In 1952, the US government detained Trinidadian socialist C. L. R. James on Ellis Island for four months. The official reason was that James threatened the “morals of the people of the United States.” More likely, it stemmed from the red company the author had kept since immigrating in 1938, the same year he published his seminal book The Black Jacobins.
Rejecting an immigration officer’s suggestion to “drink [his] Papaya juice” in the Caribbean, the fifty-one-year-old subsisted on milk and bread and fought his deportation order. As he awaited the court’s decision, James drafted a long essay on Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, which he mailed, along with a plea for citizenship, to every member of Congress. It had no effect, and he was deported the following summer.
But James soon published the Ellis Island essay as a proper book: Mariners, Renegades, and Castaways. There, he describes Melville’s 1851 novel as the “grandest conception that has ever been made to see the modern world . . . and the future that lay before it.” For him, the book’s fateful whaling voyage was the first to conjure the madness that would subsume civilization a century later: a “world of massed bombers, of cities in flames, of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.” Today, James’s reading of Moby-Dick resonates even more strongly, as we face not only bombers and burning cities but rising oceans.
For those who slept through high school English, Moby-Dick is a loose and high-flown epic that follows a Nantucket whaling crew as they track the eponymous sperm whale. The inscrutable, nigh-insane Captain Ahab drives their ship, the Pequod, across the globe, seeking revenge on the whale that previously ate his leg.
Ahab’s obsession becomes an “independent being of its own,” which “glared out of bodily eyes . . . a formless somnambulistic being, a ray of living light . . . without an object to colour,” Melville writes. The massive creature eventually wrecks the ship and kills most of the crew. After the battle, the “great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago.”
James’s interest in the book derived first from Melville’s sheer literary brilliance: he ranked the novelist’s command of language up there with Edmund Burke’s and William Shakespeare’s. More important, though, was Melville’s deft rendering of modern capitalism in living, breathing characters.
In the Pequod’s captain and crew, James sees the social relations that would produce world wars, genocides, and weapons of mass destruction. And though he couldn’t have imagined it while tearing at bits of bread in jail, the forces Melville animates in Moby-Dick also explain why weather this February in the US broke or tied almost twelve thousand warm temperature records.
James draws out the ways in which the Pequod’s crew and captain illustrate the structure of capitalism. Chief mate Starbuck (yes, the one your coffee is named for) and second mate Stubb are today’s technocratic managers, unwaveringly loyal to rules, procedures, and authority. Below them is the crew, on whose work the ship depends. These “mariners, renegades, and castaways” come from all corners of the earth, James writes, “living as the vast majority of human beings live . . . seeking to avoid pain and misery and struggling for happiness.”
Above them all sits Captain Ahab, the chief executive who wields centuries of accumulated knowledge and labor for his own gain, but who — not unlike Donald Trump and his circle — would blindly throw all of it into the abyss.
For James, the novel forces readers to consider whether this kind of civilization can even survive. The monomaniacal Ahab — whom he describes as the “most dangerous and destructive social type that has ever appeared in Western Civilization” — represents the seed of this self-destruction. The same “living madness” that organized Hitler’s and Stalin’s dictatorships, James argues, fires the mind of Melville’s peg-legged captain. Like them, Ahab would rather destroy his ship and crew than relinquish control or admit failure.
When the Pequod springs a leak, Starbuck begs Ahab to turn back. The captain refuses, replying, “What cares Ahab?”
Today, Trump and many chief executives like him would rather risk inundating the coasts with melted sea ice than seriously concede to countervailing science. On our warming planet, Moby-Dick’s central question has become less an abstraction than an immediate dilemma.
Like Trump and today’s power elite, the captain’s devotion to his cause blinds him to reality. “[Ahab] so identifies with the purpose of his own ideas, his own feelings, his own needs become the standard by which reality is tested and whatever does not fit into that must be excluded,” James writes. Beneath his ostensible dependency on industry and science lies his willingness to destroy both if it serves him. For example, when Ahab’s quadrant doesn’t tell him what he wants — the whereabouts of a sole whale in a nearly infinite sea — he throws the tool down in rage. “Science! Curse thee, thou vain toy,” he yells, then stomps on the instrument.
Equally childish, Trump gauges reality itself against his image of the Donald and the interests of the capitalist class. Anything that doesn’t fit — from crowd size and negative polls to carbon dioxide emissions rising above four hundred parts per million or physical manifestations of global climate change like floods, droughts, and famines — must be “fake news.”
He’s guaranteed he’ll save jobs by pulling out of the Paris Agreement and destroying the Environmental Protection Agency, yet the coal industry’s 76,572 jobs don’t stack up against the last official (but deflated) unemployment count of 7.2 million.
But Ahab is not the only one on the ship seized by the “living madness” of industrial civilization. While Ahab doesn’t care about the danger he’s navigating into, Starbuck does. During the final battle with Moby Dick, a terrible storm breaks. Starbuck, who knows the captain is mad, screams to turn back. The voyage, he says, is doomed; Ahab again refuses to stop. Starbuck takes a musket and contemplates killing his captain. He knows the crew supports him, and he knows it’s the only way to save everyone else. He changes his mind, however, because there is no “lawful way” to do it. “Ahab,” James explains, “dominates him in his innermost soul.” Starbuck puts the musket back on its rack and returns to the deck. The ship continues toward its impending disaster.
Similarly, the lawful ways of technocratic government have yet to slow our gallop toward ecological catastrophe. Unlike our new commander in chief, President Obama and other liberal elites have rightly declared that the science proving man-made climate change is unequivocal. But their tough talk and modest proposals only buckle under the madness Ahab personifies. The US government’s two most significant anti-climate change actions — the Paris Agreement and Obama’s Clean Power Plan — did not seriously challenge the Exxon Mobils of the world, whose proprietary rights and fiduciary obligations to profit lavishly from the ecosystem’s destruction remain unhindered.
Rising seas, extreme weather, worsening poverty and deprivation, what care capitalists?
James and Melville seem to agree that civilization’s survival will ultimately depend on everyday people, not the chief executives or the technocrats. James sees the Pequod’s Native American, Polynesian, black, and white workers as the novel’s real heroes. Unlike Ahab’s “rush to destruction,” the crew exhibits sanity and humanity. While Ahab dines alone in misery, the crew dines together in laughter. With a requirement to work their only common bond, the crew forges an “ever-present sense of community” through “their grace and wit and humour,” James writes.
The narrator, Ishmael, also gushes about these mariners, renegades, and castaways:
I shall hereafter ascribe high qualities, though dark; weave round them tragic graces; if even the most mournful, perchance the most abased, among them all, shall at times lift himself to the exalted mounts . . . thou just Spirit of Equality, which hast spread one royal mantle of humanity over all my kind!
Though they all perish — save for the white New Englander Ishmael, who floats to safety on his native shipmate Queequeg’s coffin — the crew at least refused to see themselves as Ahab saw them: as expendable raw material.
James writes of the danger Melville saw on the horizon: an “industrial civilization on fire and plunging blindly into darkness.” After living in the United States for fourteen years, James also knew what was worth saving. The country, he wrote, possessed potential “unprecedented in history and exceed[ing] the best that most advanced theorists of Europe could hope.”
Trump and the ruling class do not see what James saw, do not recognize why civilization is worth saving. The sea still rolls as it did five thousand years ago, just further and further inland.
Our captain has indeed gone mad. But at least the crew still has a chance to take the helm.