Gendering logistics: Subjectivities, biopolitics and extraction in supply chains

Gendering logistics: Subjectivities, biopolitics and extraction in supply chains

Gendering logistics: Subjectivities, biopolitics and extraction in supply chains

640 426 Irene Peano

In the domain of critical logistical studies, now a burgeoning field, the analysis of gender relations is largely neglected, being a rare occurrence in scholarly as much as in political, activist and militant reflections. One explanation for this might lie in the fact that logistics, as some analysts contend, is (still) a male-dominated industry – and this in more ways than one. From the warehouse shop floor, the longshore and the ship deck (Bonacich and Wilson 2008; Alimahomed Wilson 2011, 2016; Rivoal 2019) to corporate boardrooms (Chua 2019) and the imaginaries spun by advertising campaigns (Cowen 2014), synchronizing the flows of commodities, but also of people, along global supply chains appears to be largely a man’s job. Whilst in and of itself this should not rule out a gender analysis (quite to the contrary), it may be the case that, alas, academically and politically gender is here implicitly equated with women and the feminine – despite four decades of arguments against this sort of essentialist reductionism, which distorts what feminists have conceived from the very start as an intrinsically relational concept describing a specific dimension of power. At the same time, as this brief essay aims to show, the very assumption of logistics’ masculine character can and should be put to the test for what it blinds us to.

But let us begin with men, who are too often let off the hook through the neutralizing operations of patriarchy. The work of Jake Alimahomed-Wilson certainly stands out as one of the most systematic attempts at considering the gendered (and racialised) dimension in logistics labour relations, with special reference to the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles (among the largest maritime hubs worldwide). Whilst his descriptions of hegemonic masculinities and their evolution among waterfront workers may resonate with those pertaining to other industrial sectors, Alimahomed-Wilson’s analysis of the ‘crisis of masculinity’ that invested longshoremen in Southern California (2011, 2016 ch. 6) arguably points to the ways in which the so-called ‘logistics revolution’ (Allen 1997), and particularly the process of containerization, has had a specific impact on gender relations. Alimahomed-Wilson deals both with processes of homosocial, all-male heterosexual subjectivation and with the discrimination that women faced (and still face) when entering an industry that was previously the exclusive purview of men. He highlights how the containerised mechanisation of the shipping industry disembodies and de-socialises labour, thus depriving workers of one of the constituent elements of their old-time, masculine working-class identification as physically strong. As a consequence, on the one hand male workers have tended to project their virility upon machinery, whose operation they have claimed as an exclusively male prerogative, and, on the other, they have also offloaded their frustrations upon women, who started to enter the profession in the late 1970s as a result of struggles as much as of changing labour patterns. Thus, this case study not only reinforces the analysis of broader trends, most notably the shifts in workers’ subjectivation under the blows of neoliberal restructuring (and the concomitant ‘feminisation’ of work, on which Rivoal also reflected in this blog). It also allows us to identify the specific role played by logistical technologies in this process. Other works (Allison et al. 2018; Bonacich and Wilson 2008) have also explored the patterns of discrimination that invest the women – particularly those who are also racialised – employed in logistical operations in southern California. Differential treatment encompasses several dimensions: from access, wages, and steadiness of work to institutionalised and day-to-day sexism and racism. Tasks where the rates of female labour are growing, if still lower than those of male employees, are especially those involving packaging and distribution, where gender stereotypes about docility and physical aptness to perform specific assignments abound. But (hetero)sexist and racist ideologies have been shown to permeate the logistics industry’s self-narrations at other levels too. In her seminal The deadly life of logistics (2014), Deborah Cowen analyses UPS couriers’ company advertising campaign, in partnership with National Geographic’s series on Great Migrations. Here, the dichotomous tropes of feminine consumption and male labour (both deeply racialised and segmented) are employed alongside the naturalisation of reproductive heterosexuality as ‘a violent competition for species survival’, which, in Cowen’s words, coincides with ‘a necropolitical racial project’ (207-10) that has mobility at its core. The imperative to make commodities flow smoothly is equated to a supposedly biological drive towards movement as the basis of life preservation. Similarly, in her interviews with corporate logistics managers Charmaine Chua (2019) stumbled into the military and sexual metaphors these male professionals use to characterise the strategies of enlargement inherent to the shipping industry. She describes her interlocutors as ‘white men, in ties, discussing […] very big ships – in very deep harbours’ (146). Yet, as she puts it:

juvenile sexual metaphors do more than reveal the performative masculinities embedded in corporate culture. These allusions to phallic imagery and sexual domination are linked to speculative desires about the continued wellbeing of the capitalist future, marking the extra-economic logics inherent in logistical fascination with infrastructural monstrosity and scale. (147)

