In a Society that has Abolished Every Kind of Adventure, the Only Adventure is to Abolish the Society.

Review of: Gabriella Coleman (2014) Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous. New York and London: Verso, 464 pages.

From the Canadian secret services to social scientists to the participants themselves, everybody knows that if you want to understand Anonymous, you have to turn to Gabriella Coleman. Widely hailed as an exceptionally thorough ethnography, her new book Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous appeals to something hackers hold dear, and academics not enough. The former call it correctness, the latter rigour. ‘Accurately portrayed’, as Anonymous activist Commander X puts it (2014).

The explicit goals of the book are found in the concluding chapter – to dispel myths about Anonymous, and to submit to its enchantment in the form of a popular yet analytical treatise – it is an important milestone in hacker studies and therefore I concentrate on its usefulness as a work of social science. Hacker studies as an emergingfield suffers from the beginning of what I call a ‘social movement syndrome’: the trying, often desperately, to understand, or if necessary misunderstand, hackers as a social movement – or failing that, at least as a socially relevant movement. On the one hand, this is understandable since social movement studies provides a stable framework for studying the rise and fall of disruptive groups; on the other hand, such a perspective results in a tension between academia and the hacker scene because most hackers are not interested in being a social movement. Finding their techno-activist allies in the scene, scholars correctly identify an ongoing tension between activists and engineers amongst hackers themselves.

While Levy’s 1984 summary of ‘hacker ethics’ made profound impact on both the scene and the scholarship by thematising a tension, it has not solved these problems in the long run. The ‘play struggle’ concept put forward in Söderberg’s Hacking Capitalism has probably been the most successful and lucid attempt to unify the political contradictions of hackerdom. The concept theorized hackers as disgruntled workers yearning for the joys of unalienated labour which capitalism is unable to provide (2008). In Hacker, Hoaxer… the transition from computer- and media savvy users looking for adventure to accidental revolutionaries is explained through the ‘trickster thesis’.

Coleman builds on Lewis Hyde’s work in cultural criticism, which goes back to Bakhtin’s literary criticism of Rabelais, arguing that ‘It is not difficult to imagine the troll and Anonymous as contemporary trickster figures. They are provocateurs and saboteurs who dismantle convention while occupying a liminal zone.’ (34) Where others reference the hacker ethics as a centerpiece of hacker culture, she builds her analysis on the idea of ‘lulz’: laughing at someone else’s expense. The argument is compelling for resolving the above outlined paradox because it can explain how fun loving hooligan hackers can turn into electrified revolutionary militants.

After playing out the trickster thesis about free software developers in her previous book (Coding Freedom), written ‘back to back’ (407) with this one, she found in Anonymous the empirical material with which to demonstrate the operation of tricksterism on a more concrete hence more persuasive level (2012). If conceptually the previous title spells out hacking as an elegant solution that is essentially a joke, here the subversive tendency of tricksterism is developed a step further as ‘LOLs’ (laughter) become ‘lulz’. The subversive potential of the ‘practical joke’ at the heart of hacking was convincing in the previous book, but it rested on a more subtle, more fragile analysis of hacker sociality: with Anonymous explicitly thematising the lulz in their own discourse, arguing for it to have a central piece in the theoretical understanding of the hacker phenomena makes a more solid argument.

Speaking of external rather than internal causes, the role of repression by the state and capital in the politicisation of the hacker scene is central in both stories as a device which moves the plot further. The key insight here is that institutionalisation and politicisation are processes mainly driven by external pressures, so that it is not possible to theorise the hacker scene without theorising its interactions with wider social structures. This is an important observation which builds on her earlier work with Alex Golub (Coleman and Golub: 2008), but has taken on more substance since then, accumulated into the telling term nerd scare.

In the final analysis, tricksterism offers a way to theorise subversion as an anthropological universal that is an indispensable part of human sociality even if it is in perpetual conflict with the established order, rather than something which emerges spontaneously from outside capitalism (which would be ridiculous).

Commander X notes that the book is ‘both epic and encyclopedic’ (2014). A triptych of four chapters each depict the rise, heyday and fall of Anonymous and its satellites, spanning a total of 464 pages. As Coleman was researching Anonymous before it was cool, the narrative is spread evenly and gravitates with the creeping force of destiny towards its tragic end. Her decision to present the trajectory of Anonymous through drawing parallels with the rise and fall of US radicalism is a claim, a hypothesis and evaluation in itself. Therefore, my recapitulation follows that lead.

Such radicalism – just like hacking – emerged in conjunction with the cultural shock of the early 1960s which brought youth cultures into circulation (Wallerstein: 2004); while in the book the ‘shock culture’ of trolling solidified in the first decade of the 21st century from the explorations of free speech on the Internet. The Walpurgis night of taboo breaking counter-culture turned into the daybreak of political resistance as the new formation came into contact with mainstream society – hippies turned yippies then, trolls turned hacktivists now.

Activists of Students for a Democratic Society worked in tandem with militants of the Black Panther Party, joined by Vietnam veterans and young folk singers like Bob Dylan. Coleman vehemently denies the ‘creepy basement dweller’ stereotype of hackers, bringing together Irish kids with a Puerto Rican gangster, an Iraqi veteran with an alterglobalisationist black block protester, amongst a host of minor characters who could all work together behind the mask. These motley crews organised direct action against the state and capital in public assemblies as well as affinity groups. The boiling points are remembered as the Days of Rage in 1969 and Operation Payback is a Bitch in 2010. As Anons like to say: ‘And Now You Have Got Our Attention’.

The Vietnam war of the sixties features as the Arab Revolutions of the 2010s where Anon’s fight from afar with ‘any memes necessary’ (Taylor 2015). Here, the author does a good job of presenting the alternating dynamics between conspiracy in affinity groups and mass organisation on open channels, demonstrating her thesis that Anonymous is not simply a ‘hive mind’ of mass collaboration nor just a shadowy hacker group, but a labyrinthine territory of resistance. In the last period, plurality gives way to underground cabals caught in a spiral of armed struggle: the splinter groups of Anonymous – Lulzsec and Antisec – go on a ‘hacking spree’ against major state and capital actors like the FBI or Sony, as well as military contractors like Stratfor.

The exploits and desperation of Weather Underground[2] style, clandestine guerilla warfare resonates here well. State repression arrives through paranoia and infiltration modelled on COINTELPRO[3] tactics. One of the central characters in both Anonymous and its splinter groups –called Sabu – is flipped, continuing to participate as a spy and a provocateur, while the agencies slowly track down and encircle the other participants. All receive grotesquely disproportionate sentences especially on US soil, but the worst – a decade long sentence including periods of solitary confinements – is reserved for Jeremy Hammond, a long time anarchist hacker who was ‘hands down the most insurgent of the bunch’ – a telling tale for any militants, in electronic disturbance or not. What could have amended the value of the book as part of the historical record is a timeline of operations, hacks and arrests that served as a scaffold for the narrative and a reference for historians of hacking.

In summary, the moral of Anonymous’ parallel with New Left resistance in the 1960s and 1970s is that the strategy and tactics of crashing opposition groups did not change. They did not have to change, since illegal infiltration and provocation is still the most effective method. Thus Coleman manages to situate Anonymous in the most illustrious line of political resistance in the United States, showing that electronic disturbance or not, their antics should be counted as activism.

Methodologically speaking, there is much to address in terms of hacker studies in particular and anthropology in general. The innovation of Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy is to use IRC[4] logs as its primary source material. The anthropologist can meet hackers on their own ground: the telegraph of the Internet. This enables her to capture an essential site and aspect of hacker sociality that have been seriously under discussed in the literature so far. As a community-managed social media or federated social network operating continuously since 1988, or an Internet protocol for real time conversations, IRC has survived generations of chat technologies and social media platforms, emerging in the new millennium as the primary field of social interactions for new generations of geeks like hackerspace participants, and of course Anonymous themselves (maxigas 2014). Coleman manages to utilise this medium thoughtfully for her ethnographic work, with the advantage that chat logs provide automatic transcripts of interactions. Since the channel is a plain text medium, there are no other aspects of the communication (like tone of voice) that are lost in the ethnographic record. This research practice can be recognised as a contribution to the widening toolbox of digital ethnography. Digital methods are not fetishised either, since traditional methods and ‘Away From the Keyboard’ meetings also provide important insights and complement online interactions.

However, Coleman does not spell out the way in which making use of IRC as a communication channel is itself a political choice made by hackers and hoaxers which structures social interactions and subjectivation processes. For instance, the use of topical channels and pseudonymous identities that are the staple of IRC technology and its usage probably encourages the emergence of a common voice. Their choice of media arguably helps Anons develop the impersonal, peer produced politics that made them famous, as well as opening the possibility for the conspirative group dynamics that the author describes as complementary.[5] Even though the paranoia instilled by text-only interactions comes across clearly in the book, in general a digital ethnography should be more explicitly reflexive about media use. This in turn leads to a wider discussion problematising the very definition of ethnography.

Theoretically, there is much debate about what ethnography – the method that defines the identity of anthropology as a discipline – should be and we seem to differ on the topic with the author. Ethnography is more than gaining rapport and spending time hanging out with the natives – although that is an essential part and Coleman spends much time recounting the process. It is also about generating data from observations and relating emic knowledge (the subjects’ own understanding of themselves) to etic knowledge (social scientific conceptualisations). The idea of anthropology, as it applies ethnography, is that an inside view of a particular culture can expand our theoretical understanding of societies and these previous two can tell us more about what it means to be human. Notwithstanding its contributions recounted above, the book is noticeably lacking in this area. The analysis rests on a wide range of scholarship from a number of disciplines, yet few of these ideas are developed further based on the empirical material. Coleman does a good job at picking relevant concepts and observations which apply to the phenomena – like Nietzsche’s Dionysian critique of modernity or the !Kung people’s shaming of the meat to check on authority, or even Hyde’s trickster figure – but does little to contribute upstream to these theories. For instance it would have been interesting to spell out in detail how the role – and the powers – of tricksters change in the midst of electronic networks, growing mediatisation and the cognitive capitalism going rampant in the new millennium. Altogether, the book suffers somewhat from a lack of a cumulative effect and a consistent theoretical argument, which is perhaps fair since it says ‘story’ on the tin.[6]

The story of Anonymous could be told in as many ways, as any other story; and in many ways my own review is probably as unfaithful to the book as the book is to the movement. Yet, Coleman’s account has a beginning, a middle and an end with a moral, and that is what counts: it makes for a good story. Another angle will be told by my friend Pedro Jacobetty on the peer production of politics, on the foot soldiers of mayhem, how they used the media and how it used them: another tale of solidarity, deception and betrayal. As Coleman’s work shows brilliantly, an anthropologist works with her whole personality; it was the only story she could tell. Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy will be remembered as a contribution to the social history of the trickster, militant activism and hacker studies, a gritty chronicle of the search for adventure in a 21st century dystopia.



Pirates, Industry, and the State: Perspectives on the Construction of a Spoil-Sport in an Age of Copyright


Review of: Martin Frederiksson and James Arvanitakis (eds.) (2014) Piracy: Leakages from Modernity. Sacramento, Litwin Books, 370 pages.

From Jack Sparrow to Somali hijackers, from torrents to fake Gucci bags, pirates and their loot are prominently present in contemporary culture. The eighteen essays collected in Piracy: Leakages from Modernity attempt to analyze a variety of piracy practices, and relate them to broader social transformations. As the authors have diverse vocational backgrounds, ranging from economy and sociology to political theory and law, the collection shows a wide variety in methodological approaches. Altogether, they provide a rich overview of different piratic practices as well as a balanced description of their political potential.

Despite the diversity in these essays, many of them seem to share certain fundamental assumptions. This applies, first of all, to the modernity referred to in the title. Out of the various essays, a picture emerges of a late-capitalist, neo-liberal society, in which an important role is played by the circulation of information and the commodification of culture. As Lucas Logan concludes in his essay on intellectual property rights (IPR), ‘communication technologies are the fuel for the 21st century global economy and are regulated by capitalist market forces and states that further entrench established power relations’ (141). The main target of many essays consists of the ‘capitalist market forces’ that are mostly identified as US-based media and entertainment industries. Various essays sketch these industries as old, slow, centralized organizations that are out of touch with the reality of digital file-sharing. Rather than seizing upon the possibilities of this new reality, so it seems, they are ‘protecting their pre-digital distribution infrastructure’ as well as their ‘[long established] profit-making pattern’ (201). As aptly pointed out by You Jie, the so-called defense by the entertainment industries against the threat of file-sharing is exactly what motivates their use of the term piracy, as well as their recourse to legal force. As Sean John Andrews argues, ‘US lobbyists for the content industries have been (…) demanding legislative efforts to protect their dying business model’ (98). Arguably the lobbyists have so far been quite successful, as state agencies appear to willingly assist in enforcing the property rights of the entertainment industries. Telling in this regard is the influence that the US has exercised upon Spain in order to have its IPR regulation reformed and upheld, as revealed by Wikileaks documents and discussed by Logan (137). Although much attention is paid to the US, the EU did not remain free from a similar intertwinement of market interests and legislative reform. As a result ‘powerful states are able to assert authority over, and force legal, regulatory and economic regimes, on weaker states’ (140). The corollary is that the discourse on piracy falls apart in, on the one hand, a strongly legalistic language, varnishing over the power- relations by using terminology of ‘compliance’ and ‘harmonizing’ regulative frameworks; on the other hand, the protection of IPR is phrased in moralistic terms, such that file-sharing is branded as theft and robbery.

Efforts to globalize IPR date back to the nineteenth century (79), but as Logan paraphrases Peter Andreas and Ethan Nadelmann, the process of global IPR protection speeded up in the post-World War II period (144). However, this process clashes particularly fiercely with the rise of the Internet, and its initial conception as a free and open web. This clash seems to be well-illustrated by the public outrage at the US Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA) in 2011, as well as at the international Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA, 2012). Interestingly, James Meese observes that protests largely attacked the reforms because their enforcement entailed a threat to free speech, not because they implied a further privatization of intellectual property (23-24). The essay by Andrews does allow for a critique of privatization, as he draws the familiar analogy between the closing of the commons in eighteenth-century England and the closure of the web as a space to freely share and distribute knowledge. In both cases, the ‘social bandits’ who violate the new privatized order belong to the margins of society: then, the peasants whose decrease in resources forced them to seek employment in the newly developing industries, now, locals in the Global South who cannot afford, or have no legitimate access to, text books, TV shows or music.

The essay by Sonja Schillings covers a wider historical period, and also succeeds in laying bare the century-old distinction between white pirates and ‘black’ Muslim ones. The non-white pirate, she argues, is ‘associated with collective and inherently hostile Otherness that seeks to overcome the West’ (77). The white pirate, however, was conceived as pursuing his material self-interest by joining the Muslim pirates and relinquishing his Christian, European identity. As a result, he was held individually responsible, whereas the non-white pirate constituted an anonymous threat that had to be eradicated. Out of the highly individualistic white pirate evolved eventually, Schilling contends, the image of the pirate as a social rebel. The dichotomy between non-white piracy and white piracy echoes in a number of essays, and especially so in those few that refrain from defining contemporary piracy primordially as a digital practice. The article by Hatzapoulis and Kambouri describes street vending of counterfeit goods by migrants on the squares of Athens, including the square that the Occupy movement took possession of. Although Occupy activists explicitly rejected the racist violence faced by the migrant vendors, they did ask the vendors to leave the square as the commercial activity of selling goods conflicts with the activists’ intention to collectivize public space. Engaging in a commercial activity, the vendors were not considered as political actors (278ff). The essay by Robison, Drodzweski and Kiddell on ‘biopiracy’ in a way reverts the dichotomy between the white, rebellious pirate and the anonymous non-white pirate. They describe the – partly successful – fight against the patenting by companies of plants, animals, and processes that were historically cultivated by marginalized indigenous communities. Interestingly, these communities and their support groups deploy the discourse of ‘biopiracy’ and ‘anti-piracy’ as a rhetorical tool to affirm their collective right vis-à-vis the property right of (for instance pharmaceutical and agricultural) companies. Hence, the companies using IPR are framed as the pirates, rather than the communities who deem their knowledge a common asset.

