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The objects around you right now, from your phone to the clothes you wear to the coffee in your mug, most likely traveled to America in a shipping container on a massive cargo ship.
This simple fact, both obvious and mostly overlooked, has radically transformed virtually every aspect of global capitalism over the past several decades. That prosaic shipping container, and the process called “containerization,” are the subject of a recent 8-part audio podcast documentary called “Containers.”
The podcast is sponsored by a shipping company, which stirred some controversy, but the show usually reads as if it’s most sympathetic toward the rank and file workers of the docks, and the people who live nearby, than toward the industry as a whole.. While “Containers” is hardly anti-capitalist, the series and its creator Alexis Madrigal are openly critical of the consequences of unchecked growth. Episode 6, “And They Won, They Won Big,” is about the pollution caused by container ships, especially the “bunker fuel” they burn in many ports, and the successful fight in the Port of Oakland to reduce shipping’s environmental impact. Occupy Oakland even gets a respectful mention.
At other times, I felt like the show might be glossing over the negative impacts of the global shipping trade. Episode 4, “The Hidden Side of Coffee,” is an insightful look at the logistics of the modern coffee business but doesn’t delve deeply into the social or labor issues caused by a global boom.
In “Containers” best moments, Madrigal simply visits with workers throughout the industry and let’s them tell their story. We ride with the crew on a tugboat, mourn the loss at sea of the El Faro, and remember the old days of the docks with longshoreman who created their own documentary of the port. The series reserves some of its harshest criticism for Donald Trump, whose promises to restore American jobs, however illusory, completely ignore America’s dock workers.
In the final episode, Madrigal questions whether properly implemented automation and robotics could actually help humans work better, rather than costing us jobs. While the technology he examines is fascinating — warehouse helper robots that closely resemble the droids of “Star Wars” — the history of capitalism suggests that these technological promises rarely bear the promised fruit. Remember how computers were going to help us all do less work?
Despite some flaws, “Containers” is engrossing and educational listening and I was disappointed when the series came to a close. Madrigal should also be praised for supporting accessible podcasting by publishing complete transcripts of each “Containers” episode on Medium. I hope he’ll return to the format in the near future and continue to unearth the hidden corners of global capitalism. In the meantime, anyone interested in the systems that make our world move should check this show out and share it with their comrades.
Containers: Global Capitalism At Sea & Transforming The Planet by Kit O’Connell is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at https://kitoconnell.com/2017/05/10/containers-capitalism-at-sea/.