Cui bono?

Cui bono?
Emancipatory organisations have to grapple with nuanced questions of piracy, and their priorities / Image credit: CI

Justified piracy and the problem of priorities in militant emancipatory groups

/23 October 2953/

It is never easy to write something criticising those we share our worldviews with. There are so many targets of legitimate grievance in our society that it feels almost wasteful to single out the people and groups you have been happy to see fly the flag of the alternative from the utterly anti-democratic political and economic order across the UEE. But if we ignore what we see as problems of judgement from those we have allied with, we concede the ground of being able to direct our critiques at others without sounding hypocritical.

In an entirely incidental circumstance, I recently found myself engaging in a brief discussion with members of a militant, revolutionary organisation I had an affiliation with in the past, and questioning a new development in their operations – a greenlighting of piracy against spacefaring pilots, based on a number of rationales I felt ill-founded and questionable. Their adoption of the approach has resulted in wider ramifications for their former links and contacts with other groups that work for emancipatory, anti-authoritarian, pro-worker goals across the UEE, but I will neither expand on those events, nor name the group in question, as this is more of a general opinion piece to raise critical questions among all organisations who see themselves as creating a change for the better than a personal debate.

In that short exchange, which followed an incident between formerly affiliated groups, and saw confirmations by the organisation in question of their approval for piracy, I asked them to present their viewpoints and reasons for the decision, and saw problems with their responses from the very start.

In one of the first causes for concern, it was revealed that there is no group-wide policy on the question of who is a legitimate target of this piracy for the "good", anti-UEE purpose, and that members are free to make their own judgements in engagements. This problem of ambiguity and inconsistency was also apparent in one of their justifications for piracy, which classified "people using the most valuable trade node[s]" as valid targets of pirate action, with the view of harming the UEE economy. Some other members appeared to contradict this by responding to my question of whether anyone could be a valid target – and not just state and corporate entities or members of reactionary organisations – by confirming the former. Even if we take the more nuanced "policy" of assigning the targets based on the questionable qualification of "node value", there are issues with that approach, which I will go into later in the article, but the conflicting attitude itself was a problem here.

The other justification provided for their approval of piracy was to claim that spaceship pilots cannot be considered working-class, and are closer to bourgeois or petite-bourgeois class in our society, therefore making them justified targets for pirate attacks.

Finally, I was met with an even more troubling argument, which offloaded the responsibility from the organisation by saying the death of targets of the organisation's piracy was simply a "sad tragedy of the world the Empire has built", and ascribed the outcome to the "political economy putting the financial and physical risk of raw resource production onto the person producing it".

There are historical, and ongoing, examples of working-class individuals coming together across the UEE to create self-sustaining settlements and outposts practising direct democracy, all made possible with their use of expensive spacecraft that would make them valid targets for groups engaged in indiscriminate piracy / Image credit: CI

I want to respond to these points, and then offer a range of challenges and questions – both related to them and other considerations – with a view of exposing complications, nuances and the problematic nature of such a simplistic approach that creates a sense of selfish irresponsibility from groups that should carry an understanding of the effects of their actions the most.

Firstly, with the inconsistency of approaches and delegation of decision-making to members in each incident, simply based on their judgement: I should not have to point out the importance of how we – those attempting to win not only actual clashes in space and on the ground, but also the information war against the UEE-corporate alliance – benefit from consistency in our behaviours, and how much we should value and guard the opinion we create about us and our cause in the wider public with our actions. I was told that within the group, "[t]ypically we want to leave details to the best judgement of our members", which was a puzzling statement when you consider that the same organisation does not leave rules of behaviour of its membership within the group to the "best judgement" of individuals at all, and has them spelled out very clearly for every member. If you can see the real issues of being vague and relaxed about principles of behaviour within your entity, there is no excuse not to afford people in the wider public the same protection of consistency when it could come to them losing their lives, or means of self-sustenance, at the hands of your pilots.

