Land and Sea: Globalization as a Fluid Realm

Uncontrolled and uncontrollable, the sea is the realm of immoderation and universal transience, of pirate nomadism and uncontainable wandering: “in the sea it is not possible to sow or even to dig straight lines. The ships that sail the sea leave no trace behind them.” The trails that are drawn in the sea disappear almost instantaneously, without being transferred to the future. They are, precisely for this reason, the symbol of the universal transience of the global liquid society.

Unlike terrestrial spaces, regulated and subject to geographical differences, to natural roots and borders, to rooted and territorialized communities, the open space of the sea is literally uninhabitable. It is crossed without the possibility of being able to inhabit it stably. It is, by its essence, the space of free and perpetual omnidirectional circulation, devoid of barriers and borders, of norms and limitations.

To cross the thalassic surfaces implies the abandonment of terrestrial stability and the acceptance of the possible dangers linked to the absence of solid ground and the eventual encounter with pirates who, in the same way as those of finance and the banking system, carry out raids in the absence of laws to control and limit them.

Without land there is neither political power nor frontier. In a word, there is no νόμος; that is why the thalassic expanse appears as the natural place of deregulation and, consequently, of that falsely libertarian anarchy which in reality secretly coincides with the uncontrolled domination of the strongest, with their freedom to preserve without restrictions their own self-interest.

Marine expansion, like the financial market of planetary flexibility, knows only waves, ebbs and flows, sudden storms and unexpected turbulence. “The trembling of the sea” (Purgatory, I, v. 117) offers no protection and, instead, exposes to the permanent risk of storms, shipwrecks and pirate boardings.

Indeed, it has been the financialization of capitalism that has played a decisive role in its post-bourgeois metamorphosis, which has led it to transit from the solid to the liquid element: finance, in fact, is volatile and unpredictable, the enemy of stability and rootedness.

The sea thus becomes an absolute metaphor for flexible and post-telluric production, aeriform for its immateriality and thalassic for its liquid movement and freed from the political power of the νόμος.

This is true not only for the liquid condition characteristic of cosmo-marketing, but also for the convergent process of deterritorialization—to take up a notion dear to Deleuze and Guattari—that distinguishes the epoch of planetary uprooting, set in motion by the expansion of the globalized market: the sea is perennially unstable in its incessant becoming and, at the same time, prevents any stabilizing action from being implemented. It forces those who venture into it to the perpetual dynamism of navigation and displacement, of nomadism and instability. It is the place of wandering and vagrancy, not of citizenship and communal territoriality.

Hegel already, anticipating Schmitt, had contrasted terrestrial rootedness, centered on the idea of frontier, to maritime limitlessness, where barriers are lacking and the dimension of schlechte Unendlichkeit, the “bad infinitude” of permanent mobility, prevails:

“The sea is something indeterminate, unlimited, infinite, and man, feeling himself in the midst of this infinity, is challenged to cross the boundary. The sea invites man to conquest and rapine, but also to profit and gain. The dry land, the river plain, fixes man to the ground, from which multiple obstacles arise. On the contrary, the sea pushes him beyond these limited circles.”

In Hegel’s perspective, the oceanic extension, open and uncontainable, corresponds to the infinite evil of excessive growth, to the rage to transcend all limits: it is the emblem of Modernity which, forgetting the Greek value of the just limit and of the sacred measure, always ventures recklessly “beyond these limited circles.”

It is in this sense that, in Elements of the Philosophy of Right, as an anticipation of the dichotomy that will be at the center of Schmitt’s reflection, Hegel maintains that “a condition for the principle of family life (Familienlebens) is the earth, a foundation and a stable ground” (§ 247); in contrast, “for industry” (für die Industrie) the “natural element” (natürliches Element) is the sea that opens towards infinity.

The telluric stability of the “ethical roots,” with its solid and solidary dimension, which sinks deep into the earth, draws a space of permanent enmity against the vacillating flow of the thalassic extension of the “system of needs,” where everything is relentlessly subjected to the uprooting of trade and bargaining, of competition and exchange of one and all.

