Sinews of War and Trade: Shipping and Capitalism in the Arabian Peninsula
Laleh Khalili
Verso, $29.95 (cloth)

Capitalism and the Sea: The Maritime Factor in the Making of the Modern World
Liam Campling and Alejandro Colás
Verso, $29.95 (cloth)

Beginning in the late 1860s, the decade that it took to construct the Suez Canal, photographs depicting its feats of engineering circulated across the world. Sold to travelers as souvenirs, featured in Le Monde, and later exhibited at the 1889 Paris world fair, they enshrined on paper the industrial monumentality of the dredgers that excavated earth into sea.

The workings of global markets are typically invisible—dissolved in the abstract, quasi-magical relations of capital flows.

As publicized images of the machinic wonders of modernity, they also served as promissory notes, enticing investors to purchase shares in the joint-stock Suez Canal Company. The photographs telegraphed seductive promises of financial gain, pictorializing the genius of European engineering that could dig a manmade channel across the African continent. Running through the pictures, historian Mohamed Gamal-Eldin discovered, was a striking pattern. For the technological sublime to work its wonder on the awed spectator, the photos had to be evacuated of the laboring subjects who made the feat possible: the many tens of thousands of dispossessed fellahin—peasants—who dug the monumental canal by hand.

What sense of the sublime, after all, could be gleaned from scenes of corvée labor toiling under a punishing sun? Hundreds died—from cholera, from accidents, by drowning in the process. The shrewd aesthetics of anonymity served a thinly veiled political function. Depopulated landscapes of gargantuan automation are studded with a few indistinct laborers, made to seem inconsequential to the task at hand. It is a colonial engineer’s fantasy—a celebration of the mastery of European man over the landscape of colonized Egypt, and a paean to the centrality of French technological power in an industrial age that supposedly less developed Egyptians had yet to grasp. The effect is to body forth what Alberto Toscano calls a “world already without us,” the conceit of capitalism that reproduces itself in abstract images of human-altered landscapes devoid of the working hands that fashion them. “The dead labor embodied in machinery suddenly swells to inhuman proportions,” Fredric Jameson likewise observes in Representing Capital (2011). “The quantities of the past have been rendered invisible . . . yet they now surround the worker in a proportion hitherto unthinkable.”

This same effacement of labor marked many depictions of the Ever Given—the colossal container ship that ran aground in the Suez Canal for six days in late March, blocking this pivotal artery of global trade. As the whole world looked on, aerial photographs and wide-lens panoramas struggled to capture the ship’s scale in a single frame. Humans, even other machines, barely register alongside it. Stacked with 18,000 containers and millions of dollars of goods, stretching more than 1,312 feet from end to end, the ship is twice as long as the Suez Canal is wide in the narrow passage where it ran aground. Its geopolitical proportions are equally mindboggling: Japanese-owned, German-managed, and Taiwanese-operated, it is registered in Panama and captained by a crew of Indian seamen. The industrial sublime had returned.

Images of the ship went viral. After more than a year of public health emergency, brought on by a virus too small to see, the Ever Given surely captured our attention in part because its fate expressed the stalled feeling of a whole planet suspended in pandemic time. For a few days the world seemed a little less inscrutable, brought down to scale by a simpler and more satisfying causality. The workings of global markets, like those of microbes, are typically invisible, dissolved in the abstract, numerical, quasi-magical relations of capital flows. But this? A big boat got stuck. The stuck boat was big. And people had to get it unstuck.

To understand the particular saga of the Ever Given, we have to understand the larger global history of maritime commerce.

This simplicity conceals depths of its own, however, and the story of how we got to this point—where monstrous ships dwarf the canals they sail in—also deserves excavation. Two timely new books help to do that work, unmasking a colossal maritime system whose obsessions with monstrous infrastructure reflect structures of profit-making that have long sought to reduce, deregulate, and hierarchize the labor that lubricates the movement of goods. In this regime, constant circulation of commodities has become central to the “health” of the global economy. To understand the particular saga of the Ever Given, we have to understand the larger global history of maritime commerce.

