The Logistics of Global Capitalism: A Dialogue with Giorgio Grappi, Brett Neilson and Ned Rossiter

For many years Giorgio Grappi, Brett Neilson and Ned Rossiter have been dealing with logistics. Among the first scholars to consider logistics as a central element for understanding contemporary supply chain capitalism, and authors of various articles and essays on the topic, Grappi, Neilson and Rossiter have also collaborated on the realization of tricontinental research projects such as “Transit Labor: Circuits, Regions, Borders” and “Logistical Worlds: Infrastructures, Software, Labor.” Also thanks to their contributions, logistics has escaped the purely engineering or managerial sphere within which it was contained until just a few years ago, presenting an unprecedented and productive perspective useful for understanding the global political present. Understood as the “material constitution of globalization,” logistics today helps to redesign the global geo-political map, giving rise to numerous special economic zones, corridors of material flows, infrastructural spaces, and much more. Its empirical and evident action, however, contrasts an opacity that only a careful analysis around it and its origins can unravel.

The following dialogue aims to be a small contribution to the debate, and was realized in the form of an interview by Niccolò Cuppini and Mattia Frapporti, among the editors of the new issue of Zapruder dedicated to logistics. It was realized in September 2016 in the summer school Investigating Logistics, held in Berlin at the Humbolt University. The original version of the interview, which was conducted in Italian, is being published on Zapruder World.

 

Q: We would like to start with a general overview of why logistics represents today a point of view through which it is possible to analyze the dynamics of global capitalism. In other words: why has logistics been a topic and an important perspective for you and your research?

Rossiter:

It is often difficult to explain and capture the meaning of the massive transformations that have taken place in th world in the last twenty to forty years, transformations impressed by the power of globalization as well as a merely experiential level. How can the intense abstraction of globalization be made concrete? It is a point on which many disciplines continue to compete, including ours. We have never been particularly enthusiastic about going solo in the world of theoretical production, and as a subject of study logistics allows us to search for a model of knowledge production via a more socially expansive approach. A critical study of logistics provides us with something tangible with which we can record change at different scales of analysis. Our collective research in recent years has allowed us to realize an idea of ​​how technical systems, management software, and supply chain infrastructures govern work and life in extractive economies. We have also noted how logistics, by using algorithmic governance techniques, constitutes a new horizon of control that manifests itself in a diverse spectrum of institutional settings, including the university. Although work in ports or warehouses may appear at odds with routine in universities, the software systems used in supply chain work management make clear an architecture of relationships that actually connects different industrial and institutional sectors. In other words, logistics tells us something not so obvious even with respect to universities.

Neilson:

In my opinion, logistics offers a peculiar analytical angle on contemporary capitalism and it is therefore very important to ask ourselves whether this allows a different analysis with respect to the adoption of other perspectives. If we look at finance, for example, we notice that the coordination and control of capital’s channels takes place through extremely abstract calculation processes that have powerful material effects on the territories through which it routinely flows. On the other hand, if we look at the extraction processes we can see how the operations of capital develop in the relations of exchange and impoverishment that concern the planet as a whole, the entire biosphere, and different types of human collectives. I think that logistics provides a privileged angle on the circulation of contemporary capitalism, thus ensuring our ability to track changes in production patterns through and beyond the old question of globalization raised by Ned. We can approach the question through a technical or software perspective, but another possible consideration that we need to consider is that of subjectivity with respect to logistics. We must ask ourselves an unresolved question: “does logistics try to circumvent subjectivity, or does it produce a specific form of subjectivity?”

Grappi:

What has been interesting for me in working on logistics is, first of all, that in some way it requires us to bring the theoretical elaboration on globalization and capitalism back to its concrete and material dimension. While logistics is at the root level in the field of traffic, it is also relevant to how production is continually organized and reorganized, including the production line. For me, and in some ways I arrived “late” on the topic, after having studied post-colonial perspectives on globalization, logistics represents a method for confronting what we could call a sort of constitutional dimension of globalization and a way to observe and connect together different types of processes, from the simplest and material levels of production to the role of information technologies. Secondly, logistics is also a political logic of fragmentation and command that expands well beyond these analytical concerns, permeating contemporary societies. For me, dealing with this double aspect of logistics is also a way of rethinking what could be a critique of the global political economy in the present.

 

Q: Let’s try to focus for a moment on a historical point of view. You all say that logistics has a long history. However, many books and many authors say that, despite this, logistics continues to be a sort of “black box.” For you what is the reason for this? And do you think that structuring a genealogical approach to logistics can make it possible to illuminate this “black box”?

Neilson:

Usually it is stated that logistics has a military history and that it was poured into the civil sphere only in the period after the Second World War. In the first instance, the metaphor of the “black box” perhaps reflects the feelings of paranoia compared to the military, the secrecy surrounding the military codes, etc. I think one of the reasons why the metaphor of the “black box” is so widespread is that it is linked to the training of people like us, who are interested in logistics for the reasons we mentioned earlier. We clearly do not aim to understand the technical details of how logistics algorithms or complex methods of coordination of logistics employees operate. The black box metaphor is often a way to describe our lack of knowledge about these processes. On the contrary, the metaphor of “opening the black box” is very rhetorical because it does not mean that we can and even want to understand the techniques, technologies and codes that make logistics work. It simply indicates that all these factors are important. I do not very much agree with the use of this metaphor because it allows us to project fantasies and paranoia within our analysis. I believe that as critical researchers interested in logistics, we have the task of starting to understand these processes, not starting from technical reasons, but from political ones.

