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Pirate Care, A Syllabus

Alarmed that certain types of caring for people has been criminalized, a large group of Europeans assembled a course syllabus in 2019 on what they call “Pirate Care.” As the convenors of the project explained, “We live in a world where captains get arrested for saving people’s lives on the sea; where a person downloading scientific articles faces 35 years in jail; where people risk charges for bringing contraceptives to those who otherwise couldn’t get them. Folks are getting in trouble for giving food to the poor, medicine to the sick, water to the thirsty, shelter to the homeless. And yet our heroines care and disobey. They are pirates.”

Hence the idea of “pirate care” – and the need to offer humanitarian or lifesaving care even if the state chooses to criminalize it.  The Pirate Care syllabus, developed  by Valeria Graziano, Marcell Mars, and Tomislav Medak, fashions itself as “a research process – primarily based in the transnational European space – that maps the increasingly present forms of activism at the intersection of ‘care’ and ‘piracy.’  It proposes new and interesting ways for intervening in “one of the most important challenges of our time, that is, the ‘crisis of care’ in all its multiple and interconnected dimensions.”

The care deficit of our time can be seen as the failure of various market/state institutions – for healthcare, housing, food, social support  – to help those in desperate need.

In general, care is often the most vulnerable human service because markets often do not value care unless there is demonstrable “consumer demand.”  State bureaucracies like to offer regularized units of service to people, as if they were machines. Large, rules-driven institutions are simply incapable of “care.”

And so care remains largely unpaid or poorly paid work.  It is often gendered (and marginalized) as “women’s work” or as work for people with nonwhite skin.

The Pirate Care syllabus aims to elevate care as something that arises, and is maintained, through commoning. In this sense, care is about resisting state power and markets, and in so doing, revealing how power relations in a society are grossly unequal. This helps explain why providing care is often akin to a political act, such as the Good Samaritan helping an “enemy.”

The Pirate Care syllabus explores how providing humanitarian assistance to migrants and refugees represents an elemental human act of connection and compassion. The syllabus offers readings about “pirate care” and suggests practical responses for understanding it through structured reflection, direct action, and “collective memory-writing.” The latter is the process of reminiscing and writing memories as a way to heal collective and personal emotional wounds, especially in the aftermath of a violent historical past.

The practitioners of pirate care see themselves as “experimenting with self-organization, alternative approaches to social reproduction, and the commoning of tools, technologies and knowledges.”  This can mean civil disobedience and the risk of persecution for providing “unconditional solidarity to those who are the most exploited, discriminated against, and condemned to the status of disposable populations.” The Pirate Care Syllabus presents itself as an open, evolving “tool for supporting and activating collective processes of learning from these practices.”

I liked how the syllabus explains the political and power dynamics of care:

  1. Caring is not intrinsically “nice”; it always involves power relations. Processes of discipline, exclusion and harm can operate inside the matrix of care.
  2. Care labor holds the capacity to disobey power and increase our collective freedom. This is why when it is organized in capitalist, patriarchal and racist ways, it does not work for most living beings. We are in a global crisis of care.
  3. There are no wrong people. Yet, caring for the “wrong” people is more and more socially discouraged, made difficult and criminalized. For many, the crisis of care has been there for a very long time.
  4. Caring is labor. It is necessary and it is skilled labor.
  5. Care labor is shared unfairly and violently in most societies, along lines of gender, provenance, race, class, ability, and age. Some are forced to care, while some defend their privilege of expecting service. This has to change.
  6. Caring labor needs full access to resources, knowledge, tools and technologies. When these are taken away, we must claim them back.
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