Lineaments of the Logistical State

Lin­ea­ment. noun. GEOLOGY. A lin­ear fea­ture on the earth’s sur­face, such as a fault.

“State space sub­or­di­nates both chaos and dif­fer­ence to its implaca­ble logis­tics.” – Henri Lefeb­vre, “Space and the State” (1978)


Logistical revolts

Some­times, we have to look in unlikely places for news that can nour­ish a rad­i­cal polit­i­cal imag­i­na­tion.1 World Cargo News, for instance:

Accord­ing to The Strike Club, the mar­ket leader for delay insur­ance for the mar­itime trades, the early months of 2013 have been marked by extremely dam­ag­ing strike action in sev­eral coun­tries, which has pun­ished shipown­ers and char­ter­ers even though they are inno­cent par­ties. Some of the worst trou­ble spots in recent weeks have been in South Amer­ica, par­tic­u­larly Chile, where a three-week strike crip­pled the country’s key ports, block­ing exports of cop­per, fruit and wood prod­ucts. Chile’s busi­ness lead­ers esti­mate the coun­try lost more than US$200M a day due to the con­flict. There has also been a min­ers’ strike in Colom­bia and it was only this month that US steve­dores signed a six-year mas­ter con­tract with employ­ers that removed the strike threat at east and Gulf coast ports. In South East Asia, a port work­ers’ strike has now dragged on for more than three weeks in Hong Kong, while Greece is cur­rently in the spot­light as the sea­far­ers’ union is threat­en­ing strike action in protest at new mar­itime leg­is­la­tion that, it is claimed, will swell their cur­rent high unem­ploy­ment num­ber. It was against this back­ground that the Strike Club’s direc­tors met in Sin­ga­pore at the end of last week, where the man­agers reported higher lev­els of shore-related claims from a wide range of inci­dents. These included gen­eral strikes, port strikes, strikes by land trans­port oper­a­tors, cus­toms and pilots, as well as port clo­sures, block­ades by fish­er­men, phys­i­cal obstruc­tions and mechan­i­cal equip­ment break­downs.2

It has long been noted that the appa­ra­tuses of con­trol and accu­mu­la­tion that struc­ture the social and mate­rial real­ity of cir­cu­la­tion – trans­port, the energy indus­try and, after World War Two, “busi­ness logis­tics” as a ver­i­ta­ble sci­ence of real sub­sump­tion – though born to break the bar­gain­ing power of trans­port work­ers and accu­mu­late prof­its by anni­hi­lat­ing space and depress­ing wages, have also, espe­cially through their ener­getic dimen­sions, cre­ated dynamic are­nas for class strug­gle. Tim Mitchell has advanced this argu­ment with great acu­men – writ­ing that in the age of coal, work­ers’ power “derived not just from the orga­ni­za­tions they formed, the ideas they began to share on the polit­i­cal alliances that they built, but from the extra­or­di­nary quan­ti­ties of car­bon energy that could be used to assem­ble polit­i­cal agency, by employ­ing the abil­ity to slow, dis­rupt, or cut off its sup­ply.”3 Inter­rup­tion here rep­re­sented a form of power cor­re­lated to the ener­getic vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties of cap­i­tal accu­mu­la­tion and polit­i­cal power. The strike and the block­ade, con­trol and inter­rup­tion, were entwined in the his­tory of what, repur­pos­ing Mitchell, we could call car­bon syn­di­cal­ism or car­bon com­mu­nism. More recently, strug­gles at the choke points of a plan­e­tary logis­ti­cal sys­tem have led Ser­gio Bologna to speak of “the mul­ti­tude of glob­al­iza­tion,” des­ig­nat­ing all of those who work across the sup­ply chain, in the man­ual and intel­lec­tual labor that makes highly com­plex inte­grated transna­tional sys­tems of ware­hous­ing, trans­port, and con­trol pos­si­ble. It is mem­bers of this mul­ti­tude, cler­i­cal work­ers and truck­ers in Los Ange­les and Long Beach,4 crane oper­a­tors in Hong Kong,5 dis­tri­b­u­tion cen­tre work­ers for Wal-Mart,6 logis­ti­cal work­ers in North­ern Italy7, or even air-traf­fic con­trollers in Spain8 that have led some to see not a sec­u­lar van­ish­ing but a shift in the loci of class strug­gle. This has prod­ded some to look again at the crit­i­cal role of antag­o­nism along the con­duits of cir­cu­la­tion – an abid­ing fea­ture of the work­ers’ move­ment through­out its his­tory – tak­ing into con­sid­er­a­tion the inten­si­fy­ing sig­nif­i­cance of logis­tics to the repro­duc­tion of cap­i­tal, but also its con­tra­dic­tory, uneven rela­tion­ship to the repro­duc­tion of the cap­i­tal-labor rela­tion.

Can we define or declare a relo­ca­tion of polit­i­cal and class con­flict, in the overde­vel­oped de-indus­tri­al­iz­ing coun­tries of the “Global North,” from the point of pro­duc­tion to the choke­points of cir­cu­la­tion? Is it pos­si­ble to raise the sta­tus of logis­ti­cal coun­ter-power, in the guise of the block­ade, for instance, from that of a tac­tic to that of a strat­egy, one that would rede­fine anti-cap­i­tal­ist and rev­o­lu­tion­ary action in a con­text where the appro­pri­a­tion of the means of pro­duc­tion is either a dis­tant or an unap­peal­ing prospect? In order to begin to approach such chal­leng­ing issues of the­ory and prac­tice, I believe it is nec­es­sary to con­sider the cen­tral­ity of a the­ory and prac­tice of inter­rup­tion, tar­geted at logis­ti­cal appa­ra­tuses, which has become increas­ingly attrac­tive to anti-sys­temic mil­i­tancy – and in a sec­ond moment to explore the forms of cap­i­tal­ist and polit­i­cal power that have accom­pa­nied the “logis­tics rev­o­lu­tion.”

In this light, I would like to revisit – mean­ing both to expand and revise – some argu­ments about the cur­rent polit­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance of logis­tics that I rehearsed 3 years ago in a brief arti­cle for Mute mag­a­zine, enti­tled “Logis­tics and Oppo­si­tion.”9 That arti­cle tried to iden­tify, pick­ing up on one of the leit­mo­tifs of The Invis­i­ble Committee’s The Com­ing Insur­rec­tion, how an ambi­ent rad­i­cal pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with events, rup­tures, dis­sensus, was being both con­cretized and in some ways sur­passed by a “spon­ta­neous phi­los­o­phy of inter­rup­tion,” or even of sab­o­tage, which saw dis­rup­tive actions at the nodes and ter­mi­nals of cir­cu­la­tion (here used loosely to include dis­tri­b­u­tion, trans­porta­tion, and con­sump­tion, but with an empha­sis on the logis­ti­cal) as over­tak­ing work­ers’ actions at the point of pro­duc­tion, the par­a­digm for nine­teenth and twen­ti­eth cen­tury social­ist pol­i­tics. The Invis­i­ble Committee’s stance – which I think faith­fully ren­ders a struc­ture of feel­ing of con­tem­po­rary rad­i­cal­ism – is nicely encap­su­lated in the fol­low­ing dec­la­ra­tion:

The tech­ni­cal infra­struc­ture of the metrop­o­lis is vul­ner­a­ble: its flows are not merely for the trans­porta­tion of peo­ple and com­modi­ties; infor­ma­tion and energy cir­cu­late by way of wire net­works, fibres and chan­nels, which it is pos­si­ble to attack. To sab­o­tage the social machine with some con­se­quence today means re-con­quer­ing and rein­vent­ing the means of inter­rupt­ing its net­works. How could a TGV line or an elec­tri­cal net­work be ren­dered use­less?10

As sug­gested by some state­ments and reflec­tions that accom­pa­nied the 2 Novem­ber 2011 shut­down of the Port of Oak­land,11 this could be framed – in that peri­odiz­ing reg­is­ter so preva­lent in con­tem­po­rary debates – as an epochal trans­for­ma­tion in anti-cap­i­tal­ist action, fig­u­ra­tively cap­tured as a move from the strike to the block­ade, as well as from work­ers’ demands cen­tered on their own work­places to a less reg­i­mented con­ver­gence of an “extrin­sic pro­le­tariat” around the inter­rup­tion of cap­i­tal flows. If cap­i­tal not in motion, is (as Marx­ists and man­agers con­cur) no longer cap­i­tal, then its polit­i­cal immo­bi­liza­tion, how­ever fleet­ing, lends an impact oth­er­wise absent from defen­sive anti-aus­ter­ity pol­i­tics. Motion and mobil­ity, or rather “mobi­liza­tion,” were the tar­gets of The Invis­i­ble Committee’s jere­mi­ads against the depoliti­ciz­ing despo­tism of the metrop­o­lis, and their wager – com­mon to other strands in con­tem­po­rary insur­rec­tionary thought – was that the inter­rup­tion of this spec­tac­u­lar regime of com­mod­ity flows may serve as the cat­a­lyst for the forg­ing of antag­o­nis­tic col­lec­tiv­i­ties and forms-of-life: a recast­ing of the polit­i­cal form of the com­mune, which traced its arc from the begin­ning of the age of Empire to the present through the trans­fig­u­ra­tion of the social spaces and polit­i­cal tem­po­ral­i­ties of cities such as Paris, Barcelona, Shang­hai, Kwangju, mutat­ing in step with eco­nomic con­junc­tures and ideas of pol­i­tics.

