Interview with Diepgang magazine

Interview with Diepgang_Page_5In January I gave a talk at the Erasmus university in Rotterdam. I was incredibly pleased that a lot of seafarers and people working with seafarers came to see it (and some were also critical of the talk – they mostly felt that I had not properly shown how incredibly proud of their skills and work they were). Among the people I met was someone who works with the Dutch mission to seafarers (a Christian group that provides services to seafarers on ports and whose presence in places where unions are banned is enormously important for the seafarers, though also complicated in other ways. I am hoping to write about this later).

Anyway, I interviewed with a reporter for Diepgang magazine, which is the Dutch mission’s magazine which is put on all the ships leaving Rotterdam. The interview with Diepgang can be downloaded as a PDF link here. I have also turned it into images for those who read Dutch (my face looks ENORMOUS in that picture; and I should have worn lipstick and a bit more makeup; oh well):

Interview with Diepgang_Page_1

Interview with Diepgang_Page_2

Interview with Diepgang_Page_3

Interview with Diepgang_Page_4

Interview with Diepgang_Page_5

Posted in labour, media, ports, seafaring, shipping conditions, ships, transport | Leave a comment

Interview from 2018 with ViewPoint Magazine

How Empire Operates: An Interview with Laleh Khalili

Empire Operating

Viewpoint: How do you understand imperialism? Is it still a useful concept? What analytical frameworks do you see as most adequate for understanding relations of force at the international level?

Laleh Khalili: I suppose most crudely I understand modern imperialism as the will to make the world safe for the movement of capital (dominated especially by capitalists based in the United States and its allied states), by force of arms if necessary. Although we hear a lot about capital having no home state, I do still think that there are forms of imperial power emanating from North Atlantic, and the United States more specifically, that places like China still have a ways to go to match. The legal infrastructures necessary for business, rules of trade and accounting, frameworks for commerce and investment, and pathways of finance are largely defined by institutions established in the North Atlantic. These institutions are defended through courts of arbitration, punitive financial measures, and various other forms of hegemonic control. But in the last instance, the United States has never been hesitant about the use of force where it has seen its broader interests – and the interests of capital – endangered.

I think what is also noteworthy about U.S. imperialism is the extent to which it is not interested in holding territory, except in so far as it needs bases for the projection of its military power, and for logistical pre-positioning necessary for rapid response to challenges to its domination. In fact, a lot of the time, and especially since the withdrawal from Iraq in 2009, the United States prefers its forces to remain invisible. To this end, it builds bases in unreachable places such as Diego Garcia Island in the Indian Ocean – which it acquired through a dodgy deal from Britain in the 1970s and after Britain evicted all its inhabitants. The United States also takes advantage of offers by friendly regimes in Europe, Asia, Africa, and Latin America to house its forces within their bases. These are cloaked by vast apparatuses of security and secrecy, by pliant and grateful client regimes.

VP: How do we avoid a simplistic notion of imperialism as synonymous with the “foreign policy” of particular nation-states?

LK: It is important to recognize that imperialism as a dispositif includes structures of economic extraction and exploitation; asymmetric forms of capital accumulation; modalities of military control; and entire legal and administrative apparatuses that ensure the subjugation or exploitation of some in the globe by others. Imperialism also comes with shifting discourses that act as an alibi and spur for these larger processes: at one time the discourses of scientific racism; today discourses of chaos, or lack of democracy or some such.

VP: How has your work on logistics influenced your conception of imperialism? We’ve witnessed significant shifts in both the technical infrastructure of war and the mobility of military materials and weapons across borders, not to mention the fraught relationship between contemporary capital accumulation, reactions to globalization from the both the right and left, and corresponding effects on class composition and labor struggles.

LK: It has made me intensely aware of how coercion and the spheres of political economy are not the only milieus in which the empire operates. What is fascinating is the incorporation of all corners of the globe into the sphere of capital. Very often this incorporation happens through either wars waged by the United States and its allies, but increasingly and especially since the end of Bretton Woods regime, instruments of trade and finance are used to tie the corners of the world into capitalist regimes of production and control ever more tightly. But just as importantly, now capital travels not only from London or New York or the North Atlantic, but also from Singapore and Dubai and Hong Kong and Shanghai.

What is still imperial – and this becomes clear again and again – is that the rules of the game are still defined in Washington, D.C. and the North Atlantic. What I mean are factors we think about – multi- and bilateral treaties, international legal arrangements, rule of trade and commerce – but also things we don’t often think about: standards of accounting; processes of corporate arbitration; the calculation that goes into purchase of insurance; the definition and ascription of copyright; and so on.

And beyond that, of course, the force of finance and gun continue to be crucial. Whether or not the election of Trump foretells the beginning of decline of the United States (which I really don’t believe at all), the United States continues to be the biggest military force in the world, and still willing to project force. The pathways through which returns on investment travel, the circuits of capital and finance, still point primarily to the North Atlantic region, even if we increasingly see Asia- and Africa-based capital travelling these circuits.

