Disrupting distribution: subversion, the social factory, and the "state" of supply chains

Article about the global logistics industry, and the possibilities for disrupting supply chains.

Submitted by vicent on February 17, 2016

The State of Supply Chains

We have entered a time of logistics space. Contemporary capitalism is organized as a dispersed but coordinated system, where commodities are manufactured across vast distances, multiple national borders, and complex social and technological infrastructures. Geopolitical economies that were previously governed largely at the national scale – even though as part of a global system of trading nation states – have been reordered into transnational circulatory systems. The global circulation of stuff is organized around the standard shipping container and the intermodal infrastructures that support its mobility across rail, road, and especially sea. Ninety percent of the world’s commodities move through maritime space, much of it in the form of containers. Like giant Lego blocks, these boxes move in vast and growing quantities, eliminating much of the human labor of distribution. Thomas Reifer goes as far as to suggest that if Marx were with us today, he would begin his analysis with the container in place of the commodity.1

Yet it is not simply the shipping container, but the modern supply chain that is carving contours of contemporary capitalism. Anna Tsing posits the rise of what she calls, “supply chain capitalism,” helpful for its emphasis on difference within structure2. She is unequivocal about the large scale of supply chains, but without sidelining the diversity of forms and experiences across space. For Tsing, “diversity forms a part of the structure of capitalism rather than an inessential appendage.”3 Difference is not only a central element of supply chains; it is through the exploitation of difference as well as its production that supply chains are consolidated. Supply chain capitalism is in effect the socio-spatial ordering of difference and unevenness at a global scale, governed through geoeconomic as much as geopolitical logics. This ordering is the domain of an understudied field that presents itself as technical and apolitical, despite its vital role in global geopolitical economy. Even the World Bank now asserts, “a competitive network of global logistics is the backbone of international trade.”4

If contemporary capitalism assumes the form of the supply chain, it is ordered by the logics of the “revolution in logistics.” This revolution transformed geographies of trade, not simply by coordinating the movement of production to new and distant places. Rather, production itself was systematized, disaggregated into component parts and distributed into complex spatial arrangements. The supply chain now supersedes the factory, which is “stretched” across a highly uneven economic and political geography. In a sense, the vast logistical network is today’s factory, and it is often repeated in the world of business management that competition today takes place on the basis of supply chains not individual firms.

Explicit “securitization” of supply chains is recent, but the entanglement of military and civilian forms is far from new. While Tsing’s is a useful way of conceptualizing contemporary capitalism – a much more material way of saying “globalization” – it tends to civilianize the field and underplay the central role of martial violence. The civilianized story of supply chain capitalism is called into question historically by scholars like Erica Schoenberger, who has argued that the rise of capitalism relied on the logistics of early modern warfare.5 Logistics had a long life as a military art before being imported into the business world in the twentieth century. As I explore in The Deadly Life of Logistics, the revolution in logistics that gave rise to a corporate management science in the post-WWII period was centrally about the mobility of calculation across military and corporate worlds – a public-private partnership that has only intensified recently.

Over the last decade, supply chains have been securitized such that disruption is managed as a security threat and policed by public and private military and civilian forces. Only a few years ago, the imperatives of national security were understood as an obstacle to trade. Security experts bemoaned what was understood as an inherent contradiction between the transnational flows of trade and the national imperatives of border security. In 2002, The Economist could exclaim that there is “a tension between the needs of international security and those of global trade.”6 Only a decade later, with the launch of the US Global Supply Chain Security Strategy, US President Obama could assert the profound compatibility of trade and security. This was a result of a rapid and extensive recasting of logics of national security in terms of how security is conceptualized, designed, and operationalized on the ground. In 2013, the World Economic Forum’s survey on “supply chain resilience” reported, “security measures and supply chain systems are increasingly co-designed to facilitate rather than disrupt trade.”7 They specifically identify the impact of the US Global Supply Chain Security Strategy in catalyzing this gestalt shift, amidst a plethora of policies and regulations implemented at multiple scales over the last decade that could now be said to constitute a global architecture of security.

