Disaster communism part 3 - logistics, repurposing, bricolage

Disaster communism part 3 - logistics, repurposing, bricolage

A look at the recent debate over capitalist logistics concludes our three-part discussion of disaster communism, bringing us full circle in looking at the repurposing of infrastructure to meet human needs.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

Debating logistics

The purely negative approach to communism discussed in part 2 has already come under criticism from, amongst others, Alberto Toscano.1 This has taken the form of a debate notionally regarding the politics of capitalist logistics — the global network of shipping, ports, warehouses, just-in-time production, stock control algorithms. Toscano argues that contemporary logistics is clearly a capitalist creation. However, he insists that a purely negative approach of sabotage and blockades overlooks the potential, or even the necessity, to take it over at least for a transition period into a post-capitalist society. This is the real substance of the debate, with logistics standing in as a case study for the existing infrastructure of production and circulation in general.

Toscano wrote:
Materialism and strategy are obviated by an anti-programmatic assertion of the ethical, which appears to repudiate the pressing critical and realist question of how the structures and flows that separate us from our capacities for collective action could be turned to different ends, rather than merely brought to a halt.

This seems to echo our criticism of the purely negative advice put forward by Endnotes. However, there are some important differences which are worth teasing out. Toscano approvingly quotes David Harvey:

The proper management of constituted environments (and in this I include their long-term socialistic or ecological transformation into something completely different) may therefore require transitional political institutions, hierarchies of power relations, and systems of governance that could well be anathema to both ecologists and socialists alike.

Harvey's fallacy here is in moving from the (true) premise that a revolutionary movement inherits the old world and not a blank slate, to the unwarranted conclusion that 'proper management' means holding our noses and putting up with hierarchies and governance a lot like the old world for an unspecified transition period. If this sounds familiar, it's because this has been the core leftist-managerialist trope at least since the Second International (1889-1916). Workers! Listen to your betters! The orders are for your own good!

At the core of this trope is a deep distrust of workers' self-organisation, and a reflexive belief that the solution to complexity is hierarchical command. David Harvey has made this argument explicitly with regards to nuclear power and air traffic control. Harvey's arguments rely heavily on straw men ('what if the air traffic controllers all had an endless consensus meeting while you were on a plane!!'), and are persuasively rebutted here.

On the other hand, a response to Toscano by Jasper Bernes in Endnotes offers a very different objection to self-management.2 The problem is not that workers are incompetent compared to technocrats, but rather that workers are only too capable. That would mean self-managing an infrastructure structurally hostile to their needs:

For workers to seize the commanding heights offered by logistics — to seize, in other words, the control panel of the global factory — would mean for them to manage a system that is constitutively hostile to them and their needs, to oversee a system in which extreme wage differentials are built into the very infrastructure.

The Endnotes piece offers a persuasive argument that taking over the logistics infrastructure is not desirable (or desired by the workers in question) — its purpose is to exploit wage differentials between core and peripheral zones — and probably not even possible — since logistical networks have been designed precisely to bypass disruptions such as strikes, occupations or natural disasters, seizure of any node would just see it cut off from the logistical network.3 If you seize a just-in-time warehouse, you've seized an empty warehouse. "Capital attempts to route around these disturbances by building resilience and ‘fault tolerance’ into its financial, logistical and extractive systems", as a piece by Sandro Mezzadra and Brett Nielson puts it.4

The disagreement here seems to centre on treating 'logistics' as a unitary whole (in philosophical terms, a 'totality'). The question is then posed as 'can we take it over, and should we?'. It is only in the final paragraph of the Endnotes piece that a solution to this impasse is hinted, though scarcely elaborated:

This would be a process of inventory, taking stock of things we encounter in our immediate environs, that does not imagine mastery from the standpoint of the global totality, but rather a process of bricolage from the standpoint of partisan fractions who know they will have to fight from particular, embattled locations, and win their battles successively rather than all at once. None of this means setting up a blueprint for the conduct of struggles, a transitional program. Rather, it means producing the knowledge which the experience of past struggles has already demanded and which future struggles will likely find helpful.

Repurposing as bricolage

It is this notion of repurposing as bricolage that we wish to elaborate, as it seems to unify the localised mutual aid of disaster communities with the global problematic of disaster communisation. The term was introduced into social theory by the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss in 1962, and developed by, amongst others, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari:

Bricolage ( ...) the possession of a stock of materials that or of rules of thumb that are fairly extensive and at the same time limited; the ability to rearrange fragments continually in new and different patterns or configurations.

Deleuze and Guattari, with their psychoanalytic hats on, are here concerned with elaborating schizophrenic cognition: the ceaseless connection and reconnection of seemingly unrelated words, concepts, objects. The translators' note to the quoted passage offers a more useful and plainly stated definition: "bricolage: (...) The art of making do with what is at hand." This is precisely the logic of disaster communism.

