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The Outlaw Sea: A World of Freedom, Chaos, and Crime


The Outlaw Sea: A World of Freedom, Chaos, and Crime Cover

ISBN13: 9780865475816
ISBN10: 0865475814
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Excerpt from The Outlaw Sea by William Langewiesche. Copyright © 2004 by William Langewiesche. To be published in May, 2004 by North Point Press, a division of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved. OneAN OCEAN WORLDSince we live on land, and are usually beyond sight of the sea, it is easy to forget that our world is an ocean world, and to ignore what in practice that means. Some shores have been tamed, however temporarily, but beyond the horizon lies a place that refuses to submit. It is the wave maker, an anarchic expanse, the open ocean of the high seas. Under its many names, and with variations in color and mood, this single ocean spreads across three-fourths of the globe. Geographically, it is not the exception to our planet, but by far its greatest defining feature. By political and social measures it is important too--not merely as a wilderness that has always existed or as a reminder of the world as it was before, but also quite possibly as a harbinger of a larger chaos to come. That is neither a lament nor a cheap forecast of doom, but more simply an observation of modern life in a place that is rarely seen. At a time when every last patch of land is claimed by one government or another, and when citizenship is treated as an absolute condition of human existence, the ocean is a realm that remains radically free.Expressing that freedom are more than forty thousand large merchant ships that wander the world with little or no regulation, plying the open ocean among uncountable numbers of smaller coastal craft and carrying nearly the full weight of international trade--almost all the raw materials and finished products on which our land lives are built. The ships are steel behemoths, slow and enormously efficient, and magnificent if only for their mass and functionality. They are crewed from pools of the poor--several million sailors of varying quality, largely now from southern Asia, who bid down for the jobs in a global market and are mixed together without reference to such petty conventions as language and nationality. The sailors do not enjoy the benefit of long stays in exotic ports, as sailors did until recently, but rather they live afloat for twelve months at a stretch, enduring a maritime limbo in the ships' fluorescent-lit quarters, making brief stops to load and unload, and rarely going ashore. They are employed by independent Third World "manning agents," who in turn are paid for the labor they provide by furtive offshore management companies that in many cases work for even more elusive owners--people whose identities are hidden behind the legal structures of corporations so ghostly and unencumbered that they exist only on paper, or maybe as a brass plate on some faraway foreign door. The purpose of such arrangements is not to make philosophical points about the rule of law, but to limit responsibility, maximize profits, and allow for total freedom of action in a highly competitive world. The ships themselves are expressions of this system as it has evolved. They are possibly the most independent objects on earth, many of them without allegiances of any kind, frequently changing their identity and assuming whatever nationality--or "flag"--allows them to proceed as they please.This is the starting point of understanding the freedom of the sea. No one pretends that a ship must come from the home port painted on its stern, or that it has ever been anywhere near. Panama is the largest maritime nation on earth, followed by bloody Liberia, which hardly exists. No coastline is required either. There are ships that hail from La Paz, in landlocked Bolivia. There are ships that hail from the Mongolian desert. Moreover, the registries themselves are rarely based in the countries whose names they carry: Panama is considered to be an old-fashioned "flag" because its consulates handle the paperwork and collect the registration fees, but "Liberia" is run by a company in Virginia, "Cambodia" by another in South Korea, and the proud and independent "Bahamas" by a group in the City of London.The system in its modern form, generally known as "flags of convenience," began in the early days of World War II as an American invention sanctioned by the United States government to circumvent its own neutrality laws. The idea was to allow American-owned ships to be re-flagged as Panamanian and used to deliver materials to Britain without concern that their action (or loss) would drag the United States unintentionally into war. Afterward, of course, the United States did join the war--only to emerge several years later with the largest ship registry in the world. By then the purely economic benefits of the Panamanian arrangement had become clear: it would allow the industry to escape the high costs of hiring American crews, to reduce the burdens imposed by stringent regulation, to limit the financial consequences of the occasional foundering or loss of a ship. And so an exodus occurred. For the same reasons, a group of American oil companies subsequently created the Liberian registry (based at first in New York) for their tankers, as a "development" or international aid project. Again the scheme was sanctioned by the U.S. government, this time by idealists at the Department of State. For several decades these two quasi-colonial registries, which attracted f0shipowners from around the world, maintained reasonably high technical standards, perhaps because behind the scenes they were still subject to some control by the "gentlemen's club" of traditional maritime powers--principally Europe and the United States. In the 1980s, however, a slew of other countries woke up to the potential for revenues and began to create their own registries to compete for business. The result was a sudden expansion in flags of convenience, and a corresponding loss of control. This happened in the context of an increasingly strong internationalist democratic ideal, by which all countries were formally considered to be equal. The trend accelerated in the 1990s, and paradoxically in direct reaction to a United Nations effort to impose order by demanding a "genuine link" between a ship and its flag--a vague requirement that, typically, was subverted by the righteous "compliance" of everyone involved.These developments were seemingly as organic as they were calculated or man-made. For the shipowners, they amounted to a profound liberation. By shopping globally, they found that they could choose the laws that were applied to them, rather than haplessly submitting to the jurisdictions of their native countries. The advantages were so great that even the most conservative and well-established shipowners, who were perhaps not naturally inclined to abandon the confines of the nation-state, found that they had no choice but to do so. What's more, because of the registration fees the shipowners could offer to cash-strapped governments and corrupt officials, the various flags competed for business, and the deals kept getting better.The resulting arrangement, though deeply subversive, has an undeniably elegant design. It constitutes an exact reversal of sovereignty's intent and a perfect mockery of national conceits. It is free enterprise at its freest, a logic taken to extremes. And it is by no means always a bad thing. I've been told, for example, that the cost of transporting tea to England has fallen a hundredfold since the days of sail, and even more in recent years. There are similar efficiencies across the board. But the efficiencies are accompanied by global problems too, including the playing of the poor against the poor and the persistence of huge fleets of dangerous ships, the pollution they cause, the implicit disposability of their crews, and the parallel growth of two particularly resilient pathogens that exist now on the ocean--the first being a modern strain of piracy, and the second its politicized cousin, the maritime form of the new, stateless terrorism. The patterns are strong in part because they fit so well with the long-standing realities of the sea--the ocean's easy disregard for human constructs, its size, the strength of its storms, and the privacy provided by its horizons. Certainly the old maritime traditions of freedom are involved, but something new is happening too. It is not by chance that the more sophisticated pirate groups and terrorists seem to mimic the methods and operational techniques of the shipowners. Their morals and motivations are different, of course, but all have learned to work without the need for a home base and, more significantly, to escape the forces of order not by running away, but by complying with the laws and regulations in order to move about freely and to hide in plain sight.The result has been to place the oceans increasingly beyond governmental control. To maritime and security officials in administrative capitals like London and Washington, D.C., steeped in their own traditions of national power, these developments have come in recent years as a surprise. For public consumption, the officials still talk bravely about the impact of new regulations and the promise of technology, but in private many admit that it is chaos, not control, that is on the rise. They have learned what future historians may be able to see even more clearly, that our world is an ocean world, and it is wild.