In my Mute arti­cle, lean­ing on Furio Jesi’s remark­able book on the Berlin insur­rec­tion of 1919, Spar­takus: The Sym­bol­ogy of Revolt,12 I sug­gested that the spa­tio-tem­po­ral imag­i­nary at work here is not one of rev­o­lu­tion but of revolt, yet that the revolt imag­ined in The Com­ing Insur­rec­tion and kin­dred texts is a dif­fer­ent kind of revolt, one aimed not so much at the urban­iza­tion of cap­i­tal, à la David Har­vey, but at the all-encom­pass­ing inte­gra­tion of pro­duc­tion, cir­cu­la­tion and dis­tri­b­u­tion in logis­ti­cal sys­tems through which the supremacy of con­stant cap­i­tal proph­e­sied by Marx writes itself on the sur­face of the earth in forms both titanic and cap­il­lary. This is the bale­ful spa­tio-ener­getic com­plex that Mum­ford iden­ti­fied when he argued that “pro­cess­ing” had become “the chief form of met­ro­pol­i­tan con­trol.”13

Beyond the notion, shared by both the pro- and anti-union left, that atten­tion to logis­tics lays bare some of capital’s nerve-cen­ters, be they levers for polit­i­cal pres­sure or sites of nega­tion, I also wanted to spec­u­late about, and par­tially endorse, a trend in some recent rad­i­cal thought, to con­sider the “logis­ti­cal rev­o­lu­tion” as an impor­tant site for think­ing the “recon­fig­u­ra­tion” or “refunc­tion­ing” of cap­i­tal­ist social rela­tions of pro­duc­tion – efforts towards imag­in­ing and prac­tic­ing non-cap­i­tal­ist uses of quin­tes­sen­tial instru­ments of con­tem­po­rary cap­i­tal accu­mu­la­tion. Could the speed, stan­dard­iza­tion and automa­tion of the con­tainer port, or the capac­i­ties of Wal­mart dis­tri­b­u­tion chains, be regarded as pos­si­ble mate­rial bases for alter­na­tive, antag­o­nis­tic orga­ni­za­tions of pro­duc­tion, cir­cu­la­tion and dis­tri­b­u­tion?

My Mute arti­cle has been the object of tren­chant if com­radely cri­tique in a con­tri­bu­tion to the jour­nal End­notes by Jasper Bernes. That piece, “Logis­tics, Coun­ter­l­ogis­tics, and the Com­mu­nist Prospect”14 raises some urgent crit­i­cal and strate­gic ques­tions, and I want to take the oppor­tu­nity to respond to some of its argu­ments here, since I think they clar­ify the stakes (as well as the dif­fer­ent con­cep­tions) of a pol­i­tics of cir­cu­la­tion. I then want to con­sider how our con­cep­tions of cap­i­tal accu­mu­la­tion, the cap­i­tal-rela­tion, and mate­rial flows might deter­mine a cer­tain under­stand­ing of tac­tics of resis­tance and strate­gies of antag­o­nism by con­sid­er­ing two geo­graph­i­cally-inflected ways of approach­ing these prob­lems – drawn from Marx and Henri Lefeb­vre – that can help us bet­ter to spec­ify what kind of “cir­cu­la­tion” is at stake. What emerges from this brief foray into his­tor­i­cal mate­ri­al­ist geo­gra­phies of cir­cu­la­tion are two cor­rec­tions to a direct polit­i­cal iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of cri­sis cap­i­tal­ism with its logis­ti­cal infra­struc­ture: first, the need to off­set a ten­dency to class logis­tics and trans­port on the side of cir­cu­la­tion, neglect­ing Marx’s pre­scient asser­tion that loca­tional change could be a com­mod­ity on its own right, and that the cap­i­tal­ist trans­port indus­try was itself a form of, as it were, directly pro­duc­tive cir­cu­la­tion, blur­ring the bound­aries between mak­ing and mov­ing15 ; sec­ond, now fol­low­ing Lefeb­vre, a recog­ni­tion that even or espe­cially in a neolib­eral moment, the state has played an absolutely cru­cial role in the deploy­ment and secu­ri­ti­za­tion of logis­tics, mean­ing that con­flicts at the choke points of cir­cu­la­tion are not imme­di­ate chal­lenges to value-in-motion, but medi­ated assaults on cap­i­tal­ist power, in the guise of what Lefeb­vre depicted in the 1970s as the emer­gent logis­ti­cal state.

The reconfiguration thesis: a reply

Bernes’s arti­cle takes me to task as a rep­re­sen­ta­tive of what he calls the “recon­fig­u­ra­tion the­sis,” a strate­gic hypoth­e­sis which argues that anti-cap­i­tal­ist pol­i­tics should move beyond a mere nega­tion of cap­i­tal­ist rela­tions, ori­ent­ing itself instead towards a reck­on­ing with what can be rede­ployed or refunc­tioned in the vast, and vastly com­plex, sys­tems of “dead labor” that cap­i­tal accu­mu­la­tion has thrown up – sys­tems of which logis­tics is both an emblem and a vital com­po­nent. Bernes’s text is an impor­tant the­o­ret­i­cal bal­ance sheet of the strug­gles that cul­mi­nated, for the time being, in the Oak­land port block­ade, and pro­vides a rich, polem­i­cal syn­the­sis of many of their key stakes. For that rea­son, I hope that engag­ing with his crit­i­cisms can serve to clar­ify the prob­lems of cir­cu­la­tion and logis­tics that con­front present efforts to revive com­mu­nist the­ory and prac­tice.

Bernes sug­gests that I – along with other advo­cates of the afore­men­tioned the­sis, namely Mike Davis16 and Fredric Jameson17 – hold to the argu­ment that “all exist­ing means of pro­duc­tion must have some use beyond cap­i­tal, and that all tech­no­log­i­cal inno­va­tion must have, almost cat­e­gor­i­cally, a pro­gres­sive dimen­sion which is recu­per­a­ble through a process of ‘deter­mi­nate nega­tion.’” Though I was pur­posely bend­ing the stick against a roman­tic vision of com­mu­ni­tar­ian sab­o­tage,18 I stressed that any “recon­fig­u­ra­tion” con­cerns an eval­u­a­tion, both prac­ti­cal test and the­o­ret­i­cal antic­i­pa­tion, of, as I had said, “what aspects of con­tem­po­rary cap­i­tal­ism could be refunc­tioned in the pas­sage to a com­mu­nist soci­ety.” This implies that some (many, even most – the ratio is not decid­able a pri­ori) of these aspects could not be refunc­tioned at all (though they would still need to be some­how dealt with or dis­posed of). Notwith­stand­ing our strate­gic dif­fer­end, or our dif­fer­ent intu­itions about the lee­way for repur­pos­ing, I think we broadly agree that the there is no a pri­ori way to sim­ply declare cer­tain fea­tures of cap­i­tal­ist pro­duc­tion and cir­cu­la­tion as allow­ing for com­mu­nist uses. The test is a prac­ti­cal and polit­i­cal one. Where we part ways, per­haps, is in the con­fi­dence with which Bernes dis­misses the poten­tial­i­ties of the assem­blages of cap­i­tal­ist accu­mu­la­tion – logis­tics in primis – which he presents as (to employ Jameson’s ter­mi­nol­ogy) essen­tially mono-valent, dialec­ti­cally irrecu­per­a­ble.

Approach­ing logis­tics in a tran­si­tional hori­zon nec­es­sar­ily involves reflect­ing on how much of the gigan­tism of the con­tem­po­rary logis­ti­cal com­plex is unthink­able out­side of capital’s irra­tional ratio­nal­i­ties – as Ser­gio Bologna has pointed out in some very inter­est­ing “insider” inter­ven­tions (his “day job” for many years has been as a logis­tics con­sul­tant) on Ital­ian ports: the vast major­ity of con­tain­ers trav­el­ling east from Europe are full of “shit and air” (waste prod­ucts and empti­ness) and the craze for super­con­tain­ers as well as for the build­ing of count­less deep ports is com­pre­hen­si­ble only in the con­text of the finan­cial­iza­tion of mar­itime assets and the cor­re­lated com­pe­ti­tion between dif­fer­ent local author­i­ties for sub­si­dies and cap­i­tal.19 So speak­ing of “poten­tially recon­fig­urable” devices is, I hope, com­pat­i­ble, with the prac­ti­cal eval­u­a­tion of what, where and how can any recon­fig­u­ra­tion could occur (we could think here of the expe­ri­ence of the Lucas Plan in the UK as a rough pre­cur­sor for this kind of social prac­tice20 ). As both Bernes’s “com­mu­nist prospect” and Bologna’s advice to the Ital­ian logis­tics indus­try sug­gest, this would most likely involve smaller ships and fewer ports…

Bernes also sug­gests that, together with its con­tri­bu­tion to the ten­den­tial evanes­cence of an orga­nized work­ing class at the hinges of cir­cu­la­tion, the specif­i­cally cap­i­tal­ist use-value of logis­tics – prin­ci­pally its depres­sion of labor costs through a smooth despo­tism over the inter­na­tional divi­sion of labor – means that it can­not be approached by anal­ogy with the fac­tory, tra­di­tion­ally envis­aged by the left as the site of work­ers’ reap­pro­pri­a­tion and con­trol.

