This paper explores the ways in which maritime labor, maritime risk, and seafarers’ survival are embedded in the financial logics and practices of the global shipping industry. By employing the notion of “existential arbitrage,” the ethnography moves through the pursuit of global profit to the value of labor as a commodity, human and financial risk, and ultimately the value of human lives, all of which are arbitraged. Arbitrage is a profit strategy that is based on a belief in the equalizing power of the market yet is predicated on and creates difference among commodities in order to create opportunities to generate profit. Existential arbitrage brings anthropological studies of security and conflict and trade and finance together. By taking the interdependence of these subfields seriously and showing how the relationship between them manifests itself in practice, the notion of existential arbitrage uncovers a brutal financial trading strategy that requires and forces the oscillation between notions of valuable life and the valuation of labor commodities in a competitive global market.
Just as containerized goods appear to flow seamlessly across the planet's oceans, internationalized and standardized certificates present seafaring labor as uniform and seamless. But underneath these certificates are the intimate and unequal entanglements of local masculinity norms, age, and kinship ties that sustain the maritime labor supply chain. In this article, we follow how three young, male seafarers from eastern India find ways to contain piracy risks at work and poverty risks at home, and their sense of obligation as men, sons, husbands, and fathers. By delving into the unequal conditions for industrial male workers from the Global South, this article demonstrates how containerized maritime labor commodities are not uniform but are dependent upon economic inequality and intimate kinship ties to be productive.