"gam. noun—a social meeting of two (or more) whaleships, generally on a cruising-ground; when, after exchanging hails, they exchange visits by boats’ crews; the two captains remaining, for the time, on board of one ship, and the two chief mates on the other." Herman Melville, Moby Dick
As the COVID-19 pandemic spread across the globe, the traffic in the ports of China reduced to a trickle in January and February 2020. Shortly thereafter the volume of goods arriving at the ports of the Americas and Europe and Africa from China also began to plummet. Ships leaving these continents with raw materials or industrial constituents had to slow-steam to their Asian destinations or wait at anchor off the shores of Chinese harbours, since those ports were not receiving goods either. Freight rates for dry cargos dropped, and charter rates for crude oil tankers skyrocketed. The latter was in response to a massive glut in oil, itself resulting from the drop in demand and a price war between Russia and Saudi Arabia resulting in overproduction; as landside storage tanks were full, and tankers, barges, and any old serviceable floating storage was brought out to store the crude at sea.
Just as maritime journeys and flights slowed down or came to a halt, in much of global North certain elements of logistics intensified. Home deliveries of goods soared. A wave of demand for toilet paper, flour, yeast, and personal electronics used for home-working crested and then subsided. In both the global North and the global South, dependence on poorly waged delivery persons (whether working for logistical behemoths such as Amazon or the mom-and-pop shop down the street) accelerated. States, corporations, medical organisations and individuals throughout the world all frantically conducted global searches for personal protective equipment (PPE), masks, and certain medicines.
In the wake of these upheavals, comparisons and predictions came thick and fast: this was a moment like the Great Depression of the late 1920s, more dramatic than the Great Recession of 2008/2009. Pundits argued that the structure of global trade had changed for good; some even claimed this marked the end of globalisation. The crashing of oil prices led some to prophesy the end of the fossil energy era.
There is an element of wishful longing about these predictions. If capitalism really contains the seeds of its own destruction, then it would make sense that the very same global relations of trade and travel that caused the pandemic to spread so quickly across the surface of the earth will also fall victim to it.
A kind of environmental or pathological determinism sits at the heart of this type of soothsaying. And these types of mechanistic explanations also belie the resilience of capitalism and its cyclical ability to recuperate, often in a much more austere, brutal, rapacious form. Such events as pandemics and subsequent cataclysmic drops in employment and GDP can trigger broader structural changes and result in the creation of new state institutions and regulations. But it is not foretold that these institutions or regulations will be humane, or orientated towards welfare and redistribution.
Perhaps more importantly, the juxtaposition of the pandemic in the first five months of 2020 with the antiracist BlackLivesMatter protests of June reveals the crucial role of constant, relentless and long-standing political organisation, as well as sharp, decisive angry protest and direct action in triggering change. Whether transformations to the symbolic order—statues, stories, commemorative names—or changes, however meagre, to material benefits (for example cuts in police funding), political mobilisation has seen results.
If there are post-pandemic changes to be seen in the logic and operation of global supply chains it will be because of these forms of political mobilisation along the supply chains: from Amazon warehouse workers protesting the shortage of PPE, to essential workers demanding sick pay, to seafarers abandoned at sea threatening to strike in order to be able to go home. Any long-lasting effect will be in response to such activities.
Image from ship’s equipment during a journey in the Gulf of Oman. The cluster of triangles towards the bottom left are ships at anchor near the bunkering port of Fujairah in the UAE.
Flying above oceanic anchorages near the world’s largest oil ports reveals a tangle of all sorts of cargo ships waiting to bunker (refuel), as well as load or unload petroleum or chemicals. Oil ports often—though not always—also boast proximity to both vast land-based tank farms for the storage of oil, natural gas, and petrochemicals, as well as to refineries. These oil facilities are usually visible in their totality only from the air or from the sea, with loading buoys sometimes a mile or more away from the shore itself, and the ships anchoring still further. Tank farms tend to be hidden behind layers of barbed wire fencing and security, and strips of wasteland often separate them from the roads that run alongside. These interconnected coastal infrastructures reveal the extent to which the extraction, storage, pricing, and sale of petroleum and petrochemical products is not just dependent on the maritime circulation of petroleum products, but is fundamentally defined by it. Bound up in the politics of circulation are the asymmetries of power: between producing nations and the consumers; between producers of crude and those who refine the oil; between those who work on the ships, tank farms, and infrastructures, and those who profit from them; amongst hegemonic leviathans, rising global powers, and those struggling against imperial economic arrangements.
Because so much transportation (on the roads and in the air) and factory production has ceased as a result of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, the demand for oil has dramatically dropped. Simultaneously, a pricing war triggered by Saudi Arabia against Russia has flooded the market with oil. The effect of the pandemic on the circulation of oil and its derivative products has been revealing. First and foremost, the pandemic has shown the brittleness of global trade: the very condition of possibility of commerce across the oceans is also what makes it vulnerable to disruption, with ships and airplanes becoming vectors of transmission. This brittleness and unpredictability extends to the trade in oil, but its effects are paradoxical: despite a general lull in global trade, the chartering of tanker ships has expanded, rather than contracted.