Countless critical security scholars have highlighted the rise of a shifting cartography of security that is no longer anchored in national territoriality. Marc Duffield maps a geography of imperialism defined by “nodal bunkers, linked by secure corridors and formed into defended archipelagos of privileged circulation.” Duffield emphasizes the ways in which “secure corridors” delineate “global camps” offering a networked map of the world that is also a map of logistics space, without calling it such.8 Martin Coward insists that critical infrastructure – long the target of warring states – has become profoundly constitutive of the contemporary global city.9 Warfare today, following the geography of circulatory systems, is defined by its urban and transnational cartography. But it is logistics that perhaps most clearly maps the geography of imperialism today. It is no accident that the supply chain of contemporary capitalism resonates so clearly with the supply line of the colonial frontier. It is not only striking but diagnostic that old enemies of empire – “Indians” and “pirates” – are among the groups that pose the biggest threats to the “security of supply chains” today.

Disruption as Threat and Tactic

If the supply chain stretches the factory across the corridors, nodes, and seams of logistics space, it is a system that is extremely vulnerable to disruption. Far from a mark of its strength, the securitization of logistics marks its vulnerability. It is precisely because of the potency of disruption that we have seen the assembly of this new architecture of security. The World Economic Forum highlights how the very material form of supply chains – the distributed nature of distribution networks – means that disruption can easily become systemic. They explain, “systemic risks are created or magnified by the way supply chain systems are configured… In today’s globalized and interconnected world, any major disruption… has the potential to cascade through supply chains and permeate other systems.” Using a database created by the US National Counterterrorism Center, PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PwC) tracks more then 68,000 incidents worldwide from its founding in January 2004 through April 2010.10 They report on the steady increase in supply chain attacks, which reached 3,299 in 2010, despite post-2001 securitization. The Panalpina study has been tracking global logistics outsourcing for the past 17 years.11 In their 2013 3PL Logistics Study they assert, “Economic losses from supply chain disruptions increased 465% from 2009 to 2011, reaching a staggering $350 billion.” The salience of disruption in key nodes and chokepoints of circulatory systems in an era of just-in-time logistics is heightened, and yet disruption has long been a powerful tactic of social movements of different stripes.

There is precedent for the contemporary power of disruption across vastly uneven imperial networks. Strikes, blockades, and occupations clearly all have long histories. In their prescient engagement with the “many-headed hydra” of the early Atlantic, Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker investigate the geographies of exploitation, dispossession, and circulation that not only made imperial rule possible but which also brought disparate groups into relation – sometimes intimately and sometimes instrumentally.12 They describe the unlikely ways in which these imperial cartographies also provided a skeleton for the emergence of a surprising flesh of connections across vast spatial networks. Precisely because the organized violence of empire threw spatially dispersed social orders into heterogeneous relations of rule – through exploitation, slavery, incarceration, and colonization, for instance – it also brought oppressed peoples into relation differently. Without guarantee or even intentionality, these relations could at times produce creative solidarities. “Sailors, pilots, felons, lovers, translators, musicians, mobile workers of all kinds made new and unexpected connections,” they write, “which variously appeared to be accidental, contingent, transient, even miraculous.” Connections forged through the violent infrastructures of relations of rule may become the connective tissues of alternative futurities, when occupied differently.

These lessons are instructive and help focus our attention on the widespread resistance that characterizes our era of supply chain capitalism. Reading Linebaugh and Rediker raises the question of the constitution of today’s hydra. Social and labor movements are acting in ways that exploit the specific vulnerabilities of logistics systems – occupying strategic sites in the infrastructures of circulation, as well as organizing creative coalitions across diverse social and spatial locations. One of the most potent forms of disruption to supply chains comes from logistics workers. As Jo Anne Wypijewski asserted at a longshore workers convention in 2010, “The people who move the world can also stop it.”13 And indeed they do. Supply chain security managers repeatedly highlight labor and industrial disputes as the top sources of disruption. These are often assessed interchangeably with disruptions caused by acts of terrorism. For instance, PwC outlines how labor actions in supply chain chokepoints provide a useful proxy for the effects of terror. They use a 2002 lockout in West Coast US ports with its estimated costs of $1 billion per day as a proxy for the impacts of terror attacks in key logistics hubs. As I have detailed elsewhere, logistics workers are also subject to exceptional security measures aimed to pre-empt disruption in ports and transport corridors.14

