Logistics as capital on speed

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Logistics as capital on speed

Intermodal transport and just-in-time production together constitute what is commonly referred to as "the logistics revolution". Logistics is the ability to control the flows of commodities. It is the science of organising the turnover of capital to maximize efficiencies of transport, communication and distribution. This has, of course, always been important in capitalism, but with the arrival of the container, and the creation of a global network of production and assembly in which components, commodities, workers and consumers move, the lines between production and distrubution have been further blurred. In contemporary capitallism, technologies of coordination and distribution are of the utmost importance, to such an extent that we can almost speak of a reversal of the classical economy in which labour and production were at the heart of things.

Today, it is purchasing power and distribution that drive the economy. Or, more precisely, we can say that logistics blurs the borders between production, distribution and information, or synchronizes streams of production, distribution and information, with a view to optimazing not just the speed, but also the choreography of commodity flows. Hadid's BMW plant is a spectacular expression of this dream. It is a dream of somehow being able to surpass the mode of production by transforming all fixed capital into circulating capital, producing "ultimate profit machines".

Logistics has a long military pre-history, which goes back several centuries or even millennia. Initially, logistics was the ability to supply an army in enemy territory with weapons, materials, food and medicine without slowing down the movement of the army. It was the knowledge of where to stock material and how much to stock, providing support and shelter for the troops. "An army marches on its stomach," as Napoleon allegedly said.[19]

In the 19th century, logistics was theorized as the third fundamental element of military operations after tactics (the act of making decisions during a battle) and strategy (high-level and long-term planning to secure victory). Logistics was the ability not only to sustain military campaigns in enemy territory, but also to target enemy supply chains. It is only fairly recently that logistics has become an industry in its own right, with companies devoted to handling the administration of shipping, and as a new paradigm for capitalist development, becoming more important than production.

Spurred on by Cold War military research into cybernetics and operations theory, logistics started moving into the business environment in the 1970s, but only acquired the scope of a paradigm a decade later. Today, the field of logistics has expanded and conquered not only engineering, but also business studies, management research and policy studies, and is making its presence felt within fields as philosophy and neuroscience.

The origin of logistics as the practical art of moving armies shows that it is not just about moving stuff, but also concerns the art of sustaining or ending life. In the literature of logistics, it is often conceptualized as a life system in itself, described in biological terms of "survival" and "resilience", and the ability to protect movement against threats. This biopolitical dimension of logistics, which has always been present in its military and paramilitary definition, is also present in the new expanded conception of logistics.

As Stefano Harney and Fred Moten write, logistics almost seems to have taken on a life of its own. Supply chains and circulation not only need to be protected, but also to become life itself, the life of trade. This is the culmination of the explosive development of logistics, in which flow and movement are everything. "Traditionally strategy led and logistics followed. Battle plans dictated supply lines. No more. Strategy [...] is today increasingly reduced to collateral damage in the drive of logistics for dominance."[20]

As geographer Deborah Cowen has argued, the entaglement of military and economic force is still key to logistics, and the new logistic paradigm that has spread to a range of other fields like business, management and philosophy should be conceptualized as a kind of war. Today, this primarily means war by trade, with the circulatory flows of goods being used to pit workers against each other, increasing the competition for scarce jobs, driving down wages, and exploiting wage differentials between core and periphery in the world economy.[21]

In a longer historical perspective, logistics is an attempt to manage of find a way out of the overproduction and resulting falling rate of profit that occured in the late 1960s and early 1970s in the dominant economies. Capital is prone to crises of overproduction and logistics is part of the restructuring that has taken place since the early 1970s, as capital has tried to save on social reproduction, excluding workers from capital's metabolism. Logistics is a desperate attempt to cut back on expenses, a hectic search for low costs. Thanks to the intermodal transport system and new telecommunications, capital responded to the protests of the late 1960s by globalizing production, disbanding workers in the West and preventing a revolutionary alternative from materializing.[22] A global labour market was established, in which cheap labour in Asia, and parts of Latin America and North Africa, put pressure on workers in the old centres of accumulation, forcing them into different and more precarious forms of labour.

This is the structural and invisible violence of capitalist accumulation, but as Cowen makes clear, logistics is also related to war and violence in a more visible and concrete way. This is because capital and states have an urgent need to protect their supply lines, from fighting pirates in the Gulf of Aden to scanning containers for bombs. New paradigms of security have come into being during this development, all aimed at keeping the likely disruptions to the supply chain at bay.

