The furor over the WikiLeaks affair graced headlines of newspapers across the globe and illuminated the nebulous world of hackers and internet pirates. Questions have been raised over the unseen threads that connect actors on both sides of the law. What links do they have with states and large corporations? Are they completely outside the capitalist system? Piracy has a storied history with lessons for the current situation that Rodolphe Durand, Professor of strategy at HEC and co-author of The Pirate Organization (Harvard Business Press, 2012), recently discussed.

ParisTech Review – The WikiLeaks affair has shone a light into the rarely seen world that exists on the periphery of the web. Is Julian Assange a modern day Blackbeard of cyberspace?

Rodolphe Durand – While it is true that hackers are themselves partly responsible for upholding the romantic image this tradition would suggest one of the myths I attempted to deconstruct when Jean-Philippe Vergne and I published our book was that of a world populated by picaresque characters drawn from Hollywood movies or the dime store novels of the past. Make no mistake, whether we are dealing with the Caribbean of the 18th century or contemporary cyberspace the methods for comprehending these buccaneers will have to focus on identifying organizational structures and penetrating the ties that bind them together. In other words, modern day pirates of the information age need to be viewed from a more sociological perspective rather than according to the superficial criteria bestowed by popular culture. What is truly fascinating about the WikiLeaks phenomenon is not so much the individual personality of its prime mover, Assange, but the methods he employs, the objectives he defines, and the organization he has constructed to be placed at the disposal of the information he believes should be free.

Is the structure any different from illegal societies such as the Mafia that are explicitly defined as “criminal organizations”?

There are some remarkable similarities such as in their blatant disregard for state institutions, whether laws or the monopoly on power. Internet pirates also show a similar predilection for violence although their means as well as their ends are rather different. Where the two patterns diverge sharply however is that mafias arise in a power vacuum where there is no strong figure head for state power. For pirate organizations it is the inverse and they feed off the very power they would like to ostensibly destroy. This leads us to at least two more points that are essential to understanding the differences between the two types of organizations.

The first is related to the notion of geography and how it is defined. Mafias have historically operated under the constraint of state imposed borders, indeed their power and their very identity derive from a strong attachment to a particular region. This is in sharp contrast to the pirates of today who like their seafaring ancestors are almost by definition stateless. WikiLeaks has no bricks and mortar address and its entire organization was conceived to escape any kind of legal jurisdiction. The parties affected by the leaks have no real leg to stand on when attempting to limit the organization’s activities or prosecute the volunteers making it all happen. Operating outside the system, using and exchanging goods and services according to their own rules, the pirates take what they want and give it away at their own discretion.

A second divergence, less clear-cut, is that mafia organizations tend to rally around private causes such as personal profit or the logic of blood feuds and “family” interests whereas pirates tend to be more populist in nature. Indeed, the pirates of the internet age view themselves as global insurgents for the defense of the public interest in the face of powers that would attempt to limit our free access to information, through the privatization of cyberspace for example. Following the thread backwards we discover that whether it was in the Caribbean in the 17th century or the Chinese rebelling against the Manchu dynasty in the 19th century there always existed among pirates an almost utopian vision of creating an economic, social, and political model for society that subscribed to values that were in stark opposition to the prevailing imperial designs being issued from afar.

L'organisation pirate

It would be a mistake however to oversimplify matters and most of the historians who have chronicled the history of piracy have taken an overwhelmingly Marxist view that tends to overestimate the philosophical and ethical dimensions of the phenomenon. On the other hand, our knowledge of texts such as the so-called pirate code of Captain Roberts attest to the will of certain individuals to create a legal framework for an alternative society that could at least maintain the appearance of legitimacy. Taking a more measured sociological perspective we could reason that whether at the scale of a small raiding party or an entire fleet of 500 pirate ships marauding off the Chinese coast certain rules will always apply and a code of conduct will evolve. This has also been true in mafia organizations but here the scope is limited as much of the legitimacy they claim stems from their willingness to provide certain public services that the State is incapable of assuring to certain clearly defined segments of the population. Mafia organizations have no desire to serve the universal interests and are only concerned with serving and “protecting” their own narrowly defined constituency. It’s not difficult to see why. Their arguments would collapse under the glare of public scrutiny. For pirates, the inverse is true and they are happy to shout proclamations of universal justice from the rooftops as they aim to totally discredit the moral authority of their foes, States and corporations alike.


