Unjustified: Brazil, Politics, and Trade

An edited version of this post was published on the CBC.

“Unjustified: Brazil, Politics, and Trade”


With the election of former paratrooper Jair Bolsonaro to the Brazilian presidency, the far right has taken power in Latin America’s largest and most populous country, with one of the world’s largest economies. How, if at all, should Canada and Canadian business react? A recent report for CBC News charted economic opportunities with this new regime, noting that “a Bolsonaro presidency could open new investment opportunities, especially in the resource sector, finance and infrastructure, as he has pledged to slash environmental regulations in the Amazon rainforest and privatize some government-owned companies.” But diving in for the sake of short-term financial profit would be ethically irresponsible and politically catastrophic. Bolsonaro unashamedly praises the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil for twenty years, from 1964 to 1985. If we proceed as though it were business as usual, we would normalize his breach of a long-standing democratic consensus.

Every economic transaction is always also a political transaction, and this is nowhere more true than in the realm of international trade and foreign investment. Governments have long combined commercial deals with strategic objectives: from the nineteenth-century opium wars, in which the Royal Navy fought to open China to British merchants, to the recent renegotiation of NAFTA, politics and economics go hand in hand. But at least since the Second World War, a sense of politics as more than simply national self-interest has also been part of the discourse around trade. For instance, US post-war economic assistance to Western Europe (the Marshall Plan) was designed to reinforce liberal democracy by ensuring economic recovery and removing the temptation of more radical solutions, i.e. to ward off the Communist threat. This Cold War logic framed international trade for forty years: the Soviet Union provided economic and military assistance to its satellites, while the United States did deals with dictators and other unsavory regimes (in Guatemala, Iran, the Philippinnes…) where it considered it necessary for the broader narrative of protecting the “Free World.”

With the end of the Cold War, the narratives were modified but didn’t disappear. Ethical as well as political considerations came to the fore in arguments either for or against economic engagement. Both Left and Right would sometimes argue that sanctions and embargoes would better effect political transformation (in apartheid South Africa or Communist Cuba) and sometimes claim that integration into international norms was better served by the exchange of ideas and attitudes that accompanies the traffic in goods and services. In the Clinton era, preferential trade relations with China (“most favoured nation” status) were justified, despite concerns over human rights abuses, on the grounds that engagement encouraged openness and increasing liberalization, sidelining hardliners within the regime. Similar arguments have, until very recently, sought to justify economic contracts with middle-eastern states such as Saudi Arabia. Of course, sometimes–often, even–such justifications would be denounced as a cover for economic interests. Few, for example, believe that the Gulf War of 1990/91 was really about freedom for Kuwaitis rather than oil for the US and its coalition partners. But the point is that, however paper-thin they were, those justifications had to be in place. Trade and military intervention alike demanded a broader story of progress or development that went beyond naked self-interest.

The private sector started telling similar tales. Most notably, the tech entrepreneurs and start-ups of Silicon Valley, at the same time as they amassed unheralded fortunes (and showed a marked disinclination to pay corporate taxes), marketed their activites in terms of social change: Apple adverts featured images of figures such as Mahatma Ghandi and Martin Luther King alongside the slogan ‘Think Different”; Google’s slogan was “Don’t be Evil”; and Facebook tells us that its mission is to “give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.” In the face of evidence of the effects of their rampant destruction of environments and livelihoods on vulnerable populations and an ever more vulnerable planet, even behemoths of an industry such as resource extraction have followed suit: British Petroleum adopted a green and yellow logo suggestive more of horticulture than oil wells; mining giants everywhere spoke of community benefits and their need to secure a “social license to operate.”

All this is now changing. Countries and corporations increasingly dispense with such exculpatory formulas. The key figure is doubtless Donald Trump, who more than anyone has reinforced the centrality of trade to politics, whether domestic or international, but no longer in the service of any narrative of liberal progress. His mantra “Make America Great Again” inverts the age-old adage of “private vice, public virtue” to assert that the only political rationale necessary is self-interest. It is in this context that Brazil’s lurch to the right can be welcomed as an investment opportunity, and its environmental and political consequences be cast to the wind. The sense that some broader narrative or political justification is required has faded.

