In a recent film by Ermalo Magradze, a Georgian film-maker famous for his trash-movies depicting the country’s life, we see a character sat in a car, he is the Prime Minister, he seems demoralised and he is complaining to his interlocutor:
‘We are stuck Mr Kakha, investors are very difficult to attract’ – says the PM
Why? We have such a great environment!’ – responds Kakha in an incredulous tone.
Suddenly their conversation is interrupted by a phone call : it’s a minister from the Chinese government.
‘Oh – the PM sighs – why does this guy always call me at inappropriate times? You know what they are calling about Kakha? They are calling about the New Silk Road.’.
The PM asks the driver to stop the car and swiftly arranges for simultaneous translation on the other side of the phone as he greets the Chinese emissary: ‘what are you calling about? The corridor connecting China and Europe? Off course! Off course we will support this project! This project is not just profitable for you Mr, it is very profitable for us! Off course!’
The PM speaks slowly articulating each word and looking vacuously straight ahead thus accentuating the uncanniness of this familiar chat between the Georgian PM and the Chinese governemnt official.
As the Prime Minister hangs up he tells his companion that he was invited to the Belt and Road conference.
Over twenty years have passed since feminist geographer Gibson-Graham invited us to ‘make global capitalism lose its erection’ (Gibson-Graham, 2006: 146). To do so, she argued ‘we [must] reject the naturalization of power and violence that is conferred upon the Multi National Corporation (MNC) by the globalization script’ (ibid). Staring from my own experience observing the workings of a MNC committed to the construction of a large scale transit infrastructure in the Republic of Georgia, in this short article I try to respond to Gibson-Graham’s invitation by denuding logistical capitalism of its aura to the limp hustle at its core. Throughout my fieldwork around the construction of the deep sea port of Anaklia, set to become the most important, and desired, logistical hub in the country and a node of the Chinese-led BRI what I have observed has been the assembling not just of a material infrastructure, but of a oozing and powerful aura accompanying the members of the consortium in charge of building the port and legitimising their actions, as technical experts, socially responsible entrepreneurs and, even as aspiring politicians.
The 19th century French word, ‘logistique’, used under Napoleon to describe the art of sustaining warring troops derives from the Geek term ‘logistikos’ indicating mathematical reasoning, rationality and calculation (Cowen, 2014: 27). Rather than focusing, as Cowen does, on the imbrication of war and trade that this etymology and the subsequent history of logistics expansion demonstrates, here I want to reflect upon the aspect of ‘calculation’, and on a specific politics of technological rationality that has constituted the backbone of expanding logistical networks across the world alongside and instrumental to the practices of warfare, extraction and to the conquest of lands and people. It is exactly that rationality that I call into question, exposing it as a concerted hustle sustained by a calculative consensus and guilty of engendering what we call ‘the anthropocene’ and the processes of decay and destruction that are accelerating the end of the world (as we know it) (cf Boyer 2018: 240,Hecht, 2018).
This intervention is just a sketch, but it intends to be a contribution to the strategy inspired by Gibson-Graham’s seminal work and outlined by the feminist collective behind the GENS manifesto (Bear et al 2015) ‘to reveal the messy process that enable capitalism to appear totalizing and coherent’, exposing its vulnerabilities and composition as a means to displace its dominance.