VP: How might we trace the long construction of an international legal apparatus, which enforces the free flow of commodities, through these maritime spaces and trade?

LK: Here were are dealing less imperialism per se than the legacy of colonialism. As historians of the Indian Ocean have shown us, before the Portuguese arrived there, no rulers of the region had tried to assert sovereignty over the seas. The Portuguese began the practice of requiring permits from merchant ships on the deep ocean. The British perfect the concept of “sea lanes” as spaces for the assertion of their control over Asian trade and in competition with other European powers. In a sense, imperialism in the maritime spaces has been least veiled when it has had to do with strategic footholds of various empires in places like Aden, or Hormuz, or Diego Garcia, or the Horn of Africa. But perhaps the most relevant bit of the response would be to point out that the very idea of international law emerges out of the Dutch attempt to control maritime spaces in Indian Ocean at the moment when capitalism as a set of social and political relations is emerging full force in the northwest corner of Europe. Hugo Grotius’s central thesis in his Mare Liberum, written in response to intra-European skirmishes in the Indian Ocean, is that the sea has to be a “free” space for trade. But of course what this terminology means is that European imperial powers have to agree to some form of power equilibrium in which the maritime spaces can be used freely by European powers so that they can freely extract the resource of Asia and accumulate capital on the back of the exploitation of Indian Ocean peoples and resources.

VP: In studying the colonial antecedents of free trade, how do you see these afterlives of the colonial encounter in contemporary logistics and free trade as recasting our understanding of colonialism, which was so derided by globalization and free market advocates as a frequently unprofitable enterprise? Your historical research would seem to suggest that colonialism was the often costly and economically disadvantageous constitution of capitalist social relations on a worldwide scale.

LK: It was certainly costly, but I am not sure about economically (or otherwise) disadvantageous. It is important to recognize that the calculus of cost-benefit analysis was never really the only factor (or even a factor) in the processes of colonization. Colonization was as much about finding new places for investment of surplus capital, for new natural resources to replace domestically depleted or non-existent resources, for finding new markets, and on and on. But it really was also about strategic domination and a political supremacy that generated prestige and power at home and abroad, built on the bones and ruins of colonized lives, societies, and economies.

VP: You’ve done some recent research on European and North American managers in marine finance, global insurance, resource management, legal counsel, auditors, etc. In your argument, this “cosmopolitan cohort” is indispensable in allowing the conditions of possibility for the (relatively) frictionless movement of capital across different parts of the world. Does this group, whose personnel moves between the global North and South, the interstitial places that they occupy between distant geographies, the state and the market, constitute an identifiable layer of the ruling class? More pointedly, does this stratum of managers form a shared antagonist for social struggles in various parts of the world?

LK: I hesitate to generalize too much about this middle group of managers in toto, partially because increasingly they also include technical and finance experts from the Global South (especially India). In many instance, the European experts remind one of the former colonial civil servants who found serving in the colonies a form of social mobility. Certainly, many of the British port managers and the like I met in the Gulf came from working class backgrounds in the UK. The finance and insurance experts on the other hand  especially when they are in the higher ranks  do form a recognizable and more-or-less coherent managerial class, and whether or not they are conscious of their ideological and functional role in global movements and accumulation of capital, they certainly act as effective cogs in this immense machine.

VP: One takeaway from your investigation of the parastatal complex is that there has been a massive expansion of the modes, spaces, and agents of contemporary imperialism and transnational power relations. In the wake of the Obama presidency, what is the status of the parastatal complex?

LK: A parastatal complex primarily refers to an interrelated body of corporate and government agencies whose mandate and boundaries become intermixed or blurred. Tim Mitchell’s superb 1991 article, “The Limits of the State,” cites ARAMCO as a parastatal institution par excellence. Mitchell argues that ARAMCO’s ownership is blurred, as it is owned both by governments and private investors; the company projects foreign policy and has influenced domestic policy in both Saudi Arabia and the United States, and the company is geographically and operationally dispersed.

Within the security world, the relationship existing between corporations like Palantir or Blackwater with government agencies creates a kind of parastatal complex. In these firms, employees are often former military, intelligence, or security officers. The remit of these firms is provision of auxiliary or proxy services to the U.S. government agencies. Where the work of one stops it is often difficult to determine where the job of the other begins.

This vast interrelated complex of private and public institutions co-imbricated with one another and engaged in security work, logistics work, and global carceral work has in fact been long in operation. I would argue that in fact what has changed across time has been the distribution of boundary-marking and the process of naming things as public or private, sovereign or not.

For example, we see the security firm G4S involved in policing borders in Europe, contract work in prisons in Israel, and other security work worldwide. Blackwater, which provided mercenary services, has undergone a number of transformations and name changes and has emerged as a “force protection” service, providing security services to government agencies. The previous owner and CEO of Blackwater now resides in Abu Dhabi and provides logistical security services to Chinese state and private investors in East Africa. Private firms worldwide, companies with recognizable names like DHL, provide logistical services to the U.S. military, and probably to other militaries too. U.S. prison services and various police departments have extensive relationships with their counterparts worldwide. Counterterrorism training is now a globalized phenomenon, and both military and police forces engage in collaborative counterterrorism and intelligence-sharing operations across borders.

