The pirates of the 17th and 18th centuries were “radically egalitarian”, says Steven Johnson in his Substack newsletter. Most of their voyages were governed by “articles of agreement” that set out relations between captain and crew: in many cases the captain would get only twice as much loot as a crew member. The modern American corporate executive, in contrast, makes several hundred times what the median worker at their firm does.
Equal pay wasn’t the only way in which these articles of agreement were significantly ahead of their time. A document from pirate Bartholomew Roberts’s ship, composed in the early 1720s, begins: “Every man shall have an equal vote in the affairs of moment.” A captain could be removed if he fell out of favour with his crew, and his power was rivalled by that of the quartermaster, who controlled day-to-day affairs and the distribution of loot. That’s democracy and the “separation of powers”, decades before the American and French revolutions. All of this shows that in hostile environments – and life at sea was extremely hostile – humans invent not just technological solutions to their problems, but political solutions as well. The lesson for today is clear: any “genuinely new ideas” to address modern social issues will almost certainly emerge from the margins rather than the mainstream.