Paper presented at the Supply&Command conference (https://supplystudies.com/supply-and-command/)
New York, April 19th-20th, 2018.
This paper synthetically discuss the research work of Into the Black Box.
What I am going to present here is part of a collective research project called Into the Black Box, composed by trans-disciplinary young scholars now working in Barcelona, Bologna, Lugano and Paris. Our main focus has been “logistics” – using it in a wide sense.
To give some insights of our theoretical framework, I start from this quote from Marx’s
“The nature of capital presupposes that it travels through the different phases of circulation not as it does in the mind, where one concept turns into the next at the speed of thought, in no time, but rather as situations which are separate in time. It must spend some time as a chrysalis before it can take off as a butterfly”
(Karl Marx, Grundrisse: Notebook V – The Chapter on Capital / Circulation and creation of value)
Exactly two centuries after Karl Marx date of born, before flying like a butterfly, contemporary financialized capital still needs to pass through its chrysalis phase. This peculiar stage is the domain of logistics, whose vast ocean of operations has a worldwide extension and unprecedented speed. Logistics is the strategic intelligence that coordinates the harmonizing of production, circulation and consumption of global capitalism, where an increasingly accelerated high-speed circulation is gaining hegemony over the whole process. The geographical fantasy of logistics conceives the world as a system of continuous flows which are always in motion: a cartography of fluxes conducted through a complex network of logistical infrastructures, the “Supply chain capitalism” described by Anna Tsing.
The so called 4.0 turn and the implementation of logistical systems within “cities” are the new frontiers of contemporary logistics. Our research is an investigation about how these global supply chains hit the ground, mostly adopting Northern Italy’s last ten years as our main case study. Moreover, we state that seeing through logistics is a productive gaze to analyze how globalization processes concretely work – in an historical moment when the very concept of globalization seems to be increasingly vague and at stake of new political dynamics. Secondly, we aim to show the profound ambivalence of these processes, which – rather than being unidirectional as they pretend to be – are always contested, delineating a complex field of tensions and conflicts. Finally, I must say that I discuss here only
preliminary results and draft hypothesis.
So, the first point is the necessity to endow the analysis on “logistics” with a genealogical background, to empower a critical reflection on it and to avoid the risk of being trapped within logistics’ own narratives, that is: seeing logistics as something completely new and without history, that is always the first move to prevent criticism. Even if many studies point to the military transformations as the main historical matrix of contemporary logistical rationality, we think that an alternative genealogical lens through with logistics development has to be understood is provided by Stefano Harney and Fred Moten:
“Where did logistics get this ambition to connect bodies, objects, affects, information, without subjects, without the formality of subjects, as if it could reign sovereign over the informal, the concrete and generative indeterminacy of material life? The truth is, modern logistics was born that way. Or more precisely it was born in resistance to, given as the acquisition of, this ambition, this desire and this practice of the informal. Modern logistics is founded with the first great movement of commodities, the ones that could speak. It was founded in the Atlantic slave trade, founded against the Atlantic slave”
(S. Harney and F. Moten, The Undercommons, 2013, p. 92)
So, throughout modernity logistics has been the art, the technique and the science of mobilizing commodities, armies and subjects. Nonetheless, since what is called the “logistics revolution” – during the Fifties and Sixties of the 20th century – logistics has gradually also become a vector which has deeply reorganized the forms of production and the political spaces too. However, if we follow their argument, we could re-frame the “logistics revolution” more accurately as a “counter-revolution”, considering the role that it played in dismantling the social power accumulated by the Fordist working class within the factories.
If this hypothesis makes sense, we could say that contemporary logistics was founded, recalling Harney and Moten’s quote, against the Fordist working class. In such a way we should read logistics as an important character that has contributed to redefine territories, political organizations, bordering capabilities as well as the whole idea of mobility itself as a response to the dangerous – from a capitalist perspective -concentration of workers and site
From this perspective, logistics enables to start building up a theoretical framework to describe the contemporary urban geographies in new ways. Tensions produced by logistics are a useful angle to problematize the whole conceptual apparatus utilized until now to “write the city”. A logistics gaze could be a new and powerful tool thanks to which we could productively read the transformations of urban textures at the beginning of the XXI century
in terms of urban borders and fluxes, urban subjects and forms of production.
