Sent from Taipei, the last post in a container ship ethnography.
Recent Posts by Charmaine Chua
Post 4 in a series of ethnographic notes sent from the Pacific Ocean.
The bow of the ship is the only place on the Ever Cthulhu that affords a modicum of silence. To get there, you walk down the length of the narrow grey deck, flanked on one side by containers crowded into towering stacks that scrape and creak against each other as the ship cuts through the waves, and on the other by the powerful sweep of a wind so strong that you have to fight not to be blown backwards. At the foremost tip of the ship, you climb a few steps onto a large open deck painted grey and surrounded by giant chains and fat coils of synthetic rope, and suddenly, the mechanical roar of the ship falls away.
Having finally wended our way out of the US ports, the Ever Cthulhu has been traveling across the massive pacific ocean for more than a week now. Yesterday, we cleared the frigid Kamchatka Peninsula. The snow and ice beating against the ship for the past week has melted away, and the deck crew that has been trapped inside cleaning the walls and floors of the accommodations are now back to work on the endless task of the seaman: fighting against perpetual rust. “You know Sissyphus?”, The captain asks one day as we take a walk around the deck. “Working on a ship, it’s like that. You are fighting forever against the saltwater eating away at your vessel. The biggest enemy of the ship is not pirates, it’s corrosion.” Today, the ship has been awash in the sounds of grinding, scraping, hammering and drilling, scraping rust off and painting over it in an endless cycle that repeats itself every two months. All of this is set to the background soundtrack of an endlessly roaring engine that suffuses the air and shakes the accommodations with a throbbing, pulsating, machinic hum.
But on the bow, penned in from the wind and rage by the Ever Cthulhu’s bulwark, you can look outward onto an endless, unbroken horizon of ocean in near quiet, and almost think that the ship is barely moving. A quick step up onto a grilled ladder quickly dismisses this fantasy of a softly drifting ship: peering over the edge of the ship’s prow towards the churning waters below reveals the ship’s bulberous bow, a 1,000 ton snout-like protrusion of pure aerodynamic steel that cuts through the ocean, almost heaving the liquid blue upwards before pushing it back powerfully against the hull, where the waves churn themselves into a cerulean blue froth and then crest outwards in a diagonal wake. I can’t judge how far we are from the ocean’s surface, so I spit into the sea – crude, really – and count the seconds it takes to hit the waves. Seven. By the time it reaches the sea below, my ball of spit has already flown several meters behind me. We are forging ahead at a speed (18 knots per hour) beyond my bodily comprehension of motion. When you are surrounded by nothing but this limitless, shifting, liquid expanse, stretching in all directions for days before hitting land, all distance becomes incalculable.
In gazing at the uniformity of the open sea from the safety of this colossus, it has not ceased to amaze me how much this deep blue, whose liquid nature Carl Schmitt has suggested fundamentally confounds the very bases of political authority and law, constantly exceeds our firmly landed conceptions of territoriality and belonging. For centuries, humans have drawn rhumb lines, navigational routes, and territorial markers across the ocean’s surface, deigning to create roads and map sovereign claims onto inconstant, liquid matter. Yet, in swallowing whole planes such as the as-yet unrecovered Malaysian Airlines MH370, in evading the surveillance technologies we now expect to seamlessly take us to our landed destinations, and in absorbing and folding much of the Anthropocene’s heat into its warming depths, the shifting, turbulent, evasive ontology of the wet ocean contravenes the very idea of a stability-conferring foundation. On the open sea, Schmitt reminds us, there are “no limits, no boundaries, no consecrated sites, no sacred orientations, no law, and no property” – in short, none of the landlocked frameworks through which we might make sense of social and spatial terrain.
What then, to make of a mode of circulation suspended over this watery mass, a mode of circulation anchored in the mobility of these 130,000 ton vessels of solid steel, and relies precisely on the fluidity of the oceans to project extra-territorial power across vast distances? One way I have been approaching this question has been from perspective of quotidian life on the ship. As Cesare Casarino has suggested, after all, oceanic trade and navigation gave rise to a maritime working class that not only provided “the prototype of the associative and organised model of wage labour that was to become dominant under industrial capitalism”, but also anticipated the multinational, multilingual, and multiracial constitution of labour that so characterises the global political economy of our present.
Oceanic labour is globalised labour, though this may be banal point to make. More specifically, perhaps, oceanic labour is labour that experiences a sort of double alienation under circulatory capital: while in the classic Marxist formulation, alienation in the space of the factory dispossesses workers of the means of production, workers on container ships are differentiated from this labour pool in that the spaces they occupy are not spaces of production, but of circulation. If in the factory, machines removed the connection or satisfaction workers might have derived from the production of commodities, thus turning labour profoundly abstract, in the logistics circuit, workers are one more step removed. Containers, in their modular, block-like, homogeneous forms, wall off the goods being transported from those bodies transporting them. The container form, then, renders the containerized commodity utterly illegible to the workers charged with guarding and ensuring their movement.
