The Rambling American: Shiver Me Timbers, We’re Pirates!

Locke McKenzie examines the legitimacy of modern piracy — both on the high seas and on the internet.

This summer has been surprising for many Europeans; over the last three months, the continent has been taken siege by pirate forces. Literally.

The attacks here have come on two fronts. Commercial freighters have found themselves in constant danger from pirate groups. The pirates have already taken multiple ships hostage and held them for ransom. From the Ukrainians to the Russians to the Finns, no one seems to be safe.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, the Swedish-founded political party, the Pirate Party, won a seat in the European Parliament during the June 7 European Parliamentary elections. Since that time, the Pirate Party has spread throughout Europe, with cells actively registered in at least eight other countries.

In today’s Europe, pirates seem to be everywhere: on the open oceans, and in the hipster bar talking politics across the street. Although the gun-toting, ship-robbing pirates (mostly from Somalia) seem much different from the anchor-tattooed iPhone users (mostly from well-to-do families) who idolize them, appearances can be deceiving. These pirate groups have both been at the receiving end of the world’s troubles.

At the beginning of the 1990s, the Somali government completely collapsed. With no one left to regulate their seas, the Somali people watched as other nations came to their coast, dumped waste into their waters, and destroyed their once lucrative fishing industry with non-sustainable practices. Furthermore, the region was no longer controlled by a central government, but by clans and warlords. A single country became divided and dominated through violence, with very few reaping any benefits.

Taken together, these two forces meant that the Somali were running out of money.

On the political side, the Pirate Party’s constituents (average age: 29) have suffered the most from the financial crisis. First, the business ethics of their parents’ generation caused them to lose their jobs, but that was only the beginning, especially here in Europe. With the national elections set to take place this September, mainstream German politics is at a complete standstill, despite the havoc the financial crisis continues to wreak on the economy.

Yes, the German government has helped sectors of the economy by bailing out failing banks and subsidizing workers’ paychecks within struggling industries (i.e. Opal), but this has only provided safety for the established generation. For those entering the job market, the stagnation these policies have created means they remain jobless. Decisions need to be made and policies changed, but not before the vote.

It is play-it-safe politics rather than help-the-people politics, and the youngest generations are feeling the brunt of this mentality on more than just the job front. Especially since the conservative party, the CDU, has established itself as a dominant force in German politics, there have been a number of policies that have negatively impacted the German youth. Tuition fees for university (something that was not at all common before, and makes university now too expensive for some people), and a proposal which will give the government censorship control on the internet (we are the “technology generation”) are just a few examples.

Considering most Germans see a regime change as highly unlikely this year, there is little hope of having these issues addressed. Faced with such a situation, what can anyone do?

This is what I find so fascinating about both of these groups. Each one has found their own way to reassert themselves. Although neither has money or resources, they have managed to scare their opposition. The modern sea-faring pirates are no longer the same as the medieval thieves we remember, nor are the members of the Pirate Party and their contemporaries the same “highly protected” and “entitled” (Word doc) children, the researchers named them. They are organized and motivated.

In Somalia, piracy has become more than a group of rogue bandits. Through piracy, they have become political, they are businessmen, and in the end they are philanthropists. When overfishing began to decimate their waters, fishing-town locals turned vigilante. They used their little skiffs, an old rusty grappling hook and a couple of guns, and raided the foreign ships. They took fishermen hostage and demanding payment for goods pulled from their waters.

As these groups began to earn more money, they grew more organized. At this point, they have a power not present anywhere else in the country; the pirates are some of the only people in Somalia who are able to reach across clan lines. Although they started small with fishing vessels, now they are even managing to make Europeans nervous (many countries were, after all, dumping waste in Somali waters).

Two years ago, pirates were something for the movies and the storybooks, but over the last few months, they have been making weekly appearances in the media. True, what they’re doing is not legal, but few reactionary methods are. The storming of the Bastille wasn’t legal, nor was the Boston Tea Party. In the shadow of the rich nations that have come to dominate and exploit a people, sometimes illegal action is the only way to be heard.

To me, Somali piracy seems acceptable, especially since they are also managing to help their local communities. The pirates are the richest members of their communities, and they are incredibly generous with their money. The locals celebrate when known pirates come back into town. The pirates buy in excess, and thereby give back to the community.

As The New York Times quoted in a piece about piracy a year ago, “If they see a good car that a guy is driving,” he said, “they say, ‘How much? If it’s 30 grand, take 40 and give me the key.’ ”

In my hometown, Grand Rapids, MI, the richest families donate money to build hospitals and venue arenas for the people. The pirates buy lamb and automobiles. Although they spent years being overrun by the strength and greed of other nations (including the warlords of their own), through piracy the Somali people have found their voice.

The same is true of today’s younger generation. The Pirate Party is just one symptom of a threat that did not seem to exist even a year ago: the youth.

In 2007, teens and twenty-somethings in the United States were little more than apathetic brats. In Germany, they were, according to an article in the August 27 edition of weekly newspaper Die Zeit, “pragmatically adapted” to the systems in play. At that point in time, we were more of a vanilla annoyance than a threat to the world order.

But then things changed. As I mentioned before, the current political situation in Germany has stagnated. With the politicians all waiting around for the elections to do anything, more and more people are noticing how ineffective the system is. The ever-growing need to change business as usual has caused a group that once seemed “sensible and adapted” to rebel.

While I use Germany as an example, because they are currently at a crisis point, we have all found our means to do so. As Die Zeit, stated, “Through Facebook and Twitter, the activists of the new revolution communicate world wide.” Small parties like the Pirate Party are now growing by as many as 80 members a day. While Obama exposed the networking capabilities of new media, the Pirate Party has shown that this power this can bestow on every individual.

Technology: it is our own form of piracy. It is our power and the source of our “new revolution.” As big companies and bureaucrats fail to help the little man, going around the system may become the only way to be heard. By finding alternative avenues for gaining power, these groups are already becoming a force that the government — national and international — may actually have to contend with.

I hope they’re starting to shake in their booties.

Locke McKenzie runs a language company in Munich, Germany. When not expounding on the finer points of communication, he tends to drink and write about it at Reinheitsgebot-Renewed.