Introduction to a Special Issue of Work Organisation, Labour and Globalisation

Introduction to a Special Issue of Work Organisation, Labour and Globalisation

Introduction to a Special Issue of Work Organisation, Labour and Globalisation

760 562 Into the Black Box

We publish the draft of our collective introduction to Logistical Gazes, the special issue of Work Organisation, Labour and Globalisation we edited and now available.

WOLG special issue by IBB is OUT NOW!

Logistics is currently emerging, with increasing intensity, as a key disruptive paradigm for interpreting the changes that distinguish contemporary capitalism. Despite its apparent modernity, logistics has long-term historical trajectory, deeply interwoven with the affirmation of the ‘Modern Era’. From the genealogical point of view, logistics was initially framed as a combination of knowledges and techniques related to development of the armies of the state and the creation of global markets (both to sustain military operations on a European and colonial scale, and to support the new intercontinental trade routes – not least the Atlantic slave trade). Over time it progressed from being the art, technique and science of moving people, commodities and armies’ mobility to become a broad and interconnected system that imposed itself as an overall logic of governmentality (Cowen, 2014).

Within this long history we can concentrate on two specific breaking-points for recent developments. The first is usually labelled as the ‘logistics revolution’ of the 1950s and 1960s when – thanks to the large-scale introduction of shipping containers – it became a benchmark of capitalist production and reproduction (Allen, 1997). From this point on, the logistical perspective progressively established itself as the fundamental tool for the re-organisation of productive forms and political spaces, contributing to the development of the overall infrastructure of multiple interconnections that characterises contemporary world society. Put differently, globalisation could be read as a world vision where the spatial dimension is simultaneously both expanded and constricted (Harvey, 2001). This revolution – that can be conceived as integrating circulation into the time of production –  presented logistics as unexplored territory for businesses and management.: ‘the last dark continent’, as the management-guru Peter Drucker imaginatively said. ‘We know little more about distribution today than Napoleon’s contemporaries know about the interior of Africa. We know it is there, and we know it is big; and that’s about all’ (quoted in Cowen, 2014: 50). Moreover, we could consider this non simply as a technical and efficiency-driven revolution for a better productive capitalist organization, but a capitalist transformation to produce new subjectivities and power relations in response to labour-force resistances and struggles into the Fordist factory.

The second key breaking-point we highlight here relates to the progressive application of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) in production, which has led over time to a massive use of digital applications and devices for organising and controlling labour in diffused and connected spaces (Scholz, 2012; Srnicek, 2017). This tendency assumes different patterns and narratives according to how and where it is adopted, leading to varied geographies of impact. For example the so-called ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’ particularly affects manufacture and the movement of goods from Germany, while the ‘Platform Revolution’ has a particularly strong impact on the investment in and provision of services emanating from Silicon Valley in the USA. This turning point can be conceptualised as a shift from the direct discipline of labour into closed spaces to algorithmic management through multiple spaces.

Now, in the second decade of the 21st century, logistics is acting as a leading vector for the decomposition and restructuring of transnational value chains, allowing an undefined expansion of global production networks and configuring a giant wall-less global factory articulated on different scales, from transnational supply chains to urban platforms. A real ‘logistics-driven capitalist mode of production’ can be identifies, bound to deep political transformations .Logistics is no longer an unexplored continent for management but has become instead an obscure and dark logic hidden among the flows, largely invisible both to those who work within these flows as well as for analysts of capitalism who still try to make sense of its dynamics using only traditional categories such as states, regions and borders.  As Deborah Cowen (2014: 51) notes, ‘the work of logistics is concerned precisely with the production of space beyond territory’. In other words, logistics is now not only a matter of the circulation of commodities; it also produces its own spatiality, contributing to the transformation of geographies and influencing a wide range of different fields: from the planning of urban spaces to the mobility regimes governing migration, passing through multiple transnational assemblages of labour-force

Until recently, engineering and management were the only disciplines entitled to study logistics. One of the emblems of such technical approaches is the ‘black box’ that safeguards from indiscreet eyes the rationality of labour organisation and commodity flows. Such black boxes surround us everywhere: from state governance to digital devices, from platforms to urban planning. This supposed technicality of logistics – as a mere matter of the organization of flows, the distribution of spaces and cost-effectiveness – led to non-neutral consequences, for example by reducing the roles and conditions of the labour force to algorithmic variables and the efficiency of tasks.

