Cargomobilities: They’re not just for containers anymore

Yesterday’s New York Times had a fascinating article on The Race to Build a Better Business Class that sheds light on how the mobilities that give modernity its rhythm are limited by and refracted through the material limits of the human body, and how these mobilities are then mediated by national business cultures, the patterns of specific travel routes, and even regional body types.

As the article explains, airlines seek to balance the need to create ever-more elaborate Business Class and First Class seats that earn a premium ticket price with the fact that these seats’ increased weight  and footprint limit the number of tickets that can be sold. Each airline, in effect, is forced to treat the a passenger as an abstract source of value — a commodity — with some very specific (but relatively minimal) reproduction needs (i.e. each must occupy a certain bit of volume and be constrained in a manner that satisfies the rules of international air safety agencies) while at the same time recognising that these passengers are sentient beings with emotional and physical cravings (and, in the case of Business Class travellers, with the financial resources to have these cravings satisfied).

What’s fascinating about the piece is that my summary of it in the above paragraph — with just a few words changed — could be from Marx describing the proletariat under capitalism.

The resonances to other times and places don’t stop there. The article describes airlines’ experimentations with various seating configurations so as to maximize the cargo-load while ensuring that each unit of cargo (that is, each passenger) arrives at the destination able to disembark and get straight to work. This all resonates unsettlingly with accounts of ship design for the Middle Passage.

Consider these two images, one from a sidebar accompanying the New York Times article and the other from a drawing of the slave ship Brookes distributed in 1789 by England’s Abolitionist Society:

Screen Shot 2013-08-04 at 00.42.51


Obviously, the weighing of factors is going to be very different for the British Airways executive, whose customers could choose to fly Cathay Pacific on their next flight from London to Hong Kong if the seats don’t lie totally flat, than it was for the 18th-century slave trader whose ‘cargo’ might be wishing for a chance to sit up. However, the combination of rationales — and the ways in which, in both instances, people are simultaneously treated as both value and valuable — is strikingly similar.

To be clear, I am not suggesting that the experiences of the modern-day business class traveler are anything like those of the 18th-century African being shipped into slavery. But the parallels do lead me to revisit the works of historian Marcus Rediker, whose writings have revealed the role of the slave ship not just in establishing the linkages and transfers of labour power that made capitalism possible but also in serving as a microcosm of the institutional structures and social relations that were soon to prevail in the factory. I wonder if the cabin of an intercontinental airliner might be similarly revealing for understanding how 21st-century capitalism enrolls and (quite literally) mobilises its workforce.

Phil S.


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