Ethical roots aspire to regulate the anarchic space of the system of needs, subjecting it to the νόμος of communal control. Such a space, for its part, aims at the opposite goal: that is, at its own integral liberation from the power of the νόμος connected with the ethical roots. Moreover, it explicitly tends to produce the uprooting and, therefore, the devitalization of those roots, so that the self in its interest, and with it every human relation, are redefined according to the thalassic logic of unsociable sociability and piratical deregulation.

From this point of view, turbo-chrematistics globalization could rightly be understood for all intents and purposes as the triumph of the thalassic principle over the telluric one and, therefore, as the successful destruction of all surviving ethical rootedness: from that of family life to that of ethics linked to the State form, passing through the intermediate bodies of the population (from schools to trade unions and public health).

We know that the Greeks feared the sea as a mobile space of limitlessness and as a very concrete place of infinite openness, before which Achilles, their most powerful hero, wept: “bursting into tears, he sat far from his own, apart, on the shore of the whitish sea, gazing at the infinite expanse” (apeiron) (Iliad, I, 349-350).

Let us note that in the Homeric poems it is commonplace to associate the sea with the term apeiron, which literally means “without border,” “without limit” and consequently, by extension, “infinite,” “unlimited,” “indeterminate.”

The uniform space of the thalassic immensity, with its structural absence of borders, appears as the opposite not only of the mainland, where roots and ethical communities distributed over the territory and different in culture and traditions prevail; additionally the increasingly unequal “financial integration of the world” is producing the destruction of the properly geographical element, i.e., of the plurality of differentiated and unequal locations, according to what has been defined as the end of geography.

Oceanic expansion is also presented as the antithesis of that sea, limited and perimetered by the land, that is the Mediterranean, where limitlessness is literally “contained,” delimited, because it is enclosed within precise confines that allow, at least to a certain extent, the control and management of the territory.

Unlike the infinity of the ocean, the Mare Nostrum comes to be defined as a figure of that politicized economy that constitutes the essence of the ethical life thematized by Hegel. The Mediterranean then stands as the living image of a sea regulated and subjected to the power of the νόμος, because it is surrounded by land and, to a certain extent, controlled by the latter and subordinated to its demands.

Absent in Hegel, the clear conceptual differentiation between the bounded sea and the borderless ocean-like sea is found in Kant’s work. In The Metaphysics of Morals (1797) he distinguishes between mare clausum and mare liberum.

The former is the sea close to the land, subject to the control of the latter and defensible “as far as the guns that guard the shore can reach.” It is, so to speak, a regulated and disciplined sea, subject to the jurisdiction of the continent and controllable by the political force that governs it.

Such is the essence, as we have recalled, of the Mediterranean, the closed and limited Mare Nostrum, open to plurality and difference, a fertile, pluralistic and multicultural space—as Braudel has exemplarily shown—of the origin and gestation of civilizations (Greeks and Romans, Christians and Muslims).

Thus, in Hegel’s Lectures on the Philosophy of World History, the mare clausum of the Mediterranean is celebrated as the axis of Weltgeschichte, as the space for the flowering of the greatest civilizations that have traversed the history of the human race:

“All the great states of ancient history rest around this navel of the Earth. It is here that Greece, the brightest point of history, is located. In Syria is Jerusalem, the center of Judaism and Christianity. To the southeast of it are Mecca and Medina, cradles of Islam. To the west lie Delphi and Athens, and further west Rome and Carthage; and so to the south Alexandria, which is even more central than Constantinople, where the spiritual fusion of East and West is completed. The Mediterranean is, then, the heart of the Old World, being its motor, its condition of life.”

The mare liberum, on the other hand, is the sea free of controls, indefensible and physiologically uninhabitable: as Kant points out, “no domicile is possible in the open sea” or, we would say, no citizenship. The denied territoriality is accompanied by the thalassic wandering, which turns the navigator into mobilis in mobili.

And also according to this hermeneutic key, which links illimited and mare liberum together, the story of Dante’s Odysseus can be understood: “I launched myself toward the open high seas,” Odysseus declares in the presence of the Florentine poet, confessing his own guilt, which is, in all evidence, a guilt of ὕβϱις, derived from the surpassing of the just limit.