Last point. Logistics has to be conceived as a logic, a matrix of rationality, aiming to flatten the space to foster circulation without interruptions. Logistics is an ideology of a smooth space of fluxes. But, the current emphasis on logistics pervading many managerial discourses is also a symptom of crisis, as Giovanni Arrighi has shown in his historical reading of the world-system theory cycles of accumulation (“The Long Twentieth Century”).
To make it simple: when a system of production goes into crisis – as it was during the late Sixties and early Seventies of the Twentieth century – it historically moves his balance from production to logistics and finance to survive. We still are within this scenario which, I repeat, is a symptom of a systemic crisis.
Therefore, my point is that platforms such as Amazon, food delivery platforms, Uber and the like – which I am going to concentrate on most – are emblematic of this crisis, and are shaped around a twofold rationality: on one hand, the “just in time and to the point” logic of development, aiming at removing any obstacles to commodities and bodies circulation within urban spaces; but on the other hand, they represent the “desperate” need of contemporary capitalism to sell things, making economy working, and extracting value.
Given this theoretical background, the aim of the research group I am part of is to merge labour transformations, urban changing and their mutual connection via digitalization in 4.0 industries using logistics as the lens to analyze them. The hypothesis is that this mobile interpretative machine is a productive prism through which it is possible to analyze the ongoing transformations and to develop new political imaginaries and tools for action.
More precisely, we have worked on the Italian case of the last 10 years adopting a method of enquiry based on a twofold and complementary entry point, looking in conjunction at what can be called the “frontiers of development” and the tensions, struggles and conflicts arising within them. We are developing a synchronic and processual comparison between three case studies in Northern Italy: 1) the long process of conflictual organization within its
logistics sector; 2) the “territorialization” of Amazon; 3) the recent implementation of food delivery platforms. Here I will focus mainly on Bologna. So, I am going to give just very brief insights on them.
During the last decade an intense process of workers organization in the Northern Italy logistics sector has shed light to the new territorial configuration of that region (see Niccolò Cuppini, Mattia Frapporti, Maurilio Pirone, Logistics Struggles in the Po Valley Region: Territorial Transformations and Processes of Antagonistic Subjectivation, South Atlantic Quarterly, 114, 1/2015, pp. 119-134). This sequence of strikes and blockages showed a dense network of infrastructures (streets, warehouses, railways etc.) dedicated to commodities transportation, an “invisible” map sustaining the circulation, distribution and consumption for every cities.
(Bologna’s Interporto – March, 17th, 2013. First Logistics’ General Strike)
As you can see from this map showing where the main Logistics Warehouse Strikes’ took place in Bologna, they are all out of the city center and quite randomly dislocated in the metropolitan area. This way to organize the distribution and its infrastructural apparatus…
(Main Logistics Warehouse’ Strikes in Bologna – 2013/2017)
… Lead us to concentrate on what we labeled as the “Padanian megalopolis” (the Norther Italy densely urbanized area) as the territorial framework of analysis. This map shows how in the last forty years logistics has contributed to the spread out of the historical cities. These struggles made also possible to start reflecting upon the deep intertwining between logistics and urban textures, understanding how circulation is at the very heart of contemporary urban planning and development.
“Padanian megalopolis” (the Norther Italy densely urbanized area) – Seen from a satellite
Anyway… The Italian logistics sector has been based on a low tech industry and a racialized labour force, and it grown on rates of almost 5% per year from 2005 until 2015. Moreover, this struggles has been part of a global dynamics of “turbulence” within logistics sector, as a recent book has wonderfully collected: “Chocke points. Logistics Workers Disrupting the Global Supply Chain” (J. Aimohamod-Wilson and I. Ness, eds.).