That logis­tics has been dri­ven by labor arbi­trage and class strug­gle (the lat­ter more in its inau­gu­ral moments, I think) is cer­tainly true, but I remain skep­ti­cal about some of the con­clu­sions Bernes draws from it, as well as about the assump­tion that logis­tics has made pos­si­ble a lin­ear race to the bot­tom. Though con­di­tions there are hardly rosy, if we view the logis­ti­cal rev­o­lu­tion say from Shen­zen and not Long Beach, the bar­gain­ing power as well as wages of some sec­tors of the Chi­nese work­ers have risen.21 More­over, the com­plex­i­ties of the inter­na­tional divi­sion of labor and pos­si­bil­i­ties of class strug­gle involved therein are not com­pre­hen­si­ble, in my view, through the axis of absolute/relative sur­plus value alone – as sug­gested in Bernes’s claim that, inas­much as the “tech­no­log­i­cal ensem­ble which logis­tics super­in­tends is there­fore fun­da­men­tally dif­fer­ent than other ensem­bles such as the Fordist fac­tory,” focus­ing on labor arbi­trage rather than increased labor pro­duc­tiv­ity, logis­tics “is absolute sur­plus value mas­querad­ing as rel­a­tive sur­plus value.” The pas­sage from craft to indus­trial (assem­bly line) pro­duc­tion in the ear­lier twen­ti­eth cen­tury was also viewed as a dev­as­ta­tion of the work­place and asso­ci­a­tional bar­gain­ing power of work­ers, but it turned out not to be such a uni­vo­cal process. Here I think Bernes falls into what for me remains a seri­ous short­com­ing of so-called com­mu­niza­tion the­ory, the posit­ing of a lin­ear peri­odiza­tion of fig­ures of strug­gle and exploita­tion (not dis­sim­i­lar from the peri­odiz­ing prob­lems of operaismo, with a sim­i­lar ten­dency to gen­er­al­ize from “North­ern” con­di­tions), and a dis­re­gard for the polit­i­cal and eco­nomic uneven­ness of cap­i­tal­ism, which at times ends up gen­er­at­ing a bale­ful mate­ri­al­ist tele­ol­ogy. In short, the notion that Chi­nese indus­trial strikes are some­how his­tor­i­cally resid­ual is as unten­able today as the Stal­in­ist notion that agrar­ian strug­gles were regres­sive was in the 1940s.

In the final analy­sis, I think the eco­nomic and polit­i­cal argu­ments enlisted by Bernes to estab­lish that logis­ti­cal sys­tems are lack­ing the “refunc­tion­able” poten­tial­i­ties that were once pro­jected onto the fac­tory are not defin­i­tive. In effect, we could see logis­tics as a cru­cial com­po­nent of the mate­ri­al­iza­tion of that old Ital­ian work­erist the­sis, the “social fac­tory.” Lean­ing on the embry­onic the­o­riza­tion of value-pro­duc­tion in the trans­port indus­try in vol­ume 2 of Cap­i­tal (on which more below), on the mate­rial real­ity that com­modi­ties today are “man­u­fac­tured across logis­tics space,”22 as well as on the explicit cap­i­tal­ist strat­egy behind the rise of logis­tics in the post­war period – grounded as it is on the idea of a “shift from cost min­i­miza­tion after pro­duc­tion to value added across cir­cu­la­tory sys­tems23 – it seems dif­fi­cult not to con­clude that logis­tics is only ana­lyt­i­cally and not actu­ally sep­a­ra­ble from the pro­duc­tion-process nowa­days, such that we could really hive-off val­oriza­tion in the fac­tory (which is a spa­tially-seg­re­gated pro­duc­tion unit only in eco­nomic abstrac­tion) from val­oriza­tion at the con­tainer ter­mi­nal. More­over, as a com­plex mate­rial and social rela­tion of cir­cu­la­tion and exploita­tion, it does not seem to me that logis­tics is “more” con­sti­tu­tively hos­tile to work­ers’ needs than the fac­tory. That said, I think Bernes’s essay is to be com­mended for delin­eat­ing some of the for­mi­da­ble prob­lems for polit­i­cal strat­egy and espe­cially for envis­ag­ing tran­si­tions out of cap­i­tal­ism that the “logis­tics rev­o­lu­tion” entails.

Bernes, who nicely presents logis­tics not only as “capital’s art of war” but as its own solu­tion to what Jameson had called the prob­lem of cog­ni­tive map­ping rejects the idea that some kind of coun­ter-logis­tics, or more bluntly the col­lec­tive plan­ning of cir­cu­la­tion, could throw up such a map.24 For him:

Because of the uneven dis­tri­b­u­tion of pro­duc­tive means and cap­i­tals – not to men­tion the ten­dency for geo­graph­i­cal spe­cial­i­sa­tion, the con­cen­tra­tion of cer­tain lines in cer­tain areas (tex­tiles in Bangladesh, for instance) – the sys­tem is not scal­able in any way but up. It does not per­mit par­ti­tion­ing by con­ti­nent, hemi­sphere, zone or nation. It must be man­aged as a total­ity or not at all. There­fore, nearly all pro­po­nents of the recon­fig­u­ra­tion the­sis assume high-vol­ume and hyper-global dis­tri­b­u­tion in their social­ist or com­mu­nist sys­tem, even if the use­ful­ness of such dis­tri­b­u­tions beyond pro­duc­tion for profit remain unclear.

The fun­da­men­tal opac­ity of logis­ti­cal sys­tems to work­ers has been much remarked upon, and it can indeed be seen as one of its broadly polit­i­cal func­tions. As Allan Sekula noted, those boxes, uncan­nily pro­por­tioned like dol­lar bills, are also coffins of labor-power.25 Yet, for all of the skep­ti­cism towards refunc­tion­ing this state of affairs should inspire, we can’t sim­ply infer from these block­ages to pro­le­tar­ian knowl­edge that an eman­ci­pa­tory refunc­tion­ing (and there­fore pro­found trans­for­ma­tion) of these sys­tems is impos­si­ble. One should be wary in any case of treat­ing this pri­mar­ily as an issue about the map­pa­bil­ity of the sys­tem for the indi­vid­ual, when it is really a ques­tion of devis­ing forms of col­lec­tive con­trol, which might include – espe­cially at larger scales of social medi­a­tion – con­sid­er­able quo­tas of opac­ity. In this regard, short of the unvi­able idea that a post-cap­i­tal­ist soci­ety must be local, and that its pol­i­tics needs involve the trans­parency of the small com­mu­nity or com­mune, I think the world mar­ket remains, in how­ever ardu­ous a way, a pre­sup­po­si­tion (not a frame­work!) for any tran­si­tion out of cap­i­tal­ism. Most things of worth and inter­est are beyond the cog­niz­abil­ity of sin­gle indi­vid­u­als (sci­en­tific devel­op­ments, cul­tural tra­di­tions, how tech­nol­ogy works, what have you) but this only poses a prob­lem as such if we think dis-alien­ation is a mat­ter of per­son­al­iza­tion, of mak­ing us “at home in the world” (a cast of mind that some recent rad­i­cal the­ory shares with the pal­lia­tive spec­ta­cles of eth­i­cal con­sump­tion it would undoubt­edly cas­ti­gate). I strug­gle to see why this would either be eman­ci­pa­tory or attrac­tive. I also don’t think that, as Bernes sug­gests, logis­tics is a view from nowhere of Cap­i­tal-as-sub­ject: it is a deeply inco­her­ent, con­tra­dic­tory, con­flicted, and com­pet­i­tive domain; a strate­gic field of fierce com­pe­ti­tion sit­ting uneasily with state and secu­rity coor­di­na­tion, as well as inevitable processes of stan­dard­iza­tion. Process map­pings, while striv­ing towards homo­gene­ity of spaces and codes, remain strate­gic weapons in the hands of cap­i­tal­ist agents, not overviews by “cap­i­tal.” Ideas of full vis­i­bil­ity as inte­gral flex­i­bil­ity are part of the ide­ol­ogy (and fan­tasy) of logis­tics, which in many ways is just a later iter­a­tion of other ide­olo­gies of cap­i­tal­ist effi­cacy: Tay­lorism, Toy­otism, etc. The value-dynam­ics and spaces of logis­tics are deeply con­tra­dic­tory, in ways I will explore fur­ther below with ref­er­ence to Lefeb­vre; they are more likely to be gummed up – for the time being – by inter­nal impasses than by res­olute polit­i­cal inter­ven­tion.

