In the Gray Zone: Anastasia Piliavsky, Gregory Feldman, Pál Nyíri, and Jatin Dua discuss Crime, Moral Judgment, and Problems of Jurisdiction


Rival Systems
Andrew Shryock

In 2018, in a feature called Priorities of Law, I asked four CSSH authors to discuss how the integrity of law, its separateness as practice and craft, is made in relation to worlds beyond jurisprudence. We wanted to understand why law so often seems inadequate to the tasks it assigns itself, and why legal materials, when used as historical or ethnographic evidence, point to moral systems that encompass law but are oddly factored into (or excluded from) specific forms of legalism. Much of legal culture, we determined, is dedicated to asserting the priority of law over these rival, or merely adjacent, systems.

It was a fascinating exchange, and it made me curious about the other side of the equation: the priorities and larger moral systems built into breaking the law. At stake are crime and criminality as social constructs, but also the problem of enforcing the law by stepping outside it. These issues take us beyond the courtroom, so to speak, but judgment is still central to understanding them, as is the concept of “jurisdiction,” a space or relation in which right and wrong can be decided.

There is no shortage of excellent CSSH essays on crime, policing, and things illegal. I’ve selected four as backdrop to this dialogue. To get the full benefit of what follows, I suggest you click to them for an initial (or repeat) inspection.

Anastasia Piliavsky, “A Secret in the Oxford Sense: Thieves and the Rhetoric of Mystification in Western India” (53/2: 290-313).

Gregory Feldman, “With my Head on the Pillow”: Sovereignty, Ethics, and Evil among Undercover Police Investigators” (58/2: 491-518).

Pál Nyíri, “Enclaves of Improvement: Sovereignty and Developmentalism in the Special Zones of the China-Lao borderlands.” (54/3: 533-62).

Jatin Dua, “Hijacked: Piracy and Economies of Protection in the Western Indian Ocean.” (61/3: 479-507).

These essays feature a cast of characters we think we know well: burglars and bandits, smugglers, rule-bending cops, gamblers, pirates, and prostitutes. The usual suspects. In each case, however, the moral edges of stereotype blur. Something like a struggle, or a game, is constantly rearranging the stage on which crime and punishment are acted out, kept at bay, or artfully managed. Good guys and bad guys resemble each other; they work together and depend on each other for peak performance. Their collaborations are the terrain on which a larger (more basic?) morality is staked out, assumed, or imagined to be there when it is not.

Anastasia Piliavsky’s essay on Kanjars, a caste of robbers in India, shows how police (and elite families) constantly deploy Kanjars to investigate misdeeds and to conduct their own in-fighting and dirty tricks. Kanjars are not simply crooks who operate outside the law and inhabit the bottom reaches of caste hierarchy. As watchmen, police informers, and thieves-for-hire, they take part in law enforcement and gain intimate access to the lives and properties of respectable families, all the while carrying the stigma of born criminality.

Gregory Feldman explores the “gray zones” in which undercover cops (somewhere in Europe) must break the law to enforce it, or must break certain aspects of the law to enforce others. This departure from procedure is justified morally (by the cops at least) and is based on several factors, one of which is the close acquaintance police have with the human traffickers (and trafficked humans) they surveil, arrest, and collude with in their effort to do “the right thing.” The criminal networks the police investigate extend into their own workspace, and vice versa.

Pál Nyíri‘s essay is a riveting, ground-level account of the huge investments in casinos and supporting infrastructure being made in the border zones between Laos and China. These zones are constructed at a strategic remove from nation-state jurisdictions, in remote areas that have traditionally resisted governmental oversight. Not only do gambling and prostitution flourish there, but various state and non-state actors vie to control, or at least to tax, these wealth generating trades. In a real sense, “jurisdiction” is missing, and with it the ability to define who legitimately makes the law and who can collude (il/legitimately) in breaking it. Sovereignty is contested and asserted by multiple parties; security is everywhere in question.

