Privateers and Financiers

"The eighteenth-century New England privateers flew the American flag as a flag of convenience, not as a declaration of their allegiance to a cause but as a license to seize the wealth stored in the hulls of wooden ships. Their twenty-first-century heirs and assigns employ the semblance of a government in Washington as an investment vehicle permitting them to seize the wealth stored in the labor of the American people."

That's Lewis Lapham from the January 2009 Harper's. He goes on to talk about Robert Patton's Patriot Pirates: The Privateer War for Freedom and Fortune in the American Revolution. It's "a history of the Revolutionary War at sea published in a timely fashion last spring soon after the prize crew from JPMorgan Chase swarmed aboard the wreck of Bear Stearns. Patton suggests, and offers a good deal of evidence to demonstrate, that our war of independence was won by the stout-hearted greed of New England ship captains licensed by the Continental Congress in the autumn of 1775 to plunder, burn, or sell at auction British vessels bringing munitions and military stores to the king's regiments quartered on the merchants of Boston. . . .

"The voyages were rigged as venture-capital deals, the richest share of the spoils reserved to the managing partners who advanced the money to build and provision the ships, lesser amounts distributed to the officers, the subcontractors, the accomplice politicians, and the crews. . . .

". . . More importantly for the American love of liberty and pursuit of happiness, the lessons learned in the oceangoing counting houses of the Revolutionary War furnished the new republic with risk-management models that over the course of the next century settled the trans-Mississippi American West, built the steel mills and the railroads, financed numerous richly rewarding stock-market schemes, and by 1899, the year that Thorstein Veblen published his Theory of the Leisure Class, advanced the country's market society to a stage in which vendible capital had replaced vendible labor as the product that turned the wheels of fortune. The pirates no longer went down to the sea in ships, but neither did they go about the getting of an honest living. Reconfigured as predatory financiers embodying the ethic of what Veblen called 'the higher barbarian culture,' they lived off the work of the lower industrial orders. . . ."


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