Critical Logistics: A Manifesto

Critical Logistics: A Manifesto

640 360 Into the Black Box

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)


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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 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 conjunction of flows of money with flows of labour produces in this sense a variegated and uneven geography of commodity circulation sailing over the whole surface of the Earth. These currents are commanded by logistical inputs, canalising them within channels and corridors and managing their frequencies: “Logistics turns solids into liquids — or at its extreme, into electrical fields — taking the movement of discrete elements and treating them as if they were oil in a pipeline, flowing continuously at precisely adjustable pressures”. Logistics therefore expresses a specific power of flow coordination, choreographing the commodity circus.

However, apart from logistics’ own imaginary, it is necessary to criticize its liquid and smooth metaphors. If logistics dictates the rhythm of contemporary capitalism, its movements are also always volatile and contested. Moreover, the more the logistics “orchestra” accelerates its flows of commodities, the greater the power of interruptions to those flows. Logistics is a multifaceted reality, a prism containing many worlds, a signifier that refers to multiples meanings.


  1. Logistics is… crisis

Every capitalistic historical era is characterized by the emergence of new forms of power and fresh forms of production. These tend to become hegemonic within a complex mix and assemblage with the precedent forms following unforeseeable sequences, non-linear pathways and continuous recurrences. When these hegemonic forms go into crisis, the crisis of production is usually tackled by the intervention on the geographies (namely the shapes of power) of capital and commodities circulation.

Today we are witnessing an acceleration of these processes. We therefore maintain that it is not a case that since the aftermath of the 2007-2008 financial crash logistics has progressively emerged as a crucial vector within managerial debates and within social conflicts at the global level. Logistics in fact is the desperate search to sell commodities through the imposition of a structure for circulation, configuring itself as the attempt to solve the crisis of capitalist cycles.


  1. Logistics is… an ideology

A logistical critique needs to deepen the analysis of its discursive tissue and its analytics. Logistics was born within the colonial, slave-trading and military worlds to organize, control and manage the movement and its breaks. During the nineteenth century, logistics became a specific matrix of rationality, a logistical logic mixing the aforementioned historical experiences within a unique paradigm of efficiency, speed and reliability. In this context logistics assumes its modern shape, starting to forge the links between logistics, finance and forms of power that are so clear today.

During the twentieth century, logistics became a proper ideology that presents the World as a smooth and without frictions space. In other words: the logistical ideology is a tool with which to scrape away and reveal disruptions, whether they are related to labour conflicts, natural obstacles or war events.

Passing through the emergence of toyotism, the “just in time and to the point” definitively becomes the omni-comprehensive logic sustaining the vision of a world without conflicts. An ideology that arms itself to be trusted.


  1. Logistics is… production of spaces

Logistics was born with the spatial revolution of “modernity”, as a set of technics, knowledges and procedures which allowed the adaptation to the original dimensions arisen on continental and spatial dimensions. It is indissolubly linked with the elementary logic of the production of both aquatic and terrestrial spaces or, in other words, it is the junction on which a sort of “terraqueous logic” is developed. Better said, it is a logic where “terraqueous” is transformed from adaptive logic to logic of the production of space as a whole. Logistics is symbiotic with the building of the so-called “global”, within its edge and within its continuous but nonetheless unfinished development.

Logistics is the “material constitution” of globalizing processes: welding with the original dimensions of the air and of the web; sharpening as the spatial producer of new spatiality partially independent from the State or urban life; defining new judicial systems as well as new social interests. This movement determines a complex rewriting of the Earth’s surface, covering it with new veins and passages for the flow of control which are effects and not causes, and which should always be read starting from the multiplication of borders used for the channeling, regulation or containment of the logistical movements latu sansu.


  1. Logistics is… rhythm

Capital is time which is able to present itself as space, a continuous redrawing of time structures moving within space. Capital is the demand on social time which aims to cancel the “dead time” sedimented between the production and the consumption of a commodities, trying to immediately gain value within profit. In this sense, logistics infrastructures are basically a temporal support of this sequence.

Furthermore, logistics aims to synchronize a sort of “global time”; it aims to articulate labour rhythmics in a fully directed choir, continuously facing different social, individual or political conditions which it encounters all around the globe.


  1. Logistics is… history of our present

Logistics is something with many different historical roots. Logistics genealogies can be traced to commercial and productive transformations, the military and the energy industry, or the counter-conduct of capital on insubordination processes. Logistics is made up of different typologies and strategies, but it is not a novus; rather, it is a process that was born at the dawn of modernity.