For both Cowen and Chua, at stake in the heterosexist discourse of logistics’ ideology is more than male domination. Rather, the latter is seen as one of the articulations of a mode of power which relies on the reproduction of certain forms of life at the expense of others. Just as ensuring the smooth circulation of commodities is presented by advertising as a life-and-death matter, a natural reproductive need, in corporate managers’ discourse expansion is deemed necessary for the reproduction of a system which relies on libidinal as much as on calculative operations. Desire, ‘simultaneously intimate and infrastructural’, is indeed a crucial component of such necro-, bio- and geopolitical strife (Cowen 2014: 223). Sexuality thus figures as ‘calibrated to, installed within, and productive of infrastructures of political and economic life’ (Ibid. 224). For Cowen, therefore, ‘cultivating alternatives to logistics space demands not only imagining economy differently but building different economies of (human) natures’ (Ibid.).

Yet, the infrastructural role of sexuality and desire in logistics’ necropolitical underbelly, wherein martial dispositifs blend into civilian trade operations (the central thesis in Cowen’s book), remains for the most part uncharted and hence difficult to overcome or transform. On the other hand, the gendered and sexualised dimension of military operations, and its history, has been the subject of several studies and militant feminist reflections, which represent a promising starting point for this type of inquiry. Among them, the work of Cynthia Enloe (1988, 2000) appears particularly enlightening of the multiple ways in which military logistics has relied on the sexual, affective, reproductive labour characteristically reserved for women.

Women are being used by militaries to solve their nagging problems of “manpower” availability, quality, health, morale, and readiness. Exposing the character and operations of the military as an institution can be done not by concentrating on the usual topic – male soldiers – but by focusing on those women most subject to military exploitation: military prostitutes, military wives, military nurses, women soldiers, women defense industry workers, and “civilianized” defense workers. (Enloe 2000: 44)

From ‘camp followers’ (women servicing the reproductive needs of armies by cooking, provisioning, nursing, washing laundry and providing sexual-affective services, who in Europe and its colonies tagged along armies at least since Roman times and until the early modern period) and prostitutes catering to soldiers (or being forced to do so) to ‘military wives’ and nurses, the role of sexuality and social reproduction to keep war infrastructures alive appears foundational and worthy of fresh insight through the logistical looking glass. Whether or not we consider it exhaustive, the military genealogy of logistics stretching back to late-18th century army reforms is nothing other than the genealogy of technologies devised to fulfil the reproductive needs of troops, and later transposed into the organisation of trade supply. The efficient provisioning and feeding of armies that characterised such military ‘logistical turn’ went hand-in-hand with the ever more formal incorporation of women into the military, most notably as nurses and auxiliary personnel, who substituted the more marginal, despised (because somewhat autonomous and thus feared) camp followers (Enloe 2000: 199-206).

More generally, the logistical organisation of supply chains crucially relies on gendered and sexualised forms of extraction. Not only does exploitation operate through the gendered and racialised fault lines at play in the workplace and in the supply industry’s imaginaries, to which we referred above. Hidden surpluses are also extracted from workers’ households, where feminised re/productive labour is provided in unwaged form. Simultaneously, paid (but devalued) re/productive work of the sexual, affective, and care varieties – from cleaning and cooking to prostitution -, again the prerogative of feminised subjects, is equally necessary for the smooth logistical operations of capital (see Dunaway et al. 2014). From this perspective, and in relation to the workings of supply chains, the divides between productive and reproductive, waged and unwaged, formal and informal labour must once again be challenged and rethought, as much as the ‘logistical-turn’ scholarship has done with the distinction between production and circulation, considering all these as gendering and gendered mechanisms.

Arlie Hochschild (2000) famously defined ‘global care chains’ as those social ties that result from inequalities in re/productive demands (where however sexual needs and desires are glaringly absent) and in the capacity to afford them, that in turn engender the flow of care workers across borders. In my own work (Peano 2017, 2019) I have sought to directly relate the operations of commodity chains, with specific reference to the Italian agribusiness sector, to those of reproductive labour, and particularly of sex work. The logistical reorganisation of agro-industrial production along retail-controlled, global supply chains went hand-in-hand with increasing reliance on migrant labour and its containment through zoning mechanisms, themselves achieved by logistical operations. In this context, an archipelago of labour and asylum seekers’ reception camps, slums and other more or less formalised, controlled or tolerated workers’ settlements has progressively expanded. Here, the externalisation of labour’s reproductive costs was made possible, among other means, also thanks to the supply of cheap services by migrant (especially Nigerian) women for the large army of single, West-African casual male workers. These women’s migration trajectories, often marked by indebtedness, violence and heavy exploitation, have aptly been dubbed ‘pipelines’ by the Nigerian press (cf. Carrisi 2011), sketching a vivid portrait of their ingrained, infrastructural character. Indeed, the labour they provide is ingrained in what Ara Wilson (2016) analysed in terms of ‘the infrastructure of intimacy,’ that enables a range of activities and relations. Furthermore, since it took root in 1980s’ Italy, the sexual labour provided by Nigerian women has been historically tied, on the one hand, to the flow of different commodities along global supply chains, through complex intersections and paths: not only those of the crude oil extracted, among others, by the Italian multinational company, Eni, but also of the toxic waste, arms and drugs smuggled across borders in several directions – sometimes along with, other times in exchange for, the migration of women themselves (Peano 2011). Logistics’ extrastatecraft (Easterling 2014) thus exerts its grip on a range of flows, including that of migrant sex labour. On the other hand, apart from servicing the needs of male migrants in Italian agroindustrial enclaves, the bulk of these women’s soliciting takes place (or used to, before criminalising policies started to be enforced with more virulence in the last few years) along important logistical routes, at the peripheries of cities, in industrial areas and at busy junctions and road segments – catering, among others, to lorry drivers. Again, considering these dynamics means exposing the hidden connections between logistics, extraction and desire.