“Do you ever think about what’s in those containers?”, I ask Abled Bodied Seaman (AB) Montez. He shrugs. “No, almost never. Only when I have to check the reefer readings”. On one particularly freezing afternoon, I accompany him on one of these duties. With a clipboard and pen, we climb up and down of the container bays, and in and out of the cargo holds, laboriously looking for the bay, stack, and location of each listed reefer container, cross reference it with the container identification number imprinted on the container, and write down the temperature listed on the tiny monitor embedded in the door. Reefers are refrigerated containers, holding produce that needs to be either frozen or chilled. Except for the faint smell of apples, interlaced with the stench of heavy fuel oil, and a little notation on the clipboard that lists the type of food being carried, Montez knows nothing of the container’s contents – nor does he seem to care – as he weaves in and out of an endless parade of modular steel blocks. Recording all the reefer readings is a process that takes almost four hours, and has to be repeated every day, twice a day.
By the end, icicles have frozen on my eyelashes and our hands are numb. The only containers whose contents are made known to the ship’s crew are these reefers, and containers carrying dangerous cargo – a total of not more than fifteen containers listing ‘environmental pollutants’ or ‘marine pollutants’ – buried deep within the stacks. Other than that, ships no longer carry shipping manifests, so even the captain has no idea what the ship is moving. I learn from one pilot in Tacoma that the Ever Cthulhu is most likely carrying a surfeit of scrap steel and recycled plastic, which explains why the ship has been sitting so low in the water. While on the outbound journey from China to the US, ships are stuffed with manufactured goods being brought to American shelves, but in the other direction, most of what travels east is, the labour theorist Sergio Bologna has noted, “shit and air” – waste products and empty containers. In the end, Montez says of the contents of the containers, rubbing his hands together for warmth, “maybe it’s better not to know”. Untethered from the production process as a whole, further untethered from the content of the commodities they move across the ocean, the workers on the Ever Cthulhu crew neither identify with their jobs nor find connection or interest in the content of the work they perform. The labour of the seaman, subject to the blurred boundaries between production and circulation rendered by the logistics revolution, seems in this sense to be quite literally awash in a sea of flows.
I’ve started taking other jobs on the ship to get closer insight into the rhythms of the workday. The officers, for their part, have been exceedingly generous in giving me the smallest boiler suit in stock (four sizes too large) and steel-capped work shoes (two sizes too big), and jobs with “minimal danger” so that, in the event of an injury, I do not become an insurance nightmare. Once, walking into lunch in my work wear, the entire table of officers bursts into laughter. “What?” I ask, smiling. The Chief mate responds: “Let’s just say that if I was a passenger, even if I was doing research on the ship, I would not bore myself with daily jobs like this. In that suit.”
Escaping from the boredom of daily work life is, however, not a luxury the crew can afford. A container ship’s crew is split into two departments: the deck department works all the jobs above the hull in often debilitating weather conditions, scrubbing, cleaning, wiping, painting, de-rusting, and mooring the ship in the fore and aft when it is coming into harbour. Underneath, in the cavernous engine room that reaches eight stories below deck, the engine department toils – like the subterranean industrial society of H.G. Wells’ Morlocks – in stultifying heat and to the overwhelming roar of the ship’s engine.
One of the jobs I’ve worked (more a burden than a help, I’m sure,) has been to clean the engine room’s cooler – a contraption of hundreds of 8 by 4″ aluminium plates pressed tightly together by two thick steel covers – which pumps cold seawater into a tank that then cools by convection the freshwater circulating around the ship’s gargantuan engine. In four-hour shifts, for twelve hours a day, for four days straight, two workers worked at a time. First, the cooler’s walls are pried apart with a hydraulic pump. Each plate is slid down a rail, separating one from the other. While one worker used a brush to scrape the muck of the ocean caught between the plate walls, the other blasts it off with a high pressure water gun. There are four hundred double-sided plates to clean. Spray, scrape, brush, spray. On and on, hour after hour, the repetitive work starts to become mind numbing, but you cannot afford to wander because the water blaster, at 180 bars, is so powerful that a misdirected spray could cut a finger off. By the end of my four hour shift, I am covered in bits of the sea: little crustaceans, general brown clomps of dirt, and even a tiny silver fish, which the oiler Jonathan grabs and pretends to throw into his mouth.
On one of the days, halfway through the cooler cleaning project, the electrician Yunus alerts the engine department to the fact that there is a giant oil leak in the fuel duct. I wait for the crew to go in and examine the problem, and then crawl into the duct after them. Three ladders below even the lowest level of the engine room, the fuel duct is a tight passageway at the absolute bottom of the ship in the part of the hull submerged underwater, extending across the entire length of the vessel, though not more than four feet high. I step-crawl my way almost 250 meters to the front, where five engine crew are working.
We are in a tight, dimly light part of the duct from which water is dripping. Below me, separated by six-foot long sections of the ship’s steel skeleton, are pools upon pools of heavy fuel oil, jet-black and swirling with water. All this has leaked from a pipe that hasn’t been able to withstand the torsion caused by the past few stormy days on the ocean. The engine crew, rather despondently, is scooping the oil into plastic buckets with the help of a few dustpans and white rags. We crouch on hands and knees, ducking under the leaking fuel pipe that the fitter is desperately trying to repair, and work at clearing the oil in silence.
