Saturday, August 15, 2009

The old problem of pirates

I've had several conversations in recent weeks during which my interlocutors, including one of my professors here in Osnabrück, have expounded on piracy and non-state combatants by proclaiming the newness of these threats. This is a new problem, the likes of which we've never seen before, they said.

How such commentators would do well to turn to history!

The pirate and the non-state combatant have served as the foils against whom the nation-stateLink system has defined itself and its laws of war since the 1600s, or earlier if you count Cicero's Philippics, which so inspired the 17th century theorists. (In making this observation, I'm drawing on what I read and learned in a mind-blowing course I took my first year at Duke taught by Ian Baucom, as well as some of his writings.) Opinions may differ about the extent to which these characters have become a more numerous and pressing threat in the contemporary period than they were before (my friend Jatin Dua who studies piracy has pointed out the immense challenges piracy posed to New York City in its early years), but I would hesitate before describing them as tearing apart the state-based mode of political organization when they are precisely the figures that the state has long used to justify self-preservation using whatever means necessary.

The pirate, the brigand, or other non-state combatant has appeared in many guises. To Cicero, he is the man without a state; to Hobbes, he is homo homini lupus (man who is wolf to man, i.e., someone living in the state of nature); to Zouche (a humanist international law scholar), he is inimicus (inimical to our way of life); to Kant, he is the unjust enemy; to Bush, the unlawful combatant. All distinguish between war with an enemy (another state), against whom laws of war apply, and war with this stateless other. The stateless other has violated Hobbes' first law of nature, namely that one exit the state of nature (that horrible space of war of all against all, where life is "nasty, brutish, and short") by joining into a system of covenants. Anything is permitted against someone who has committed this cardinal sin, whether the transgressor be a pirate or an apparent savage like the "Hottentots" of southern Africa, or the natives of the Americas (both of these latter groups figured prominently in the 17th century theorists' writings). In all cases, it is the form of social organization these "unjust enemies" represent that justifies harsh corrective action.

In this vein, one could see the period of European-led slavery and colonialism as a variant of this continual project of ridding the world of its "stateless" menaces. Existential fears like these do not emerge in a vacuum, but rather, as Saskia Sassen might put it, reflect the accrual and interplay of capabilities, organizing logics, and tipping points -- in a word, history.

Or maybe I've just been spending too much time in archives lately.

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