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The new pirate wars: the world market as imperial formation

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The rise in pirate attacks in the proximity of the Horn of Africa and particularly off the Somali coast contributed to increasing international concern over the issue of piracy. In this article, instead of localizing and de-historicizing piracy in the Gulf of Aden as a problem of ‘state collapse’ and ‘insufficient international aid’, I argue that both piracy and international responses to it must be read as part of a much longer history of conflict, by which market institutions and respect for private property have been globalized at the point of appearing today as Universal, natural and eternal. I show how, since the eighteenth century, European empires often posed as a necessary bastion of law and order in the oceans of the world, legitimizing their violence as a form of neutral policing against depoliticized native ‘pirates’. Reducing the colonized Other to a ‘pirate’ lacking any political motive and/or legitimacy allowed European empires to depict imperialist wars as benign operations of international policing, and the colonization of entire communities as necessary for the civilization of the gangsters and criminals in their midst. In light of this history, I question the contemporary international mobilization against Somali piracy. In particular, I show how it risks banalizing and depoliticizing the complex issues that have contributed to the transformation of the sea in a zone of violence, in which different forms of plunder operate side by side.
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Keywords: Carl Schmitt; Michel Foucault; Somalia; capitalism; imperialism; piracy; primitive accumulation; world market

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: March 1, 2013

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