Logistics, Capitalist Circulation, Chokepoints

We must learn to practice a systematic form of disloyalty to our own local civilization if we seek either to understand it or to interact equitably with others formed elsewhere.

– Paul Gilroy, After Empire

Three weeks ago, protestors and activists mounted the longest and most successful port blockade of an Israeli ship in history: on August 16 and in solidarity with Palestine, organizers of Block the Boat for Gaza led between two to three thousand protestors in a raucous march toward the port of Oakland. Then on August 17, 18, and 19th, as the Israeli ship Zim Piraeus attempted to unload its goods on U.S. shores, activists continued to form picket lines at the port’s gateways. The port’s longshoremen, continuing the International Longshore and Warehouse Union’s long legacy of radical politics, honored the picket and refused to unload the boat not once, but twice. The Zim Piraeus sat impotently on the dock for four days straight. Then, without having unloaded a single container, the ship turned around, and went back to where it came from.

Block the Boat for Gaza has since swept the West Coast, spawning similar blockades of Israeli Zim ships in Los Angeles and Long Beach, Seattle, and Tacoma.

Block the Boat Free Gaza

These actions were not the first of their kind by any means. Port blockades have long played a role in the protest of various regimes of power: they were part of boycott strategies against South African Apartheid in 1983, the WTO ministerial in Seattle in 1999, and Mugabe’s government in Zimbabwe in 2007. Not just the domain of longshore workers alone, as many as 25,000 protestors from the hinterland turned up to shut down the port of Oakland on 2 November 2011, during the thick of the Occupy movement. In Hongkong, Chile, Marseille, Durban, Karachi, and Sokhna, similar large-scale port blockades and strikes have occurred in the past two years – often in solidarity with far-flung struggles not immediately related to workers’ self-interest. Coordinated across a range of labor pools, these solidarity struggles have been not only international in their distribution, but also in their demands for global justice.

What are we to make of such episodes of popular protest, its force derived from ordinary people, yet capable of grounding economic flows to a halt? What do the global dimensions of such struggles suggest about the relations between capital production and circulation, and more importantly, the possibilities for its disruption? Are they representative of global plans for solidarity, or only autonomous and scattered instances of protest?

On the face of it, these disruptions to the global supply chain might seem to point to a resurgence of the worker struggles of old: seizing the means of production in order to build a society managed and organized by workers. But whereas the factory floor or plantation is still peopled to some extent with labor power and its attendant promise of sheer force in numbers – power in potentia – today the containerized port has been all but been evacuated of the workers it once depended so heavily upon. Since the 1970s, the revolution in logistics and supply chain management has shifted capital’s focus from its sites of production to its sites of circulation: no longer able to generate substantial profit from the mechanized and labor-saving technologies of factory manufacturing, firms began to experiment with increasing the speed and efficiency through which commodities could circulate across the globe. Thus the rise of business logistics: the management of complex networks that coordinate the stocking, distribution, and transportation of services and commodities in international space.

Sped along by transport deregulation and an associated wave of firm competition and consolidation, the containerization of bulk goods now allows a single dockworker to do what it took an army to accomplish in the past. Innovations in production technologies, such as flexible production, demand-driven manufacturing, mixed model production, and the just-in-time organization of inventory and delivery systems ensure that risks of interruption are reduced by limiting overheads, building ‘fault tolerance’ into logistics systems, and collecting and distributing data about the demand and supply of commodities at ever quicker speeds. Above all, logistics workers now choreograph and coordinate these circulatory flows across great international distance, so that workers across the global supply chain are pitted against each other to increase the competition for scarce jobs, drive down wages, and exploit wage differentials between core and periphery. So massive is the operation of these circulatory flows that over 90% of world trade by value travels across the sea via the behemoth container ships and oil tankers of the shipping industry. If that statistic does not surprise you, try this anecdote: it is now cheaper to ship freshly caught fish from the West Coast of the United States to China to be deboned and filleted by Chinese workers and then shipped back again, than it is to pay for the cost of that work under U.S. labor regulations.

Perhaps this story of logistics is now familiar to those of us labouring in cities, under the capillary management and processing of daily life: what we experience as the bureaucratic and administrative control of the work day. After all, as one journalist marvelled when presented with a thermos of hot coffee overnighted from Minneapolis to Washington D.C., our everyday lives are already “a spectacle of logistics.” And as Alberto Toscano has beautifully shown in his ‘Logistics and Opposition’, logistical management is at the very heart of the city: “The metropolis has the intensification and expansion of supply lines as its precondition, and logistics becomes its primary concern, its foremost product, and the basic determinant of its power.” But we also must remember that, as Deborah Cowen explains in The Deadly Life of Logistics, the logistics revolution did not simply represent the acceleration of the movement and handling of goods from their point of production to consumption. It was, more importantly, a revolution in the spatial calculation of profit maximization, a shift from thinking about the management of individual components to the total function of the logistics system.

With the rise of “integrated distribution management”, logistics was transformed from a least-cost analysis of discrete segments of distribution into “a science of value added through circulatory systems”. Circulation, in other words, has become a part of the production process itself. Today’s logistics networks are not dendritic but haphazard and capillary, snaking across maritime trade routes, railways, truck routes, and warehouses around the world. As a new mode of technocratic rule, logistical life has made the management of the day-to-day machinery of monetary and commodity circulation into the central task of government. More and more, it has become inconceivable to imagine that the general strikes of the last 100 years might be revived in a world where unimpeded circulation is prioritized above all else. For how can one conscientiously withdraw one’s labor in protest if one is excluded from the sphere of production, and awash instead in a sea of planetary capital flows?