The pandemic has also shown that the upstream production of oil is affected by the downstream processes and financial pricings that are usually conceptualized as subsequent to production. This imagined sequencing—production first, sale and transport thereafter—obscures the foundational role of the circulation of oil in defining the very parameters of its production, but also the long reach of its maritime transportation into the financing and pricing of oil.
Facebook post by Argentinian economic journalist Sergio Elguezábal on April 21, 2020. The map of tankers, shared over 20,000 times to date on Facebook, soon began to circulate across all social media, largely without attribution.
Financial and Physical Markets
In late April 2020, an image circulated on social media that looked like a screen-capture from a ship-tracking application. These types of apps are commercial products that draw on GPS data and ships’ AIS (Automatic Identification System) to track the movement of vessels across the oceans. They also provide information about what kind of ships the small markers on the map represent (container vessels, bulk carriers, roll-on/roll-off vehicle carriers, and the like), what cargo they carry, a history of that ship, and a map of its current route.
The viral social media image was a map focused on the Western Hemisphere, and showed clusters of tankers along the coasts of Africa, the Americas, and Europe. With the concurrent plummeting demand and rise in production of oil, landside tank farms and storage spaces began to run at or near capacity. Oil producers and buyers were chartering tankers to store oil at sea. Instead of circulating, oil was in stasis.
The map, which was first posted on April 21, 2020, documents a historically unprecedented event, in which the “price” of oil dropped below zero. However, the “price” of oil is not a single number, and does not represent the cost of a universal barrel of oil being traded now or in the future, everywhere or anywhere in the world. Several different benchmarks for oil correspond to the location of their trade (West Texas Intermediate, Brent, Dubai, etc.) and they often differ from one another by a few dollars per barrel, based on specific geographical and political determinants. But the place of production and trade is not the only determinant of oil’s price(s).
Oil prices are complex calculations of the price of oil produced at the moment of trade (the spot price) and the price of oil slated for delivery at a future time (futures price). Oil derivatives are financial instruments that were first devised in 1979 and which bet on the future price of a commodity (or even abstract objects, such as an index of prices of freight) going up or down. These financial instruments affect the pricing of oil even in the spot markets, but they do so unevenly, with differing impact, depending on the price of what kind of product the derivative is betting on. The financialization of oil markets was part of a broader global neoliberal trend from the 1970s onwards, but it was also a direct response to the process of nationalization of oil across the Middle East. Up until this moment of nationalization, oil majors (i.e. the seven massive North American and European oil companies: BP, Chevron, Eni, ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch Shell, Total, and ConocoPhillips) had controlled the price of oil. Now, thanks to its financialization, majors are no longer able to dictate the price of oil on a global market, and these derivatives create speculative tools for the extraction of profit from fluctuations in the price of oil.
On April 20, as the landside oil storage in Cushing, Oklahoma—a transportation crossroads between the fields of the Midwest and Texas, and the oil terminals of the Gulf Coast—began to fill, and as some futures contracts reached their settlement date of April 21, the futures price of the West Texas Intermediate crude plunged below zero.1 This meant that on April 20, traders of this particular grade and species of oil were actually paying not to take delivery of oil the next day. Derivatives are sometimes portrayed as wholly speculative abstractions, but as Mazen Labban has written perspicaciously, the pricing of oil is “not a dualism between a ‘real’ space-time of material circulation and a ‘fictitious’ space-time of financial representations. Both are real enough and have their own materiality, but each alone is an abstraction incapable of standing in for the oil market.”2 On April 20, this became undeniable. The materiality of the circulation and storage, its inadequacy and limitations, had crashed the futures market. In the days before and after negative oil prices, many shale oil and offshore companies in the US declared bankruptcy.
Cape or Canal Routes
While the computer screens of the financial systems strobed with the plunging prices of most petroleum products on April 20, maritime tracking screens traced the paths of tankers gathering in ever denser clusters near oil and bunkering ports, waiting to load and unload. Ships were anchored along the coast of Venezuela, the Gulf of Mexico, southern California, Mexico, the west coast of Africa, near the straits of Malacca and Hormuz, and all along the shores of East Asia.
Although we cannot know whether these ships are simply acting as storage or were in fact en route, many shipping companies have changed their routes between Europe and Asia as a direct result of the oil glut.3 When the price of oil—and therefore of fuel—drops, and when ships carrying goods—but especially carrying oil—are in no hurry to get to their destination, it becomes cheaper for ships to take longer routes—for example around the Cape of Good Hope, rather than pay the passage fees for the Suez Canal. The longer routes and the “slow steaming” may add a few weeks to the journey itself, but it saves the shipping companies money. These cost savings are balanced against a delay in promised delivery, the possibility of having to wait at anchor before unloading or loading goods, the length of additional time seafarers may have to spend on the ship, and even possible threats to the safety of the seafarers.
