The Oceans That Keep Capitalism Afloat

From maritime empires to modern logistics, capitalism has been forged on the seas.

Dominating the oceans has been central to capitalism. (Cameron Venti / Unsplash)

The recent blockage of the Suez Canal generated unprecedented interest in the central role played by container shipping in the global economy. Images of the Ever Given’s blockage brought home the reality that capitalism’s seemingly magical global supply chains are in fact based on real equipment and real workers. In their recent book Capitalism and the Sea, Liam Campling and Alejandro Colás make clear that the key issues evident in the Suez blockage form part of a much longer history of capitalist accumulation, competition, extraction, and exploitation on the seas. They argue that the history of capitalism cannot be understood without understanding its often neglected maritime dimension. Their book attempts to remedy this omission by bringing the world’s oceans to the very center of the story.

The authors trace this history back to the origins of capitalism in Western Europe. Bridging a key theoretical divide in Marxist historiography, they argue that capitalism “was born in the countryside but nurtured through international trade.” That is to say, it emerged “out of feudal class antagonisms which subsequently developed by latching onto pre-existing money and commercial circuits of capital.” The oceans “offered a cheaper and faster means of transport” for “the circulation of commodities, humans, ideas and technologies” and “encouraged the institutional development and geographical convergence of banking, insurance, shipbuilding and related commercial infrastructure in seaports.” It was Britain’s early ability to dominate the high seas that allowed it to become the first global capitalist hegemon, ruling over a worldwide empire from the port city of London.

The organizing principle adopted by Campling and Colás is that of capitalism as a totality. From there, the book traces out multiple lines of inquiry, considering the oceans as trade routes, strategic spaces for capitalist states, sources of natural resources, carbon sinks, the backdrop for what is often highly exploitative and racialized work, and much else besides. Like Laleh Khalili’s Sinews of War and Trade: Shipping and Capitalism in the Arabian Peninsula, also published last year by Verso, this kaleidoscopic approach to the topic allows for a particularly broad perspective, drawing out often unexpected threads of continuity and change. A dizzying array of issues are considered within the realms of production, circulation, social reproduction, and extraction, including the enduring role of imperialism, white supremacy, labor exploitation, and the externalization of environmental costs in global maritime capitalism.

Their theoretical framework draws from the work of Marxist human geographers like Andreas Malm in considering the ways in which the autonomous material aspects of the planet’s natural geography are utilized and transformed through the logic of capitalism (as well as the ways in which they sometimes frustrate the logic of capitalism). In this regard, Campling and Colás are particularly interested in rebutting the idea of oceans as “lawless” spaces. They instead draw close attention to the ways “successive waves of legislation, regulation and management” have been used for the purpose of “reproducing at sea the property relations that obtain on land.” This has included using legislation to facilitate and police the movement of enslaved people across oceans, allowing for the extended exploitation of natural resources and, in the twentieth century, denationalizing the maritime labor force.

Dominating the oceans has been central to capitalism and, as the authors show, it has relied on the exercise of state power. This was the case in the nineteenth century, when British free-trade imperialism relied on its naval dominance to maintain the seas, even as they were — paradoxically — “nobody’s property,” as much as it was the case in the second half of the twentieth century, when the United States maintained control over the oceans thanks to scattered lease-held naval bases around the world.

Maritime Labor

Taking the historical long view, Campling and Colás note striking continuities between the conditions of maritime labor today and those of the nineteenth century. These continuities include the dangerous, highly exploitative, and precarious nature of employment for seafarers, and shipping companies’ widespread use of a racialized divide-and-conquer strategy to control their workforce. Ships today (such as the Suez-blocking Ever Given) remain “factories in the ocean,” where workers’ private lives take place in the same space as their working lives, posing unique challenges to workers’ well-being and ability to resist the conditions of their exploitation.

In other respects, however, the maritime shipping industry has undergone a major reorganization since the mid-twentieth century. In particular, the authors highlight the shift from a system of nationally embedded maritime states with national regulations governing labor conditions to the global “flags of convenience” maritime labor regime we have today, in which companies are free to register their ships in those states that have minimal maritime labor regulations. This shift toward deregulation of the industry has had a tremendously detrimental impact on the strength of seafarer unions, which historically were quite strong in many parts of the world. The International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) has made some headway in addressing these degraded work conditions through a campaign to take on the flags of convenience system, ultimately winning a system of ship inspectors and a global framework for collective bargaining. But despite the ITWF’s hard-won victory, working conditions in the sector remain poor and unions are generally weak.

“Free Gifts”

The authors trace the historical trajectory of a range of oceanic environmental concerns as well, with a particular focus on the world’s fisheries, which “together with other key marine and coastal resources (minerals and hydrocarbons, wind and wave energy, recreational spaces)” constitute “one of the main ‘free gifts’ of nature which capitalist firms and states have through the centuries sought to valorize.” Yet, while these natural gifts may be free, the authors emphasize, the ability to make a profit from them requires state-constituted property rights (often leading to interstate conflict), as well as the exploitation of labor.

Campling and Colás also highlight the negative externalities that capitalist accumulation has imposed on the oceans, from depletion of global fisheries through overfishing to rising sea levels and higher temperatures, slower currents, and acidification. The bill owed to the natural world remains, of course, unpaid, though it has now been called upon for collection as dramatic weather events disrupt global trade and capital’s ability to exploit the seas’ natural bounty.

In the final chapter, Campling and Colás consider what lessons the Left might derive from understanding capitalism in oceanic perspective. Noting that oceans have long played a key role in facilitating left internationalism, they highlight the potential for global collaboration on issues of climate change, as well as the potential for workers at key choke points in maritime supply chains to exercise power to advance trade-union and broader political objectives. Following this internationalist impulse, they argue “for anti-capitalist politics of embracing the flows, connections and universalization that issue from the relationship between capitalism and the sea . . . to channel and harness them into more settled, enduring structures of collective distribution and democratic rule.”

Though the development of such a politics is certainly an ambitious proposition, their book, and its attention to the oceans as a means to study capitalism, reminds us afresh that “capitalism is only a very recent historical arrival on our shores.” Through understanding the historically contingent construction of this global system, the possibility of its transformation into a system of human and environmental thriving returns to view.