It is not by chance that Dante’s Inferno imagines the death of Odysseus when he sets out “toward the high open sea,” venturing on a voyage impossible because it leads toward the limitless. The Dantesque is one of the possible readings, if we consider that, for example, Elias Canetti of The Tongue Set Free (1977) reads the character of Odysseus in the opposite key, that is, as a figure of diminution and measure, as could be deduced from the gesture with which the hero of Ithaca makes himself “nobody” (οὐδείς) in order to defeat the Cyclops.

Because of its uncontrolled and uncontrollable, unregulated and unregulable nature, the open sea of the oceanic type gives rise to a sort of bellum omnium contra omnes of the aquatic type: by virtue of the absence of political regulation, the open sea remains a space attributable to the logic of status naturae.

It is, therefore, the sign of post-telluric anomie, where only the anarchic logic of piracy can prevail, that is, the status naturae that the globalist animal kingdom of the Spirit has generated by dissolving the telluric framework of ius publicum europaeum.

On the maritime surface, just as on the horizon of the commercial anarchy of the de-sovereignized market, the logic of the strongest prevails once again: that is, the possibility for the latter to “compete” freely and without restrictions with the weaker, according to the rule of free trade in free seas. A quintessential expression of the anomic energy of thalassic extension, the maritime conflict is ab origine unlimited and exempted from legal obligations.

As Schmitt has specified, “the sea does not constitute a state territory,” it is subtracted from the legal order and from the jurisdictions guaranteed by the political: its extension is intrinsically depoliticized and open, and “is, therefore, free from any type of spatial authority of the State.” The thalassic extension appears, then, as the space taken away from state power and its fundamental functions, from law to citizenship.

“The maritime realm knows no borders, no obligations, no rights, no control. It is presented as the unregulated space par excellence, as the locus naturalis of pirates, corsairs and all those who recognize no law other than that of the strongest: precisely because ‘no law applies at sea,’ it is inaccessible to law and human order, forming the space for a free confrontation of forces.”

The boundless vastness of the open sea “constitutes a free zone of free predation. Here the privateer, the pirate, can exercise his evil trade with a good conscience” and, above all, without legal impediments. Perhaps it is also from this perspective that the text composed by Hugo Grotius in 1609, programmatically entitled, Mare liberum and directed against English monopolistic pretensions, can be explained.

Indeed, as we know, the capitalist economy, which begins to develop also in the Mediterranean capital of Genoa, arises mainly in the oceanic spaces of the “English ports” evoked by Bloch, where the thalassic dimension (mare clausum) is overcome and we venture into the oceanic (mare liberum) in search of an unlimited expansion of profits. In the words of Carl Schmitt in his Land and Sea:

“England became the queen of the sea, and around her maritime dominion over the entire globe she built a British empire spread over every continent. The English world thought in terms of footholds and lines of communication… The age of free trade was also the age of the free display of England’s industrial and economic superiority. Free seas and free world markets were united in an idea of freedom of which only England could be the bearer and the guardian.”

Like the navigator, at an unprecedented distance from the mainland and at the mercy of storms, the precarious man navigates “by eye” between drifts and shipwrecks, be they labor or existential, in what, with Guicciardini, we could rightly characterize as “a sea agitated by the winds.”
Uprooted and subjected to the gales that constantly batter the sea far from coastal protections, the cybernaut of thalassic globalization is projected into a dimension of constant insecurity and piratical competitiveness, which will strike at the very possibility of his existence. The latter does not adopt solid and stable forms, always fluctuating between the waves of the market, on which it has been transformed into a dependent variable.

In the framework of the “vulnerable society,” it is the markets, like the sea for the cybernaut, that decide the survival of the inhabitant of the thalassic late-modernity, deprived of any communal roots and of any frontier that could protect him and provide him with a certain stability in his daily life.

Diego Fusaro is professor of the History of Philosophy at the IASSP in Milan (Institute for Advanced Strategic and Political Studies) where he is also scientific director. He is a scholar of the Philosophy of History, specializing in the thought of Fichte, Hegel, and Marx. His interest is oriented towards German idealism, its precursors (Spinoza) and its followers (Marx), with a particular emphasis on Italian thought (Gramsci or Gentile, among others). he is the author of many books, including Fichte and the Vocation of the IntellectualThe Place of Possibility: Toward a New Philosophy of Praxis, and Marx, again!: The Spectre Returns[This article appears courtesy of Posmodernia].

Featured: Sail through Rough Seas, by Henry Moore, no date.