However, in the last decade a flourishing and varied field of new innovative and critical approaches to this issue (Toscano 2011) has emerged, stimulated by disruptive events, including radical strikes and warehouse blockades by logistics workers. Since the 2000s the research interest on logistics has spread beyond its traditional home in technical and managerial fields into a range of bordering disciplines, from geography to anthropology, from history to political philosophy. Step by step the study of logistics has surged to become a centrally important perspective in critical studies across a range of disciplines.

Critical geographers – as well as scholars of political geography and spatial concepts – represent the core of references in this emerging field. In it, we can include authors who did not address logistics directly as an object of investigation but have nevertheless posed some problems and adopted approaches that could be useful for logistics studies too. For instance, the way in which Henri Lefebvre (1974) analysed the production of space remains interesting for the study of logistics as well as the role and the relevance of the metropolis in the global world. Lefebvre is also interesting for his use of spatiality in the analysis of such modern political concepts as that of state, conceiving the role of logistics in the construction of state space as connected with the development of industrial regions outside urban spaces (with the effect of dismantling city borders through flows). Another ‘traditional’ author whose work can be readapted and used to grasp some related contemporary phenomena is Manuel Castells (1996), who was among the first to study the impact of ICT on society and urban spaces – proposing a distinction between the spaces of places and the spaces of flows. Finally, we can mention the work of Sergio Bologna (2010) who, as early as the 70s, shifted his attention from factory workers to dockers and the role of circulation in capitalist organization.

A few of the scholars who have more recently crossed their researches with an interest in logistics include Neil Brenner (2004; 2014) who has studied the implosion and explosion of spaces, Saskia Sassen (2001) in relation to her analysis of global cities and overflowing territories, and Sandro Mezzadra and Brett Neilson (2013) who examine its role in the context of their political critique of borders.

To conclude this brief and fragmentary review of scholars who have contributes to the creation of a logistical gaze on capitalism’s contemporary operations, we can also include some authors who have focused on logistics, such as Keller Easterling (2014) with her focus on the governance of extra-state infrastructures, Deborah Cowen (2014) in her analysis of the production of space in the context of security and resistance, and Anna Tsing’s (2009) conceptualisation of the human condition in supply chains.

This special issue of Work Organisation, Labour and Globalisation aims to contribute to the further development of critical studies on logistics. It has not been edited by a group of researchers or a research group but as part of wider path of collective and multidisciplinary research on the issues of spaces, logistics and labour, in an initiative named Into the Black Box (see

The essays that make up the special issue have been thought of as different perspectives feeding into a dialogue with this collective research project. Each contribution furnishes tangible case-studies of what we have labeled a ‘logistical gaze’ (Into the Black Box, 2018), that is a peculiar methodological and theoretical approach to understanding the global and variegated dimensions of contemporary: transnational value chains; migration flows; platforms; and digital spaces –to name just a few.

What do we mean by a logistical gaze? In brief, it can by a summarized as a picture of logistics as ars combinatoria, that is, first of all, a capacity for articulation and governance. A logistical gaze thus looks to flows, to mobility regimes, to points of condensation and  to different distributions of powers and roles in order to analyse phenomena. At the same time, it focuses on knots, bottlenecks, resistances and the production of a counter-logistics. In order to achieve this, it has to integrate and modify the ‘traditional’ categories of critical theory with new concepts such as assemblages, hubs, corridors, connections, infrastructures, interruptions, resilience and strategies that could be useful to break the opacity of black boxes and penetrate their logic. In other words, a logistical gaze considers logistics not only as a mere matter of circulation, a neutral technique of management or a simple device to organise mobility in the most efficient way, but rather as a more all-encompassing bio-political apparatus that produces spaces as well as subjectivities, norms and relations (Cuppini, Frapporti & Pirone, 2015).

