Big business on the high seas

Issue: 171

Sarah Ensor

A review of Capitalism and the Sea: The Maritime Factor in the Making of the Modern World by Liam Campling and Alejandro Colás (Verso, 2021), £20

Capitalism and the Sea is an engaging new study of capitalism’s transformation of the human relationship to the sea. It uses a Marxist approach to understand how capitalism constantly reinvents itself to maximise profit and, in the process, intensifies exploitation, privatises vast areas of the sea and commodifies the species that inhabit them. The book is divided into sections on “circulation”, “order”, “exploitation”, “appropriation”, “logistics” and “offshore”. However, it is the excellent chapter on appropriation that offers the pivotal argument, detailing how changing capitalism remodels and reshapes how society interacts with the seas and oceans. These reflections demonstrate how capitalists have been able to extend property relations created on land into all those parts of maritime space that modern technology allows them to reach.

Liam Campling and Alejandro Colás carefully describe how capitalism transformed the conventional forms of trade that went before it. Before plantation slavery formed new markets based on the commodification of human beings and their transportation on slave ships, it was necessary to develop the fundaments of a capitalist credit system such as stock exchanges and “bills of exchange”, an early credit instrument that acted as “a store of universal value” (p42). The sea became the subject of centuries of intense legislative activity designed to reproduce the land-based property relations at sea. By the early 17th century, the struggle over maritime law had become whether the sea was to be free, “mare liberum”, or closed, “mare clausum”? Did territorial sovereignty extend into the sea? Could states control which ships went where and what the ships’ masters and owners did when they got there?

For the British state, the dominant imperial power in the 19th century, “freedom of the seas” meant the right to enforce its own economic interests. Thus the British navy attacked China in 1839 to force it to accept imports of opium, despite Chinese attempts to fight an epidemic of addiction. There were legalistic sleights of hand that removed hindrances to trade during wartime such as the Declaration of Paris in 1856, which allowed “enemy goods” to be transported under “neutral flags”.

With their detailed accounts of these sorts of machinations and manoeuvres by competing states, Campling and Colás demonstrate the impossibility of understanding the development of capitalism’s relationship to the sea without an appreciation of the role of colonialism and imperialist rivalry. The British Empire ruled the waves when it subsidised the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company (P&O) to run a mail service to its overseas territories—a function that later widened to include carrying “settlers, narcotics, colonial troops and imperial administrators” (p82). However, as Germany and Japan became centralised states and industrial powerhouses, they developed their own military and imperial ambitions that began to challenge British naval dominance. Similarly, the United States navy was massively expanded and modernised from the 1880s onwards. Nevertheless, Britain continues to pursue a position as an imperialist naval power to this day, as shown by the recent launch of the £3 billion warship HMS Queen Elizabeth. This new aircraft carrier is an attempt by the British state to flex its fading imperial muscle—and a valuable tool for currying favour with squalid regimes in North America and the Middle East that are hungry for military cooperation with Western states.

Capitalism and the Sea also describes how capitalist states have shaped big business on the high seas. One example of this was the web of national and international deals made through the “conference” system of shipping cartels, under which state subsidies were used to exclude competition from rival economies. States also heavily subsidised their “own” capitalists in order to incentivise the development of national fishing fleets because investors often refused to risk money in ventures that could literally sink, taking all their capital with them. Of course, they were less concerned about losing workers to accidents and drowning: people were often much cheaper to replace than fishing gear and boats. Even now, fishing fleets in advanced capitalist economies often receive massive state subsidies.