To sum up, a gendered study of logistics may take into consideration, first, the role of supply chain management in shaping (formal and informal, re/productive, waged and unwaged) workers’ subjectivities, movements and relations, including patterns of household organisation, kinship and intimacy. At the same time, sexuality and desire, themselves innervated by gendering forces, must be reckoned with for their infrastructural role within (as well as against) the simultaneously symbolic and material, logistical operations of capital. To overlook such crucial forces would also mean to foreclose the possibility of imagining concrete, viable opposition against them.


Works cited

Alimahomed-Wilson, J. 2011. Men along the shore: Working class masculinities in crisis. Nordic Journal for Masculinity Studies, Vol. 6, n°1, p. 22-44.

—— 2016. Solidarity Forever? Race, Gender, and Unionism in the Ports of Southern California. London: Lexington Books.

Allen, W. 1997. The Logistics Revolution and Transportation. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 553, 106-116.

Allison, J.E., J.S. Herrera, J. Struna & E. Reese 2018. The matrix of exploitation and temporary employment: Earnings inequality among inland southern California’s blue-collar warehouse workers. Journal of Labor and Society, 21:533–60.

Bonacich, E. and J. Wilson 2008. Getting the Goods: Ports, Labor, and the Logistics Revolution. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press.

Carrisi, Giuseppe. 2011. La fabbrica delle prostitute: Un viaggio nel mercato criminale del sesso, dai villaggi della Nigeria ai marciapiedi italiani. Rome: Newton Compton.

Chua, C. 2019. Indurable Monstrosities: Megaships, Megaports, and Transpacific Infrastructures of Violence. In FutureLand: Stories from the Global Supply Chain. Centre for Research Architecture Goldsmiths University of London

Cowen, D. 2014. The Deadly Life of Logistics: Mapping Violence in Global Trade. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Dunaway W., ed. 2014. Gendered commodity chains: Seeing women’s work and households in global production. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Easterling, K. 2014. Extrastatecraft: The Power of Infrastructure Space. London and New York: Verso.

Enloe, C. 1988. Does Khaki Become You? The Militarization of Women’s Lives. London: Pandora Press.

—— 2000. Maneuvers: The International Politics of Militarizing Women’s Lives. London: University of California Press.

Hochschild, A. 2000. ‘‘Global Care Chains and Emotional Surplus Value.’’ In Will Hutton e Anthony Giddens (eds.) On The Edge: Living with Global Capitalism, 130–46. Lonon: Jonathan Cape.

Peano, I. 2011. Ambiguous bonds: A contextual study of Nigerian sex labour in Italy. PhD Thesis, Department of Social Anthropology, University of Cambridge.

—— 2017. Global care-commodity chains: Labour re/production and agribusiness in the district of Foggia, southeastern Italy. Sociologia del Lavoro, Special Issue: “Spazio e Tempo nei processi produttivi e riproduttivi”, 146: 24-39.

—— 2019. Supply chain affettive tra agro-industria e migrazioni, contenimento e rifugio. In Cuppini, N. and I. Peano (eds.) Un Mondo Logistico: Sguardi critici su lavoro, migrazioni, politica e globalizzazione. Milan: Ledizioni.

Rivoal, H. 2019. Working-Class Masculinities in the Logistics Industry. Into the Black Box,  http://www.intotheblackbox.com/articoli/working-class-masculinities-in-the-logistics-industry/

Wilson, A. 2016. The infrastructure of intimacy. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 41(2): 1-34.


Irene Peano works at the Instituto de Ciências Sociais, University of Lisbon (ERC Advanced Grant “The Colour of Labour: The Racialised lives of Migrants,” grant no. 695573, PI Cristiana Bastos).
The author would like to thank Jake Alimahomed-Wilson and Evelina Gambino for sharing their and others’ work with her.