Jatin Dua’s essay explores related problems on the high seas, where Somali pirates hijack massive cargo container ships and hold them for ransom. In this remote area difficult to police, both pirates and maritime insurance companies create networks that offer and benefit from “protection.” Pirates organize kin-based investment groups; shipping interests protect their assets through insurance contracts. Each strategy involves payment and risk; both require trust and profit-sharing; and each facilitates the work of the other, creating temporary jurisdictions through negotiated exchange. Whether either mode of protection is entirely legal or illegal is not as important as making piracy a manageable process within the global flow of commodities.

I have invited these authors to read each other’s essays and then respond to the following prompts.

What is the role of jurisdiction in your various approaches?

What sense does it make to talk about morality in these settings?

If people are drawn to gray zones (Greg Feldman’s term) because they are “gray” and because they are “zones,” what’s in it for the scholar? What drew you to these spaces?

Our guests answer these questions in intriguing ways. The spaces they describe are not shaped primarily by crime as brute fact, as wrongdoing, but by the likenesses that emerge when criminality and law intersect, producing social relations that are illicit but privileged, standard but officially denied, unregulated but contractual, and territorial yet based in non-state models of sovereignty. Motifs that dominated Priorities of Law appear again in mirror image. Law is a specialized activity. So is smuggling. Law is rule-obsessed. So is piracy. Law can develop against or apart from state institutions and interests. Gambling, theft, and extortion can develop within those institutions and interests. Law makes disrespect for its protocols a punishable offence. Likewise, undercover police come down hard on suspects who resist their off-the-books tactics. For all its compromised ethics and quasi-legality, it is the gray zone’s ability to create its own version of propriety that makes it so scandalous.

Hence, the remaining question. If the jurisdictions we are discussing are not simply the marginalized byproducts of statecraft; if they can pervade, undermine, or imitate the look and feel of governmental systems; what then should we make of their shaping power, analytically and morally? None of our authors seem averse to the gray zones they analyze. These jurisdictions are filled with intimacy and alliances, sovereign actors, windfall profits, and huge redistributions of wealth. Yet as Piliavsky notes, Kanjars are heavily stigmatized; their criminal vocation has rendered them outcasts. Nyíri’s Golden Triangle gamblers are robbed by Burmese gangsters, who are executed by the Chinese state. The protection zones patrolled by Dua’s Somali pirates are now transected by freighters equipped with their own privatized security forces.

The gray zone, Feldman assures us, is everywhere. His investigators, who break laws to enforce laws, show how vulnerable the zone is to incursion, and how completely it redefines the morality of actions undertaken there.

Crooked jurisdictions
Anastasia Piliavsky

“Crime” in the sense of transgression is elemental to social life, which is impossible without some shared ideas about what people should and should not do, without norms and rules that both presuppose and are reinforced by their breaches. This is why when Durkheim explained why and how society should be studied in its own right, he wrote that crime was “an integrative element in any healthy society” and that “it is completely impossible for any society entirely free of it to exist” (1982 [1895]: 98-99). This is why Malinowski thought that the best way to understand “savage societies” that shared few institutions with our own, was to study their “crimes and customs” (1920). Even the biggest prigs transgress norms and rules all the time: they forget to brush their teeth, they jaywalk, they watch porn.

“Crime” in the sense of a moral or a legal wrong – in the sense of a sin or a felony – which is what most speakers of English (including the academic) mean when they use the word today, is much more peculiar. Crime in this sense is an absolute wrong, an offense against the kinds of rules and norms that are imagined as eternal, universal, infallible, against rules and norms that transcend social circumstance. Crime is, in other words, an artefact of a sovereign jurisdiction: a zone of judgment that appeals to a single and absolute authority that treats transgressions as attacks on itself and on the jurisdiction that it defines. Deviations and errors become total wrongs, or evils, and people who commit them find themselves pitted against the entire jurisdiction – against what Durkheim would call “the sacred” and what politicians today call “our shared values” – in a war of all against One. This One may be God, it may be morality, or it may be law. But the judgement of the actor is as totalising as the judgement of the act. A transgression is no longer an isolated act; it turns the actor into a “criminal,” a different kind of person outside the sovereign jurisdiction, whom it only remains to lock away, reform, banish, or kill.