On the question of casualties of pirate actions simply being an outcome of the prevailing order: while there is no doubt that the state-corporate alliance running the Empire, and particularly Stanton, does offload all of its risks onto those directly involved in production and distribution, the agency of deciding to pull the trigger and end the life of a fellow individual still lies with those who make that decision, and it is problematic that this should need to be pointed out. Justifying a move as radical as taking the life, or livelihood, of another being by shrugging and handwaving it away with "well, that's the world those guys over there created" is not much better than reactionary ideologues justifying the dog-eat-dog world of class society and capitalist economy they maintain by resorting to "well, that's life".

Then there is the class nature of spacecraft operators: is it as simple as placing all spaceship pilots you come across in the bourgeois or petite-bourgeois class – as opposed to working-class, defined as the one selling its labour to sustain itself – and therefore making them legitimate piracy targets and valid victims of aggression? How did your target gain access to their spacecraft? Maybe through being a part of a worker collective and having obtained it with resources pooled together with other working-class individuals who may be more materially fortunate than the most exploited workers, but still have to use their own labour to reproduce their existence? Maybe through having stolen or appropriated that ship from a wealthy industrialist or corporate shareholder, in a laudable action of expropriation of the private capitalist class? Or maybe they are renting that craft for generating income from a specific employment, and cannot ever hope to have enough means to actually obtain it? What if they were hired as the pilot by the actual owners of that hardware, and are selling their labour time to the latter? And you blowing them apart will mean the loss of their life to their working-class family, while that ship will be instantly replaced by insurance, for that wealthy operation to continue with another pilot? And who are crewmembers of multi-crew spaceships you lock in your target reticles? Wealthy friends of the owners of that ship? Or working-class individuals – engineers, mechanics, cargo handlers – who could never own any spacecraft and only gained access to the jobs through selling their labour, like those in industrial factories and service economy?

And what are your victims involved in? Maybe they are using their craft to produce resources and financial means that are then used for the benefit of workers and ordinary communities? Maybe those resources are used to ensure humanitarian assistance to worker outposts? Search and rescue operations for those stranded in space and on planets? Provision of social support to workers offloaded by the big vulture corporations of Stanton? Rescue of working-class prisoners sent to prisoner camps for having transgressed against intolerable corporate rules and discipline? Do you ask them before unloading your missiles at them? And what happens if they say that, yes, they are working for such causes? Do you believe them? Or is it up to the "best judgement" of the member of your organisation sitting behind the controls of your destructive machine in that scenario?

What if we expand the list of conundrums even further? Are the pilots being welcomed at the People's Alliance landing pads in Levski – a location that can hardly be accused of enriching the ruling classes and private capital of the UEE – bourgeois and petite-bourgeois parasites, who are received at the station for some inexplicable reason? Or could they be benefactors of causes of the working class, irrespective of how they, through many different possible scenarios in their lives, gained access to those expensive flying machines? Maybe that C2 pilot is hauling resources from one of those "valuable nodes" to Levski, to aid in the objectives of the Alliance? Maybe that RAFT pilot is hauling containers with a resource being stockpiled for opening another outpost like Levski somewhere in the universe, to give people an alternative to, and respite from, the exhausting status-quo of expending your life in service of filling corporate coffers? Will you ask that pilot what the designation is? Will you wave them past if they confirm that kind of laudable goal? Or will your pilots use their "best judgement" in the decision on whether to spare their life or send them into the ground?

Pilots of spaceships of various cost and roles are welcomed at the People's Alliance landing pads in Levski, with the hosts recognising the contribution of many operators - including owners - of ships to their cause of maintaining an anti-UEE, independent, working-class community / Image credit: CI

Are all the organisations that have separated from the UEE and corporate domination to create outposts on the outskirts of the universe, and form self-sustaining communities and cases of direct democracy, valid targets now because their members get hold of and operate spaceships to keep those settlements running with resupplies, reinforcements and other needs? What about your own organisation, and your own pilots, and your own operations for gathering resources, producing material wealth for your goals, and being involved in the economy? Are you not working-class, or involved in efforts for benefitting the working class, because you operate spaceships? Or are you a self-defined exception from the rule that spacecraft pilots and owners are, by definition and exclusively, bourgeois and open to being brought down for the good of the proletariat?