Over the last decade, there has been a surge of labor actions targeting transportation networks around the world. From Busan15 to Shezhen,16 Chittagong,17 Sokhna,18 Johannesburg,19 Piraeus, Tangiers,20 the Panama Canal,21 and across the West Coast of North and South America,22 workers are taking action at inland and maritime ports, and within massive logistics companies like DHL, DP World, Fed-Ex, Amazon, and Walmart. It is the supply chain itself – its spaces, infrastructures, and flows – that unites these actions. State and corporate efforts to make supply chains more “efficient” through privatization of infrastructure and employment, the gutting of conditions of work, and the increasing securitization of management are also common provocations. It is precisely to fight these sorts of developments that organizations like the International Transport Federation (ITF) and Union Network International (UNI) have been supporting transnational organizing and bargaining efforts like their “Global Delivery” campaign. The campaign works for rights and standards for all workers, “regardless of country or employment status,” by connecting activists within multinational logistics companies.23

While the logistics system is distributed, it is also highly uneven; some nodes and networks are more critical in terms of global circulation then others, meaning some nodes are also more vulnerable than others. As one conservative media outlet analyzing the power of West Coast dockworkers in the United Stated suggests, “The modern, just-in-time global economy is often analyzed as a threat to workers because fluid international markets mean that jobs can be outsourced anywhere. Overlooked is the fact that when companies depend upon international logistics, they are at the mercy of workers who run the cargo network.” Stephen Cohen, co-director of the Berkeley Roundtable on the International Economy, outlines the role of logistics as the critical infrastructure for contemporary capitalism. “This is not just another industry like aluminum or tires, or even automobiles,” he suggests, “It’s more like utilities. This affects the whole economy very broadly and very quickly.”24 Describing the complex organization of supply chain capitalism, Cohen explains, “At some point you start running out of parts, and the factory stops, and the factory that relies on that factory for components stops, and you have a chain reaction that’s really rather a nightmare.” It is not just cargo workers in general that are identified in the article, but the ILWU specifically, “which represents 25,000 dockworkers at 29 Pacific coast ports, [and] is simultaneously the most politically radical, materially comfortable and economically significant group of US workers.” Indeed, the ILWU is exceptional within the US labor movement more broadly, with a strong tradition of internationalism, anti-colonial, anti-racist, and anti-apartheid organizing, initiatives on gender equity, and for the rights of undocumented workers. They have not only taken powerful stands against the national security state and the speeding up of global trade, which have seen them branded a threat to US national security and subject to the use of the Taft-Hartley Act; they have also taken a lead in organizing across supply chains.

Labor actions are of undoubted significance to the flows of global trade, but so are the protests of many other groups whose lands and livelihoods stand in the path of logistics space. In fact, one of the best maps of the resistance of diverse groups that disrupt logistics space are supply chain security reports and policies themselves, which in addition to “industrial disruption,” alternately cite “pirates,” “terrorists,” “indigenous blockades” and the generic “political disruption” as key risks. Supply chain security documents offer valuable inventories of old and new enemies of empire. In the first ever textbooks on the topic of supply chain security, two entire chapters are devoted to the “threat of piracy” focusing on the Gulf of Aden and the so-called “crisis of the Somali Pirate.” As one author explains, “waters off the Indian Ocean coast of Somalia have proved to be a dangerous area that threatens the shipping industry with the offense of piracy.”25 This is despite the fact that so-called Somali pirates have organized in response to the patent disregard for anything approaching international law by individual nations, the EU and the UN in toxic waste dumping and direct military aggression in Somalia. In fact, I suggest that it is in the violent experiments being conducted in the Gulf of Aden under the banner of the crisis of Somali piracy that important new spatial logics of imperialism are being coded in international law.26

