Examining Heller-Roazen’s new book on piracy

Posted in Book Review with tags , , on April 21, 2010 by zoltangluck

Daniel Heller-Roazen The Enemy of All: Piracy and The Law of Nations. (New York: Zone Books, 2009), 274 pp.

Perhaps the most misleading platitude that one hears all too often in discussions of the contemporary rise of piracy off the Horn of Africa is that piracy has been around since the beginning of recorded history. On the surface, the statement is of course true. But this truth comes at the tremendous price of conceptually flattening differences between diverse social and historical situations into a one dimensional legal category, thereby obfuscating the genealogy of a concept and a figure that has been formative to the history of nations. It is precisely this complex genealogy that professor Heller-Roazen assails and reconstructs with tremendous acumen and subtlety in his latest work The Enemy of All: Piracy and the Law of Nations.

The argument that threads the sixteen chapters together is deceptively simple: namely, that the figure of the pirate, as the original enemy of all in Roman jurisprudence, is genealogically and structurally paramount to humanist thinking; moreover, that the figures and concepts which define much of the current ethico-political paradigm (the terrorist, the insurgent, crimes against humanity), owe much to the legal history of concept of piracy. In support of this argument the author musters an impressive arsenal of texts and authorities from Roman legal codices, Homeric epics, and the emergence of the law of nations, to German idealist philosophy, and the modern history of warfare. In place of the uniform notion of piracy as a self-same practice of maritime predation extending back into the recesses of time, we are confronted with the variety of polities for which the notion of piracy was historically instrumental for various political and economic reasons. As each discursive shift is contextualized in an historical moment of political and military struggle (e.g. Minos’ conquests, the Barbary wars between Christian Europe and Muslim North Africa, or the charge of piracy in the crepuscule of the Atlantic slave trade), what emerges is a chronicle of the vicissitudes of the discourse of piracy in its relation to the historical evolution of  polities and state structures.

The strongest parts of the work are clearly the chapters that weave detailed commentary on the writings of Roman and early modern jurists with theoretical interventions on the nature of and evolution of political order. In this respect The Enemy of All has much original material to offer students of state theory. Parting ways with the dominant trends of neo-Weberian and neo-Marxian theories of the state, Heller-Roazen nonetheless retains the term rather than following the Foucaultian trend of collapsing the history of the state into an historical binary of sovereignty and governmentality. By focusing on “the relations that obtain between pillage and polity,” the author is able to open for view a whole history of struggles over the rights to and legitimate uses of violence (rather than, say, merely declaring the monopoly on this legitimacy to be the essential trait of statehood), tracing the titles and institutions that alternatively authorized and condemned the material social practice of pillage. The moral economy at the foundation of this discourse is laid bare. For the ancient Greeks using the term meant little more than the moral condemnation of acts of plunder when conducted at one’s expense, and their celebration when one profited; Roman times produced the first properly legal definition of piracy as illicit plunder and, when in 67AD the Roman Assembly granted Gnaeus Pompey exceptional powers to combat the practice in the Mediterranean, piracy and its suppression, Roazen argues, became a paramount factor leading to the collapse of the Republic and the inception of the Roman Empire; the politics of legitimacy come to the fore powerfully in the early modern period, as such titles as ‘corsair’ and ‘privateer’ came to embody state sanctioned maritime predation and were alternatively granted or withheld depending on the current state of war or peace obtaining between the European powers.

Heller-Roazen is indeed at his best in his philological and genealogical work on the typology of Others against which political order must necessarily define itself. Here the legal figure of the pirate emerges in Roman law along side two other figures: the external legitimate enemy (hostes) and the criminal internal to the political order (inimici). While behavior towards the latter two is regulated by conventions of war and the rule of law within the polity, the pirate is precisely the figure with whom political, ethical, and military interaction has been historically problematic to codify. Incidentally, that this is still very much true of our contemporary world is clearly attested to by the sheer volume of international Resolutions, Declarations, Agreements and “exchanges of letters” that have gone into creating a viable legal framework in which to try Somali pirates in Kenya and the Seychelles.[1] Heller-Roazen gives us the tools with which to understand—in all their historically situated complexity—the contemporary appeals to “universal jurisdiction” and “extraterritorial jurisdiction,” as well as the categories of “private” and “political” as they pertain to piracy.