The so-called “logistics revolution” of the 1950s and 1960s has been a crucial cornerstone in the reorganization of the productive processes, defining a “critical threshold” which has determined a general reorganization both of the capitalist mode of production and of the various temporal vectors that comprise the genealogy of logistics. A sort of synchronization of historical time links together the history of logistics within its own contemporary operability.

However, we nonetheless guess that getting out from what we might call a kind of “presentism”  through a longue durée analysis allows the exceeding of a setting centered on contemporary time, which has the risk of flattening out the concept of logistics and being charmed by a “logistics ideology”. This is basically the same view that displays contemporary time as a persistent present with no alternatives. The strength of a “logistical gaze” is precisely in the fact that from it we can extrapolate a processual vision of the “global history”, escaping from what we could call an historical and political “amnesia” so useful to the neoliberal project.


  1. Logistics is… class struggle

One of the tracks upon the birth of modern logistics could be noticed in the control of resistances to human-commodity transportation in slave trade, where slaves were extracted from Africa and placed into plantation, passed through de-subjectification and re-subjectification. Furthermore, across the centuries harbours have been main places for conflicts and revolts. Goods handling has been, after all, the branch where unpredictable mixtures of Asian/Latin American class compositions were produced. North American ports were the first ground for black labour organizing at the beginning of the twentieth century. Considering such events, we understand the post-Second World War Logistics Revolution instead as a counter-revolution: it has been implemented in order to dismantle working-class power in the big Fordist factory and to dismember the living labour force on both local and transnational level, as well as the multiple forms of “popular” power collected in different parts of the world through anti-colonial and anti-imperialist struggles.

Therefore the “logistics (counter)revolution” is not just a technical innovation but a political reaction to class insubordination of Fordist workers and to de-colonization processes, forestalling and really building the neoliberal era. It is not coincidence that today’s logistics industry is a world where countless class conflicts are arising inside the more general growing paradigm of struggles in circulation.


  1. Logistics is… politics

Logistics, understood as plan of physical and immaterial infrastructures oriented to circulation, foreruns or at least is the premise for territorial sovereignty. We say it again: the construction of a logistics space, far from being only a specialist issue, entails political rationality and planning. That has been true for the development of States and Empires, as well as for later political structures like European Union.

Nevertheless, today, in the overall transformation of sovereignty forms, logistics is redefining itself as real political form in itself on planetary scale, where power more and more lies on channels of interconnection, in circulation corridors, in global logistics spaces. It is a power that, through logistics, has to be rethought on global level as swinging between processes of institutionalization and movement, within a never totally fixed relationship between political power and social power. Logistics is a form of dynamic and extra-state power, meaning that it doesn’t respond to an established sovereignty but can weave or step aside according to necessities on different territorialities. So, logistics is politics, it makes politics and it talks about politics.


  1. Logistics is… labour

Although the main narratives of logistics image refer to automated chains, logistics is a labour branch that employs millions of people on a global level. Inside current chains of production, logistics expresses the capacity to interconnect and multiply distant and distinct figures and regimes of labour thanks to technologies and transport systems in incessant evolution. Within it are bound up semi-slave and futuristic forms, labour managed through the traditional assembly chain and labour managed through app and algorithms.

Therefore, logistics works as a lab for old and new management techniques, but also as a ground to experiment social conflict organization with the proliferation of unionism paths, sabotage, community involvement, original forms of workers’ composition and autonomous subjectivation. Logistics moves around the ambivalence between labour-force division and connection. So, today it divides and produces original possibilities of connection among workers on global scale, disconnecting them as well as increasing their power starting from the strategic position they seize inside the supply chain.


  1. Logistics is… production

Historically, logistics presents itself as in between production and consumption, the Marxian so-called “circulatory time”. Transportation, movement and warehousing are all activities where capital could cut down the costs of the transfers. Separation, externalization, increasing trade and acceleration thanks to new technologies have drastically changed older production processes so as to minimize labour costs.

Nonetheless, contemporary logistics is moving away from the label of a simple, separate “sector”, and is instead more and more becoming a new rationality which involves the whole cycle. Within the “logistics (counter)revolution”, circulation has become definitively organized on a capitalistic scale, and not just on a mercantile one. In other words, there is a huge capital investment blurring the boundaries between production, circulation and consumption. We are today leaving the peak of the “retail revolution” where the distribution tends to lead production thanks to the logistics rationality that allows retailers to dictate productive standards and rhythms.


