The Pirate’s Return

November 25, 2008

Oh my. What a long time to spend away from this particular corner of the Interweb. How unconscionable for me to have sat idly and hoarded my few bytes worth of space, while the connectivity of some poor sap was slightly, yet perhaps crucially, enervated.

And I feel like apologising for the smattering of nonsense offered at the outset. A “Super Union”? Who ever thought that one would fly. “Cosmipolitanism”? My earlier incarnation could barely spell, let alone assist in sparking a global socialist conflagration.

Thankfully, since 2007 slipped away (and how we wish she could return, but alas..) neoliberal economics have done what a million hardy bloggers could only wistfully appeal for. It’s gone and imploded the international financial system. Not just imploded, but devastated, knocking its ideological crutch away to leave all but the glass spined beasts down on Bishopsgate tumbling floorwards.

We have arrived at a financial crisis. That’ll look great on the mantelpiece of history, for those of us left to write (or ignore) it, next to our ongoing ecological and, dare I say it, social crises alongside which the travails of high finance now have to be juxtaposed.

Crisis, crisis, crisis. What are we to do?

Well, what we could certainly be doing is commercialising a simple technology to generate electricity from the perturbation of water. When water runs into an object, it eddies and swirls, making that object bob up and down. In the jargon of the field, it’s called Vortex Induced Vibrations – and is the bane of oil rig operators across the world.

And that’s great, because VIV is hopefully going to render said operators far less worthwhile. A press release on Science Daily today lays out some (almost certainly inflated) promises, courtesy of a small business in the sector called Vortex Hydroenergy. Vortex has the backing of the U.S. government via the Department of Energy and the Navy, so we know that someone up there is taking its ideas seriously.

Presumably, pace John Perkins, who has claimed that third world nations have long been oversold mega projects, this simple technology will be reserved at first for the rich. It’s so simple, that it’s hard to defraud people with it, however, and keeping its implementation “proprietary” will be a challenge to say the least.

This brings me, extremely tangentially, onto another matter that has received rather more public attention in recent times. I speak of piracy. Specifically, the Somali variety.

Now much ink has been lavished on accounts of how Somali pirates have captured a Saudi oil tanker, an Iranian grain ship, South Korean fishermen, a French yacht and other assorted vessels. What is less commented on, and I think important, is the U.S. response to these attacks.

White House spokeswoman Dana Perino, says that, in fighting piracy, “There’s a lot of international laws that factor into these efforts.” Sean McCormack calls piracy an “international problem.” Also out of the White House, Geoff Morrell says that “It requires a holistic approach from the international community at sea, ashore, with governance, with economic development.”

This is interesting. The U.S. government is noteworthy for its highly selective use of the “international community” – always in the pursuit of its own strategic goals, at least under the Bush administration.

So what are the interests being pursued in this instance? Well, in its traditional role as the vanguard of U.S. imperialistic and neo-conservative thinking, the Wall Street Journal provides a clue. The problem as set out by Journal writers David Rivkin and Lee Casey, is that “Pirates, brigands and unlawful combatants must be now tried before they can be punished.”

For them, “One solution would be for the capturing state to press charges based on the much misunderstood and abused principle of “universal” jurisdiction” which they explain “[is] the notion that any state may criminalize and punish conduct that violates certain accepted international law norms.”

Usually, this is a major problem for the Bush administration. But not now. As the Journal opines, “piracy is one area where a strong case for universal jurisdiction can be made.”

And thank God. In a fit of liberal funk, “America’s NATO allies have effectively abandoned the historical legal rules permitting irregular fighters to be tried in special military courts.” What Revkin and Casey are saying is that Guantanamo Bay style military justice needs to be extended to the high seas – the majority of the Earth’s surface area. It’s not a surprise that they are veterans of the Reagan and Bush I administrations.

In another Journal op-ed, Bret Stephens concludes that “Piracy, of course, is hardly the only form of barbarism at work today: There are the suicide bombers on Israeli buses, the stonings of Iranian women, and so on. But piracy is certainly the most primordial of them, and our collective inability to deal with it says much about how far we’ve regressed in the pursuit of what is mistakenly thought of as a more humane policy. A society that erases the memory of how it overcame barbarism in the past inevitably loses sight of the meaning of civilization, and the means of sustaining it.”

This is rather shocking as, earlier in his piece, Stephens had spoken rather favorably of either a) the summary execution of pirates captured at sea or b) “laying waste, Stephen Decatur-like, to the pirate’s prospering capital port city of Eyl.”

The problem for Stephens, and I’d wager too for the White House PR corps, is something called the UN Law of the Sea convention. This stops naval vessels firing willy nilly upon ships thought to be pirates, among many other things. As such, it is a mighty affront to the globe’s tottering, crazy superpower. Ironically, that superpower hasn’t even signed the thing, yet seems to want its “NATO partners” to repudiate it, so that we can all return to the middle ages.

Hearteningly, the BBC has issued a similar op-ed from roving pirate hunter Paul Reynolds, which speaks approvingly of revising the Law of the Sea, and applying “tougher measures” against the pirates.

But what does this really mean? No, really mean? Well, would it be possible that the desire of the U.S.’ premier right-wing Journal, and the BBC too, is unrelated to a broader desire to extend American and British jurisdiction across the high seas?

Revising the Law of the Sea would open up huge areas of the sea to military abuses – the sinking of boats filled with migrants is a horrible, but utterly predictable prospect. The rendering of pirates, who after all are generally small time ex-fishermen who have been decimated by war and illegal fishing by foreign trawlers, is a certainty.

That’s great news for the Empire, which maintains a very strong navy and needs the odd jolt of adrenaline in its campaign to lock down humanity before its economic base collapses.

Moreover, where does the definition of “piracy” begin and end? Wikipedia defines it as “robbery committed at sea, or sometimes on shore, without permission from a nation.” Does this mean that container ships containing pirated Chinese goods, or generic drugs, count as pirate ships? What of illegal trawlers? Will it be permissible for Somali officials to capture trawlers on the high seas if the fish that they hold derives from Somali stocks?

I hope so. You see the problem here. The rules are there, and provide a certain structure of authority and behavior. They constrain the poor and the powerful alike. The powerful, when roused and threatened tend to seek the dismantling of such rules. Or so it seems to me. But what consequences will they then face, as the world remakes itself, unfettered by the structures that the legal regime sought to impose?

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