The Human Story of Maritime Capitalism

Laleh Khalili’s new book, The Corporeal Life of Seafaring considers people and bodies as a measurement of the economic, social, racial and political world

It’s currently estimated that around 80 percent of the world’s goods by tonnage are transported by sea. In her last book, Sinews of War and Trade: Shipping and Capitalism in the Arabian Peninsula (2020), Laleh Khalili argued that shipping is central to the fabric of global capitalism; in this new essay-length publication she seeks to move from systems to people and bodies as a measurement of the economic, social, racial, political and ultimately human implications of all this. Bodies that often go unnoticed because, weirdly, as the amount of goods being transported by boat has risen, the number of humans required to keep those goods flowing has fallen. The Titanic, the largest steamship of its era (it sunk in 1912), had 280 engineers alone working in shifts belowdecks; a supertanker today might have 20 to 35 crew in total.

Writing a decade ago, academic Vivek Bald defined early-twentieth-century seamen as ‘semicaptive and hyperexploited but globally mobile’. Khalili, drawing on both research and her own experience of commercial seafaring, suggests that today any real sense of that mobility has evaporated. Ports are now further away from city centres and offer nothing to do; unloading and loading times are shorter; ‘periods of liberty’ have consequently been reduced. All of which, combined with a splash of internet sociability (replacing maritime companionship), has led ship’s crews into more effective states of confinement. Boredom, loneliness, depression and suicide are some of the ways in which this affects the human face of maritime capitalism. Khalili asserts that the recent history of seafaring has anticipated not just the sweatshop of today but the gig economy, the normalisation of extractivism and other tenets of our current phase of capitalism.

To that can be added ingrained colonial hierarchies and racial prejudice; open registers through which ships can be registered to a country without having any connection to that country; and, related to both, ‘relational inequalities’ in working conditions (‘European workers’, writes Khalili, ‘form an aristocracy of labour’, with better working and general rights than non-European colleagues). All this is not to say that no one enjoys seafaring or that it does not come with moments of solidarity and companionship; Khalili is careful to point out that, at times, it does. Rather, this book shines a light on how, as ever, the bodies of some are consumed in order to fulfil the desires of others.

The Corporeal Life of Seafaring by Laleh Khalili. Mack, £14 (softcover)

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