The above essays are insightful as to the variety of piracy. However, the cover of the book indicates the central core of this collection: with a recurrent pattern of the copyright-logo, occasionally interrupted by a skull-and-crossbones sign, the focus is on the digital sharing of copyrighted content. Out of the very different essays and approaches, a many-sided picture emerges of who this ‘pirate’ is. Three types, already sketched by Meese in the first essay, and partly also by Virginia Crisp in the second chapter, recur throughout the book. The first type is the pirate who we know from the anti-piracy discourse of the entertainment industry: the one who makes money out of file-sharing, and is thus considered ‘parasitic’ on the creative work of individual artists. Meese cites Kim ‘Dotcom’ Schmitz of Megaupload as a prime example: Megaupload, at some point ‘one of the world’s largest file-sharing sites’ (25), was extremely profitable, until the moment the servers were taken down and Schmitz faced trial. Pictures of Kim’s tokens of excessive wealth – his fleet of cars, his villa – played a major role in the subsequent slur campaign. Interestingly, a number of essays show that file-sharers justify their practices by distancing themselves from those ‘pirates’ who are in it for the money. As a result, they resemble the rhetoric of the entertainment industries – of which they are the main target. As Crisp puts it: ‘[file-sharers] have adopted parts of the anti-piracy rhetoric to pour scorn on those that they perceive to be the real pirates: that is, both those who engage in the unauthorized circulation of physical goods for economic reward as well as some of the major owners of copyright’ (50).

The second type is the pirate as constructed by advocacy groups and political organizations such as the ‘Pirate Party’: the pirate as a social rebel. This pirate is conceived as ‘a “subversive radical” engaged in a power struggle with the cultural industries’ (43). As shown by Jonas Andersson and Stefan Larsson in their extensive study of users of The Pirate Bay and their motivation, this conception is especially prevalent among active uploaders. ‘Seeding’ and uploading torrents are thus highly politicized by the file-sharers themselves. As file-sharing is part of the fight for a free, not-for-profit culture, the pirate deliberately challenges the establishment, and especially the legitimacy of IPR.

The third type shows the pirate as the banal consumer of media products. As Meese argues, piracy is an everyday practice of the ‘mainstream digital citizen, more interested in questions of infrastructure and access than opposition and exclusion’ (30). As this ordinary pirate is mostly interested in obtaining media fast and cheap, (s)he can act quite like a nagging, impatient customer. This is well-illustrated by Vanessa Mendes Moreira De Sa’s essay on ‘fan subtitling’ in Brazil: groups of dedicated fans spending their free time on providing subtitles to foreign TV shows. Despite the quality and the speed with which they deliver their free service to a huge audience, some fan-subtitlers admit that ‘they often felt that impatient viewers did not value their efforts’ (297-298). Piracy, rather than deliberately ideologically opposing the entertainment industries, might be the result of decades of immersion in commodified culture. This does not mean that there is no political potential in ordinary piracy, but Francesca Da Rimini and Jonathan Marshall convincingly argue that ‘[i]f this is a type of radicalism, it is one whose radicalism is unintentional, emerging out of the same forces that try to shut it down’ (341).

Despite the breadth of the essays, one perspective is only marginally present: that of the artists whose work is pirated. Only the essay of Balázs Bodó and of da Rimini and Marshall consider their interests, albeit in an indirect way. It should be granted that these artists make up a very heterogeneous group, ranging from well-established bands that are independent from the big recording companies, down to those who use social media to create, and reach out to, their fan base. Arguably, the claim that piracy is a form of stealing from artists is overblown by the entertainment industries. Nevertheless, if there is a copyright war going on between the big entertainment industries and those fighting for free culture, the artists are likely to end up in the buffer zone.

In general, this collection gives a plausible and rich account of the different forces at work in the construction of the contemporary pirate. Because the book does such a good job in showing the intricacies of this construction, the structure of the book might be a little puzzling. The editors separate the book into three sections that address the ‘ontology’, the ‘politics’, and the ‘practices’ of piracy. However, their motivation for the tripartite structure does not sufficiently distinguish between the ‘ontological basis’, ‘the politics of piracy from a macro perspective, analyzing how piracy relates to structures of power and processes of transformation’, and ‘piratical practices (…) [that] carry different meanings and have shifting implications in various contexts’ (5-6). Exemplifying this is the category of ontology, which the editors, quite convincingly, define in terms of power relations and practices. Once we agree with the editors that ‘piracy is neither homogeneous, not essential’ but rather ‘a label that certain actors slap on others for specific reasons’ (5), the concept of piracy seems to be a social construct that emerges within power relations and social practices. Hence, it is hard to see how one can distinguish between ‘ontology’, ‘politics’ and ‘practices’: indeed, many of the essays show how these are intimately interwoven with one another.

Based on their arguments against copyright as a means of privatizing common goods, a great number of the authors seem to be committed to open access. It is therefore surprising that many of them do not offer (easy) access to their papers, as this would have prevented the privatization of their – mostly publicly-funded – research. Overall, the quality of the essays differ sharply, with an occasional essay that could have benefited from additional language editing. Other chapters, however, such as the ones by Lie, Bodó, da Rimini and Marshall, argue lucidly and convincingly against the simplistic dichotomy of pirates and industry, and do a great job in exposing the ambiguities inherent to contemporary practices of piracy without downplaying their political potential.









Of Pirarchy, Anonimity, and Parametric Politics: an Interview with Ned Rossiter and Soenke Zehle

In an (in)famous postscript, Gilles Deleuze traces the emergence of a society of control, whose passive danger is jamming, and whose active danger lies in piracy and viruses. Media jamming and piracy, hacktivism and viruses are all rampant today: the internet is their natural breeding ground, to the point of becoming trivial occurrences in everyday life. Technology moves fast, but the means of understanding its movements do not, given the new media theory’s obligate and persistent homage to Deleuze’s early nineties programme. The gratuitousness of this reference today, combined with the lack of specificity concerning contemporary implementations of cybernetic modes of machinic governance, might just as well introduce a kind of theoretical laziness concerning the concrete stages of their development.

In their collaborative research efforts, Ned Rossiter and Soenke Zehle explore the consequences of new economies of capture and the enclosure of experience. For this edition of Krisis, they were willing to respond extensively via email to questions about their research, the directions it is taking, and the methodological and conceptual innovations they feel are needed in order to address the complexity of the present, so as to better grasp the most recent incarnation of that eternal and ambiguous figure at the center of this special issue, the pirate. The latter offers an entry node into some of the more intangible and abstract issues that permeate so-called network societies. As the focal point of a cognitive mapping, the interview addresses debates on the common(s) and its multitudes in their flight from wage labor, as well as the antinomies of informational capitalism, which frees up and mobilizes with one hand what it blocks entry to with the other. Fire and pay walls prevent access from what could be freely available to all, an idea that drove Aaron Swartz to disclosing JSTOR’s database of academic articles. As big data and dragnet surveillance increase the costs of identity, opting out becomes a viable alternative. What lies beyond is still uncertain, as the boundaries of the political implode to fuel a civil society whose weight existing democratic institutions cannot carry, without at least a sense of its ‘parametric’ dimensions.

Daniël de Zeeuw


Pirate practices often involve theft and property violations without clear-cut ideological motives, as is the case with most torrent trackers. For this reason they are often dubbed apolitical, in a pejorative, delegitimizing sense, namely as ‘merely’ criminal, directed towards private gain and against the public interest. More often than not, repression of what is deemed private is much stronger than what is said to be of public significance, making this repression less contested as well. Similarly, hackers’ targeting of information and communication infrastructure is depoliticized, or delegitimized under criminal conspiracy acts. Instead you claim that contemporary forms of piracy involve both contestations of ownership, new forms of use and an alternative politics of the common. Does this mean you reject the above framing of piracy as apolitical? Under what conditions may pirate practices involve genuine political acts? Or should they be evaluated according to other norms and categories altogether?

To talk about how such framings operate as devices of depoliticization, we should perhaps revisit the distinction between politics and the political that also informs reflections on piracy. As Derrida has noted in his reading of Schmitt’s account of the friend/enemy distinction as an existential antagonism – implying the ever-present possibility of physical killing – that is constitutive of the political, Schmitt’s attempt to deduce the political from a place where it did not yet exist requires a definition of the enemy as such, one that is linked to the possibility of a proper war – that is, an existentially political war. It is a distinction whose disappearance in the wake of modern warfare Schmitt both acknowledges and resists. It should be noted that in his post-war writings, Schmitt has discouraged readings of this distinction that stress annihilation as the inevitable telos of such an antagonism, but affirmed the need to think the ‘enemy’ as that which binds any one sphere of the political as an ethico-political space. Schmitt’s desire for distinction is alive in contemporary legal orthodoxy. The prosecution of piracy as a crime (rather than an act of war) has been lamented by current adherents of Schmitt such as John Yoo, for instance, Deputy Assistant US Attorney General in the George W. Bush Administration, who would like to see the public enemy status extended to terrorists (i.e. combatants that are ‘illegal’ in that they do not act on behalf of a sovereign state) more generally. But the definition of piracy that opens Daniel Heller-Roazen’s (2009) genealogy of the ‘enemy of humanity’ also echoes Schmitt’s attempt to deduce the political from non-subjective, non-anthropological categories.

This question is not limited to piracy, of course; it is one of the characteristics of the current conjuncture that statelessness, a key concern in the political philosophies of Hannah Arendt and Giorgio Agamben, is once again considered an instrument of governance (take the call to revoke the citizenship of jihadists, coming, needless to say, mainly from states who are signatories to the two UN conventions on the reduction of statelessness). So, the political character of piratical practices refers to the ways in which they modify the conditions of possibility for politics and political action. In this sense there is some correlation here with hacker practices, frequently subsumed under the governance meme of ‘cyberterrorism’. While following this line of thought leads us beyond the terrain of this interview, it should be noted that the association of piracy with terror is itself in need of a conjunctural explanation.

What interests us here is the scope available for tinkering with social and technological systems, the linkages that are foregrounded by reapproaching the question of piracy in terms of the infrastructural implications of its practices. The centrality of infrastructural and logistical registers to piratical practices cuts across public/private distinctions and calls for a parametric sense of the political, rather than the fall-back on a public sphere model that always-already depoliticizes piratical practices as private acts of appropriation without authorization. There is no necessarily progressive vision in the political dimensions of piracy. This is of course also true for any politics organized around the principles of identity and representation, but it nevertheless bears repetition. The point of departure for our reflections on piracy is not the romance of disruption, but a sense that piracy offers a particularly useful point of departure for analyses of the varying perspectives in the way we delineate the boundaries of the political.

For instance, we do not think of piracy primarily in terms of property violations. Such a framing is of extremely limited analytical reach. Instead, we want to know what is left of piracy when it is not exclusively understood in relation to property. There is a sense of piracy that simply involves illicit changes in ownership. But we are more interested in how piracy opens an exploration of the boundaries of sovereignty. Historically, the idea of a contiguous space of sovereignty (where one boundary touches the next, without non-sovereign territories in between) is rather recent, and in many parts of the world does not exist in practice – permanent policing of these boundaries is needed to produce them as boundaries, and pirates play a key role in how the predictive policing strategies of these semi-open spaces are determined and designed by public (states) and private actors (Private Military Corporations, NGOs). Within such a geopolitical imaginary, we move instead to practices of anonymity as exemplary acts of piracy situated within logistical worlds, whose techniques and technologies of governance seek to extract value through the capture of experience. With such a movement, we register the extent to which the infrastructural dimension of digital economies demands analytical attention, from the shift to low-latency networks and centralized storage systems (e.g. data centres) to the logistical technologies ensuring the synchronization of networked activities across the topologies of these new economies of capture.


Data pirates often narrate their own identities in terms of invisibility and anonymity: Anonymous is a recent example, but it goes back to the early cypherpunk scene. What is it about digital culture that invokes this persistent association with anonymity as a form of power, and political strategy?

In this world, anonymity is a central principle of operation. While anonymity is most often understood in terms of a refusal of the principle of identity, it acquires additional meaning in the shift from causation to correlation that lies at the core of a data analytics in which pattern recognition is more important than the logic of accountability and attribution. At the same time, the epistemological binding of data to empirical conditions is difficult to refute, even for practices of anonymity, not only because of the weight of legitimacy bestowed upon big data analytics to ‘explain’ the patterning of the world. But quite simply because once we acknowledge the extent to which identity is distributed across the topologies of our communicative enmeshments, stretching far beyond the sphere of signification to a much more encompassing semiotics of intensities, we realize that the dispersal of subjective traces far exceeds the economy of anonymity. It is too soon to tell, of course, how well anonymity scales, beyond encryption and the facile move of an exodus from commercial social media systems. But the space of a politics of anonymity is so much wider than the deliberative dimensions of the politics of representation. It is for this reason that we hold on to the concept of the political to at least lay claim to political possibility, even if we are not sure how and across which social and technological registers such a politics of anonymity can be articulated. Here, the question of anonymity becomes intimately intertwined with the question of how we approach the transformation of agency within machinic assemblages, of technical systems whose dispositions confront us with forms of agency we are not sure how best to comprehend. But rather than assuming at the outset that forms of agency that cannot be folded into a politics of representation lie beyond the scope of the political, part of the question of a politics of anonymity is to ask how we engage the disposition of these new technical systems in ways that acknowledge the actuality of machinic agency (without being reduced to a Latourian or STS world view, whose flat ontologies of thick description tend to occlude the instantiation of the political).

The question of traceability across computational systems, a significant concern in the analysis of such forms of agency, lies at the heart of the practice of piracy as well. There is nothing at the ontological level that ties data to the externalities from which it arises. Part of an economic logic of recursion, data speaks to itself before it addresses the world around it. To distinguish between the epistemological and ontological layers is itself a political thought, for as long as the data trails of anonymity are linked to empirics, then subjects become culpable of acts of piracy (among others). The ways in which the empirical dimensions of data are articulated epistemologically and ontologically also concerns parametric politics, as politics is increasingly drawn to explore and incorporate these registers of algorithmic cultures into new forms of governance.


Can you expand on what you mean by parametric politics and its relation to piracy?

By parametric politics we mean an engagement with the technical parameters of the infrastructural and logistical registers of politics. Understood as such, piracy is political in this broader sense regardless of its legitimacy, and there are faint echoes of this acknowledgement even in the generative visions of celebrity architects that have also popularized the term ‘parametric’ in the context of neoliberal urban development schemes. The political dimension of these practices is separate from their legitimacy: we have often seen the same practices de- and relegitimized rather quickly in relation to shifting geopolitical agendas, for instance. What was once considered legitimate reverse engineering has been recast as illegitimate in the name of intellectual property protection, mirroring shifts in the way we have come to speak about creativity and innovation.

