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ecently, a team of oceanographers working in Santa Monica Bay, nine miles off the coast of Los Angeles, discovered a toxic waste dump more than twice the size of Manhattan. The site, some three thousand feet below the surface, contains as many as half a million barrels of acid sludge – the technical term for the sulfuric muck left over from refining petroleum - strewn haphazardly across the ocean floor. Many of the barrels are leaking onto the surrounding seabed. In photographs shot by drone submersibles, the treacle oozing from the barrels glows neon blue against the grey-black silt of the deep ocean bottom.
The dump site is likely one of the largest and most polluted spots in US coastal waters. Sediment analysis indicates the presence of the synthetic fertilizer DDT – banned in the U.S. since 1972 – in concentrations 40 times higher than the highest recorded amounts at a nearby shallow-water DDT Superfund site. The discovery thus lends weight to the bleak fact, long espoused by environmental scientists and historians of industry, that “nowhere on earth is as heavily contaminated with DDT…as Southern California.” From the 1930s through the early 1970s, California regulators routinely approved requests from local petrochemical manufacturers to dump DDT- and PCB-laced waste and other noxious materials into the Pacific Ocean. What is remarkable about the recent discovery, then, is not so much the existence of the dump site, or even its vast scale, but that it had to be discovered at all. How did we not already know the barrels were out there, leaching poison into the depths?
One way capitalists have made use of the sea, suggest Liam Campling and Alejandro Colás in their capacious book Capitalism and the Sea: The Maritime Factor in the Making of the Modern World, is to hide things they do not want anyone to find, ever. In the case of ocean dumping, this hiding is premised on the geophysical fact that the surface of the sea conceals all visual traces of whatever passes through it. But Campling and Colás dredge up numerous additional examples of oceanic concealment as well. They point, for instance, to the flag of convenience or open register, a baldly exploitative legal ploy whereby shipping firms pay a small fee to register their vessels in states with lax labor and tax regimes, effectively undermining both centuries of maritime labor struggle and more recent efforts to shore up international taxation regimes. They find evidence of oceanic hiding in long-running debates over maritime property rights, wherein the high seas are generally understood to be a stateless space, but only because of juridical frameworks drawn up, enacted, and policed by states. And they examine a series of more flagrant instances, including laborers enslaved on remote fishing trawlers, indentured seafarers languishing on bulk-cargo ships, and untaxed profits piling up in offshore bank accounts.
It is tempting, given this litany of oceanic hiding, to think of the ocean as an opaque or invisible space, located somehow outside society, away from the prying eyes of regulators and the public. In this conventional oceanic imaginary, the sea appears empty, passive, and seamless – “nothing but water, considerable horizon though,” as Melville put it (1993: 62). The problem with this romantic image of the ocean is that it serves to naturalize the view that the sea is virgin territory, always already available for use by capital. In his magisterial study of the relationship between oceanic images, their economic contexts, and their political consequences, the theorist and photographer Allan Sekula sums up this illusory oceanic void as “the transnational bourgeoisie’s fantasy of a world of wealth without workers, a world of uninhibited flows” (1995: 137).
Drawing on work by Sekula and a raft of other primarily Marxist theorists, Campling and Colás set out to dismantle this “liberal fantasy” (2021: 312). Capitalism and the Sea’s central theoretical claim, initially sketched out in a 2017 paper, proceeds as follows: since the beginning of capitalism roughly five centuries ago, the ocean has been progressively incorporated into landed circuits of regulatory oversight and corporate control. Thus capitalism, in both its early commercial and industrial forms and in contemporary neoliberal guise, must be understood as an ‘amphibious’ or ‘terraqueous’ totality. As Campling and Colás themselves put it, capitalist development has continually “intensified the relationship between land and sea” in order to “‘flatten’ the geophysical division between solid ground and fluid water,” (2021: 3). What they mean by this is that capitalist entities have long sought to capture the world ocean as sovereign territory, impress upon the sea private property relations developed on land, and otherwise code the saltwater parts of the world as continuously available for extraction, appropriation, production, and circulation.