The major shortfall of the book is that it fails to complete the gesture of the demonstrating its ultimate thesis. It is only in the last twenty pages of the book that we finally encounter our current epoch and the connection between the legal paradigm of piracy and that of terrorism is left as a mere suggestion. One comes away with a wealth of empirical material, but with feeling that a great theoretical break through has been lost. One wonders why the author did not trim back the (admittedly interesting) seventy-five pages of notes, and allow himself more space in which to follow through with the argument. A lesser complaint might be raised that strictly political-economic elements of the analysis are lacking, that in his accounts of the historical evolution of piracy they are touched upon only tangentially, often subsumed into purely political and military struggle. Also, a few chapters of the text are fully dedicated to chronicling of the figure of the pirate in literary works. While these are pleasant to read and impressive for the sheer breath of knowledge and linguistic versatility of the author (equally at ease with Latin, Greek, German, Italian, French, and English sources), they seem to add little to the theoretical force of the book.

These latter complaints aside, the book is well worth the read for anyone interested in piracy, the state, border issues, the politics of legitimation, maritime commerce or the legal history of warfare. The book will also prove especially insightful for anyone seeking to understand the contemporary rise of piracy and the ideological framework in which it is being handled by the “international community.” During the course of my own research on the piracy trials in the law courts of Mombasa I have found myself turning back to the text frequently. It must be recognized that Heller-Roazen has produced the first serious genealogy of the concept of piracy, which in itself is a great achievement.

[1] In addition to the United Nations Convention on Laws of the Sea, there have been six Security Council Resolutions (Nos. 1814, 1816, 1838, 1846, 1851, 1897), several European Union Council Decisions, Resolutions by the International Maritime Organization, and host of other formal and informal regional agreements including the Djibouti Code of Conduct and diplomatic “exchanges of letters” between the Republic of Kenya, the EU, Britain, and the United States. For an insightful summary of some of these documents see: Guilfoyle, Douglas “Counter-Piracy Law enforcement and Human Rights” International and Comparative Law Quarterly, 59 (2010): 141-169.


(This review will be published in the forthcoming issue of the Central European University Political Science Journal, April 2011)


Posted in fragments with tags , , , on April 19, 2010 by zoltangluck

Two quite different takes on my neighborhood:

(1) After reading the the New York Times travel section piece (http://travel.nytimes.com/2010/04/18/travel/18surfacing.html?8dpc) glorifying the gentrification of the neighborhood, I had to go back to some rootsy 8th district music:

(2) the Animal Cannibals Classic hit “Yozsefváros”:

Quote of the Week

Posted in borrowed, etc., unsorted feelings with tags , , , , on December 1, 2009 by zoltangluck

After a recent experience of watching the deconstructive-qua-ideologico-critical ethos applied in the realm of interpersonal relations, I stumbled upon this quote and found it quite fitting:

“We learn … that when one looks for too long at reality through critico-ideological glasses, one gets a strong headache: it is very painful to be deprived of the ideological surplus-jouissance.”(1)

Critique, in the end, may also lead one back into the (vicious) hermeneutic circle… For all it’s illuminating insights, I suppose its always also important to remember the deplorable clinical track record of psychoanalysis. All the more so before plunging headlong into dismantling one’s own predilections.

If happiness is neither the end nor the aim of psychoanalysis, what does this imply for the political and social ends of the critique of ideology?