Parametric politics is the politics of design. We need to develop a collective language – an idiom of expression, which entails the singularity of practice – that helps organize the production of subjectivity and social relations in ways that are not constrained by the (pre)formatting of action in algorithmic architectures. While we approach the Rancierian attentiveness to the autonomization of the aesthetic as an aspect of the real subsumption of aesthetic experience, we also draw on the notion of ‘procedural literacy’ popularized by the game theorist Ian Bogost: ‘When we play games, we operate those models, our actions constrained by those rules’ (Bogost 2011: 4). A parametric politics for us means identifying, testing and, where possible, transforming the rules that delimit how we operate within the machinic arrangements of logistical media apparatuses. Maker movements have embraced the collective ability to appropriate the infrastructures of informatized production, social philosophy has rediscovered craft. Our variety of design thinking also draws on the philosophies of machinism we think we need to engage in to escape the presentist politics of isolating algorithms as autonomous digital agents, as useful as algorithmic accountability analyses can be. Software studies has drawn attention to the semiotics of software, while Maurizio Lazzarato calls attention to the asignifying semiotics of machinic assemblages.

Finally, parametric politics is an attempt to bring the machine back into view, into the comprehension of a specific politics (where we understand the machine in the sense of Marx’s Grundrisse, i.e. a distributed assemblage whose operational logic both enables and limits the autonomy of its constituent elements as well as the extent of its involvement in the production of subjectivity). Piratical practices operate at the boundaries of such a parametric politics. Their machinic scope is neither comprehended nor governed by the traditional juridical problematization of piracy and the conception of politics it presupposes.

In your research
, as well as in your answer just now, you try to relate pirate practices to what you call a politics of anonymity (Rossiter and Zehle 2014b). Can you further elaborate as to what anonymity in this context refers to?

As argued above, piracy is neither adequately nor exhaustively comprehended in terms of the legality or illegality of its practices. What must come into view is what used to be referred to as so-called primitive accumulation (or, as David Harvey called it, accumulation by dispossession, which links these processes more directly to the dynamics of commoning) – how something becomes property, a ‘resource’ to begin with, and not start with its status as property as a given. The shift from a comparatively open destination web to the walled gardens of commercial media is a prime example of this process of exploiting and extracting value from the common (a social relation) in order to enclose the commons (the expressive form of social relations).

Anonymity is likewise a non-proprietary resource, and a key element in commoning strategies. The refusal to be identified and captured by processes of subjectivation links practices of anonymity to the social production of the common, but also to what we might call the a priori of any politics of rights – what Étienne Balibar has, following Hannah Arendt, referred to as the right to have rights. If there is a right to have rights, there has to be political subjectivity prior to citizenship. Hobbes knew this, of course, but what struck him as a dangerous thought experiment was limited as a potential attribute of the indigenous peoples of the new world. Today, the renaissance of animist thought serves as yet another reminder that humanity and subjectivity are coupled only within specific cosmopolitical horizons. So anonymity refers to a type of political subjectivity that is not articulated in terms of citizenship, identity, representation.

All that remains is expression and action without enclosure. At the same time, anonymity communicates with itself and to the world through, more often than not, commercial infrastructures. This is not insignificant, and it is one reason why anonymity operates differently online. At this point we note the intersection between the political economy and territorial mediations of digital infrastructures such as data centres or server farms and the internal operations of anonymity. To be anonymous, in other words, is not to be severed from relations of control. We are not romantics in that sense, but questions relating to anonymity and autonomy at the level of infrastructures that have been a core register of net-cultural engagement since the very beginning are also and necessarily a concern of parametric politics, of the creation of interfaces with relations of control that allow us to address whatever effects of subjective constitution these relations establish.

The territorial consists of juridical, geological, economic and social-political struggles over spatial imaginaries, formations and their temporal variations. As an object of computational measure and calculation, territory works to contain and govern through techniques of deduction and exclusion. It does this through the design of parametric politics. That which does not conform to the rule-set of parameters is beyond measure and therefore free. Yet, paradoxically, this freedom is accompanied by a form of illegitimacy vis-à-vis the struggle for power, since it is existence beyond accountability. This is also the paradox of anonymity: it only exists as a collective ensemble of sociality (beyond itself) once it registers within the parameters of control, even if it does so as disruption. Which is why we not only want to think piracy beyond its determination by property, but anonymity beyond its determination by identity.

Expression has to pass through infrastructure, whether that is the body or the machine (the body as machine). So even when communication is secured with sophisticated encryption technologies, it is also being indexed as data within server stacks. And while data may enjoy a life without identity, someone or some entity is footing the power bill for energy consumed and costs related to the construction and maintenance of data infrastructures. This inevitably means they want a return on investment, since the idea of public infrastructures for communication no longer attracts much support from the neoliberal state. Such forces and material conditions constitute an ethico-political dimension that all too often goes overlooked within the cult of anonymity. Expression is not just a practice of multiplication (of discourse, practice, relations, subjectivities). It is also a practice of subtraction. And this is also an important attribute that we invoke through the practices of piracy. Subtraction not of value from property, but more the subtraction of resources from the common. Piracy, then, is also a practice of depletion. Our interest is in asking how we think of practices of design, of invention and orchestration as the work of politics within networked ecologies situated within zones of depletion and economies of exhaustion. Depletion is where the common begins, in sites to which no one lays claims anymore because they have been exhausted. Exhaustion leaves fragments, ruins, waste – it is what comes after production,  after use, after work (Zehle 2015). Piracy not only operates in this space, its movements across machinic assemblages facilitate our comprehension of the role of informatization in the structural transformation of work more generally (Rossiter and Zehle 2015).


You mention the rise of a culture driven by a desire for invisibility and escape from neoliberal networks of capture. Alexander Galloway and Eugene Thacker have employed a similar vocabulary, just as Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri speak of an exodus of the multitude. You also seem to conceive of invisibility as a form of withdrawal of free labour from the digital economy and as an immunitary device against overly ‘imperial ambitions’. Yet you acknowledge its utopian-romantic bend, and stress the continuing need for institutional engagement (the figure of the whistleblower, for example). How do you situate yourself in relation to these other approaches? And, furthermore, as it appears that, instead, the emancipatory struggles of the previous decades were mostly aimed precisely at ‘becoming visible’ (in an institutional sense, through the acquisition of rights, the recognition of identities, etc.) has there been a genuine shift in the logic of emancipatory practices?

As to the last question: in online communication, the trace is trackable, regardless of whether you block cookies or hide your IP address. But it’s not a shift, at least not simply from one to the other – politics organized around representation is alive and well, including a politics of rights (just consider the occupy / pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong, or the electoral victories of anti-austerity parties across Europe). The freedom to organize includes the freedom from surveillance, involving both invisibility/visibility. A default setting for a politics of anonymity would be to proceed by way of encryption. Yet it has become increasingly apparent since Snowden, NSA, et al., that everyone follows everyone else. This is the mutual surveillance game. Interestingly, anti-surveillance tools have much in common with the double agency of a different era – and with a poetics of disappearance and desubjectivation. So again, this is part of what engaging piracy on its own terrain can do: it opens up our analysis of the computational conjuncture beyond the historical horizon of the digital society and the presumption that we need to comprehend it above all in the technological terms of informatization.

As to the apparent opposition between withdrawal and engagement: the latter might also manifest as collective practices of inventing new institutional forms. When movements organize, they are building political and social infrastructures whose dynamics will often take on properties specific to the media of communication, the architectures of code and, let’s not forget, the materiality of the built environment. But as we mentioned earlier, there is also a larger scale of political economic forces associated with the commercial infrastructures through which the communication practices of movements must necessarily pass. This raises the paradox of anonymity, or a politics of the invisible, which also registers as a technical trace. So whatever gestures of withdrawal one may attribute to labour-power, there remains the lingering problem of the trace and the economy it fosters. The general problem of post-autonomia as presented in the writings of Virno, Hardt and Negri is an insufficient knowledge of the politics and economy of the technical apparatuses of communication. This is less of a problem in the work of Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi, and not one at all for writers of a new generation like Matteo Pasquinelli or Tiziana Terranova.

David Graeber has referred to figures associated with post-autonomia as ‘impresarios of the historical moment’ (Graeber 2008). The political character of multitudinal agency is notoriously difficult to grasp and gauge; and how useful a single-concept political ontology ultimately is remains unclear. But we can, at least, study the effects of its mobilization, as well as contextualize this usage – just as the activities of the multitude in the heydays of Atlantic piracy help us understand how the open spaces of the sea became mapped to operate like factories, the piratical multitudes of today help us understand the role of logistical infrastructures. In this context it bears repetition that withdrawal is a form of engagement. The moment of retreat is constitutive of new relations. People want to see this put to the test and are disappointed with outcomes when bloggers enter politics. Similar analyses have been made of the wide range of pirate parties; while we follow their activities, we are more interested in registers of the piratical that lie beyond the politics of representation.

The metaphor of the multitude has sharpened our analytical vision in the sense that we pay much closer attention to non-identitarian forms of collectivity and agency. The Italian post-autonomia thought has also paved the way for analyses and appreciations of post-union, or post-party practices of building capacities to intervene. So there is, in a sense, more politics than ever. But at the same time it cannot by definition tell us something about the directedness of these forces.

A politics of the multitude that has nothing to say about the agency of machines seems of limited use to us. And we are not especially interested in teasing out the theoretical nuances of a concept better left to devotees of philosophy who in many ways are weary of the work of thinking the constitution of technical objects. Instead, we speak about piratical networks as machinic assemblages, which include clear and direct links to financial networks, the anonymous politics of offshore finance, of anonymous corporations, etc. We might also learn a thing or two about piratical practices from the errancy of algorithmic agency. Here, we think of the failure that comes with parameters in the design of algorithms for high frequency trading (HFT). Low-latency networks engineered to maximise the exploitation liquidity within markets are often promoted as reducing risk and exposure to market volatility for investors. Well, the ‘flash crash’ of 2010 brought that ruse to an end. Or at least it should have. No matter how carefully conceived, the algorithms of HFT are never able to completely account for unforeseen ‘behaviour’ in markets. Contingency, in other words, exceeds even the time of transaction within the speed of nano-seconds. This prompts us to think of the politics of the interval. How to identify, and exploit for political purposes, the uncertainty of time unaccounted for by even the most sophisticated algorithmic tools of inspection?

This brings us back to the question of visibility versus invisibility. In essence, this is a question of the power of discourse, of epistemology, to register presence and action in a world made operational. Anonymity offers one route toward a politics of the inactionable, a politics of relations without registration. This is what Foucault may have meant in privileging the status of the ‘non-discursive’ as a correlate of the ‘limit-experience’ of errant subjects, of desubjectification and a refusal to be governed, finding freedom in and as objects of experience. Such is the agency of machines, of a politics of the interval, of intervention in the logic of machinic self-organization, of modifications of parameters above or below the thresholds of perception of the laboring body. If cinematic practices indeed prefigure the computational, an ancestry worth keeping is the gesture of reappropriating the machinic eye. No accident, perhaps, that the scanner (including surveillance cameras and in fact all implements of vision-based organization and logistical governance, along with non-human vision such as infrared and a new generation of low-cost satellite-based imaging systems) has become an object of increasing political attention.


The title of one of your essays states that ‘privacy is theft’ (Rossiter and Zehle 2014a). This can be read (sarcastically?) as an affirmation of Dave Egger’s criticism of web 2.0 ideology, as advocating the elimination of privacy qua basic right/good. The elimination of anonymity is co-incidental with this, it suffers the same fate. But it seems that, as privacy designates a stance advocating a proprietary ‘keeping to oneself’ of data, anonymity can be dissociated from this, as it functions positively in online pirate practices by securing the collective sharing of data irrespective of ownership or authorization. Whereas in The Circle the elimination of privacy entails the total elimination of anonymity, here, privacy and anonymity seem to occupy different, perhaps even partly incompatible registers due to the notion of ownership implicit in privacy. Nevertheless, on an ideological level for most internet pirates anonymity is precisely a means to secure or regain privacy as a fundamental liberal value and condition, i.e. they make for a functional continuum. Is there a conflict, then, between what pirates do and the way they reflect politically on their own practice? And can you further elaborate how you conceive the relation between privacy and anonymity in general?

If communication is commerce, privacy involves reappropriation. Privacy nowadays is coincident with property, with technologies of enclosure. And indeed, as you point out, this has implications for anonymity, which is always-already entwined within juridical regimes of proprietarization. How to reclaim privacy in ways that shift acts of piracy beyond violating the rule of law in the pursuit of anonymity becomes a key political task of the present. As we note in our text (Rossiter and Zehle 2014a), it requires a collective work of invention to reroute – or as we put in that writing, to delink – our communicative relations from the capture of value by the infrastructural systems of lifestream logistics. Privacy, then, becomes one condition of possibility for anonymity. This came to the attention of many following the Snowden revelations about the NSA PRISM program. With the core of privacy under attack for individuals, governments and corporations, it dawned on many for the first time that piracy-as-anonymity is no longer exclusive to the bedroom follies of computer geeks, but rather an ontological layer of techno-sociality that now occupies a central space within the pantheon of online rights. Unsurprisingly, this led to a blossoming in the tech industry with any number of encryption software and VPN products hitting the market.


Lastly, you describe contemporary networks as sites where acts of communication are by definition acts of surveillance (Rossiter and Zehle 2014a). It is here that a desire for anonymity (as it intersects with an unaffected desire to communicate, but without being systematically monitored) becomes a stake in a political struggle. But by showing that surveillance has indeed become the main instrument for securing state and corporate governance and is intrinsic to the technico-legal standards and protocols enabling communication through which given power ratios are distributed and reproduced, does this preclude the emergence of a space in which such a desire for anonymity can be articulated?

Anonymity is worth pursuing if the price we pay for identity continues to rise. Part of the politics of anonymity is the on-going race between those who leave tracks and those who read them. Can we think of infrastructures that allow us to move anonymously? That’s where ghosts enter the stage, as they have in the theory of excommunication.

Another strategy is to lower the cost of identity. If identity constitutes an economy, and if we believe that something like the common helps articulate alternatives, this includes a commoning of identity. Anonymity is an element of that, but attribution and recognition play a major role in commons-based peer production and other forms of sharing.

We would also point to the ways in which low-latency networks (including high frequency trading systems and the associated ‘dark pools’ of anonymized financial automation) give rise to a different kind of anonymity, namely one that is subject to the architectures and economies of financialization. At this point, we begin to arrive at some of our core interests: the relation between labour and extraction machines, the centrality of black box design strategies for infrastructures whose operative logics are not easily folded back into the analytical and political horizons of representation, the general relation between anonymity and algorithmic architectures, the simultaneity of the structuring and capture of sociality and modes of relation. As ‘enemy of all’, piracy offers a powerful figure to a thinking that engages these practices and operations as logics of existentialization, as Félix Guattari put it, rather than from within the limited frame of public/private distinctions.

