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Building ships while breaking apart

Container economies and the limits of chaebol capitalism

Elisabeth Schober


With the center of gravity of the maritime industry over recent decades progressively moving eastwards, South Korea is today a giant in both shipping and shipbuilding. Its largely family-controlled industrial enterprises are nowadays increasingly engaged in risky business experiments abroad, which on occasion fail in a spectacular manner. By following the story of how one family-run economic actor invested unsuccessfully in the Philippines, I combine an exploration of the political-economic factors involved in this failure with an investigation of how these larger structures are entangled with a complex family story inside a Korean conglomerate. The forced separation between family and business that ensued in this case illuminates changing and competing ideals of “waterborne” capitalism in the twenty-first century.

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“Close to the skin”

Conceptualizing the intimate functioning of the US–Mexico border

Miranda Dahlin

Jusionyte, Ieva. 2018. Threshold: Emergency responders on the US-Mexico border. Oakland: University of California Press.

Yeh, Rihan. 2017. Passing: Two publics in a Mexican border city. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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Containing mobilities

Changing time and space of maritime labor

Johanna Markkula


This article uses ethnography from onboard container ships to show how seafarers as a workforce at the center of global capital circulation are increasingly confined inside their mobile worksites. Drawing on theories of the transformation of time and space as internal to the logic of globalization and capitalism, the article argues that the increased mobility of goods, as facilitated by developments in maritime logistics, has decreased the mobility of the seafarers in charge of moving these goods across the world. The article proposes “containing mobilities” as a term for thinking through the particular contradictions and inequalities of mobility that shape the everyday life of the workers at the heart of the global system of mobility and transport that constitutes the maritime supply chain.

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Horizontal and vertical politics

Strategic uses of abajo and arriba in the construction of the Venezuelan socialist State

Stefano Boni


The spatial expressions of egalitarian and hierarchical political relations, respectively along the horizontal and vertical axis, are visually illustrated in a broad cross-cultural perspective. The dichotomy between los de abajo (those below) and los de arriba (those above) is explored in contemporary Venezuelan politics, using ethnographic and visual evidence. The socialist party, which presents itself as representative of los de abajo, has been increasingly criticized for being los de arriba both by the opposition and by grassroots PSUV (Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela; United Socialist Party of Venezuela) activists who denounce the persistence of hierarchical dynamics through metaphors such as paracaido (para-shooter) and poner la escalera (holding the ladder).

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Hege Høyer Leivestad and Johanna Markkula


This introduction proposes an anthropology of global cargo circulation by placing the maritime shipping industry at the center of global capitalism. With “container economies” we refer to the maritime global circulation of cargo that is sustained by an undervalued labor force, dependent upon unstable logistics infrastructures and driven by speculative capital. Container economies, we argue, are produced by adding, moving, and destroying value through the maritime supply chain. In this introduction, we reflect upon the implications of containerization and its wider consequences for logistics labor. We argue that maritime logistics and labor is best understood by taking into account their wider networks of dependency expressed through kinship relations, ethnicity and coexisting regimes of value.

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Multiscalar moral economy

Global agribusiness, rural Zambian residents, and the distributed crowd

Tijo Salverda


This article addresses the relevance of the moral economy concept in light of unequal socioeconomic relations between a European agribusiness and rural residents in Zambia. It argues that the moral economy concept offers a helpful heuristic device for analyzing how relationships are constituted, negotiated, and contested among interdependent actors with “opposing” socioeconomic interests. To explain the dynamics of their relationships, however, the moral economy concept has to extend beyond its usual, spatially restricted (i.e., local) focus. Instead, “external,” distant, non-local actors, such as foreign critics concerned about “land grabbing,” also influence the local character of moral-economic exchanges between the agribusiness and rural residents. Hence, the article proposes a multiscalar perspective to account for the influence of a wider array of actors.

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“Nowhere near Somalia, Mom”

On containerizing maritime piracy and being good men

Adrienne Mannov


Just as containerized goods appear to flow seamlessly across the planet's oceans, internationalized and standardized certificates present seafaring labor as uniform and seamless. But underneath these certificates are the intimate and unequal entanglements of local masculinity norms, age, and kinship ties that sustain the maritime labor supply chain. In this article, we follow how three young, male seafarers from eastern India find ways to contain piracy risks at work and poverty risks at home, and their sense of obligation as men, sons, husbands, and fathers. By delving into the unequal conditions for industrial male workers from the Global South, this article demonstrates how containerized maritime labor commodities are not uniform but are dependent upon economic inequality and intimate kinship ties to be productive.

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Who cares about the cargo?

Container economies in a European transshipment port

Hege Høyer Leivestad


While the shipping container has been hyped as the most potent symbol of global trade, it is simultaneously a unit of measure, a medium of exchange, and a material abstraction of heterogeneous use value. This article places the container and its anonymized cargo as part of the everyday logistics of commodity circulation in the Spanish Port of Algeciras Bay—a transshipment hub at the Strait of Gibraltar. By disentangling the shipping container's multiple repertoires, this article focuses on how the shipping container transforms and converts the value of cargo and mediates logistics labor in the port.

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Jon Schubert


Cargo shipping, as emblematic stand-in for globalization, peddles a seductive imagery of frictionless transnational trade and just-in-time logistics. Backed by the normative might of transnational institutions, instruments such as UNCTAD's Automated System for Customs Data (ASYCUDA) are being rolled out across “developing countries,” promising the rationalization, acceleration, and “dematerialization” of customs processing, while countries themselves introduce efficiency reforms to smoothen the flow of goods. This article charts the intensive work required to produce this fantasy of frictionless trade around the Atlantic port of Lobito, Angola. In a context where imports have dropped by 50 percent to 60 percent since 2014 due to lower oil prices, this article traces how actors involved in making this import-dependent economy work deal with the seeming failure of promises of transnationally connected economic growth.

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A culture of informality?

Fragmented solidarities among construction workers in Nepal

Dan V. Hirslund

Despite a history of labor militancy in past decades, Nepal’s large construction sector remains unorganized and lacks social protection, prompted by high levels of informality. Based on ethnographic fieldwork among construction laborers in Kathmandu, this article argues that labor subsumption to capital in the construction industry takes place through a systemization of expertise through which access to work is negotiated. I show how this “culture of informality” shapes labor relations and creates a semblance of transparency and justice in otherwise chaotic and fiercely competitive labor communities. Drawing on concepts from political and urban anthropology to probe how informality indexes forms of power, I argue that authority and status become distributed through processes of distinction and thereby extend and deepen inequalities permeating contemporary industrial relations.