October 2018, it’s a warm morning in the site of my fieldwork, the future deep-sea port of Anaklia, and me and a group of architecture students from a London university are busy putting on high viz gilets and helmets to enter the building site. A greenfield project the port and hub is set to rise at the border with the defacto state of Abkhazia, a site of multiple conflicts and currently still contested territory. The corporation in charge of developing the port is Anaklia Development Consortium (ADC) led by the largest commercial bank in Georgia, TBC Bank and including an US firm Conti International. ADC’s deputy CEO is waiting for us on the balcony of the company’s office; unlike ours, his protective gear is custom made, with his name written on the different pieces. Today, this top manager is about to lead us into the territory. Before the tour we receive an explanation of health and safety measures as well as the state of the art procedures implemented on site. The deputy CEO concludes: ‘That’s a lot of money, that’s a lot of effort and a lot of additional hours! But we do not shy away from that! Because that’s not what our company is about – we are about building a sustainable future and Anaklia Deep Sea Port is necessary to build a sustainable future for Georgia’
We follow the deputy onto the balcony of the office from which we can observe the whole port territory, stretching from Anaklia village up to the edge of the site where a previous attempt to turn the small coastal town into a logistics hub failed after the demise of Georgia’s former President Mikhail Saakashvili, the project’s initiator. A gigantic dredger is stationed in the sea. It’s the Athena One provided by the Dutch company Van Oord, one of the largest marine contractor companies in the world, responsible for, among others, the construction of Dubai’s Palm Island and the second Suez Canal – a fact that we are told at every occasion, by different members of the port management staff. Our host speaks loudly, his English is fluent and his Georgian accent has an American cadence. Every aspect of his behaviour, from his abrupt manners to his choice of words, seems to declare that he is a man who chooses facts over words, a man that can be trusted. In his speech ‘seamleaness’ is often conjured. Like the epithets of Homeric verse, attached to different characters to remind the reader of their characteristics and place them within the cosmology of the narration, the Deputy CEO attaches ‘efficiency’, ‘time-saving’, ‘economic rationality’ to all of the consortium’s actions. He explains to us the current state of the port construction, illustrating the different phases and the choice of contractors employed to perform them. In a rhythmic litany he utters the sentence: ‘That’s time, that’s economics!’ to qualify the company’s choices, underlining how behind every decision a specific set of calculations has been made in order to streamline the construction process. Pronouncing these magic words, in turn, he places himself as a rational actor within the broader narrative of Anaklia’s development. Ultimately, he declares, once the port is built, ‘logistics in Georgia will become faster, cheaper and more efficient for everyone, from the local winemaker from Kakheti to large shipping companies. Everything will be accessible and streamlined [….] the Sky is the limit!’
Logistics and Big Dick Energy
Throughout my fieldwork in and around Anaklia, I observed a new and highly technical language enter the shared vocabulary not just of those involved in the project but of the many people who engaged with it in different ways. The language of logistics is made of measuring units unknown to the lay observer, such as the TEU – the measure of container’s capacity – references to faraway places and processes, such as the one implied by the name ‘post-Panamax’ – used to describe a type of vessels so big that it did not fit into the original canal locks of the Panama Canal – and shared fetishes, like the widespread appreciation for the simple object that is the shipping container. This language that is usually encountered in tedious technical publications or in the control room of a logistics facility, came to be featured in Facebook posts and press releases from the company but also magazines, government speeches, popular films and the many formal and informal conversations I entertained in an around the developing port. While it might not seem inappropriate to describe an infrastructure in the technical language of the trade it is set to facilitate, the ‘new technical clothes” that the Anaklia Port project draped on the efforts to covert the small coastal location on a worldly hub, are more than a description of the port’s components and function, they ‘bring into being the very reality to which they refer’, sustaining the claims of the consortium’s members in virtue of their inscrutable display of calculability (Mitchell 2002: 80, Barry 2013: 24, Harvey and Knox 2015 87-89, Tsing: 1999).
The term ‘Big Dick Energy’ (BDE) first appeared on twitter in 2018 and quickly become part of popular culture. According to its author it ‘refer[s] to guys who aren’t that great but for whatever reason you still find attractive’. The urban dictionary states: ‘the energy speaks for itself. The big dick tells its own story […] it’s confidence without cockiness’. BDE is a ‘condensation of power, sexuality, desire and masculinity’ (McDowell 1997:179), however it is different from the appellative ‘big swinging dick’ attributed to successful traders in the City of London described by feminist geographer Linda McDowell in her ethnography of trade floors (ibid:119). Not the brash showing off of overinflated sexual powers and different from the chauvinist innuendos described by Charmaine Chua as powering the race of shipping companies to ‘always have the biggest [ship]. [I]n a race to have the most impressive monster.’ (Chua 2018: 146). The Big Dick energy conjured by the logistical technocrats that I have observed is a much more subtle assertion of gendered prowess: a quiet confidence and ease with oneself that comes from knowing you master an infallible tool. This tool is ‘logistics’.
Across the countries, like Georgia, who are bidding to become part of the Chinese-led BRI, ‘logistics’ has become a container for all things desirable. Its promise of economic development predicated on infrastructural connectivity, as I have commented elsewhere, has offered a new framework for old geopolitical ambitions and development strategies alike (Gambino 2018; 2019). While actually existing logistics in the South Caucasus largely travels on so called informal or semi-formal networks (Fellings 2019, Polese et al 2018) and the futuristic hubs set to populate the BRI are not yet built, the aura of logistical connectivity is more than ever tangible and embodied by its proponents. Similarly to the PM in Ermalo’s film acquiring a new vitality at the mention of the ‘corridor connecting China and Europe’ or the deputy CEO with his custom made high-viz, across unfinished infrastructural landscapes the masters of logistics can be seen jostling for a piece of profitable future, conjuring the powerful aura of logistics to legitimise their otherwise unconvincing hustle.