In much of Latin America, the overarching political narrative of the past thirty years has been “Never Again.” Just as post-war European politics has been marked by the collective decision never to return to the internecine conflict (and horrors such as the Holocaust) of the First and Second World Wars, likewise the ground of political debate and policy in the Southern Cone (Argentina, Chile, Brazil) and elsewhere has been a social consensus, shared by all parties and sectors, that a return to the authoritarian regimes of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s should be unthinkable. “Never Again” (“Nunca Más” in Spanish; “Nunca Mais” in Portuguese) was the title of the reports on human rights abuses published in Argentina and Brazil. But with his open praise of the dictatorship, and in dedicating his vote in favor of impeaching his elected predecessor, Dilma Roussef, to a colonel convicted of human rights abuses including torture and forced disappearances, new president Jair Bolsonaro is dramatically breaking that pact in favour of democracy. In the absence of any other narrative, then, Canadian engagement (political or economic) that takes advantage of his election for short-term gain inevitably becomes complicit in this broader story of democracy’s decline.


Oscar Cabezas, Postsoberanía

Oscar Cabezas’s Postsoberanía: Literatura, política y trabajo is a provocative and important contribution to our understanding of contemporary capitalism. Not that Cabezas’s view is a rosy one: though he ends with a rousing homage to Communism as the “irreducible horizon of emancipatory thought and social justice” (281), the rather more lasting impression this book leaves us with is of the extent to which the logic of the market has so thoroughly permeated and colonized everyday life. As he puts it in his final chapter, which is essentially a phenomenology of the contemporary labor process by means of readings of Charlie Chaplin, Albert Camus, and Sergio Chejfec, what he calls “post-sovereignty” is far from sovereignty’s demise but rather the “total, totalitarian, and totalizing sovereignty” of money as general equivalent (277). Not only our everyday experience but language itself is subject to the colonizing principles of money and calculation such that “language communicates nothing beyond instruction functional to the relation between capital and labor” (265-66).

This is, then, a somewhat apocalyptic book that, despite its historical range (from 1492 to the present), argues that capital has already abolished history in a “bad infinity” of perpetual production and absolute depersonalization in which the “eternal worker” is absolutely alienated by being pressed into service as organs without body (261-62). Despite the centrality of alienation to Cabezas’s argument, there can be no relief in humanism, which is merely the “aestheticization of poverty, of differences, which are transformed into mercantile cult” (270). Little prospect here for cultural studies! Moreover, the talk of “organs without body” shows, perhaps more interestingly, that however much he draws from Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Cabezas up-ends many of their categories and gives us a kind of perverse version of posthegemony in which nothing escapes. This is, in other words, a Deleuzoguattarianism without any line of flight, or a dystopian recasting of Michael Hardt and Toni Negri’s Empire in which Empire is all, the multitude nothing. “We know,” he says,” that there is no community outside of capitalist society”; and yet the (would-be) communitarian subject within capitalism is absolutely dependent upon an eternal spiritualized debt, an “effect of neo-imperial domination” (272). Any such community “under the neo-imperial dominion of post-sovereign capitalism is community of debtors” (272; emphasis in original). Cabezas thus also gives us a thesis on the primacy of debt à la David Graeber in which, however, “occupy” is unavailable as a slogan for resistance.

Cabezas may argue that all this is precisely the point. For the main argument that links the four essays that comprise this book is a protest against political theology in all its forms. The opening line of its introduction notes that it is inspired in part by Jacques Derrida (who, however, scarcely gets a mention thereafter) and in part by Carl Schmitt’s famous observation that “all significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts” (13). Cabezas then presents himself as absolutely anti-Schmittian: drawing above all on the work of Argentine theorist Leon Rozitchner, he sets out to extirpate political theory of every residue of the sacred, wherever it is to be found. As such, we should not then be seeking anything resembling redemption. And it is precisely the desire for redemption that therefore damns cultural studies and even such unlikely bedfellows of cultural studies as Deleuze and Guattari or Hardt and Negri. Hence perhaps Cabezas’s absolutism, his condemnation of just about every aspect of the contemporary worker’s (and consumer’s) experience: our alienation is absolute; “within the space of post-sovereignty, capitalism administers and controls from heterogeneity or, to put it more precisely, from language made up of residues, of transnational mixtures, of mercantile innovations, of fragments of erased memories and incomplete legacies that even so do not escape the production of surplus value” (238). This indeed is the novelty of post-sovereignty, the means by which sovereignty becomes absolute: difference and hybridity proved an obstacle to modern, more conventional forms of sovereignty; but they are no bulwark against the post-sovereign. Quite the contrary, post-sovereignty thrives on difference. And again, there is no escape: post-Fordist language (and presumably also literature) is now “completely subordinate to the [. . .] post-sovereign accumulation of capital” (239; my emphasis).