Bernes is rightly wary of those “recon­fig­u­ra­tionists” who see the prob­lems of build­ing a post-cap­i­tal­ist soci­ety resolved by a dig­i­tal magic bul­let – com­mu­nist algo­rithms of dis­tri­b­u­tion and other such hope­ful schemes. But faced with such tech­no­log­i­cal fixes, it is worth recall­ing that26 paucity of solu­tions has never been an argu­ment for the non-exis­tence of prob­lems. Bernes also takes me to task for assert­ing, in keep­ing with some of David Harvey’s obser­va­tions in Jus­tice, Nature and the Geog­ra­phy of Dif­fer­ence, that social processes and spaces have built-in hier­ar­chies and opac­i­ties, and that a sober if intran­si­gent anti-cap­i­tal­ist pol­i­tics would require, by anal­ogy with Marcuse’s dis­tinc­tion between sur­plus and nec­es­sary repres­sion, to think, prac­ti­cally, through some­thing like “nec­es­sary alien­ation.” What I meant by this was the (per­haps banal) point that the repro­duc­tion of social life in gen­eral, even out­side of the medi­a­tion of value, will involve cer­tain asym­me­tries of author­ity, par­tial del­e­ga­tions of con­trol, opac­ity, and so forth. Post-cap­i­tal­ism, or com­mu­nism, is not the absence of social form or social syn­the­sis but another form or syn­the­sis, another mode of reg­u­la­tion – as Ray­mond Williams noted, a more com­plex one.

Here I think Bernes takes back with one hand what he’s aban­doned with the other. On one side, he writes about those who through block­ades and com­munes, “occu­pa­tions,” may try to undo the rule of cap­i­tal: “To meet their own needs and the needs of oth­ers, these pro­le­tar­i­ans would have to engage in the pro­duc­tion of food and other nec­es­saries, the capac­ity for which does not exist in most coun­tries.” I agree, and would add, that, as such, there is noth­ing par­tic­u­larly attrac­tive about the dev­as­ta­tion of cap­i­tal­ist every­day life, in all its alien­ations, in favor of some kind of re-rural­iza­tion, where the social form is based on com­rade­ship, friend­ship, or some kind of band of broth­ers bond (com­mu­nism too needs to think through “unso­cia­ble socia­bil­ity”). But then he says that: “The absence of oppor­tu­ni­ties for ‘recon­fig­u­ra­tion’ will mean that in their attempts to break from cap­i­tal­ism pro­le­tar­i­ans will need to find other ways of meet­ing their needs.” To which I think a sober mate­rial analy­sis will sim­ply answer: they won’t (even if, which I think would be a big prob­lem, we main­tain “needs” as defined in a rather bio­log­i­cal way). This entails that in many cases (per­haps most – but again this is not an a pri­ori mat­ter) “delink­ing” is sim­ply not an option.

The rhetoric of com­mu­nist abun­dance has most likely seen its day, but not for that should it be replaced by some kind of com­mu­nism of penury or emer­gency – and in this sense I think the “delink­ing” point is some­what “ter­ror­is­tic” in form (in the noble sense of a Sartrean ter­ror-fra­ter­nity, not of the PATRIOT Act): a com­mu­nism of sur­vival in a besieged enclave forced by the fact that exist­ing in a global cap­i­tal­ist sys­tem involves irrev­o­ca­ble com­pro­mises. This other for­mu­la­tion, on the other hand, I find much more plau­si­ble, and, strate­gic dif­fer­ences aside, would endorse: “one might also develop a func­tional under­stand­ing of the infra­struc­ture of cap­i­tal, such that one then knew which tech­nolo­gies and pro­duc­tive means would be orphaned by a par­tial or total delink­ing from plan­e­tary flows, which ones might alter­nately be con­served or con­verted, and what the major prac­ti­cal and tech­ni­cal ques­tions fac­ing a rev­o­lu­tion­ary sit­u­a­tion might look like.” The “inven­tory” would cer­tainly be a part of any­thing I would con­sider as refunc­tion­ing. As would of course the prob­lem of what to do with the unre­func­tion­able dead labors (both in terms of the social rela­tions they bear, and the mate­rial prob­lems they pose, the waste they per­pet­u­ate). Planned com­mu­nist obso­les­cence per­haps? This too would be the object of some pretty tren­chant strug­gles, for which we have some inter­est­ing pre­ludes in the big dis­putes in the 1920s over whether the urban form as it existed was com­pat­i­ble with com­mu­nism (here I’m more with Mike Davis than with Amadeo Bordiga’s urban abo­li­tion­ism in his brac­ing screed “Space Ver­sus Cement,”27 much as I’m exceed­ingly fond of the lat­ter).

Bernes, reflect­ing on the expe­ri­ence of Oak­land – which he’s largely right in see­ing as a high point of the Occupy moment, tran­scend­ing a cer­tain fetishism for demo­c­ra­tic par­tic­i­pa­tion, while redis­cov­er­ing forms of strug­gle ade­quate to our present – puts much empha­sis on the block­ade, but I have ques­tions as to whether its sta­tus as tac­tic and strat­egy has been duly clar­i­fied here. In par­tic­u­lar, I remain unclear about what the cri­te­ria of polit­i­cal “effi­cacy” are in this instance. Pre­sum­ably, they are not a mat­ter of work­place bar­gain­ing power – of the kind recently seen in Long Beach or the Hong Kong con­tainer port, or in that sadly missed oppor­tu­nity that was the Span­ish air traf­fic con­trollers strike. Is “power” here mea­sured prin­ci­pally by pro­vid­ing an emblem (logis­tics as a kind of sym­bolic insur­rec­tional adver­sary, rather than a lever for tra­di­tional work­ers’ pol­i­tics), as a point of polit­i­cal con­den­sa­tion? Is it marked by the losses incurred by cap­i­tal (usu­ally nuga­tory in the broader scheme, even in strong strug­gles)? What kind of polit­i­cal spaces and durable orga­ni­za­tion (in the widest sense of the term) can we see coa­lesc­ing around the block­ade as a form of con­tem­po­rary strug­gle?

Social forms of dead labor

As I’ve noted, Bernes’s argu­ment against the pre­sup­po­si­tion that devices and sys­tems cru­cial to cap­i­tal accu­mu­la­tion could be refunc­tioned in a non-cap­i­tal­ist guise is a healthy reminder of the fact that we’re never deal­ing with mere mate­ri­al­ity or tech­nol­ogy, but with cer­tain often invis­i­ble social forms that ani­mate given con­fig­u­ra­tions of mat­ter. Yet if we con­cur that tech­no­log­i­cal con­tents or forces can’t sim­ply slough off their forms and find them­selves hap­pily relo­cated within other rela­tions of pro­duc­tion and repro­duc­tion, we should like­wise, while remain­ing cog­nizant of the mate­rial and ener­getic pre­con­di­tions for cer­tain forms, not fetishize them. This, it seems to me, is one of the pit­falls of the “inter­rup­tive strain” in the pol­i­tics of cir­cu­la­tion – which sees the block­age as a kind of mate­rial rev­e­la­tion (this is a prob­lem which haunts The Com­ing Insur­rec­tion much more than Bernes’s essay). In this respect, there is a left ver­sion here of the notion of frontstag­ing the urban back­stage which has recently been ably crit­i­cized by Stephen Gra­ham28 – where state pho­bias and prac­tices of dis­rup­tion (like mil­i­tary strat­egy of “shut­ting cities down”) are sim­ply mir­rored in activist dis­courses, where dis­rup­tion is not suf­fi­ciently linked to con­trol.

One of the the­o­ret­i­cal lim­its of the phi­los­o­phy of inter­rup­tion, whether spon­ta­neous or reflex­ive, that marks much con­tem­po­rary rad­i­cal­ism lies then in its insuf­fi­cient con­sid­er­a­tion of the pol­y­semy of “cir­cu­la­tion.”29 The hyposta­sis of the block­ade tac­tic can sug­gest that all vari­eties of cir­cu­la­tion may be tar­geted at the “choke points” of logis­tics. But even if we remain only within the bounds of the Marx­ian canon, cir­cu­la­tion can take an at times bewil­der­ing and slip­pery vari­ety of guises. It can denote flows of mate­rial and resources (such as would exist in any mode of pro­duc­tion); the sphere of exchange (that domain ruled over by free­dom, equal­ity and Ben­tham, and from which most of our mis­pri­sions about lib­er­al­ism are deemed to derive); it can denote cir­cu­lat­ing as opposed to fixed cap­i­tal (mean­ing the cap­i­tal con­sumed in process of pro­duc­tion, be it raw mate­ri­als or the exer­tion of liv­ing labor-power); but it can also mean “cap­i­tal of cir­cu­la­tion,” which takes dif­fer­ent guises in its trav­els through the mar­ket – lead­ing to Marx’s cru­cial reflec­tions on “cir­cu­la­tion time,” which the anni­hi­la­tion of space through time is con­stantly dri­ving to dimin­ish. We can even think of cir­cu­la­tion in keep­ing with the cir­cuits in which Marx maps the for­mal meta­mor­pho­sis of value, which are also the sites, at the level of the­ory, of capital’s con­tra­dic­tions.

In 1928, Isaak Illich Rubin pio­neered the dis­cus­sion of Marx as a thinker of “social form.” Rubin stressed how Marx’s cri­tique of clas­si­cal polit­i­cal econ­omy hinges on dis­tin­guish­ing between “mate­rial cat­e­gories” con­cerned with “tech­ni­cal meth­ods and instru­ments of labour,” on the one hand, and “social forms” con­cerned with specif­i­cally cap­i­tal­ist rela­tions, on the other. The blind spot of polit­i­cal econ­omy is pre­cisely its inabil­ity, evi­denced by the the­ory of com­mod­ity fetishism, to think about why these par­tic­u­lar value-forms are gen­er­ated in bour­geois soci­ety, wrongly sup­pos­ing that it is in tran­shis­tor­i­cal “mate­rial cat­e­gories” – a phys­i­o­log­i­cal under­stand­ing of labor rather than labor-power, exchange sep­a­rate from cap­i­tal, and so on – that one can look for the clues to the struc­ture and devel­op­ment of a mode of pro­duc­tion.