Le Havre Port (France) – 2015
The workers used social media to spread the news about their struggles, but the informal communication channels of the migrant communities were definitely more important. And it is remarkable to say that a crucial subjective element for the struggles was what we call the “wind” of the so called Arab Springs, that travelled through the Mediterranean sea.
«Our Tahrir Square is Here!» (IKEA Warehouse protest, Piacenza, 2012)
Picture by Michele Lapini, demo in Bologna, 2013
However, something is changing as a response to this process of conflictual organization. Amazon arrived only in the last four years in the most important Italian cities, but its business is increasing very fast. Amazon is implementing its own infrastructures and, given the turbulences in the logistics sector, we state that Amazon is developing a specific “urban intelligence” to avoid disruptions. Its search for new labour pools (more “Italian indigenous people”) and the mobility of its infrastructures (“just in time urbanism”) is delineating a new frontier of labour and territorial organization of the Padanian megalopolis logistics sector. While since a few years ago most of the logistics companies had their warehouses far away from the city’s cores, with innovations like Amazon and its logics of the “just in time and to the point” delivery, logistics companies are developing a new set of infrastructures and organizational procedures to adapt themselves to this new way of the business. In fact, Amazon is emblematic: from an Internet company to a logistics company, it is developing a new “intelligence of the urban” articulating its infrastructures in the whole metropolitan territory. Amazon sees the cities as a big virtual warehouse where they can move everything with a click.
How a Commodity arrives at your House in Bologna?
If the Italian logistics sector used to be quite fragmented in terms of business models and companies and, as I said, based on weak technological investments and a low skilled labour force, Amazon retail model is increasingly posing new standards and procedures for the whole logistics sectors. And a new territorial map is emerging, connecting huge hubs as the “traditional” logistical warehouse to “sub-contracted” warehouses to small proximity distribution points at cities’ cores, within a new supply chain logic. The process of “territorialization” of Amazon (meaning: the building of its own warehouses and its proximity distribution points) however is not a smooth process. The employment of young Italian labour force and the investment in technology has its ambivalences. And a recent strike on the Black Friday showed this emblematically.
Strike at Amazon’s Fullfillment Center during the Black Friday, 2017
However, Amazon’s well known automatized and mediatized way of labour organizing within its warehouses has become “a model” for the very recent implementation of the food delivery platforms (meaning: the most extreme frontier of contemporary “just in time and to the point” logistical logic) like JustEat, Deliveroo, Foodora or UberEats. This platforms are (still ?) “virtual infrastructures”, and they started their business in some of the main Italian
cities only in the last two years, generalizing and applying Amazon’s model over the city’s historical centers, seeing the cities like a huge automatized logistical warehouse.
Food Delivery Map (London) – Source: www.timeout.com
The door-to-door distribution of food, we can call it ironically the “Tagliatelle Bolognese 2.0”, is a sort of forefront, in the Italian case, of the logistics logic – opening up the market to all other sorts of commodities distribution. This is what we are calling “the new metropolitan logistics”, based on the concrete fantasy of moving everything with a “click”. We are following a collective enquiry in Bologna, Milan and Turin on the new working conditions within food delivery platforms: organized by an algorithm, connected via GPS, their work is set via Whatsapp and the workers move around the city-Google Maps. These ordinary tools are becoming «logistical media [that] calibrate labor and life, objects and atmospheres [becoming] a determinate force in the production of subjectivity and economy» (Rossiter, 2016).
Workers of this economic branch are called “riders”, and they are quite emblematic of the contradictory development of platform capitalism: hi tech ways of work organization are intimately linked with “archaic” logics – above all, they are piecework workers, paid for the delivery they do rather than for the hours they effectively work. Food delivery platforms’ business is almost concentrated within cities’ centers, and they often do not have any physical infrastructure apart from small recruitment offices.