Perhaps most importantly, piracy continues to imply a non-sovereign imaginary that cuts across most of our conceptual concerns. We have long tried to somehow bring the local and the global into relation, and what we have gotten is a global civil society that mirrors the idea of an international community, both rooted firmly in the logic of sovereignty. Piracy is also a way to think about the political – parametric – registers of terrorist activity: Twitter welcomes free speech, but deletes links to the Foley killing by ISIS members, for instance. Social media editing is not necessarily censorship but the exercise of an editorial ethos, of course, so this is not really a debate about journalism ethics. It’s a debate about how much influence the figure of the ‘enemy of all’ has in shaping the logistical infrastructures that sustain the way we create and relate: no figure of (our) humanity without a satanic figure that hails from beyond its sovereign boundaries. And as long as we speak about the human, the enemy of all will be with us. 


On Counter-Hegemonic Realism


Many corporate actors do it: Coca Cola, H&M, Chiquita, Primark, G-Star, Starbucks, Apple, BMW, etc. They all publically proclaim that their marketed commodities are produced with a social responsibility, in accordance with ethical standards that respect humans and the natural world. Standard economic reasoning provides a clear-cut explanation for this phenomenon: market supply and demand tends to converge towards an equilibrium. The fact that ‘socially responsible products’ are increasingly marketed implies that everyday consumers purchase these products.

So once again, free-market reasoning seems to provide an effective solution for the organization of our societies! No need for government to regulate social concerns, the private sector can self-regulate, right? The ultimate win-win situation – private corporations profit whilst tackling eminent social concerns. In the academic management and development literature, as well as in de facto policies around the world, Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) has emerged as a buzzing concept.

In this essay, I aim to critically assess the practice of CSR. In the process, I aim to contribute to the debate on strategizing counter-hegemonic resistances (Laclau and Mouffe, 2001). The main claim I make is that CSR can be a tactical medium for individuals and/or social groups to effectively voice political concerns, and that it can contribute to a strategic process of radical socio-economic transformation. The essay advances in three stages. In the first instance, I briefly describe CSR in the light of the global institutional arena wherein this practice is embedded. Secondly, I introduce the distinction that runs through this volume: privateers versus pirates, which I reframe as hegemonic vs counter-hegemonic. I claim that both privateers and pirates operate within the global institutional arena, and that both can claim ownership over CSR practices. Conceptualizing counter-hegemonic strategies in a realist manner implies taking explicitly tactical action within the prevailing institutional arena in a conscious attempt to change this arena. As a consequence, I claim that consuming (or not consuming) CSR products becomes a political act. The third section claims that CSR presents itself as a potentially powerful tactic in forging a unified counter-hegemonic movement, and speculates what role pirates can play in transforming the transnational production process.

The transglocal institutional arena and CSR

The present point of departure is the perception that politics is changing. The realm of political actions has shifted dramatically. Both institutions and individuals find new ways to be political, while classical methods are being eroded. The present section aims to sketch a perspective on the global institutional arena wherein political actors operate. I argue that CSR is a political practice operative in the present global institutional arena.

Before advancing, I need briefly to clarify how I use the notion of ‘institutions’.[1] In first approximation, the notion of institution ties in to a vast body of literature in the social sciences that conceptualizes institutions as the formal and informal ‘rules of the game’; iterated structural incentives that inform individual behavior and consequential social interactions (North 1990). The analytic lens I apply is one that conceptualizes our social world as made up of institutions. In other words, I adopt a social ontology that analyzes human interactions in reaction to the institution wherein that behavior is embedded. Institutions are thus, generally taken, all explicit and implicit guides to human behavior. As such, they may be formal or informal, both organizationally structured or culturally implied, and everything in-between. In this sense, there is no escaping from institutions. All human actions occur, by definition, in relation to social institutions. This does not imply, however, that actors are wholly determined by their institutional embeddedness. Whilst institutional structures are both disciplining and enabling, individuals have degrees of agency to comply with, combine or defy institutional inductions. This usage of the concept of institutions has emerged in the analytic tradition and is, in my reading, similar to the continental usage of the concept of discourses.[2] Like discourses, institutions are multi-leveled and ever-interacting with other institutions. The matrix of institutions, wherein human interactions are embedded, is in constant flux. This conceptualization of institutions provides leeway for analyzing and strategizing institutional change and, consequently, socio-economic transformations.

The all-encompassing usage of the notion of ever-evolving and intertwined institutions implies that, for reasons of analyzing and strategizing CSR, hypothetical lines could be drawn between institutional levels and governance mechanisms. An analytic framework could consist of three scales, i.e. the global level, the national level and the local level (Cox 1981); and three governance mechanisms, i.e. public (state) governance, private (market) governance and local (community) governance (Uphoff 1993). But these would be suppositional delineations, while de facto institutional levels and governance mechanisms constantly combine and interact. In effect, it seems appropriate to speak of hybrid governance mechanisms, as de facto governance is likely to be comprised of a complex mixture of governance mechanisms. By a similar token, ‘the glocal’ has become a focal point of analysis, whereby de facto practices are generated by interlocking actors operative at various levels (Hart 2006). In the remainder of this essay, I will use the term ‘transglocal’ to indicate that hybrid governance mechanisms operate simultaneously at various levels, interlocking actors at the global, national and local levels. The practice of CSR, the central topic in this essay, operates in this transglocal institutional order.

As a reading of history, qua politics, the nation-state has for centuries been the main organized institution in the ‘developed’ world. Individuals and groups could turn towards a given bureaucratic department of the state for their political actions. As a public institution, the state operated as a collective actor. The rule of the state is here conceptualized as a cluster of public-governance mechanisms. Public-governance mechanisms didn’t only dominate institutions at the national level; national governments also became the dominant entity at the global and local level. Although the state has never been devoid of influences of private sector actors, in recent decades these influences have augmented exponentially (Hessel 2010). Private-governance mechanisms, i.e. governance structures set up by private-sector actors, have hence gained significant importance in the de facto organization of the transglocal institutional order. Especially in the economic realm, the power of private-sector actors to organize the geographically dispersed production process is prevalent. It is important to note here that private-governance mechanisms are only possible within the structural grid of public-governance mechanisms. It is with this realization that the dichotomous distinction between market and government collapses: it is a specific conjuncture of public government that facilitates ‘free’ market interplay between private-sector actors. The term neoliberalism has become a widespread buzzword with contested meaning. That the term is widespread indicates a shift in global governance. In this essay, neoliberalism is conceptualized as a particular set of public-governance mechanisms that facilitates private governance to reign supreme, whereby the private-sector actors are presently primarily in the business of accumulating capital. The focus lies on minimal social responsibilities of public governance whilst enabling market forces to leave their mark on the everyday organization of our societies.

In the early twenty-first century, therefore, we experience the birth of a new political arena: a transglocal institutional order that is dominated by private-sector actors in a complex hybrid governance mechanism. As the traditional responsibilities of the nation-state erode, private actors now govern issues that used to fall under the jurisdiction of the state. National democratic governments, and by extension the democratic citizenry, used to be a powerful entity that carried primary responsibility for the social organization of our societies. Yet as there is a shift of power, so there is also a shift of responsibility. Political power is not confined any longer to the classical medium of the nation-state. Rather, the transglocal cluster of public, private and local governance mechanisms makes the political, the economic and the social increasingly intertwine. The question at hand is how, as particular individuals and/or as social groups, can we effectively voice our political concerns within this transglocal institutional arena?

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is a striking example of the type of practices that emerge within the transglocal political arena. CSR is a practice that operates within global value chains. Global value chains are a particular mode of production that is geographically dispersed, where generally low-cost production process are outsourced by ‘developed’ private sector actors to geographic entities where cheap labor, low-standard environmental legislation and accessible natural resources provide a comparative advantage. This is not the place to develop an in-depth genealogy on the emergence of CSR within global value chains, nor on its immanent particularities. In short, it suffices to say that CSR is a generic term for a set of social practices that private actors adopt in the present transglocal institutional order. The most inclusive definition characterizes CSR as the voluntary adoption of extra-legal social responsibilities by private-sector actors. At the same time, however, the emergence of CSR implies that national governments (of the states where the production process is located) refrain from upholding certain social standards. In other words: only as public-governance mechanisms become eroded, private-governance mechanisms fill that void and commit to production in a socially responsible manner.

At this point we arrive at the central controversy about CSR; how to interpret it? It is marketed as an extra-legal commitment of corporate-sector actors, but only at a time that the legal framework is being eroded. So is it a beneficial development that merits applause and support, or is it merely a hegemonic justification of a privateering practice? Is it, as it is depicted, truly a win-win practice – i.e. generating private profit while responsibly restructuring society to uphold its common goods? – or is it, as its critics proclaim, a mere marketing strategy to ‘greenwash’ structurally flawed global-production practices?

The interesting question is not whether all for-profit CSR corporations currently consciously produce with utmost respect for fellow humans and their common natural environment; this is probably not the case. One should be wary about high-profile marketing strategies of big corporate actors proclaiming to produce in ‘a socially responsible manner’, whilst codifying this with a dubiously vague corporate standard and marketing it as a corporate fairytale.

Rather, the interesting question is whether CSR could be instrumental to a type of corporate flourishing that is connected to a socially-responsible production process? Or, more fundamentally, whether CSR can be instrumental to radical political protests that aim to transform the present institutional context and its immanent corporate structures? The answer to these questions is, to a large extent, open. It depends on whether those consuming products are willing to pay a higher monetary price for a more valuable – or ‘socially responsible’ – economic production process.

Privateers vs Pirates

The present Krisis issue focusses on the distinction between privateers and pirates. In the approach outlined in this essay, both privateers and pirates operate within the transglocal institutional order. The privateer – pirate distinction is here interpreted as antagonistic, whereby privateers are conceptualized as hegemonic and pirates as counter-hegemonic actors. Hegemony is a state of affairs in which a particular discourse is dominant. This implies that the discourse presents itself as self-evident, generating and legitimizing de facto practices, but that oppositional forces remain active in the margins. From the discussion above, it is clear that in the present global institutional order the neoliberal dictum is hegemonic. Privateers are hegemonic actors in that they drive, legitimize and benefit from neoliberal governance practices. Privateers are here conceptualized as those private sector actors who are primarily in the business of accumulating capital. The eminence of private-governance mechanisms in the transglocal institutional order enables privateers to profit from the particular reorganization of the production process in our globalizing world.

The widespread presence of the neoliberal governmental logic doesn’t imply, however, that this logic is accepted by all. Logics that defy the hegemonic discourse are conceptualized as counter-hegemonic. In this essay, pirates are portrayed as counter-hegemonic actors within the transglocal institutional order. This implies that their practices counter-act the dominant logic of that order. Whereas hegemonic privateers are concerned in the accumulation of capital, counter-hegemonic pirates are here conceptualized as engaged in a radical project of socio-economic transformation. Pirates are hence characterized by their willingness to contribute to the process of transforming the private economy into a socially responsible economy.

Counter-hegemonic actors are often fragmented. Consequently, dispersed groups of pirates fail to augment pressures to effectively challenge the hegemonic discourse. Following Laclau and Mouffe (2001), I believe it is important that the political antagonism between hegemonic and counter-hegemonic practices is both explicated and cultivated, emphasizing the need to foster a unified counter-hegemonic movement that can develop effective pressures to defy the dominant logic. It is in this light that the essay is titled On Counter-Hegemonic Realism. I share the belief that unifying counter-hegemonic resistances need to be forged in reaction to the prevailing institutional configuration. As a realist tactic, I call on pirates to consciously and consistently purchase commodities that are socially-responsibly produced.

Some will renounce my call for counter-hegemonic consumer activism as weak reformism. I want to clarify my realist position by introducing the distinction between tactics and strategy. A tactic refers to a short-term, goal-related practice that can be applied in the present institutional configuration. A tactic considers the next move in a competitive game-situation. A strategy, on the other hand, is goal-related practice that entails a long-term plan and objective. The objective of counter-hegemonic strategizing is to bring about a deep transformation in the prevailing institutional configuration. A realistic counter-hegemonic tactic can then be adopted today whilst fitting a more radical and idealist strategy that attempts such a future transformation. A realist take on counter-hegemonic strategizing entails tactically considering how to actively deal with the present configuration of institutions. In this essay, CSR is considered a potential present-day tactic in a more fundamental transformational strategy; it is a short-term political tactic in a long-term strategic effort to forge a ‘socially responsible’ economy.

That pirates defy the prevailing hegemonic norm does not imply that they operate outside the transglocal institutional order: conceive of the transglocal institutional order as the playing-field whereon actors can generate practices in reaction to existing rules. That certain rules are dominant need not imply that those rules are not prone to change. This institutional order is not an essential set of institutions that are fixed in time; rather it is an existentially discursive field that fluctuates – i.e. a discursive field that evolves in relation to practices of the players acting on the field at differential levels.

The distinction institutional essentialism vs. institutional existentialism is crucial to my claim that pirates should consciously engage with CSR as to generate socially responsible production practices. To exemplify the distinction, consider a board game with multiple players at the table. In situation A, the rules of the game are set at the beginning of the game. As the game goes on, one player might win while the others lose (this might happen because of pure luck, pure skill, and everything in between), but the entire game is played according to the fixed set of rules. The institution in situation A is an essentialist institution in that its rules do not change in the process of engaging with the institution. The game of chess is an example of an essentialist institution; its rules are fixed, the institution does not change. Situation B, however, is different. The board game starts with a set of rules, but this time the players can alter the rules of the game as they are playing. An initial winning position, a good bargaining hand, or strategic alliances, they all become important as the game evolves and the players change the rules of the game while playing. The institution in situation B is an existentialist institution in that its rules can change in the process of engaging with the institution. The global institutional order is, as a whole, an existentialist institution: its rules are not fixed in time, the cluster of institutions is prone to change.


Let’s turn to the central topic of controversy and assess it in the light of the aforementioned distinction. If CSR were an essentialist institution, it could be discarded as a hegemonic project that legitimizes privateering exploitation of human, natural and environmental ‘resources’ or ‘capital’. The legitimation is derived from the win-win narrative, i.e. that privateers can generate profit while yielding optimal social organization by implementing minimally regulated ‘free’ markets. With this type of win-win CSR would be a mere Pyrrhic victory for those concerned with social justice, even if it yields the sporadic social benefits it claims to generate, as structural power asymmetries don’t alter and the associated institutional rules do not change. CSR would then be a mere euphemism for a neoliberal type of market colonization. Yet if CSR is regarded as an existentialist institution, it presents itself as a tactical opportunity for a strategic counter-hegemonic movement. So here it becomes possible to hypothetically move from privately owned to shared means of production networks by means of augmenting market pressures. By demanding that privateers adopt increasing social regulation in the transnational production process, pirates may be able to change the rules of the globalization game. CSR would then function as a lever to get counter-hegemonic concerns into de facto governance mechanisms. The proposed tactical method would be to explicitly politicize CSR and tie it to everyday consumption patterns.

CSR is a practice that has emerged within the contours of the transglocal institutional arena. Despite a healthy sense of skepticism about its transformational capacity (Blowfield and Frynas 2005), I argue that CSR might become an initial vehicle to foster a more socially responsible production process. Yet it is necessary to wage a discursive battle over whether any given CSR initiative is driven by privateers (hegemonic CSR) or pirate (counter-hegemonic CSR). The question then becomes whether the normative discourse that underpins CSR is merely instrumental in legitimizing the neoliberal political project of privateers, or whether it articulates an actual commitment to change the anti-social premises that characterize privateering projects.

