Karl Marx wrote in 1857, “While capital must strive on the one hand to tear down every local barrier to traffic, i.e. to exchange, and to conquer the whole world as its market, it strives, on the other hand, to annihilate space by means of time, i.e. to reduce to a minimum the time required for the movement (of product) from one place to another.”
If you want a contemporary confirmation of this truth, you need look no further than the giant Taiwanese-owned container ship Ever Given that blocked the Suez Canal.
Marx was writing during what the historian Eric Hobsbawm dubbed the Age of Capital. Industrial capitalism was creating a world economy to serve it.
Technological innovations such as railways and steamships permitted, as Marx put it, “the production of cheap means of transport and communication” as “a condition of production based on capital”.
The construction in Egypt during the 1860s of the Suez Canal linking Asia to the Red Sea and the Mediterranean was part of this process. Britain quickly bought a majority share in the Canal and seized control of Egypt in 1882.
Dominating the Canal helped guarantee the security of London’s key colonial possession —India. It also facilitated the flow of Indian exports to Europe and America, which played a crucial role in balancing Britain’s international payments.
Indian independence in 1947 marked the beginning of the end of the British Empire. Tory prime minister Anthony Eden’s failure to reverse Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser’s 1956 nationalisation of the Suez Canal sounded its death knell.
And the Canal has continued to serve global capitalism, which still innovates in “the means of transport and communication”.
Superficial commentators sometimes claim that globalisation means the “death of geography”. This is nonsense. Container ships move goods along global supply chains stretching from the new production hubs in Asia to the rest of the world. 90 percent of world trade still goes by sea.
And more than 12 percent, borne by an average of 50 ships a day, passes through the Suez Canal.
An article by Brendan Greeley, explains what went wrong with the Ever Given. He stresses that “ships have gotten big, fast” and that in 2007 “the biggest container ships carried 8,000 containers. Some ships are now close to 25,000 containers. The Ever Given carries just over 20,000 containers.”
The ships are getting bigger to cut costs and boost profitability. But physical constraints mean that container ships can’t keep getting longer but have to become wider and stack their cargo higher and higher.
Even a layperson can see how things might go wrong for such an unwieldy vessel in what Greeley calls “basically just a 24 metre deep ditch dug in the ground to let the ocean in”.
The radical scholar Laleh Khalili points out in the Washington Post that ships started to get bigger in response to the blocking of the canal for eight months during the 1956 Suez crisis and for eight years after Israel’s 1967 war with the Arab states. Sending cargoes around the Cape of Good Hope at the tip of Africa to reach their markets takes an additional three weeks.
So increasing ship sizes cut costs. But now one of these mammoth ships has blocked the canal and held up trade worth over £7 billion a day. It may be shifted soon, but shipping companies have approached the US Navy for protection against pirates in the waters off East Africa on the way to the Cape.
And the ships don’t run themselves. They depend on the labour of 1.6 million seafarers. Marx noted the “means of transport and communication” function as “spheres of profit‑creation, of labour organised by capital”.
A shipping boss warned last December of “a hidden humanitarian crisis” and that “lockdown measures have left as many as 400,000 seafarers stranded on their vessels, past the expiry of their contracts.” As the pandemic reminded us, global capitalism rests on human toil.