Rossiter:

For all the knowledge gaps we might have with respect to the technical operations related to software systems and the engineering that underpin the formation of infrastructures for the development of intermodal terminals, ports etc., it is still possible to affirm something with respect to the “black box”: that all those things are constitutive and produce in a concrete way. And they produce things that cannot be contained within the “black box.” In this sense, the black box makes possible a world that can be investigated, which is available at an externality, and people’s daily lives are transformed in ways that are not reducible to the parametric logic of the “black box.” In this sense we can also talk about a parametric policy.

Grappi:

I would just like to add that the idea of opening the “black box” suggests that it is necessary for political theory to understand the political dimension of things that are supposed to be techniques. We can think of the role of bureaucracy or the administration of a state and formulate a sort of parallelism to argue that in the functioning of capital, technical procedures, infrastructures, and methods of measurement have a constitutively political dimension that we must recognize and understand. I agree with Brett: the notion that there is something that is impacting on our lives, and that happens beyond our eyes, is a theoretical trap and we must therefore overcome the idea of the “black box” in order to update our ability to think “the secret laboratories of production,” to recapture the Marxian expression: rather than evoking a sort of dark force, we need the right critical tools to develop a political understanding of how the technical objects and procedures we are talking about work.

 

Q: The last question is linked to what Giorgio just mentioned with respect to what we could define as the “logistics policy” and to the fact that logistics usually offers a self-image that tends to de-politicize all its aspects as technical spheres. However, we know that in recent years new forms of “subjectification” have emerged throughout the world within the logistics sector. More generally, we believe that today logistics delineates a field of tension. Its processes are continually challenged, and we also refer to the theme of infrastructures as well as their possible different applications. We would therefore like to ask you some considerations on logistics and counter-logistics, on logistics policy …

Rossiter:

It is a difficult question because counter-logistics can also strengthen logistics, the dominant system of control and governance today. If logistics operates as a cybernetic system that incorporates contingency, then is not counter-logistics merely another externality that can be incorporated for, and thus emptied of, its own political potential? How to operate logistically within logistics is a crucial point at stake in contemporary critical debates. How to intervene concretely is a really difficult question, which cannot always be circumstantiated and located because the image or imagination of logistics is that of universal interoperability, while we know that there are many ways and instances in which interoperability can be broken. So the question of how to intervene in logistics also becomes a question of how to produce forms of anonymity that upset, if not actually reject, the incorporation or expropriation within the enhancement systems. Moreover, one of the things we see is that logistic capitalism obviously has limits. In this sense, infrastructures become continually redundant, overcome by technological developments, different innovations and the logic of the obsolescence of goods. The planet and also the space that surrounds it are populated by obsolete infrastructures: trash. A counter-logistics should therefore ask whether it is possible to reuse these machines to produce different subjectivities, different aesthetic imaginaries, different kinds of possibilities that are not regulated by the accumulation of capital. In this regard, I also see a policy of obsolescence and exhaustion.

Neilson:

The classic way to pose the question is related to what trade unionists sometimes call “strategic position.” Logistics workers have a strategic position within supply chains because their actions can have slowing or cascading effects that spread throughout the chain. But logistics also has extremely sophisticated means of bypassing such actions or interruptions, regardless of whether they are workers’ strikes or storms (just to give two examples). The question could also be rephrased if one considers so-called logistical capitalism and the way in which it positions the subjects. I think of the way in which Stephen Harney and Fred Moten described jaywalking (the ‘crime’ of illegally crossing the road) that sparked the Ferguson riots. For them jaywalking is a way of active rebellion against logistic capitalism. In this instance, there is no political form of the strike but that of riot. There are many debates on how these two modes of political action can interrupt each other. The issue of logistics and counter-logistics must absolutely consider the question of subjectivity, but I think we would limit the analysis if we put these subjectivities solely within the logistical force, because logistics also has many implications in how we think about capitalism in addition to the sphere of production in the strictest sense.

Grappi:

I think it is important to understand and think about logistics “beyond” logistics in the narrow sense of the logistics industry, which is only part of what logistics means. At the same time we need to think about circulation together with other dimensions that are impacted by logistics. I have the impression that the discourse on counter-logistics produces what Brett has just mentioned, which is the idea that if a small group of people with the ability to block a flow of goods or a transport line wields such a considerable collective power, it is unnecessary to think deeply about what it means to organize politically. It is enough, this misguided logic would suggest, to implement some blocks or obstructions at various points in the system. On the contrary, I think that a better understanding of logistics is also necessary for thinking seriously about what a counter-logistics means or, to put it better, what it means to act politically in the “logistical worlds,” to recall the name of a project on which the three of us have worked. To give just one example, if we think about how a supply chain works, we have different options. We can focus on specific supply chains, and this produces models of organization and union action that try to understand and act in that specific industrial chain. But we can also think about how a supply chain, and more generally logistics, is able to take advantage of the differences and imbalances between different local conditions, and even at the local level as conditions that are very different and fragmented (from those formalized and standardized to more informal levels of the economy) are included in the same processes. This opens up a whole spectrum of different political issues that should be explored in more depth. For me, thinking about politics in relation to logistics is a challenge, and thinking about what a political infrastructure might mean in terms of logistics is a crucial issue that somehow brings back the party’s theme: what does it mean today to organize in order to affect meaningful change?