Heavy fuel oil (or HFO) is the crudest industrial fuel there is, made of a composite of hydrocarbons, the remaining dregs of the oil refinery process. Road tar is made from the same material, but here, over the ocean, the ship guzzles 118 tons of it a day. “Our main engine is a big waste dump”, the chief engineer once told me. Above deck, I have seen the HFO exhaust wafting into the horizon, staining the endless blue with a dirty, darkened smoke. Below deck, the oil is so acrid that it fills the back of my throat with a metallic, biting odour. Three hulking bags of blackened rags and six full buckets of HFO later, we are done with the job, but by then, my eyes and skin are stinging, my fingers stained orange through my gloves. It took four rounds of heavy industrial soap to get the poisonous HFO off my skin, and after three washes, the smell of the oil on my boiler suit still fills my room. I get to step off the ship in two weeks, but this is the sort of work that the engine department performs everyday: the tedious, banal, poisonous work of cleaning and maintenance.
Adem, the oldest wiper on the ship and a man with a philosophical disposition, encapsulates it this way: “dangerous, but boring. One hundred percent boring”. In cycles, each time a ship leaves port, engine and deck crews both rush around the ship to restore and maintain the ship, prolonging its life for as long as possible. Even the idea of ‘caring for the ship’, however, seldom guides the working mentalities of Ever Cthulhu‘s crew. Instead, “just follow orders” is the oft-repeated mantra. “Follow orders, finish the contract, go home to your family”, the fitter says. The captain has told me of parties and receptions held by chartering companies for the shareholders who hold stakes in the spanking new ships churned out of shipyards in eastern Europe and South Korea every few months, champagne and appetisers poured out for laughing guests. After the glamor of shipbuilding, after the enthralling rush of invention and innovation, maintenance is the leftover, dirty, dangerous but dull work left to the maritime working class. As if caught between immense parentheses, the seaman cannot claim to have built this world, only to help move it back and forth, and back again. Teddy bears and computer parts, shit and air, revolve around the earth because of the toil of sailors who care not why they are there – only that they will be home soon.
It is 3am on a Wednesday when we pick up the Port Angeles pilot who will take the ship through the Puget Sound. All day, we have been sailing through a fog that has hung so thickly around the ship that it has seemed we are drifting through clouds. The fog has delayed our pilot by four hours: sailing through the Puget Sound’s narrow channel is already a formidable task, made Herculean by the fact that no one can see past the ship’s nose. Take that, multiply it by the fact that the port of Tacoma is situated in a tight bottleneck of an inlet, that an unusual volume of vessels are docked in anchorages clogging passage to the port, and that the captain is being hounded by the charterer to get us to berth on time, and you get the shipper’s molotov cocktail. Short of risking navigating by radar, avoiding ships via yellow blips on a screen, waiting the fog out is the best option. At dinner, the captain sighs. “Fog, congestion, work slowdowns: at this rate, we will never get to China.”
There is a massive traffic jam on the ocean, and the Ever Cthulhu is stuck in the thick of it. Already, we have been delayed for almost two weeks: the ship stayed for five days longer than the forecasted two in both Oakland and Los Angeles, and is expected to be in Tacoma for ten. Regularity, it turns out, can no longer be expected in the logistics industry, and my 26-day trip on the Ever Cthulhu is turning into a 40-day one. All along the West Coast, ports and berths have been choked with vessels in every terminal, and waiting ships have crowded into anchorages for days in far higher numbers than the captain has ever seen. Imagine the ripple effects of all this congestion: if a single ship takes six days longer than the usual 2.5 to be unloaded at berth, and ships that have been waiting experience those same delays when their turn at berth arrives, those backlogs reverberate outward in unfathomable ways, affecting ships’ travel times to other ports around the world, trucking rates inland, air freight pricing, rail service delays across the U.S., and the availability of empty containers in China.
The reasons for this coast-wide congestion are unclear. In July, when the current International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) contract ran out, more than 70 multinational maritime companies and ocean carriers represented by the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) began to negotiate a new contract with the ILWU for the 29 U.S. West Coast ports in its jurisdiction. The process soon turned ugly. The PMA blamed the increasing port congestion on an organised work slowdown by the union, alleging that the ILWU was deliberately not dispatching enough gangs to the waterfront. The union vehemently denied this, and countered that the PMA was deliberately mounting a smear campaign against them by cutting the number of workers at terminals and cancelling critical night shifts that would speed the cargo operations. The media, of course, lapped this all up, blaming rotten agricultural productions, anchored ships, and delayed shipment arrivals on the ILWU, one outlet going so far as to ask whether longshoremen were “spoiling Christmas”.
In truth, wider structural problems pervade the shipping industry. A massive shortage and mismanagement of truck chassis has prevented the much needed frames from reaching the right places at the right times. The deplorable working conditions of truck drivers who cannot make a living wage has led to a shortage of a port-wide trucking pool, leading to personnel shortages that have slowed down the delivery of containers to distribution centres inland. Rail car delays have slowed the movement of containers from docks to more distant locations. These setbacks have led to container terminals reaching their storage capacities, but these factors barely scratch the surface of the current logistics crisis.
“The problem”, the chief engineer tells me as we sip on tepid instant coffee at breakfast, “is that everyone wants to build bigger and bigger ships. They cannot stop themselves. One builds a big ship, the other wants to catch up. On and on it goes.” In fact, ports worldwide are only just beginning understand the impact of this growing presence of mega-ships. Terminals originally built to discharge cargo from an earlier era of ship sizes (5,000 TEUs and below) are now struggling to handle cargo from ships that in 2005, had twice, and now in 2015, four times those carrying capacities with the recent delivery of the CSCL Globe, currently the world’s largest, that can carry a massive 19,000 TEUs. Of course, explains the chief engineer, “the thing is that with bigger ships, the number of ports you can call at are becoming lesser and lesser”.