Good time (also, incidentally, for all us, in face of political-economic crisis) to mull over and meditate on Kierkegaard’s old axiom (2):

“Despair is to be understood as the sickness, not the remedy”

(1) Zizek, Slavoj “Denial: The Liberal Utopia” @ lacan.com (http://www.lacan.com/essays/?page_id=397)

(2) Kierkegaard, Soren. The Sickness Unto Death

Red, or Nothing

Posted in unsorted feelings on June 20, 2009 by zoltangluck

Wild Bleeding-Heart

Henceforth I never will be Romeo.

Ideology Today: Economic Jargon and the Docile Subject

Posted in denkbilder with tags , , , , , , on May 6, 2009 by zoltangluck

Let’s remember Althusser’s definition of Ideology. Ideology serves the reproduction of the social relations of production. That is, ideology functions as a means to secure social relations which support and perpetuate a certain mode of economic production. Thus ideology at its core is a way of producing submissive, docile subjects. It is,

“a reproduction of submission to the ruling ideology for the workers, and a reproduction of the ability to manipulate the ruling ideology correctly for the agents of exploitation and repression, so that they, too, will provide the domination of the ruling class ‘in words’” (Althusser, 1984: 6)

The ability to manipulate the ruling ideology… Let’s think about that. What is the ruling ideology of the day? Perhaps today we mostly think of ourselves as free from large oppressive ideologies. Aesthetically, “we” have untold freedoms today and there seems to be a boundless selection of countercultures and subcultures to choose from which may give us a sense of fulfillment. Moreover there is no dearth of oppositional voices challenging the so-called status quo. One might claim however that the hegemonic ideology is precisely the one that undergrids these voices of apparent opposition or countercultural expressivity. That today it is Economic Jargon that most surely plays to role and constitutes the language of what Althusser calls “the ruling ideology” (and what Gramsci calls “Hegemony”).

When we submit readily to the technocratic jargon of neoliberal or neo-Keynesian economists and accept their expertise, or otherly, when dismiss the political economic level of discourse and retreat into pure aestheticism, we perform the classic “submission to the ruling ideology.” Of course other interpretations of the economic crisis abound. But the battle over the “correct” interpretation of economic phenomena has a long an troubled history. Indeed, it is a history of immense power struggles over the definition and interpretation of what it means to be human. Albert Hirschman’s The Passions and the Interests goes back into the early history over such struggles to define homo economicus in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries and shows how behind the ostensibly objective language of economic thinking there always lies deeply embedded moral judgments about “human nature.” Today it is all too clear that all but the most apologetic and uncritical economic analysis has been pushed from the main framework for interpretation.

The Marxist wager is that Capitalism, as the endless accumulation of wealth, must either revolutionize itself and become more rational, or it will destroy itself. The Marxist theory of crisis states that there will be systemic economic crises escalating in scale over the course of Capitalist development. Each of these crises open up the possibility for reform, revolution, or the consolidation of class power. The latter always means staving off serious systemic reform and fostering the grounds for a larger and more devastating crisis later on. Many commentators have viewed the last 30’s as a constant battle to stave off or control capitalist crises, (see the work of Arrighi, Robert Brenner, and David Harvey) in face of falling (global) rates of profit. The overheating of the market with the explosion of the derivatives trading and real estate speculation were only symptoms of a deeper stress on a system which requires perpetually compounding growth rates for its continued success. Today we are at risk of falling back into the precisely the same old pattern that Marx analyzed 140 years ago, and which has reached global proportions in the last 30 years. With everyone rejoicing at the temporary stabilization and partial recovery of some stock values, we are turning away from the deep structural problems of the organization of an economic system that is inherently unstable and self-destructive. (to this people often are inclined to give the apathetic pseudo-existential response that ‘all things must come to an end some day,’ so too does capitalism. and conveniently there are also plenty of indicators that human life as such is indeed under an existential threat from the ecological collapse, allowing people feel justified in their political and economic apathy and docile submission). What is at stake is (as always) nothing less than the future itself. What does this have to do with ideology? Well, one plausible definition of ideology is that it is a mode of automated behavioral and dispositional patterns that forestall critical thinking. As such it can be likened to sleeping. By turning away from political economic jargon and allowing ourselves to be carried along we are (as Beckett said) “sleeping while the others suffered.”