I experienced the effects of something like this when travelling aboard containerships, once in early 2015 during a roaring period of global trade, and once in mid-2016 after a dip in global trade.4 During the first journey, the ship’s captain was ordered by the company to steam at maximum speed through the Red Sea, around the Arabian Peninsula and into the Gulf of Oman. The ship, commanded thus, peeled off from the convoy of ships that pass through the Gulf of Aden together as a precaution against piracy, and hugged the coasts of Yemen and Oman in order to cut a few nautical miles out of the route, at very high speed, consuming huge amounts of fuel. On the second journey, with commerce in a lull, any kind of cargo that could earn some profit was needed, and fuel cost savings were more important. As such, midway through the trip, a new port was added to the route so as to add a few more containers for carriage, with the ship all the while steaming at very slow speeds.
More than 500 shipping journeys were cancelled between Asia and Europe or the Americas throughout March or April 2020. Those that did happen tended to have a reduced of containers and traveled along their routes—which themselves changed, shifting toward the Cape—at extremely slow speeds (sometimes at a quarter of the usual ship speed).5 Even ships steaming from the Eastern Mediterranean have chosen to pass through Gibraltar and go around the southern tip of Africa rather than pay the fees for the much more proximate Suez Canal. The Cape route also allows for economies of scale in the transport of goods. The Canal’s depth and width places certain limits on the size of ships passing through it; SuezMax ships are about 275 meters long and have a draft of 12.2 meters. The ships now loading crude from the Ceyhan oil terminal in Turkey are Very Large Crude Carriers (VLCC) or Ultra Large Crude Carriers (ULCC), some with a draft of more than 20 meters and most with lengths exceeding 350 meters.
Oily pollutants released by an unidentified ship in the Gulf of Oman.
Crude or Refined Oil
Interactive maritime trackers show ships as static (or glacially moving) markers on a screen and often indicate their origins and destinations. The map from April 21, 2020, however, does not show any of that information. Static maps of maritime vessels obscure the contradictory movements and relations and directions of the ships. We can therefore only speculate why the ships were where they were. And even if so many of these ships were acting as storage, it would not be possible to know their destinations or the timing of their journey. But we do know that just as bulk and container ships were cancelling trips, or steaming half empty, the cost of chartering tankers doubled as both producers and traders turned to storing oil on ships. At some stage in mid-April, the cost of chartering a ULCC was up to $350,000 perday, double what it had been a scant few weeks before.
In the April 21 map, some ships are pointed away from Nigeria or Venezuela and seem to be steaming towards the Cape of Good Hope, presumably on their way to Asia. China imports the vast majority of its oil—90% of it—by sea, but China is nowhere near the largest global consumer of oil.6 The US consumed 20% of all the oil produced worldwide, whereas China only takes 13.5%.7 The April 21 map cannot, therefore, be taken as a snapshot of global oil.
The US both exports and imports petroleum.8 Much of what US imports arrives through pipelines from Canada or Mexico and is intended for its refineries which are configured to process particular kinds of oil (heavy/light, sour/sweet) that are produced in specific oil fields. The proliferation of these refineries also distinguishes the US consumption of oil from that of China. US refining capacity outstrips that of all other countries (Texas alone has higher refining capacity than all of China)—but more importantly, its refineries produce products which garner higher market prices. As such, US refineries’ conversion capacity to value-added products far outstrips all other countries. This means that even if the entirety of the Asia Pacific has a comparable general refining capacity to the US, US conversion capacity, and therefore its extraction of value, is higher. Why does this matter for maritime transport?
Those VLCCs and ULCCs that often only carry crude oil depend on an extractive economy and trade in raw materials, a hallmark of colonial economic relations. The chartering of a broader range of ship sizes indicates the extent to which, beyond the economies of extraction, value-added products produced through refining and processing has aided the accumulation of capital in the global North. Indeed, in the aftermath of the nationalization of oil in the Gulf in the 1970s, many of these countries turned to increasing their refining capacity as a means of escaping the extractive economy and acquiring petrochemical manufacturing technology and know-how. The 1970s nationalizers were not fiery revolutionaries seizing control of US or European oil companies as in decades past in places like Iran or Mexico, but technocrats from producing nations of the Gulf negotiating the buyout of their national oil from North American and European oil majors.