But while shipping companies are racing to build the biggest mega-ships to drive down their unit costs, most ports – even the largest ones such as Los Angeles-Long Beach – are ill equipped to handle these mammoths efficiently. In 2013, the port of LA completed a 10-year, $370 million Main Channel Deepening Project that lowered basin depths from 45 to 53-feet to handle the introduction of larger vessels. Hundreds of cranes are being raised by as much as 30 feet to work the latest generation of mega-ships. And $1 billion has been dedicated towards replacing the port of Long Beach’s Gerald Desmond Bridge to accommodate the larger ships that pass underneath it. All ports fear being replaced by some other quicker passage, so they invest billions to remain competitive. With the much-anticipated opening of the newly expanded Panama Canal in 2016, the west coast is scrambling to ensure that ships will not be rerouted to the east coast ports.
There is an odd, god-like desire to manipulate space in all of this, terraforming land to create new terminals and ports in some places, blowing up islands to make way for ships in others, slicing land open to create waterways, letting the earth’s open sores bleed at massive costs to human and animal habitats, all for the faster transaction time. “It’s a self-made crisis, really”, says the captain, shaking his head. And so it goes. Massive infrastructural developments chase giant ships, and ports have come to epitomise the intensification and expansion of capital’s supply lines in their physical congealing of sovereignty and capitalism.
Supply Chain Vulnerabilities
I have twice observed the process of getting the ship safely to harbour from the bridge (the ship’s command centre) now, so for this arrival, I run down to the fore of the ship to watch the crew tossing out the mooring lines. As tugboats nudge the ship closer to the edge of the berth, I count five longshoremen waiting on the otherwise-empty waterfront. If you’ve ever tried tossing a line to someone on a pier to moor a little boat, imagine the same process working with six ropes, 3 inches in diameter and 300 meters long, made of thick woven plastic, being tossed ten stories down and across a stretch of water. A smaller lead rope is thrown out first. The OS (ordinary seaman, or the starting position on a ship’s deck crew) misses thrice, and has to reel the line back in each time to try again. The longshoremen below cuss at the crew, who cuss back. It takes almost fifteen minutes just to get the ropes safely to the waiting longshoremen below. They hoist them onto shore and haul them over the bollards. Then they leave. No other workers are here. For the rest of the day, the port is a shroud of silence. Any illusions I had about the synchronised machinery of the port swinging immediately into gear have disappeared. I take a deck chair to the bridge to sit in the sun and read.
A quiet port is logistics’ nightmare. As the Ever Cthulhu plods through its US ports of call, I realize that I am directly encountering the vulnerability of a supply chain that constantly faces the threat of disruption. Experiencing logistical life in this way has only confirmed for me that logistics is, as Alberto Toscano has recently put it, no more than a fantasy of full visibility, integral flexibility, and ultimately, control over supply chain flows.
This, then, is the Achilles heel of the logistics industry: Built on precisely-timed coordination between shippers and suppliers, the system is so vulnerable that what might have been a minor shock in the past today produces a domino effect that has worldwide echoes. Logistics relies on constant, uninterrupted flow. It is a system built on “just-in-time” networks of pull production and distribution, where supply replenishes in response to consumer demand in order to reduce the costs of standing inventories, bring products to market faster, and thereby accelerate the circulation of both commodities and the credit used to purchase them. Logistics circuits constantly face the threat of volatile interruptions, disruptions, and failures. In the perpetual race for larger, better, more automated, more innovative port and ship infrastructures, the spectacle of the technical sublime meets its other in week-long traffic jams on the Pacific Ocean.
In her brilliant The Deadly Life of Logistics, Deborah Cowen shows us that one of the most powerful transformations of the logistics revolution was that it allowed contemporary capitalism to assume the form of the supply chain, ordered not by the piecemeal management of individual firms, but by spatio-temporal logics that disaggregate the component parts of production and distribution so as to bring them back together within a complex spatial arrangement that stretches the factory across highly uneven economic and political domains. In other words, in order for the supply chain to flourish as a locus for profit maximization, logistics must be managed as a totality, or not at all.
The upshot of all this is that since sites of production can always be moved elsewhere, hyper-exploiting different sets of largely unorganized workers in the global south and undermining labour’s bargaining power in the global north, the logistics revolution is not only concerned with the movement of commodities, but also plays a critical role in controlling and undermining labour power. This is precisely why logistics workers have been scapegoated for the west coast’s recent congestion problems: rather than understanding ILWU contract negotiations as a fundamental exercise of workers’ rights and a necessary bargaining tool to safeguard their wages and benefits, mainstream media has instead screamed about the economic damage that these alleged slowdowns have caused, often neglecting the fact that port employers themselves, via the PMA, have falsely blamed on labour-related problems what are in fact larger infrastructural challenges in ports unable to sustain growing shipping volumes. To attribute larger structural problems to ‘challenges related to the labour force’, as the PMA’s last annual report alleged, has in fact allowed shipping companies to generate the appearance of crisis so as to garner support from both the public and politicians, driving the public’s ire instead towards those workers who move the world’s goods.
