Capitalism and the Sea

By Liam Campling & Alejandro Colás
Published by Verso, 2021

Review by Tim Barton

As long ago as the Iron Age, Britain was exchanging goods for profit across Europe. Traded goods from Hibernia, such as finely wrought Celtic jewellery, appears as far away as Scythia and Greece, and on into Persia. Ships traded along the Atlantic Coast, into North Africa and across the Mediterranean, and down along the Gold Coast and points south. We have always been a sea-faring nation, as an island it was a necessity. Travel across this vast highway – covering five sevenths of the Earth’s surface – is often relegated to the margins of taught history, barring naval battles such as Trafalgar, yet the sea and sea-routes are at the very heart of our history, our present, and our future.

Capitalism and the Sea, subtitled ‘the maritime factor in the making of the modern world’, is a fabulously wide-ranging new history of the last five centuries, covering the slave-trade, ecology, modern container ports and EEZ’s, industrial fisheries, territorial disputes and much more. The ‘modern’ capitalist relation with the sea is arguably dated from
the sixteenth century onwards, through phenomena such as the rise of the Dutch Republic and the naval consolidation of safer trade routes via our Pax Britannica.


The global empires Europe founded defined the ‘home’ ports and the faraway periphery – these are highly contingent, and a more outward-looking China, for example, could as well have arisen instead (or alongside, and clashing with our civilisation), so today’s maritime historical focus might have instead been dominated by Southeast Asian home ports and a Pacific-Indian Ocean network emanating from there. Indeed, it is likely the future will be dominated by that geopolitical arrangement. Certainly, our star has set – though I will conclude with another, new, string to that bow.

The early trade routes were defined by tides, ocean currents and dominant winds. Technologies matter here. Trade over land was slow, by sea too. The balance of import ran towards ocean trade, with new geographies opened up, not just by the discovery of lands to the west and the increased accuracy of maps and navigation, but by fruits of the industrial revolution in Britain, which saw the introduction of steam, iron-clads, and other innovations that changed the pace and the spatial choices available to seafaring traders – and not least, the combination of mass fossil fuel extraction and innovative new combustion and turbine engines. The doldrums of the tropics and the ‘middle passage’ were made far less of a physical barrier. New areas boomed, old ones ossified and withered on the vine as new trade routes developed. These new patterns of transport also saw shifting populations (often very involuntary), as growth in new lands needed feeding.

More recent innovations, such as the Panama and Suez Canals, changed the whole spatio-temporal character of sea-trade. Other innovations, such as the huge floating freight islands that sail from Europe to China and back, each emitting as much fossil-fuel pollution per year as the entire UK car fleet, also, like the change from sail to steam, changed the character of employment. The number of crew needed to run these huge new ships reduced, and, too, a much lower number of ships were needed. Many fisheries also saw a strange metastasisation of the trawlers, with fewer and fewer boats like our own beach-based fleet. Concomitant to these changes is increased pollution, and degradation of the marine environment. Even more unacknowledged is the role of tabulation, accountancy, insurance, and bureaucracy, which, too, were innovations of both the capitalist and the industrial age, and underpinned the growth of capitalist sea-trade. The history of each element intertwines, creating, finally, the great beast of neoliberal globalised capitalism.

All these changes, and more, feature to one degree or another in the book. The authors are perhaps optimistic in underlining “the imperative for anti-capitalist politics of embracing the flows, connections and universalisation that issue from the relationship between capitalism and the sea, and to channel and harness them into more settled, enduring structures of collective distribution and democratic rule”, but the imperative is real and pressing.


I promised to return to the ‘Asian Century’. What awaits us? Here is my personal diagnosis. Britain has little to trade. America has never wanted a strong economic competitor in Europe, indeed has sought to limit our role since at least the First World War. Recent political mishaps accelerate that process, but even whilst the Yanks give half a cheer, they too are at risk of irrelevance, barring military expansion. Meanwhile, not only are China and India the new loci of economic power, but a new and significant geographical change is coming to our ocean trade routes, one that leaves the ‘Global South’ even further out in the cold. 

Global climatic heating is altering the nature of the Arctic Ocean, more and more of the northern coasts of Alaska, Canada, and Russia are ice-free for longer and longer parts of the year. A real possibility of a regularly ice-free North Pole in summer, perhaps even year-round (though the chaotic impact of warming, which is also shutting down the Gulf Stream, and weakening the North Atlantic oscillation, and other important ocean heat-exchange mechanisms, complicates this picture) means a new geo-political frontier is opening, with fast routes from the North Atlantic to the Bering Strait, China and Japan. It is no accident Trump wanted to buy Greenland from the Danes to secure sea routes for US ships.

As the world moves away from an oil-based economy, this new focus will likely sideline a good deal of Middle Eastern traffic, which may be a blessing for them in the long-run, rendering it, perhaps, less of a powder-keg. Barring war, this could be good news for Scotland and our northern islands – during the time of the Baltic and Scandinavian empires, for example, Orkney was slap dab in the middle of an oceanic trade motorway, as were many northern ports, especially along our east coast. Once again, they could be on the frontline, as could the Clyde, Liverpool, and the five Northern Irish gateway sea-ports, as polar trade routes (and new polar extractive industries) open. But only with massive investment in new infrastructure. Capitalism developed billions of years after the oceans were formed, but it is not done with them yet, the price paid by ‘the future’ be damned…

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