Threats to the just-in-time transport systems lie everywhere, from bad weather to flat tyres, failed engines to road closures, national borders to pirates and striking workers. All represent serious damage to the system and this not only require regulation, but also often need to be violently erased. As a consequence, "corporate and military logistics is increasingly entangled", as Cowen writes.[23]

Supply chain security is a central aspect of the current state of emergency in which goods, executives and workers need to crossborders at ever higher speeds, while migrants and terrorists need to be prevented from moving anywhere, at all. "Today capitalist globalization at once creates a single global order and constantly divides it through multiple and shifting practices of bordering."[24]

This is a development in which the distinction between military and police tends to disappear, as Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri write, in which armed conflicts are administered and represented as police actions both within and beyond the borders of the nation state. "War is becoming a general phenomenon, global and interminable."[25] In the form of logistics, war has become a permanent social relation, fusing exploitation and domination in new ways. "Logistics space is produced through the intensification of both capital circulation and organized violence."[26] As the Invisible Committee writes: "Contemporary power has made itself the heir, on the one hand, of the old science of policing, which consists in looking after 'the well-being and security of the citizens', and, on the other, of the logistic science of militaries, the 'art of moving armies', having become an art of maintaing communication networks and ensuring strategic mobility."[27]

If the creation of global supply chains was an attempt to get rid of the rebellious workers in the West by replacing them with more docile and much cheaper workers elsewhere (logistics and finance as fantasies of smoothing out the world by eliminating friction and resistance), it was also an impossible dream of getting rid of wage labour altogether, as if it were possible to create value without living labour, without putting workers to work. In this sense, logistics or integrated distribution management takes on the form of something much more ambitious. It becomes and attempt to remove wage labour and the proletariat from the capital-labour relation that constitutes capital in the first place. It is a fantasy of capital without workers. As Moten and Harney write, "Logistics wants to dispense with the subject altogether. This is the dream of this newly dominant capitalist science."[28]

In the logistic phase of capital, workers are always redundant, as if it will always be possible for capital to find cheaper workers elsewhere who are quite able to do the same work: from France to South Korea to China to Ethiopia and onwards, on the path to total automation. But as Marx stresses at several points in Capital, labour is essential to the valorization of capital. Capital not only risks underconsumption of social unrest, but it is also slowly digging its own grave by trying to free the flow of goods from "human error".

The restructuring of capital, containerization, outsourcing and finance represent the exclusion of more and more people from the circuits of capital. People are not only deskilled as precarious labour, but they are also simply disqualified or excluded. Billions are being transformed into what Michael Denning terms "wageless lives", forced to seek to survive on the margins of the capitalist production process, making do with whatever they can get their hands on.[29] As Endnotes writes:

... for a huge chunk of the worlds's population it has become impossible to deny the abundant evidence of the catastrophe. Any question of the absorption of this surplus humanity has been put to rest. It exists now only to be managed: segregated into prisons, marginalised in ghettos and camps, disciplined by the police, and annihilated by war.[30]

Capital is eating itself, and leading billions to a fate of misery and death. This is the other side of Hadid's BMW plant in Leipzig. The uneven development of capital has, on the one hand, created a complex structure with experimental and spectacular architecture, which seems to defy the logic of building materials, showcasing flexible production without hierarchies, while on the other hand producing absolut immiseration, and underworld of exclusion and slums, uprooting people from their pre-capitalist conditions and preventing them from entering the capitalist production process, forever unable to buy the new BMW 3 Series or even to enter the factory. The result is a complex geography of post-liberal logistic hubs, with BMW, Amazon and DHL side by side--as is the case in Leipzig, where the city has sought to overcome a period of urban decline by making it "favourable" to logistics companies by investing in the airport and in highways--intermixed with zones of post-development and misery.[31]


Exit: Reconfiguration or sabotage

There has recently been discussion of possible communist repurposing of capitalist production in the age of logistics. In the final pages of Valences of the Dialectic, Fredric Jameson asks what it would mean to take over Wal-Mart's supply chains as part of a socialist revolution. Wal-Mart is, of course, the world's largest retail chain, with nearly 11,000 stores importing 700,000 40-foot containers per year from China, where 91 per cent of its products are made. Wal-Mart is one of the largest businesses in the world, with earnings that would make it the 27th most powerful nation were we to translate its earnings into GDP.