Throughout capitalism’s history, states have also developed various ways of laying claim to fish, and Campling and Colás reveal how the strongest states were able to overturn existing fishery-ownership conventions in the 20th century. Before the Second World War, both Spain and Japan developed large, technologically advanced “distant water fleets” that generated huge profits, soaked up unemployed labour and acted as a naval reserve. These fleets caught much of the tuna processed in the expanding canneries that were providing cheap food to a rapidly expanding global working class. Indeed, in 1941, the ability of capitalists from different states to move and fish on the high seas was effectively written into the Atlantic Charter, agreed between the US and Britain. According to the Charter, the end of the war “should enable all men to traverse the high seas and oceans without hindrance” because the seas did not belong to any one state. Nonetheless, as the war finished, the US was able to limit Japan’s distant water fleet, reducing competition to its own fishing industry and ensuring Japanese fishing boats could not be used as a military reserve. Moreover, national states also moved to maintain exclusive control over the seas and fisheries adjacent to their own land.

After 1950, these manoeuvres often included smaller nations struggling for national sovereignty and seeking to protect their resources from incursions by capital based in the biggest imperial powers. The US’s claim to exclusive rights to mineral resources miles off its coasts after the Second World War became the precedent for the creation of exclusive economic zones (EEZ). EEZs, in which states claim special rights over marine resources, were codified in the Third United Nations Conference on the Sea between 1973 and 1982. This was an important step in the further imposition of property relations on the sea. Where previously fishers took as much of the “free gift” of fish as their skill, equipment and luck allowed, they now had to pay to access fisheries. States that owned EEZs gained rent from other states that wanted access, effectively appropriating part of the surplus value created by the labour of foreign fishers working in its waters.

EEZs were shaped by the legacy of 19th century imperialism, and maps of these territories often mirror the colonialism of this period. For instance, France has the largest total EEZ in the world, including the vast area around its colony of French Polynesia, a collection of 118 geographically dispersed islands and atolls in the South Pacific Ocean. Through such relics of its colonial past, French capital has access to enormous maritime resources. In comparison, China has a very small EEZ relative to the size of its population.

How much respect states really displayed towards EEZs depended on the structure of their national fishing industries. The US had heavily invested in its distant water fishing fleet and tried to prevent tuna stocks being considered part of EEZs. Its boats simply continued to fish in the EEZs of less powerful states without paying for access. When the Solomon Islands tried to detain US-owned boats in order to prevent them fishing illegally in its waters, the US simply repaid the value of the boat and catch to its owners. It then deducted these costs from the aid money that the Solomon Islands received.

EEZs have not been imposed in the same way on the sea floor, which was declared the common heritage of humanity by the UN General Assembly in 1970. However, these areas may become a site of new struggles when capitalists develop the technology to plunder the bottom-most parts of the sea that are currently unreachable.

Capitalism’s expansion into every aspect of human interaction with the sea has involved a long process of disciplining workers. Indeed, it is a testament to hundreds of years of class struggle that so much of the infrastructure of modern capitalist shipping and fishing is designed to undermine class solidarity and trade unionism. New, highly mechanised container ports with relatively few workers have been built away from established harbours with their traditions of portside solidarity and their neighbourhoods of unionised dockers, fishers and seafarers. For a few dollars, ship owners can register vessels in a state other than their own under a “flag of convenience” (FOC), allowing them to avoid national tax regimes and health and safety regulations, and circumvent trade union rights. However, Capitalism and the Sea reminds us that the dockers in the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) refused to unload FOC ships that had neglected to sign up to ITF agreements in the 1990s. This action successfully pressurised ship operators to prevent their crews from unloading cargoes from non-compliant ships. This provides a glimpse of the power of workers to challenge capitalist power on the sea.

Both ship owners and operators, which are often separate businesses, regularly deny responsibility for accidents and abuses on their vessels. Campling and Colás detail how operators use racism, the threat of unemployment, language barriers and the isolation experienced by maritime workers to undermine solidarity. Working regimes in commercial fisheries and shipping are often tightly hierarchical and “prison-like”. Instructions are orders and disobedience is a serious offence.