Before addressing the particular tactics that pirates can employ in waging a discursive battle over the meaning of CSR, we need to address the question of how CSR occurs in the first place. Although the literature generally characterizes CSR as shareholder-driven, it is counter-intuitive that privateers – who are in the business of accumulating capital – voluntarily adopt extra-legal regulations to produce in a more socially responsible manner. Why would hegemonic privateers commit to CSR?

It seems evident that CSR is, at its root, triggered by market trends (McWilliams and Siegel 2001). When conscious consumer choices threaten shareholder viability, corporate opportunity costs are raised, pushing private actors to increase their CSR commitment. Behind the marketing rhetoric of privateering CSR thus lie market fluctuations caused by purchasing acts. In other words, if a critical mass of consumers opts to purchase CSR commodities, privateers will match their supply to this market demand. For privateers, then, CSR is a corporate tactic to differentiate commodities on saturated markets. Yet the crucial realization for pirates is that consumers have leverage in steering corporate practices. As such, if a critical mass of consumers consciously and consistently opt to purchase goods with a genuine socially responsible character, then it is likely that they uplift (part of) the transglocal production process to more socially responsible levels. If CSR is triggered by market trends, consumers can push private CSR commitments to a higher platform. Given that consumers have the institutional leverage to steer private-governance mechanisms, consumption and non-consumption are political acts; it consists of, respectively, endorsing or refusing a particular mode of production. If indignados would put their money where their mouth is, they could augment market pressures on corporate actors at a transglocal level.

I stress again that my claim is that political consumer agency can be a tactic in the strategic endeavor to foster radical socio-economic transformation. Although the tactic focusses on the immanent practice of Corporate SR, this does not imply that its strategic outlook needs to be confined to corporate private-sector actors. In other words, a counter-hegemonic pirate movement and its aspirations for social transformation need not (and arguably should not) confine itself to changes within corporate production structures. Although I believe that pirates should operate realistically within the prevailing institutional framework, I do render it vital that they simultaneously self-organize in order to radically confront and transform the transglocal institutional arena. The tactic of political consumer agency is then conceived as compatible with grassroots initiatives that are not mediated through corporate structures and multi-levelled institutions.

Towards a counter-hegemonic strategy

So far I have asserted that: 1) the political arena has changed significantly, and is now a transglocal cluster of public, private and local governance mechanisms; 2) that pirates should foster an explicitly antagonistic identity, opposing hegemonic privateers, within the contours of the present institutional arena; and 3) that, within those institutional contours, political consumer agency is a valuable tactic in strategizing socio-economic transformations.

Although I have claimed that I render it important that pirates foster an explicit counter-hegemonic identity, I have not explicated what that identity entails beyond the claim that they aspire for socio-economic transformations. The clue is that I am not planning to define that identity any further. It is not the task of a philosopher-king to designate what ‘pirates’ are; rather it requires active articulation of various social groups and individuals to foster and claim that counter-hegemonic identity. It is important that such an identity is symbolically powerful so as to be able to overcome fragmentation and unify heterogeneous struggles into a common narrative that is strong enough to challenge the hegemonic discourse. As such, in the language of Laclau and Mouffe (2001), ‘pirates’ is an empty signifier with quite strong symbolic power. What the actual identity of ‘pirates’ is to be is open for deliberation and dependent on the voices that claim this identity. The identity and long-term strategy of pirates is to be forged through a democratic ‘chain of equivalence’. Although I hold that the identity of pirates should be open for the articulation of interests by various actors, and I thus explicitly refrain from discursively closing the counter-hegemonic identity, I do believe that market-activism is a potentially powerful short-term tactic.

The remainder of this section focusses on three issues. The first opposes the counter-hegemonic identity of pirates to the widespread symbol of the 99%. The second argues for consumer activism as a potentially powerful tactic in forging a unified counter-hegemonic movement. The third introduces the Internet as a valuable instrument in both the general counter-hegemonic struggle and the particular scheme of consumer activism.

Recently, the notion of ‘99%’ has emerged as popular symbol of widespread socio-politico-economic protest. Given my previous argument in defense of the use of political antagonism, it might be suspected that I endorse the notion of 99%, as it is constructed in clear political opposition to the 1%. Yet I believe that this symbolism is flawed. It is flawed in that it misconceives the role of many people that are allegedly part of the 99%. It suggests that the 99% are ‘victims’ of the present socio-economic organization and demand a redistribution of wealth from the 1% to the 99%. Rather than being victims, though, many (Western) 99%-ers are, as consumers, actively upholding and benefitting from the present global institutional order and its hybrid governance mechanism. The characterization of the 1%, although effective political symbolism creating an oppositional antagonism, is not nuanced enough. It is too easy to solely blame the greed of bankers, the biased valuation schemes of economic experts and/or the technocratic attitude of policy-makers for the crisis, when everyday consuming citizens of developed countries continue to reap disproportional benefits from the current mode of glocalization. It is contradictory to oppose the present wars in the Middle East and condemn foreign fighters in Syria if one continues to consume oil for the car to take the kids to school around the corner, so to speak. It is for this reason that, as counter-hegemonic symbolism, I prefer the notion of ‘pirates’ over and above the notion of ‘99%’. An oppositional logic is required for the activation and unification of counter-hegemonic forces, but the logic shouldn’t be confined to finger-pointing without incorporating counter-hegemonic demands into one’s own behavior.

It is said that the duty of non-maleficence – i.e. to not impose preventable harm – is the most minimal of liberal duties (Pogge 2002). In the act of everyday consumption, this duty is faced regularly; if I buy a smart-phone produced with blood-minerals and child-labor, am I, as consumer, not fueling socially irresponsible practices? Who is responsible for the production process – only those at the top of business and government? Or can we speak about a societal responsibility for perpetuating the harmful production process by indulging in and benefiting from it? Can we speak of institutional harm imposed by a type of market neocolonialism of which many societal actors are part?

If one is discontent with the present configuration and its associated practices, it would only be a partial and limited strategy to voice that discontent as civilians towards the state. It is not that citizens shouldn’t voice their concerns towards their democratically elected governments; it is only that, as a result of the above trend, the political voice of democratic citizens would be a lot more powerful if it was harmoniously combined with the act of political consumption. If individuals or social groups intend to voice their concern, they should not restrict themselves to either the market or the state, but wage a struggle on various institutional layers. 

I do not render consumer activism to be a final tactic; given that the larger institutional order doesn’t change, CSR upgrading by means of consumer agency would be a mere Pyrrhic victory. For one, it is evident that this is not a democratic tactic: consumer power can be characterized as ‘one dollar, one vote’, leaving it to be a tactic that can mainly be employed by the upper segment of our societies. Yet it can be a powerful lever in a larger transformational strategy. A profound change in the prevailing corporate structures is unlikely to come from corporate shareholders; such change is likely to be triggered by the ultimate arbiters of corporate success – i.e. those who consume the products and determine the viability of the production process. The underlying reasoning is straightforward: if well-off consumers are powerful agents in prolonging the present state of affairs, then they can also be powerful agents in changing this state of affairs. As such, it could bring various actors together, make a critical mass of people realize their collective power in steering socio-politico-economic organization and motivate them to actively continue setting up alternative transglocal governance structures.

Given that consumption has a definite cultural aspect, pirates could cultivate their identity whilst tying that identity to a mode of economic production that stands in contradiction with the dominant privateering one. In Gramscian terminology (1996): the art of an effective counter-hegemonic movement is to tie a ‘war of movement’ to a ‘war of position’. There is no point in waging political pressures if there is no popular basis for those pressures. Therefore, a counter-hegemony must foster an identity that serves as a basis for actions. In this particular instance: to consume politically has to be explicitly connected to a socio-cultural project of co-developing alternative modes of production and related socio-politico-economic organization. In political consumer agency, both a war of movement and a war of position are waged in that a strategic consumer identity is built while tactical political pressures are augmented in an attempt to change prevailing governance mechanisms.

The hypothesis that CSR is a tactical platform for social transformation is underpinned by the assumption that conscious consumers would actively purchase commodities that are produced in a socially responsible manner. The question then becomes: how to foster those socio-cultural institutions that generate political consumer agency? The trend of argument I uphold is that the possibility of effective consumer activism is dependent on socio-cultural institutions that articulate alternative modes of socio-economic organization whilst practical alternatives are developed. The consuming citizen then becomes a potentially powerful actor playing the present institutional field in an attempt to steer de facto hybrid governance mechanisms to a more socially responsible level.

It is at this junction of my argument that I want to stress the transformational potential of the Internet as a tool for communication, identity-formation, and social, political & economic self-organization. Both within the particular tactic of political consumer agency and the broader strategy of social transformation, the Internet is likely to be a crucial instrument. Given that economic production is geographically dispersed, CSR as a practice lacks genuine transparency. It is easy for a corporate actor to claim that they are producing in a socially responsible manner; it is a lot harder for the consumer to verify that commitment. The Internet is here a medium for transmitting economic information and consequential coordination between actors at various levels. Only when local stakeholders are connected with groups of conscious consumers can CSR become a genuine vehicle towards a socially responsible economy, rather than a marketing tool for corporate brands who intend to differentiate themselves in saturated markets and opt for a strategy of corporate greenwashing.

As an instrument for strategizing a counter-hegemonic movement, the potential of the Internet is vast. For one, I genuinely believe it can foster not only a counter-hegemonic identity, but also modes of interconnected grassroots organization in synergy with that identity. Likeminded activists could develop and maintain a collective online network with the intent to function as a vehicle for socio-economic self-organization and related political pressures. Such a counter-hegemonic movement would stand in relation to the present transglocal institutional arena in an existential attempt to change it.



Playstation, Demonoid, and the Orders and Disorders of Pirarchy


This paper explores the disorganised political order (‘pirarchy’) generated by so-called digital pirates, arguing that pirarchy appears in swarms. Swarms are not necessarily revolutionary, but they can be disruptive. They are a social formation, growing out of reaction to, and enabled within, the systems of information capitalism, which do not form a harmonious, self-reinforcing whole. We examine ‘swarms’ of pirarchy responding to the legal attack on the Demonoid BitTorrent tracker, and the court cases around the Sony PlayStation 3. In the Demonoid example, the imposition of legal order through internationally coordinated server raids, shutdowns, and arrests, temporarily disordered the affective ties and sense of social obligation around the site, sending exchange elsewhere. Swarms flux, appearing both fragile and robust. In the Sony case, even with the coordination of corporate and juridical systems, the incoherent and uncoordinated pirarchs significantly disrupted Sony’s capability, even though ultimately the situation may have continued as normal. Disorder was restored as much as order. We analyse these events using anarchist theory about the relations between theft and property, the repressions arising from work and the cultural necessity for play. Freedom of exchange is required for cultural creativity and is challenged by the total orders of capitalism and wage labour.

Resisting Neoliberalism, Resisting Enclosure

Neoliberalism represents the attempted hyper-capitalist/corporate takeover of the State. It enforces markets for all, with governmental support primarily remaining for those successful in such markets and able to buy or influence State representation (Subcomandante Marcos 2002: 107-115; Harvey 2005). As increasing numbers of people directly experience the psychological, social and economic impacts of privatisation, dispossession, and destruction of freedoms under neoliberalism, they sporadically take to the streets in a spontaneously collective and largely uncoordinated ‘Ya basta!’ (Enough is enough!). Such events perhaps mark a protest against turning affects, relational and linguistic skills, and social connections into wage-work; a collective refusal of ‘work time and life time […] effectively becoming indistinguishable’ (Tiqqun 2011: 19). Simultaneously, millions of people worldwide enter online circuits of free exchange defying the appropriation and commodification of culture. The success of neoliberalism with its ‘free-market’ austerity measures, applying to all but the wealthy, generates a social discipline in which nothing, not ‘nature’, nor childcare, nor emotions, nor linguistic capacity, nor personal photographs, are to be left unenclosed as commodities (Virno 2004: 56, 59; Arvanitakis 2007). This links to earlier forms of dispossession and enclosure. The proletariat’s genesis in Europe and America demanded ‘enclosure’ of not only communal land but also of social relations’ (Federici 2004: 9). In sixteenth-century England, a systematic process of enclosures paved the way for the ‘proletarianization of the common people, subjecting them to multifaceted labour discipline’ (Linebaugh 2008: 51). Enclosure destroyed livelihoods dependent on commoners’ practices, and stripped people of traditionally shared socio-cultural freedoms and leisure. Alongside this destruction came ‘the elimination of cakes and ale, the elimination of sports, the shunning of dance, the abolition of festivals, and the strict discipline over the male and female bodies’ to the extent that the ‘land and the body lost their magics’ and aliveness (ibid: 51-5).  The growth of capitalism was, and remains, hostile to noncommercialised or non-commodified enjoyment and liberty. Contemporary enclosures (and extensions of enclosures) of cultural commons likewise act as an attack on leisure, freedom, joy and non-commercial selfexpression in the name of profit and production. In the sixteenth century, many engaged in ‘armed rebellion for the preservation of their material commons’ (Linebaugh 2008: 53). Tens of thousands of rebels set up ‘planned and coordinated’ campsites in the English lowlands demanding the end to Enclosures and, albeit implicitly, a return to a more empowered commons-based sufficiency, and existence in which culture (joy, magic, cakes, ale and dancing) had its times and places (ibid: 54). They were clearly unsuccessful. As industrialisation took root in the early nineteenth century, loosely organised groupings whose members were later identified as Luddites protested against discipline by machines, and the disruption of self-directed labour, craft-skills, leisure and culture. The State responded with troops, upholding new Combination and Conspiracy Acts which criminalised communication and association amongst workers (Sale 1995).

Swarms of Pirarchy

Today, peer-to-peer (P2P) file exchange, or ‘digital piracy’, mounts a similar resistance, targeting the kinds of cultural enclosure and commodification informational capitalism depends on to sustain and expand its ordering regimes. As Adrian John (2009) points out, piracy of intellectual property has a long history, usually focused on competition and success in markets, claiming others’ work as one’s own, or espionage/warfare between States. However, contemporary piracy of the kind we are discussing does not usually involve selling ‘stolen’ goods for profit, or State vs State conflict; it involves relatively free exchange between non-commercial actors. In particular, contemporary piracy subverts the technological, legal, and social locks and exclusions around the popular narrative forms of today, which form part of our cultural conversations: the song, the film, the television programme, the book, and the computer game. File-exchangers are not necessarily definite or organised revolutionaries, or challenging the institutions of property themselves, but their practices emphasise the incoherencies of capitalist property and commodity (Marshall & da Rimini 2015). They challenge the orthodox regimes of distribution and the ‘distribution industries’, which Cubitt (2006) describes, that help turn culture into a restricted commodity. These ‘unauthorised’ practices, perhaps unintentionally, generate some new cultural challenges, political formations and actors, which we label ‘pirarchy’ and ‘pirarchs’ respectively. It may well be important to ‘create new circuits, new economies alongside the new technologies and techniques that are such a hallmark of the contemporary mediascape’ (ibid: 209).

Pirarchs consider their exchange practices as mundane, unremarkable or even boring, and the gulf between social norms and capitalist State-based legal norms becomes increasingly apparent (da Rimini & Marshall 2014). However, this proto-movement can only happen because people are prepared (however subliminally) to risk their personal liberty, financial resources and social reputation to reclaim what their actions imply rightfully belongs to them.