These technocrats, however, understood the benefits of downstream value-added production and control over the circulation of their own products. In a fascinating account of a failing shipyard in Belfast in 1975, a sales representative of the ship yard, “back from a sales tour of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Abu Dhabi and Iraq,” said that instead of large tankers, the Arabs wanted smaller vessels to carry refined petroleum products such as kerosene and gasoline. “They won’t need them until four or five years from now,” he said, “when they will have the refining capacity to make the products.”9 As Walter Rodney has written, the emphasis on trade of raw materials, rather than on production of more expensive manufactured goods, privileged traders over producers, delayed technological innovation, and led to economic stagnation and intensified exploitation of both humans and natural resources.10
Economic development is a double-edged sword. Both the production and circulation of petrochemicals have dramatic ecological effects. The same shale oil which has, since the deregulation of fracking, boosted the position of US as an exporter of oil, also leads to the devastation of groundwaters, soil, and spaces inhabited by indigenous peoples. The indigenous and first nations people of the Americas have been struggling against devastating extractive industries defacing and destroying their lands for decades. Most recently, however, the Water Protectors of Standing Rock (since 2016) and their Wetʼsuwetʼen counterparts further north (in 2019 and 2020) have campaigned for the cessation of construction of pipelines across their lands. The struggle of the Water Protectors of Standing Rock, however, was crushed by the force of militarized force, while the Wetʼsuwetʼen campaign—which included a widely-supported blockade of logistical lines—has been momentarily deferred because of the pandemic.11
Maritime transportation of oil also can devastate the environment. Tanker transport is responsible for least a quarter of all oil spills at sea.12 And aside from catastrophic large-scale oil spills, ship collisions or groundings can lead to the leakage of oil and petroleum products during loading and unloading. On oil-rich coasts around the world, beaches are often strewn with lumps of tar that have formed at sea and washed ashore. Ships can release ballast water in unregulated ways, and although ballast tanks and oil or fuel tanks are supposed to be separate, dirty ballast water, released in unregulated or lightly regulated ports, can introduce dangerous pollutants into the marine environment. Ships also produce enormous air pollution. If they are at anchor for days, even weeks, on end, the chance of their illicit discharge of all sorts of waste will also increase in such seas, and their engines will inevitably produce oxides of carbon and nitrogen, sulphur compounds, and particulate matters.
The tumbling of global trade, the closure of borders, the historically high unemployment, and therefore plummeting demand for oil wrought by the pandemic all sketch the contours of a shifting context for maritime movement of oil. But the real levers of transformation are political. In response to the pandemic, businesses are consolidating their positions and policymakers are rallying around capital to ensure that any retrenchment does not subvert the processes of accumulation. As trade has been hobbled, various states such as France and South Korea have bailed out their oil and shipping companies.13
As has been true with fracking, pipeline-building, value-extraction through refining, and soaring exports, the US continues to strive for maintaining the hegemonic role of the greatest consumer and one of the greatest producers of oil (and also, inevitably, the greatest polluter). China and India, meanwhile, are slowly taking up the oceans of oil stored at sea as their factories slowly reopen. The midwife of this new post-pandemic age will not be the changes produced temporarily by the pandemic: capital is remarkably resilient in the face of crisis, even successive ones. Any real transformation—in how we produce and circulate and consume energy, in who benefits and who suffers from the effects of production and circulation of petroleum and its products—can come only through concerted political action: one that binds together a stewardship of the earth and its oceans with demands to dismantle global asymmetries of power.
1 – The West Texas Intermediate is one particular benchmark, which as Labban has pointed out represents “insignificant shares of the market.” Mazen Labban, “Oil Spill: Inside the Global Market for Crude”, The American Prospect, April 28, 2020, ➝.Go to Text2
2 – Mazen Labban, “Oil in parallax: Scarcity, markets, and the financialization of accumulation,” Geoforum 41 (2010): 541–552.Go to Text3
3 – “Record Number of Box Ships Take Longer Cape Route as Bunker Prices Slide,” Ship and Bunker News,May 6, 2020, ➝.Go to Text4
4 – When researching my book on maritime transportation infrastructures. Laleh Khalili, Sinews of War and Trade (London: Verso, 2020).Go to Text5
5 – Mike Wackett, “Carriers Axe 3 Million TEU Capacity from Key Asia-Europe and Transpacific Routes,” Loadstar, April 16, 2020, ➝; Brian Wingfield, Jack Wittels, and Firat Kayakiran, “Tankers Round the Cape as Glut Snarls Ports,” Bloomberg, May 7, 2020, ➝.Go to Text6
6 – “Oil and Petroleum Products Explained: Oil Imports and Exports”, U.S. Energy Information Agency, April 27, 2020, ➝; Yao Wang and Jing Lu, “Optimization of China Crude Oil Transportation Network with Genetic Ant Colony Algorithm,” Information 6 (2015): 467–480.Go to Text7