Oceans as Arteries

I encountered the realities of this system firsthand during ethnographic fieldwork in 2015, when I spent six weeks riding across the Pacific Ocean on another vessel owned by Evergreen (the company that operates the Ever Given). Its capacity was 8,100 TEU—the standard unit of cargo size, based on the volume of a standard twenty-foot container box. That is only some 40 percent of the Ever Given’s capacity, but still the ship was as long as two Eiffel towers are tall. The crew comprised twenty-three, all men. For forty-eight days at sea, we scrubbed rust, swabbed the deck, cleaned the walls of forecastle, mended leaky pipes, and monitored the temperature of reefers, the refrigerated containers holding perishable goods. Except for the faint smell of apples interlaced with the stench of the heavy fuel oil, the crew knew nothing of the contents of the thousands of containers on board.

This is par for the course. In the era of containerization, ships no longer carry shipping manifests. A clerk in Shenzhen or Los Angeles calculates what cargo should be loaded and where, and sailors are there to maintain the lifespan of the ship, keeping rust, dirt, and engine malfunctions at bay. The alienation of workers from the value of their labor that Karl Marx first described in the context of factories is only compounded on the ocean. Whatever the containers carry—from microchips to rubber chickens, produce to hazardous waste—is rendered illegible to the workers charged with ensuring their circulation. The container, economist Marc Levinson has written, “made the world smaller and the world economy bigger.” Its main innovation was what the industry calls “intermodality”: it could be detached from trucks, lifted by crane, and stacked directly onto oceangoing vessels, standardizing and radically reducing the costs of transportation.

The first container ship to cross the Atlantic, the SS Fairland, provided proof of concept in 1966; a year later, the company that owned it would carry war materiel from the West Coast to Cam Ranh Bay during the Vietnam War and ship boxes back to the United States stuffed with Japanese goods. But even as the world got bigger, workers got shortchanged. Containers ushered in the mechanization of ports, just as states, acting with and like corporations, sought to repress the power of organized longshore labor. Jobs that had once required multiple gangs of stevedores to load and unload goods from ships were almost entirely wiped out. Unloading became the lonely work of pushing levers atop behemoth gantry cranes that lift and drop steel boxes into an endless grid of squares.

Unique among other spaces of capitalist production, the sea is both passageway and precondition for capitalism to conquer new frontiers.

Abstraction is, in large part, the point of logistics. In their new book Capitalism and the Sea: The Maritime Factor in the Making of the Modern World, Liam Campling and Alejandro Colás argue that “circulation is the lifeblood of global capitalism, and the oceans act as its arteries.” Unique among other spaces of capitalist production, the sea is both passageway and precondition for capitalism to conquer new frontiers. Prior to World War II, it had been cheaper and more efficient for industrial producers to use iron and coal as energy sources, but after the war the 1948 Marshall Plan changed the economic calculus with investment in oil infrastructure. Oil was lighter and easier to transport, and embracing it would weaken the structural power of European miners whose strikes could shut down production. Thus, as Timothy Mitchell explains in Carbon Democracy (2014), the global shift from coal to oil simultaneously and conveniently dealt a severe blow to working-class power.

In the same period, oil corporations such as Shell and British Petroleum viewed the ongoing project of decolonization as a threat. Though the Gulf region held massive reservoirs of oil, the nationalization of various industries in Iran and Egypt in the 1950s goaded oil corporations to decentralize their refineries, spreading them out to Europe and Japan. Whereas the earliest product carriers were designed to ship refined oils in barrels, oil tankers responded to the newly decentralized network by moving crude in giant tanks below the hold. Oil and steel multinational companies began to offer long-term contracts to shipowners, who took on enormous loans to build larger fleets of bigger ships. Soon it became cheaper to move oil by ship between countries than it was to move coal by rail within them. A floating, gridded network of ocean-borne oil began to replace the dendritic networks of coal. Between the 1950s and 1980s, the total capacity of oil tankers grew tenfold.

The Suez Canal

The Suez Canal played a vital role in these geopolitical shifts. As Laleh Khalili shows in her new book Sinews of War and Trade: Shipping and Capitalism in the Arabian Peninsula (2020), it contributed especially to the proliferation of massive ships. Although Egypt had helped fund the canal’s construction and initially held claim to 15 percent of the Canal’s future profits, by 1875, under mounting extortionate debt, the viceroy of Egypt, Ismāʿīl Pasha, was forced to sell Egypt’s shares to the British Government. The French and British thereafter controlled the Canal for more than eighty years. All this changed in 1956, when Egyptian Prime Minister Gamal Abdel Nasser, in an effort to resist colonial domination, announced the nationalization of the Suez Canal Company. The European powers baulked. France, Britain, and Israel invaded Sinai and took control of the Suez Canal. The invasion closed the canal for six months and would dramatically rebalance relations of trade, Khalili explains, “forthwith and forever.”

