The World the Suez Canal MadeRoundup
tags: capitalism, Suez Canal, globalization, Shipping, Middle East history
Aaron Jakes is Assistant Professor of History at the New School for Social Research, and the author of Egypt’s Occupation: Colonial Economism and the Crises of Capitalism (Stanford University Press, 2020)
On Monday afternoon, the Ever Given was floating again. After six days of excavation, dredging, and mounting international panic, the massive container ship finally came unstuck from where it was wedged in the banks of the Suez Canal. Last week, as the number of vessels waiting at either end of the Canal rose and the costs of the disruption to supply chains continued to grow, sensational headlines described the Egyptian channel opened in 1869 as “the world’s jugular vein.”
To extend the metaphor: the grounding of the Ever Given had delivered a debilitating stroke to global commerce. In the midst of a pandemic that has disrupted commerce worldwide, a stubborn clot in one strategic locale threatened lasting damage to the health of economies everywhere.
While blood circulates evenly throughout a healthy body, delivering benefits and removing waste, the Suez Canal does not. Instead, it has functioned as a powerful technology for directing the benefits of global integration toward some places while offloading the dire costs onto others. And while its nineteenth-century creators boasted of its speed, that was not a universal benefit: the Canal has always worked to block some kinds of movement while accelerating the passage of others.
Shipping delays of this magnitude wreak havoc on supply chains and commodity prices. The revelation that some of the stranded containers held urgently needed medical supplies for combatting COVID-19 only heightened the urgency for those struggling to free the ship. The drama that unfolded around the Ever Given, like the pandemic that preceded it, confirms the basic fact that distant regions of the globe are more intertwined than ever before.
But the proliferation of vascular metaphors by journalists reporting the disaster also revealed the ease with which we misunderstand how global capitalism works. As the Ever Given remained wedged in place, daily tabulations figured the costs of the disruption in gigantic global aggregates. Such figures, too, can be misleading. That a cargo ship running aground can be felt by consumers thousands of miles away from Suez does not mean that the economic effects of a disaster like this are the same everywhere. And the endless, naive rediscovery that our world is interconnected actually tells us very little about how those connections came about, why they are organized in the ways that they are, and what they might mean for people living in different parts of a profoundly unequal world.
Indeed, for some, the debacle in the Canal last week appeared more like a cause for celebration. When news of the Ever Given’s misfortune began to spread, Russia’s State Nuclear Energy Corporation, Rosatom, seized the opportunity to poke fun at shippers whose reliance on passage through the Suez Canal had landed them in such peril. For several years now, shipping concerns in Russia and several other countries around the Arctic Ocean have been boosting the use of thick-hulled, nuclear-powered icebreakers to chart new routes through the cracks and channels in polar ice sheets that continue to multiply as global temperatures rise. In touting the virtues of redirecting maritime traffic through these shorter northern routes, Rosatom was in fact continuing a very long tradition of international competition over the organization of global travel and the enormous profits that it confers.
Russian glee in this regard reminds us that the Suez Canal was always one of several choices for moving goods around the world. Unlike an actual human vein, there is nothing natural about the location of “the world’s jugular,” or the crucial role it plays in global trade. The purpose of the Suez Canal, from the perspective of both the Egyptian state and its European investors, was not simply to render the world more interconnected and international transport more efficient, but to extract transit fees from the ships passing through it. In this regard, the Canal’s completion marked a significant, if far from singular or decisive, moment in an ongoing struggle to direct shipping along some routes rather than others.
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