7 – Eni, World Oil Review 2019 Vol 1. (Rome: Eni SpA, 2019), 18; BP, Statistical Review 2019 (London: BP, 2019), 9, 13.Go to Text8
8 – In 2019 the volume of US imports and exports of oil were almost equivalent (9.1 and 8.5 million barrels of oil per day). “Oil imports and exports”, U.S. Energy Information Agency.Go to Text9
9 – “Huge Belfast Shipyard May Shut” in New York Times, November 8, 1975, ➝.Go to Text10
10 – Walter Rodney, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (London: Bogle-L’Ouverture Publications, 1972).Go to Text11
11 – See Winona LaDuke and Deborah Cowen, “Beyond Wiindigo Infrastructure,” South Atlantic Quarterly 119, no. 2 (2020): 243–268; Standing with Standing Rock: Voices from the #NoDAPL Movement, eds. Nick Estes and Jaskiran Dhillon (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2019).Go to Text12
12 – Roy Facey, “Pollution from sea-based sources,” in Protecting the Gulf’s Marine Ecosystems from Pollution, eds. Abdulaziz H. Abuzinada et al. (Basel: Birkhäuser, 2008), 166–178.Go to Text13
13 – Costas Paris, “Troubled Shipping Lines Turn to State Support,” Wall Street Journal, May 22, 2020. Meanwhile, as a number of independent fracking and offshore companies in the US have declared bankruptcy, the US federal government has reduced oil royalty payments for companies drilling on federal lands, while imposing retroactive fees on producers of wind and solar energy.[footnote Will Englund and Dino Grandoni, “Oil companies drilling on federal land get break on royalties. Solar and wind firms get past-due rent bills,” Washington Post, May 20, 2020.
Oceans in Transformation is a collaboration between TBA21–Academy and e-flux Architecture within the context of the eponymous exhibition at Ocean Space in Venice by Territorial Agency and its manifestation on Ocean Archive.
Laleh Khalili is a Professor of International Politics at Queen Mary University of London. Her most recent book, Sinews of War and Trade, was published by Verso in 2020.
Little has been written about the sea trade in the Gulf. Laleh Khalili’s latest book explores the complex realities that drive this massive economy.Tugrul Mende30 June 2020
During the COVID-19 pandemic many workers in ports and on ships have either lost their jobs or were stuck on ships with or without wages and with an uncertain future.
Ports in the Gulf, like elsewhere in the world, functioned at a minimum. And the Gulf plays an important part in the global sea trade, harboring global trade companies seeking a place that offers little legal rights to seafarers and workers in order to make a maximum of profit.
Will the sea trade, disrupted by the virus, be the same after the pandemic has passed? In her latest book Sinews of War and Trade (London: Verso, 2020), Laleh Kahlil, Professor of International Politics at Queen Mary University of London, takes us on a journey to understand the complex mechanisms that are behind the global sea trade.
We talked over Skype about her research on the sea trade economy and the humans behind it, as well as the impact of COVID-19.
Tugrul Mende: Could you explain why you chose the topic of your book and the difficulties that you faced while working on it?
Laleh Khalili: In some ways moving from the old project to the new one was actually quite a necessary thing because while I was working on my previous book Time in the Shadow: Confinement in Counterinsurgencies (Stanford University Press, 2012), it had become incredibly emotionally difficult to work on that project. My parents both had been political prisoners many years back, and therefore writing about confinement and imprisonment and torture was quite difficult. In a way. I really needed to work on a project that didn’t have the same degree of emotional intensity as the previous book but I still wanted to work on the Middle East and look at the way things worked. Because I have an undergraduate degree in engineering, I am really interested in how things work. I wanted to move away a little bit from detention and political violence etc.
At the same time as this was happening, I was trying to figure out what I wanted to work on. I joked around with friends that I wanted to research bars and beaches in Beirut and in fact I applied for some funding and I managed to get a very small grant and I did produce some research about the politics of beach going, the politics of leisure and pleasure in Beirut. But interestingly bars and beaches didn’t do it for me. I wanted to work on something else and I wanted to be somewhere where I felt like a new student; I wanted to move in an area in which I was not an expert. Learning about a subject is as exciting as writing about it. It allows you to sort of completely shift to new grounds and find new things to work on and new ways of looking at things.
Around the same time I had a friend who was a researcher for The International Transport Workers‘ Federation, which is a global union. He suggested that I should look at the condition of dockers and sailors in the Arabian peninsula, in part, because there is not a great deal of research on this subject and still less researchers working on this subject who know Arabic. There are some really amazing people who work for ITF in the Middle East but they are not necessarily focused on the Arabian Peninsula. A lot of the other countries in the Middle East are more open and have easier access for ITF and, even though they have quite restricted unions they still have unions. Many countries in the Arabian peninsula don’t allow unionization and don’t allow campaigners and activists to access workers. So, I started to look at this project.