Toscano is therefore right to insist that "what use can be drawn from the dead labours which crowd the earth's crust in a world no longer dominated by value proves to be a much more radical question" than simply disrupting the logistical network of capital. But he's wrong to consequently endorse hierarchical 'proper management' as a necessary 'transitional' measure. The examples of disaster communities in part 1 amply illustrate this point: 'proper (hierarchical) management' pales in comparison to the efficacy of self-organisation.

This efficacy is premised on a pragmatic and improvised repurposing of whatever is to hand; bricolage. This in turn presupposes that logistics — and by extension, the existing infrastructure in general — need not be treated as an organic whole (a totality).

Today, the main theoretical alterative to organic totalities is what the philosopher Gilles Deleuze calls assemblages, wholes characterised by relations of exteriority.These relations imply, first of all, that a component part of an assemblage may be detached from it and plugged into a different assemblage in which its interactions are different.5

What does this mean in plain terms? Simply that while logistics as a whole may well be irredeemably capitalist (as Bernes/Endnotes argue), it is made up of countless components at various scales: ships, trucks and trains; ports, roads, and railways; computers, algorithms and fibre optic cables; atoms, molecules and alloys; and not to forget, human beings. Just because the current organisation of these parts is optimised to the valorisation of capital does not mean there cannot be other configurations with other optimisations. Indeed, the possible configurations are practically infinite. It doesn’t matter too much whether these wholes are considered as ‘totalities’ or ‘assemblages’ so long as this potential for reconfiguration is recognised. There's no necessary reason a new configuration would need resemble logistics at all.

Most obviously, warehouses trucks and trains can be put to other uses. So can ships — and not just the obvious ones. The current volumes of world trade probably don't make sense without the exploitation of global wage differentials. But ships can serve other purposes, from moving people, to being scuttled to initiate coral reef formation, to being stripped or melted down and remanufactured into other items altogether.6 Communications infrastructure is self-evidently multipurpose, and even the stock control algorithms may have potential uses if hacked, repurposed, and placed in the public domain.

It is clearly impossible to specify in advance whether trucks will be repurposed to deliver food to the hungry, retrofitted with electric motors, stripped for parts, and/or used as barricades. Disaster communities give us ample reason to believe that local, emergent bricolage can efficiently meet human needs even under the most adverse conditions. But emphasising the nature of things as potentially reconfigurable — and stressing the sufficiency of self-organisation to reconfigure them — also informs the wider problematic of disaster communisation. In this way the question is not 'to take it over or to abandon it?' considered as a whole, but how to pull it apart and repurpose its components to new ends: an ecological satisfaction of human needs and not the endless valorisation of capital.

  • 1. Alberto Toscano, Logistics and opposition, Mute.
  • 2. Jasper Bernes, Logistics, counterlogistics and the communist prospect, Endnotes 3.
  • 3. But see this piece by Ashok Kumar for Novara, which argues that "large suppliers have expanded horizontally across the supply chain to include warehousing, logistics and even retail. This development has led to the emergence of quasi-supplier monopolization, leading to greater value capture at the bottom of the supply chain (...) It is now extremely costly for companies such as Adidas and Nike to cut-and-run from large-scale suppliers such as Pou Chen."
  • 4. Sandro Mezzadra & Brett Nielson, Extraction, logistics, finance: global crisis and the politics of operations, Radical Philosophy. This piece compliments the Endnotes one and is worth reading alongside it. The conclusion, proposing a 'counter-operations' echoes Endnotes' advocacy of 'counter-logistics'. The former arguably offers a richer concept in stressing not just cognitive mapping for the purpose of disruption, but also the generation of struggles, alliances, and subjectivities throughout the global logistical-extractive network.
  • 5. Manuel De Landa, A new philosophy of society: assemblage theory and social complexity, Continuum, p.10-11. We agree with Mezzadra and Neilson that "We are not without sympathy for these network and assemblage approaches that insist upon tracing the multiple and shifting relations that compose any social entity or form. But we are wary when such approaches are marshalled in ways that deny analytical validity to the category of capital."
  • 6. For example, a TV show recently attempted to upcycle an entire Airbus A320.


May 22 2014 13:36

Good stuff.

May 22 2014 15:10

At last the exciting conclusion to the series! wink These articles have been amazing. Great work.

May 25 2014 09:28

Actually, I do not get the message here, go be onest.

Joseph Kay
May 25 2014 09:51

I think it's trying to carve out a position between simple self-management and blank slate millenarianism. Simple self-management says we have to take over and manage the existing infrastructure, cos that's all we've got, even if that means putting up with managerial hierarchies, a transitional state, self-managed wage labour etc. A blank slate millenarianism rejects this and puts forward a purely negative vision of communism as 'not what exists'.

'Bricolage' emphasises taking things apart (institutions, production/distribution networks, factories...) and putting them back together in new ways. So it's neither self-managing infrastructure as it is, nor rejecting all that exists in favour of a blank slate approach. You see this kind of needs-based improvisation in disaster situations.