It may be too easy (if still warranted) to point out that Cabezas’s apocalypticism and absolutism remain wedded to a quasi-religious eschatology that posits Communism as a City of God utterly distinct from the City of fallen, post-sovereign Man. Indeed, Cabezas’s recourse (via Rozitchner) to a mater-ialism that plays on the notion of feminine embodiment (mater/matter) as what is repressed by the Judeo-Christian tradition draws on a long religious lineage that is not entirely foreign either to Judaism or to Christianity. Perhaps more significantly, I find Rozitchner’s version of cultural psychoanalysis unconvincing, picking up as it does on the least interesting aspects of the late Freud, and Cabezas’s exposition (which seldom if ever takes any distance from Rozitchner) does little to make it any the more compelling.

By almost any measure the best chapter of the book is the final one, in which Cabezas finally finds his own voice. Even here, however, he maintains the habit of incorporating long quotations more or less undigested from the texts that he is discussing: as such we have not so much discussions of the texts as recapitulations and extrapolations from what is too often treated as holy writ. The first part of the book would have benefitted from more and more sustained readings, both in quantity and in closer attention: the opening chapter on the 1492 Edict of Expulsion of the Spanish Jews is particularly skimpy on the historical archive, and doesn’t even cite the text in question; the second chapter’s approach to (anti-)Peronism is similarly unsatisfying. But as I say, the final chapter’s engagement with Chaplin’s Modern Times, Camus’s “The Myth of Sisyphus,” and Chejfec’s Boca del lobo is provocative and important. Still, however, the ghost of Derrida perhaps haunts the book even here, as these texts are not so much deconstructed as presented as evidence for thesis of the modern (non)subject absolute alienation. In the end, Cabezas’s methodology is strangely reminiscent of cultural studies, albeit that rather than seeking traces of resistance to celebrate, he is instead combing these works for proof of the awful situation we find ourselves in. But I am not sure that the (post-)sovereignty of capital is so total: look simply to the state’s interventions following the financial crisis of 2008 and since, for example. For me, the crux of posthegemony (and this is a posthegemonic book) is neither celebration nor condemnation per se, but ambivalence. These are dangerous times, and Cabezas does signal service in pointing to some of the tendencies inherent in capital’s real subsumption of the social, but these tendencies are not the whole story. Absolutely not.

Update: This post has now been translated into Spanish at Lobo Suelto.

Capital Fictions

Capital Fictions

Compare two snippets of prose. First: “Secluded by the shade of gauze and lace, the warm light of the lamp fell in a circle over the crimson velvet of the tablecloth [and] lit up the three china cups…” Second: “The felt drapery embroidered with gold fell over a sheer curtain, filtering the light absorbed by the deep tone of the furniture’s brocade, the opaque wood of the piano…” Which is the opening of a modernist novel, and which comes from an advertisement for a nineteenth-century luxury goods store? In fact, the second is the advert, and the first is the novel, but it is hard to tell between them because the novel (like the advert) revels in the objects that it is describing, highlighting their interplay of textures in a vaguely mysterious interior space. And the advert (like the novel) gives life to these objects by establishing and narrating the relations between them so as to create, as Ericka Beckman notes in Capital Fictions: The Literature of Latin America’s Export Age, “an ambient effect that is more powerful than any one of its single elements” (64).

It so happens that novel and advertisement alike have the same author: the Colombian José Asunción Silva, who was both “a key proponent of art for art’s sake” and “a tireless promoter of luxury import consumption”; both a novelist and poet and a merchant “selling the most sumptuous goods to an elite enriched by burgeoning coffee exports” (61). But Silva’s business did not prosper. Heavily indebted, ultimately he committed suicide, at the age of thirty-one: beside his body, a wallet containing his last ten-peso note. The novel quoted above, De sobremesa (After-Dinner Conversation), was published only after his death.