Labour and Automation
I have been taking all the extra time that the Ever Cthulhu has been stuck in ports to meet and talk to dockworkers. At the port of Oakland, I sat in a shuttle bus with broken doors on a seat held together with masking tape chatting with Shannon, a seventeen-year veteran of the ILWU. I asked Shannon why the PMA seems to have been blaming workers for the slowdowns. Pulling her gloves off in frustration, she said:
They want to put it on the ILWU anytime it comes to things like this, because it’s a joint operation between the employers and us, so if I can shift the blame over to someone else, that’s what I’ll do. So, that’s what they’re doing, and it takes the blame off the companies from the businesses that want whatever they have in those containers. They’re wondering, “why can’t I get my stuff?” And the companies want to put that on us.
In the grand scheme, it is not a problem for capital, always seeking ever-shorter transition times, to reroute its flows through other maritime passages. Ports are critical gateways to inland markets, but goods can always be relocated and moved elsewhere. As a symbol of how disruptions can threaten the supply chain system, then, the quiet port is logistics’ nightmare, but the particular quiet port generates a moment of crisis, allowing regional operators to capitalise on the fear of competition to generate major dollars for investment in automation and technology, which they require to compete with innovating ports elsewhere.
Labour, of course, is the inconvenient factor in all of this. Said one rather snarky marine transportation analyst: “The Stone Age didn’t end because they ran out of stones.” For terminal handlers and shipping companies, if automation can move cargo at least as efficiently as manual labour but at a fraction of the cost of high-priced longshore labour, terminals in the U.S. will eventually choose to replace humans with machines. Under this rubric, humans are the unreliable ‘challenge’ whose removal will allow managers to regulate the efficiency of container transport. For logistics, automation is stability, and therefore the threat of labour disruption, rather than read as an exercise of fundamental democracy, is seen in economic terms as an ‘inefficiency’. As Deborah Cowen (Deadly Life of Logistics, p. 80) puts it:
The use of labour disruptions as a means to quantify attacks on the supply chain follows directly from the prior move of positing global trade as vital to national security. It allows for the exchangeability of radically different acts and actors, which have in common only the threat they pose to smooth circulation. A legal act asserting workplace democracy, when viewed through the lens of supply chain security, is not just like an attack, it is an attack on the integrity of flows.
Configured in this way, labour struggles are depoliticised in the logistics narrative, stripped of their historical and political contexts, and reduced to a problem for the supply chain. Where smooth flow is king, even democratic contestation and political intervention can be read as a threat to be eliminated in the name of national security.
Shannon tells me that although companies want to get rid of the human factor, automated terminals have experienced great setbacks in implementation:
I just know that different terminals now, with their automated systems in play, it hasn’t proved a hundred percent positive. Things keep breaking down, they can’t figure out how to make things work. So I can’t say that it would be in their better judgment to put machines in place of humans, when they have Trapac in LA, which is automated, but they aren’t moving work. They can’t do it as fast as we do. They can’t, when it’s computerized. They’re running these containers through computerized systems right now. Every one of these numbers means something, but when they have a machine to talk to instead of the human being, it’s going to create problems. It’s a process of elimination, that’s what it is – and they are putting in more money to put broken machines into play than actually paying people.
Shannon’s account is fascinating for a number of reasons, not least of which is her tacit recognition that the logistics network is – for the time being – being stymied in far more significant ways by its own internal problems than it is by organised political disruption. All over the world, terminals convinced that automation is the way to go have been experiencing similar setbacks: A surge of arrival delays in Hamburg last spring created massive backups when exporters continued to deliver containers to the port. In Rotterdam, the implementation of newly automated terminal systems caused weeks of severe congestion. And in October last year, Mumbai experienced a storm of delays when a terminal could not smoothly integrate a new crane operating system. For Shannon, as perhaps for many workers in this industry, the business management gurus who tout port automation as an inevitable eventuality of irrefutable economic sense have certainly not squared their technocratic expectations with the messy realities on the ground.
New Promises for International Solidarity?
At this point, it is important to distinguish between how one might think of the effects of automation on the restructuring of labour in factories (the traditional Marxist site for thinking the antagonistic relations of capitalist production) and logistics chains. We know from Marx that automation threatens living labour not only by directly replacing it with machines, but also by disciplining workers with the threat that automation – and thus job loss – presents. In the planetary scope of global supply chains, however, automation and technological innovation have not only restructured the labour force, but brought it into new geopolitical relation. Shipping companies are beginning to offshore the cognitive work of clerical planning (e.g. plotting the precise algorithms which determine which containers go where on a ship, and when), separating it by oceans from the manual labour of crane driving and intermodal transport, such that a clerical worker in Shenzhen might create the loading plan for a ship in Los Angeles, a captain on a ship receives directives from both the charterer in Germany and the shipping company in Taiwan, and so on and so forth.
On the one hand, then, the logistical chain has capitalised on work simplification and a division of labour which, as Adam Smith described long ago, separates conception from execution, substantially monopolising cognitive labour within the hands of specialists while relegating relatively unskilled labour to manual, routinised work. On the other, these technologies have also brought into relation previously disparate and unconnected parts of the supply chain into one highly integrated (though nevertheless uneven) system at an unseen scale, constituting “the very possibility for the transnational intermodal integration of diverse forms of work and infrastructures” (Cowen, p. 113). Some scholars see this global integration as potentially promising, suggesting that logistics workers can capitalise on their strategic positions along the key nodal points of global trade to actively pursue international solidarity within the supply chain in ways that were not possible before.