These complexes, these institutions, often become normalized, institutionalized, and consolidated through the daily work of the corporations and bureaucracies involved. There may be some changes in policy at the top, but as we have seen, the institutions – especially those involved in security – continue to operate across the borders without much change across time. So, in a sense, I don’t see the post-Obama era as a particular moment of rupture. Not just yet anyway.

VP: There was a recent exchange in Viewpoint and other venues between Jasper Bernes and Alberto Toscano on logistics, the value-form, capitalist social relations, and the state. 1 It has been suggested that conflicts around these logistical chokepoints  the container port, or the nodes in the Walmart distribution chain  are either assaults on capitalist power or immediate challenges to value-in-motion. Given your work on the constitution and development of maritime infrastructure across the Persian Gulf, does either position sound convincing? Could these chokepoints, as central elements of the logistical architecture, act as possible levers in re-constituting international solidarity and coordination? Might disparate struggles within and against this infrastructure indicate ways in which we can articulate common strategic reference points at a global level?

LK: I loved the Toscano-Bernes exchange and found it incredibly productive to think with. Deborah Cowen’s incredible work in the Deadly Life of Logistics has also shown the extent to which logistics is as much about containment as it is about conveying goods, and that ways of breaking through these strategies of containment – through labor mobilization for example – are crucial for understanding forms of dissent and struggle emerging in the 21st century. That said, in the Gulf in particular it becomes clear that the possibility of a kind of mobilization that effectively challenges value-in-motion still depends on old-school structures for mobilizing workers, and in the absence of unions or more equitable labor laws, the basic ability of these workers to resist deportation after a protest is massively hampered. Global coordination can provide avenues for global solidarities (for example by Oakland dockworkers who refuse to unload Israeli boats, or by South African dockers who strike in support of struggling European dockers). At the same time, constant innovations in technologies of economic governance not only help the process of capital accumulation but also forestal forms of mobilization: ports that are far away from cities; both land-side and ship-board automation; flags of convenience; bifurcated work contracts aboard ships which see massive disparity between wages and time off between crew and officers; and so on. It is a mutually constitutive process: new forms of work bring new forms of protest bring new forms of containment bring new forms of mobilization bring new forms of work.



  1. In sequence, see Alberto Toscano, “Logistics and Opposition,” Mute, August 9, 2011; Jasper Bernes, “Logistics, Counterlogistics, and the Communist Prospect,” Endnotes 3 (2013); Alberto Toscano, “Lineaments of the Logistical State,” Viewpoint Magazine 4 (2014); Joshua Clover and Jasper Bernes, “The Ends of the State,” Viewpoint Magazine 4 (2014). See also Deborah Cowen, “Disrupting Distribution: Subversion, the Social Factory, and the ‘State’ of Supply Chains,” Viewpoint Magazine 4 (2014).


The interview was originally published at

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Interview from 2017 with Salvage Magazine

Logistics, Counterinsurgency and the War on Terror: An Interview with Laleh Khalili

by  | March 16, 2017

George Souvlis: By way of introduction, could you explain what personal experiences strongly influenced you, politically and academically?

Laleh Khalili: I grew up in Iran in the 1970s and early 1980s and being the daughter of Iranian leftist revolutionaries – and later political prisoners and later still exiles – indelibly marked the way I look at the work. On the one hand, growing up in an intellectual leftist household meant introduction to a rich seam of literature and history – not only those of Europeans, but also of Russians and Latin Americans. It meant that names like Che Guevara and George Habash, Angela Davis and the Black Panthers, Ho Chi Minh and General Giap, Salvador Allende and Fidel Castro, Sartre, De Beauvoir, Genet, and Costa Gavras, Garcia Marquez and Cortazar and Neruda, Kazantzakis and Gorky and so many others were familiar and their politics considered familiar.

On the other hand, my parents’ experiences of incarceration and exile and the resultant dislocation, decimation and devastation made me acutely alive to the workings of this form of violence and inevitably wove world-historic events into the fabric of my personal life.

Without these two sets of influences –both intellectual and experiential– I don’t think I would have ever produced the kinds of academic works I eventually produced.

Your first study, Heroes and Martyrs of Palestine, deals with the ways which dispossessed Palestinians have commemorated their past. Could you tell us how about how this has informed the Palestinian nationalist movement? Why it was so crucial? In which ways it influenced the political struggles of the Palestinian people?