For many, this tragic fate of the poet laid low by bankruptcy is understood in terms of a tension if not contradiction between economics and art. Quite the contrary, says Beckman. Silva’s life and death, and his work as writer of literary and economic fictions alike, demonstrate her fundamental point that “the story of literature [. . .] is wrapped up in the story of economics, even–especially–when it claims the contrary” (128). Indeed, it is the assertion of a fundamental breach between art and finance that is the most basic fiction here, providing art with the consoling thought that it is untainted by filthy lucre, and giving finance the equally comforting notion that it is driven by reason alone.

In a final irony, the disavowed collusion between culture and currency becomes visible again when the Bank of Colombia picks none other than Silva to illustrate its five-thousand-peso note in 1996, the hundredth anniversary of his death. The poet’s bearded, slightly wistful visage is featured on the front; on the back, an urn on which his one of his more famous odes, “Nocturno,” is inscribed. “Money and art are separated,” Beckman argues, “so that they might come together in a stabilized relation on the banknote” (156). But this stability is belied not only by the always slippery signifier of the written word, but also by the long and cyclical history of financial speculation and disaster, economic boom and bust, for which Silva’s own suicide provides still further testament.

Beckman’s fine and fascinating book traces the complex complicities between fiction and finance in Latin America’s “export age” of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It examines the “export reverie” of texts that preached economic progress, conjuring up “liberal fantasies” that had real effects in “creating the conditions of possibility under which social and natural landscapes might be altered” (20) to bring plantations and railways, mines and music halls to the region. It proceeds with a critique of modernismo and its “import catalogues” whereby European luxury goods are praised for their (supposedly) intrinsic beauty, but mystified as a site of refuge from the ordinary and everyday. Beckman suggests that (ironically enough) a rather prosaic commodity fetishism underlies the modernistas’ claims to poetic autonomy. The book then turns to the stock market fictions that emerge in the wake of financial turbulence and the novels of decadence and bankruptcy that follow on. Perhaps the most interesting chapter is the final one, which comprises a reading of José Eustasio Rivera’s classic La vorágine (The Vortex) as a narrative of resource extraction that tests the limits of aesthetic and economic representation.

Beckman argues for the resonances between the late nineteenth century and the present. We see today for instance “a resurgence of export-elite opulence” premised on booms in commodities such as narcotics and a re-intensified mining and extractive sector. I am not sure that literature has quite the same function these days (though TV and YouTube offer their own, updated import catalogues). Does anyone really believe in liberal versions of progress these days, or is the point that we are told there is simply no alternative? And in fact I wonder how much belief was really at issue even a hundred years ago. But for the most part, Beckman’s insights are convincing, her readings are compelling, and her writing commendably clear.


Guy de Maupassant’s “Toine” is (much like “The Little Cask”) something of a parable of economic theory.

Toine, the eponymous innkeeper, is the very model of productive consumption. He is the biggest fan of his own product: the cognac that he calls “extra-special,” which he declares to be “the best in France.” His zealous praise of his own produce gives him his nickname, “Toine-My-Extra-Special,” and his loquacity and cheeriness draw customers from miles around, “for fat Toine would make a tombstone laugh.”

But what makes him special (and presumably what makes him cheery) is also his prodigious appetite, which is itself a marvel for visitors to this out-of-the-way hamlet, sheltered in a ravine from the ocean winds: “merely to see him drink was a curiosity. He drank everything that was offered him.”

This consumption, however, is not simply wasteful or a drain on his resources. It is in fact what makes his business profitable. Consumption and acquisition are happily mixed in Toine’s gregarious nature: “His was a double pleasure: first, that of drinking; and second, that of piling up the cash.”

Toine is a poster boy for profitable sybaritism. He is a living rejoinder to miserliness on the one hand, and the Protestant work ethic on the other.