The takeaway is that the domination of the sea by capital and by the state – the latter of which operates chiefly as handmaiden to capital – is integral to the development and operations of the capitalist world system. The popular image of the sea as an invisible, empty, or external space is a ruse – a trick devised by capital in support of its ceaseless effort to subsume the whole world to its will, to reproduce itself endlessly, everywhere, and in everything. In which case, one might rightly ask: what lies beneath or behind this false image of the sea? How should we conceive of the ocean as it actually is, in reality? Campling and Colás provide grim answers to these questions: the world ocean, they contend, has in fact been subsumed almost entirely to the ruthless, extractive logic of capital, with deleterious consequences. Properly understood, the sea is “a domain of intense exploitation, brutality, war, conquest, oppression, degradation, and obfuscation,” (2021: 312).
Capitalism and the Sea expounds upon this dark vision across six chapters, each organized around a distinct conceptual facet of capital’s relation to the sea. Three chapters examine “mainly temporal processes” (chapter one, “Circulation”; three, “Exploitation”; and five “Logistics”) while the remaining three chapters explore “broadly spatial phenomena” (chapter two, “Order”; four, “Appropriation”; and six, “Offshore”). In each chapter, Campling and Colás work through a series of historical case studies as a means of developing an analytical framework capable of explaining our current “terraqueous predicament”, by which they mean “the fundamental, but often overlooked, fact that the Earth’s geographical separation into land and sea has significant consequences for capitalist development,” (2021: 3). Along the way, they touch on a range of issues, from the expansive – the looming climate disaster, the Middle Passage, containerization – to the relatively niche – the Plimsoll line, Oliver Cromwell’s 1651 Navigation Acts, the cosmo-tropical architecture of contemporary St. Barts.
It is, in short, a highly ambitious, densely cited, somewhat sprawling book . Synthesizing a vast amount of more specialized work by other scholars and revisiting in brief their own previous research – on tuna commodity chains, imperial geopolitics, and the development of small island states – Campling and Colás survey five hundred years of global maritime history and engage substantively with ongoing theoretical debates in historical materialism, Marxist historiography, economic geography, political ecology, geopolitics, and labor and development studies. Their approach to the literature they survey is exhaustive and integrative. Chapter one (“Circulation”), for instance, provides a neat synopsis of the long-running debate over the nature and origins of capitalism. Did capitalism begin with the enclosure of the feudal commons and the commodification of social relations in the English countryside? Or, alternately, did it start in southern Europe with the advent of overseas trade, early imperial war-making, state formation, and the emergence of a genuinely international market economy? “Is it possible,” Campling and Colás ask rhetorically, “for both approaches to be right, at least in part?” (2021: 59).
In fact, Capitalism and the Sea’s historical analysis tilts toward Great Britain, “the world’s first capitalist empire” (2021: 238). And with the notable exception of chapter one – which provides both a working definition and a general periodization of the capitalist era, starting with the long sixteenth century – the book focuses primarily on events after 1850. The theoretical approach throughout is broadly Marxist: capitalism is conceptualized as a totality, history moves in a relatively straight line from past to future, events take place in a conjunctural manner, and what matters, in general, are not the actions of individual actors, but what Marx famously called “the sum of interrelations, the relations within which…individuals stand,” (1993: 265). And while Campling and Colás engage explicitly with geographical research informed by assemblage, New Materialist, and actor-network approaches, for them “human agency – for good or ill – still claims the dominant role” (2021: 17).
At times the book’s analysis seems to reify capital’s power, making capitalism appear more monolithic, internally coherent, and formidable than we know it to be . While Campling and Colás rightly attack and persuasively undermine what Marcus Rediker calls “the unspoken proposition that the seas of the world are unreal spaces,” (quoted in Campling and Colás 2021: 312) in doing so they risk replacing one grand (capitalist) narrative with another darker but still quite grand (Marxist) narrative. They attempt to mitigate this risk, pointing out, for instance, that the ocean remains a major geophysical barrier to capitalism’s own self-expansion. But the predominant vision that emerges from Capitalism and the Sea is of capital as an autonomous, all-consuming entity, and of the world ocean as a space given over almost entirely to reproducing capitalism. This bleak analysis may well be accurate, but it is not sufficient, politically speaking. As Hannah Appel recently noted, it is a “fantasy that in the process of showing capitalism to be multiply and contingently constituted, we have somehow undone its power,” (2019: 33).