I started off by wanting to do some sort of banal doctoral research project on “coping mechanism” of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon or some other such anaemic liberal claptrap. After arriving in the refugee camp that so generously hosted me, it became clear to me that history and memory were resources that were not only instrumentally used by the camp (and local and national) leadership but one which structured the way ordinary refugees told the story of themselves as political subjects. And it seemed to me that these narratives fit within particular narrative genres that were influenced by broader political attachments and structures of the time. When I was conducting my fieldwork, in the early 2000s, Palestinians were in a liminal moment. Oslo’s spectacular failure (so lucidly foretold by Edward Said) was somewhat irrelevant to the refugees in Lebanon who saw the whole process as a kind of betrayal of their right of return. The narrative structure of commemoration was tragic. The prevalent mood of the stories they told, they way my interlocutors framed stories of the past, was of defeat, even if people still celebrated the efficacy of self-sacrifice and the resilience of sumud (or steadfastness). By contrast, in the heady days of the 1960s and 1970s when Palestinian armed struggle had been ascendant, the genre of the commemoration was heroic, and both official and popular narratives celebrated resistance and struggle on and off the battlefield. For me the stark difference had to do not only with the crushing devastation of Palestinian political organizations in the Lebanese civil war but also with a global shift from the era of Third Worldist struggle and solidarity to one in which NGOisation had become the prevalent mode of advancing claims. This global shift from political to a decidedly depoliticizing ethos echoes also in the transformation of the genres of memory from epic to tragic.

In 2010 you co-edited Policing and Prisons in the Middle East. What is the role of prisons in the contemporary Islam, and how has this changed in the era of Neoliberalism? Why has there been such an expansion of the prison system nowadays in Middle East? Does the Foucauldian interpretive scheme about the role of the penal system in West work for the Middle East?

We were really not interested in contemporary Islam. Our contributors all worked on the modern Middle East and what we all really wanted to see was the extent to which the emergence of policing and incarceration were innovations in the region or absorbed and coopted existing forms of domination, discipline and violence. Some of the contributors are of course very much interested in the Foucauldian discussion of discipline, but some of the volume’s contributors were also hesitant about classifying all forms of policing or incarceration as the modern disciplinary or biopolitical form of power. In fact, for us, it was crucial to ground each of the contributions in the very specific spatial and temporal context out of which it arose. As such, the volume includes chapters on French colonial policing in the Syrian desert in the 1920s and 30s; biopolitics of Israeli colonization of Palestine; the police organization in Turkey; policing in Egyptian-governed Gaza of the 1950s and early 1960s; policing spaces of dissent in Jordan; the role of “private” or parastatal actors in the Abu Ghraib prison; the representational and organization value policewomen in Bahrain bestow on the organisation; as well as the extraordinary resistance and self-sacrifice of prisoners in Syria, Iran, and Turkey.

The proliferation of prisons – and especially political prisons – in the Middle East of course reflects the extent to which the task of governing intransigent populations in the region is brutally coercive. The more disciplinary, Foucauldian, reformative penal project is not a familiar sight in the Middle East, but of course that is unsurprising, given that Foucault himself saw the disciplinary prison as an institution specifically grounded in a particular historic context, rather than as a universally generalizable meta-concept (as many Foucauldians have).

In your article “The Location of Palestine in Global Counterinsurgencies” you make the argument that Palestine has been used as a laboratory for counterinsurgency strategies, and has acted as a crucial node of global counterinsurgencies. Why has this been the case? What are the main differences between old and new forms of counterinsurgency? To what extent is counterinsurgency an inseparable aspect of colonial rule?

Palestine is a fascinating –though of course also dispiriting– case because not only was it a temporally and geographically central node in the movement of British colonial policing and pacification practices, doctrines and personnel, but because Palestine continues to remain colonized and subject to an ongoing brutal attempt at pacification by the Israeli state. What makes Palestine particularly interesting is the ways in which the Israeli security apparatuses –including its juridical and administrative bodies– have absorbed British counterinsurgency practices, doctrines, laws and discourses and innovated further. During the Mandatory period, Palestine served as a laboratory in which forms of collective punishment, siege of cities and villages, the building of walls, and the usage of civilians as hostages and human shields, and utilization of laws (for example indefinite administrative detention without trials) was perfected. Some of these tactics were imported from other places where the British were fighting counterinsurgencies, including Ireland and the Northwest Frontier Province. The practices (and the personnel) were then exported to later locales where the British continued to fight against anticolonial forces, including Malaya, Cyprus, and Kenya. Israel has similarly transformed Palestine into a laboratory where it tests not only weaponry (including drones) but also new/old methods of pacification (including caloric control, whereby the amount of food allowed into Gaza is reduced as a form of punishment). These methods and equipment are then exported to other places where states are waging their own wars of counterinsurgency including Indonesia in East Timor and Colombia.

Counterinsurgency can of course be separated from colonial rule including where a state suppresses a rebellious population through liberal or illiberal counterinsurgency measures. The brutal violence of counterinsurgency in Syria is one such example.

However, it seems to me that liberal counterinsurgencies, where the counterinsurgent state professes adherence to law is a twentieth century colonial invention.

Do you think there is a gendered aspect of counterinsurgencies?