The job pretend to be smart and cool, and I report two quite curious quotes from the WhatsApp group of Just Eat in Bologna. They were sent by the so called dispatcher, a sort of group manager who was working from France – at the beginning of the work shift (see: https://www.infoaut.org/notes/stralci-di-inchiesta-7-nuova-logistica-metropolitana-il-lavoro-di-consegna-nelle-flotte-di-driver-tra-giungle-malesi-jedi-francesi-e-lumache):
“Hello everybody! I hope you are ready tonight! Turn on the engines [note: the workers are all bikers]! Raise the shields of Dark Matter [and other confused fantasy terms…]! Signed: Your French Jedi Master”
“Hi Mompracem Tigers! You are a lot tonight! So we do not fear about the dangers of the jungle, and armed with our krisses we will defeat the evil taxi population of the Malaysia” [He refers to the romances of Emilio Salgari “Sandokan: The Tigers of Mompracem” (1898)]
However, and again, this really recent stream of platform business is being hardly contested by the workers. Spontaneous strikes are going on since the last year and a half, confirming the unstable and striated nature of logistical processes even in their fresh configuration in platform digitalized ways. And attempts for workers organization are rising.
See also: https://www.jacobinmag.com/2017/01/foodora-strike-turin-gig-economy-startups-uber
So, to resume, and using some quotes from “Riders, Social Strike and Urban Dimension: A Critical Dialogue”:
“Both algorithms management and logistics engineering – more and more pervasive in productive processes – design smooth urban space of never-ending flows. Their dream is to prevent any disruption. Data and commodities are expected to move smartly and resiliently under formalized and computed performances. The “human factor” seems to have no place in the organization of labour process. Platforms – combining digitalization with a supply chain organization – are contributing to change working conditions and to renew labour relations”.
Again, this is not a unidirectional transformation. Platforms are also generating frictions and struggles: The recent weave of couriers protests is not only Italian, but rather it erupted all-around Europe.
«A pizza does not worth the risk / Deliveries without rights… Never again!»
Quoting again from “Riders, Social Strike and Urban Dimension: A Critical Dialogue”:
“However, the significance of food delivery platforms doesn’t come from the proportion of the working class that work for them, or from the existence of mass workplaces. Nor does their significance come from a strategically important location within capitalist production – a food delivery platform is not a coal mine or a port! Instead, the significance of these platforms can be found in their relative position within capitalist development. The most advanced nodes of the network of capital are those which are attempting, successfully or not, to dramatically recompose production in order to gain a competitive advantage and sidestep the results of working class organisation”.
Food delivery platforms are one of these nodes in this frontier of development.
See also: https://notesfrombelow.org/article/european-food-platform-strike-wave
Moreover, there is an inextricable relationship at play linking platforms with (digital) transformation of labour and urban spaces changings. The riders are designing a supply chain algorithmically managed and represent an iconic example of the “flexibilization” of both labour and urban spaces. However, I found really intriguing in this respect a slogan of the CLAP (a Paris riders grassroots organization) that says: “La rue est notre usine” (“The street is our factory”), to mean how logistics production is becoming diffused through urban physical spaces and human relations.
Starting from these case studies, the proposal of this contribution has been to discuss the platform rapid implementation within the recent expansion of Norther Italy logistics sector, discussing the trajectory described above (from a low-tech and “traditional” logistics sector to its newly transformations – also in response to struggles), showing how the logistical logics, and the global and platform companies are performing and generating frictions and responses in the labour force and in the urban development. Of course, the “traditional” logistics, Amazon, and the food delivery platforms, do not delineate a progressive substitution, but rather a complex integration and assemblage. To conclude, the emergent trends in labour organization and conflicts, urban planning and logistical capitalism I discussed consent to point on “the new metropolitan logistics” as one of the crucial vector and frontier of what we are calling “platform urbanism”. Therefore, emergent trends in urban transformations should be understood as the complex and unstable result of the intertwining between “the urban intelligence” of “logistics platform” and the continuous frictions and resistances they found on the ground. The “layer” of platform urbanism pushing towards the flexibilization of the urban tissues and the becoming hub of the cities is parallel to the flexibilization of working conditions. However, at the same time, the digital is a field of conflict and counter-organization. Therefore, platform urbanism is a contested process and, it must be said, it is not still clear if it is
designing our immediate future or, on the contrary, if it is going to be a new urban bubble.
New York, 20/04/2018