and hierarchy developing in lock-step with agriculture, both developing to meet the needs of alternating famine and plenty afflicting a society no longer capable of leveraging nomadism. This is an idea that needs further support, but there is plenty to suggest that it was precisely the temptation of the truly autonomous zone, the eternal festival, the never-ending party, that led to civilization in the first place—and with it, the death of festivals, the enemy of all parties, and the closing of the map.
The TAZ can be created in many ways—peaceful or violent, through insurgence or festival. Dionysus is the Greek god of the TAZ: wine, women and song (i.e., sex, drugs and rock n’ roll), he is a foreign interloper among the Olympians who becomes the most important of all of them, a fertility god and a god of madness, a god who creates chaos outside of order and life outside of time without whom the world grows stagnant and dead. Whether created by joy or violence, the TAZ always retain a similar atmosphere of madness and liminal exuberance, at once alien from our daily existence, and somehow deeply familiar.
But popular uprisings seem to embody strong feelings of joy, unity, and generosity. Considering the most recent U.S. examples, the urban insurrections of the ’60s, New York City ‘77, and Los Angeles ‘92—one is struck overall by the spontaneous sharing, the sharp drop in interracial violence and violence against women, and even a sense of festival.5
The last example has been glorified by Sublime’s song, “April 26, 1992.” Of course, like piracy itself, a violent TAZ is more dangerous, and attracts the attention of state force used to close it, but in that window, the TAZ is real.
The pirates certainly seem to have had more fun than their poor suffering counterparts on naval or merchant vessels. They sure had some pretty wild parties - in 1669 just off the coast of Hispaniola, some of Henry Morgan’s buccaneers blew up their own ship during a particularly riotous party, which like all good pirate celebrations included much drunken firing of the ship’s guns. Somehow they set light to the gunpowder in the ship’s magazine and the resulting explosion totally destroyed the ship. On some voyages alcohol ran “as freely as ditchwater” and for many tars the promise of unrestricted grog rations had been one of the main reasons behind leaving the merchant service to become a pirate in the first place. However this sometimes backfired - one group of pirates took three days to capture a ship because there were never enough sober men available. Sailors in general loathed a “drink-water” voyage - one reason being that in the tropics the water tended to get things living in it and you had to strain it through your teeth.
No pirate celebration would be complete without music. Pirates were renowned for their love of music and often hired musicians for the duration of a cruise. During the trial of “Black Bart” Bartholomew Roberts’ crew in 1722, two men were acquitted as being only musicians. The pirates seem to have employed music in battle, as it was said of one of the men, James White, that his “business as music was upon the poop in time of action.”6
This “party atmosphere” is how many ethnographers have described the everyday life of hunter-gatherers and other primitive tribes, such as Jean Liedloff’s description of the Yequana in The Continuum Concept. Primitive life is to work one day, and take the next day off, averaging as little as two hours per day.7 With all that extra time, foragers tell stories, gamble, joke, and play (and do a lot more sleeping than we do, too), creating the relaxed, informal, “fun” atmosphere we would assoicate with a party.
In Liberia the Kpelle, for instance, grow rice, which is work—strenuous work—by any definition. But these “neolithic farmers” conduct their workd in a way that the organizers of our work can’t or won’t even consider. Lii-nee’, “joy,” axiomatically accompanies any work the Kpelle do or they won’t do any. Work is conducted in groups to the accompaniment of musicians whose rhythms pace the strokes of their hoes and machetes. Intermittently a woman throws down her hoe and dances to entertain her companions and relax muscles made sore by repetitious movements. At the end of the day the workers drink palm wine and sing and dance together.8
This is the context in which we evolved, and though we are well-adapted to handle stress, we were never adapted to handling it on an on-going, chronic basis. There are, of course, health effects to such a maladaptive state of affairs.