I argue that gender works in a variety of ways in counterinsurgencies. My own focus has been on US counterinsurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan. In these places, gender is always already cross-hatched with race, social class and geopolitical/geographic location. So, to give you some examples, at the so called tip of the spear, where counterinsurgency violence is enacted on the bodies of Iraqis and Afghans, Iraqi and Afghan men are effemnisied, Iraq and Afghan private spaces are opened up to the counterinsurgent gaze and coercion, and Iraqi and Afghan prisoners are subjected to sexually humiliating forms of torture. Gender is present there in the horrifying images of Abu Ghraib not only in the sexual torture of Iraqi men, but also in the ways in which US military women –often of working class white backgrounds- are placed in the position of torturer and leash-holder. Gender plays out in narratives of rescue and liberation so often deployed as an alibi for liberal intervention. In the imperial metropoles, a kind of imperial feminism is in operation whereby women involved in counterinsurgency think tanks and government positions try to carve a place in the elite security echelons for women themselves without necessarily adopting the “tough” or masculine personas, without reflecting on their imperial role, and ultimately celebrating their advancement to the driving seat of the machinery of killing as a kind of universal liberatory advance for all women.

In your article “Scholar, Pope, Soldier and Spy” you make strong case about the existence of a dialectical relationship between liberalism and counterinsurgency. Could you explain how these two are connected?

I am not entirely sure that the relationship is dialectical so much as symbiotic. Or at least it is so between the liberal counterinsurgencies of states like the US, Britain and others that profess to adherence to law and administration, and claim (and it is important to emphasise that their claims are often belied by the outcomes) that their methods are softer, more humane, even humanitarian. In the kind of moral claims made by these counterinsurgents –that they act out of virtue, democratic intentions, or attentiveness to human suffering– without ever attending to the consequences of counterinsurgent violence that is of interest to me in that article.

Could you talk a bit about your book Time in the Shadows, and the research behind it?

Time in the Shadows is interested in taking seriously the claim of liberal counterinsurgents that their methods of counterinsurgency are different than those of illiberal regimes. What I mean by this is I aim to understand whether there is a difference between the way a state like the US tries to pacify an intransigent population in Iraq and the way, for example, Russia does in Chechnya. To do so, I look at how carceral methods have come to replace methods of mass slaughter. By carceral methods I mean not only prisoner-of-war camps writ large, but also “black prisons”, extraterritorial forms of incarceration (in islands, offshore or with clients), and the mass incarceration of civilians (which has a long history going back to the concentration camps of Boer War, the Malayan New Villages and Vietnamese Strategic Hamlets to the wall-building that has characterized US counterinsurgency in Baghdad and Israeli offensive pacification measures in Palestine).

I trace the contemporary practices both of the US and the Israelis to colonial precedents exercised by the British and French against anticolonial forces. I do so by showing how the US and Israelis actively learned specific doctrines and practices from the British and the French and the both embodied and discursive conduits of this learning.

The research for the book drew on more than a dozen archives, dozens of interviews with former prisoners and detainees, guards, doctrine writers and the like, and prison memoirs and various other documents.

The other case with which you deal in the aforementioned study in Time In The Shadows is the U. S. war on Terror. Do you think that it signaled a shift of paradigm in terms of the surveillance methods, methods that have since then have been used by the imperialist powers? Do you believe that the war on terror still continues? What has changed the last fifteen years since its launch? Do these shifts go in hand in hand with the wider transformations of the US imperialism?

One of the most significant shifts has been the end of counterinsurgency in Iraq and a kind of retreat of counterinsurgency doctrine altogether and its replacement with counterterrorism discourse, a dependence on drones (instead of soldiers on the ground), and a ramping up of dependence on proxy or client forces both military and political. Twentieth century history of counterinsurgency shows this cyclical swing between the more hands-on and large-scale military intervention counterinsurgents prefer and the more concentrated forms of coercion (delivered whether aerially or though lethal and surveillance-heavy counterterrorism methods) and often through proxies. This toggling between these two forms often happens because of the abject failure of tactics of counterinsurgency, but even more so because of public exhaustion or disillusionment with the unfulfilled promises of counterinsurgency (nation-building being the foremost of these promises). Whether the pendulum swings back depends on the extent to which counterinsurgent forces can insist on the primacy of their methods and persuade politicians and publics of the efficacy of their method and the probity of their promises.

As for shifts in surveillance methods, there are two issues at play here. One is technological innovations; everything from drone surveillance to data-mining to tapping of internet cables all point to technological advances that can affect modalities of surveillance, the kind of data gathered, and the vulnerability of both dissident forces and ordinary publics to state coercion. The second is the extent to which states can persuade the majority of the publics of the necessity of these forms of surveillance because of the threat of terror. What is immensely dispiriting at the moment is to see how brutal terror attacks in European capitals have led to states of emergency, regimes of surveillance and control (both locally and globally), systemic monitoring of suspect populations (like the Prevent programme in the UK and Muslim registries in the US), and a public indifference towards the brutality of these forms of surveillance as long as they are exercised on black and brown bodies. The massive rightward shift in the politics not only of the US and Europe, but worldwide, does not bode well for the vulnerable populations subjected to this politically normalized form of repressive surveillance.

Could you tell us a bit about your current research on shipping and global logistics?