Con­trari­wise, it is “the social func­tion which is real­ized through a thing [that] gives this thing a par­tic­u­lar social char­ac­ter, a deter­mined social form, a ‘deter­mi­na­tion of form’ (Formbes­timmtheit), as Marx fre­quently wrote.”30 Marx’s remon­stra­tions against those polit­i­cal econ­o­mists who, in Rubin’s terms, can­not see the “social forms” lying “beneath” the “tech­ni­cal func­tions in the process of mate­rial pro­duc­tion” are legion. His­tor­i­cal mate­ri­al­ism is pred­i­cated on the rejec­tion of the spon­ta­neous mate­ri­al­ism of the polit­i­cal econ­o­mists. This is the impe­tus behind such seem­ingly anti-mate­ri­al­ist dec­la­ra­tions as this famous pas­sage from Vol­ume 1 of Cap­i­tal: “The value of com­modi­ties is the very oppo­site of the coarse mate­ri­al­ity of their sub­stance, not an atom of mat­ter enters into its com­po­si­tion.”31 The cri­tique of “mate­ri­al­ism” is also a key method­olog­i­cal pos­tu­late in Vol­ume 2, for instance in Marx’s sar­donic attempts on those who think that fixed cap­i­tal, for instance, should be “fixed” in a com­mon-sen­si­cally mate­rial sense of the term. This is how polit­i­cal econ­o­mists go astray:

Firstly, cer­tain prop­er­ties that char­ac­ter­ize the means of labor mate­ri­ally are made into direct prop­er­ties of fixed cap­i­tal, e.g. phys­i­cal immo­bil­ity, such as that of a house. But it is always easy to show that other means of labor, which are also as such fixed cap­i­tal, ships for exam­ple, have the oppo­site prop­erty, i.e. phys­i­cal mobil­ity. Alter­na­tively, the for­mal eco­nomic char­ac­ter­is­tic that arises from the cir­cu­la­tion of value is con­fused with a con­crete [dinglich] prop­erty; as if things, which are never cap­i­tal at all in them­selves, could already in them­selves and by nature be cap­i­tal in a def­i­nite form, fixed or cir­cu­lat­ing.32

What’s more, those ships (say the new mega-con­tain­ers lum­ber­ing their way onto the mar­ket and demand­ing huge out­lays of pub­lic finances on the con­struc­tion of the cor­re­spond­ing ports) may them­selves be best under­stood as finan­cial assets and not just phys­i­cal cap­i­tals or com­modi­ties. What hap­pens then if we con­sider the ques­tion of cir­cu­la­tion less lit­er­ally? And what would it mean to strug­gle not sim­ply against mate­rial flows but against the social forms that chan­nel them? Can we think of dif­fer­ent types of strug­gle in terms of how they map onto the var­i­ous mean­ings of cir­cu­la­tion men­tioned above?

On the one level, the notion that cap­i­tal not in motion is no longer cap­i­tal, or, as Marx rather stun­ningly puts it, that “con­ti­nu­ity is a pro­duc­tive force of labour,” has impor­tant polit­i­cal res­o­nances – though these are far more pal­pa­ble in the creep­ing dev­as­ta­tion of dein­dus­tri­al­iza­tion than in the suc­cess­ful block­ade. On the other, the nature of cap­i­tal is such that the arms race to lessen cir­cu­la­tion times by deploy­ing (and secu­ri­tiz­ing) vast cir­cu­la­tory appa­ra­tuses nec­es­sar­ily involves the hyper­tro­phy of con­stant cap­i­tal, dwarf­ing vari­able cap­i­tal (pro­le­tar­i­ans) and reveal­ing poten­tially par­a­lyz­ing quanta of fix­ity as the price for accel­er­ated cir­cu­la­tion. I have recently tried to argue, in another piece for Mute, how in the real-estate pol­i­tics and ener­getic dif­fi­cul­ties plagu­ing the seem­ingly ethe­real rise of high-fre­quency trad­ing we could wit­ness such a revenge of mat­ter and space upon finan­cial ide­al­ity – a revenge we can only under­stand in terms of cer­tain social forms that are specif­i­cally cap­i­tal­ist.33 In an eco­nomic field whose drive to instan­ta­neous­ness seems to oblit­er­ate spa­tial dif­fer­ence, this cor­rob­o­rates, in the finan­cial arena, a well-known obser­va­tion from Marx’s Grun­drisse:

The more pro­duc­tion comes to rest on exchange value, hence on exchange, the more impor­tant do the phys­i­cal con­di­tions of exchange – the means of com­mu­ni­ca­tion and trans­port – become for the costs of cir­cu­la­tion. Cap­i­tal by its nature dri­ves beyond every spa­tial bar­rier. Thus the cre­ation of the phys­i­cal con­di­tions of exchange – of the means of com­mu­ni­ca­tion and trans­port – the anni­hi­la­tion of space by time – becomes an extra­or­di­nary neces­sity for it.34

For the costs of finan­cial cir­cu­la­tion “phys­i­cal con­di­tions” are para­mount – as man­i­fested in the fierce com­pe­ti­tion over “co-located” server space, prox­im­ity to trad­ing venues and access to data, and in related phe­nom­ena like the rush to acquire and develop real-estate for data cen­tres. As men­tioned above, Marx had already argued in vol­ume 2 of Cap­i­tal that trans­port is itself a domain of pro­duc­tion, in which the com­mod­ity, as he puts it, “is the change of place itself” – revis­it­ing this the­sis in the light of finan­cial­iz­tion and the logis­tics rev­o­lu­tion makes a polit­i­cally overde­ter­mined schema­tism sep­a­rat­ing pro­duc­tion and cir­cu­la­tion, the fac­tory and the port, all the more dif­fi­cult to sus­tain.

But I have as yet only glanc­ingly dealt with a or per­haps the key player in the pol­i­tics of cir­cu­la­tion: the state. One of the strate­gic dan­gers of a pol­i­tics of inter­rup­tion is to think of the block­ade as a kind of unmedi­ated con­fronta­tion with or nega­tion of the social form of value, of cap­i­tal as a social rela­tion, in which the state is either ignored or reduced to the mes­mer­iz­ing metonym of the cop. I’d like instead, sim­ply by way of open­ing up another geo­graph­i­cal and mate­ri­al­ist avenue of inquiry, to sketch out how the very thinker who pio­neered the analy­sis of the pro­duc­tion of space also gave us some tools to think through the imbri­ca­tion of logis­tics and the state – some­thing eas­ily ver­i­fied, for instance, by the strate­gic pan­ics and con­fu­sions regard­ing how to secure the flows of cap­i­tal wit­nessed after 9/11. This is what Deb­o­rah Cowen has pre­sented, in her illu­mi­nat­ing work on logis­tics, as the prob­lem of Sep­tem­ber 12 – the col­lapse of cargo flow in the wake of that of the World Trade Cen­ter, show­ing the pro­found tear in the tac­tics and strat­egy of the cap­i­tal­ist state, span­ning as they do still con­tra­dic­tory spaces.

Contradictions in the logistical state35

On the face of it, Henri Lefebvre’s the­sis about the emer­gence of a “state mode of pro­duc­tion” (SMP) – as elab­o­rated on the eve of the neolib­eral surge in the four vol­umes of his De l’État (1976-78) – would appear to be a thread­bare Marx­ist anachro­nism, a belated suc­ces­sor to twen­ti­eth-cen­tury efforts to think the con­ver­gence between lib­eral-cap­i­tal­ist and state-social­ist or fas­cist polit­i­cal sys­tems – Horkheimer’s author­i­tar­ian state, Burnham’s man­age­rial rev­o­lu­tion, Rizzi’s bureacu­ra­ti­za­tion of the world, or Debord’s inte­grated spec­ta­cle. Yet I would like to sug­gest that attend­ing to the French philosopher’s argu­ments about the spa­tial con­tra­dic­tions of the mod­ern state can allow us to refine our under­stand­ing of the forms of power borne by logis­tics, the ten­sions they carry, and how they can­not sim­ply be reduced to a direct expres­sion of Cap­i­tal.