As capital has restructured itself away from industrial production, the mass labor force expelled from the factory floors of the world has now spilled into the streets, articulating their dissatisfaction with the state of things through uprisings, strikes, blockades, and riots. But if it seems that these struggles themselves are scattered across the globe, we might do well to also remember that the world of logistics, even as it has fundamentally restructured capitalist accumulation, is itself an irrevocably scattered form: it is at once a form of economic calculation that manages capital circulation in the totality of its system and a coordinated yet dispersed set of regulations, calculative arrangements, and technical procedures that render certain objects or flows governable. If the global supply chain that has dissipated democratic energies and foreclosed collective action can be thought of as a scattered entity, then, the question arises: what are the supply chain’s points of vulnerability? What would it mean to pay special attention to the materiality of capital flows – and to the possibilities that arise from interrupting the massive concentration of commodity capital at sites of its coagulation or through which it flows? How, in other words, might those rendered apparently powerless in the face of a logistical world find ways to recapture capital’s chokepoints?

Chokepoints – the concentration of the circulation of commodities at certain key sites along the supply chain – might thus present the possibility for strikes and protests to articulate resistance not only symbolically but also materially, by literally grounding capitalist circulation to a halt. As Mazen Labban points out, “current theses on the financialization of capitalism suggest a shift from investment in material growth to an investment in financial channels.” Claims to the “financialization of everything” – in which finance capital has become the privileged site for the accumulation of value – has thus left many feeling that they have been increasingly excluded from the production process. Occupying and blockading the chokepoints of capitalist circulation are thus some of the only ways in which these people – the unemployed, the wageless, the contingent laborers – feel that they can participate in struggles against such inequalities. In his excellent essay ‘Logistics, Counterlogistics, and the Communist Prospect’, Jasper Bernes postulates that a counterlogistical project might well be the only way in which we might imagine an intervention into the circulatory logics of late-modern capitalism:

In all regards, then, an intervention into the sphere of circulation is, at one and the same time, an intervention into the sphere of production. And while interventions into the sphere of circulation do not have seizure of the means of production as their horizon in the same way that interventions into production do, it’s unclear that such seizures are even workable today, in most areas, where production is limited to peripheral or secondary items of little use beyond capitalist social forms.

Inviting us to imagine a “logistics against logistics”, Bernes’ counter-logistics project conceives of blockading as an opportunity to exploit the industry’s chokepoints so as to give blockaders “a sense of where they stand within the flows of capital.” On the one hand, then, occupying capital’s chokepoints might be said to interrupt the sphere of capitalist reproduction and circulation where sites of production are increasingly inaccessible and invisible to those in the global North and industrialized cities. On the other, we might also envision such episodes of disruption not as purely destructive but as an ethics that reproduces other possibilities for communization and community where capitalist accumulation has left so many excluded. This is why, among the many stated objectives of Block the Boat activists, one was to “impede the flow of capital” so as to “show the world that we will no longer be complicit with business as usual with the state of Israel.”

It seems easy to forget, given that so many struggles worldwide find articulation and strength in their visibility over social media, that popular struggle interrupts the governed spaces of capitalist accumulation not only symbolically – such as in the tented encampments of Zucotti Park or indigenous circle dances in suburban malls – but also materially: blockades literally create stoppages to the movement of capital from one place to another. Given the planetary reach of capital’s circulatory networks, seizing capital’s chokepoints can have wide-reaching effects on the revenue-generation of those corporations that rely so heavily on the precise control and management of a system that is nevertheless inherently fragile and vulnerable. Moreover, in geographical locales where Wall Street and the stock exchange are far more visible – and formidable – markers of capital accumulation than the factory or plantation, the act of blockading flows might allow us to more fully grasp the extent of capital’s globality and uneven spatiality.

Cargo ship MSC Chitra after a collision with another similar vessel off the Mumbai coast

It is, after all, only through the geographical shift of production sites to the periphery that accumulation through finance could reach its heights in the core. Extracting value from the hard labor of those who toil in the plantation, factory, or oilfield, corporations exploit wage differentials across the globe, unevenly distributing poverty elsewhere while profit accumulates by revenue in global cities such as New York, Singapore and London. The “financialization of everything” might proceed via the core capitalist countries. But capitalists still need to eat, consume products, purchase oil futures, and wear clothes that come to their shores from distant production sites across the sea. Interrupting those circuits breaks the illusion that they circulate without friction, without violence, or without experiencing resistance. Such disruptions allow both supply chain workers and the public to hold capital accountable to the labor it subsumes and attempts to overcome by converging on and seizing chokepoints in the flow of raw materials, energy and food supplies, etc. that the capitalist mode of production has placed in their hands.

Despite the waning power of unions and organized labor engaging in mass strikes at sites of production, today more than ever, the dispersed struggles of the dispossessed are connected by their common struggle within and against the violences of the circulatory process. Novel forms of political power are now resurfacing in the image of old worker struggles, but today with a renewed twist: their radicalism emerges not from their confidence in belonging to any particular working class struggle, but, in fact, to belonging nowhere at all. This condition maps itself onto the increasing frequency with which activists have connected their local struggles to struggles elsewhere, in far-flung places across the ocean. This solidarity has been expressed explosively even in the most recent weeks: by Block the Boat for Gaza; by the “Hands Up, Don’t Ship!” refusal of UPS workers to ship shooting-range targets bearing images of Black men to police departments in Missouri; by indigenous movements’ blockade of the Keystone XL pipeline. Everywhere, in the name of global solidarity, movements have increasingly begun to place their struggles side by side, and to notice the function and importance of materially occupying the chokepoints of capitalist circulation in order to make the unity of their struggles visible. The disorder of things is in the blockade. It might do IR scholars well to notice.

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6 thoughts on “Logistics, Capitalist Circulation, Chokepoints

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