This is a very odd way to deal with transgressions, which has a particular history and which fits only awkwardly with the way most people, the world over, consider transgressive acts. The career of the word “crime,” from the Ancient Greek krima, or intellectual error, to the English crime as a moral sin (Bakaukas 2005), suggests the big arc of this history, a Christian history carried forward by post-Christian state law.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries this law changed the lives of more than 2 million people in India, who were classed as “criminal tribes,” or born criminals, and were as such deported, isolated, and disciplined en masse (e.g., Radhakrishna 2001). In 2007-2008 I lived with one former “criminal tribe,” known as Kanjars, in the north Indian state of Rajasthan. Many Kanjars work as robber-racketeers; they prey on local farmers or protect them for a fee, operating a robber-police business, which many such castes on the Subcontinent had run for a very long time (Piliavsky 2015). In conversations with me, local farmers’ descriptions of Kanjars as a “criminal caste” (aparaadhi jaati) echoed colonial law.

But in practice, these farmers’ relations with Kanjars are much more complicated than the strained neo-Sanskritic gloss of the English phrase lets on. Local farmers hire Kanjars to patrol their fields and as go-betweens who negotiate in-house disputes through strategic robberies. If the Kanjars of tall tales fed to outsiders are mythic beasts who raise lizards for wall-climbing burglaries, cast magic spells, outrun cars, and indulge in human sacrifice; the Kanjars next door are party to some of the innermost dealings of local life. Rhetorically excluded from polite society – as if they were not quite part of the human world ¬– relations with Kanjars are in fact some of the most intimate and significant.

These relations are morally complex, ever-shifting with quicksand loyalties. Sometimes Kanjars are your enemies – they rustle your goats or burgle your home on behalf of your enemy – and sometimes they are your best friends who can put pressure on your enemies in an ever-fractious world of disputes and feuds. Kanjars are always dangerous friends, ever-ready to turn into enemies, should they feel mistreated. They can steal your family gold or burn down your motorcycle. My Kanjar host did just that when his patron decided to underpay him. The moral jurisdictions – zones of judgment – also constantly shift. If the official line is simple – Kanjars are a criminal caste – the off-stage judgments are anything but (Shryock 2004). At times Kanjars are glorious “danger men” (or khatarnak aadmi in Hindi), at other times they are “filthy rats” (gandhe chuhe). At times, they are your best pals with whom you drink on the sly, eat chilli goat, and praise their freedom as the only people in India who are “nobody’s slaves” (kisi ke ghulaam nahin hai). At other times, you claim to have never so much as spoken to a Kanjar.

If the sovereign legal jurisdiction tells us that any transgression is a crime and the actor a criminal, local judgment depends on relations that define how people judge, decide, and act. A robbery is bad for its victims and good for patrons of robbers. It is neither good nor bad in the abstract, but invariably relational, structured by the roles and relations of the people involved. This is not just about rural Rajasthan, but the wider world, including places ideologically committed to the “peculiar institution of morality” (Williams 1997), and the no less peculiar institution of contemporary state law. Just think how much more shocking it is to steal from a friend than from a stranger or, better still, from a corporation; or to kill one’s own child than someone else’s.

The world is not in the chiaroscuro of Christian morals and state law, and the nuance – the crooked, shifty jurisdictions ¬that every day structure most people’s judgments – comes most clearly into view at the limits of sovereign jurisdictions: inside semi-legal policing practices (Feldman 2016; Jauregui 2016; Piliavsky forthcoming), in borderlands (Scott 2010; Nyiri 2012), on the high seas (Dua 2019a). What these studies reveal cannot be relegated to the margins. It is at the very centre of social life, anywhere. The world, in the words of Gregory Feldman (2016), is one big “gray zone.”

Assertions of sovereignty are as pivotal nowadays to state-making and evangelism as they are to the social sciences, where the concept has been promoted to an analytical universal. But the jurisdictions that most of us live most our lives in are far from sovereign. We do not occupy self-sustaining precincts of self-rule subject to a single totalising authority that may equate itself with the jurisdiction or stand altogether above it (Agamben 2005). Instead, we live our lives at the mercy of others, subject to overlapping, moving and often clashing spheres of judgment.

