latest from the magazine
latest journal issue
arallel to my reading of Jatin Dua’s masterly crafted Captured at Sea, the destructive potential and hidden logics of speculative shipping came to the surface on more than one occasion, and in profoundly shocking ways. The most tragic of these events was the massive explosion in a warehouse in the Lebanese Port of Beirut in August 2020 – which killed more than 200, injured 6,000 and left an unaccountable number of people homeless. The devastating explosion was followed by confusing media reports on who was to be held responsible for the explosive ammonium nitrate being stored in a port warehouse. Uncovered was a near unbelievable story of an abandoned Russian-owned cargo ship, deeply entangled within the complex networks of shipping capital. The Beirut event might seem distant from the world of piracy. But for any reader of Captured at Sea, the chain of events behind the Beirut explosion could hardly come as a surprise. Because what Jatin Dua shows us, is that for many actors within the shipping industry, protection at sea is foremost about protecting global trade itself.
Jatin Dua invites the reader to tag along on a staggering seaborne journey on the risky waters of global shipping. Moving onboard the increasingly larger cargo ships that cross the Western Indian Ocean, within fishing communities in northern Somalia and amongst insurance underwriters in London, Dua reveals to us the politics and practices of piracy and protection. Dua convincingly argues that piracy is generated in the meetings between “parallel and competing systems of protection” (page 177). Claims to protection –from Somalian coast communities to insurance offices in London- lie behind the multi-scalar creation of a hijacking economy in the western Indian Ocean. The modern shipping industry, and its crucial role in the global capitalist project, has remained relatively hidden to the general public for decades already. Dua’s brilliant book is published alongside that of other scholars’, who more recently have turned their gaze towards the violent circulation of goods and the economic and logistical systems that support it. As Laleh Khalili argues in her recent book, Sinews of War and Trade: Shipping and Capital in the Arabian Peninsula (2020), global shipping is “central to the very fabric of global capitalism.”
The mobility of goods worldwide is driven and facilitated by the speculative business of maritime shipping. Behind the colossal giants transporting goods and raw materials across the world’s oceans lie powerful, multinational shipping companies and ship-owners. Hidden onboard their ships are their low-paid workers, most of whom are hailing from the global south. In order to compete globally, many European ship-owners and companies have survived by flagging out to countries with low-tax regulations and low labor costs (Dua page 236; see also Markkula 2011). But the shipping economy’s logic of profit is built upon entangled modes of valuation that not only take us to the maritime laborers working and suffering at sea, but also direct us to the office-spaces where maritime capital is brokered and negotiated. This is why Dua’s behind-the-scenes insights from the shiny offices and closed meeting spaces of the maritime insurance industry are so crucial. It is inside these offices that we come to understand why risk in long-distance trade is “both peril and profit” (page 107). And these offices are also where I want to stay, for the remainder of this text, in order to ask how “the mathematics of protection” form part of the wider speculative labor of global shipping.
Lloyd’s of London is the beating heart of the world’s maritime capital. This is where we find the largest marketplace for insurance. Maritime insurance is, in fact, the original form of insurance. Dua reveals to us how the insides of Lloyd’s renowned building bear witness of its maritime history, omitting the company’s troubling (to say the least) historical role as a driver and facilitator in the transatlantic slave trade. The global logistical system of cargo mobility we see today -completely transformed by containerization- is designed to keep goods in motion. As any unplanned immobility is a loss of money, one of the central preoccupations of the many financial actors operating within the shipping industry are the interruptions or contingencies that may disrupt the flow of goods. The maritime insurance agencies, such as the one Dua worked for, have one central object of protection in mind: shipping itself. Contingencies –of which piracy is one of many- are calculated and valued in particular ways, and distinct insurance policies protect the cargo, the ship and its crew (page 106). One underwriter tells Dua that shipping is all about “moving risk” (page 113). What we are presented with is a confusing picture of contracts of responsibility based on mathematical risk modeling, risk pooling and all-risk policies, wherein trust is not immediately easily located. Through an analysis that expands on the already substantive academic literature on risk, Dua manages to tease out how counter-piracy in fact creates both obligations and potential for profit.
What Dua describes is an economy of maritime insurance that is fundamentally a speculative endeavor. The work of calculating contingencies and risk and of predicting future events is in other words “speculative labor,” as Laura Bear has termed it. Bear expands on the Marxist account of speculation by defining it as a “future-oriented affective, physical and intellectual labor that aims to accumulate capital for various ends” (Bear 2020:2). Risk analysis and insurance underwriting are examples of such labor where surplus value is created through speculative practices in maritime financial domains. Central to the speculative labor of insurance is the contract as a material “technology of imagination” (Bear 2020). The contract anticipates the future and controls responsibility distribution for potential future profit making. Dua masterfully charts how the marine insurance contract has evolved historically, but also how it currently works as a powerful technological tool of governance that re-installs global hierarchies. He leaves us however curious to know more about the professionals that perform the speculative labor of insurance risk analysis and underwriting. When the underwriter is “smart” (page 114), his speculative labor of protection is nevertheless deeply embedded within particular ethical claims, social identities and cultural practices.
The surprising connections of claims of protection across time and space, sketched out so skillfully by Dua, are what remain most powerful about his account of the international making of piracy. The hijack-and-ransom economy is taking place in spaces of maritime infrastructure, on and off the sea- where regulative ambiguity reigns and where a potential for profit always exists for some. Captured at Sea importantly opens up to us the social worlds and spaces of negotiation where risk in maritime circulation can be converted into profit. Jatin Dua’s ethnographic insights from the shipping spaces where maritime capital is brokered and scenarios of “risky frontiers” (Bear 2020) are produced remain crucial in order to uncover how capitalist value is generated through seaborne speculation.
Bear, L (2020) Speculation: A Political Economy of Technologies of Imagination. Economy and Society 49 (1): 1-15.
Khalili, L (2020) Sinews of War and Trade. Shipping and Capitalism in the Arabian Peninsula. London and New York: Verso.
Markkula, J (2011) Any Port in a Storm: Responding to Crisis in the World of Shipping. Social Anthropology/Anthropologie Sociale 19 (3): 297–304.
Hege Høyer Leivestad is Assistant Professor of Social Anthropology at Stockholm University. Her current research deals with port-making, labor and global shipping in Spain.