Finally, let us go to the question of whether you are harming the Empire's unjustifiable political economy by stalking out and expropriating individuals making a living. Are there reports of the Empire's economic machine being significantly and observably harmed by random pirate raids that sporadically happen in various systems? Are any of those actions causing the state's economy to go into recession or corporations to go bankrupt? Or have these attacks become nothing more than daily nuisances, and the only thing they have succeeded in is creating another outlet of that anti-worker economy, one in which bounty hunting has become a profitable profession, and piracy is simply a welcome daily business for those involved in it? Is the UEE economy being harmed more by you picking out a hauler there and a salvager there, than it is fed by the constant demand for production created by bounty hunters, law enforcement units and corporate security forces looking to bolster their ranks, fleets and weapons for hunting pirates? The Kronegs, Behrings and Gallensons love seeing crime and piracy statistics go up, those graphs promising sweet profits for their production lines. If you were in conflict with the Empire or its corporations, actually and directly harming them instead of hunting people whose fates they could not care less about, creating that demand for their security forces responding to you could be justified with the ultimate outcome you would be seeking – the one of ending their existence. But try justifying your actions feeding that economy when those actions do nothing for that outcome.

All you are accomplishing in society is creating animosity towards your cause – and support for UEE law enforcement – among the ordinary folk. Those people are not becoming radicalised against the system by hearing about yet another incident of "pirate hooliganism" on a random day. They will curse at you for having caused problems for the workplaces that feed their families – however unjustifiable those workplaces may be – and then go on about their daily chores. And your self-centred actions are also creating a fertile ground for reactionary politicians calling for expansion of security budgets to gain power with that rhetoric in elections, where the same people whose livelihoods you destroyed – or relatives of the ones you took the lives of – will vote for them. All you are producing in the end is increased public support for expanded powers for UEE agencies to "make space lanes safe" – not approval for your proclaimed big goals in service of humanity. All while the general Empire economy is ticking over just fine, with your isolated attacks on individual pilots barely causing an itch for it.

Until and unless you can confidently answer all of these challenges by excluding the mentioned possibilities, and narrowing down the many possible identities and roles of your targets to a truly bourgeois status, you cannot proclaim to be engaged in justifiable piracy. This particularly becomes a problem when your self-promotion in the public does not mention either your supposed selective approach to who you target – which would at least somewhat help demonstrate to the public that you are interested in engaging in a justifiable form of that action – or the fact that you just "trust the members" to decide which unlucky hauler or salvager will have their vessel blown out from under them on a given day, instead of having these qualifications, exemptions and nuances codified.

Finally, even in cases where you may manage to overcome all these hurdles, the principal problem in all of this – one of priorities – still remains.

The question of "cui bono?" – of "who benefits?" – has been used in political discussions across the ages to remove obfuscations and murkiness from debates on whether a phenomenon, a group or an action is contributing to righteous or condemnable outcomes. It is very apt here as well. When you designate objectively valid targets for your actions – oppressive UEE agencies, corporate security forces, reactionary organisations – your actions coincide with your rhetoric of producing an impact that is worth fighting for and is changing the reality for the better. But when you engage in something as slippery (the term used by a leader of a fellow humanitarian-oriented organisation) as piracy just because your membership does not want to have its self-amusement and trigger-happy behaviour constrained, or its "I just want to do whatever without responsibilities" mentality challenged, your justifications for that piracy start to feel like they were retroactively invented to suit that self-amusement, instead of being a well-thought-out, principled stance of a group promoting itself as an example of a better order.

In the end, when an organisation decides to expend its time, energy and resources not on fighting the unholy alliance of corrupt UEE politics and corporate leeches, but on chasing and plundering defenceless individuals whose class position and place in the economic hierarchy is unclear at best when you are encountering them, that organisation is benefitting not the interests of the powerless and the marginalised, but the maintenance of the status quo. Your indulgence in piracy is taking the attention away from the systemic sources of exploitative class society, and instead feeding the daily bourgeois media headlines on crime and petty squabbles within it.