This promise of a new form of international solidarity may seem optimistic, but we should never forget that critical theory alone cannot achieve this goal; actively organising around it can. While on the Ever Cthulhu, I have seen how easily rifts between various groups of workers can arise. The officers and crew on the ship, wanting for more information about why they are being made to wait in the US ports, have assumed that it is the fault of the longshore workers who “get paid so much more than we do, yet are always causing trouble!” After another morning during which the port superintendent reports that cargo loading operations will be cut in half, the chief mate opines: “these workers should be afraid.” He cites the opening of the Panama Canal that may redirect Chinese imports/exports to the east coast, the comparatively ‘superior’ efficiency of ports in Canada and Mexico, and the increasing automation of terminals that will “maybe replace these guys, finally”. Perhaps understandably, the chief mate’s account is situated in a world where hierarchies and boundaries between management and workers facilitate the running of his ship, but it woefully misses recognition of the broader context of worker struggles, and the historically hard-fought battle of the ILWU to win the best standards, work practices and benefits in the nation.
As Peter Olney, retired organising director of the ILWU International noted in an excellent analysis of the 2002 ILWU lockout, the biggest challenge for the ILWU is not to resist the implementation of new technology so much as it is to organise within and without the jurisdiction: “Whether work is covered or not is not the issue; the issue is to organise”. Under the threat that the PMA will encroach on the union’s jurisdiction over the waterfront, Olney argues that the union should expand its notion of ‘longshore and warehouse’ work to the broader supply chain, since nothing prohibits the union from organising work that an arbitrator has ruled to be outside its jurisdiction. In this sense, the most formidable challenge for the ILWU in particular, and logistics labour in general, may well be to broaden the conception of longshore and warehousing work across the vast supply chain that has linked clerical, warehouse, trucking, drayage, and rail workers across a transnationally integrated-yet-differentiated network.
Solidarity, in other words, is not automatic. It must be built, and the challenge of doing so in an industry where different groups of workers only interact briefly before ships sail and crews rotate over and over again is formidable. Various groups have already begun this work. The Industrial Workers of the World are currently assessing how to better organise around supply chains and have launched a nation-wide UPS campaign toward this endeavour, the Workers Solidarity Alliance has launched an international solidarity campaign for better working conditions in Amazon?s Polish warehouses, and Empire Logistics, a research collaborative, is mapping the global supply chain in order to provide useful and accessible mapping data that can facilitate collective actions and solidarity among related struggles.
In a logistics industry constantly on roller skates, moving sites of distribution to intermodal facilities and ports all around the world, even workers at these crucial chokepoints are no longer ‘safe’ from the mendacities of capitalism. In shipping companies’ minds, automation mitigates the unpredictability of ‘the labour factor’, even though automating projects around the world have continually failed and created more problems than they have solved. In the narrow view, and in the short run, this all makes perfect sense for shipping companies. Employers, preoccupied with how to run things smoothly, continue to despair about the shortage of skilled workers, even as they have continued to automate. But that automation is being implemented into the circuit with great friction, causing far more delays than companies have anticipated. David Noble points out (albeit in a different context) the kicker in this feverish rush towards automation and technological revolution: “Thus, the shortage of skilled workers, engendered in part by automation itself, had now become the supreme justification for more automation. Before long, this inverted wisdom became gospel among managers throughout the industry”.
Yet, as Shannon noted in her last words before she drove off in the shuttle back to the terminal gate, workers have not lost their ability to fight:
We move a lot of weight, us workers, and we only get 1% of what these companies make here. Real talk, we keep the world running. Yet somehow people think we are the ones being unreasonable. Only, we’re not automatons. We’re people. We get hurt on the job all the time, we get killed, we get blown up. I’ve seen my friend’s leg sliced off from a cable that snapped. We’re not machines, and if the companies want to replace us with ones, we’re going to fight the battle all the way.
Lest we think that the burgeoning of logistical mega-structures auger the inevitable demise of worker power, we should remember that how and when technology becomes adopted and used is a deeply political question, not simply a technocratic one. The challenge for critical theorists must thus be to ask: what are the social forms and political challenges that condition and create contestations within the space of logistics circulation? And how may they be mobilised towards building new possibilities for global solidarity? Nothing, of course, is inevitable. As I write this, the Tacoma terminal is coming to a halt at 5pm instead of continuing to run its operations late into the night. The lights of the gantry cranes have shut off, the ship is wrapping into darkness, and the containers lying in rows all around me will not be delivered to their destinations at the expected times. There is, perhaps perversely, a comfort I find in this.
The following post is the first in a series of oceanic dispatches from Charmaine Chua. She recently completed a 36-day journey on board a 100,000 ton Evergreen container ship starting in Los Angeles, going across the Pacific Ocean and ending in Taipei.
“In civilizations without boats, dreams dry up, espionage takes the place of adventure, and the police take the place of pirates.”
There is uncanny beauty in the monstrous. This, at least, is the feeling that seizes me as I stand under the colossal Ever Cthulhu berthed in the Port of Los Angeles. The ship’s hull alone rises eight stories into the air; even from a distance, I am unable to capture its full length or height within a single camera frame. In describing the ship to my friends and my family, I have sought to make adequate comparisons between its size and more familiar objects: The Ever Cthulhu is 333 meters (1,100 ft) long, 43 meters (141 ft) across, and 70 meters (230 ft) high. It is taller than an eighteen-story building, the Arc De Triomphe, or Niagara Falls. It as long as a line of seventy cars, the Eiffel Tower tipped on its side, two Roman Colosseums, four New York City blocks, or six and half White Houses. I’ve had a lot of practice picturing this ship. Even so, when I am finally at the foot of its immense mass, I can scarcely believe that this monstrosity will be my home for the next 36 days.