Which is not to say that Capitalism and the Sea does not have much to recommend it. Within the broad bounds of historical materialist analysis, there is considerable theoretical nuance here. Moreover, the book is packed to the gills with intriguing historical details. We learn, for instance, that when Darwin arrived in the Galapagos in 1835 the islands were already overrun with American whalers; that the British multinational Unilever has “genetically modified antifreeze proteins present in Arctic eels for the commercialization of low-fat ice cream,” (2021: 303); that seafaring “has more occupation-specific regulation at the International Labor Organization than any other job,” (2021: 156); and that the labor union, the strike, and wage labor itself were all invented on ships at sea. The extent to which these facts (factoids?) add up to a compelling argument or theoretical claim varies by chapter. At times, the book’s analytic momentum dissipates into a catalogue of only loosely connected historical events and observations.
At its best, however, Capitalism and the Sea effectively distils what Franco Moretti recently called “the complexity of the real” into an interlocking set of explanatory categories and concepts. Chapter two (“Order”), for instance, begins with a capsule history of the law of the sea, starting with Hugo Grotius’s influential 1609 tract Mare Liberum, and ending with the development of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Campling and Colás then draw on this historical account to elucidate a series of more recent challenges to the current oceanic order, including the expansion of U.S. overseas naval bases after World War II, the rise of piracy off the Horn of Africa in the 2010s, and contemporary disputes over militarized land reclamation activity in the South China Sea. In each case, they show how shifting alignments of geopolitical strategy, law, and naval power have produced, on the one hand, a durable image of the sea as a lawless, utopian space, and, on the other hand, a powerful state-led reaction to that image in the form of continuous efforts to “[secure] the seaborne circulation of commodities through land-based systems of sovereign rule,” (2021: 101).
The terraqueous nomos – used here in the German jurist and political theorist Carl Schmitt’s spatialized sense of the term – described by Campling and Colás is at once surprisingly robust and yet always in motion, a continuous process of ordering and reordering ocean space, rather than a fixed set of enduring relations between discrete actors. This dialectical tension between fixity and flux, Campling and Colás argue, has underpinned juridical, diplomatic, and military approaches to the sea on a near-continuous basis through the whole history of capitalism. In this analysis, then, contemporary efforts to regulate, police, and manage ocean space are only the most recent manifestations of an enduring capitalist project aimed at guaranteeing the endless, unchecked flow of goods across the surface of the earth.
A key lesson of Capitalism and the Sea is that states do an enormous amount of work to secure capitalist accumulation at sea. Ensuring the constant circulation of commodities on cargo ships – and so reproducing endlessly the circuit of capital – is shown repeatedly and convincingly to be a basic task of sovereign power. In their analysis of shipping (chapter five, “Logistics”), Campling and Colás emphasize this point again and again, while simultaneously distancing themselves from recent social theory that fixates on the increasing speed of maritime circulation:
…states play a decisive role in competitive accumulation within maritime logistics, and the uneven geographies of the global ocean mean that the annihilation of time by sea can only ever be incomplete – oceanic movement is far from ‘smooth’ or ‘flat’ (2021: 215).
The emphasis here is on the crucial support function of states, the cheapening of transport costs, and, most of all, on the “regularity and reliability of ocean-going sea freight” (2021: 217). The contemporary logistics industry is thus fundamental to capitalist operations today not simply because it has sped up the M-C-M1 circuit (though it has done this) but because logistics has facilitated reliable capitalist planning at greater temporal and spatial scales than ever before.
To support this claim, Campling and Colás run through key developments in shipping in Japan, the U.K., and the U.S. since the 1860s. They recount the invention and deployment of new technologies (steam power, heavy fuel oil, the container) and identify a series of significant legal-organizational turning points, including the creation of the flag of convenience, the disaggregation of ownership across different shipping industry sub-sectors, and the emergence of current oligopolistic cartel system, whereby market power is concentrated in a handful of giant, state-affiliated alliances. “[T]he common denominator in these experiences,” Campling and Colás contend, “is the planned movement of commodities across otherwise fragmented points of production and consumption” (2021: 263).
This analysis is persuasive, so far as it goes. But not much here is new. Jasper Bernes (2013), Sandro Mezzadra and Brett Neilson (2015, 2019), and Martin Danyluk (2017), among many others in recent years, have attended to the manifold ways in which the contemporary logistics industry enables new kinds of capitalist planning. Indeed, apart from the frame argument that capitalism must be conceived of as a specifically terraqueous totality, Capitalism and the Sea functions in large part as a survey of existing literature. Read in this way, as a sweeping tour of critical political-economic research on a range of pressing oceanic issues, the book is a valuable contribution to scholarship. Early-career oceanic thinkers will benefit from Campling and Colás’s generous citational practice – the book contains nearly 900 endnotes, which, taken together, comprise a sweeping bibliographic overview of ongoing conversations and debates across a range of intersecting fields.