Evidence that environmental and particularly psychosocial factors are important in the development of hypertension also comes from a series of epidemiological studies conducted in the early part of the last century, which have shown that urbanisation and adoption of a westernised life style leads to blood pressure rises. Many of these studies have been conducted in Africa, where the rural populace has a relatively low prevalence of hypertension. For example, primitive black populations living in more frugal circumstances in rural Africa have been shown to have low blood pressures. Evidence suggests that there are some populations that exist who are naïve to hypertension and related morbidity. Interestingly, their blood pressures hardly rise with increasing age, a common response to age in many other (urbanised?) communities. The most important characterising feature of these populations were that, their lifestyle was traditional and they had not adopted or been under the influence of beliefs, customs or practices of another culture alien to theirs; the so-called ‘unacculturated societies’, with a close resemblance to the ‘hunter-gatherer’ lifestyle of primitive man. The other interesting feature observed was the constancy of electrolyte intake in the diet in these populations, which was in sharp contrast to the more ‘developed’ Western populations.9
Perhaps pirates came by this attitude rightly. They were, after all, misfits and rejects of civilization that built up along her periphery, to carve out a space for themselves: escaped slaves, opportunists and scoundrels, the anarcho-primitivists of their day who sought to escape civilization and often did so in the most direct manner.
This sort of dropping out and going native was not always accidental. The buccaneers of the Caribbean originally got their name from boucan, a practice of smoking meat they had learnt from the native Arawak Indians. The buccaneers were originally land squatters on the large Spanish owned island of Hispaniola (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic)—they turned to piracy following Spanish attempts to oust them. On Hispaniola they followed a way of life essentially identical to the native peoples who had preceded them. This sort of ‘marooning life’ was very clearly identified with piracy—apart from the buccaneers of Hispaniola and Tortuga the main other group of European dropouts in the New World were the logwood cutters of Bay of Campeche (now Honduras and Belize), a “rude drunken crew” who were considered by most observers to be interchangeable with pirates. They consciously chose a non-accumulative life living in independent communal settlements on the world’s periphery.10
Bey considers the lure of “going native” a basic part of the American psyche.
We were taught in elementary school that the first settlements in Roanoke failed; the colonists disappeared, leaving behind them only the cryptic message “Gone To Croatan.” Later reports of “grey-eyed Indians” were dismissed as legend. What really happened, the textbook implied, was that the Indians massacred the defenseless settlers. However, “Croatan” was not some Eldorado; it was the name of a neighboring tribe of friendly Indians. Apparently the settlement was simply moved back from the coast into the Great Dismal Swamp and absorbed into the tribe. And the grey-eyed Indians were real—they’re still there, and they still call themselves Croatans.
So—the very first colony in the New World chose to renounce its contract with Prospero (Dee/Raleigh/Empire) and go over to the Wild Men with Caliban. They dropped out. They became “Indians,” “went native,” opted for chaos over the appalling miseries of serfing for the plutocrats and intellectuals of London.
As America came into being where once there had been “Turtle Island,” Croatan remained embedded in its collective psyche. Out beyond the frontier, the state of Nature (i.e. no State) still prevailed—and within the consciousness of the settlers the option of wildness always lurked, the temptation to give up on Church, farmwork, literacy, taxes—all the burdens of civilization—and “go to Croatan” in some way or another. Moreover, as the Revolution in England was betrayed, first by Cromwell and then by Restoration, waves of Protestant radicals fled or were transported to the New World (which had now become a prison, a place of exile). Antinomians, Familists, rogue Quakers, Levellers, Diggers, and Ranters were now introduced to the occult shadow of wildness, and rushed to embrace it. …
It is simply wrong to brand the pirates as mere sea-going highwaymen or even proto-capitalists, as some historians have done. In a sense they were “social bandits,” although their base communities were not traditional peasant societies but “utopias” created almost ex nihilo in terra incognita, enclaves of total liberty occupying empty spaces on the map.11
The pirate utopia of Tortuga became home to the Brethren of the Coast, which maintained effective control of the island. In 1645, the acting French governor imported roughly 1,650 prostitutes in a hope to settle the pirates down. It is a bit ironic that the name Tortuga means, “Turtle Island”—the very same name the Haudenosaunee gave to the continent of North America. In some ways, we can see Tortuga as a sort of microcosm of the hopes of freedom and the lure of the “state of nature” that the New World beckoned with—how both piracy and the colonial promise of freedom died with the expansion of the state.