My current research is somewhat different than my previous work in that the familial experiences of incarceration and exile do not directly inform them. That said, there is a direct connection to both previous projects on Palestinian forms of commemoration and on travelling counterinsurgency doctrines. I am at the moment completing the fieldwork and archival research for a large project on the emergence of maritime transport and logistics infrastructures in the Arabian Peninsula. What I am focusing on broadly is the centrality of post-Second World War forms of capitalist production and accumulation, of military logistics, and of struggles around labour and citizenship to the geography and history of modern maritime development. I am looking not only at which ports have risen and which have fallen, but also at the ways in which harbours are made, geological features are transformed into legal and commercial categories, the ecological effects of making of harbours, the spectral persistence of historic trade routes in modern transport corridors and a whole range of other relevant factors. As part of the project I have travelled not only to the ports of the Arabian Peninsula, but also to those metropolitan centres where maritime and trade regulations are made and enforced, where finance and insurance finds a home and where histories of trade are archived. But I have also travelled on contrainerships to various ports in the region in order to get a sense of the way the movement of commodities across space is experienced by the seafarers and dockers who make this movement possible, and also to see the variations in practices and dispositifs of trade across different ports.

In some ways the project draws on my broader research interests. My Palestinian commemoration project was about the ways in which transnational discourses and modes of mobilization influence local imaginaries, while my counterinsurgency project was concerned with the transnational movement of peoples, practices, and doctrines of counterinsurgency across time and space. With my ports and maritime transport project I now look at the movement of physical goods across space. Like both projects, my concern with how violence of colonialism or counterinsurgency is exercised and experienced then translates into trying to understand the power of subaltern resistance to, and enmeshment within, power.


The interview was originally published by Salvage magazine at

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Bottlenecks, Choke Points, and Supply Chains

Screenshot 2020-05-23 at 20.16.28

Yesterday, as part of the Red May socialist festival in Seattle, Charmaine Chua, Deb Cowen, Sandro Mezzadra, Spencer Cox and I chatted about logistics and transport.

Deb we as always absolutely brilliant, talking about how logistics is about so much more than the transportation part of it – and spoke about the way even the production of pork is now part of the logistics; that there is a calculative logic involved whereby the pig becomes the first stage of production of a commodity – pork- and that the raising of pigs is adjusted to its logistical needs (she also showed us the softwares that help manage such production).

Charmaine spoke about how the logistics counterrevolution emerged as a response to the nationalist and anticolonial policies of decolonising nations c. 1950s and 1960s. I can’t wait to read her forthcoming book which will be making this argument.

Sandro spoke about the various ways in which the modalities of organisation we find need to be expanded outside of logistical spaces; and Spencer, who is an organiser with Amazon warehouse workers talked about how there has been a generational gap and a loss of the experiences of organising and mobilisation which is only just being recuperated.

The whole panel (and the q&a) is here:

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Shay wa nana podcast

I had a wonderful conversation with Zein El-Amine on his Shay wa Nana radio show on Wednesday 20 May 2020! or 89.3 FM in DC area. Zein has lived in Bahrain (on a military base!) and in Saudi Arabia, and like me has an undergraduate degree in engineering, so we had a great time chatting about the book. Here is the podcast:

And if this doesn’t work, you can listen to it at by scrolling down and searching for Shay wa nana, 20 May 2020.

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LRB podcast with Rafeef Ziadah

I was supposed to have a lovely launch in the London Review Bookshop, but alas, COVID-19 has shut everything down. So instead, we recorded a podcast which you can listen to here:

Posted in free ports/zones, infrastructure, media, Middle East, political economy, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Interview with Jadaliyya’s New Text Out Now

Laleh Khalili, Sinews of War and Trade: Shipping and Capitalism in the Arabian Peninsula (New Texts Out Now)


Laleh Khalili, Sinews of War and Trade: Shipping and Capitalism in the Arabian Peninsula (Verso, 2020).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Laleh Khalili (LK): Towards the end of 2011, I had just finished the manuscript for Time in the Shadows, research for which had been devastating. For years, I had been speaking to torture and detention victims, reading about histories of violence, and lurking on military blogs. I wanted to research something that did not entail plumbing the depths of human cruelty and violence in such a raw, intimate way. My parents had been political prisoners in Iran, and hearing about the confinement and torture of my interlocutors felt far closer to the bone than I had anticipated. Around the same time, a good friend, David Hansen-Miller, who was then a researcher for International Transport-Workers’ Federation, encouraged me to shift my research to the conditions of work for dockers and seafarers whose lives and work touched the Arabian Peninsula. I applied for research funding from the Economic and Social Research Council of Britain with great trepidation: this was the first substantial work of political economy I was researching and I felt like a complete newbie to the subject. Then, to my great surprise and delight, the funding came through, and I was suddenly given three years in which to travel and conduct research. It turned out to be the best research decision I had made, even if (especially because?) I still feel like a student of the subject and I am constantly learning something new.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address? 