Pirarchs move in culturally diverse and ideologically uncoordinated ‘swarms’ with only accidental unity; their actions have implications rather than direction. There is no necessity to posit a unity or a conscious ‘swarm intelligence’, but simply a social effect. These swarms build particular habits and attitudes, but they are not the only active swarms around, and people move (often silently) from one to another, perhaps even without realising. Swarms don’t have stability, they exploit fragmentation. Hacktivist researcher Tatiana Bazzichelli (2013: 138) claims participants in Anonymous actions (who generally support pirarchs), ‘pop up in pursuit of the most diverse of causes, or not following any of them, just for fun, or for the lulz [laughs]’. The fundamental characteristic of Anonymous is that it is ‘not one, but many […] not a group or a network, but a swarm, or to be correct, multiple swarms that feed off each other’, as Felix Stalder says (2012). Stalder claims that Anonymous is a self-consciously leaderless organization. But it appears that ad hoc leaders arise, especially those with specific technical or rhetorical skills, as with the press and video releases. Christopher Kelty (in Coleman 2014: 100) points to the ‘superaltern’; the cadre of ‘highly educated geeks’ prominent in the free software movement, as such ad hoc leaders, although as we shall see this leadership is not always welcome or able to exert formal control.

The term ‘swarms’ may have implications of over-ordering for the social formations we are discussing. Swarms arise in networks of communication and response, traditionally in off-line places, fading before repression as with the Luddites. On-line, the networks of communication are ever ready to be taken up. Unlike insect swarms or bird flocks, on-line swarms are not necessarily genetically, ideologically or purposefully related, they don’t last for long periods of time, and membership may change continually and rapidly. Swarm participants do not necessarily have a sustained sense of belonging, although they may. The swarm has the potential to be both ‘localised’ and distributed at the same time. As Eugene Thacker remarks, this is not unusual: ‘Organisms are never just individuals, and never just groups; the ‘behaviour’ of an organism is at the intersection of individual, group, and environment […] the locale of agency is never clear-cut’ (Thacker 2004b). However, there is a tendency for analysts to find too much order to justify their interests in swarms. For example, Vehlken writes ‘the collective as a whole is able to adapt nearly flawlessly to the changing conditions of its surroundings’ (2103: 111). ‘Nearly flawlessly’ is an over-claim. The swarm may function well enough for most practical purposes, or may undermine itself, or be dislocating for participants. The power of the swarm depends on contingent decisions; people drop out or accumulate. Swarming techniques ‘can be applied wherever there are ‘disturbed conditions’, wherever imprecisely defined problems present themselves, wherever system parameters are constantly in flux, and wherever solution strategies become blindingly complex’ (ibid: 111). Again this could be over-ordering by implication. Swarms may not give the ‘right’ solutions, and may disrupt some participants’ aims. The analytic importance of swarms is that they focus our attention on unintentional effects; the effect of the swarm may not be intended (or anticipated) by any, or many, members. In this sense swarms could be revolutionary in their effects, without constituting a self-conscious party or vanguard of revolution; their action does not necessarily resolve into a new established order; it can be an indication of ongoing unresolvable disorder, or flux.

While swarms may be radical and transformative, they can also be ‘reactionary’, self-disruptive, or destructive. ‘The fact that a movement is organized as a network or swarm does not guarantee that it is peaceful or democratic’ (Hardt & Negri 2005: 93). Swarms can also result from capitalist attempts at control as with viral marketing, or through top-down generation of swarms of ‘flexibilised’ workers. Boltanski and Chiapello suggest that the temporary order around ‘projects’, is at the heart of mainstream work in contemporary capitalism (2005: 168), while mobile communication means that workers are constantly available for swarmed work; the networks of communication and organisation work both ways to produce order and disorder.

Similarly, swarms of pirates and hackers can be useful to capitalists as pointing to markets, maintaining conversations which promote sales, driving technical and organisational innovation, and some ISPs allegedly profit from providing services which enable pirarchy (Marshall et al forthcoming; da Rimini 2013: 320). Pirarchs are still likely to be dependent on wage labour (or State welfare regimes) and the products of wage labour, as they cannot survive on free exchange. As Thacker states: ‘mutations in the contemporary body politic [are] structurally innovative, but politically ambivalent’ (2004a). We suggest pirarchical swarms eventuate around ambiguous relations to, and problems about, ‘cultural property’. They grow out of networked informational capitalism, and can both promote informational capitalism and attempt to reclaim aspects of life which are disrupted by that form of capitalism. Indeed, many of the justifications for their pirarchical practices that file-exchangers express on leading copyright and file-sharing news site TorrentFreak (2015) appear to be a desire for a ‘better’ capitalism (in the form of fairly-priced goods in open formats) rather than an end to capitalism per se. As we shall see pirarchs do not necessarily posit the end of property, but rather the desire to have their rights to exchange, use and modify their own property unobstructed by sellers or producers, demonstrating the incoherence of capitalist property-relations.

Anarchism: property, co-operation and play

Anarchism has, at least since the time of French anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809-65), argued that forms of property and labour are intimately tied to oppression and/or liberty, and that contemporary arrangements favour oppression. Anarchists highlight the inherently cooperative social processes underlying the production of knowledge and culture, arguing that these material expressions of human thought and invention are made in common and must be held in common, or social creativity and freedom will die. This theory not only gives us a framework to think about the spontaneous pirarchy emerging in on-line peer-to-peer swarms and exchange, but also merges with pirarchical actions.
Anarchists and some socialists argue there is no coherent justification for private property of the kind praised in capitalism: that is, property which is alienable, disposable at will, and belongs only to one person (or corporation) with the right to prevent others accessing it. Exclusion and appropriation is the hallmark of this kind of property. As the English artist and socialist William Morris (1834-1896) stated, under capitalism, property is conceived as ‘something which you can prevent other people from using’ (Morris 1886). Traditionally, defences of capitalist property depend on a refusal to acknowledge property’s collective origins in nature (the world), in collective labour and in collective ideas, building a rupture to justify exclusion and profit. This rupture is built by force, law and threat.

In reality, all property depends on labour, which depends on collaboration with others, and upon technology developed and built by others. ‘No one can say that he produces alone. The blacksmith, the tailor, the cobbler, etc., etc., cooperate with the cultivator in plowing the earth, just as the cultivator cooperates in the manufacture of their products’ (Proudhon nd). Ideas and art likewise depend on access to previous ideas and discourse. ‘There is not even a thought, or an invention, which is not common property, born of the past and the present’ (Kropotkin 1906: 7). We borrow, exchange, and cooperate constantly, whether for spontaneous play or purposeful endeavour. This is vital to human lives.

In anarchist theory, the boundaries around property in its capitalist sense are enforced by business, the State, by laws and by violence; by ‘legitimised’ robbery, extortion and exploitation. Legitimacy comes from dominance, not from ‘justice’ or any principle other than power. Capitalists are rarely prosecuted for destroying land in mining or development, or for taking from the commons, but the State does prosecute those who try to reclaim what the capitalist removes or destroys. Property is theft, as Proudhon famously declared, because it is enclosed from, or taken from, the labour of all. Similarly, theft cannot exist without the existence of property and exclusion. French Anarchist Élisée Reclus (1830-1905) argued that ‘we are all, without exception, forced by the conditions of existence into a life of outright theft’ (Reclus 2013: 60). He suggested that as capitalism is built on theft, so property should be stolen back (Fleming 1988: 142). Reclus recognised there is ambiguity because it is possible for thieves to aspire to be bourgeois and keep the property for themselves or use it to lord it over others. So the political virtue of theft may depend on motives (ibid: 150). The legitimacy of ‘taking back’ is a source of dispute and contention amongst anarchists (ibid: 143-52). Anarchism emphasises the ambiguities of property as force, property as theft, and theft as activism, which are central to pirarchy.

Most anarchists recognise that the capitalist property system forces people into wage labour, and to find a master/employer. In general the products of people’s labour, time and life are ‘paid for’ in a form of unequal exchange, with power relations determining the rewards of work. Would people really continue their work, if they were guaranteed a liveable prosperity free of it? As Bob Black (1991: np) suggests: ‘In order to stop suffering, we have to stop working. That doesn’t mean we have to stop doing things. It does mean creating a new way of life based on play; in other words, a ludic revolution. By ‘play’ I mean also festivity, creativity, conviviality, commensality, and maybe even art’.

As in the origins of capitalism, free play is suppressed to meet the demands of consumption and wage labour. In contemporary wage labour systems, workers have to postpone ‘rest and leisure’ to the distant future, be available and amenable at all times. Their time is commodified and neoliberalism reinforces ideas that unemployed freedom should be punished. Revolt grows from a desire for a more human reality of ludic expression (which exists however precariously in capitalism), of intrinsic reward and free exchange. To quote Black again: ‘Playing and giving are closely related, they are the behavioral and transactional facets of the same impulse, the play-instinct. They share an aristocratic disdain for results. The player gets something out of playing; that’s why he plays’ (ibid.).

Echoes of Black’s ‘ludic revolution’ resonate in the writings of those French anarchists who, as The Invisible Committee, published L’insurrection qui vient (The Coming Insurrection). They argue that under capitalism, ‘becoming independent’ means finding a boss (The Invisible Committee 2009: 41), that the ‘horror of work is less a part of work itself than of the methodical devastation, over centuries, of everything that is not [work]’ (ibid: 38), including: the familiarities of one’s neighbourhood and trade, of kinship, our attachment to places, to beings, to the seasons, to ways of doing and speaking. To survive the horror we must reject the demands of (neoliberal) flexibility and mobility, and instead ‘organize beyond and against work, to collectively desert the regime of mobility, to demonstrate the existence of a vitality and a discipline precisely in demobilization’ (ibid: 51, emphasis in original). That is, refuse to be mobilised to work. In the village of Tarnac these anarchists ‘planted carrots without bosses or leaders. Because they naively think that life, intelligence and decisions are more joyous when they are collective’ (the parents of Bertrand et al 2008). The State suppressed them, as if there was something inherently subversive in collective happiness outside of the capitalist grid of consumer behaviours.

When capitalist hierarchy requires labour to be always available, the ludic Self retaliates, by being prepared and technologically able to satisfy multiple desires for play, entertainment, relaxation, stimulation, creation and distraction. These desires are not external to capitalism, and may be generated by capitalism as an engine of consumption (da Rimini & Marshall 2014: 326-7). We are not arguing that pirarchy is external to capitalism, but that it challenges it. Similarly, the tools enabling computer labour and exclusion also allow people to subvert, copy and distribute its results easily, in pirarchical subversion, production and exchange. We shall now proceed to show how these anarchist theories elucidate events in the contemporary world by looking at the attack on the Demonoid tracker site, and a fight against Sony.

Commercial Repression of the Demons

Demonoid is part of the ‘digital piracy’ ecosystem. Like its more infamous cousin The Pirate Bay it is a kind of specialist search engine that helps people find digitised goods they want to download, regardless of whether or not these goods originally were enclosed by copyright restrictions or technological barriers. Specifically, Demonoid is a semi-private peer-to-peer (P2P) ‘tracker’ site using the BitTorrent internet communications protocol to facilitate file exchange. Participants often proclaim it to be a community. Launched in 2003, it hosts an on-line searchable index of links to Internet Protocol (IP) addresses of digital devices holding copies, or partial copies, of media files (films, music tracks, e-books, etc) categorised by genre and sub-genre. Users click on a link to enter a file-sharing ‘swarm’ for a specific item.

A swarm is comprised of ‘seeders’ (peers who have a completed copy of the media file and continue to ‘seed’ it back), and ‘downloaders’ (peers who are downloading the file in segments) (da Rimini 2013: 315-6). The BitTorrent protocol enforces technological cooperation (sharing via uploading) during downloading, although people have no obligation to further seed a file after completing a download. The term ‘swarm’ in the file-sharing context probably originated with the Swarmcast P2P content distribution system, released in 2001, just prior to the development of the BitTorrent P2P protocol (Koman 2001).

Demonoid members frequently report the sense of ‘camaraderie’ arising from belonging to a community passionate about ‘many niche subjects’. One described Demonoid as being inhabited by ‘small groups of people sharing content they all loved’ (comment on Andy 8 May 2013). For ‘Carl’, an interviewee in our research project investigating Australian artists’ and cultural producers’ social norms around file-sharing (da Rimini & Marshall 2014), the ‘giant Alexandrian library’ is propelling an ideological shift: ‘Generosity is really one of the most radical concepts that you could dream up and being generous with bandwidth and with content and ideas’ (‘Carl’ interview). Another artist and Demonoid member was ‘fascinated’ by how file-sharing had ‘changed the ownership of information and the ownership of immaterial things…and how that’s changed the whole landscape of exchange between people’ (‘Ti’ interview).
The sharing on Demonoid not only involved commercially available items, but items of purely local interest, self-produced items, and generally unavailable material. In that sense, file-sharing sites can rescue cultural works from obscurity, making the hard to get ‘gettable’, and revitalising culture in the process as people engage with new (often ‘old’) works. One interviewee felt obliged to share obscure items from his extensive archive of (purchased) films and vinyl albums because the on-line community would not be able to get them elsewhere (da Rimini & Marshall 2014). Furthermore, creative artists can access new concepts, artistic trends and material elements to play with, remix and upload. ‘Everything I watch actually goes into something I write really’ (‘Mel’ interview). ‘Theft’ is, in these cases, opening. Pirarchy, explicitly and practically, emphasises the sharing aspect of culture, and cultural production, described by anarchists, and suggest new paradigms, even if it does not resolve problems of survival.
It seems that many pirarchs are ‘incidental activists’. If an activist is ‘someone who takes part in activities that are intended to achieve political or social change’ (MacMillan Dictionary, nd), then an ‘incidental activist’ is someone who can be apolitical, but ‘accidentally’ contributes to social and cultural change by their presence and activities. Torrenting is ‘becoming so mainstream it’s not so much community but just society’ (‘EKA’ interview). Nevertheless EKA’s attitude implies culture should be non-commodified. Others are aware of swarms’ social and political potential. ‘It’s a very visual kind of metaphor, that idea of the swarming and the seeding and it’s egalitarian… It’s not just people leeching off the products of capitalism – it’s also people who are creating and distributing, producing and distributing stuff from scratch totally outside of all available systems’ (‘Toxic honey’ interview).

As these alternative practices proliferate and become normalised, they further threaten existing ordering regimes. Just as the State sought to suppress those struggling to reclaim the commons, so too neoliberal power attempts to contain, constrain and punish those prising open informational flows to build a digital commons. In terms of repression of pirarchy as spectacle, we need look no further than the 2009 trial of The Pirate Bay founders (Ӧzdemirci 2014), and the 2012 arrest and requested extradition of New Zealand-based Megaupload cyberlocker founder/owner Kim Dotcom involving simultaneous multi-country raids (Palmer & Warren 2013). The less dramatic Demonoid raid in 2012 also involved a determined effort by what, following Critical Art Ensemble (1994: 11-30), we call the ‘nomadic power’ of authority.

Anticipating attack, Demonoid also became nomadic, tactically changing its TLD (Top Level Domain) to thwart US authorities’ ability to terminate its domain-name registration, and shifting its server from Canada to Ukraine. Neverthess, in August 2012 a swarm of power flowing through INTERPOL, the Ukrainian police, the Mexican Attorney General, the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, and the US government, launched a joint criminal investigation, resulting in the site’s shutdown, a reported arrest in Mexico, and assets seizures (Jacob 2012; Ernesto 2013). Property rights were asserted by acts of power and threat.