Pirates, like the colonialists, found freedom in their sheer distance from the state. The wars of the time made and the Atlantic Ocean between them made it difficult for European empires to exert their will upon those in the New World who dared defy that power. It was in the space thus created that the “Golden Age” of piracy took place, and when that space began to close, piracy, too, ended.
The pirates prospered in a power vacuum, during a period of upheaval and war that allowed them the freedom to live effectively outside the law. With the coming of peace came an extension of control and an end to the possibility of pirate autonomy. This is not so surprising really when we consider that periods of war and turmoil have often allowed for revolutionary experiments, enclaves, communes and anarchies to flourish. From the pirates of the 17th and 18th centuries, to D’Annunzio’s piratical Republic of Fiume in the First World War, the Paris Commune in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War, The Diggers’ land communes in the English Civil War and the Makhnovist peasants in the Ukraine during the Russian Revolution, it is often in interstice and interregnum that experiments in freedom can find space to flower.12
Where does that leave us, in the age of satellites and Google Earth, with no corner of the world so remote that it cannot be watched—when the most powerful military on earth can mobilize in a matter of days to smash whole mountain ranges on the other side of the globe?
Such power consumes energy voraciously, and that energy, of course, is subject to diminishing returns. As those returns diminish, we can expect “interstice and interregnum” where “experiments in freedom can find space to flower.”
At the moment, we live to witness the zenith of empire, the global peak of civilization: the most complex human society this planet will likely ever support. Even here, there are opportunities to carve out our space, in both space and time, to create a space where we can be free, even if only for a little while. The challenge is not to make it last forever, but to make our events of autonomy longer and more frequent, until it bleeds into our everyday life, and we look about us to find there is no longer a state there to stop us.
The media invite us to “come celebrate the moments of your life” with the spurious unification of commodity and spectacle, the famous non-event of pure representation. In response to this obscenity we have, on the one hand, the spectrum of refusal (chronicled by the Situationists, John Zerzan, Bob Black et al.)—and on the other hand, the emergence of a festal culture removed and even hidden from the would-be managers of our leisure. “Fight for the right to party” is in fact not a parody of the radical struggle but a new manifestation of it, appropriate to an age which offers TVs and telephones as ways to “reach out and touch” other human beings, ways to “Be There!”
Pearl Andrews was right: the dinner party is already “the seed of the new society taking shape within the shell of the old” (IWW Preamble). The sixties-style “tribal gathering,” the forest conclave of eco-saboteurs, the idyllic Beltane of the neo-pagans, anarchist conferences, gay faery circles…Harlem rent parties of the twenties, nightclubs, banquets, old-time libertarian picnics—we should realize that all these are already “liberated zones” of a sort, or at least potential TAZs. Whether open only to a few friends, like a dinner party, or to thousands of celebrants, like a Be-In, the party is always “open” because it is not “ordered”; it may be planned, but unless it “happens” it’s a failure. The element of spontaneity is crucial.13
The task that lies before us is to create a new memetic variety, one adapted to the context of collapse and survive when civilization is gone. The greatest challenge of that task is to recapture the mindset of an egalitarian, sustainable society. We often associate such projects with great sacrifice, but as Daniel Quinn often wrote, the world is not at risk because of our excess, but because of our lack—our lack of the vital things that humans need, like commuity and security. I would add to that list: fun. We too often dismiss fun as frivolous; we need to take our fun more seriously! Who would want more things when instead, you can have more fun?