Judgment Calls
Gregory Feldman

Yes, the world is one big gray zone, which makes me wonder (despite myself) why we should use the term “zone” at all. Zones demarcate space within the world. “World zone” is an oxymoron. Of course, we use the word “zone” metaphorically, but do we understand the metaphor well enough? Even in critique, academic discussions about sovereignty usually speak of some corporatized entity (state, society, cartel, military faction, company, etc.) controlling some parcel of bounded space. Wedded to the bureaucratic state, even our critiques of sovereignty cannot grasp the term – or the phenomenon – beyond the act of controlling territory and people.

However, Piliavsky’s ethnographic insights on Kanjar relations with neighboring farmers highlight something basic about sovereignty: that it is primarily relational not spatial. Moreover, sovereign action as relational obtains its fluid character through the judgments that people make (state agents or others) in the throes of daily life. The contours of those relations – their jurisdictions, as it were – are the effects of actions resulting from those judgments. We do not fundamentally disturb this point when we radically shift the ethnographic scene to a group of undercover police investigators in a southern EU maritime member state, with whom I spent considerable time. These officers specialize in investigations of transnational crime, mainly human smuggling and trafficking. Like much police work, investigations require them to exceed the limits of the law. Operating outside of legal jurisdiction, the team become not merely sovereign agents (i.e., instruments or fonctionnaires in the service of some other force) but rather sovereign actors (i.e., those who undertake action to constitute space for the first time and so act without legal precedent, the sine qua non of sovereignty in any case).

The investigative team regularly makes judgment calls precisely because their work exceeds legal jurisdiction. Hence, they made their own moral (or ethical) judgments. How does one treat a drug-dealing informant with invaluable information about a human trafficking/smuggling ring? How should one treat a man who threatens a teenage prostitute with violence if she musters up the courage to testify against his jailed brother (and her pimp)? The law offers little guidance in real world messiness. The team willfully broke the law to undertake what they judged as moral action: in the first case, they blackmailed the informant with arrest if he stopped talking; in the second, they scared the pimp’s brother out of the country with a much greater threat than he imposed on the teenager, for the teenager’s sake.

The team’s actions here are sovereign, firstly, because they transpired in a space outside of legal jurisdiction. Sovereign action cannot derive from law but must remain independent of it. Derivative actions are not actions per se but rather activities aimed at maintaining sovereignty, i.e., traditional law enforcement. Secondly, the team’s actions are relational because they decided upon them in light of how they wished to live in relation to those affected by their actions. There is more to this would-be statement of the obvious. Judging for themselves in situations unanticipated by law or policy, they made moral not technical or legal judgments. This distinction is crucial to understanding why people are drawn to sovereign actions, however fleeting. Moral judgment decides upon an unprecedented course of action given that law, policy, or custom cannot address this situation to the actors’ satisfaction. Technical judgments decide upon activities that do not challenge the sovereign authority empowering such actors but rather reinforce it. The latter are the work of what Butler (2004) calls “petty sovereigns.” Through moral actions people reconstitute themselves as particular persons as they reconstitute the wider field of relations in which they are immersed. The space between the actors signifies sovereign space, similar to Arendt’s “space of appearance” (1998). Sovereign action brings us to life as political subjects, beyond merely keeping us alive as biological ones.

But why not harass people, steal money, or act as the proverbial thug with a badge? Here we need a more nuanced understanding of relationality and the shifting boundaries of jurisdiction. Team members take care to maintain honor in each other’s eyes. Since each one confirms the phenomenal reality of the other in the extra-legal space they mutually constitute, none wishes to appear as an unethical brute to their own colleagues. Max (one of the seven team members) explained, “I must always have the conviction of colleagues when I decide to enter the gray zone.” Frank explained that there is a pleasure in working like this as friends. Brian adds that this way “we can be our own selves.” They show us that sovereignty – as relational – need not involve control of people qua homo sacer – even if it means working against their material interests – but rather it involves people as others to whom one’s being in the world is inextricably linked.

