In preparation for the G20-summit the Berlin anticapitalist group Theorie.Organisation.Praxis tries to tackle the question: Why should the radical left be interested in logistics?
The G20-summit is a challenge to the radical left. We – as many others – have asked ourselves whether it makes sense to participate in mobilising for protests against such summits. The anti- and alter-globalisation movement has had its day. The current crisis of economy and politics unfortunately is at the same time a crisis of the radical left and its forms of politics. In fact, the circumstances have not improved a bit. Quite the contrary. Neoliberalism has outlived itself and remains present, while the global shift to the right takes to the streets and the parliaments: All this shapes the character of the summit. Despots like Trump, Erdoğan, and Putin will join hands with the well-known administrators of neoliberalism. The decision to hold the summit not somewhere far out but in the city centres shows that rulers feel comfortably in control. To confront this spectacle of a showdown between the bad alternatives of authoritarian neoliberalism and the nationalist turn, which in the end will come to terms with each other as usual – it will be pivotal to escape this wrong opposition. On the occasion of the G20-summit we want to direct the attention of the radical left to the logistics of capital. In the following we sketch out why this is not such an odd idea at all but rather aims at the heart of the current situation.
This article was first published in German in lower class magazine.
During the fourth congress of the German antinational alliance ums Ganze!, which took place last November in Hamburg under the titel reproduce(future), we asked about the relation between technical and social revolution(s). Together with the German journalist Tomasz Konicz and the Italien sociologist Sandro Mezzadra we discussed the role of logistics for global capitalism as well as for a possible communist society. Despite its central importance for global capital, logistics has played only a little role in the German left. Yet, as early as the 1970s Italian activists had begun gathering valuable experiences during the beginning of containerisation in port-cities such as Genoa.
But logistics is not a product of the last century. Beginning as a way to supply armies on campaign with replenishment, logistics today refers to the knowledge, techniques, and companies which are concerned with the transport of commodities and increasingly with the means of production as well. Since the inception of capitalism, that is the production and selling of commodities central to its reproduction, there has been the problem of how distribution can be organised in a fast, efficient, and profitable way. The first big European trading companies, the so called merchants’ capital, already developed early forms of logistics. At the same time this early logistics expanded the traffic of humans and commodities into a global network. This process made possible what would later be called ‘globalisation’.
Logistics neither belongs to production, circulation nor distribution of capital, it is their connection. What is more, it connects the spatial and temporal dimensions of capital. Lastly, it connects its economic, political, military, and territorial powers. Logistics measures the battlefield and provides, as the material counterpart to the internet, its internal communication and information processing. If we need to think the capitalist mode of production from the perspective of its thorough reproduction (materially, bio-politically, ideologically, socially, etc.), logistics is the infrastructure of this reproduction. Why should the radical left be interested in this? There is, at least in theory, a simple, twofold, answer to this question: On the one hand, logistics infrastructure itself creates weak spots in the capitalist mode of production, which can be used by antagonistic forces for resistance. On the other hand, it could be the basis or at least a starting point to overcome the limitations of the local and to make free association possible on a global scale.
A Revolution in Logistics – Logistics today
The invention of the container in the 1950s radically changed transportation. This ‘revolution in logistics’ and its ensuing standardisation gave rise to a new paradigm of mobility, which constituts capitalism in its contemporary, global form. To get a commodity for the lowest costs at the right time to the right place in the right quantity, supply chains not only have been reorganised, but the whole conditions of production themselves have been changed. Just-in-time-production, which was first introduced by Toyota in the 1980s, lead to a harmonisation between production and sale due to a rationalisation in transportation. Efficient organisation of transport has facilitated a model of production in transnational companies which decomposed the whole process spatially and organisationally.
Instead of producing the majority of commodities in a fordist factory at a single place, logistics allows to distribute the steps of production to a range of subcontractors on all sides of the planet, profiting from locational advantages such as low taxes or low unit labour costs. Standardisation made possible an enormous increased in automatization of production. No least, these developments allowed for an attack on (organised) workers’ power which had developed during the 1960s in the big factories. Logistics is capital’s art of war.
Materials for production are in constant flow. Basically, they are ‘warehoused’ between providers and recipients. Through rationalisation they are supposed to be available at any time, whilst their storage costs can be reduced. Digitalisation concentrates this chaining enormously and radically accelerates goods turnover. The process of production is subordinated to the demands of circulation by immediately relaying changes in demand through data networks. Flexible supply-chains optimise themselves continuously.