It is a sprawling book in many ways (and its word count was already reduced by more than fifty percent before going to the copy editor!), in part because I was so curious about everything having to do with the past, present, and future of maritime commerce in the Western Indian Ocean. The book brings together the infrastructures and peoples who have made and make maritime trade in the Arabian Peninsula possible. The chapters have to do with shipping routes; the construction of the ports; the landside infrastructures that support ports; the legal apparatuses that facilitate commerce; capitalists, technical experts, and colonial officials involved in maritime commerce; and the conjunction between war and commerce at sea. But most important, the book tells the stories of dockers and seafarers and their constant struggle over the course of the long twentieth century to secure not only workplace benefits, but also political rights. 

I was inspired by Allan Sekula’s photo-essays about shipping, Deb Cowen’s paradigm-shifting The Deadly Life of Logistics, Madawi al-Rasheed’s fearless upturning of standard narratives about the countries of the Peninsula, Paul Gilroy and Marcus Rediker’s brilliant accounts of the Atlantic, and Abdulrahman Munif’s Cities of Salt (so many of whose luminous passages appear throughout Sinews). In the process of researching and writing, I also learned from many colleagues and friends whose urgent, innovative, and fresh work on the maritime and the logistical challenged and shaped my thinking: Johan Mathew, Fahad Bishara, Charmaine Chua, Jatin Dua, Katy Fox-Hodess, Naor Ben Yehoyahoda, Sharri Plonski, Matt MacLean, and foremost, Rafeef Ziadah (who was my sounding board, playmate, and co-conspirator throughout).

J: What were the most difficult and the most enjoyable elements of research for the project?

LK: The most difficult by far was finding narratives, stories, and voices that countered the official business and state archives. That is why Munif mattered so much, but so did such things as memoirs of leftwing/labor activists from the region (which is thankfully a proliferating genre) in book form, or in retrospective newspaper interviews, or in autobiographic essays. I used short stories, poems, and novels written by the residents and citizens of the region. I spent quite a bit of time trying to become familiar with songs composed and sung by seafarers, pearl-divers, fishermen, and their wives (who were sometimes widowed, sometimes abandoned, but always eulogizing lost stability and comfort). Not all of these sources appear directly in the book; some might do in subsequent articles; others act as a scaffolding or foundation for my approach to the subject. As for the most enjoyable element of research, it was by far my two containership journeys, both from Malta to Dubai but along different routes, which I chronicled in my blog and analyzed in the book.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

LK: I always fear this question, in part because I am a bit like a magpie (or like the fox in Isiah Berlin’s The Hedgehog and the Fox): I am attracted to shiny new projects. Or less flippantly, I shift course to new research projects when something exciting and puzzling catches my eye. And I really like always being a student, learning new things, feeling uncertain and unsure and inexpert in a new field. I think that sense of humility and un-knowingness and uncertainty is intellectually generative. It allows one to be open to new ideas and writings that emerge in the interstices of congealed certitudes and accepted orthodoxies.

That said, if I were to find common threads running through my work, it would be the idea of transnational movement: of ideas and narratives in my first book (Heroes and Martyrs of Palestine); of practices, military doctrines, and counterinsurgents in the second book (Time in the Shadows); and of people, cargo, and capital in Sinews. After I finished Sinews, I noticed that Palestinians are also present in the story, though not as prominently as they were in the first two books. Palestinian migrants—engineers, technocrats, and laborers—built so many of the infrastructures in the Gulf; and their cause inspired so many of the labor protests and strikes in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

LK: I intentionally wrote the book in a language and style that I hope will appeal to an intelligent readership beyond the academy. My brilliant husband who is a non-academic read it in manuscript form very closely—and gave ruthless feedback about bits where I was not explaining a concept or its significance well, or where I was using scholarly jargon or style of writing. An old friend who writes for the Financial Times also advised me that I should cut down my sentences in such a way that the reader does not lose track of the thrust of the story. Finally, I tell lots of stories in the book, and I try to theorize with a very light touch. I hope that the book will help illuminate how global maritime trade works today, and to understand the role of the Arab world therein. And I hope that the book will make people look at the Arabian Peninsula and see beyond the clichéd narratives about urban bling, rentierism, security, and exceptional politics. I want to draw out the political similarities and interconnections between, say, Dubai and Singapore, or between the oil producing states of the Gulf and the politics of petroleum production in other parts of the world, not least the United States.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

LK: I have nowhere near exhausted the maritime project yet and I have three or four articles I really want to complete writing: about tankers as precursors of the logistical age; a meditation on the embodied experience of seafarers aboard the ships; about the role of Christian missions serving seafarers; and about carcerality and bordering as disciplinary mechanisms tested upon the bodies of dockers and seafarers. I am also going back to a project I started while I was working on Time in the Shadows about the conjuncture of masculinity and managerialism among US Navy SEALS. I set that one aside in 2012 or 2013 but given the stories about Navy SEALS in the news, and the proliferation of retired Navy SEALS in political and business ranks in the United States, I am slowly going back to it and contemplating a short-ish book dealing with the subject.