For Lefeb­vre, the state is ini­tially iden­ti­fied with a speci­fic pro­duc­tion of space, that of the national ter­ri­tory. This state does not have the “chaotic” char­ac­ter­is­tics of “pri­vate space.” More­over, unlike the night­watch­man state, it is a per­sis­tent agent of social repro­duc­tion; it “does not inter­vene in an episodic and cir­cum­scribed fash­ion but cease­lessly, through dif­fer­ent organ­isms and insti­tu­tions devoted to the man­age­ment as well as the pro­duc­tion of space.”36 This space is both homo­ge­neous – every­where sub­ject to the same logic – and bro­ken, shat­tered – by the log­ics of prop­erty, rent, social con­flict, and the ensu­ing frag­men­ta­tion. The logis­ti­cal space of the SMP, like cap­i­tal­ist space broadly con­strued, is homo­ge­neous-bro­ken [homogène-brisé]. Isn’t this a para­dox? No, says Lefeb­vre: “This space is homo­ge­neous because every­thing in it is equiv­a­lent, exchange­able, inter­change­able, because it is a space bought and sold and exchange only exists between equiv­a­lences and inter­change­abil­i­ties. This space is bro­ken because it is treated by lots and sec­tions; sold by lots and sec­tions, it is there­fore frag­men­tary.”37

Logis­ti­cal space, as con­ceived in Lefebvre’s work of the 1970s, is pro­longed by ener­getic space – beyond its speci­fic eco­nomic and polit­i­cal invest­ments in rail­ways, roads and aerial space,38 the state’s rela­tion to the pro­duc­tion of energy is inti­mately linked to the pro­duc­tion of a polit­i­cal space, state-space. This space is both a pre­con­di­tion of, and in con­tra­dic­tion with, the frag­mented space of cap­i­tal­ist urban­iza­tion, and its atten­dant chaos. In the end, state action does not resolve spa­tial con­tra­dic­tions, it aggra­vates them, in the guise of syn­the­sis and reg­u­la­tion. Its need to keep the flows smooth does not undo spa­tial chaos, or at best replaces it with social void. For Lefeb­vre, the logis­ti­cal non-places of late cap­i­tal­ist moder­nity are thus byprod­ucts of the spa­tial strate­gies of the cap­i­tal­ist state:

Wherever the state abol­ishes chaos, it estab­lishes itself within spaces made fas­ci­nat­ing by their social empti­ness: a high­way inter­change or an air­port run­way, for exam­ple, both of which are places of tran­sit and only of tran­sit … Armed with the instru­ment of logis­ti­cal space, the State inserts itself between pul­ver­ized spaces and spaces that have been recon­structed dif­fer­en­tially.39

Space is thus the secret of the state in gen­eral and the SMP in par­tic­u­lar. Lefeb­vre pre­sented the space of the SMP as an anti-polit­i­cal space, orga­nized to neu­tral­ize “users” (usagers), their move­ments, and the cre­ation of dif­fer­en­tial spaces (these are all key themes in Lefebvre’s writ­ings of the 1970s, crys­tal­lized espe­cially in the 1971 Le man­i­feste dif­féren­tial­iste). Two of the key vec­tors of this antipo­lit­i­cal space, which is the pro­duct and pre­con­di­tion of the state mode of pro­duc­tion, are its logis­ti­cal ori­en­ta­tion, which reveals it as a space of cat­a­stro­phe or poten­tial break­down, and its “visu­al­ity,” which trans­forms space into a spec­ta­cle or series of images, in which the body dis­ap­pears. Nonethe­less, Lefeb­vre still wishes to main­tain a dialec­ti­cal foothold, allow­ing one to imag­ine the appro­pri­a­tion of state space for the sake of dif­fer­en­tial social prac­tices. As he writes, the space of the SMP is “opposed to pos­si­ble (dif­fer­en­tial) space and nev­er­the­less lead­ing towards it.”

At dif­fer­ent points in his argu­ment, Lefeb­vre qual­i­fies this new space as phal­lic, opti­cal, visual, homo­ge­neous and bro­ken, global and frag­men­tary, “log­i­cal-logis­ti­cal.”40 This is also the space in which cap­i­tal­ism orga­nizes its survie, its liv­ing-on, its after­life – through the repro­duc­tion of the rela­tions of pro­duc­tion. As Lefeb­vre would write in The Sur­vival of Cap­i­tal­ism: “It is in this dialec­ti­cized (con­flict­ual) space that the repro­duc­tion of the rela­tions of pro­duc­tion takes place. It is this space that repro­duc­tion pro­duces, by intro­duc­ing into it mul­ti­ple con­tra­dic­tions.”41 The for­mula “log­i­cal-logis­ti­cal” crops up at dif­fer­ent points in Lefebvre’s noto­ri­ously sprawl­ing and often slip­pery texts. In The Pro­duc­tion of Space, for instance, he writes that logic and logis­tics both con­ceal latent vio­lence.42 De l’État insis­tently links the two terms together. With­out explor­ing Lefebvre’s com­plex engage­ment with logic and lan­guage,43 we can note here that logis­tics des­ig­nates in these texts not the mil­i­tary or cap­i­tal­ist prac­tice of man­ag­ing resources and cir­cu­la­tion, but a par­tic­u­lar, abstract rep­re­sen­ta­tion of space – one which, how­ever, is dialec­ti­cally bound-up with spa­tial and polit­i­cal prac­tices – namely the state’s over­sight of stocks and flows – which are, so to speak, con­cretely logis­ti­cal.

One pos­si­ble name for this link between logis­ti­cal rep­re­sen­ta­tions and logis­ti­cal prac­tices is what in The Sur­vival of Cap­i­tal­ism Lefeb­vre calls amé­nage­ment (a term used in urban­ism to denote plan­ning or lay­out). “To the extent that it is rep­re­sented by nam­ing it amé­nage­ment,” he writes, “the pro­duc­tion of space is con­sid­ered log­i­cally or logis­ti­cally.”44 This amé­nage­ment is respon­si­ble for the repro­duc­tion of means of pro­duc­tion and of pro­duc­tion rela­tions, for orga­niz­ing the “envi­ron­ment” of firms, for set­ting out a “puz­zle” of cities and regions, for spa­tially orga­niz­ing life itself. Else­where, Lefeb­vre refers to this same set of issues under the head­ing of a “spa­tiotem­po­ral pro­gram­ming” which requires the knowl­edge of flows, cir­cu­la­tion and ter­rain.45 Logis­tics, broadly con­strued, is a crit­i­cal field for the repro­duc­tion of the rela­tions of pro­duc­tion, in which the state inter­ve­nes as pro­ducer of cap­i­tal­ist space. This logis­ti­cal imper­a­tive – to lay out the space of stocks and flows for the opti­mal repro­duc­tion of cap­i­tal­ist rela­tions – involves the state pre­cisely to the extent that repro­duc­tion is not a mat­ter of logic, but of strat­egy.46

In this regard the “log­i­cal-logis­ti­cal” – as we’ve already noted in our dis­cus­sion of Bernes – is also a fan­tasy, albeit a par­tially real­ized one, about the pos­si­bil­ity to mas­ter spa­tial repro­duc­tion for the sake of state and cap­i­tal.47 Such is the lure of abstrac­tion: if the sci­ence of space “is a sci­ence of for­mal space, of a spa­tial form,” Lefeb­vre writes, “it implies a rigid logis­tics, and this sci­ence would con­sist of noth­ing but the con­straints placed on the con­tents (the peo­ple!).” Behind this the­o­ret­i­cal and men­tal abstrac­tion, how­ever, lies the sed­i­men­ta­tion of really abstract social prac­tices: “If space has an air of neu­tral­ity and indif­fer­ence with regard to its con­tents and thus seems to be ‘purely’ for­mal, the essence of ratio­nal abstrac­tion, it is pre­cisely because this space has already been occu­pied and planned, already the focus of past strate­gies, of which we can­not always find the traces.”48 “Sys­tems of equiv­a­lence take on a sen­si­ble exis­tence and are inscribed in space.”49 The per­sis­tence of con­tra­dic­tions, which them­selves are the pro­duct of a log­i­cal-logis­ti­cal imper­a­tive, means that the sci­ence of space “does not have a logis­tics of space as its cul­mi­na­tion”50 – where logis­tics entails an all-encom­pass­ing intel­li­gi­bil­ity and con­trol of a homo­ge­neously coded space, from whence the neg­a­tiv­ity of prac­tices and strug­gles has been stripped out.

State space is under­stood as a space of flows and stocks, logis­ti­cally orga­nized and con­trolled for polit­i­cal ends; it reor­ga­nizes social rela­tions of pro­duc­tion in func­tion of their spa­tial sup­port. The state tends to oppose a chaos of frag­men­tary rela­tions – which it has itself cre­ated – with a ratio­nal­ity in which space is the priv­i­leged instru­ment, and in which eco­nom­ics is recon­ceived spa­tially (in terms of stocks and flows, but also rents and real estate). As Lefeb­vre writes: “The state tends to con­trol flows and stocks, assur­ing their coor­di­na­tion. In the course of this process, which has a three­fold aspect – growth, namely increase in the pro­duc­tive forces; urban­iza­tion, that is for­ma­tion of giant units of pro­duc­tion and con­sump­tion; spa­tial­iza­tion – a qual­i­ta­tive leap takes place: the emer­gence of the SMP (state mode of pro­duc­tion).”51 Or, in another illu­mi­nat­ing for­mu­la­tion:

In the chaos of rela­tions among indi­vid­u­als, groups, class fac­tions, and classes, the State tends to impose a ratio­nal­ity, its own, that has space as its priv­i­leged instru­ment. The econ­omy is thus recast in spa­tial terms – flows (of energy, raw mate­ri­als, labor power, fin­ished goods, trade pat­terns, etc.) and stocks (of gold and cap­i­tal, invest­ments, machi­nes, tech­nolo­gies, sta­ble clus­ters of var­i­ous jobs, etc.). The State tends to con­trol flows and stocks by ensur­ing their coor­di­na­tion. … Only the State can con­trol the flows and har­mo­nize them with the fixed demands of the econ­omy (stocks), because the State inte­grates them into the dom­i­nant state it pro­duces.52