To simplify, we can say that in contrast to post-war capitalism production processes are more and more controlled by supply-chains. This is especially obvious with corporations like Amazon or Wal-Mart, which we can basically understand as logistics companies disguised as retailers. Wal-Mart specifically time and again sets global standards in the field of logistics, for example by introducing barcodes. In the US the corporation imports the most goods by far, distributes them to its 9000 branches and relies for surveillance and administration of its transport routes on the biggest civil satellite system in the world. Wal-Mart employs more than two million people. 2000 of them attend exclusively to the prediction of their customers’ purchasing behaviour. To run this gigantic network smoothly and efficiently, production has to be completely adapted to the supply-chains.
The consequences are grave, especially for the employees. The corporation is also a trendsetter when it comes to precarious labour conditions and their distribution along gendered and racialized dimensions. Particularly in the service sector applications of logistics lead to new, insecure, and precarious jobs, as is exemplified by delivery services such as Foodora or Movinga.
As we can see, conditions of distribution are forced on production. But this does not in turn lead to a standardisation of conditions of production. Instead, this process comes with a multiplication in the sense of the continued separation and spatial reorganisation of working steps. This goes beyond what until now has been described as the international division of labour as it is not just about internationally operating corporations that relocate their production to cheaper foreign countries. Instead, under the command of valorisation chains, labour power is negotiated and divided transnationally. The class of wage earners is fragmented even further, individualised and isolated. The fragmentation of production processes in many companies and the demands on flexibility made by supply-chains, as well as increases in automatisation, which has been made possible by standardisation through containerisation and logistics, amongst others, escalates the competition between workers and divides the workforce. In this way capital neutralises the bargaining power of the workers, especially in the area of production. This paves the way for lowering security standards and tightened exploitation.
After a period of hedged class struggles by the welfare state at leat in the capitalist centres, capitalism today reminds us everywhere of its particularly bloody beginnings: In critical debates in Latin America, where these characteristics emerge exceptionally brutally, these new-old methods of accumulation are aptly called neo-extractivism. According to Sandro Mezzadra this “extractive dynamic” epitomises the development of capitalism. Therefore, he takes the connection between logistics, extraction of resources and financialisation, as decisive for an understanding of the current composition of capital, of processes of valorisation and of the domination of human labour power. New regulations of labour, new ways of domination and control emerge, as well as new forms of resistance and of workers’ self-understandings, which relate askew to the limits of the global, the national, and the local.
Here is an example to illustrate this: Australia managed to remain relatively untouched by the more severe consequences of the global economic crisis through its taxation-politics and austerity as well as the export of primary materials for production. Due to the worsened economic situation in the buyers’ countries basic commodities could not be sold profitably. An alternative was needed. It was found in so called rare earths: Particular metals necessary for the production of smartphones, tablet computers, and plasma-TVs. The demand for rare earths has multiplied with the advance of digitalisation. An end to this is not in sight. But rare earths are not “freely” available in the ground. They are part of certain mineral ores and only seldom present in economically useful quantities. That is why they have to be filtered from the ores in complicated processes. The latter lead to devastating long-term effects for the environment and humans – not least, because filtering processes leave radioactive residues.
Due to increased own requirements and a series of price manipulations China in 2011, at the time the principal exporter, considerably decreased its export of rare earths. A supply gap emerged in the supply chains for the respective electronic devices. The Australian mining corporation Lynas wanted to use this to its advantage. Under its lead the biggest and most modern plant for processing mineral ores was built near port Kuantan in nearby Malaysia. At the moment, it aims to establish itself a logistic centre (“hub”), in order to guarantee the efficient distribution of extracted materials. In this way it emerges as a site in the world-wide logistic network and positions itself against global competition. This shows how close these sectors are connected and which dependencies follow from it. Today, logistics and its rationalisation are vital to the valorisation of capital. Via this central role it shapes and structures our everyday life and perception not only continuously but also more and more extensively.
Counter-Logistics? Sabotage and the construction of infrastructures of solidarity
If logistics is central to the functioning of the capitalist mode of production and the current regime of accumulation, what are forms of resistance in this context? Obviously a possible point of attack is the meticulously timed handling of goods. Because of the central importance of just-in-time-production there are no margins to ensure shortages are compensated for. The chain which is responsible for destroying workers’ power in the factory has in fact itself become vulnerable to disruptions. These occur, for example, due to earthquakes or technical defects, in short: accidents. This is the irony of the logistical fate of capital: Only recently the gigantic cargo ship “Cape Leonidas” blocked the shipping traffic on river Elbe in Hamburg because of an engine breakdown.