I have entered the port’s gateway with very little fuss. As a Singaporean who has lived in the US for the last ten years, I am well acquainted with long lines, laborious checkpoints, and stern homeland security agents who scrutinize my passport with wary questions. This time, I banter with two female security guards at the Evergreen terminal in the port of Los Angeles whose only suspicion is why anyone would want to take the journey I’m on, and board a shuttle bus that drives down a lane flanked by multi-colored containers stacked four high and scores deep, forming long passages along which trucks and cranes stop to pick up their loads. We pass forklifts, spreaders, and trucks with empty chassis, which sweep past in well-oiled synchrony. Less than a 2-minute drive later, I am deposited at the foot of the ship, and I still haven’t shown anyone a passport. Staring up at the vessel, feeling dwarfed by the legs of the gantry cranes that loom far above us, I am directed to a steep and narrow metal gangway ascending seven stories to the deck – the only connection between the ship and land – which shakes and bounces as I drag my suitcase up its 59 steps.
A tired-looking seaman in work coveralls greets me at the top. Shortly after, the steward appears – t-shirt, jeans, flip flops, an insouciant half-smile – and leads me through a hatch and into the “castle,” the building-like structure on a ship that houses the accommodations, offices, two mess rooms, two recreation rooms, a kitchen, a gym, a swimming pool, a sauna, and most importantly, the bridge, the room at the top of the castle where the ship’s navigation and command takes place. In comparison to its mammoth exterior, the ship’s interior feels like an office – a quick transition from the mighty to the mundane. The hallways are not wide enough for two people to walk abreast; the doors are heavy and swung tightly shut; there are no other people in sight. We enter a tiny elevator (“huge by ship standards!” the Chief Officer later informs me) to my cabin on G deck, seven floors above the gangway, and the highest level of accommodations. I am placed in the cabin that used to house the supercargo. Until the mid-nineteenth century, the supercargo was the second most important person on the ship, next only to the captain. This person was employed to oversee the cargo, manage all merchandise, and sell it in port. Today, the position has become almost obsolete in a shipping industry ruled by complex mega-structural frameworks running large datasets through computers in a clerical office, which ensure a continuous circulation of freight between sites of production and major consumption markets. Which parties transport, receive, and sell the freight has been determined well before stowage begins.
What is left of the job is this cabin: a splendid room with a long couch, a large double-door wardrobe, an L-shaped desk, a TV and DVD player, a double bed with a large side table, and a modest bathroom, which big ships can now rent out to paying passengers. I unpack quickly and head to the bridge to watch the last of the cargo being loaded, where I am afforded a 360-degree view of the buzzing port. The fore and aft of the ship are being stacked with containers 6 high, 17 across, and I have quickly lost count of how many deep. I count the seconds: it takes the massive gantry cranes less than a minute to stack each container. A skilled crane operator drives a carriage that slides back and forth, picks a container up from the waiting truck below, slides forward with it dangling from its massive arms, and gently deposits it into its designated slot on the ship. In red, evergreen, orange and blue, they unfurl in front of and behind me as if I am in a giant modular playground. I have found that I do not grow tired of staring at them.
Perhaps we have grown used to being in awe of monumental instruments of control. After all, the Champs- Élysées, that sprawling Parisian avenue of beauty, was part of Haussmann’s post-1848 renovation strategy to make the erection of barricades impossible, and to furnish the shortest route between the barracks and the workers’ districts. But if, as Benjamin suggests, the 19th-century bourgeoisie’s dominance was to “find its apotheosis within the framework of the boulevards,” today’s infrastructural godsend for capitalism may well be the container ship: With a carrying capacity of 8,100 TEUs (or twenty-foot equivalent units – the length of a standard container – although today 40-footers are the norm) that can shoulder a total weight of 101,000 tons, the Ever Cthulhu would require a 40-mile line of trucks to transport all its cargo. When it was built in 2006, it was the largest ship in the world. Less than a year later, Maersk introduced a new ship class with a capacity almost double that volume, and today, owns the world’s largest ships at carrying capacities of 18,000 TEUs each. Post-Panamax carriers such as the Ever Cthulhu – ships that exceed the maximum dimension that can fit in the Panama canal – comprise 16% of the world’s fleet, but carry more than 45% of seaborne goods. While maritime shipping companies endeavor to use the largest container ships possible in order to benefit from economies of scale, however, port infrastructure and equipment has not always been able to expand commensurate with the needs of these vessels: deepened harbors, faster loading and unloading times, better intermodal infrastructure, and skilled labor that can keep apace with rapidly changing port machinery are all demanded, but the large capital investment required to perform these tasks has posed severe limitations to the unmitigated expansion of ship sizes.