The question of worker mobilization tends to be extremely sensitive in the richer countries of the Gulf
Originally, I wanted to situate maritime transport and logistics in the Arab world in a much more historical context. I wanted to understand how these capital-intensive modern ports came about. Around the same time, I got the chance to travel on some container ships, and that was a formative experience. It allowed me to see not only the political and the economic, the infrastructure, and the big macro-political, but it was also the day to day life of the seafarers and the dockers once the ship came into port.
TM: Was it easy to talk with them and approach them as a researcher?
LK: Obviously people are often very apprehensive speaking to journalists or academics in many of the countries of the Gulf because they do worry about surveillance and state repression. In particular, the question of worker mobilization tends to be extremely sensitive in the richer countries of the Gulf. I was very careful about not endangering anybody by trying to approach them from the landslide. The people that I interviewed were mostly mid-level managers and experts. I also interviewed some ministers and deputy ministers. Being on the ship made it easy for me to talk with the workers. As a passenger they were quite happy to talk with me. I also went through the unions’ Facebook groups which is an amazing resource.
TM: According to Statista, Asian economics are experiencing a boom for being home to the world’s leading container ports, and the largest container ship fleets worldwide. In their view, Dubai belongs to this group along with Shanghai, and Singapore. How do you explain this boom especially in the United Arab Emirates?
Laleh Khalili: In the Journal of Commerce lists of the top ten ports of the world, Dubai is the only port that isn’t either in East Asia or Southeast Asia. In the top 10 list you have Shanghai, Hong Kong, Singapore, you have ports in South Korea and elsewhere. There are multiple things at work here. There is an old colonial history which is I think really important to know. A lot of the great ports that today appear on the top ten list used to be colonial city states, and used to be part of the British Empire, as Dubai was for example. There is an entire colonial history of the British having these transit ports which also acted as strategic strongholds. There are other factors as well, I think in the post-colonial era after the Second World War, this happened in a staggered way for different countries.
For Dubai and the countries in the Arabian Peninsula it happened after oil was nationalized. The profits from oil instead of being expatriated to Europe or North America ended up being kept internally and some element of it ended up in infrastructure. In other places, this process happened earlier. This infrastructure investment was important.
Business likes these repressive policies because it allows for maximum profit making
What counts for Dubai is that precise convergence of a lot of different factors including political ones. You end up having a port of transit which operates as a distribution point not just for the UAE but also for the Arabian Peninsula, even beyond, for countries like Iran, Pakistan, or those in East Africa. This role that Dubai has played as a port of transit is comparable to the role that Singapore is also playing.
Neither Singapore nor Dubai have any kind of natural resources. They are both essentially city states. Dubai is part of the UAE but largely it operates as a city state. It has no dominant industry other than trade and tourism. Both cities don’t have a national hinterland except for other countries. I think that port of transit element is part of the reason why Dubai was really successful. They have managed to have the patronage of various imperial powers such as the British in the past and now the US because they have repressive labour policies. Therefore, disruptive and demanding labour forces, whether they are on ships or free zones or on the docks, are repressed politically, and of course business likes these repressive policies because it allows for maximum profit making. This is why Dubai appeares on these lists.
TM: In what way does COVID-19 affect the shipping route of a freighter, if a port is unable to accommodate them because of restrictions made by the government?
LK: What has been interesting about COVID-19 is that it has clearly affected both ports and shipping routes. To start with ports – when the lockdown started in China, it essentially translated into a massive pause in manufacturing which meant that the export of goods out of ports was really radically reduced. There weren’t many ports functioning because of the lockdown. They couldn’t take delivery of all the natural raw material they required. Ports in China, which had been some of the busiest in the world, saw their work drop to essentially nothing. And for a while there were ships lined up near Chinese ports both to load and to unload.
As the pandemic spread around the globe a number of things happened: First, consumption dropped, and that resulted in a massive drop in demand and in manufacturing. The numbers for trade coming out in March show that somewhere between 5 – 13 % of world trade actually dropped. That’s clearly a substantial amount and translated into hundreds of shipping journeys being canceled. Between Europe and China the number I believe approached 500.
A large number of seafarers who have actually finished their contracts three months ago are still onboard the ships and can’t go home
Second, because of the drop in demand and the oil price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia, there was a massive glut of oil. This translated into two things. First, all of the oil coming out of the ground had to be stored somewhere and land based storage filled up very fast. All the oil producers started to store the oil on ships. Tankers, barges, smaller and bigger ships, were all chartered for storage of oil. These ships have been sitting there for months because there was no other place to store the oil. The result was that the cost of chartering or leasing a tanker went up; at some point to charter a large ship could cost up to USD 300,000 a day. The second thing that happened was that the price of oil dropped so low that it became cheaper for ships to go around the Cape of Good Hope in southern Africa rather than pay the fees to go through the Suez Canal. This also changed the shipping routes because it was cheaper to travel three weeks longer than pay the cost of going through the Suez Canal. The effects were really complex.