Logistics can also be disrupted on purpose, for example by blockades of supply-infrastructure. It can be disrupted even by those who are usually not working in logistics but are still immediately affected by its impacts. There are some examples for such interventions we can learn from: The Piqueteros, who block important streets, the NoTav-movement which fights against the destruction of the Italian Val di Susa (Susa Valley) by a massive fast-train project, or the recent struggles at Foodora, Avis, or GLS in the UK and Italy. In addition to these cases, the blockade of the port by Occupy Oakland in 2011 was particularly inspiring. As much as the restructuring of capital has diminished the workers’ power to act in the factories and companies, time-critical transport offers many new points of attack for social movements to disrupt valorisation beyond these factories alone.
But an effective anti-capitalist movement needs more than single direct actions. Because capital is organised globally, or, to put it differently, because logistics is the global organisation of capital, our fights have to be transnational as well. More than ever it is evident that capitalism cannot be overcome or even reformed in single countries. This was shown recently in Greece where the social democratic party SYRIZA stepped up to fight the dictates of austerity and by today has turned to become the administrator of it.
Instead we have to ‘follow the logistics’ and connect beyond national borders. Attempts to do this are, for example, the transnational social strike network, the International Tradeworkers Federation (ITF), or the Women Help Women Groups in the area of reproduction. Still, the mere blockade or sabotage of logistics is not enough, because: “[…] especially as communists we have to foreground the problem of the power of constitution, the collective appropriation of the “common” as the basis of radically new social relations, free of exploitation, racism, and sexism.” (Mezzadra). The discussion around the concept of “counter logistics” often gives priority to sabotage. Note, for example, the desire for destruction in the texts of the Invisible Committee. However, this fixation on sabotage and insurrection threatens to confuse the collapse with the overcoming of capitalism. This leads to laying bare the weaknesses and breakpoints of the system and at the same time provokes its restauration, optimisation, and protection. Patching, surveillance, and prevention as matters of the security- or insurance-industry have become profitable businesses within logistics.
A central question of our congress was: Can we appropriate existing technology for emancipatory aims?? Within this context logistics has the same problematic status as the means of production and technique. Like means of production and technique, logistics is determined by capitalism. It cannot simply be severed or abstracted from its capitalist purpose and used to appropriate it for another kind of society. Yet, not only is no large-scale socialisation thinkable without logistics, but we don’t know yet what counter-logistics could look like let alone if there could be a logistics within communism. We see this as our challenge: Technical progress allows us to think about the abolishing of human labour and the global redistribution of goods to satisfy the needs of everyone. Still, it cannot be overtaken and appropriated immediately. Instead we have to “think technique and logistics in a wholly new way” (Konicz). What then remains of the contemporary networks of logistics? Maybe not much, we shall see.
Yet, our struggles need their own logistics, albeit one that is radically different from the capitalist one. Its social character marks it as inherently different to the necessities of valorisation. To reach our goals we unavoidably have to use, appropriate, build and expand what we – as a counter concept to capitalist logistics – here want to suggest calling social infrastructure or infrastructures of solidarity. With this concept we understand things as diverse as social centres, support networks against evictions or repression, self-organised sports- and language-courses, communication channels, solidarity-hospitals as in Greece, or even the simple question if there will be a solidarity-kitchen at the next rally. In this double sense, as a point of attack and a point of departure, logistics could become for the anti-capitalist struggles what the workbench, the assembly line, and the gate of the factory has been for the workers’ movement in the 1970s. Here is a possibility to connect and expand on those social struggles which have been marginalised due to the centrality accorded to the figure of the “worker” and its alleged revolutionary significance: Care-workers with the movements and struggles of refugees, those who are threatened by gentrification with port-workers on strike, and all those in turn with climate-activists, and so on. When we talk of “counter-logistics” it is not enough to emphasise the difference and autonomy of social struggles. Struggles against and surrounding logistics need to be brought together without monopolising them and taking their autonomy. This is what we oppose to the business-as-usual of the neoliberal block as well as the all top bloody realities of the national: Workers and Non-Workers of the World – Unite in Counter-Logistics.