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min7586, August 4, 2012 (view all comments by min7586)
I bought this book for my dad on a glowing recomendation from a friend. My dad loved it and is lending it to all his brothers...perhaps eventually I can read it! (Dad also went on to buy other books from this author and has loved them all)
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Product Details

A World of Freedom, Chaos, and Crime
Langewiesche, William
liam Langewiesche
North Point Press
New York, N.Y.
Social aspects
Psychological aspects
Maritime History
Ships & Shipbuilding - General
Oceans & Seas
Seafaring life
Merchant marine
Law of the sea
Electric power failures.
United States - State & Local - General
General Political Science
Industries - Transportation
Edition Number:
1st ed.
Edition Description:
Trade paper
Series Volume:
bk. 2
Publication Date:
Electronic book text in proprietary or open standard format
6 CDs, 7.5 hours
7.04 x 4.5 x 1.25 in

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Related Subjects

History and Social Science » Crime » General
History and Social Science » World History » General
Science and Mathematics » Nature Studies » General
Transportation » Nautical » General

The Outlaw Sea: A World of Freedom, Chaos, and Crime Used Hardcover
0 stars - 0 reviews
$8.50 In Stock
Product details 256 pages North Point Press - English 9780865475816 Reviews:
"Publishers Weekly Review" by , "'Our world is an ocean world, and it is wild,' Langewiesche writes. He then poses a powerful question: have the industrialized nations of the world given up control of the shipping industry to the demands of the free market? And if this free market is indeed the most efficient and profitable system, what price, socially, politically and environmentally will it extract from the human beings who use it? From the panic-stricken bridge of a sinking oil tanker to the filth-clogged beaches resulting from a destroyed ship in India, Langewiesche (American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center) vividly describes a global cabal of unscrupulous ship owners, well-intentioned but overmatched regulators, and poorly trained and poorly paid seamen who risk their lives every day to make this new global economy function. 'It is not exactly a criminal industry,' Langewiesche explains, 'but it is an amoral and stubbornly anarchic one.' Accidents happen with alarming regularity. A sobering account of the 1994 sinking of the passenger ferry Estonia sits at the bottom of the Baltic, a silent monument to the cost of a free market gone awry. Equal parts incisive political harangue and lyrical reflection on the timelessness of the sea, this book brilliantly illuminates a system the world economy depends upon, but will not take responsibility for. Agent, Chuck Verrill. (May)" Publishers Weekly (Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Review" by , "[I]mpressive and well-wrought....[A] fiery piece of work that speaks from a primal and awesome place."
"Review" by , "As [Langewiesche] demonstrates time and time again in this brave, often electrifying book, [the sea] is a world that is both new and very old, and we ignore it at our peril."
"Review" by , "Langewiesche, an Atlantic Monthly correspondent, might be the best investigative journalist working today."
"Synopsis" by , With typically understated lyricism, Langewiesche explores international waters — the last radically free place on Earth — and the licit and illicit enterprises that flourish in the privacy afforded by its horizons.
"Synopsis" by ,
The open ocean--that vast expanse of international waters--spreads across three-fourths of the globe. It is a place of storms and danger, both natural and manmade. And at a time when every last patch of land is claimed by one government or another, it is a place that remains radically free.

With typically understated lyricism, William Langewiesche explores this ocean world and the enterprises--licit and illicit--that flourish in the privacy afforded by its horizons. But its efficiencies are accompanied by global problems--shipwrecks and pollution, the hard lives and deaths of the crews of the gargantuan ships, and the growth of two pathogens: a modern and sophisticated strain of piracy and its close cousin, the maritime form of the new stateless terrorism.

This is the outlaw sea that Langewiesche brings startlingly into view. The ocean is our world, he reminds us, and it is wild.

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