The captain tells me that the Ever Cthulhu, like all other ships, never stops for a break. It continues traversing the globe’s surface in 45-day rotations, reaching one end of its route and turning around almost immediately. Container ships are monuments that move, and 100, 000 of them ply the oceans at any given moment. In 2014, the Ever Cthulhu traveled a total of 103,000 sea miles — halfway to the moon. All that distance, all that steel, all that power. Yet, even ships as large as these require very little human labor: a few seamen to navigate, engineers to monitor the ship’s internal workings, others to keep watch, clean, fit, change the oil. The Ever Cthulhu itself has a crew of 22 men – four German, one Polish, seventeen Filipino, and one passenger: myself. Across the world’s ocean, 1.5 million invisible seafarers toil on three to nine month contracts to bind the world together through trade, though they remain, for the most part, isolated in their cabins and mess rooms, retained on precarious short-term contracts, and kept away from their families – indeed, from most of the world. The third mate, a young Filipino, tells me that all his sacrifices are worth it for a salary that pays much more than he could possibly hope for on land. In some sense then, as a container of both aspiration and drudgery, one might think of the ship more as a space than an object; a floating island of both hard labor and the possibility of better futures. It is no wonder that Foucault calls the ship the “heterotopia par excellence”:
“the boat is a floating piece of space, a place without a place, that exists by itself, that is closed in on itself and at the same time is given over to the infinity of the sea…the boat has not only been for our civilization, from the sixteenth century until the present, the great instrument of economic development, but has been simultaneously the greatest reserve of imagination.”
From wide boulevards to floating archipelagoes, material infrastructures work everywhere, in under-examined ways, as networks that allow us to live, to dream, and to desire — but in circulating and drawing resources from across great international distances, also proliferate great inequalities and political technologies of rule.
As part of my dissertation project to investigate the links between logistics infrastructures, supply chain labor and uneven development, I have booked my passage on the Ever Cthulhu for 100 Euros a night. Beginning its journey in Los Angeles, the ship will stop in the nearby ports of Oakland and Tacoma, and then make its way west across the North Pacific Ocean, before reaching the east coast of China. There, it will stop at the ports of Kao Hsiung, Yan Tian and Hong Kong before reaching its final destination in Taipei, 36 days after leaving LA.
This trans-pacific passage is of particular interest to me because it is by far North America’s largest trade lane, and accounts for nearly twenty million TEUs in U.S. trade alone. This U.S.-China market is dominated by large U.S. retailers such as Wal-Mart, Target, Best Buy, and Home Depot – companies notorious for cutting labor costs by using the enhanced mobility of labor to shift work to third parties, erecting cruel hierarchies in both their Chinese factories and U.S. stores. Transoceanic shipping is, in large part, responsible for these widening inequalities: since shipping operates beyond the territorial spaces governed by labor regulations, it allows corporations to do away with the hard-fought democratic and labor rights struggled for and earned within local labor contexts. The internationalization of the supply chain, in other words, is aided by increasing innovations in the speed and efficiency of the shipping market. As a result, circulation has been folded into the production process, becoming a field of experimentation for value-generation in its own right. Of course, there are highly uneven aspects to this story of logistics. Even as members of the International Longshore and Workers Union negotiate their contract under embattled circumstances on the west coast of North America, indentured truck drivers struggle against overwhelming legal barriers to unionization in Oakland and LA, port workers in mushrooming Chinese ports can scarcely dream of ILWU wages or safeguards, and factory workers around the world toil under the poverty line. The world of logistics looks very different indeed from the perspective of Taiwan, California, or the Ocean.
Ethnography may be an unseemly choice against this dizzying and daunting backdrop of structural transformations. I do not know how much I will find out, how much will make sense, or how much will be useful. I am cautious about being the only woman on the ship; more cautious still about the potentially arrogant, certainly intrusive position of the paying passenger-researcher on board. There are some things I do know: Seafaring work is an endeavor practically invisible to all of us who benefit from the toil of sailors, and remains one of the most contingent, yet internationally diverse forms of labor. The embodied experience of traveling across the ocean is a journey few have taken in the decades since air travel. We know that capital fantasizes about the annihilation of space and time as its moves goods from space to space, but I want to experience the long, slow journey that is responsible for moving ninety percent of the world’s trade. In ways that may never make it to a page, I imagine that this feeling of being afloat, suspended between continents, trying to understand value in motion from one of its most liminal spaces, will stay with me long after I am done researching.
We sail into the port of Oakland on New Years’ eve. That night, the captain opens the ‘slop chest’ – the onboard storage room from which the crew can buy beer, wine, and cigarettes. For the special occasion, he has even gone on shore and brought back a 2-litre bottle of whiskey, even though hard liquor has now been prohibited on Evergreen ships. As we near the midnight hour, the chief officer makes an announcement for everyone to come up to the bridge, where we have an uninterrupted view of the San Francisco skyline. Champagne is handed out to everyone; some are in t-shirts and shorts, others in work coveralls, still others dressed in shirts and pants for the occasion. At 11:59:50, we count down from ten together, and then watch as fireworks leap into the air from the San Francisco shore. Some of us have just met; others have been stuck in the same box for six months or more. But as we watch the world celebrate from a distance, cocooned by the ship’s glass windows and thick steel walls, it feels, at least for a moment, like we have embraced each other as a village.
 At Evergreen’s request, in order to have obtained IRB approval for my research on board, I have agreed to withhold the name of the ship and the identity of its crew members. Ever Cthulhu is moniker; I could not resist paying tribute to sea monsters. NB: As you may have noticed in the first picture, the name emblazoned across the ship is “Hatsu”, a shipping company that has since 2007 been merged into the Evergreen line.