According to the Panalpina report, topping the list of “global risks with the potential to cause system-wide disruptions” are “natural disasters and extreme weather” and “conflict and political unrest.” The report cites the Icelandic Volcano eruption, the “Arab Spring” and “the on-going social turmoil in Europe and South Africa, which led respectively to oil price increases and labour strikes” as the most disruptive events of 2011. The “Arab Spring” is not typically thought about in the context of supply chains, but it is especially difficult to overlook the ever-present politics of the Suez Canal – one of the most important spaces in the global architecture of trade flow. Canal and dockworkers were critical in the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak; on February 8, 2011, more then six thousand Suez Canal workers at five service companies initiated a wildcat strike in the cities of Suez, Port Said, and Ismailia. Dock workers followed suit, stopping work at the key port of Ain Al Sokhna, disrupting Egypt’s vital sea links.

Jumping far across space but not time, we could also look to Occupy Oakland in California, where the movement demonstrated some of its most aggressive and sustained analysis and action, and here the port was central. Oakland’s Occupy movement builds on long traditions of radical organizing around a variety of issues, most notably antiracist and labor organizing. Referring to the Oakland port as “Wall Street on Water” in 2011, organizers drew connections between the dramatic decline of the city and the booming prosperity of the port. With the city facing economic crisis, the port was bankrolling revenues of $27 billion per year while operating rent-free on public lands. The city’s financial crisis (acute enough to provoke the closure of public schools) was in part a result of Goldman Sachs’s predatory lending in financing Oakland’s debts. Occupiers drew many lines of connection between finance capital and commodity circulation, one of the most direct connections being Goldman Sachs’s majority ownership of global shipping company SSA Marine, one of the main port operators in Oakland. It was, furthermore, right around this time that the Oakland Army Base (OAB) – once the world’s largest military port complex – was preparing to transform into “a world-class trade and logistics center.”27 The project is led by ProLogis – the world’s largest owner, manager, and developer of distribution facilities. Plans for “Oakland Global” – the military base-cum-logistics facility’s new identity – were solidified when ProLogis and partners were promised hundreds of millions in grants from city, state, and federal government.

The “Arab Spring” and the “Occupy” movements ignited in 2011, with “Idle No More” following closely in 2012. This grassroots movement galvanized a renewed energy of organizing and claims-making in indigenous communities, first in Canada, and then across the settler colonial world. And indeed, this activism has often assumed the form of blockades of rail and highway corridors, making indigenous resistance a key concern for corporate and state security managers north of the 49th parallel. Groves and Lukacs,28 Pasternak,29 and Dafnos’s30 work on the securitization of indigenous resistance exposes the surveillance of indigenous movements by the Canadian state, working in concert with extractive and logistics industries. Of particular concern to this public-private security partnership are the “coordinated efforts of First Nations across the country” and the “economic cost of even a few hours of such coordinated efforts.” Pasternak also highlights a third concern that haunts state and corporate joint efforts at securitization, “that solidarity and coordination between non-natives and Indigenous peoples will encourage the movement to build.”31

Disrupting Futurity

Dismissive accounts of any of these efforts abound that diagnose them as momentary, isolated, or failed. Yet, the supply chain security world refrains from such confident assertions and instead works to secure their failed futurity. No doubt, these movements have encountered limits and obstacles of all kinds, but we might consider them differently to appreciate their enormous potential. In place of a simple assessment of their individual impact in a moment, we might consider their cultivation of networks of resistance that take shape through the geographies of supply chains they seek to contest. Both the networked space and networked relations of supply chain capitalism can be occupied and activated differently. As Linebaugh and Rediker highlight historically, and as Pasternak shows in the present, one of the greatest fears of state and corporate security experts is the aligning of forces across movements. Indeed, a fascinating world of collaboration is underway which can constitute these socio-spatial alternatives. Elaborating on these forms requires engagement with the questions of both disruption and futurity, an engagement that I can only briefly hint at here.