Wal-Mart has been the object of numerous criticisms: it is anti-union and barely pays a living wage, and it hires illegal immigrants and promotes child labour (outside the US). But in accordance with his use of dialectics--famously reading Jaws as both confirming the existing social order and pointing beyond it, with a utopian dimension--Jameson goes looking for Wal-Mart's utopian potential, asking what use logistical networks could be put to in a post-capitalist world, so "that what is currently negative can also be imagined as positive in that immense changing of the calences which is the Utopian future."[32]

With Wal-Mart, "the anarchy of capitalism and the market has been overcome and the necessities of life have been provided for an increasingly desperate and impverished public." As such, Wal-Mart is "a model of distribution", Jameson provocatively writes.[33] According to Jameson, Wal-Mart is already somehow transforming free-market capitalism into something different through its enormous apparatus of circulation and consumer surveillance. Wal-Mart might just happen to be Marx's negation of the negation, abolishing the market through the market.

If Jameson is trying to argue for a redeployment of capitalist logistics, others argue that this is impossible, that a repurposing of logistics will perhaps mean a transformation from the current accumulation regime, but not an end to capitalism.[34] Supply chains and logistics as a paradigm have to go. The vast systems of dead labour that capital has erected around us cannot be put to different use: we cannot negate the negation but must destroy it.

The whole apparatus needs to be torn down. It is a matter of rendering useless, not of redeploying. It is a system in which each component is designed precisely to extract surplus value, an infrastructure of hostility and exclusion that is not appropriable for proletarians. But no matter what position is the right one--sabotage and interruption versus attempts to repurpose supply chains--this is the field on which any serious analysis of contemporary, late-capitalist society has to begin. As for architecture, Tafuri was probably not that far off the mark when he concluded that architecture inevitably always ends up serving what he, in straightforward Marxist terms, called counter-revolutionary ends, crushing potentialities and erecting a world of limited possibilities--architecture as one of capital's most important means of negating social space.

19. Napoleon quoted by military historian and former F-15 pilot Jeff Patton in "Logistics and the Western Way of War", in: Military History Online, 2013; http://www.militaryhistoryonline.com/general/articles/logisticswesternway.aspx

20. Harney, Stefano & Moten, Fred: The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study (Wivenhoe & New York: Minor Compositions, 2013) p. 88.

21. Cowen, Deborah: The Deadly Life of Logistics: Mapping Violence in Global Trade (Minneapolis & London: University of Minnesota Press, 2014)

22. The standard work on the decline of the major economies since the 1970s remains Robert Brenner's. See for instance The Economics of Global Turbulence: The Advanced Capitalist Economics from Long Boom to Long Downturn, 1945-2005 (London & New York: Verson, 2006). For an analysis based on a class-war perspective, see Goldner, Loren: "The Historical Moment That Produced Us: Global Revolution or Recomposition of Capital", in: Insurgent Notes: Journal of Communist Theory and Practice, no. 1, 2010; http://insurgentnotes.com/2021/06/historical_moment/

23. Cowen, Deborah: The Deadly Life of Logistics, p. 3.

24. Neilson, Brett & Rossiter, Ned: "Still Waiting, Still Moving: On Labour, Logistics and Maritime Industries", in: Bissell, David & Fuller, Gillian (eds.): Stillness in a Mobile World (London: Routledge, 2011) p. 53.

25. Hardt, Michael & Negri, Antonio: Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire (New York: The New Press, 2004) p. 3.

26. Cowen, Deborah: The Deadly Life of Logistics, p. 11.

27. The Invisible Committee: To Our Friends, p. 84.

28. Harney, Stefano & Moten, Fred: The Undercommons, p. 90.

29. Denning, Michael: "Wageless Life", in New Left Review, no 66, 2010, pp. 79-97.

30. Endnotes: "Misery and Debt", in: Endnotes. no. 2, 2010, p. 51.

31. Cf. Plöger, Jörg: "Learning from Abroad: Lessins from European Shrinking Cities", in: Mallach, Alan (ed.): Rebuilding America's Legacy Cities: New Directions for the Industrial Heartland (New York: The American Assembly, 2012) pp. 295-321.

32. Jameson, Fredric: Valences of the Dialectic (London & New York: Verson, 2009) p. 423.

33. Ibid., p. 422.

34. See the exchandes between Alberto Toscano and Jasper Bernes, in which Bernes takes Toscano to task for being to "positive": Toscano, Alberto: "Logistics and Opposition", in: Mute, 2011; http://www.metamute.org/editorial/articles/logistics-and-opposition; Bernes, Jasper: "Logistics, Counterlogistics and the Communist Prospect", in: Endnotes, no. 3, 2013, pp. 172-201; Toscano, Alberto: "Lineaments of the Logistical State", in: Viewpoint Magazine, no. 4, 2014; https://viewpointmag.com/2014/09/28/lineaments-of-the-logistical-state/