If this view seems Pollyannaish, then note Graeber’s (2009: 203) point that anarchism amounts to action taken among people organized horizontally and acting as if the state didn’t exist (i.e., acting without legal precedent). He also remarks that “it is difficult to find anyone who has fully participated in such an action whose sense of human possibilities has not been profoundly transformed as a result. It’s one thing to say, ‘Another world is possible.’ It’s another to experience it, however momentarily” (2002: 72). Like undercover investigators acting outside the law, what else can these anarchists be experiencing (and embodying) other than sovereign action?

Piliavsky is correct that the jurisdictions most of us live in are far from sovereign. This fact, however, pertains not to the sheer power of the state, or some state-like entity. Such power is never fully totalizing even if oppressive. It pertains to the difficulty of escaping the monotonous labour of biological-cum-social reproduction, or the treadmill of the status quo: i.e. surviving, but not really living. Sovereign action thus offers the possibility to escape such monotony, and come to life as a distinct political subject, even if sovereignty in state(-like) forms is designed to preclude it.

Fake China
Pál Nyíri

“This is Laos, not China.” – Office manager of Golden Boten City Special Economic Zone, explaining why she has to work 12 hours a day

“Since we are abroad, we must keep to the rules.” – Chinese prostitute in the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone, explaining why there is no bargaining

Greg Feldman notes that, in his own work as in Anastasia Piliavsky’s, sovereignty appears more in actions and relations than in legal abstraction; in that sense, Piliavsky notes, all jurisdictions are “far from sovereign.” By most accounts, the two special zones of northern Laos – territorial concessions granted private investors from China by the Lao state for 90 to 99 years – are some of the least clear jurisdictions on earth. They fit in a line of special zones that have proliferated in Asia and elsewhere as states seek to ease conditions for capitalist experimentation (Easterling 2012) but are, by virtue of the remote location and effective autonomy from the state, more “special” than most. Yet, or perhaps because of this, the legal abstraction of sovereignty played an outsize role in the way the zones’ managers and workers organized and talked about what they did in the early 2010s, shortly after the zones were gazetted and started operating.

The two zones, one covering 16 and the other 103 km², are located in what Willem van Schendel (2002) called Zomia: the Asian highlands that have resisted lowland state-making (see also Scott 2009). What’s more, the larger of the two zones is not just located in the Golden Triangle – the supposed global heartland of drugs – but is in fact called the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone. On the one hand, its concessionaire, the businessman Zhao Wei, hopes to bank on the allure of lawlessness and attract urban Asians looking for illicit pleasures: gambling, sex, drugs, and wild animals that can be shot and/or eaten (cf. Environmental Investigation Agency 2015). On the other hand, the street signs, the police-like security guards’ and customs officials’ uniforms, the passport scanners, and the solemn public language used by the zone managers (called “cadres,” with Chairman Zhao, often photographed in the manner of Chinese officials, at the pinnacle): all of this shows that the zone does its utmost to look like a properly run Chinese town. As Andrew Shryock suggests, the zone’s managers seem to crave exactly the kind of jurisdiction a state provides, even as they escape it. In my CSSH article (Nyíri 2012), I called this “state mimicry,” designed to conjure up the efficacy of a strong developmental state (thus China, rather than Laos). Anarchists, Feldman writes citing David Graeber, act as if the state did not exist. It stands to reason that the frontier capitalists who own the zone act as if the state existed where in fact it does not. It is more intriguing that the camp followers – the small entrepreneurs who populate the zone – hew to the same fiction.

Opinions differ as to whether the zones in fact strengthen or weaken the Lao state’s reach. Danielle Tan (2017) argues that they render a remote region more profitable and “legible” through an indirect rule not unlike premodern tax farms. Similarly, but stressing the other side of the deal, Alessandro Rippa (2019) suggests that, in exchange for the state’s nominal presence and economic benefits, concessionaries escape actual state power in a deal he calls “Zomia 2.0”. While Scott’s Zomia is an anarchist paradise, Rippa’s Zomia 2.0 is an anti-anarchist “project of and for elites seeking fortune and protection” (Rippa 2019:264), just as tax farmers sought fortune and the protection of sovereigns.

