Ships are once again sailing freely through the Suez Canal after a massive container ship that has been blocking the passage for nearly a week was finally re-floated yesterday. The Golden-class Ever Given, which is nearly a quarter-mile long and can hold up to 20,000 shipping containers, somehow turned sideways at a narrow point in the canal’s southern stretch, lodging its bow into the Eastern bank and obstructing the canal entirely. It was freed after a massive dredging operation, and the combined effort of eight tugboats and a Dutch salvage crew. Because of the ship’s massive length, great care had to be exercised to prevent the hull from cracking, which could have caused untold structural and environmental damage. The Ever Given has continued up to Egypt’s Great Bitter Lake to be inspected for damage before it can resume its course.
Because of the strategic importance of the Suez Canal, this relatively small incident is likely to have a huge ripple effect on global trade for some time. More than one tenth of all the world’s shipping trade passes through the Canal — $9 billion worth of goods each day — so even a short blockage can wreak havoc. The Ever Given caused an epic maritime ”traffic jam” of over 350 container ships to accumulate around the entrances to the canal over the past week; meanwhile, many ships that were bound for it have re-routed around the horn of Africa, adding two weeks to their journeys, at a huge extra cost. The backlog of ships will take weeks to clear, and the disrupted rhythms of empty shipping containers and port terminals will take much longer to re-adjust.
The absurdity of a ”traffic jam” between two oceans has inspired plenty of internet humor, and a great deal of schadenfreude at the prospect of a single sideways ship blowing a $50-billion hole in global trade. Unfortunately, the consequences of the blockage will be felt not just by wealthy shipping multinationals, but also by the working class in places that imperialism has forced into dependency on the global market. Syria, already struggling under the combined impacts of a civil war, international sanctions, and the Covid-19 crisis, began rationing fuel on Sunday amidst uncertainty about the arrival of a tanker from Iran. A dozen or so ships caught in the backlog are carrying livestock that will starve if the ships don’t reach their port of destination before their feed supply runs out, possibly causing shortages in whatever markets they were bound for.
Because of the wildly interpenetrating criss-cross of international trade, it’s impossible to predict what knock-on effects this short crisis will have. But, as always, the imperatives of capitalist competition have created these vulnerabilities, and capitalists will ensure that the working class pays the price.
The story of the Ever Given also holds some hopeful lessons, though. From the panicked rush from China, the United Arab Emirates, and the United States to offer assistance, we can see how vital the uninterrupted flow of goods from one part of the globe to another is to those governments, which represent the interests of the national and international big bourgeoisie. We also see how vulnerable that system is to even the slightest disruption: there is no better visual metaphor for “strategic importance” than a narrow stretch of one of the world’s most important waterways blocked by an intransigent boat. Imagine, then, how much more damage could be done to capitalism if the workers of the Suez Canal Authority refused to allow ships to pass through it, or if the crew of the Ever Given and other cargo ships like it refused to sail.
The Suez Canal, and the trade network that it supports, are a marvel of human engineering and coordination, but they are made and run by working people, not by the capitalists who profit from them. This brief crisis should remind us of the power of workers, which knows no national bounds. The cheerful international solidarity inspired by watching a crew of dredgers and tugboats free the Ever Given testifies to that power. It’s evident from the fact that cargo ships the size of a small city can be crewed by just 25 people, and in how a small group of Egyptian workers coordinates the flow of 12% of the world’s goods. As we celebrate the resolution of this quirky crisis, let’s also take note of the vulnerabilities it reveals. These are the choke points that will allow the organized working class to take over the levers of production and distribution, and to run them for their own benefit.