On the question of legitimacy your book highlights the fact that “pirates and rulers are opposite sides of the same coin”. Could you expand?
At the heart of the norms governing models employed by pirate organizations, and their ability claim the banner of universal morality, is their inseparable link to the development of the modern nation state and the fact that they act as a refuge of last resort from the demands and expectations of contemporary capitalism. For pirates, the rule of law must be abandoned completely before a new order can rise up to fill the void. The rise of the nation state is no different and, as Max Weber was so keen to understand, it is often through revolutionary cleansing that modern nations gain new legitimacy to exercise the monopoly on violence and power their existence requires.

To be more precise, piracy flourishes at times of territorial flux as great powers struggle to define spheres of influence in virgin territory and lay the foundations for future control of commercial and demographic activity. From the Americas, and from 1498 the sea route to India; to more modern frontiers such as radio, outer-space, and the internet; and, finally concluding by tracing the path of the future into the uncharted territory of human DNA, we are witnessing defining moments in human history. Rapid discovery is swiftly followed by regulation and eventually normalization and it is through the creation of codes of conduct that the groundwork for future legitimacy is laid. The eternal logic of institutional will is drafted into the service of the leading powers and allows them to impose control over how exchanges are conducted and ordered to ensure future benefits in the form of taxes and other profit generating activities. When the capitalist economic model was in its infancy, these activities and exchanges were largely conducted within the framework of state monopolies as exercised most notably by the several European East India companies. The Dutch East India Company created in 1602 served as the prime example and it is from within this context that piracy really began to grow.

The behavior of newly emerging powers is fairly predictable and with the benefit of hindsight can be broken down into two complimentary, and near simultaneous, actions. The first involves seizure of a territory along with its organic system of micro-exchanges as interwoven with the conquered land and its people. The second consists of a complete redefinition of existing boundaries. Entire territories are remapped according to the brutal logic of economic necessity and using the vocabulary of the French philosophers Deleuze and Guattari there takes place a decoding and re-encoding of flows to suit the needs of those holding the reins of power. Daily interactions are deliberately stripped of historical tradition and the void is filled by imperial machinations for control over every aspect of human activity.

Out on the periphery of the reconstituted landscape the pirates find cracks to exploit and some margin for maneuver. Indeed, their actions could be viewed as a deliberate attempt to reclaim some of the ground that is lost as new norms are imposed. By operating on the lawless frontiers of society they are in effect acting in defiance of the State apparatus to control human endeavor and continually devour resources through the exercise of power as expressed by state run monopolies.

Does this mean we are simply exchanging one form of extortion for another?

I would not go quite so far as to put it in such explicit terms but if we look at a pirate’s observable behavior the implication is that they are only stealing what was already stolen. Theories on the sanctity of private property serve as the bedrock of liberal democracy and are being publicly called into question. It is a question that was vaguely referred to in the past but has become more and more visible with each passing day. The central thrust of the activities of today’s internet pirates is based on testing the theoretical and practical limits of laws surrounding public property and calling into question the fundamentals on which modern market economies are based.

Groups supporting the belief that information wants to be free fall into numerous categories. At one end of the spectrum are exponents of file sharing technologies which serve mainly to facilitate the sharing of copyrighted material. At the other more constructive end are the creators of open spaces for exchange and adherents of the open source model of software development. In each case the underlying motivations are remarkably similar and go beyond mere technological concerns such as improving the functionality of a given piece of software. Indeed, the technologies through their very existence call into question rather more than just laws against sharing intellectual property or the excessive greed of capitalist society and can in fact be quite specific. The hacker community has created its own mythology and is in possession of not only technical insight but of a collective memory made all the more compelling as many are employed as IT professionals. These individuals are as well placed as any to raise some disturbing questions. Without them we might have no idea of the checkered past, or massive misappropriations of funds, of many a respectable internet presence or that it was only after a fortuitous visit to Apple headquarters that Bill Gates gained a decisive leg up over his long time rival with the introduction of his new Windows OS. The virtual monopoly on information enjoyed by the largest of the technological giants is anathema to the hacker ethos and has led to open declarations of war against the legitimacy of these organizations based on their history of what have been portrayed as predatory practices. The wiser firms have made efforts to harness this energy, or at least placate it, as was evidenced by the unmistakable presence of a pirate flag flapping in the breeze at Apple headquarters during the heady days of the company’s early history.

Do pirate organizations possess any chance of achieving their aims?