And this is surely what irks his wife. She is angered by the fact that her husband “earned his money without working.” The story’s narrative, then, is devoted to her efforts to turn him into something more like a laborer: to reap profit not from his consumption but from a more stringent (and more morally acceptable) program of regimentation and discipline.

So she makes Toine into a broody hen.

Laid up after an apoplectic fit (the fruit of his excessive enjoyment, though it hardly slows him down: he sets up a regular domino game by his bedside and he would still “have made the devil himself laugh”), Toine is forced to keep his wife’s chickens’ eggs warm. For the long, anxious gestation season, his movements are even more radically restricted: he can no longer turn to left or right, for fear of “plunging him[self] into the midst of an omelette.”

As time goes by, Toine, whom his wife has long regarded as more beast than man (“You’d be better in the sty with along with the pigs!”) comes more and more to identify with the animal kingdom. There’s something almost Kafkaesque about his gradual metamorphosis, if not into a pestilent cockroach but into a mother hen. His arms become like wings, under which his precious charges shelter.

And becoming animal is also (here at least) a becoming feminine: he manifests “the anguish of a woman who is about to become a mother.” No wonder that his is an “unusual sort of paternity” as he is transformed into “a remarkable specimen of humanity.”

But the story is not so much about Toine’s gradual animalization, and more about simply his increasing recognition of his animal status. For Maupassant treats all his characters as, frankly, beasts: Toine’s wife “walked with long steps like a stork, and had a head resembling that of a screech-owl”; his friend Prosper, whose idea the entire stratagem is, has “a ferret nose” and is “cunning as a fox.” Another friend is if anything less human still: he is “somewhat gnarled, like the trunk of an apple-tree.”

So perhaps Maupassant’s final word is that, whichever economic regime they favour, and whether they choose the moral virtue of restraint or the sybaritic pleasures of unlicensed consumption, in the end all of his characters are animals. Either way, what you have are simply various modalities of affective labor. It’s just that some are more in tune with this realization than others.


This afternoon to the Presentation House Gallery in North Vancouver, which as I have mentioned before is one of my favourite galleries in the Lower Mainland, with a great little bookstore specializing in photography.

But right now the gallery is between exhibitions, so we had to content ourselves with the North Vancouver museum downstairs. The woman there commented that she hadn’t expected anyone to come in today, what with the snow and all. She turned the lights on specially for us.

The permanent exhibit is small but interesting, charting North Vancouver’s history from its establishment as a logging camp called Moodyville in the 1880s, though to its industrial heyday as port and home to shipyards in the mid twentieth-century, and now its post-industrial stress on tourism as gateway to Grouse Mountain and Mount Seymour ski resorts, as well as the rather tacky Capilano Suspension Bridge which bills itself as “Vancouver’s top attraction.”

The museum always has a temporary exhibit, too, which is often very thoughtfully put together and curated. Right now the show is “Made in B.C.: Home-grown Design,” a survey of British Columbia’s products from (predictably) the staples of timber and shipping to graphic design, architecture, transport vehicles, school yearbooks, stamps, and goodness knows what else. Still, it’s rather obvious that in fact British Columbia has never been a place in which very much got produced: its economy has been based on the extraction or cultivation of raw materials (strangely, though, I saw no mention of the current top export, BC Bud) or on the movement of goods.

Now, if anything, the province’s major product is the image of Vancouver itself, built up and burnished through international extravaganzas such as Expo 86 and the 2010 Winter Olympics. No wonder Vancouverites were so embarrassed when a bit of street disorder seemed to sully the city’s supposedly good name. We worry about our city’s sparkling image the same way residents of Detroit care about the car industry or Venezuelans keep half an eye on the price of oil.

For better or worse, Vancouverites have always aspired to be good citizens, or to seem so at least. One of the most striking objects in the “Made in B.C.” exhibition, and just about the first thing you see as you enter the room, is a cardigan knitted by a (male) worker employed by the Pacific Great Eastern Railway sometime at the turn of the twentieth century. As part of the design he had stitched the names of the various towns at which the railway stopped. It’s not quite a tattoo, but it’s close: a gesture of bearing witness to his employer’s achievements on his own body. This may look like hegemony, but of course to call it that only begs the unanswerable question: “What was he thinking?”


