Book Review: Liam Campling and Alejandro Colás’ Capitalism and the Sea



Capitalism and the Sea takes the reader on a wide-ranging history of capitalist development and argues that ‘the Earth’s separation into land and sea has significant consequences’ for historical capitalism. The book adds layers to our understanding of capitalism and makes powerful interventions in a whole host of scholarly debates including on the transition to capitalism, the role of the state and on how to conceive of the nature–society relation.

The introductory chapter lays out the theoretical foundation in order to understand capitalism’s ‘terraqueous predicament’ (terraqueous ‘simply meaning consisting of land and water’, p. 3) by weaving together different approaches within contemporary Marxism. It is with this powerful Marxist lens that the subsequent chapters study how in the constant search ‘for fresh ways to valorise the oceans, capital produces new terraqueous forms of appropriation, exploitation and world ordering, sometimes in alignment, but generally in antagonism to both labour and nature’ (p. 21). Hereafter the book is organised around scrutinizing spatial phenomena (order, appropriation, offshore) and temporal processes (circulation, exploitation and logistics) in relation to each other.

The first chapter on circulation lays out a picture of ‘capitalism as a mode of production deeply entangled in a web of maritime trade, risk and enterprise’ (p. 28). The chapter examines the rise and fall of different commercial centres through a historical investigation of particular institutions— ‘credit and insurance firms, stock exchanges and trading companies’ (p. 31)—and their role in the geographic expansion and deepening of capitalist social relations. Not losing sight of the role of exploitation of workers and the fixed capital through which the circulation takes place, they note that ‘the maritime sector during this period can thus be seen as a vanguard of developing capitalist social relations’ (p. 48).

Order, in Chapter 2, is understood in substantive terms involving the ‘dispensation of global power—sometimes known as hegemony—that allows the relatively smooth and unperturbed reproduction of dominant socio-economic and political structures’ (p. 67–68). The chapter lays out three ‘foundational moments’ towards the creation of the contemporary global maritime order: (1) ‘the age of mercantile empires’; (2) the emergence of a new geopolitics from the late nineteenth century; and (3) the development of multilateral regimes from the late 1950s onwards (p.70-71). The chapter makes an original contribution by analysing how the evolving maritime order was constitutive and constituted by the ‘gradual and uneven shift from commercial to industrial capitalism’ (p. 81), hence facilitating the changing role of the oceans from functioning as a trade route to a site of production of value.

Chapter 3, focused on exploitation, is concerned with examining ‘the diverse forms that exploitation takes in the world of work’ (p. 111). Deploying a sophisticated labour regime analysis, the authors ‘bridge the essential relations of capital-as-process and the ever-greater levels of concreteness of historical capitalism’ (p. 112). Mobilizing this conceptual framework, the chapter then moves through an intricate examination of how ‘the global ocean acts as a natural force that pushes maritime capital [first commercial, then industrial] to develop new ways of recruiting and disciplining an international workforce, while reinventing novel forms of racialization, coercion and regulation’ (p. 114).

Chapter 4 on appropriation empirically focusses on the appropriation of fish, on who owns the fish and how fish became a commodity. They theorize the appropriation of marine life through mobilizing Jason Moore’s work on commodity frontiers by showing how in fisheries these processes play out through the geographical expansion of fishing fleets into new territories combined with technological development in the means of extraction. Drawing on the centrality of the state in the production and reproduction of commodity frontiers, they introduce the notion of pelagic imperialism, defined as ‘a process whereby powerful states directly or indirectly provide economic and geopolitical support for their fishing capital to expand into distant water’ (p.184). They mobilize the ‘essential yet contradictory’ (Capps, 2016: 458) social relation of modern landed property to concretely examine how the state mediates capital’s access to the sea and its resources.

Chapter 5 explores logistics and provides a wide-ranging analysis of ‘the dynamics of shipping enterprises as capitals-in- competition, and the strategies deployed in this competitive struggle’ (p. 218). The chapter adds yet another layer to the conception of the rise and reproduction of capitalism in and through the sea, by opening with a theorization of ‘annihilation of time by sea’. Campling and Colás emphasize how in historical capitalism this annihilation is only ever ‘incomplete’, because ‘oceanic movement is far from “smooth” or “flat”’ (p. 215) and is rather the subject of ‘multiple forms of friction’ (p. 214). These frictions, and the resulting bitter struggle amongst capitals-in-competition, has a central component which is ‘the tendency towards concentration and centralization’ of capital with the state playing ‘a decisive role in competitive accumulation’ (p. 215).

Finally, the last chapter sheds light on the murky offshore world by moving through the role of the offshore in various forms through the history of capitalist development—from colonial outposts to contemporary fiscal paradises. Analysing the offshore as a particular juridical-political function and as a ‘general historical-sociological practice’ (p. 269) pivotal for capitalist development, allows the authors to examine the offshore not merely in terms of the benefits and luxury it provides for society’s elites (as tax havens, tourism destinations) or as a space of brutally discarding and/or exploitation of surplus populations from metropoles to colonies, but also in terms of how the ocean has always functioned as dumping grounds of pollutants.

The book’s concluding reflections, titled Terraqueous Horizons, dwell on the political lessons to be drawn from the analysis ‘for democratic projects seeking to transcend capitalist social relations’ (p. 312). The authors cover how a terraqueous outlook can or should inform anti-capitalist struggles for emancipation across questions of ‘decarbonization of the world economy to multilateral cooperation, gender equality to different forms of internationalism’ along with the ‘strategic value of stoppage and disruption’ (p. 319). Keeping in mind the enormous challenges and limitations of such struggles, their analysis provides hope for any such anti-capitalists struggles, in that it ‘reminds us that capitalism is only a very recent historical arrival on our shores, and that humanity deserves much more to outlive this upstart social force we ourselves have created than the other way around’ (p. 322).

Both for its academic rigour and political relevance then, this book should be widely read and engaged with by scholars and activists concerned with understanding and changing the role of the sea in our society—and society as a result of it.


Post edited by Siddharth Chakravarty. This is an abridged version of Mads Barbesgaard’s book review of Liam Campling  and Alejandro Colás’ Capitalism and the Sea: The Maritime Factor in the Making of the Modern World.

Image from Verso Books

capitalism and the sea