This makes it necessary to look at logistics as ‘a site of power and struggle’ (Neilson, 2012) among constantly changing ways to adapt life-forms to different environmental and productive conditions. In other words, logistics flattens out spaces, models bodies and produces subjectivities and norms as flexible as the adaptation to the conditions of circulation requires. Labour-force struggles and organisation reveal themselves as central view-points for the understanding of this logistics-driven capitalist mode of production and distribution, based on new global infrastructures, regional systems and new rationalities of production. Or, to put it differently: subjectivities are erupting from algorithmic management and logistics networks as irreducible elements (Dyer-Witheford, 2015).

We would identify five intriguing fields of research for a logistical gaze on contemporary capitalism: first, the politics of logistics politics and new global geographies (such as China’s ‘New Silk Road’ or the many pipelines currently being constructed worldwide); second, work and conflicts in the logistics sites (particularly in  harbours and warehouses, for example in Germany and Italy); third, the logistical mode of urban production (for example in the development of smart city policies); fourth, the logistical logic of platform capitalism (e.g. Amazon or Uber) and the counter-logistics of protests (e.g. strikes of food delivery riders); and finally, the processes and outcomes of the emergent systems of labour measurement and performance management regimes (KPIs). They formed the starting point for some of the investigations of this special issue.

In fact the essays of this special issue, brought together in this shared agenda, furnish a variety of multi-disciplinary logistical gazes on the current global situation, in a mutually-enriching range of into-the-black-box perspectives. The issue is divided into three section: the logistical production of spaces; logistics and labour; and struggles and counter-logistics.

The first section, The logistics production of spaces, brings together a group of essays that analyse the continuous articulation of territorialisation and de-territorialisation processes produced by logistics. Brett Neilson and Tanya Notley focus on the data center industry in Singapore and its impact on labour relations and processes. The contribution by Clément Barbier, Cécile Cuny and Nicolas Raimbault focuses on the production of logistics spaces at a metropolitan and a local scale in relation to local authorities and global firms, comparing the Greater-Paris Region in France and the regions of Frankfurt-Rhein-Main and Kassel in Germany. Alessandro Peregalli investigates the strong articulation of finance, extraction and logistics in Latin America by studying the creation of new infrastructural corridors. Filippo Bignami and Moha Ennaji explore the role of digital devices in producing new migration routes and spatialities for migrants.

The second section, Logistics and Labour, groups essays reflecting on the production of new labour regimes resulting from managerial strategies including competition, the exploitation of racial differences and the use of digital technologies. Kim Moody presents logistics as a field of contradiction between multi-dimensional cross-currents of competition and workers’ organisation. Jake Alimahomed-Wilson focuses on the role of racialisation in amplifying the erosion of labour conditions for logistics. Moritz Altenried investigates the forms of digital technology that enable the management and surveillance of labour in the last mile.

The third and final section, Struggles and Counter-Logistics, showcases essays that explore the role of the, often unexpected, subjectivities that configure logistics as a site of struggles and a conflictual field. Andrea Bottalico presents a literature review on the dynamics of dock labour in European ports, with a particular focus on the labour issues that have emerged in recent years. Daniela Leonardi, Marco Briziarelli, Emiliana Armano and Annalisa Murgia focus their attention on a specific group of logistics workers, food delivery riders, their attempts to organise and their struggles against digital platforms. Evelina Gambino reflects on the development of the New Silk Road project in Georgia, proposing to reposition workers into a visible central position in narratives around the expansion of logistics. Sabrina Apicella and Helmut Hildebrandt compare the workers’ attitudes to strike action at Amazon warehouses.

We warmly thank all the contributors to this issue for their support in the development of this path of collective research, as well as Work Organisation, Labour and Globalisation editor Ursula Huws for her priceless support.


© Carlotta Benvegnù, Niccolò Cuppini, Mattia Frapporti, Floriano Milesi and Maurilio Pirone, 2019


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Cuppini, N., Frapporti, M., Pirone, M., (2015), “Logistics struggles in the Po Valley Region. Territorial transformations and processes of antagonistic subjectivation”, The South Atlantic Quarterly, 114:1, pp. 119-134.

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