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Burial at Sea

by | March 20, 2018

A glance at the results of the Italian election in March confirms that the trend towards the populist right continues to gather strength in Europe. Support for the Five Star Movement sharply increased in the southern regions and in the islands particularly. 

I had visited the sulphurous, ash-laden city of Catania in Sicily a year earlier. In the capital, Palermo, the authorities could no longer deny the persistence of Cosa Nostra after Giuseppe Dainotti, a local capo, had been shot in the head while riding a bicycle in broad daylight. 

On the island of Lampedusa, where the coffins of drowned refugees are ceaselessly amassed in air hangars, urns were filled with votes for Di Maio, who had pledged to end migrant rescue operations, while other candidates had promised mass deportations in their electoral campaigns. 

In the heart of the Mediterranean, where the veil which looks upon the underworld was once as porous as the accretions at Vesuvius and Etna, asylum seekers and their dead are wearily resented by the natives of the shore.

As the island cemeteries swell, the threshold congeals and hardens. No longer do the dead inhabit the same space or gather around the same hearth as that of the living. 

Remembrance of the departed, and respect for those who survive withers. Those who are alive find no shortage of scapegoats – their hostility is easily convinced when they  can resent without risk or at little cost.

The anxiety that too many souls populate the world, that there aren’t sufficient resources to go round, is difficult to assuage in a society where everyone is already obsolete.

To counter this superabundance, anything we might ordinarily recall is now deemed to be disposable, little more than freight bound for the remotest regions of the unconscious. 

Memory, experience, childhood, our ancestors and prehistory are all tossed into the depths so as to lighten the voyage, where we falsely believe the enemy cannot reach.

Today, the Mediterranean is a necropolis where the vulnerable are buried along with experience of the sea itself.

Nations rely on ships and ports to distribute commodities more than ever before, yet curiously the sea has rarely been less visible. 

How are we to make to sense of mare nostrum’s violence, or of its violent origins without an even minimal conception of the maritime and its relation to capitalism?

The intangibility of the sea is emblematic of man’s inverted relation with nature more broadly.

That the exploitation of man is underpinned by his exploitation of the natural world ought to go without saying. 

However, the tragedy which continues to play out on the European periphery is anything but natural. Those who flee from violence do not spontaneously decide to make a shipping container their home, or of themselves the human cargo of racketeers. 

Even the migrant boats are divided into classes. Those who pay the most are entitled to stand on deck, increasing their chances of rescue and survival. Those who pay less are forced to cram down inside the hull where they are often suffocated to death or risk chemical burns from leaking fuel tanks. 

The business of violence and the violence of business have never been too far removed from one another.

The exchange relations which dominate the societies of the twenty first century have an ancient history that developed among the first seafarers of the Mediterranean. 

How did the first Europeans learn to trade goods? In what circumstances did the first agrarian communities learn about exchange?

Rather than emerge from any ‘natural’ commercial sensibility, there is historical evidence to suggest that trade was coercively impressed upon the earliest inhabitants of the Mediterranean. 

Cheated out of gift exchange and disciplined into formal trade by astute seafarers, Negt and Kluge describe the process in History and Obstinacy:

A Phocaean or Phoenician boat appears off an agrarian shore. The crew set out an array of valuable items such as tools, metals and ceramics. The inhabitants discover what they believe to be gifts from the gods. However, the exchange is neither free nor equal. They are subsequently raided; several colonies are destroyed by the crew. Believing to be on the receiving end of divine punishment, the colonies attempt to appease the gods by making sacrifices and valuable offerings from the land. The ‘stolen’ material is returned to the ship by the crew on the night of the attack. The next morning the goods are redeployed alongside the native offerings so that there are  two rows. At nightfall, the crew take the native products and set sail. The natives reluctantly glean that they can take possession of the goods without reprisal. This process is reinforced by further encounters with mercantile seafarers whether Cretans, Ionians, or later, Hellenes. 

The experience of victimhood forced agrarian colonies to adopt themselves a maritime way of thinking. The violence meted out against them had precedents in the appeasement of the gods and nature. Having made of their island a home, they weralways of course liable to naval attack. The process of their being conditioned into exchange depended irremediably on the permanent threat of violence, whether real or imagined.

In response to the seaborne menace, the first Europeans subsequently built ships for bringing cargo from far flung climes. Immense three-storey triremes were rowed by hundreds of oarsmen to the rythm of a drum, while on deck the merchants set about the logistics of the transit. Greek civilisation relied upon brutal enslavement, driven by internal profit-seeking competition between city states. 

Under these circumstances the individual began to set sail, internalising an instrumental notion of sacrifice and appeasement. 

For Adorno, Homer’s Ionian epic was emblematic of the birth-by-trade of bourgeois society. Odysseus, along with Robinson, stands in as the prototype of the cunning, resourceful, utility-maximising homo economicus of the modern age, a man whose role it is to make an accurate estimation of relations of force’, to ‘calculate how many of his men will be torn from his boat’, a man who ‘like the seafarer Odysseus cheats the natural deities just as does the civilised traveller of a later date who offers the natives coloured beads in exchange for ivory.’

The mastery of the sea violently opened the world up to exchange, colonialism, and the circulation of commodities, but the development of capitalism’s productive forces equally depended on a reconfiguration of the land. The transition from sail to steam power was consciously made by capitalists wanting to avoid the inconvenience of establishing factories in remote places dependent on a natural water supply. With the exploitation of fossil fuels and the development of steam engines and rail, and after the enclosures which forced dispossessed workers into inner city ManchesterGlasgow and Birmingham’s mechanised mills and looms, like the beat of the drum on the Greek slave ship, factory owners were able to impose ‘time industry’ and break labourers into new schemes of work.   

Thanks to a ready supply of labour newly threatened by the prospect of enlisting in the ‘reserve army’ of the unemployed, as it were, capitalist discipline was able to conquer the soil to create the necessary formal, right-free conditions for proletarianisation.

Combustion delivered, via shoreline offerings and the bazaar, the covered iron and glass arcades of the nineteenth century, which would become the germ of today’shopping centres.

Then as now, these commercial sites are stages for the display of imported goods and plunder from overseas. 

If capitalism successfully moulded man, sea, and nature in its own image – how then are we to interpret such an image today? 

Faced with the reality of permanent crises, elements of the new right wish to invoke a return to the Hobbesian myth of Leviathan, the sea monster that for them embodies the simultaneously creative and destructive force of mercantile capitalism. 

Rather than regressing to atavistic myths, the left should not oversee the history of the maritime as a force for emancipation. 

Faced with an increasingly brittle enemy, we should bear in mind Brecht’s relaying of Lao Tzu’s tactic of attrition, conscious of the fact that ‘yielding water in motion in the end gets the better of granite and porphyry.’

Alex Alvarez Taylor holds an MA in the History of Art from the Courtauld Institute, University of London. He lives and works in Spain, and is interested in the political aesthetics of the Frankfurt School.