Guy de Maupassant’s “The Little Cask” (“Le Petit Fût”) is a short, cautionary narrative of unequal exchange at the border between two economic systems.

In brief, an innkeeper has his eye on his neighbor’s farm. But the owner, an old woman who has spent her entire life there, stubbornly refuses to sell: “I was born here, and here I mean to die,” as she puts it. But the two eventually come to an agreement, that the innkeeper will pay the old woman an annuity of fifty crowns a month (which she, on the advice of a lawyer, has bargained up from a mere thirty) and he will inherit the property on her death. With the transaction agreed, life continues as before, and the innkeeper notes despairingly that as the years pass the old woman remains as hale and hearty as ever. He then invites her over to dinner and discovers her weak spot: a preference for fine brandy. So in an outpouring of generosity he arranges for her to receive a constant supply of the fine liquor. Soon enough, she begins to decline, people start talking, and she dies a reviled drunk. When her neighbor comes by to take possession of her farm, in accordance with their agreement, he intones the tale’s sad moral: ” It was very stupid of her; if she had not taken to drink she might very well have lived for ten years longer.”

The joke is the disconnect between the moral and the tale itself, even if the conclusion that the innkeeper draws is literally true. For what is stupid is the old woman’s trust in her neighbor’s generosity, not realizing the economic motives that underlie it.

But in some ways the joke is also on the innkeeper, though he doesn’t notice it and indeed presumably wouldn’t even mind. For if, as I say, the crux here is the clash between a relationship to land and property based on habit and affect on the one hand, and the introduction of rational calculation of profit, loss, and risk on the other, we see how the dispassionate logic of capital in fact has to be supplemented by an appeal to the senses. The innkeeper’s despair arises from the apparent failure of his actuarial calculations: he is forced to intervene by calling on the rather more traditional gestures of hospitality, neighborliness, conviviality, and the gift economy. It just so happens that his gift is (almost literally) a poisoned chalice.

So the hypocrisy of the final judgment rebounds on the innkeeper (again, however little he might ultimately care about the fact). It is as though everything could indeed be explained by the old woman’s unwise choices, her failure to make a rational account of her situation and to act prudently to ensure her continued health and so continued enjoyment of the property and annuity alike. But in fact the story tells us that in origin it is the innkeeper’s risk assessment that fails, and that his reputation as a “very knowing customer” or “smart business man” depends on his acceptance of other modes of dealing that are not, in the end, entirely businesslike.

Thus ideology: everything can happen as though the tale’s moral were correct, because of course it can’t be denied. (The old woman may indeed have lived much longer had she not taken to drink!) One is reminded of the many justifications for the recent bank bail-outs, each of which is on its own terms incontrovertible. But this occludes the continued effectivity of another economy, which apparently rational accounts of profit, risk, and loss can never fully escape.


In a strange convergence, it turns out that the disgraced financier Bernie Madoff and the young Somali sea bandit Abdul Wali Muse have both been held in the same New York detention center, prompting the question who is the bigger pirate?

Indeed, where once they were celebrated as wizards, the financial whizzkids of Wall Street, or of corrupt behemoths such as Enron, are increasingly being condemned as pirates. “Make Enron Pirates Answer” demanded the LA Times a few years ago, and now we find that Enron has “gone global” as “hedge fund pirates” stalk the world economy. The comparison with the dangerous seas off the Horn of Africa is made explicit again as we’re told that “Like Somali Pirates, Wall Street Holds U.S. to Ransom”.

None of this, however, should be any great surprise. As Tom Wolfe reports, financiers have long self-consciously struck a “pirate pose”, not least the Hedge Fund that unabashedly goes by the name of Pirate Capital, its website featuring a series of images that switch between wooden-masted sailing boats and computer print-outs of financial accounts. As Wolfe describes the firm:

The 41-year-old hedge fund founder Tom Hudson [. . .] struck a Blackbeard pose right out in the open—Blackbeard, the pirate who took what he wanted and was accountable to no one. When Hudson launched his company in Norwalk in 2002, he named it Pirate Capital and called its hedge fund the Jolly Roger. Outside the door to his office he installed a life-size wooden figure of a storybook pirate, in full color, wearing all the pirate’s rig: the patch over one eye, the golden hoop earring through one earlobe, the tricornered hat, Captain Hook’s hook instead of a hand on one arm, the pantaloons, the peg leg, and the cutlass. He handed out baseball caps and T-shirts emblazoned SURRENDER YOUR BOOTY!, which was funny but no joke.

