Capitalism And The Sea

Liam Campling & Alejandro Colás

In Marx's conception of industrial capitalism as

  1. Exploitative and alienating production of goods
  2. The realisation of value through trade and the resulting accumulation of capital

the sea is both a site of production (fishing) and a medium for circulation (shipping). Capitalists exploit both, choosing their own labour laws either through historical imperialism or modern flags of convenience, whilst continuing unsustainable fishing practices with the EEZ. Capitalism has been shaped by the sea (e.g. weather as a barrier to trade), whilst also shaping it (e.g. land reclamation or ocean acidification): this is a terraqueous relationship, the result of applying land-based property rights onto the sea.

Chapter Summaries

0: A Terraqueous Predicament

The history of capitalism is intertwined with the geo-history of the sea, forming a terraqueous (land-and-sea) relationship. The sea has been a medium for shipping and oppression, resource extraction and waste disposal. The physical features of it have been as moulded by capital as capital has been shaped by those same features.

1. Circulation

The development of Marx's “real” industrial capitalism is a result of:

  1. Class conflict, exploitative and alienating production
  2. Circulation of produced goods, realisation of value, and capital accumulation

The role of the sea in early commercial capitalism was to speed up circulation and value realisation through shipping. In England and Amsterdam, profits were reinvested and a network of industries and financial services were created to feed this trade.

2. Order

The history of imposing order on the sea can be divided into three distinct eras:

  1. The first notion of “freedom of the sea”, coexisting with piracy and privateering
  2. Global 'new navalism' and the sea as a battleground between emerging capitalist nations
  3. Enclosure through international treaties against the backdrop of the Cold War

From its inception, “freedom of the sea” has been used to justify profiteering and capitalist exploitation in disputed waters. The current US position of control through international convention has been an effective neo-colonial tool, but is ineffective in combatting piracy or the weaponisation of the EEZ in the South China Sea.

3. Exploitation

Exploitation — extracting surplus value from labourers — is uniquely predatory and pervasive at sea. Shipowners:

Maritime labour plays a key role in the history of labour organisation, but have have a history of racist “white unionism” and nationalist ignorance to working conditions of foreign labourers.

4. Appropriation

Fishing is an interesting study in the terraqueous nature of capital, since how an animal is fished is contingent on its biology (e.g. deep-sea fishing of highly migratory fish). At the same time, capitalists have extended land-based ideas of property rights to the sea using the idea of the EEZ. Historically and today, the discovery of new fishing regions from which private capital profits has been funded by public exploratory expeditions.

5. Logistics

Logistics in shipping is mainly concerned with the ability to plan ahead, to know what will be where, when. The early dominance of coal over wind is an example of accepting greater costs in exchange for reliability. The just-in-time nature (a feature of planning and profit chasing) makes the system more vulnerable to labour action, making control an integral part of modern shipping.

6. Offshore

Through its “remoteness, immensity, seclusion and fluidity,” the sea has become a place for capital to offshore elements and secure the dominant social order. Some of examples of this:

A counterexample is global and oceanic warming, which cannot be offshored due to its global nature and which represents a terraqueous threat to human life.

7. Terraqueous Horizons

Seafaring is not inherently progressive, but contains potential for the realisation of an international anticapitalist cosmopolitanism. In order to achieve this, labour organisations would have to set aside their dominating attitudes (racism) and exploit the fragility of modern logistics networks. The terraqueous conception of freedom and stability, innovation and regulation, is thus a model for how our anticapitalist future could be built: the sea moulds us as we mould it.