‘Capitalism and the Sea: The Maritime Factor in the Making of the Modern World’ by Liam Campling and Alejandro Colás reviewed by Steve Edwards

Reviewed by Steve Edwards

About the reviewer

Steve Edwards is Professor of History & Theory of Photography at Birkbeck, University of London. …


In 1995 the artist Allan Sekula observed a certain ‘cognitive blindness’ towards the sea and the maritime economy. The cargo ship, not the internet, he suggested provides the technological nucleus of contemporary capitalist globalisation. Sekula is clear:

I’m arguing for the continued importance of maritime space in order to counter the exaggerated importance attached to that largely metaphysical construct, ‘cyberspace’, and the corollary myth of ‘instantaneous’ contact between distant spaces. I am often struck by the ignorance of intellectuals in this respect: the self-congratulating conceptual aggrandizement ‘information’ (Sekula 1995: 50).

Sekula was surely thinking of ideas of virtuality, hyper-reality and network society associated with the telecom boom of the mid-1990s – but his argument applies just as well to recent claims that labour is ‘immaterial’, involving keyboards and affect in the ‘knowledge economy’.

In the period since 1995, the role of the sea in the history of capitalism has increasingly drawn attention. Two currents can be flagged here. The first is the rise of global labour history that has moved beyond a national optic to plot connections and exchanges across boundaries. This often entails a figure-ground reversal in the tradition of history from below, where the diversity of the international working class is bought into focus through the mobile figure of the seafarer. Examples include: Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker’s The Many Headed Hydra: The Revolutionary Atlantic (2013); Rediker’s The Slave Ship (2018) and Julius Scott’s The Common Wind: African-American Currents in the Haitian Revolution (2018). Paul Gilroy might be seen as a pioneer of this approach with The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (1993). This purview, initially centred on the Atlantic triangular trade, has been extended with Robbie Shilliam’s, The Black Pacific: Anti-Colonial Struggles and Oceanic Connections (2015). As Enzo Traverso observes, it is a dialectical paradox that it took the crisis of Fordism and decline of Stalinism to rediscover the hidden history of seafarer’s struggles (Traverso 2021: 165).

This focus on revolutionary connections has been paralleled by the current intensive Marxist debate on logistics, an industry described by Laleh Khalili as the ‘quarter masters of capital’ (Khalili 2020: 265).. Authors of this literature address the way containerisation transformed global production, enabling offshoring and ‘Just in Time’ delivery of components. One consequence of this interest in logistics and circulation has been renewed interest in the second volume of Marx’s Capital. In turn, attention to the circulation of capital has generated a strategy aimed at blockading the chokepoints of the system (examples range from Tikkun to the debate between Jasper Bernes and Alberto Toscano). Taking a wider purview, Khalili’s, Sinews of War and Trade (2020) offers a geopolitical analysis of the Middle East seen from the perspective of the sea. It is a further mark of the new interest in maritime space that these accounts are increasingly finding popular form in books such as The Box and Rose George’s Deep Sea and Foreign Going, or the BBC’s Blue Planet series and the film Seaspiracy, where false naivety is played as pedagogy.

The latest contribution to thinking about the role of the maritime factor in the history of capitalism is a new book by Liam Campling and Alejandro Colás: Capitalism and the Sea. Whereas other studies take one aspect of the topic – revolutionary internationalism, logistics or commercial ecocide – Campling and Colás present a systematic Marxist account of the subject. The authors bring a range of expertise to their project: Campling has published previously on commodity chains in fish and Colás on international relations and on the politics of food. The strength of Capitalism and the Sea is to be found in this broad engagement with what they call ‘terraqueous capitalism’ (the term comes from Moby Dick). Of course, it is possible for them to make this assessment because of the many individual contributions that have been made in recent years, from labour history to political economy.

The project of Capitalism and the Sea is to demonstrate the centrality of the ‘maritime factor’ in the history of capitalism (4). The official language of capitalism is permeated with this watery world: ‘flotation’, ‘liquidity’, ‘flows’ and ‘ventures’ (25). We might add ‘bubbles’. We learn that 17% of the animal protein consumed by humans comes from fish (168). It is not only fishermen and sailors who have been dependent on the sea, but also a wide network of plebians: dockers, ship builders, rope makers, taverners, sex workers, porters and many others (20). In this book, capitalism is immersed in the briny medium: the early employment of the wage form on ocean vessels and dockyards; seaborne commodities from African slaves to oil and East Asian manufactured goods have been the life blood of the system; privateering; extraction of fish protein and ooze from cetaceous mammals (nineteenth-century homes were lit by whale oil); the long-distance carrying trade, the Middle Passage; risk and the emergence of insurance; the flag of convenience system; modern piracy; the transatlantic telegraph; tax-havens; expansion of commodity frontiers; through to modern container shipping and oil tankers, oil and gas extraction and bioprospecting, the sea has played a crucial role in the accumulation of capital. ‘Global capitalism’, the authors compellingly argue, ‘is a seaborne phenomena’ (1).