Of course, those who live by the sword also die by the sword: even before the current downturn, Pirate Capital faced mutiny as it tried to make its own staff walk the plank. But you could never suggest that the firm ever hid its piratical intentions. Rather, it gloried in them.

And now comes The Invisible Hook by Peter Leeson, who is apparently “Professor for the Study of Capitalism” at George Mason University. His website too is adorned with pirate imagery, and no wonder: his book is a whole-hearted celebration of piracy as a model for free-market economic practice.

Eighteenth-century pirates, Leeson want to argue, were the very model of rational economic actors whose bloodthirsty ways were merely the outcome of a commendable search for profit. Moreover, in balance pirates in fact did more good than harm, precisely thanks to their clear-eyed desire to maximize their personal earnings. Contrary to reputation, they were peace-loving democrats who merely cultivated a violent image as part of an enormously successful brand-management campaign. If we study Golden Age piracy, Leeson suggests, we learn the universal truth of the adage that “greed is good”:

Pirate greed is what motivated pirates to pioneer progressive institutions and practices. For example, this greed is responsible for pirates’ system of constitutional democracy [. . .]. Pirate greed is also responsible for some sea rogues’ superior treatment of blacks. (179)

Mind you, Leeson also warns us that we should be careful not to learn too much from pirate self-organization: just because they arguably instituted a form of “workers’ democracy” doesn’t mean that contemporary corporations should feel constrained to follow suit; after all, workers would tend to support “risky decision making,” while external financiers rightly reject such risks as they have “to bear the full costs of failure” (183). Oh, just imagine what a pickle we’d be in now if risk-loving workers held sway over the sensible inclinations of finance capitalists!

Ultimately, this is a superficial and even silly book. It’s an exercise in market-choice dogma rather than a real investigation into the economics of piracy. Though it claims to overturn the ways in which we think about sea banditry, the version of piracy that it promotes is on the whole as abstract and idealized as the Disney caricatures that apparently first inspired the author’s interest. It’s just that these are idealized rational economic actors, rather than barbarous if comic exotic rogues. Either way, we get caricature. Pirates are merely the ruse for a not-so-very hidden agenda: here, a sort of duffer’s guide to economic dogma.

In some ways, the failures of Leeson’s book are predictable. Piracy has long served as a screen on to which all sorts of prejudices or idées fixes can be projected. As Leeson himself notes almost in passing, pirates have been cast as proto-communists as often as they have been presented as neoliberals avant la lettre; they have claimed for gay rights and queer theory as much as they have been condemned for their barbarous machismo; and they have been cast as forming ideal democratic societies as frequently as they have been represented as savages who care for neither morality nor legality.

But rather than repeating his own simplistic morality tale of greed is good, Leeson might have explored the fundamental ambivalence that enables piracy to serve as a Rorscharh Test for so many distinct political and social positions. If, for instance, the joint stock company incarnates what Marx termed the “communism of capital,” perhaps these “sea-going stock compan[ies]” (41) have something to tell us about the capitalism of communism, or about a certain indecideability between a line of flight that seeks to escape all constituted authority and a constituent power that creates ever-new constitutions.

Leeson is really no more interested in politics as such than he is in history; the whole point of the book is show the purported superiority of classical economics to explain any aspect of human behavior. But he has to tangle with politics from time to time. Leeson’s manifest libertarian impulses, that lead him to disparage the notion of state regulation at almost every turn, also force him to suggest a fine distinction between state government and private governance. If greed is good, then government is generally bad; but governance is praised as a form of privatized, self-regulating government. And this idealized conception of governance comes to sound remarkably like hegemony: it is voluntary, non-coercive, and contractual. For Leeson, pirate ships are not only exemplary instances of economic rationality; they are also (almost) perfectly functional hegemonies. And perhaps it is this, rather than the economic as such, that explains piracy’s strange allure: it offers a counterpart to the pseudo-hegemony of the nation state, a romanticized conjunction of liberty and self-organization.