5 Sep 2017

Review: The Pirate Organization

I bought this 2012 book by Rodolphe Durand and Jean-Philippe Vergne after hearing Vergne give a talk about the "right price" for bitcoin in Amsterdam.* I wanted to read the book (subtitled "Lessons from the Fringes of Capitalism") because it seemed a good way to understand how an idea or innovation might begin "at the pirate fringe" before normalizing into a valued part for the social and economic system.

At first the book promises to explore this thesis, i.e., how capitalists have struggled with sovereigns over where and how to do business, with an implication that really valuable innovations (bank drafts, partnerships, risk insurance, etc.) will eventually be recognized by a sovereign eager to get a piece of the action. This thesis is supported by the historic role of pirates (the word is derived from peirao, Greek for "put to the test"), which was connected with people and villages who refused to follow central rules and/or relied on their own rules to maintain order or advance themselves.

And then the wheels fall off.

I don't know if it's the French-origins of this book or its authors' background, but the book just wonders off into long, tedious chapters on the origins of capitalism (I would put those origins much earlier than post-Enlightenment), the difference in perspective on what's legal or not, and (seemingly random) vignettes. I reads as if its two authors had dumped all the loose notes into the text (sometimes without coordinating their messages) in order to produce a book that reads more like a series of hyperlinks between wikipedia articles.** I stopped reading it.

The book, in other words, has a thesis but no strong structure and too many unsubstantiated statements (e.g., The Dutch East India Company was not state-controlled). I would have preferred a 20 page version that was clear and to the point, as it is now hard to see any logic emerge from a mass of tangential asides.

Bottom Line: Pirate organizations, like the mafia, have their own rules for internal order and a business model (providing order for those who pay) that only works when the state is too weak to supply its own order. A strong state is the end of pirates and mafia but not exploitation, which depends on limits (checks and balances) to the sovereign's power. I give this book TWO STARS for its rambling, confused discourse over an interesting topic but recommend that you avoid it.

* He's doing well as a crypto-guru, but I found his analysis to be rather shallow.

** Here's an example from the end of a chapter:
Organizations come together with an identity, a set of stated goals, and particular relationships with the normalizing state that give meaning to the development of capitalism. Understanding them avoids the simplifying image of capital as a self-devouring force without any other horizon than itself. Among the various organizational forms, one is essential for the constant evolution and recoding of capitalism. This form, perceived as irrational, abnormal, and dangerous by capitalist organizations from the legitimate milieu, appears both “necessary” and “renegade” -- the pirate organization.
What does this mean?
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