One unforeseen consequence of the closure was to incentivize more massive vessels. Oil-carrying ships had to circumvent the canal by rerouting around the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of Africa—a journey that added around twenty days. Given the longer and more dangerous voyage, companies began to innovate and expand the size of tankers; larger ships would defray the extra costs of fuel, labor, and time in the excursion around the continent. Meanwhile pipeline construction, seen as a safer alternative to the disruptions wrought by war, intensified across the Gulf.

Containerization enabled manufacturers to perform a “geographical conjuring trick” at a time when industrial profit rates were beginning to fall.

These trends would only solidify over time. In 1967 Israeli warplanes launched airstrikes against Egyptian airfields and a ground offensive into the Sinai. With Israel occupying one side of the Suez Canal and Egypt and its Arab allies encamped on the other, the canal closed for a full eight years. The flames of gargantuanization were stoked, and a building boom of very and ultra-large crude carriers (VLCCs and ULCCs) commenced. By 1971, Khalili notes, 80 percent of all new tanker orders were for supersized vessels. When it reopened in 1975 under the control of Egyptian authorities after the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the canal was able to regain much of the freight it had lost, except for the VLCCs and ULCCs that were now too large to pass through.

By then the market for oil had diversified to circumvent the canal’s chokepoint. European countries had begun to look to West and North African oilfields, and Iranian oil began to find East Asian markets, where economies were rapidly taking off. In lieu of transport through the canal, innovative “oil-swapping” models were invented to accommodate route closures. As Khalili illustrates, this involved the USSR providing oil to Kuwait’s and Abu Dhabi’s typical customers in Europe, while the two Arab countries sent equivalent amounts of oil to the USSR’s customers in East Asia in return, circumventing the transportation of Soviet oil through the Suez Canal. War was not only interwoven with commerce in the maritime world, but also expanded the geographical and financial flexibility of oceanic trade. In these ways, “Western colonialism, Cold War proxy wars, and national independence movements,” Campling and Colás write, all “contributed to the revolutionization of maritime transport.”

The Era of Containerization

Ironically, the age of the ever-expanding supertanker came to an end in the 1980s just as containerships were beginning a frenzied new age of expansion. Campling and Colás recount how the environmental devastation wrought by supertanker spills, beginning with the Torrey Canyon in Cornwall in 1967, triggered a mass environmental movement and tighter regulations on supertankers. The largest oil tanker ever built (indeed, the longest and heaviest self-propelled ship of any kind), just over 1,500 feet in length and some 564,000 deadweight tons when fully laden, finished construction in 1979. It has since been scrapped, proving too large for applications beyond at-sea storage, and since then tanker sizes have since shrunken and stabilized.

Container ships, by contrast, have seen a hot streak. Since the inception of containerization in the 1960s, shipping companies have raced to fill their vessels with larger volumes of cargo that can defray the costs of fuel and labor. Campling and Colás note that despite the common economic contention that the growth of the shipping sector arose in response to growing demand in international trade, the reality is the opposite: innovations in shipping made the movement of goods so cheap that it prompted new strategies of profit-making, in a process that scholars and supply chain managers have identified as the “logistics revolution.” Containerization enabled manufacturers to perform what Campling and Colás call a “geographical conjuring trick” at a time when industrial profit rates were beginning to fall.

The alienation of workers from the value of their labor that Karl Marx first described in the context of factories is only compounded on the ocean.

Cheaper land and labor lay on the other side of the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. By regularizing and cheapening the cost of transoceanic movement, container ships allowed firms to relocate factories to the global South, cheaply deliver raw materials to assembly lines, keep low inventories, speed the delivery of finished products to debt-fueled consumer markets in the North, and reinvest profits back into the cycle. A new economics of profit-making came to depend not only on cheap ocean transit, but on increasing the volume and regularizing the frequency of goods traversing the oceans. As Khalili and Campling and Colás both observe, the rise of the container went hand in hand with a host of other political economic changes: the deregulation of dock labor, the “denationalization” of shipping (including an accelerated shift to so-called “flags of convenience” that severely undermined seafarer organizing), the deregulation of tariffs and taxes between countries protected by “special economic zones,” and other international instruments designed to smooth the movement of trade. The ocean thus became a terrain for what Campling and Colás, repurposing Marx, dub “the annihilation of time by sea.” Shipping was now not the afterthought of the burgeoning machine of global trade but its essential lubricant.