In the world of organized labor, inspiring coalitions are emerging specifically to tackle the challenges of supply chain capitalism, coalitions which themselves are organized along supply chains. A key organizing challenge, and also a mark of their creativity and strength, is the dramatically uneven relations of power along the lines of race, class, gender, sexuality, and status that make workers of the world as different as they are alike. One impressive example of these efforts is the work of the American labor movement forging coalition with Iraqi Dock and Oil workers. This 2008 action marked the first time ever that an American union has struck against a US war. The union rank and file defied the rulings of an arbitrator, who twice ordered them to go to work. The employers’ Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) declared the May 1 port shutdown an “illegal strike.” The action was felt all the way to Iraq, where workers from the General Union of Port Workers in two ports stopped work in solidarity with the ILWU for an hour. A May Day message from the General Union of Port Workers in Iraq to the “brothers and sisters of the ILWU” acknowledged the organizing and solidarity.

Logistics labor has also been active in organizing efforts with other social movements. Some of the best known and most interesting initiatives have seen ILWU collaborate with various Occupy sites around ports. It would be easy to oversimplify complex conversations, but at stake are the distinct interests, experiences, and desires emanating from very different movements – neither of which are anything like internally homogenous. On the one hand, organized labor has decades of experience in movement building, but also relative material comfort, and a stake in the very logistics system to be disrupted. On the other hand, the often younger and less resourced activists are typically also less experienced working in the very kinds of complex coalitions they aimed to build. In telling me about the “failed effort” at a coordinated action in 2011, one ILWU member from Vancouver who acted informally as an intermediary between these movements because of their extensive activist work in the ILWU, the broader labor movement, and feminist, queer, and anti-racist organizing, outlined for me how these different class positionalities and organizing styles, combined with a limited political education around racism, colonialism, and sexism among the largely younger “occupiers,” helped to dissolve that coalition. However, when questioned further about the outcomes of those efforts, they also discussed the lasting effects of these events in terms of coalition building. In fact, they described lasting initiatives around anti-oppression training and education across generations of activists. This lively and intensive organizing work is an achievement in itself while also heralding alternative possibilities for more meaningful action and collaboration in the future. And indeed, we are seeing important organizing work in many of these same ports in response to the summer 2014 assault on Gaza in the “Block the Boat” movement that has been especially active in the port of Oakland, disrupting the Israeli shipping line Zim and preventing it from unloading in August 2014.32 Describing the initiative as “raising the bar” on the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement by engaging in direct economic disruption, the “Block the Boat” movement understands its work as profoundly coalitional:

We have learned from the freedom fighters that ended apartheid in South Africa. We are committed to the values of worker solidarity and the legacy of ILWU who have always waged struggles for justice from the memories of Bloody Thursday to their solidarity with the anti apartheid movement in South Africa in 1984. We are inspired by the resistance to state violence by our brothers and sisters from Ferguson to Oakland. And from the ports of Long Beach, Tampa, New York, New Orleans, Vancouver, Seattle, Tacoma and Oakland, we are holding the US government accountable for its role in making Israel possible.33

Occupy has been in a host of creative conversations that rarely make it to mainstream media. Indeed, across its diverse local iterations, the movement encountered extensive critique about racism, sexism, and especially colonialism in its conceptual and practical efforts, signaled immediately by the frame of “occupying” occupied lands. The New York movement engaged in dialogue with groups like “Take Back the Land” – a group of organizers of color involved in reclaiming foreclosed homes in US cities, who work in solidarity with US indigenous groups.34 And on the anniversary of the occupation of Zuccotti Park, it was the Sylvia Rivera Project that led a teach-in on the site; transgender activists made powerful statements that connected contemporary economic, racial and gender oppression to the histories of settler colonialism and the slave trade in that same area of lower Manhattan. And indeed, the work of Occupy NY increasingly became tied to the longer-term labors of environmental justice initiatives in post-Sandy relief efforts. “Occupy Sandy” turned its attention to the work of community organizing in low income racialized neighborhoods like Red Hook, Brooklyn and the Far Rockaways, Queens. In highlighting alternative trajectories and the people who have labored towards their potential I do not intend to minimize the problems of the politics of “occupation” or the specific struggles between different movements. Rather, recalling these efforts and labors of transformation marks the work of indigenous and antiracist activists who devoted their time, skill, and spirit to these conversations.35

