THE BLOG
16/11/2017 07:02 GMT | Updated 16/11/2017 07:02 GMT

Mutuality And Mutiny: What Pirates Tell Us About Brexit And Co-operation

With the future so uncertain for business and markets in the context of Brexit, the past is making a comeback. Not for nothing is Churchill cited time and again by leading politicians, searching for relevant reference points and not for nothing was Dunkirk the blockbuster film of the summer.

With the future so uncertain for business and markets in the context of Brexit, the past is making a comeback. Not for nothing is Churchill cited time and again by leading politicians, searching for relevant reference points and not for nothing was Dunkirk the blockbuster film of the summer.

Two floors down from where I work in Manchester is the Co-operative Heritage Archive. It's a wonderful resource that has drawn me into a look at earlier eras. There is a long history to co-operation in business, and given how established many co-operatives and mutuals there are today, covering for example one in four insurance premiums around the world, some of the history can be downright surprising.

Do we imagine that the seditious crime of piracy on the high seas in the eighteenth century, may also have been organised in surprisingly co-operative ways? This is the conclusion of one writer, Peter T Leeson. His analysis of pirate ships is that the ever-present risk of mutiny meant that they operated in ways that allowed for both competitive action and democracy. On pirate ships, captains only earned twice the level of the rest of the crew, and could be replaced whenever they displayed cowardly behaviour or they failed to pursue a prize.

Captain Charles Johnson, for example, writes in his General History of the Pyrates, published around 1726 - 28, as saying "nature, we see, teaches the most Illiterate the necessary Prudence for their Preservation . . . these Men whom we term, and not without Reason, the Scandal of human Nature, who were abandoned to all Vice, and lived by Rapine; when they judged it for their Interest . . . were strictly just . . . among themselves."

Occasionally, pirate ships would form a fleet for collective action where there was a big bounty to win. They had crew members of every colour and race, free men who participated at all levels, from crew to captain. The merchant marine, on the other hand, operated as something of a slave ship in comparison, with six-fold differences in rewards and a punitive approach to any breaches of discipline, above all that of mutiny. Pirate ships could operate with a constitution, to make clear the terms on which people participated, including the distribution of spoils. One constitution, drawn up for the crews of the Welsh pirate, Bartholomew Roberts, who claimed around four hundred prizes in his career, included the following injunctions "every man has a vote in the affairs of the moment" as well as "to keep their piece, pistols, and cutlash clean, and fit for service."

Leeson is a political economist, whose research is rooted in how to align incentives to allow for social co-operation. In his view, pirates solved that challenge with an emphasis on mutuality. As he puts it "pirates could not use government to enforce or otherwise support cooperative arrangements between them. Despite this, they successfully cooperated with hundreds of other rogues. Amidst ubiquitous potential for conflict, they rarely fought, stole from, or deceived one another. In fact, piratical harmony was as common as harmony among their lawful contemporaries who relied on government for social cooperation."

The business history professors Rodolphe Durand and Jean-Philippe Vergne have examined some of the same evidence and endorse this claim, but they explain levels of co-operation in piracy not simply as a result of economic incentives but also of the more egalitarian ideas that came from being on the fringe. The achievements of piracy, they claim, were that "advances that took modern governments several centuries to institutionalize were established by the pirates of the Caribbean and Madagascar: democratic elections of leaders, separation of powers, equality between members, and an early form of social insurance."

There may always have been deep roots to maritime co-operation, where people are drawn together and dependent on each other in a challenging environment. The man who gave his name to the building that I work in, and that houses the Co-operative Heritage Archive, is George Jacob Holyoake. He concluded in his two volume work, The History of Co-operation, published in 1875 that "Greek sailors in the Levant, American sailors engaged in the whale fishery and China trade, the Chinese traders in Manila... have long been either equal or partial participators in profits."

The United Kingdom has a proud maritime history, and perhaps it is here we could look for the relevant lessons. Brexit is not 1066, 1215 or 1945. In two years, we are likely to leave the European Union. The context is new but the challenge is not. It is to survive the risks our new freedoms entail, by learning again how to co-operate.

A Short History of Co-operation and Mutuality by Ed Mayo is a fresh retelling of the story of co-operation in business across the world, newly published and is free to download here.

Twelve Early Co-ops is a snapshot from the book of early co-ops and mutuals from ancient China and Rome onwards, all prior to the founding of the first modern co-operative in Rochdale, England in 1844. Free to download here.