Jatin Dua (2019a) suggests a similar genealogy of both piracy and maritime insurance as forms of wealth protection on the high seas that go back to the 16th-century Portuguese cartaz system, if not earlier. The fragility of the protection the special zones can offer was, however, laid bare precisely in a case of piracy. In 2011, Burmese river pirates killed 13 Chinese crew on ships carrying drugs on a stretch of the Mekong just off the Golden Triangle SEZ. Reportedly, the same pirates hijacked one of the zone’s boats, and management paid up. After the killings, Chinese police captured the main suspects in Laos, took them back to China, and after a televised trial, executed them. China also launched armed patrol boats on the Mekong. (In 2016, the story became the subject of Operation Mekong, a blockbuster Chinese action film.) In other words, while the zone had been able to buy extraterritoriality from Laos, the inability of its faux-China parastate to protect resulted in the real China arrogating extraterritorial rights.

The smaller zone, Golden Boten SEZ, attracted widespread Chinese media coverage in 2010 with stories of the kidnapping and torture of Chinese gamblers. Chinese authorities arrested some suspects, restricted border crossings, and instructed Chinese utilities and telephone companies to limit services to the zone, eventually forcing the casinos to close down. Zone management’s appeals to the Lao government for protection did not help. Under unclear circumstances, the original concessionaries – a Hong Kong-registered company – handed over power to a new owner with close connections to officials in China’s Yunnan Province. With the new Kunming-Bangkok railway, financed with a state-backed loan from China, being laid across the zone, it is now supposedly being redeveloped as a logistics hub. Again, quasi-sovereignty quickly buckled, highlighting the significance of an infrastructure dependent on China. (Today, the domination of China-based mobile payment systems aggravates that dependence.) The state-like practices of the zones, then, are spectacular and aspirational, perhaps even seductive, but easily punctured by crime and punishment that come from beyond their boundaries.

Mutual Protection
Jatin Dua

As Greg Feldman notes, sovereignty and its critique seem unable to grasp the larger phenomenon we are discussing, beyond the act of controlling territory and/or people. But all three of the previous authors help us chart certain lines of flight away from a unitary, transcendent genealogy of sovereignty (Bodin 1992; Schmitt 2005 [1922]). By focusing on relations and everyday entanglements (and their disavowal), Piliavsky and Feldman note the fluid character of sovereignty, emphasizing the “judgments that people make (state agents or others) in the throes of daily life.” Here, things that appear strong – states, undercover police investigators, distinctions between criminals and good citizens – are revealed to be contingent, fragile, and overlapping (Piliavsky 2015; Feldman 2016). Nyíri breaks apart sovereignty from another vantage point. In Zomia 2.0, where territorial concessions have been granted to private investors from China by the Lao state, local entrepreneurs and zone managers engage in “state mimicry” (Nyíri 2012), conjuring up a state even as the (illicit) appeal of the zone lies precisely in its supposed distance from state jurisdiction. The quasi-sovereignty of the zone mimics the form of a powerful developmentalist state, a fiction that keeps the “real” state at bay. Until it doesn’t. As the tale of Burmese river pirates attests, escape turns out to be an illusion. The absent state in the form of China is in fact real and near, with power over life and death.

It is perhaps no coincidence that pirates show up in this story. Across liquid domains, pirates and piracy have been key to projects of making and unmaking sovereignty and all the jurisdictional ambiguities and contradictions therein (Greene 2010; Heller-Roazen 2009; Subramanian 2016). Piracy highlights the slippages between the sovereign and the plunderer; it also reveals that, whenever we attempt to unbundle (or imitate) sovereignty, something more enduring and solid is at stake: the giving, receiving, and contesting of protection (Dua 2019a).

Protection is double-edged by nature, evoking both comfort and more ominous connotations (as in the mob’s “protection racket”). This ambivalence – safety and violation both – is frequently viewed as part of the teleology of state-making, whereby legitimacy transforms protection into sovereignty, mobsters become kings (Tilly 1985). In a recent work on the origins of international law, Laurent Benton and Lisa Ford (2016) note the importance of systems of protection within the jurisdictional politics of nineteenth-century empires. Observing how “meanings of protection were notoriously unstable” (85) during this period, the authors emphasize precisely the centrality of this ambiguity in shaping encounters between Europeans and others, including justifying conquest and annexation, a project that continues to shape contemporary logics of intervention. Protection in these various guises emerges as a halfway house of sovereignty, as a story of something on its way to becoming something else (from mobster to state; from protectorate to colony).