Excerpt from the book (pp. 4-6)

Think of a port as a bundle of routes and berths, of roads and rails leading away, of free zones and warehouses and the people who make and populate them. The sea routes are evanescent – whether they are ephemeral foam in the wake of a ship or digital fragments flowing through wires. When harbours are built, the material that goes into the concrete comes not only from this land but from the sea and from other places. Sometimes the roads and rail are built long after the ports, as if in an afterthought. Sometimes the free zones are built before the ports, as if in a fond wish. Geographical features near ports and harbours are remade into legal categories to facilitate their exploitation. Commercial rules; the law, in its multilayered, multivalent complexity; and transnational tribunals all reinforce some version of maritime economic and political relations. All are meant to magic into being the intercourse of commerce.

This is a book about the landside labourers who build the ports and work in them: their collective struggles, their migrations, and their gains and losses. It is also about shipboard workers, their racialisation over the centuries, and the work they do today, with eyes trained to gaze far to sea. I write about the colonial continuities of capital, and about finance and insurance and subterfuge and paternalism and pressure that are the hallmarks of these ports; about kings and bureaucrats, advisers and courtiers, and merchants and industrialists, and middlemen and brokers. And, of course, war – and the mutually constitutive relationship between violence and maritime commerce.

But this book is also specifically about the Arabian Peninsula, written from the sea, gazing at the shores. The historical accounts of the Peninsula are often radically bifurcated – a great deal of excellent works tell the story of the Peninsula as a node in historical Indian Ocean trade; many more modern accounts recount the story of a world undone and redone by oil. If maritime trade is spoken of, it is often in the context of the former, not the latter. No matter that the ports in the Peninsula are some of the biggest and highest-volume in the world. Or that there are more of them, and more people working in them, than ever in history. Or that the connections they forge – not just to destinations for petroleum and petroleum products – are global conduits not just for cargo, but for migrants, capital, new financial instruments, management regimes, and legal categories. This book is what Michael Pearson has called an ‘amphibious’ story, ‘moving between the sea and the land’ in telling the story of maritime transportation infrastructures in the Peninsula.

My interest in the area arose partially because of how the ports of the Peninsula seem to manifestly crystallise the confluence of military/naval interest, capital accumulation, and labour. I was also interested in the region because I have found that so much writing about the Peninsula exceptionalises the area or focusses on tired old scholarly clichés (whether around rentierism or the security role of the Persian Gulf). I have wanted to better understand a region whose fortunes are so tightly tied to not only other Arab countries of the Middle East but to South Asia, East Africa, East Asia, and the metropoles of Europe and North America.

The book draws on my research in several archives, including US and UK national archives, India Office Records, the UK Maritime Museum archives, the papers of Lloyd’s of London at the Liverpool Maritime archives, those of Grey Mackenzie/P&O at the London Metropolitan Archives, the British Petroleum archives, papers related to Aramco and Oman at Georgetown University Archives, and several other university archives in the US and UK where private papers of relevant historical figures are held. Other research materials include back issues of a vast range of newspapers, trade magazines, business journals and the like (some via online databases, others from the dusty shelves of libraries); memoirs, poetry, and novels written by people in the region, in businesses related to the region, or visiting the region; and vast repositories of statistics and reports produced by transnational organisations, think tanks, and management consulting firms, and the region’s governments. I also draw on landside visits to most of the main cargo ports of the region (except for those in Saudi Arabia and Yemen), interviews with a range of businessmen, government officials, workers, activists, and others with stakes in the business throughout the Peninsula, as well as my own travel on two different container ships (some of the largest on the seas today) which afforded me shipboard visits to the ports in the regions (including Jeddah in Saudi Arabia).

This is an untidy book. It is curious about everything and hungry to tell stories. Mike Davis writes about one of the sprawling chapters in his idiosyncratic, absorbing, magisterial City of Quartz that ‘I became so attached to every sacred morsel of facts about picket fences and dog doo-doos that I failed to edit the chapter down to a reasonable length. I soon came to fear that I had made a suicidal mistake. “No one”, I told myself, “will ever read this”.’

I also became obsessed with everything maritime: ports and ships and the routes that led to them. The strange conjunctures of capitalism and trade and migrant labour and geopolitics and oil and dirt and filth and violence that make the sector are no less fascinating because they are made so invisible.

As sprawling as the book may be, it does not aim to be comprehensive. It does not sketch out reviews of scholarly literature, nor does it mention all possible sources about a given subject (though it cites whatever it quotes or paraphrases and what ideas have influenced its arguments). I have not alluded to a huge swathe of academic scholarship not because I did not read it or because I did not deem it worthy, but because this book wanted to do something else: it wanted to tell stories. Stories about how ports and maritime transport infrastructures have emerged out of the conjuncture of so many histories, struggles, conflicts, and plans (half-formed, implemented, and failed).


This post was originally published at,-Sinews-of-War-and-Trade-Shipping-and-Capitalism-in-the-Arabian-Peninsula-New-Texts-Out-Now

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