Espe­cially as Lefeb­vre turns to the present, he is sen­si­tive to the state’s con­tra­dic­tory tres­pass­ing of con­fines of the national ter­ri­tory in the process of its mon­di­al­i­sa­tion – a “glob­al­iza­tion” which is not, as com­monly under­stood, beyond the state, but rather of the state, in ways that can allow us also to rethink the ten­dency to take logis­tics as an instance of the state’s loss of pre­dom­i­nance.53 Con­sider the fol­low­ing:

Through orga­ni­za­tion and infor­ma­tion, there is pro­duced a kind of uni­fi­ca­tion of world space, with strong points (the cen­tres) and weaker and dom­i­nated bases (the periph­eries). In these lat­ter zones are per­pet­u­ated dif­fer­ences that, for bet­ter and for worse, resist but do not paral­yse the process as a whole. The lat­ter is trans­lated through effi­cient appa­ra­tuses [dis­posi­tifs] of con­trol and sur­veil­lance, linked to infor­ma­tional machi­nes: satel­lites, radars, bea­cons, and grids. In this respect, space has a much stronger con­nec­tion with the State than ter­ri­tory once had with the nation.54

This spa­tial­iza­tion of the state is not just pro­jec­tive, but endoge­nous. In other words, as the state becomes increas­ingly occu­pied by the logis­ti­cal prob­lems of stocks and flows, we can­not think of it as con­cen­tric, cen­tripetal or cen­trifu­gal. Though it is insep­a­ra­ble from effects of cen­tring and cen­tral­ity, it is capa­ble of con­sid­er­able dis­sem­i­na­tion and mul­ti­plic­ity, as well as inter­nal con­tra­dic­tion, if not proper dif­fer­ence. In the first vol­ume of De l’État, inter­est­ingly in the con­text of an explo­ration of the place of “intel­li­gence” in the state mode of pro­duc­tion (one res­onat­ing in the moment of Assange and Snow­den), Lefeb­vre will posit that the state is not a sys­tem with a cen­tral nucleus but a hier­ar­chi­cally-ordered net­work of insti­tu­tions and orga­ni­za­tions inter­ven­ing at dif­fer­ent lev­els of soci­ety, and thus of space.


The fore­go­ing dis­cus­sion of Lefeb­vre is but a sketch of a recon­struc­tion, whose aim was merely to com­pli­cate the polit­i­cal mean­ings accorded to logis­tics in con­tem­po­rary rad­i­cal thought and prac­tice. To rethink logis­tics not just as a spa­tio-polit­i­cal fix for a poten­tially stag­nat­ing cap­i­tal­ism, but as a con­tra­dic­tory strat­egy of state power – a task that would obvi­ously require a rad­i­cal updat­ing and revi­sion of Lefebvre’s unruly intu­itions – could help us to move beyond both the naïve per­spec­tive of its inte­gral refunc­tion­ing as well as the unten­able prospect that it will be the priv­i­leged site of a rev­o­lu­tion­ary inter­rup­tion of value-in-motion. Tech­nol­ogy, as a social rela­tion of pro­duc­tion, dis­tri­b­u­tion, and cir­cu­la­tion, is by no means inno­cent of cap­i­tal­ist value-imper­a­tives and of the strate­gic expe­di­en­cies of exploita­tion. But nei­ther is the repro­duc­tion of the social forms of value endan­gered by the notion that the inter­rup­tion of capital’s motion is directly polit­i­cal. Lefebvre’s scat­tered insights on the logis­ti­cal and strate­gic space of the state can help sit­u­ate the con­tem­po­rary surge of strug­gles at the point of cir­cu­la­tion within a broader his­tor­i­cal and geo­graphic hori­zon, spurring us to inves­ti­gate what the state itself has become in the age of the “logis­tics rev­o­lu­tion,” and thus what strate­gies may be ade­quate to strug­gles in and against it.

  1. I have pre­sented ver­sions of this paper, under the titles “The Pol­i­tics of Cir­cu­la­tion” and “Logis­ti­cal Revolts,” at e-flux in New York City and the His­tor­i­cal Mate­ri­al­ism con­fer­ence in Lon­don. I thank the audi­ence at these events and my co-pan­elists (Tim Mitchell, Kan­ishka Goonewar­dena, and Alex Lof­tus) for their engage­ment with the argu­ments. Many thanks also to Jason E. Smith for his per­cep­tive com­ments on a draft. I would also like to thank Jasper Bernes for send­ing me his arti­cle on logis­tics and the com­mu­nist prospect in advance of pub­li­ca­tion, and for begin­ning a crit­i­cal dia­logue which I look for­ward to pur­su­ing. 

  2. Strike Club reflects grow­ing labour unrest,” 22 April 2013. I was alerted to the exis­tence of this improb­a­bly and impec­ca­bly named firm spe­cial­is­ing in insur­ance against logis­ti­cal class strug­gle by Ser­gio Bologna, arguably the most inci­sive con­tem­po­rary ana­lyst of the logis­tic indus­try. See “Scioperi nella catena logis­tica: i porti,” Com­mon­ware

  3. Tim­o­thy Mitchell, Car­bon Democ­racy: Polit­i­cal Power in the Age of Oil (Lon­don: Verso, 2011), 20.  

  4. Los Ange­les and Long Beach port cler­i­cal work­ers on strike,” World Social­ist Web­site; Micah Uet­richt, “Wave of Low-Wage Worker Strikes Hits LA Ports,” In These Times

  5. Hong Kong dock strike crip­ples world’s third busiest port,CNN

  6. Ware­house Work­ers for Jus­tice

  7. Sciopero logis­tica, caos al Nord Italia,” Cor­ri­ere della Sera. 

  8. Span­ish air­ports reopen after strike causes hol­i­day chaos,” The Guardian

  9. Alberto Toscano, “Logis­tics and Oppo­si­tion,” Mute 3.2 (2011). 

  10. The Invis­i­ble Com­mit­tee, The Com­ing Insur­rec­tion (Los Ange­les: Semiotext(e), 2009), 111–112. 

  11. See, for exam­ple, “Blockad­ing the Port is the First of Many Last Resorts,” Bay of Rage. See also Joshua Clover’s ongo­ing reflec­tions on the block­ade within the con­text of the riot-form of con­tem­po­rary pol­i­tics, the object of a forth­com­ing book. Ver­sions of his argu­ment can be found here, and, as an audio file from the 2013 His­tor­i­cal Mate­ri­al­ism con­fer­ence in NY, here

  12. Furio Jesi, Spar­takus: The Sym­bol­ogy of Revolt, ed. A. Cav­al­letti, trans. A. Toscano (Cal­cutta: Seag­ull, 2014). 

  13. Lewis Mum­ford, The City in His­tory (New York: Har­court, 1961), 541-2. 

  14. End­notes 3: Gen­der, Race, Class, and Other Mis­for­tunes (Sep­tem­ber 2013). As I will not sum­ma­rize Bernes’s rich argu­ment here, the reader might be well served by con­sult­ing his arti­cle before con­tin­u­ing with mine: “Logis­tics, Coun­ter­l­ogis­tics, and the Com­mu­nist Prospect.” 

  15. See Deb­o­rah Cowen, The Deadly Life of Logis­tics (Min­neapolis: Uni­ver­sity of Min­nesota Press, 2014), 20. 

  16. Mike Davis, “Who Will Build the Ark?,” New Left Review 61 (2010), 29-46. 

  17. Fredric Jameson, “Utopia as Repli­ca­tion,” in Valences of the Dialec­tic (Lon­don: Verso, 2010). 

  18. “The War Against Pre-Ter­ror­ism,” Rad­i­cal Phi­los­o­phy, 154 (2009), 2-7. 

  19. “The race to gigan­tism is a razor’s edge con­test between asset val­ues; it is a way to weaken the adver­sary, always rais­ing the bar not so much in terms of capac­ity but in terms of tech­no­log­i­cal inno­va­tion.” Ser­gio Bologna, Banche e crisi. Dal petro­lio al con­tainer (Roma: DeriveAp­prodi, 2013), 139.  

  20. This attempt to con­vert the mil­i­tary aero­space firm Lucas Indus­tries to socially-use­ful pro­duc­tion by its mil­i­tant work­force is dis­cussed in the book by one of the engi­neers and union orga­niz­ers behind the plan, Mike Coo­ley, Archi­tect or Bee? The Human/Technology Rela­tion­ship (Boston: South End Press, 1982). 

  21. See Chris King-Chi Chan, The Chal­lenge of Labour in China: Strikes and the Chang­ing Labour Regime in Global Fac­to­ries (Lon­don: Rout­ledge, 2010), 141. 

  22. Cowen, The Deadly Life of Logis­tics, 2.  

  23. Cowen, The Deadly Life of Logis­tics, 24. See also 40.  

  24. It is worth not­ing that busi­ness logis­tics includes its own explicit the­ory of eco­nomic car­tog­ra­phy, “process map­ping.” “Process map­ping might be under­stood as a rescaled motion study in the inter­ests of transna­tional effi­ciency,” which leads a logis­tics com­pany report to declare ‘The map­ping enables man­agers to see the total pic­ture.” See Cowen, The Deadly Life of Logis­tics, 109. 

  25. I explore this rela­tion between cog­ni­tive map­ping and logis­tics at length in Chap­ter 6 of Alberto Toscano and Jeff Kin­kle, Car­togra­phies of the Absolute (Win­ches­ter: Zero, 2015), “The Art of Logis­tics.”  