But protection is also at the core of non-state processes of making polity, economy, and sociality. Whether in the production of markets, the building and perpetuating of kinship relations, or in shielding strangers from the wrath of others, we inhabit a world where claims on persons, objects, territories, and routes are made on the basis of protection: a promise to keep safe (including from oneself), often guaranteed through payment and violence. This is especially so when we step away from terra firma into the sea lanes and highways adjacent to the Somali coast. Here, a distinct tale of piracy, protection, and sovereignty emerges from 2008 onwards.

The pirates who took to the restive waters off the coast of Somalia rejected a division between land and sea in which land can be fenced and thus owned and controlled in opposition to the “free sea.” This elemental distinction is central to Western conceptions of property, ownership, and sovereignty. Instead of a stark distinction between land and sea, Somali pirates envisioned what I call a “pastoral commons” (Dua 2019b), where pastoral claims over routes and mobile objects were transposed from desert to sea. This move transformed the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean into a space where jurisdiction over sea routes and ships was possible; indeed, it was violently attempted and enforced. Thus, pirates transformed themselves from pillagers to protectors of the sea (of course, these categories were hotly contested even within Somalia during the heydays of piracy). What was important was that protection was no rest stop on the way to sovereignty. Somali pirates never attempted to make themselves into states, but exercised jurisdiction in the absence of (territorial) sovereignty.

It was in this moment that the surprise of sovereignty was revealed. Instead of functioning as a weapon of the weak, protection is equally a strategy of the strong. In the aftermath of a hijacking, Somali pirates’ claims to protection, to be acting as protectors, were perfectly legible to maritime insurance companies, navies, and others who govern the global shipping economy. Unlike piracy in other parts of the world, Somali piracy operates exclusively on a kidnap and ransom model, with crew, ship, and cargo held hostage until a payment is secured. As a system of resource extraction, piracy is not simply a question of subterfuge or overwhelming force (pirate skiffs are the smallest and most precarious vessels at sea); it is a technique of engagement. Although they emerged from radically different histories and were located on opposite sides of the legality/illegality divide, the protections provided by piracy and those provided by insurance agencies were recognizable to each other, and this mutual recognition made possible a ransom economy, with the possibility of amassing profits in both the insurance offices of London and the port cities of coastal Somalia.

This protection arrangement continued (at times with mutual benefit for insurers and pirates) until a rival entity emerged: namely, the private security industry and its armada of mercenaries. Today, for a fixed price, these armed escorts transit with oil tankers and other vessels through the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, dodging pirates, torpedoes, and other perils of the sea, transforming ships into fortified spaces of protection.


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About the Authors

ANASTASIA PILIAVSKY teaches social anthropology and politics at King’s College London, where she is Senior Lecturer at the King’s India Institute. She is editor of Patronage as Politics in South Asia and author of Nobody’s People: Hierarchy as Hope in a Society of Thieves.

GREGORY FELDMAN is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Windsor. He is the author of The Migration Apparatus: Security, Labor, and Policymaking in the European Union, We Are All Migrants: Political Action and the Ubiquitous Condition of Migrant-hood, and The Gray Zone: Sovereignty, Human Smuggling, and Undercover Police Investigation in Europe.

PÁL NYÍRI is professor of global history from an anthropological perspective at Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam. He is the author of Scenic Spots: Chinese Tourism, the State, and Cultural Authority; coauthor of Seeing Culture Everywhere: From Genocide to Consumer Habits; coeditor of Chinese Encounters in Southeast Asia: How People, Money, and Ideas from China Are Changing a Region; and author of Reporting for China: How Chinese Correspondents Work with the World.

JATIN DUA is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Michigan. He is the author of Captured at Sea: Piracy and Protection in the Indian Ocean.