Vagabond capitalism – technopolitics for a global hustle
The power to command cargo mobilities exudes an aura that turns the most daring propositions, such as the idea that building a deep sea port on a wetland bordering with a contested war-zone might be a ‘path to sustainable development’, into an accurate estimate. Logistics’ big dick energy turns an agglomeration of blotched processes, chance, environmental disaster and cover-ups into the coherent narrative of connectivity.
A feminist analysis of logistics starts from the unmaking of the specific technopolitics on which it rests, stripping it of its aura to expose the hustle at its core.
Rather than an expert-lead logistics revolution, what we have been witnessing are the operations of what Cindy Katz calls ‘vagabond capitalism’. ‘The phrase vagabond capitalism puts the vagrancy and dereliction where it belongs—on capitalism, that unsettled, dissolute, irresponsible stalker of the world (Katz, 2001: 709). Seeing logistics expansion as vagabond capitalism, in turn, allows us to see expertise as a masquerade fuelled by the (dis)embodied and class-and-race-dependent big dick energy of the ever-knowing ‘economic man’ (cf Mcdowell 1997: 183). Rather than a sequence of smooth flows, vagabond capitalism advances through friction and the constant hustle of its proponents. As Thieme reminds us in her article on the hustle economy, ‘to hustle has generally, since the 1960s, been associated with an underworld of morally and legally dubious practices (Thieme, 2018,10). While Thieme, taking as a starting point the post-colonial lives of Nairobi’s street-dwelling youths, aptly defines what she calls ‘the hustle economy’ as the affirmative political practice of marginalised youth across disparate geographies, I urge in this context an opposite move: namely to turn the lens of the hustle upwards, exposing the embodied economic performance and the ‘dirty work’ of those at the top. Calling out the hustle, in turns, works as a performative practice of rendering precarious the grip that logistical capital has on the varied operations that compose it (cf Mezzadra and Neilson 2019)
Far from being all-knowing, quietly confident disembodied subjects, the implementers of logistics are hustlers, swindlers, con-artists. Their approximation made into confidence by the big dick energy exuded by the promise of seamless cargo mobilities.
The Flaccid Life of Logistics
On the 9th of January 2020, the Georgian government announced the dissolution of its contract with the consortium in charge of implementing the Anaklia port project. This decision, coming after a year of public negotiations, is due to the inability of the company to attract enough investment capital to develop the project. The hustle, this time, has failed. The territory that me and the students observed with the deputy CEO, is now an abandoned expanse of dark soil, carried on by the winds into the houses of the inhabitants of the village.
This failure, however, should not cast the Anaklia project as an exception within a sea of smooth logistical operations; on the contrary, the frictions that lead to its demise are the same as those that operate across the seemingly immense space being connected through transit corridors, hubs and gateways (Tsing 2000, Tsing 2004).
Similarly to Charmaine Chua’s brilliant observation of the childish chauvinism powering the shipping industry (2018) and to Deborah Cowen’s powerful analysis of the Ratzelian environmental determinism underlying logistics’ promise of connectivity (2014 29, 219) and as Irene Peano reminds us in her timely contribution (2019) observing the gendered performativity of logistical rationality is a political endeavour. ‘A confront[ing] and reform[img] of the transcendence-seeking “hypersubjects” (usually but not exclusively white, straight, northern males) that gifted the world the Anthropocene as part of their centuries-long project of remaking the planet for their own convenience and luxury’(Boyer 2018: 239). Their quiet confidence rests on centuries of destruction, their big dick energy is driving our ecosystems to their end.
To go back to Gibson-Graham’s original question: how might we get globalization to lose its erection?
Through a careful work of inquiry and decoding of the technopolitics informing logistical expansion, through exposing the uncertainties it seeks to silence and supporting the lifeworlds from which it extracts its vitality ‘[We] might remember that an erection is fragile and quite temporal and that [capital’s] testicles are certainly no stronger than [our] knees (Marcus 1992: 396 in Gibson-Graham 1996: 126).
I would like to thank Irene Peano for inspiring me to reflect on the gendered dimension of logistical expansion and Sita Balani, Martina Tazzioli, Lewis Bassett, Claire Morse and Adele Tulli for chatting with me about bid dick energy in more or less serious ways and their careful reading and valuable feedback on this text.
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 Region in South-East Georgia famous for its wineries