Tuesday, December 11, 2012


Alex Pareene, who writes for Salon, just wrote a great piece about his experience going on a six day cruise in the Caribbean.  It's largely about how its kinda fun, but not really that fun to do one of these things.  Pareene specifically wrote the piece to be about his own experience, he wanted to ignore the whole "what does it mean" thing:
Here is what I’m trying to avoid: smug condescension at those ugly, fat Americans who are totally unable to appreciate foreign travel unless it’s wrapped in as comfortably American a package as possible. And also: bleeding-heart liberal hand-wringing over the poor lot of the ship’s crew, the overwhelming majority of whom are from very poor nations. Both of those themes are well-worn and boring. I will, though, complain about the food.
And I'd agree that those themes are pretty boring, but I do think his experience illustrates a lot about our own society, something that is hard to notice in our daily lives but through the lens of a cruise it becomes quite visible, if you look right.

The modern ships that cruise lines operate are more than just very big boats (and they are very big, the ship Parneene was on had over 6,000 people on board, more than a Nimitz-class suppercarrier).  They are actually little floating societies that come together for a brief period of time and strangely enough mirror our own society.  The entire experience of being immersed in a pleasure bubble is only possible by the huge (hundreds or thousands) of boat employees, often from developing countries, that work in poor conditions for very little pay.  At the same time the passengers are all sold on the idea that they are equally experiencing a life of luxury but as in American society while everyone may style themselves as being equal their is still a rigid hierarchy with some people getting a even better experience.  It didn't take Pareene long at all before this set in "I envied the passengers with stateroom balconies overlooking the ocean..."  All the while the cruise companies are massively profitable and often pay little or no taxes.

The British film maker Adam Curtis wrote a great history of how this strange industry came into being, and how it's development mirrors that of modern capitalism since the 60's.  Where he points out:
As the cruise-world developed and mutated over the next forty odd years it mirrored the changes in modern capitalism - from a naive utopian belief in transforming the world - to a harsh, narrow utilitarian vision of the free market where everyone above and below decks is expected to behave as "rational utility maximizers"

And today the world of the modern cruise liners also mirrors the present structure of our global society. Millions of people live in a world where they expect the luxuries which were previously only offered to the few. At the same time millions of others around the world struggle daily to create the platform that holds that fake luxury world together.

Meanwhile the small elite who are genuinely rich and powerful float off into the distance on their own boat - and kick anyone off who dares to get drunk and call it a cruise.
It's a very good piece and you should read it.  But I realized it's not just the economics of the cruise that mirrors that of our own society.  Our own reaction to disaster looks a lot like how the elites on the Costa Concordia acted when they got in trouble.  In case you didn't hear, because you were in Antartica with your head in a block of ice, the Costa Concordia was a Italian cruise ship that sank in early 2012 of the coast of Tuscany and the whole disaster was largely caused by the Captain of this ship Francesco Schettino.  Schettino took the ship off course to "buzz" (sail close to) a town on the Tuscan coast and hit a reef, while said buzzing was going on Schettino was wining and dining a Moldovan blonde in her 20s, he then delayed reporting the fact that his ship was sinking and finally he left the ship on a life boat before the evacuation was complete leaving hundreds passengers to fend for themselves.  A more perfect allegory for how our elites behaved before, during and after the 2008 financial crisis (Paul Krugman has taken to calling the "Lesser Depression) I don't think could be written.

But there is one difference between how our elites responded to a situation they had a big hand in creating and how elites responded during the Costa Concordia disaster.  In one radio call from the Italian Coast Guard to Schettino, the Coast Guard ordered Schettino to get back on the ship and finish the  evacuation. At one point in the call, the Coast Gaurd captain, a fellow named De Falco, got so angry at Schettino's stalling that he screamed, "Vada a bordo, cazzo!"  It is difficult to translate angry Italian curse words into English, but it more or less meant "Get the fuck [back] on board!" or "Get [back] on board, for fuck's sake!"  You of course never could say something like that to Jamie Diamond, then you'd be criticizing job creators.

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