The lessons of history suggest otherwise and at the very least they will struggle to match the pace of change required to stand any chance of making a permanent impression. We could blame their lack of territory, institutional weakness, or an inability to effectively mobilize resources but the simple fact is that States and large corporations possess a remarkable capacity to adapt to changing conditions and exploit them for their own benefit.

At a more subtle level it is impossible to discount the power of capitalist society to adapt to its own contradictions, whether internal or external. The rise, and eventual downfall, of pirate radio provides a textbook example of the process. Free radio stations were eventually co-opted by the establishment through a licensing process that invited a few of their number to the capitalist table while permanently shutting the others out, precipitating their own extinction, as happened in France at the exact moment the licenses were distributed. This is no different from the golden age of piracy on the high seas when the sovereign had the power to disrupt any hint of subversion by drafting pirates into the service of the crown as privateers simultaneously creating profit and crushing any revolutionary intent. Sovereign power has the ultimate authority to define limits, to redefine the relationship between cause and effect, to define the frontier between what can or can’t be seized by the State. In this context the very existence of pirates could be viewed almost as an epiphenomenon signaling that the rules of the game are in a state of flux. It is only a matter of time before the frontier in which they operate is reabsorbed by the empire making their window of opportunity for creating lasting change through economic or public pressure very short indeed.

Are we witnessing the ferment of a real revolution?

There is unquestionable evidence of the pirate organization’s ability to unsettle certain aspects of neoclassical economic theory, most notably by calling into question a number of assumptions on the subject of intellectual property. It is taken for granted that investors receive a guarantee that the fruits of their willingness to take risks be protected through law. In other words, they require a certain degree of security and transparency. What should not be overlooked however is the role of creative minds operating out on the periphery where qualities such as speed, inventiveness, and agility are necessary for survival and where the frontiers of the future of capitalism are being constantly tested and called into question. We remind readers in our book that the word “hack” was originally intended to describe a simple and elegant solution to any complex problem. Moreover, it should be noted that hackers have created an alternative marketplace of ideas that allows them to communicate, document their actions, and indeed reward the best and brightest found among their ranks.

Another dimension of the hacker phenomenon is undoubtedly the thorn in the side they represent for large corporations at a technical and economic level. This can act as a spur for innovation and has undoubtedly prevented more rampant profiteering from the internet. Some organizations have responded by inviting the pirates directly into the corridors of power in much the same way as the sovereigns of Europe in the 17th century to create a mutually beneficial relationship. The distinction between the two sides is blurry and is constantly crisscrossed in both directions with the full blessing of the sovereign or other monopoly on power.

Essentially, moving beyond clearly defined frontiers beyond which exists the unknowable other, beyond what is defined as being either legal or illegal, should we accept that any discussion will contain significant grey areas?

Without question, and with an acknowledgement of the fact that implicit in the very existence of the grey frontier, that uncharted sea where modern day pirates ply their trade, is an understanding that we are observing signs that contemporary capitalism is facing one of its recurring crises and is undergoing a process of renewal. Indeed, one could observe that the search for new territory, (real or virtual, at a macro- or micro-level), goes hand in hand with the appearance of these signals to indicate that a healthy process of renewal is taking place in our modes of interaction and exchange.

We can identify a paradox in the manner in which pirate organizations both exploit and colonize the new frontiers. Acting in competition with State actors they make a contribution to development through the very act of plunder by exposing any chinks in the armor of the systems employed by the imperial or corporate power. This leads to retrenchment and adjustment as the powerful must accept the new realities through a redefinition of priorities and a renewed search for practices to grant legitimacy to their reign. Pirates are an inevitable consequence of modernization and can be viewed as an economically transformative force and spur to development for the capitalist system. They ensure that during the process of creative destruction that forms such an essential part of modern day capitalism what emerges from the ashes is never a duplicate of what went before.

The peculiar dynamics of capitalism pose a double edged question that cuts to the heart of the organizations of “legal” actors, whether institutional or private. At the very least it is worth attempting to integrate the paradoxical role pirate organizations play into our current models of economic growth. Removing their stigma seating them at the same table as representatives of other intellectual models for the sociology of organizations would be beneficial to all. It could deepen our understanding and allow a finer reading of the comportment and strategies of all the other entities who would wish to ride on the coat tails of great power.


  • The Pirate Organization: Lessons from the Fringes of Capitalism
    Rodolphe Durand
    List Price: EUR 19,75
  • L'organisation pirate : Essai sur l'évolution du capitalisme
    Rodolphe Durand
    List Price: EUR 16,30
  • L'Organisation pirate (Official blog of the book written by Rodolphe Durand)

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