This focus on the sea enables a novel perspective on capitalism that illuminates existing problems and enables new connections to be observed. Capitalism and the Sea brings into focus important questions from the history of capitalism. The book includes an introduction, conclusion and six substantial chapters. The first, ‘Circulation’, looks at the role of the sea in the development of capitalism, examining the role of the trading companies, particularly the EIC and VOC, and merchant capital. It covers the institutionalisation of risk and the rise of insurance and credit and makes an important contribution to the debate on transition and the nature of capitalism. Chapter two, ‘Order’, examines the legal regulation of maritime space in three phases: the era of merchant capital and the debate between Grotius and Selden (the Dutch wanted to use the sea, but the English were determined to control it, hence the role of the Royal Navy (76)); the Pax Britannica; and the recent era of US dominance. The third chapter, ‘Exploitation’, considers shipboard ‘labour regimes’ from impressment to flag of convenience registration, the racialisation of the seaborne labour force and seafarer militancy. Chapter four, ‘Appropriation’, looks at the industrialisation of fishing as the commodification of nature, with extensive material on fish markets and tuna. Chapter five, ‘Logistics’, engages with the current debate on circulation time and makes a significant qualification to what the authors see as the excessive focus on containerisation. The final innovative chapter, ‘Offshore’, probes those modern fantasy islands (even when landlocked): the flag of convenience system, tax havens, super yachts and seasteading.

The overall approach might be said to involve an eco-Marxist address to historical nature, where natural forces are autonomous from, but connected to, the logic of capital (15). The authors attribute this idea to Andreas Malm, yet their chief resource seems to be Jason Moore’s conception of cheap externalities that sustain capitalist profitability. In this sense, they argue commodity frontiers involve the mixing of wild nature with human labour. It might be argued that the tension between the accounts offered by Malm and Moore is unresolved in this study. In fact, my main criticism of this significant book is that the thematic focus of the chapters means that important issues are raised in illuminating ways, but rarely carry over into the subsequent argument. For instance, the discussion of plural temporality picked up in chapter one, where different ‘times’ are bought into contact through the triangular trade, subsequently drops out of sight only to resurface in the conclusion as ‘disjointed timescales of crisis’ (313). What we get are a series of rich and related case studies that might have received resolution at a higher level. While I am at it, I should say that the decision not to consider the cultural representations of the maritime world – Dutch seascapes, Turner, Conrad, Verne and Melville, through to Hollywood films such as Titanic and Waterworld – is a missing dimension to this story. The cultural imagination, just like fishing nets, is immersed in capitalism and its uses of the sea.

These criticisms aside, the material covered by the authors is both extensive and sharply focused. One particularly important discussion is their contribution to the current re-evaluation of the role of merchant capital. Following Jairus Banaji and other recent accounts of merchants in the ‘carrying trade’, Campling and Colás attempt to mediate between World Systems theorists and political Marxists, arguing that circulation cannot be separated from production. Merchant capital was central to the development of banking and insurance; the triangular trade generated enormous amounts of capital and a major new technology – the deep-sea vessel employing wage labour – led to the integration of markets on a global scale. In the process, like Banaji, the authors distinguish between modes of production and ‘labour regimes’, seeing capitalism as a form that reconfigures existing social relations in complex and varied ways. In this way, they suggest we do not have to choose between a (Smithian) model based on circulation and war or the one outlined by Maurice Dobb predicated on the production of surplus value. They write: ‘Our view is that it is indeed possible and desirable to think of capitalist social relations as being born in the countryside but nurtured through international trade – to understand capitalism as a mode of production emerging out of feudal antagonisms which subsequently developed by latching onto pre-existing money and commercial circuits of capital’ (59-60). This is an important, and I believe correct, assessment. In fact, it might be said that this claim is supported by Brenner’s own Merchants and Revolution.

The chapter on fishing is detailed, outstanding work, where they argue we are facing not a ‘tragedy of the commons’ but a ‘tragedy of the commodity’ (182). In the same chapter, the account of the importance of the relative extent of coast lines is shown to be a significant geophysical condition for accumulation (legal fishing waters), leading to the development of Exclusive Economic Zones and, in the case of states with relatively short coastlines such as China, propelling deep-sea fishing and interloping. It could be added that this is a factor in the emergence of modern East-African piracy as fishermen are driven from their traditional forms of subsistence. On logistics they convincingly argue that the current debate gives too much weight to containerisation whereas bulk shipping and tanker freight is still a much higher percentage of world seaborne trade and regularity is as significant as increase in turnover time. The periodisation of capitalist shipping, like other phases of capitalist development presented throughout the book, is insightful. Only a few themes have been picked up in this review, but there is much more to be found in this important book about the history of capitalism and the multi-dimensional devastation it wrecks on the contemporary world.

1 May 2021


  • Khalili, Laleh 2020 Sinews of War and Trade London: Verso.
  • Sekula, Allan 1995 Fish Story Düsseldorf: Richter Verlag.
  • Traverso, Enzo 2021 Left-Wing Melancholia: Marxism, History, and Memory New York: Columbia University Press.

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