  1. Logistics is… reproduction

Logistics “adds value” and “realizes profit”. The problem of value is something visible in the minimization of labour costs, or else in how logistics is – in relation to social labour, which unfolds globally – an instrument of the reduction of socially necessary labor time to the reproduction of the labour force (which means an increase of surplus value).


Such a logistics transformation leads production out of its common locations, occupying the circulation and reproduction sectors. If the “surplus” of social claims (welfare from the “right to salary” viewpoints) blow up the factory model (as well as the specific State-form) where the social spreads into production we witness a sort of “recoil”. The factory production mode reshapes the social. As a consequence the distinction between the productive and reproductive sectors (or between distribution and consumption) are blurring. But, once more, all of this said we are perfectly aware that we are facing an intriguing moment.


  1. Logistics is… technology

The pivotal role that consumption has assumed in today’s society is also a direct consequence of a technological renovation: the lattice paradigm substitutes the “distribution” logic for the “concentration” one; the “hot” technic power is substituted for one of cold informational technology; for the nuclear physic, the cybernetic metaphysic; for the historical horizon of the factory world, the informational one. The “logistics way of production” finds in the so-called “industrial revolution 4.0” an iconic moment. And we are not just referring to the internet hyper-connectivity, but also to the processes called digitalization, automation, e-commerce, gig economy, platform capitalism etc. All of these are nothing but today’s condensation of the genealogical footprints we have discussed above: they are the last frontiers of an intensive and extensive expansion of capital toward a “logistics way of production”.

All of these sparkling forms are resting on the co-presence of high technology and archaism in the exploitation of labour, showing once more the “non-linearity” of technological progression. Indeed, technology embodies a social relationship without being mere “technique”: technique it is not just an inanimate tool, it is rather condensation of the command on labour. Furthermore, logistics produce and imply subsumption of the technical knowledge.

Machines work within a social relation. As fixed capital, machines are the outcome of knowledge extrapolated from the living labour, and the manifestation of the command on the labour itself. But at the meantime, we think that the capacity to take that power back from the fixed capital is where an emancipatory field is possible.


  1. Logistics is… a lens

Logistics is not just a simple paradigm, but it is also a lens through which we can enlighten flows, channels, knots, breaking points and articulations that are often closed off, hidden, obscure, such as the data of a black box. Adopting a “logistics gaze” means to build up an ontology of our present starting from the movements and the resistances of the subjects employed within these flows. In a world where mobility has become an overall paradigm of operation, logistics becomes the odds at stake among different perspectives: between the governance of mobility and the lines of escape, between the movements of capital and the autonomy of labour.

All this said, we want to be clear. We don’t want to present logistics as a new metaphor to describe contemporary capitalism, neither a unitarian nor a univocal logic. We consider it just an important lens that allows us to observe crucial dynamic of our present. In the meantime, we are perfectly willing to acknowledge that a particular attention is due also to what is outside logistics. Taking into account the centrality of the moments of match and friction among logistics rationality, and the multiplicity of the productive worlds that are working according to different logics, is crucial not just politically but also theoretically. Put another way: to have this clear in mind allows us to avoid the picture of self-sufficiency and self-service by which logistics tends to depict itself through the continuity of its operations.


  1. Logistics is… a method

The multifaceted character of logistics imposes a collective interdisciplinary method which is not compressed into the present but rather shows its historical stratifications so as to gain a perspective on possible disruptive lines. We are also proposing here a “political gaze” because we think that today’s studies should change the question they pose from “how” to “why”, from a phenomenology to a hermeneutic of logistics, from a description of how logistics works to a discussion of its “politicity” (and here we mean of its command on labour, on the construction of urban spaces and so forth).

If logistics is “the material constitution of globalization”, the point is to show conflicts and the fields of tension among which it produces itself. Since in our method logistics allows us to face our moment’s “structure” and “subjectivity”, it seems necessary to compose ethnography and theoretical abstractions, which allow a full understanding of “the global”. Into the methodological pluralism should be integrated a “trans-scalarity” which aims to distinguish and understand the continuity, for example, between the movement of the package into the warehouse, the warehouse in the urban context, and the urban context in the global network of supply chains (and vice versa).