latest from the magazine
latest journal issue
Jatin Dua’s Captured at Sea is a fascinating, ethnographically and conceptually sophisticated text, written by an anthropologist deploying an impressive set of linguistic and multi-sited research skills. It is sure to become a touchstone for Indian Ocean studies and political and economic anthropology.
Dua’s text is an ethnographic account of the Indian Ocean and piracy through the framework of “mobility and interruption,” of trade networks “not as static contexts, but as both project and process” (8 - 9; cf. Ben-Yehoyada 2017). The shadow of Roman jurisprudence, which framed the pirate as “enemy of all mankind,” is a long one and still informs current moral, legal, and political discourses on piracy. By shifting our focus from more static, binary discourses on piracy, Dua seeks to challenge this discourse and to problematize the figure of the pirate in Western common sense. Dua highlights the sociality of Somali pirates, their embeddedness in Indian Ocean territorial and social worlds. He emphasizes the role of obligations, long histories, and transregional connections and interruptions that shape piracy. Piracy, he argues persuasively, is neither anachronistic nor an “aberration,” it is interwoven within the logics of contemporary capitalism (10).
Particularly valuable are Dua’s closely observed, well-narrated ethnographic sections dealing with Somali epistemologies and socialities. Examples include how the diya group, which Dua analogizes by reference to the Greek term oikos, structures the systems of obligation that are so central a part of piracy; and how the marketing, consumption, and spaces of circulation of the stimulant khat power (in one sense, literally) pirate expeditions. In turn, the circuits of khat bind pirates more intricately into diya obligations (pp. 67 - 89).
Central to the argument is the contrast that Dua draws between ancient Greek and Roman concepts of piracy. The Greeks saw “peirates”- or more precisely, acts by such individuals - not as criminal banditry but as one of the conventional ways in which peoples of the Aegean acquired valuable goods, in particular, metal. Greeks did not connect piracy to discourses of legality/illegality. Greek maritime metal acquisition was embedded in moral economies of generalized exchange, as is Somali piracy of recent decades. However, as the historian David McNally has pointed out, Greek exchange also involved, crucially, the trade in slaves, who were considered to be outside of the moral economy of generalized exchange (McNally 2020). Dua contrasts the Greek worldview to that of the Romans, according to whom pirates were enemies of the state. Cicero, for example, maintained that pirates were communis hostis omnium, “common enemies of all” (11). These two traditions frame the overall argument of the book - the more pragmatic “Greek” ideal-type vs. the moral - legal “Roman” type, the spectre of the latter seen, for example, in the British Indian Ocean imperial project during the nineteenth century. Dua seems to suggest that Somali views of piracy echo the Greeks of antiquity.
The reference to the logic of generalized exchange that motivated Greek maritime trade highlights for readers the long histories and ongoing influence of factors beyond those of class dynamics, for example primitive accumulation, in trade. In this way, Dua successfully highlights the moral logics of “interrelationship and interdependence” (33) in which contemporary piracy is situated. Dua’s account of the “pastoral commons” – “in order to be legitimate [capture] has to be embedded in a social world of obligation and reciprocity” (44) – echoes, as alluded to above, David McNally’s recent account of generalized exchange during the Greek Homeric period. McNally writes that a society such as Homer’s engaged in “multicentric systems” of exchange: trade and plunder, or balanced and negative exchange, in anthropological terms, were permitted only with outsiders. By contrast, within the sphere of the tribe, the clan, and the community, generalized exchange – gift giving – was expected. Within the community, not only was plunder considered evil but so also was any attempt to commodify one’s relationships both to humans and to things. Interestingly, according to McNally, the Homeric adjective for “free” was eleutheros, which connoted belonging to the community: “to be free is to belong” (McNally 2020:19). People and things of the community are therefore considered “inalienable” and incommensurable, that is, not exchangeable because “they had no equivalent” (McNally 2020:20). There are startling echoes between McNally’s account of the Homeric period and Dua’s discussion of the pastoral commons, specifically in the strikingly similar ways that each society drew boundaries between groups and spaces with which it was permissible to engage in balanced or negative exchange, and ones where this was not permissible, for example, oikos and diya groups.
Yet the story that Dua tells is more complicated. If Homeric Greece like most contemporary societies, was not yet, for the most part, monetized and commodified, today’s Somalia very much is. Similarly, even by Homer’s time, the communal world based in reciprocity was being challenged as warfare and plunder were becoming more frequent and normalized, “new patterns of war, exchange, and accumulation” that were creating the preconditions for the emergence of a more commodified system of exchange (McNally 2020:23). McNally, citing Marx, notes the alienating effect of commodity exchange: it socially distances, indeed estranges, those engaged in exchange (McNally 2020:32). McNally’s work, like that of Michael Taussig well before him, raises the question of how societies navigate profound impersonal, historical changes, how commodities and commodification can index those changes, and how individuals in those societies experience, negotiate, and invest with moral meaning the boundaries between generalized and balanced/negative, communal and commodified, exchange (Taussig 2010; see also Hu 2017). Dua’s work resonates with this work and adds new, compelling ethnographic material to our understanding of such processes.
An example of the ways in which Dua’s Somali interlocutors grapple with the fuzzy boundary between communal obligations and commodification, generalized and balanced/negative exchange can be seen when a religious scholar who Dua is interviewing discusses the khat trader Aisha, whose practice of self-interested accumulation the scholar views with distaste (pp. 87 - 89). Does the tension between the religious man and the khat trader prefigure a developing class antagonism?