  26. The con­cept of nec­es­sary alien­ation is intro­duced with a dif­fer­ent inflec­tion, hav­ing to do with Hegel’s the­ory of time, in par. 161 of Guy Debord’s The Soci­ety of the Spec­ta­cle. Thanks to Jason E. Smith for bring­ing this to my atten­tion. 

  27. Amadeo Bor­diga, “Spazio con­tro cemento.” 

  28. See “Frontstag­ing the Urban Back­stage? The Pol­i­tics of Infra­struc­ture Dis­rup­tions.”  

  29. This prob­lem has been very point­edly dealt with by Théorie Com­mu­niste, in an appraisal of the the­o­ret­i­cal lessons to be drawn (or not) from the prac­tices of social antag­o­nism in Greece, in terms of “the con­fu­sion between cir­cu­la­tion and trans­ports.” As Théo Cosme writes: “cir­cu­la­tion doesn’t have the same mean­ing for cap­i­tal as for the gen­darmerie. The con­fu­sion between cir­cu­la­tion as a speci­fic moment of the process of repro­duc­tion, which thus alter­nates with the phase of pro­duc­tion, and cir­cu­la­tion as the gen­eral form of the process of repro­duc­tion. In any case it is true that com­modi­ties and labor power must mate­ri­ally move from one point to another (exchange, in a strictly eco­nomic sense, in the cap­i­tal­ist mode of pro­duc­tion, has lit­tle to do with this ques­tion) and that it is indis­pens­able to the repro­duc­tion of cap­i­tal. In fact, in the the­ory of cap­i­tal as cir­cu­la­tion, the strat­egy of the block­ade rests on a the­o­ret­i­cal foun­da­tion that does not cor­re­spond to its effec­tive prac­tice. This is not a seri­ous prob­lem so long as one is con­cerned with actions, but it becomes one when the­o­ries regard­ing the def­i­n­i­tion of pro­duc­tive labor and value are grafted onto these con­fu­sions. Block­ing the traf­fic hin­ders the pro­duc­tion of value because it nec­es­sar­ily has reper­cus­sions on it, not because it is in itself block­ing the pro­duc­tion of value. It would even be more accu­rate to say that it is not a block­ade of the cir­cu­la­tion, but of the pro­duc­tion in the sense that trans­ports are an exten­sion of the imme­di­ate pro­duc­tion process. The strat­egy of ‘block­ing the traf­fic’ nei­ther neces­si­tates nor jus­ti­fies any the­o­ret­i­cal aggior­na­mento.” Théo Cosme, “The Glass Floor.” 

  30. Isaak Illich Rubin, Essays on Marx’s The­ory of Value, trans. M. Samardz­ija and F. Perl­man (Mon­tréal-New York: Black Rose Books, 1973), 37. 

  31. Karl Marx, Cap­i­tal, Vol­ume 1, trans. S. Moore and E. Avel­ing (Lon­don: Lawrence & Wishart, 1983), 54. 

  32. Karl Marx, Cap­i­tal, Vol­ume 2, trans. D. Fern­bach (Lon­don: Pen­guin, 1992), p. 241. 

  33. Alberto Toscano, “Gam­ing the Plumb­ing: High-Fre­quency Trad­ing and the Spaces of Cap­i­tal,” Mute, 16 Jan­u­ary 2013.  

  34. Karl Marx, Grun­drisse, trans. M. Nico­laus (Lon­don: Pen­guin, 1973), 536. 

  35. This con­cept of the “logis­ti­cal state” is being pro­moted by some Brazil­ian polit­i­cal sci­en­tists as a vision beyond the devel­op­men­tal or the neolib­eral state. It is also present in some stim­u­lat­ing his­tor­i­cal spec­u­la­tions in Alain Joxe’s Empire of Dis­or­der, where it is jux­ta­posed to the “preda­tory state.”  

  36. Lefeb­vre, De l’État, vol. 4, 271. 

  37. Lefeb­vre, De l’État, vol. 4, 290 

  38. Vol­ume of 1 of De l’État tes­ti­fies to a sus­tained engage­ment with the revi­sion­ist his­tory of the US state in the work of Gabriel Kolko, in par­tic­u­lar his books Rail­roads and Reg­u­la­tion, 1877-1916 (1965) and The Tri­umph of Con­ser­vatism: A Rein­ter­pre­ta­tion of Amer­i­can His­tory, 1900-1916 (1963). It would also be pos­si­ble, fol­low­ing some remarks in the first vol­ume of De l’État, to posit a pre­his­tory of this logis­ti­cal state in the “man­age­ment of vast hydraulic spaces” (5) exer­cized by the Asi­atic state pos­tu­lated by Wit­tfo­gel, in his Ori­en­tal Despo­tism

  39. “Space and the State,” in State, Space, World, 238, 249. 

  40. See, for instance, “Space and the State” (1978), in State, Space, World, 238. Con­sider also Lefebvre’s claim that logis­ti­cal space “dev­as­tate” per­spec­ti­val space in a man­ner anal­o­gous to how per­spec­ti­val space “cat­a­stroph­i­cally dev­as­tated” sym­bolic space. State, Space, World, 248. 

  41. Henri Lefeb­vre, La survie du cap­i­tal­isme. La re-pro­duc­tion des rap­ports de pro­duc­tion, 2nd ed. (Paris: Anthro­pos, 1973), 24. 

  42. Henri Lefeb­vre, La pro­duc­tion de l’éspace (Paris: Anthro­pos, 1974), 414. 

  43. See, among oth­ers, Henri Lefeb­vre, Logique formelle, logique dialec­tique (Paris: Édi­tions Sociales, 1947) and Le lan­gage et la société (Paris: Gal­li­mard, 1966). 

  44. Lefeb­vre, La survie du cap­i­tal­isme, 35. 

  45. Henri Lefeb­vre, “Reflec­tions on the Pol­i­tics of Space” (1970), in State, Space, World: Selected Essays, ed. N. Bren­ner and S. Elden, trans. G. Moore, N. Bren­ner and S. Elden (Min­neapolis: Uni­ver­sity of Min­nesota Press, 2009), 171. 

  46. Lefeb­vre, La survie du cap­i­tal­isme, 36. Strat­egy is a cru­cial prism through which Lefeb­vre under­stands the state, for instance when he argues that, to the extent that the econ­omy is étatisée in becom­ing a war econ­omy: “Today, the econ­omy func­tions strate­gi­cally.” De l’État, vol. 1 (Paris: UGE, 1976), 69. 

  47. At times, Lefeb­vre does sug­gest that these ten­den­cies can really evac­u­ate use-val­ues and neu­tral­ize agency, as in the remark­able essay “Space: Social Pro­duct and Use Value” (1979), where he writes: “cap­i­tal­ist and neo-cap­i­tal­ist space is a space of quan­tifi­ca­tion and grow­ing homo­gene­ity, a com­mod­i­fied space where all the ele­ments are exchange­able and thus inter­change­able; a police space in which the state tol­er­ates no resis­tance and no obsta­cles. Eco­nomic space and polit­i­cal space thus con­verge toward the elim­i­na­tion of all dif­fer­ences.” State, Space, World, 192. 

  48. Lefeb­vre, “Reflec­tions on the Pol­i­tics of Space,” 169-70. 

  49. Lefeb­vre, “Space and Mode of Pro­duc­tion” (1980), in State, Space, World, 213. On Lefeb­vre and abstrac­tion, see the excel­lent dis­cus­sion in Chap­ter 3 of Lukasz Stanek, Henri Lefeb­vre on Space: Archi­tec­ture, Urban Research, and the Pro­duc­tion of The­ory (Min­neapolis: Uni­ver­sity of Min­nesota, 2011).  

  50. Lefeb­vre, “Reflec­tions on the Pol­i­tics of Space,” 172. 

  51. Henri Lefeb­vre, De l’État, vol. 4 (Paris: UGE, 1978). 

  52. Henri Lefeb­vre, “Space and the State,” in State, Space, World: Selected Essays, ed. N. Bren­ner and S. Elden, trans. G. Moore, N. Bren­ner and S. Elden (Min­neapolis: Uni­ver­sity of Min­nesota Press, 2009), 226, 239. 

  53. See for instance Cowen, when she writes that “Whereas the national bor­der (the priv­i­leged spa­tial bar­rier within a ter­ri­to­rial model of secu­rity) was gov­erned directly by the geopo­lit­i­cal state, the secu­rity of the cor­ri­dor car­tog­ra­phy of the sup­ply chain is del­e­gated to the com­po­nents of the sys­tem.” The Deadly Life of Logis­tics, 87. I think that we could apply Lefebvre’s state-the­ory to think of these com­po­nents as still of the state, in an extended sense. On the whole issue of mon­di­al­i­sa­tion in Lefeb­vre, see Bren­ner and Elden’s fine edi­tors’ intro­duc­tion to State, Space, World

  54. Henri Lefeb­vre, “Space and Mode of Pro­duc­tion,” 213-14. 

Author of the article

teaches at Goldsmiths, University of London, where he co-directs the Centre for Philosophy and Critical Thought. He is the author of Fanaticism: On the Uses of an Idea, and Cartographies of the Absolute (with Jeff Kinkle). He is a member of the editorial board of Historical Materialism and is series editor of The Italian List at Seagull Books.