For cargo ships workers and seafarers the effects were different. Workers on cargo or cruise ships are usually working on contracts that last between four and nine or ten months. After that, they usually spend a month at home, and fly out again to get on another ship. But as this became difficult because ports and many airports are closed to seafarers because of quarantine.
This meant that a large number of seafarers who have actually finished their contracts three months ago are still onboard the ships and can’t go home. Some are being paid while others are not. They are stuck until some government policies are put into place to repatriate these workers. Additionally, some shipping companies are probably going under, which means the seafarers are affected as well.
TM: Do you think the measures taken against COVID-19 which are affecting the economy all over the world, will lead to finding a new way to organize trade?
LK: Here I am venturing into speculation. There is always the question of automation versus labour. Of course, that ignores that nothing is 100 percent automated because there is always some human intervention. And there is also the cost of automation. The fact is that workers are going to desperately look for jobs. This means the cost of labour is going to be pushed down by many of the employers. Whether or not this push and pull will happen is difficult to tell. I have been seeing reports about how many shipping companies have been talking about automated ports because then they don‘t have to worry about any pandemic.
The pandemic reinforces the importance of the workers and the human elements and the fact that the optimistic narratives of capital accumulation were extremely fragile
At the same time, the automated machinery has to be operated by at least one person, and if this person gets COVID-19, then the whole port stops working. The fantasy of a fully automated workplace is still largely that, a fantasy. What might happen are other kinds of changes that have happened during other crisis. One example is the consolidation of shipping companies because it becomes more cost effective. We also begin seeing absorptions of smaller companies. We see larger shipping companies actually scrapping brand new ships because they don’t have any use for them. The cycle of production and scrapping accelerates. Those things will probably happen. In terms of the workers it is a lot harder to see because of the question of automation being so central to all of this.
TM: If COVID-19 had appeared before publishing this book, how do you think it would have affected your research project?
LK:I wouldn’t be able to finish the project without being able to travel and research or without being able to go to the archives, because not all archives are digitized. Let’s say that if I had researched the project and now I would write it, would I include anything different?
In the parts that I cut I had a really long section on quarantine. I cut it because I just thought that it is too long. I have all of this material and I have been thinking to incorporate the idea of shipping quarantine into some other writing. If I had done my research and I was just writing the book in the time of the pandemic, I wouldn’;t have changed anything. I might have made references to it but it wouldn’t have changed the content fundamentally. If anything, the pandemic reinforces the importance of the workers and the human elements and the fact that the optimistic narratives of capital accumulation were extremely fragile.
On 15 May 2020 I had a really great conversation with Indian Ocean historian Dr Saarah Jappie about a visual artefact that should be included in an SSRC time capsule on COVID-19. Here is the result of the conversation:
Inspired by the Council’s Rachel Tanur Memorial Prize for Visual Sociology, we ask prominent scholars to select a visual artifact of this time that will help future researchers understand the Covid-19 crisis. For this contribution, Laleh Khalili (professor of international politics, School of Politics and International Relations, Queen Mary University of London) spoke with Saarah Jappie (program officer, SSRC Transregional Collaboratory on the Indian Ocean) about the repercussions of Covid-19 at sea, including stranded seafarers, floating oil storages, and the role of ships as vectors of illness.
Saarah Jappie (SJ): You have chosen quite a striking image of the Diamond Princess cruise ship as your visual artifact of this time. Could you talk a bit about why you chose this particular image and what you think future researchers would need to know about it?
Laleh Khalili (LK): I have chosen a picture of the Diamond Princess as it’s berthed in Yokohama, Japan, and a person wearing a face mask is walking by it. In a way, the image encapsulates that particular moment in time when the Diamond Princess focused global attention on Covid-19 and became a vector of the illness itself. In fact, on the Johns Hopkins Covid-19 dashboard country list, the only noncountry included is the Diamond Princess, which had between 700 and 800 positive cases and dozens of related deaths on board. In addition to the Diamond Princess, there have been a number of cruise ships that have suffered extremely high numbers of casualties and cases—for example, the Zaandam. By including the cruise ship, I want to highlight the effects that this mode of transport has had on the movement of the illness and also to discuss the invisible elements of this broader story, of which there are very few images.
The significance of this image and the story behind it is several-fold. First, it demonstrates that the kinds of media for mobility, such as airplanes and ships, which we take for granted as an essential part of our globalized world in which cargo and humans move for both work and leisure, have become the pathways through which illness transmits. Of course, that is not at all new: the Kansas flu or the Spanish flu of the early twentieth century was transmitted by both commercial ships and warships at the end of the First World War, as soldiers and trade goods moved around the world in ships. This current pandemic’s resonances with historical vectors of illness are particularly interesting.