Captured at Sea is suggestive of how moral logics of exchange coexist with, and often ideologically conceal, class processes. Here I am echoing Marx and Engels’s classical formulation, in the Communist Manifesto, that class refers to one’s relation to the means of social reproduction. Dua distances himself from Marxist approaches to primitive accumulation – the “pre-history” of capitalist accumulation, according to Marx – particularly with respect to the question of the commons. Dua’s approach has the advantage of helping to highlight the aforementioned moral logics, but it also might accord ideological systems and binary oppositions an autonomy from material, class processes. For example, Dua attributes Western colonial expropriation to the “idea of the commons” and to natural law, exemplified by Grotius and Locke (34 – 36). Such theorists and by extension the mainstream of Western legal traditions, argues Dua, have consistently deployed a binary between land and sea since the time of Grotius, mentally constructing land as something that could be enclosed in contrast to water, which could not. For Grotius, writing in Mare Liberum in 1609, this meant that the sea “cannot remain property” (35). This in turn became not merely a justification for colonial expropriation but an impetus for it. Though perhaps Dua does not mean to imply this, it is difficult to avoid the impression that it is the conceptual binary, land – sea, that motivates the acts of colonialism rather than being a post-facto justification for the latter. To be clear, I am not here excluding the possibility, indeed, the probability, that such an idea became “naturalized” and entered into the political unconscious once capitalist accumulation took off.
That being said, Dua’s efforts to highlight Somali alternatives to Western liberal and colonialist concepts of the common are welcome, and resonate with of the more engaging recent work arguing for such a reconsideration. I am thinking here, in particular, of Silvia Federici’s question, “what kind of common”? Federici, like Dua, but from a more explicitly feminist perspective, cautions against surrendering our imagination and definition of the common to the forces of neoliberalism and ongoing colonialism, and encourages us to embrace instead a relational idea of the commons, open to possibility and to difference:
No common is possible unless we refuse to base our life, our reproduction on the suffering of others, unless we refuse to see ourselves as separate from them. Indeed, if “commoning” has any meaning, it must be the production of ourselves as a common subject. This is how we must understand the slogan ‘no commons without community.’ But ‘community’ not intended as a gated reality […] Community as a quality of relations, a principle of cooperation and responsibility: to each other, the earth, the forests, the seas, the animals. [Federici 2012:145].
Dua analyzes ransom negotiation in a fascinating section of the fourth chapter (pp. 127 - 140). It is here that Dua shows how racism organizes hierarchies of value, specifically the monetary value of hostages. With the end of the Cold War came the liberalization of hiring practices in the shipping industry, which brought in more workers from the global south, in particular the Philippines. With this came discrimination in pay according to nationality and ascribed racial identity. Dua characterizes this in passing as the continuing influence of “racial capitalism” in global shipping, a logic by which global capitalism literally determines the monetary value of hostages and cargo. This observation resonates with an emerging literature on so-called hierarchies of desirable labor and value, and the legacies of colonialism and the nation-state in distributing worth, vulnerability, and precarity in the neoliberal era. Dua’s invocation of racial capitalism is a hint toward a deeper theorization of these processes. First developed in anti-apartheid struggles in South Africa and popularized by scholar Cedric Robinson (Black Agenda Review 2020, Robinson 2000), racial capitalism is in urgent need of the ethnographic contextualization provided by Captured at Sea. This is especially relevant to cases from non-US contexts, which can help to add persective and nuance to the concept’s usual application to North and South American cases. I wish Dua had further elaborated the analysis.
Here, I think that the work of Charisse Burden-Stelly (2020) is of special interest. While finding much value in Robinson’s pathbreaking work, Black Marxism (Robinson 2000[1983), Burden-Stelly critiques Robinson’s approach for being transhistorical and for offering a “cultural – metaphysical” rather than a materialist, i.e., socialist, solution to racial capitalism. To echo Federici on the concept of the common, we might say that Burden-Stelly asks us to think about “what kind of (anti) racial capitalism?” In a recent article, Burden-Stelly writes:
I [...] draw on the work of Black Marxist-Leninists and anticapitalists to explicate the defining features of modern U.S. racial capitalism—war and militarism, imperialist accumulation, expropriation by domination, labor superexploitation, and property by dispossession. In this, I demonstrate that their critiques and analyses offer a blueprint for theorizing modern U.S. racial capitalism [Burden-Stelly 2020].
This brings us back to the terrain of primitive accumulation, class composition, and historical-materialism, which Dua seeks to problematize with Captured at Sea. His book is a tour de force. It grapples with, and helps to advance, some of the most compelling questions posed by contemporary capitalism. I look forward to reading Dua’s future work.
Ben-Yehoyada, N (2017) The Mediterranean Incarnate: Region Formation between Sicily and Tunisia since World War II. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Black Agenda Review (2020) “Racial Capitalism, Black Liberation, and South Africa,” Black Agenda Report 16 December, (accessed here 11 January 2021).
Burden-Stelly, C (2020) “Modern U.S. Racial Capitalism: Some Theortical Insights,” Monthly Review 72 (3), July – August, (accessed 11 January 2021).
Federici, S (2012) Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction, and Feminist Struggle. Oakland: PM Press.
Hu, D (2017) “The Revolutionary Power of Andean Folk Tales,” Sapiens 16 May, (accessed here on 22 January 2021).
McNally, D (2020) Blood and Money: War, Slavery, Finance, and Empire. Chicago: Haymarket.
Robinson, C (2000) Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
Taussig, M (2010) The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
Ahmed Kanna teaches anthropology and directs the ethnic studies program at University of the Pacific. He is the author of Dubai: The City as Corporation (2011, Minnesota) and, with Amélie Le Renard and Neha Vora, Beyond Exception: New Interpretations of the Arabian Peninsula (2020, Cornell). He is currently working on a project on Marxism and anthropology.