Where are the angry protesters? Where is class struggle? Why is there no fight for a more rational mode of production? The answer is that there is indeed struggle. Of course Labor movements were broken down in the US and Western Europe — and the economic function of citizens of these happy republics became more and more reduced mostly to consumption (and the reabsorption of surpluses) —  so mostly struggle there does not take the form of revolutionary social movements anymore. But hasn’t it been that with the outsourcing of production we have also outsourced class struggle? There are over 20 million newly unemployed laborers in China since last October. The Lumpenproletariat (those who have been pushed out of all sectors of formal economy) are now armed. Yes, there is a Marxist interpretation of the Somalian pirate phenomenon.

What comes next? Adorno long ago lost all hope in the potential for the European and American labor and middle classes to articulate an intelligent response to their submission. In his analysis they had become too contented with the illusory happiness of serial television, Keds, fixed gear bicycles and Indy rock. But, as even the bloated hubristic economists at the Financial Times and the Economist admit, the era of American conspicuous consumption is most likely over. The dialectical understanding of this however is not resignation à la Adorno, but rather should (always) be hope, and an acknowledgment of the possibility of change. As we become less able to divert ourselves (in Spanish they say divertirse), and hide our ostrich heads in the intellectual asphyxia of Desperate Housewives and Marc Jacobs, due to contracting personal funds and contracting luxury commodity markets, perhaps we will begin also to reformulate our ideas. If it is possible for someone as self-assured and self-contented dirtbag-Greenspan to reform his ideas, it is possible for anyone.

The second thing that is important to remember about ideology is that it is always affected by changes in the economic structure. We are seeing the unfurling of the Republican party, the collapse of neoliberal governments in Eastern Europe (and, unfortunately, the rise of right wing nationalism in their stead). Is it too optimistic to hope for a revival of a breed of Critical Utopian Humanism that rejects the cynicism an political apathy that are the mainstays of our generation? Probably, but it doesn’t hurt to fight.

Remember what Terry Eagleton wrote:

“the study of ideology is among other things an inquiry into the ways in which people invest in their own unhappiness.” (Eagleton, 1991)


Althusser, Louis. “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses.” Trans. Ben Brewster. Essays on Ideology. London: Verso, 1984.

Eagleton, Terry. Ideology, An Introduction. London: Verso, 1991.

Do the Right Thing

Posted in New Bites with tags , on March 19, 2009 by zoltangluck

Today in the Financial Times:

Edward Liddy, chief executive of AIG, on Wednesday tried to soothe anger against the bailed-out insurance group by urging employees to give back the $165m in bonuses that have sparked a political firestorm.

He told legislators he had asked employees of AIG Financial Products – the arm that brought the group to the brink of collapse – to “step up and do the right thing”.


Someone should just give AIG the Mookie treatment.

Crisis of Overproduction

Posted in New Bites with tags , , , on February 20, 2009 by zoltangluck

Here’s a nice sound bite:

And late on Thursday, [India’s] Trade Secretary G.K. Pillai said the government would impose safeguard duties on Chinese aluminium imports and was probing shipments of other goods, days after China said such moves may severely damage trade ties.

Pillai said he was worried about Asian rival China dumping its surplus goods in the Indian market. “China is a non-market economy.

They have created huge capacities in their country … Where are they going to sell their products ? They are going to dump it in India,” he said.(1)

And yet many economists still fail to see the financial crisis as wrought by over-production…


(1) Gupta, Surojit “India to Fight Protectionism” Reuters India, Feb 20th, 2009 @ (http://in.reuters.com/article/businessNews/idINIndia-38120920090220?feedType=RSS&feedName=businessNews&pageNumber=2&virtualBrandChannel=0)