Perhaps more than any other, it is Idle No More that has demonstrated an incredible flair for creative translocal coalition. Idle No More has inspired and connected to anti-pipeline activists in Houston, Palestinian activists in the occupied territories, LGBTQI organizing, and migrant solidarity activists in many places, and has provoked increasing settler solidarity in many forms. Indeed, the Idle No More movement website makes these coalitional politics a cornerstone of the movement by highlighting efforts to engage the “contemporary context of colonialism, and provide an analysis of the interconnections of race, gender, sexuality, class and other identity constructions in ongoing oppression,” and explicitly invites “everyone to join in this movement.”36

I call these coalitions “queer,” intending a playful reference to the seemingly strange nature of the alliances borne out of supply chain capitalism, but also to gesture at the actual LGBTQ organizing and theorizing that has been so lively within many of these movements, and which has engaged the politics of alliance so centrally. Cathy Cohen has made powerful claims about the necessity of coalition in queer politics, arguing that the promise of queerness is a politics in which, “one’s relation to power, and not some homogenized identity, is privileged in determining one’s political comrades.” For Cohen, nonnormative and marginalized political position is the basis for “progressive transformative coalition work.”37 In a conversation about queer-Palestinian solidarity work, Judith Butler suggests: “I think acting in coalitions means finding a way to struggle with other groups where some disagreements and antagonisms remain in play. I am not sure all disagreements need to be solved before we agree to enter a coalition.”38 Butler frames this approach to coalition not as a liberal choice, but as a political necessity. “Some of us are ‘coalitional subjects’ without any choice, and other times we work with people with whom we disagree because certain notions of political equality and justice bring us together.” Conversations within and between movements are often aimed specifically at developing more sophisticated analysis of how differently located peoples experience and engage violence and envision possibilities for alternative futures, and this is key to the work of transforming systems of oppression. It is telling that for Butler, “it is only after people have worked with one another that those antagonisms become less defining or important.” There is further an intimacy between questions of queerness and those of futurity, taken up most artfully by the late Jose Muñoz. Queerness, he asserts, “is essentially about the rejection of the here and now and an insistence on potentiality of concrete possibility for another world.” Queerness brings the future into the present as a deliberate object of scrutiny and action for transformative politics, and a conceptual focus on futurity works in coalition with the kind of movement building work highlighted above. Muñoz writes, “we must strive, in the face of the here and now’s totalizing rendering of reality, to think and feel a then and there.”39 Queer coalition insists that alternative futurity is ripe for cultivation in our violent present.

It is perhaps in transformative alliance that works from and through difference, and which insists that subjects and groups might change, that meaningful “disruption” occurs. The common sense notion of disruption equates it with the act or effect of disabling something, in this case material circulation. In this conception, to disrupt is to stop the normal workings of things for some period of time or in some space. No doubt this is an important way of conceiving disruption, and acts of this kind can produce the kinds of effects detailed above. Yet there are other ways of conceptualizing disruption that have more productive connotations. Disruption can also signal a creative destruction that brings new possibilities into the world, as old or normative ways are brought to a halt. This is, in fact, a dictionary definition of the term. Indeed, as Toscano insists, “it is also possible, and indeed necessary, to think of logistics not just as the site of interruption, but as the stake of enduring and articulated struggles.”40 A vision of today’s many headed hydra as coalition on these terms responds directly to Tsing’s arguments about supply chain capitalism as a structure assembled through difference.

If logistics is essentially about networks that provision and sustain both human life and the non-human animals, machines, and infrastructures that constitute our ecologies, then it is in fact not a practice, industry, or assemblage that could ever be ceded to the corporate and military worlds that today work and fight under its banner. Provisioning and sustaining are also the labors of social reproduction that gendered and racialized peoples and social movements have always done. Alongside its military and corporate forms – in fact, provoked directly by these – we can see explicit take-up of logistics by disruptive movements in an alternative register. Now a critical element of social movements from social forums to the Occupy movement, logistics is also a field that activists are actively exploring investing in further for the future.41 Logistics is not only the calculative technologies and material infrastructures that order the global social factory. Today, logistics also renders a complex network of coalitions through which disrupted futures of distribution are assembled.