This act against a much-loved platform generated a swarmed retaliation response, with Anonymous launching an electronic disturbance called ‘OpDemonoid’. Cultural anthropologist Gabriella Coleman describes Anonymous as: ‘part digital direct action, part human rights technology activism, and part performance spectacle, [that] while quite organizationally flexible, is perhaps one of the most extensive movements to have arisen almost directly from certain quarters of the Internet’ (2012: 210). This movement of ‘hackers, pranksters, and activists’ is anarchic, and both seriously ludic and deadly serious. Each operation announces ‘Game on!’ to the targeted opponents and those interested in participating. In this case, OpDemonoid participants launched Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks, crashing three Ukrainian websites (BBC 2012). A video clip entitled OP Demonoid will not be televised exhorted supporters to replicate the clip through their social networks (Anonymous 2012). Pirarchy is a Hydra, as Anonymous warned: ‘where one has fallen, many will rise to take their place….For most of us Demonoid and other public trackers have been about much more than music or movies. They are an incredibly powerful educational tool, facilitating much more than just open piracy[…] [they] provide a model for distribution… Corporations and governments fear them. Anonymous will not tolerate a world without them’ (Ragan 2012).

After some false starts, a resurrected Demonoid made a ‘glorious comeback’ in March 2014 (Ernesto 2014a). However, the site felt different to some. ‘It feels like walking into your old childhood home. The memories are there, but other folks live there now’ (comment on Andy 2013). Some jumped to alternative sites, believing that Demonoid ‘should just stay dead… Our community was at a loss that day, but it’s time to look towards the future of other public and private trackers’ (fratdaddyZC 2013).
Whilst on-line swarms escape easy documentation, a similar sentiment ‘to move on’ was expressed by some users of The Pirate Bay (TPB), following its shutdown by Swedish authorities in December 2014. Even TPB co-founder Peter Sunde predicted that a better platform, one with more soul and ‘no ads for porn and Viagra’, would emerge out of the ‘immense void’ TPB’s demise left (Ernesto 2014b). Indeed, within a fortnight open-source activists had released TPB’s source code to the global torrent community via GitHub to enable ‘individuals with minimal IT skills, and basic server equipment to create a Pirate Bay clone on their own domain’ (‘isohuntto/openbay’ 2014), perhaps even generating a shifting swarm of Pirate Bays.

With Demonoid, it appears that the swarms around its files and forums may be rebuilding. A Demonoid forum moderator reports that there ‘are [still] somewhere upwards of 9 million registered accounts’ (schatuk 2014). Domain statistics for 30 December 2014 identify 308,586 daily visitors and 2,468,688 page views ( Domain Analysis 2014). It is hard to be precise. As Vehlken states ‘swarms are problematic objects of knowledge: they disrupt the scientific processes of objectification’ (2013: 112). However, these anarchic and ludic swarms, while growing out of communicative capitalism, seem to be difficult for that capitalism to completely suppress, or ignore, especially when those capitalists try to enforce or extend their own property rights into what was seen as commons, or as cultural autonomy.

Swarms versus Sony

The law cases and actions around the Sony PlayStation3 (PS3) reinforce these points. Sony was perceived to be extending its copyright and property claims over people’s gaming machines, disrupting owner’s previous capacities or usage (‘thieving’) to an unprecedented extent, and was faced by mass protests, attempting to steal back the ‘property space’, in favour of play and personal usage. Since 2000 Sony promoted its PlayStation hardware as able to run computer software and non-inbuilt operating systems (the Other O/S option). The PlayStation up to the PlayStation 3 (PS3) was a computer as well as a games machine, and reputedly secure.

In December 2009, George Hotz, a hacker who gained fame by freeing the iPhone from compulsory attachment to the AT&T network, was given a PS3 along with a challenge. Just over a month later he announced that he had opened the processor and memory to programming (NZHawk nd).
Fearing that this would allow piracy, Sony issued an ‘upgrade’ in March 2010, which destroyed the machine’s ability to run other operating systems, and if not installed meant loss of the PlayStation network, playback of games, access to new games, and ability to play Blu-ray movies etc (Reisinger 2010). Next month a class action court case was initiated asserting that Sony had deprived people of functions of the property they owned.

In December 2010 the hacker group fail0verflow, protesting the compulsory removal of the Other O/S option, demonstrated they had a way to get around the block. One member asserted their rights to personal and cultural property, stating: ‘I haven’t stolen anything… It’s my own hardware, I can run whatever I like on it’ (Fildes 2011). Shortly afterwards Hotz released an encryption key, which allowed people to sign whatever software they liked and have the PS3 run it. Hotz’s code supposedly disabled the ability to run pirated software (Kushner 2012). Sony then launched a court case in California against Hotz and one hundred unspecified John Does (thus potentially generating their own imagined and potentially compelled swarms), alleging the defendants were bypassing ‘effective technological protective measures’ and violating ‘the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and the Computer Fraud Abuse Act’ (Reisinger 2011). Sony argued that California should have jurisdiction, despite Hotz residing on the other side of the US in New Jersey, because Hotz had a PayPal account, and used Twitter and YouTube. The judge was disturbed by this, saying that ‘would mean the entire universe is subject to my jurisdiction, and that’s a really hard concept for me to accept’. Hotz would clearly be disadvantaged by such proceedings.

Rather incoherently, the judge eventually allowed Sony to sue in California, claiming that Hotz’s website was aimed at California. However, his website was aimed at anyone who spoke English, there was no specific mention of California; so this ruling potentially made anyone with a website subject to the judge’s jurisdiction. Sony was also allowed to obtain the IP addresses of people who visited Hotz’s website. These rulings extended Sony’s legal power. The case also extended definitions of intellectual property, increasing enclosure or legitimating corporate theft. George Washington University Professor of Law, Orin Kerr, wrote (2011) ‘this is the first case I know of claiming that you can commit an unauthorized access of your own computer’. The Electronic Frontier Foundation also protested that Sony claimed rights which prevented people ‘tinkering with’ their own property (Kushner 2012). Even established property boundaries are vague and depend on power contests, and can potentially be appropriated at any time.

As with the legal attacks on Demonoid, these extensions of property and power attracted the attention of Anonymous swarms who began attacking Sony’s internet sites. Some members of the hacker swarm stated their objections in press releases, pointing out as that Sony attacked people’s property rights because they did not like people’s actions, so now Anonymous was similarly violating Sony’s property (Tangled Web 2011). Again the ambiguities of property are central.

A DDoS attack caused the PlayStation network to crash repeatedly, although Sony denied Anonymous were responsible (Tangled Web 2011). Lack of certainty can be tactically useful to both sides. Anonymous soon abandoned the attack after angering gamers who had paid to play and who are important legitimisers of its actions (Olson 2012: 227-8).

Soon after, Sony settled with Hotz, requiring him to promise that he would never hack any other Sony product without facing stiff penalties (Groklaw 2011). A week later Sony revealed that the PlayStation network’s problems were greater than previously announced, with 75 million people’s personal account details taken (Tangled Web 2011). Sony claimed before Congress it had evidence of a signature being left in its files showing Anonymous was behind the attack, but anyone can leave a text behind (Albanesius 2011). A possible Anonymous spokesperson pointed out that Sony’s claim allowed Sony ‘to shift attention away from its own failure to protect client data’ (Brown 2011). Blame is easy in this environment, however, there are obvious problems with distributed swarm action as it is always possible that some affiliated people will act in ways other ‘members’ do not like: ‘their leaderless, decentralized structure means that they are all essentially rogue elements’ (Tangled Web 2011). While there are supposedly official announcements speaking on behalf of Anonymous, this is protest as dis-coordinated play; there is no one to make agreements with, or to hold back the fringes.

Hotz seemed keen to distance himself and his kind of hacking from breaking into servers, saying: ‘You make the hacking community look bad, even if it is aimed at douches like Sony’ (Kushner 2012). While some Anonymous members may identify with Hotz as ‘superaltern’ (Olson 2012: 227), the identification may not be reciprocated, or perhaps Hotz feared Sony would sue him again; this is not a politics of clarity. Swarms that form around Hotz and his case may not reference his desires or positions. However, various people did launch orthodox court cases against Sony for damages (BBC 2011). These (swarmed?) cases eventually resulted in a US$15 million settlement by Sony and fines in the UK for failure to keep its systems safe (Lien 2014). In this way play melds with the formal.

Anonymous swarms display a degree of playful and vindictive wit, and the hackers affiliated take actions because they can, because they enjoy it, because of the technical challenge, and to some extent for something to do. Alluding to the group’s ludic motivations and its ‘ongoing embrace of lulzy mischief’, where lulz are laughs at other people’s expense (perhaps expressing a sense of superiority as there is no necessity for swarm action to be egalitarian), Gabriella Coleman notes that ‘Lulz are unmistakably imbued with danger and mystery, and thus speak foremost to the pleasures of transgression’ (2014: 33). Moreover, one of the principles that participants adhere to is ‘a spirit of humorous deviance’ (ibid: 23). Anonymous’ play can be seen not only as a reclamation of ‘fun’ as politics, but a response to uncertain political problems, and the difficulties of formal action.

Hotz, while clearly not afraid of boring repetitive work on his own behalf, also demonstrates this ludic sense of power and motivation. ‘I don’t hack because of some ideology […] I hack because I’m bored’, and ‘I’m not a cause. I just like messing with shit’. He got bored with an internship at Google, and left Facebook wondering ‘how people stay employed for so long’ (Kushner 2012). Despite his negative reaction, this could show an ambiguous circulation between rebellion and co-operation. However, Hotz clearly reacts negatively to corporate power/exclusion being built into devices, wanting to allow people to own their equipment and use ‘homebrew software’ as developed by anyone (The Loop 2011). ‘I don’t like when companies tell me what to do with products that I have purchased’ (Hotz 2012).

While Hotz and fail0verflow both deny any piratical intentions, their relationship to intellectual property laws and extension of those laws is very similar. Along with Anonymous members and Demonoid users they do not want their particular culture to be locked away or restricted by corporate enclosures, copyright and lawsuits that reduce their play or capacity. They want to be able to construct and view software as culture, as much as others want to view films, books or games, to participate in conversation or make their own cultures.


Pirarchy emerges out of the convergence of the technological structure of communication networks, tools and social forms deployed by contemporary capitalism. As such, pirarchy is not an outside alterity, but an internal disorder within capitalist orderings. The pirarchical swarm uses a generalisable social formation with variable content and effects. That it can be seen as ambiguous, or as incidental activism, does not mean it can have no effect. Pirarchs expose and exploit informational capitalism’s inherent self-disorderings and vulnerabilities, counterposing free exchange, cultural freedom, play and ludicity against neoliberalism’s demands for complete wage-labour dependency and total private ownership of culture and ideas. As such they illustrate anarchist concerns about the nature of property and the vital necessity of free exchange and co-operation for cultural vitality and individual freedom, without needing any particular ideological unity.

In keeping with this anarchistic tendency, rather than being unified or institutionalised, the swarm formations of pirarchy are disorderly, temporary, and contingent. They have no existence other than in the moment. Unlike swarms of insects, schools of fish, or flocks of birds, they have no kin or long-term relation. They appear and fade, as people log in and log out, plan ‘ops’ and campaigns via Internet Relay Chat channels, or form a swarm elsewhere. They build a force without a centre or formal organisation. Arrests or disappearances may not unsettle the swarm: the participants just go elsewhere and a new swarm appears. Swarms arise from, and are built into, the habits of exchange and receipt found throughout the internet and daily life. They can reclaim a non-commercial, non-work mode of living, based in cultural creativity, cultural demand, and entertainment.

The Demonoid story illustrates how control and liberation processes occur on a global level. As nomadic-neoliberal power flows across national borders, so does resistance. The growing participation in pirarchical power, from the mass of ludic subjects in P2P swarms to the masked bodies in street protests around the world against the US-driven and subsequently failed Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, strongly suggests that the fight to defend and extend the cultural and knowledge commons is generating new political actors, whether playful, politicised, or both. With Demonoid the internationally coordinated attacks temporarily destroyed the ‘community’ around the site, and it is unclear both how many people moved on for good and how many subsequently returned, and also whether ‘community’ even matters for swarm-life to have effect. Similar forces seem displayed in the swarmed protests that arose around Sony’s attempts to extend its legal and proprietorial rights. While there may have been figureheads, and while Sony clearly exploited the vagueness of network society, the protests significantly changed the field, caused damage to Sony and were conducted in a ludic and uncontrolled manner, with potentially harmful effects for ‘innocent bystanders’. Swarm formations don’t have clear boundaries for attack, and they distribute risk and provide potential anonymity, and perceived safety, in numbers. Eventually it is hard to tell whether the situation was changed or not. Disorder was restored as much as order, and the potential for continuing and commercially damaging wars over property ‘rights’ was demonstrated.

If there is to be a ludic revolution, or more realistically a ludic disruption, then it may tend to take a swarm form, by its nature. Ludicity resists organisation and discipline, which is both a weakness and a strength as it does not sacrifice its means to its ends, ends and means can harmonise. Such revolt is not normally sustained and thus ineffective when faced with organised opposition. However, in informational capitalism swarms become a normal, easily and instantaneously activated social formation and, while disorganised with unstable membership, can be continual in their effects. Disorder becomes the swarms’ strength.

The classic argument Marxists make against anarchism is that anarchists can never organise to overthrow anything and fail at the last moment. Anarchists argue that Marxists institutionalise repression and never move beyond the State. Both have a point. Pirarchy forms and supports accidental rebellion, while providing support for institutionalised moves. In its habits, it recognises that property always comes from a collective commons; the origin of all property is the natural world, cultural ideas, social labour, individual effort and contingency. In pirarchy people attempt to rule themselves through informal exchange, conversation, collaboration and fragmentation. They resent attempts to stop the exchange. By taking back the cultural into their own lives, they challenge the appropriation at the heart of capitalism using the tools and formations of capitalism, while capitalism, in turn, attempts to reappropriate and extend property claims.

This is significant, as Reclus argued, because evolution and revolution are not alternate modes of social change, but rather are operating together. Evolution builds up pressures and preparation for change while the resolutions to the pressures come in the shocks of revolution (Fleming 1988: 123; Reclus 2013: 138). Pirarchy builds up habits which do not recognise some property types as exclusionary. If enough people act, and the habit becomes daily life, then the practices build up into a revolution of sorts. Historically, capitalism disrupts ludicity, and attempts to reclaim ludicity can be radical or disruptive of capital, even if accidentally. As Tiqqun argue, there ‘is in no way a necessity to “rise up”, but a necessity to raise, to refine, to spur our pleasure, to intensify our enjoyment’ (2011 p 167, emphasis in original), and out of this… who knows?


Research work towards producing this paper was funded by the Australian Research Council Discovery Grant DP0880853 ‘Chaos, Information Technology, Global Administration and Daily Life’. The views expressed in it are not necessarily the views of the funding organisation. We thank the editors and peer reviewers for their generous input into earlier drafts of this paper.