The Monstrosity of Megaships

The dawn of megaships arrived in the early 2000s. Although container ships had been steadily growing in size since the 1960s, the new millennium witnessed an influx of cheap oil, increased competition between shipping companies, a commodity super-cycle that generated record profits, and a growing attack on organized port workers. Adding to these fateful convergences was the economics of scale. The container shipping industry is driven mainly by price competition among carriers: the larger the ship, the more cost-effective the journey. To drive down freight rates, major liners began to concentrate on developing container fleets, shrinking portfolios that had once included bulk carriers, tankers and other vessels into a focus on building larger container ships such as the Ever Given.

A battle for the title of “world’s largest ship” ensued. In 2013 Maersk used the web domain to unveil hitherto unimaginable Triple-E ships with a capacity of 18,000 TEU. A year later China Shipping Container Lines announced they were building a 19,100 TEU vessel. Maersk scrambled to respond with 20,000 TEU ships—the size of the Ever Given. Oriental Overseas Container Line raced to build 21,000 TEU vessels. By 2017 the French container shipping company CMA CGM had signed contracts to produce 23,000 TEU ships. Today the largest ships in existence have a maximum capacity of 23,964 TEU—some 15 times that of the first ships that set off to Vietnam a half century ago.

The monstrous ambition of these shipping companies betrays an insatiable will to power for mastery over the ocean. The decision by one shipping line to order larger ships prompts a wave of competitors to follow suit, ordering even larger ships in the fear of being left behind. The result is a kind of arms race to build ever larger behemoths, made possible by speculative bets on the inevitably favorable growth of maritime revenues. It is not clear when the ambition of shipowners will meet the limits of engineering, but dreams of prosperous, seamless circulation can come crashing. As Campling and Colás show, “what might make perfect sense from the perspective of an individual enterprise”—such as the unmitigated expansion of giant ships—“can contribute to causing industry-wide crisis through downward pressure on freight rates.”

The monstrous ambition of shipping companies has become a kind of arms race to build ever larger behemoths, made possible by speculative bets on the growth of maritime revenues.

By the mid 2010s the expansion of ship sizes brought so much container capacity onto the market without accompanying trade growth that ships began to suffer from over-speculation. This culminated in the 2016 bankruptcy of Hanjin. At the time the world’s seventh-largest container shipping firm, it collapsed under $5.4 billion in debt. After its assets were frozen, nearly 90 ships, some 540,000 containers, $14 billion of goods, and 3,000 seafarers were stranded at sea for months, asked to ration their food, water, and fuel. It was a rare instance when the workers who move our goods received international media attention. Competitors quickly closed in on the gap left by Hanjin’s collapse, buying up its zombie carriers. With the megaship glut, matter had its momentary revenge upon idealized projections of endless financial prosperity.

These undulating crises in the shipping business help us to understand global trade as more than the movement of stuff. While ships may run ashore, and trade arteries can be gummed up, the industry is far less susceptible to material disruption than the Ever Given episode makes it seem. In our age of hyper-financialized capitalism, it is not so easy to throw sand in the gears of the capitalist machine. Global trade is shaped as much by the financialization of maritime assets as by the physical conditions of transport and exchange. Khalili traces how recent decades have seen maritime routes folded into complex financial derivatives markets, creating futures and spot contracts aimed at hedging against price volatility on given trade routes on by speculating on future prices. To make physical distribution more resilient, financial mechanisms became ways to protect shippers against potential loss. Speculative bets abound today in the maritime industry—on weather, oil grains, and even sea routes.

In fact, shares in AP Moller-Maersk rose close to a record high after the Ever Given incident, when the shipping group promised a “strong performance” in light of surging demand prompted by the bottlenecks of the Suez Canal closure. Modern commerce does revolve around diffuse global supply chains, and disruptions at any point in the network can threaten supply around the globe. But the assumption of a direct correlation between stuck ships and long-lasting threats to global commerce is overblown. Shipping has become a resilient financial system built to reroute value around stoppages and disruptions where they inevitably occur. For evidence that “disruptions” to global trade are not always as they seem, we need look no further than the fact that most shipping groups’ stock prices have risen rather than fallen in the wake of the Ever Given embarrassment. Supply chains are built to snake around interruptions, and slowdowns often turn out as profitable as speedups.