Secondly, the image recalls the role of the affluent in early transmission of the disease. As we observe the global effects of the pandemic, it is becoming increasingly clear that those suffering from Covid-19 disproportionately tend to come from disadvantaged backgrounds. Yet, at least at the beginning of the pandemic, it was the affluent that spread it. For instance, we hear anecdotes about how the first cluster of cases in the Netherlands was actually of youths from the upper middle class who had come back from a ski trip in northern Italy where, of course, the concentration of the illness was quite high. That the cruise ship industry, which tends to facilitate quite expensive modes of leisure and travel, was hit very heavily in the earlier stage of transmission further illustrates this dynamic.
I also want to point out the experiences often forgotten in representations of cruise ships as vectors of transmission. Once the passengers leave, in most instances, the media camera shifts away from the cruise ships. Nobody pays attention to the people who actually work aboard those ships, who have also been disproportionate victims of the illness. The largest of the cruise ships usually carry somewhere between 5,000 and 6,000 people on board. Of those, often a thousand or more people serve as crew members in the engine room, on the decks, in the wheel room, or as cleaners, cooks, and other kinds of service workers. The spaces in which they live aboard this moving city are far tighter and smaller than those in which the passengers live and, of course, that makes them far more vulnerable to transmission. In many recent instances, once the passengers disembarked, the ships were left afloat on the sea, with the crew unable to leave since ports had closed off entry to noncitizens. Even if workers were able to disembark in some places, they were unable to fly anywhere, either because flights had been cut back dramatically or, in the case of places like India, because inbound flights had been cancelled. This meant that many of these ships turned into essentially floating villages with people that had varying degrees of illness. In a couple of instances, workers on the ships had to be airlifted out because their conditions were so serious. This is a story that is not often told, and it is a staggering story, because at the last count there were 150,000 seafarers and crew members—not only of cruise ships but also of cargo ships—who are stuck at sea and unable to go home.
SJ: What else might this image tell us about Covid-19’s impact at sea more broadly, both on the ocean’s surface and beneath it?
LK: There is much more occurring on the surface of the sea. We have cargo ships, tankers, auto carriers, and all sorts of shipping that have also been affected by Covid-19. In the case of cargo, we have seen a dramatic drop in global trade, and in March, for which there are numbers, this has been somewhere between a 5 and 13 percent drop in volumes of trade. April was actually a much worse month, but those numbers are yet to be released. When global trade drops in such a dramatic way, it means that the number of ships traveling on the surface of the sea also drops dramatically. For example, on the Europe to East Asia line, somewhere upward of 400 trips have been canceled completely, so the cargo ships are not traveling.
Alongside this stagnation, we are experiencing a glut in oil because of a dramatic drop in demand and a concurrent, marked increase in supply due to the price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia. This situation translates into many oil tankers being essentially converted into floating storage. So, in addition to floating villages, we have floating oil storages, which have to be maintained at sea. Consequently, you find thousands of people stuck on these tankers, waiting for the price of oil to rise or storages to open before they can offload. As with workers aboard cruise ships, these seafarers have been away from their families for months longer than anticipated and, in some cases, do not know how they will return home. Adding to the longevity of their time on the ships is the fact that, with the price of oil dropping, it has become very cheap to use longer shipping routes. Thus, we are seeing that whereas a lot of ships would usually travel from Asia to Europe via the Suez Canal, they now round the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa. The journey is thus extended by three weeks simply because the cost of fuel for those extra weeks is actually cheaper than the cost of the Suez Canal fees. However, in human terms this means that seafarers on board that trip have to be at sea for three extra weeks. This is another example of repercussions that are not always visible or discussed, unless you are working in the very specialist field of maritime transport.
SJ: Finally, what do you see as some of the pandemic’s lasting effects on society? And how do you think this experience will affect global mobility going forward?
LK: The optimist in me will say that, because of the recognition of both Covid-19’s unequal effect on different populations and its movement through conduits of capital and trade, political mobilization will emerge around issues such as equal access to health care worldwide and the conditions faced by workers in these systems of unregulated, free-for-all trade. Hopefully, regulations will be put in place to remedy those systems that create such inequality. However, the pessimist in me says that through this pandemic we have learned that capital thrives on crisis. This experience might therefore be used to support measures of austerity, to drive down wages, and to in fact worsen the conditions of trade. There will be an attempt to kick-start the economy in the way that we have seen, for example, in the US and to an extent in the UK, which will be detrimental to those that are most vulnerable. In terms of political mobilization, there is very little sense of which groups are currently organizing. However, we know that in the aftermath of pandemic, you can have both leftist organizing and right-wing mobilization, as we saw for example in the interwar period in Europe. Some mornings I wake up as an optimist and some mornings I wake up as a pessimist, and I hesitate to predict what will happen in part because the temporal contours of things, including how soon a reliable test or vaccination will be available, are very unclear. For me, it’s too early to tell exactly in which direction this will all go.
This conversation was conducted on May 15, 2020. It has been edited for length and clarity.
In 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):
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.1It 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.
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.
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.