Pirates and Privateers


Never low on speculative long-term predictions, in §472 of his Menschliches, Alzumenschliches Nietzsche prophesies that democratic distrust of government will ultimately ‘impel men to do away with the concept of the state, to the abolition of the distinction between private and public’ so that ‘private companies will step by step absorb the business of the state’ (1996: 172). The certain decay of the state is due, he explains, to the erosion of ‘The belief in a divine order in the realm of politics, in a sacred mystery in the existence of the state’ so that ‘the state will unavoidably lose its ancient Isis veil and cease to excite reverence.’ Of this idea one finds echoes in Walter Benjamin and Carl Schmitt’s reflections on the connection between theology and politics: the claim, which to a certain extent they share, that structural failure by the governed to perceive the link between law-making and law-preserving violence marks the beginning of the end of an institution’s legitimacy and existence (Benjamin 1978: 288; de Wilde 2008: 36). It also occupies Jacques Derrida (1992) in a lecture on ‘the mystical foundation of authority’ as described by Montaigne and Pascal.

Anno 2015 the hypothesis that the modern nation state and/or parliamentary democracy has run its course is a truism for some, almost to the point that its contestation becomes a cliché (Harman 2007, Sassen, 1996), although debates do occasionally flare up before receding into the depths of the academic underground. Generally, that which challenges the welfare state is subsumed under the broad rubric of ‘neoliberal governance’. In this narrative, corporate powers are gradually eroding what the emancipatory social movements of the 19th and 20th centuries had gained in terms of state-recognized civil rights, social security, and so on. Yet in the cracks opened up by neoliberal globalisation various radical alternatives that defy categorization within this Manichean narrative may also prosper: local and crypto currencies (Bristol Pound, Litecoin), counter-banking (OccupyBank, Timebank), micronations (Principality of Sealand), eco-communities and hacker colonies (Calafou) and alternative internets (TOR, GNUnet). These are today’s pirates and privateers, operative in the widening gap that separates current societal norms from their institutionally embedded precursors and the laws designed to control the technologies through which these norms are implemented. Especially in the case of the internet the legal and political apparatuses are perceived as running behind and fighting a lost battle (although, as Snowden’s revelations show, agencies such as the NSA that are furthest from democratic control still seem to function relatively well).

As in most Western countries the parliamentary Left continues to defend the welfare system as a place of last resortagainst neoliberalism, it loses new generations of the open-minded and tech-savvy by reifying politics as a professional, institutionalized sphere instead of a dirty battle played out on the grounds of ‘civil’ society. Already cynical, these generations might increasingly recognize themselves in St. Augustine’s pirate when he answers Alexander the Great’s question of what he means by keeping hostile possession of the sea: ‘What thou meanest by seizing the wholeearth; but because l do it with a petty ship, I am called a robber, whilst thou who dost it with a great fleet art styled Emperor’ (in Heller-Roazen 2009: 56).

Will the conflict between neoliberal and alternative solutions to the present spiral of crises take place in ever more deterritorialised technocratic networks beyond state control? Perhaps we will witness the proliferation of large self-regulative parallel systems, of password-protected enclaves, and of local communication ecologies and gated communities that resemble cyberpunk author Bruce Sterling’s SF novel Islands in the Net, where ‘the decay of political systems will lead to a decentralized proliferation of experiments in living: giant worker-owned corporations, independent enclaves devoted to “data piracy,” Green-Social-Democrat enclaves, Zerowork enclaves, anarchist liberated zones, etc.?’ (Bey 2001). It is around these and related questions that the articles in this Krisis dossier revolve, taking the pirate/privateer distinction as a starting point from which other dualisms are interrogated.

But why would one want to revive the pirate and privateer, remnants of the romanticized clichés of a bygone era? From the perspective of the nation-state, it might help compare the conditions that triggered its formation with the conditions that currently undermine it. Of course, there can be no return of the same strictly speaking. The globalized present is, besides still being firmly in the grip of the combined efforts of nation-states, qualitatively different from the era of piracy at its height. But this doesn’t prevent the grasping of structural analogies between the two situations as a way of elucidating the present and anticipating the future. The category of piracy has seen a revival in the context of both online file-sharing and protecting economic infrastructure, from global trade routes along the coasts of Africa to transatlantic internet cables. As such it is once again an important trope in our contemporary imaginary, which increasingly pictures the world in terms of vast multi-layered but under-governed networks, not only in the mainstream media and popular culture, where those who participate in illicit file-sharing identify with the pirate legacy, but in academic research as well. The figure of the pirate has become a site of fierce contestation, used simultaneously to legitimize and delegitimize the kind of practices to which it is made to refer. The edited volume Piracy: Leakages from Modernity (2014), reviewed here by Liesbeth Schoonheim, provides an overview of current research on contemporary piracy.

In contrast, the figure of the privateer receives far less attention: undeservedly so, if only because in its inevitable relation to sovereignty it offers a unique opportunity to better understand the different status of piracy in its relation to sovereignty. The privateer – essentially a private warrior – forms but a small part of the totality of private actors whose powers are constituted through state contracts and privileges, and in contrast with which piracy is defined: ‘The phenomenon of piracy is indissociable from the role of the State in processes of territorialization and the normalization of trade’ (Arnould 2011, my translation). The privateer also points to the increasing difficulty of distinguishing between war and peace: control over the economy by its own means partly replaces territorial political wars (albeit guided by a deterritorialized war against insurgencies that is permanent). A terrorist attack may cost ten lives, but a 0.1% increase in import tax might cost thousands, while passing unnoticed.

It is the triadic relationship between sovereign, pirate and privateer that Sonja Schillings addresses in her thought-provoking essay on Giorgio Agamben’s reflections on piracy in relation to his theory on sovereignty and bare life in the Homo Sacer trilogy. It provides an answer to the question, ‘what distinguishes a pirate from a privateer?’ by a critical engagement with Agamben’s elaboration of the ban-structure of sovereignty through what is argued to be a problematic – because selective – reading of Marie de France’s lay Bisclavret.

Does the distinction between pirate and privateer presuppose a sovereign decision that introduces the privateers as a state of exception? Does sovereignty survive the end of the nation-state by entering into ever-new formations? If so, where are these to be discerned, if no longer exclusively in state apparatuses? How is the ban that sanctions the actions of some private actors while illegalizing others re-iterated in the present in ways that profoundly challenge our political vocabulary?

Oscar Coppieter’s contribution also centers on the distinction between pirate and privateer, through an interrogation of the potentials and pitfalls of the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) movement in a transglocal institutional arena. Although critical of its claims, he argues that it can also provide a powerful tactic in fueling counter-hegemonic resistances by politicized pirate consumers and producers. What is now a tactic that moves within the boundaries set by the given institutions might evolve into a strategy with revolutionary effects.


‘In civilizations without boats, dreams dry up, espionage takes the place of adventure, and the police take the place of pirates.’ This remark by Foucault (1984) in a 1967 lecture on the notion of heterotopia provides a good entry point because it captures the juncture at which we have arrived, the so-called network society (arguably a misnomer that provides the illusion of unity, of an elusive ‘we’). For whatever reasons, the pirates that roam the information seas (surrendering for the moment to this rather tacky metaphor) continue to crack their ways into the continuous stream of commercially released albums, games and movies, and to hack into proprietary IC systems. On the other side are the intelligence services and the police, whose gaze extends to every nook and cranny of the social by means of infrastructural states of exception tuned to emergency by design: backdoors build into the ICT we use, even at the level of hardware. Yet the produce of the general intellect is increasingly encrypted using broadly available opensource frameworks and applications. The hacker scene is a game of seduction: black and white but mostly grey hat, the hack that might land you in jail for the next ten years may also get you a well-paid contract with a security firm, or with the government itself for that matter. A story of the rise and fall of Anonymous, from black to white and back again, Maxigas reviews Gabriella Coleman’s recent contribution to the emerging field of netnography, Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Story of Anonymous.

Needless to say, boats play an important role in contemporary pirate imaginaries. An offspring of Anonymous, Lulzsec sailed the seven seas of the internet in their Lulzboat. In the logo of The Pirate Bay the boat also occupies a prominent place, with a cassette tape – the symbol of bootlegging culture – replacing the skull in the pirate flag we are all familiar with. The boat is also, lest we forget, a technology of expansion and conquest, and as such is responsible for producing the sea as a legal and political problem. In the Western imagination the sea on which boats fare and in which they disappear is simultaneously a space of freedom and necessity. For both freedom and fate are beyond the human as the measure of things and the rules of the land. The sea occupies a unique position in relation to what Carl Schmitt claimed is the essence of law (nomos): an originary Nahme (appropriation) that proceeds to give the land a Name (name). So the idea of naming is also understood as part of an act of appropriation, a taking (nehmen).

Schmitt goes on to state that the older word nemein refers in its meaning to both teilen (to divide), verteilen (to distribute), and weiden (to pasture, or produce) in a way that supports his argument about the fundamentally appropriative nature of Law, i.e. that ‘initially, there was no basic norm, but a basic appropriation’ and, subsequently, that ‘no man can give, divide, and distribute without [first] taking’ (345). He attacks the idea that societies might someday pass (or already have passed) beyond the proprietary positing of the Law, considering it a very dangerous and decadent idea. Liberal, anarchist and Marxist world-views are all found guilty of entertaining precisely this idea, that the present world reaches a stage where all power over men will cease and, as he sarcastically remarks, ‘things govern themselves’ much like bees in a beehive, where ‘man can give without taking’ as he ‘has at last found its formula’ (341, 347). The same criticism may be applied to a romanticized or overly utopian idea of the commons. But the Schmittian critique itself is not without its questionable assumptions: a combination of Christian anti-eschatological thought and a Hobbesian view of human nature presses it to embrace the katechon as the highest hope, to restrain evil.

These two aspects of law that merge into an ‘appropriative naming’ point to a theme that comes back again and again in the present issue: the idea of the common(s) as the object of an appropriation, but also as the subject of various resistances against it, and using anonymity as a subversive tactic against existing intellectual property regimes. Besides the iconic Guy Fawkes mask, the hacktivist pseudo-collective Anonymous’ very name indeed contains a reference to namelessness as part of an an-archic ideal of sorts, creating an a-nomic or at least anti-nomic state of affairs, which mustn’t be mistaken for chaos, as Schmitt very well knew, but rather as the collapse of law into the unfolding of life itself, i.e. what Deleuze refers to as an immanent life.

The idea of a lawless space where things so govern themselves of course lies at the root of what may be called the American fantasy: the (lines of) flight Krisis Journal for contemporary philosophy from the old and the corresponding drive forward towards the final frontier. The Internet was envisioned as such an extra-juridical space beyond the nation-state: ‘you have no sovereignty where we gather’ John Perry Barlow proudly proclaimed in A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace (2001). But what was to be a final victory cry was taken as a challenge by the representatives of the old: in the aftermath of 9/11, new money and young brains met to conquer these anomalous dwellings, although cyberspace was never quite as innocent and virginal to begin with, like the America that first needed to be purged from its native inhabitants, which only shows that there is no appropriation that is not at the same time also a disappropriation, just as there is no pure commons preceding a Nahme.

In this entangled web the figure of the pirate is similarly ambiguous and strung through with contradiction. Pirates of the early modern period both undermined and played a positive role in establishing a realm of capitalist free trade established through, but relatively autonomous from, the state. Today this ambiguity is repeated in online piracy’s relation to the advance of informational capitalism through the creative destruction of its earlier incarnations, those ‘weary giants of flesh and steel’ Barlow mentions (ironically, the headquarters of Apple originally crowned a black and white pirate flag). Media piracy undermines existing proprietary regimes, but by deterritorializing the vestiges of the old media industries they prepare new grounds for ever faster and more mobile valorizations of capital, inaugurating new divisions and distributions of property and power, perhaps even a new nomos.

Jonathan Paul Marshall and Francesca da Rimini’s contribution mobilizes both play theory, the history of capitalism and classical anarchist theory about the relations between theft and property to evaluate these structural transformations, based upon the extensive body of ethnographic research on pirate practices they have accumulated, including interviews with the main actors involved. They take two recent events – the legal attacks on the peer-to-peer torrent tracker Demonoid and the court cases around the Sony PlayStation 3 – as case studies to better grasp what they believe is an emerging ‘pirarchy’ whose basic model of operation and tactic is that of a spontaneous and disruptive swarm.


The non-political character of piracy supposedly derives from its being geared towards a private, rather than a public, interest. But this line of reasoning obviously has a tautological character, for what makes something of public interest at least partly derives from the political nature of the act. But who decides what is of public significance and what merely constitutes a criminal act? Can the categorical distinction between the public-political and the private-criminal itself be subjected to political contestation? This presents a problem, for it becomes impossible to decide if this contestation itself is of a public or private nature, as it precedes the establishment of the criterion as such – that is to say, that the injunction that posits the distinction between legitimate and illegitimate in terms of the public and the private can itself not be legitimized on that basis. It also signals the dialectical – because mutually constitutive – relation between law and property, and between political and economic power.

In a short article, Felix Cohen points out the vicious circle inherent to legal reasoning about intellectual property rights, i.e. the idea that ‘courts are not creating property, but are merely recognizing a preexistent Something’. He does so using the example of the trademark ‘Palmolive’, which if it ‘is not restricted to a single firm […] will be of no more economic value to any particular firm than a convenient size, shape, mode of packing, or manner of advertising, common in the trade. Not being of economic value to any particular firm, the word would be regarded by courts as “not property,” and no injunction would be issued […] Ridiculous as this vicious circle seems, it is logically as conclusive or inconclusive as the opposite vicious circle, which accepts the fact that courts do protect private exploitation of a given word as a reason why private exploitation of the word should be protected’ (2006: 1). Conversely, the Marxist legal scholar Evgeny Pashukanis (2003: 93-94) shows how public law can never on its own create, but rather presupposes and is determined by, privately accumulated property.

Issues of ownership and its relation to law have a long history in political philosophy and critical theory. They are also at the heart of the theme of Krisis Journal for contemporary philosophy digital piracy and the intellectual property wars pirates engage in. ‘Information must be free’ irrespective of ends (emancipation, but also just entertainment) and by any means necessary: from torrents, viruses and DDoS attacks to professional hacks into proprietary platforms and whistle-blowers leaking classified data. Are the categories of critical political theory equipped to deal with this novel constellation? How to think about individual and collective agency in the presence of algorithmic enclosures and autonomous botnets? What about the conventional distinctions between public and private, the political and the economic? What delimits political acts from mere illicit behavior? How do digitalization and globalization structurally transform the means and ends of political activism and social movements? In global networks of capture where ‘visibility and transparency are no longer signs of democratic openness but rather of administrative availability’ (Bueti 2011), are struggles for inclusion and recognition still liberatory? Is anonymity, instead of identity, in the process of becoming a new and global site of struggle, rather than a dire condition in need of an emancipatory uplifting? Or are we in for a return of the same after all? It is in the following interview with Ned Rossiter and Soenke Zehle that some of these questions will be interrogated.

Combined, the contributions to this Krisis dossier hopefully shed some light on the mind-boggling complexities that animate the networked present. Coming from different disciplinary directions, each article – in the specific delimitation of its own theme – provides an implicit comment on the others. It is not often that Demonoid is allowed to encounter the dark causality of ancient sovereignty, or Corporate Social Responsibility the political theology of a scholar denounced for his relation to Nazi Germany. Far from an inconsequential cacophony, however, the following articles carve out the structural ambiguities of globalization, which, far from providing an easy excuse for remaining in a state of political apathy, and without wanting to quote Hölderlin, finds potentialities opening up in the very dangers that threaten to overrun them.