Excellent recent research on the politics of containerisation and the logic of logistics (Levinson; Cowen; Sekula) has shown how these new modalities of trade have transformed not only the form and extent of circulation of goods but also the processes of production. The argument about logistical forms of capital accumulation trace its begging to the 1950s when containers were invented, and especially to the period after the 1960s, when their usage was normalised during the Vietnam war. However, many of the practices we now associate with containerisation – foremost among them the automation of processes of maritime circulation, and the transformation of urban landscapes around the ports – go back at least two decades before the 1950s, to the legal, engineering, and financial innovations around petroleum tankers. By focusing on the tanker terminals of the Arabian Peninsula since the 1930s and the subsequent burgeoning of tanker-ships plying the trade between the Peninsula and the rest of the world, I will illuminate the radical changes in political economy, labour, law and production the specificities of tanker trade has wrought. This includes early instances of automated workplaces; terminals far enough from port-city centres to isolate them from public scrutiny; and disciplining of workers aboard tanker-ships. Further, the shift in ownership structures and financing of tanker trades over the last one-hundred years either foreshadows or dramatically illuminates the transformations in financial capital itself. Finally, much of lex petrolea, the legal and arbitral corpus that sets the parameter of extraction and circulation of oil, itself provides the ground on which late capitalist legal property regimes are founded.
Laleh Khalili is a Professor of International Politics at Queen Mary University of London, and the author of Heroes and Martyrs of Palestine (Cambridge 2007) and Time in the Shadows: Confinement in Counterinsurgencies(Stanford 2013). Her Sinews of War and Trade, on the politics of maritime infrastructures, is published by Verso.
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