In the brief conclusion (“Terraqueous Horizons”), Campling and Colás identify a handful of democratic political lessons to be drawn from studying the interface between capitalism and the sea. They propose, for instance, that coastal cities like Dhaka, Lagos, and New Orleans are potentially rich sites for thinking through the relationship between capitalist domination, climatic vulnerability and political liberation. No doubt. And because the sea has long been a font for the cosmopolitan imaginings of working-class and elite populations alike, they suggest that the oceanic world may serve as a source of inspiration for a future internationalist politics capable of bringing “the offshore ashore, subjecting socio-economic flows to democratic control without falling into the reactionary insularity of ‘socialism in one country’ or nativist tropes about ‘rootless cosmopolitans’ (2021: 317). Perhaps.
More prosaically, Capitalism and the Sea helps explain why and how the recently rediscovered toxic dump site off the coast of Los Angeles remained hidden for so long, despite considerable evidence pointing to its existence. One reason the site was overlooked, the book suggests, is that all of us who live under the totalizing force of capital have been seduced by the well-worn image of the ocean as void space, as a place that is so vast and so deep that anything dropped into it will eventually be diluted to the point of inertness or forever isolated on the ocean floor. We missed the dump site because we have continually mistaken this sublime image of the ocean for what Sekula calls “the crude materialism” (1995: 12) of the real oceanic world.
Also helpful for understanding the dump site is the notion that capitalism is fundamentally a terraqueous project, meaning simply that capitalists routinely devise new ways to exploit the material differences and spatio-temporal distances that separate the ocean from terra firma. Reporting by the L.A. Times suggests that in the 1960s and 1970s, the Montrose Chemical Corporation of California, the largest DDT manufacturer in the U.S., continued to slough barrels of acid sludge into the Pacific despite rapidly accumulating scientific evidence showing that ocean dumping threatened not only life at sea but life on land as well. Much of Montrose’s dumping apparently took place in the middle of the night – the company hid its activities not only at sea but in darkness as well. Moreover, Montrose workers were instructed to chop open the steel barrels with an axe before tossing them overboard, to ensure quick sinking.
For decades, then, the barrels of acid sludge have been out of sight and out of mind, but very much in the water column, on the seabed, and, via the food chain, in the bodies of fish, birds, marine mammals, and almost certainly humans as well. In the case of the dump site off Los Angeles, then, the ocean is clearly not outside society at all. Rather, the site suggests that seawater moves furtively through us, literally shaping our bodies and our social relations in indeterminate but potentially deadly ways. Rapidly escalating ecological change will exacerbate this threat in the coming decades. As Campling and Colás succinctly describe the situation, today “the offshore world seems to be washing back onshore,” (2021: 295) with ever-increasing regularity, velocity, and force.
 Recent books by Laleh Khalili (2020) and Ian Urbana (2019) cover similar ground in a similarly sprawling fashion, albeit with key differences. One wonders: does writing about the ocean necessitate a vast, oceanic style?
 This is a longstanding issue in Marxist analysis. See: Jay (1986).
Appel H (2019) The Licit Life of Capitalism. Durham and London: Duke University Press.
Danyluk M (2017) Capital’s logistical fix: Accumulation, globalization, and the survival of capitalism. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 36(4): 630-647.
Jay M (1984) Marxism and Totality: The Adventures of a Concept from Lukács to Habermas. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.
Khalili L (2020) Sinews of War and Trade: Shipping and Capitalism in the Arabian Peninsula. London: Verso.
Marx K (1993 ) Grundrisse. Translated by Martin Nicolaus. London: Penguin.
Melville H (1993) Moby Dick; or, The Whale. London: Wordsworth Classics.
Mezzadra S and Neilson B (2015) Operations of Capital. South Atlantic Quarterly 114(1): 1-9.
Mezzadra S and Neilson B (2019) The Politics of Operations: Excavating Contemporary Capitalism. Durham and London: Duke University Press.
Moretti F (2021) Bande à part. New Left Review 128: 101-10.
Sekula A (1995) Fish Story. Rotterdam and Düsseldorf: Richter Verlag.
Urbana I (2019) The Outlaw Ocean: Journeys Across the Last Untamed Frontier. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Nicholas Anderman is a PhD Candidate in Geography at UC Berkeley, where he studies automation, labor culture, and the politics of ocean space.