From Megaships to Megaports

These monstrous ships are perhaps most perverse in the way they meet their victims on shore. As more and more megaships lumber through the world’s oceans, more infrastructure is required to cope with mounting cargo on land. When companies such as Evergreen make new megaship orders, they rarely consult with port authorities, rail carriers, or other actors along the supply chain. Terminals originally built to discharge cargo from an earlier era of ship sizes (5,000 TEUs and under) now struggle to handle cargo with capacities five times as large.

Shippers used to select ports on the basis of their strategic geographical location (as was the case in the establishment of the port of Aden, Malta, and other colonial entrêpots at key points in imperial trade routes). But ports today increasingly act as substitutes for each other, pawns in a game of commerce that is global in scale. All ports fear being replaced by the quicker, more efficient passage, so they invest heavily in upgrading their fixed infrastructure.

Building a megaport is a mammoth task, both financially and spatially. Construction requires empty, flat land and expensive outlays of public finance. Channels must be dredged to make way for a deepwater harbor—not only once, but endlessly, to counter the tides and currents. Cranes must be raised or replaced by larger ones altogether. Dockyards must expand to support the higher volumes of containers. In the hinterland, highways and railroad corridors must support the concentration of cargo entering the city. These infrastructural modifications, made repeatedly as megaships have continued to grow, require the massive dispossession and manipulation of environments and ecologies.

While ships may run ashore, our age of hyper-financialized capitalism ensures that the shipping industry is far less susceptible to material disruption than the Ever Given makes it seem.

As Khalili details, there is something “extravagantly modernist” about shaping the ecologies and geologies of land and sea to suit the circuits of market exchange. The god-like desire to manipulate space, to extract and excavate without regard to geological impediments, reflect what Alfred Sohn-Rethel calls the “absolute historical timelessness and universality” of exchange, according to which “the entire empirical reality . . . by which one moment and locality of time and space is distinguishable from one another is wiped out.” Khalili recalls visiting the port of Khor Fakkan and talking to a British terminal manager. Pointing to a hill in the distance, he said plaintively that he could “move that mountain” if he needed. For him, Khalili reflects, “shaping the land, reclaiming it or flattening it, or whittling away at it, was no matter.”

The ecological effects of such human hubris have been devastating. When the Suez Canal joined the Red Sea to the Mediterranean in 1869, marine species migrated along the waterway, allowing invasive species from venomous jellyfish to rabbitfish to make their way north, causing untold damage to biodiverse eco-systems. So significant were these effects that they have been termed “Lessepsian” after the developer of the canal, Ferdinand de Lesseps. As massive infrastructural developments chase giant ships, they destroy entire ecosystems, and ports and canals have come to epitomize the intensification and expansion of capital’s supply lines, cutting gashes across the earth to chase supply chain profits.

The haunting, seemingly workerless photographs from the early days of the Suez Canal train our gaze on the monstrous monoliths of modern capital: raising our heads to the heights they promise, we forget the people beneath them. And as it was then, so it is today. The etymology of “monster” goes through the Latin monere: to warn. Indeed “monsters are warnings,” David McNally writes in Monsters of the Market: Zombies, Vampires and Global Capitalism (2011)—“not only of what may happen but also of what is already happening.” Subject to a claim from the Suez Canal Authority of $916 million in compensation, the Ever Given is now impounded in the Great Bitter Lake awaiting the legal battle that will decide who is financially responsible for the blockage of the waterway. Twenty-six crew members remain stranded on board, subject to the whims of the behemoth companies that will determine when they can return home.

Such forms of ransom are commonplace; over 300,000 sailors have been trapped on board ships during the pandemic. If the sideways grounding of the Ever Given should teach us anything, perhaps it is that something monstrous has always been at work in the operations of global capitalism. In our fascination with the bigness of these behemoths, we should not forget that capitalism itself—in its vampiric looting of life from land and people, in its transmogrification of work and matter into commodity value—is a monster all its own, whose catastrophes pile up within but also far beyond the canal that briefly transfixed us in March.

Correction: An earlier version of this essay misstated the cargo of the first transatlantic voyage of a container ship. The relevant passage has been updated.