Huge shipping corporations, such as Denmark’s Maersk, pay crew from the Global South far less than those from the US and the European Union for doing the same work. There is a long, racist history of workers being denied shore leave and crews being left unpaid and unable to get home when companies go bust or their owners walk away. Campling and Colás note 367 such “abandonments” since 2004, although they do not mention the practical solidarity from activists, dockers’ unions and other trade unionists that have supported crews with food, money and tickets home. They do, however, discuss examples of how fishers’ unions have sought to defend their members’ jobs by appealing to the “national interest”. This framing has often undermined workers’ ability to organise in cases where a single boat’s crew is made up of workers from different countries. All this cuts against the simple fact that fishery workers from different countries share the same problems.

There is a vast system of law and regulation that applies to work in fishing and shipping, but enforcement of workers’ rights and health and safety safeguards can be very lax. Because of this, these industries see persistent slavery, trafficking of fishers between boats, and physical and sexual violence, including murder, theft of wages, as well as systematic neglect of health and safety. Campling and Colás record these problems in detail and offer occasional glimpses of how workers can organise a serious fight for better conditions and wages.

With the historically low levels of strikes across the world on land and sea before the Covid-19 pandemic, capital can appear very strong against workers isolated from trade unions and their own communities. Nevertheless, class struggle is inherent to capitalism, and the maritime sector is no exception. Many seafarers have protested and struck in extraordinarily difficult circumstances. Gazan fishers went on strike when two were killed by the Egyptian navy in November 2020. Workers from Rameswaram in Tamil Nadu, India, began an indefinite strike over the arrest of nine fishers by the Sri Lankan navy in January 2021. Californian crabbers also struck over wholesale prices; they failed to win everything they wanted but got more than if they had not fought back against the wholesalers. There are many other examples over the past two decades of marine workers striking and protesting all over the world, including in Chinese shipyards, Canadian container ports and Middle Eastern docks. Workers have been arrested, jailed and killed, but many others have won, sometimes aided by solidarity from other workers and trade unions.

One disappointing aspect of Capitalism and the Sea is that it talks so little about women fishers and seafarers. The authors do note:

During the age of sail, women were regularly on board ships in port and the wives of warrant and junior officers regularly went to sea and worked on the ship. Women would also disguise themselves as men to work as crew and, more rarely, as marines (p112).

However, the only other substantial reference to women explains, “Rates of exploitation…cannot be understood in the absence of unpaid human labour, not least—but not limited to—the social reproduction of human beings”, which is “disproportionately provided by women” (p111). This limits the work of women in fishing and seafaring communities to unpaid “social reproduction”, ignoring the work of female wage labourers in coastal areas such as those who processed herring by hand in Norway, Britain and Iceland throughout the 20th century. The women employed to bait hooks for line fishing are also passed over. Despite these omissions, the authors do note that, as well as the women working in canning factories around the world, there have been many other examples of female workers employed in fisheries and waterborne trades.

Today, with their destruction of the ocean’s ecosystems, capitalists are showing just how powerful they can be. Nevertheless, the commodification of marine species and the damaging of ecosystems with climate change has also had repercussions for capital. One such repercussion was the re-emergence of piracy off the coast of Somalia and in the Gulf of Aden in the first decade of this century. In these areas, communities have been under pressure from climate change, industrial commercial fishing and foreign intervention from states such as the US. Campling and Colás point out that international campaigns against the pirates have “repurposed imperial outposts” in Dubai, Djibouti and the Seychelles. Tellingly, however, the operational headquarters of the Horn of Africa’s Maritime Security Centre is based in Hertfordshire, England.

The campaigns against piracy reveal much about the priorities of capitalist states. There has been too little international cooperation to prevent slavery, murder and sexual violence at sea or even illegal fishing. Little joint action has been taken to protect the sea’s fragile ecosystems despite the fact that their destruction poses a threat to the survival of the entire planet. Nevertheless, states have swung into action to protect the profits of owners and operators of container ships, oil tankers and other bulk carriers in regions where pirates operate. Framed by these failures and false priorities, Capitalism and the Sea is an important and rewarding read, as well as a valuable addition to the growing body of work studying capital’s relationship to ecology and the destruction of the environment on which we all rely.