What is theory for? What good is it, in the fight against capital and state? For much of the left, the Marxist left in particular, the answer is obvious: theory tells us what to do, or what is to be done, in the strangely passive formula often used here. Theory is the pedagogue of practice. Thus, the essential link between Comrade Lenin and his putative enemy, the Renegade Kautsky, the master thinkers of the Third and Second Internationals: despite their storied disagreements, both believed that without the special, scientific knowledge dispensed by intellectuals and dedicated revolutionaries, the working class was doomed to a degraded consciousness, incapable of making revolution or, at any rate, making it successfully. The task of theory, therefore, is to weaponise proletarian consciousness, to turn it toward right action. This didactic view of theory extends across the entire range of Marxist intellectual work in the 20th century, from the comparatively crude Bolshevist programmatics of Lenin and Trotsky to the sophisticated variants offered by Antonio Gramsci and Louis Althusser.
There are other, non-didactic theories of theory, however. We might look, for instance, to Marx’s own very early reflection on such matters. There is no need to play teacher to the working class, Marx tells his friend Arnold Ruge: “We shall not say, Abandon your struggles, they are mere folly; let us provide you with the true campaign-slogans. Instead we shall simply show the world why it is struggling, and consciousness of this is a thing it will acquire whether it wishes or not.”1 The final turn in this formulation is crucial, since it implies that the knowledge theory provides already abounds in the world; theory simply reflects, synthesizes and perhaps accelerates the “self-clarification…of the struggles and wishes of an age”. Theory is a moment in the self-education of the proletariat, whose curriculum involves inflammatory pamphlets and beer-hall oratory as much as barricades and streetfighting.
In this regard, theory is more a map than a set of directions: a survey of the terrain in which we find ourselves, a way of getting our bearings in advance of any risky course of action. I am thinking here of Fredric Jameson’s essay on the “cultural logic of late capitalism”, and his call for “cognitive maps” that can orient us within the new spaces of the postindustrial world. Though Jameson must surely count as an exponent of the pedagogical view of theory — calling for cognitive maps by way of a defense of didacticism in art — part of the appeal of this essay is the way his call for maps emerges from a vividly narrated disorientation, from a phenomenology of the bewildered and lost. Describing the involuted voids of the Bonaventure hotel, Jameson situates the reader within a spatial allegory for the abstract structures of late capitalism and the “incapacity of our minds…to map the great global multinational and decentered communication network in which we find ourselves caught as individual subjects”.2 Theory is a map produced by the lost themselves, offering us the difficult view from within rather than the clarity of the Olympian view from above.
Languishing in the shadow of its dominant counterpart, antididactic theory has often remained a bitter inversion of the intellectualist presumptions of the Leninist or Gramscian view. Whereas the didactic view tells us that revolution fails for lack of theory, or for lack of the right theory — fails because the correct consciousness was not cultivated — the communist ultra-left that inherits the antididactic view offers instead a theory of intellectual betrayal, a theory of militant theory as the corruption of the organic intelligence of the working class.3 The role of theorists, then, is to prevent these corrupting interventions by intellectuals, in order to allow for the spontaneous self-organisation of the working class. As a consequence, the historical ultra-left, congealing in the wake of the failure of the revolutionary wave of the early 20th century and the victory of a distinctly counter-revolutionary Marxism, adopts a reflective and contemplative (if not fatalist) orientation to the unfolding of struggles, offering diagnosis at most but never any strategic reflection, lest it commit the cardinal sin of “intervention”, playing the pedagogue to the masses. The result is a perversely unhappy consciousness who both knows better and yet, at the same time, feels that such knowing is at best useless and at worst harmful. This guilty self-consciousness plagues even those important theories — by Gilles Dauvé and Théorie Communiste, for instance — which emerge after 1968 as critiques of the historical ultra-left.
But if we really believe that theory emerges as part of the self-clarification of struggles, then there is no reason to fear intervention, or strategic thought. Any perspective militants and intellectuals might bring to a struggle is either already represented within it or, on the contrary, capable of being confronted as one of many obstacles and impasses antagonists encounter in their self-education. Strategic thought is not external to struggles, but native to them, and every set of victories or failures opens up new strategic prospects — possible futures — which must be examined and whose effects in the present can be accounted for. In describing these prospects, theory inevitably takes sides among them. This is not to issue orders to struggles, but to be ordered by them.
The following essay is an experiment in theory writing. It attempts to render explicit the link between theory as it unfolds in the pages of communist journals and theory as it unfolds in the conduct of struggles, demonstrating how reflections about the restructuring of capitalism emerge as the consequence of particular moments of struggle. From these theoretical horizons, specific strategic prospects also emerge, and inasmuch as they are discussed on the ground and affect what happens there, we can only with great effort avoid them.
We can (and perhaps should) always ask of the theories we encounter, Where are we? In response to which practical experience has this theory emerged? In what follows we are, for the most part, in the port of Oakland, California, beneath the shadows of cyclopean gantry cranes and container ships, pacing around anxiously with the 20,000 other people who have entered the port in order to blockade it, as part of the so-called “General Strike” called for by Occupy Oakland on November 2, 2011. Every participant in the blockade that day surely had some intuitive sense of the port’s centrality to the northern Californian economy, and it is with this intuitive orientation that theory begins. If asked, they would tell you that a sizeable fraction of what they consumed originated overseas, got put onto ships, and passed through ports like Oakland’s en route to its final destination. As an interface between production and consumption, between the US and its overseas trading partners, between hundreds of thousands of workers and the various forms of circulating capital they engage, the quieted machinery of the port quickly became an emblem for the complex totality of capitalist production it seemed both to eclipse and to reveal.
For our blockaders, then, all manner of questions unfolded directly from their encounter with the space of the port and its machinery. How might we produce a map of the various companies — the flows of capital and labour — directly or indirectly affected by a blockade of the port, by a blockade of particular terminals? Who sits at one remove? At two removes or three? Additionally, questions emerged about the relationship between the blockade tactic and the grievances of those who took part. Though organised in collaboration with the local section of the ILWU (the dockworker’s union), in solidarity with the threatened workers in Longview, Washington, few people who came to the blockade knew anything about Longview. They were there in response to the police eviction of Occupy Oakland’s camp and in solidarity with whatever they understood as the chief grievances of the Occupy movement. How, then, to characterise the relationship between the blockaders, many of whom were unemployed or marginally employed, and the highly organised port workers? Who was affected by such a blockade? What is the relationship between the blockade and the strike tactic? Once asked, these questions linked the moment of the blockade to related mobilisations: the piqueteros of the Argentine uprisings of the late 1990s and early 2000s, unemployed workers who, absent any other way of prosecuting their demands for government assistance, took to blockading roads in small, dispersed bands; the piquets volants of the 2010 French strikes against proposed changes in pension law, bands of dispersed picketers who supported blockades by workers but also engaged in their own blockades, independent of strike activity; the recent strikes by workers in IKEA’s and Wal-Mart’s supply chains; and everywhere, in the season of political tumult that follows on the crisis of 2008, a proliferation of the blockade and a waning of the strike as such (with the exception of the industrial “BRICS”, where a renegade labour formation has initiated a new strike wave).
These are not questions that belong solely to formal theory. They were debated immediately by those who participated in the blockade and who planned for a second blockade a month later.4 Some of these debates invoked the concept of “globalisation” to make sense of the increasing centrality of the port and international trade within capitalism, in an echo of the alter-globalisation movement of the early 2000s. But it has always been unclear what the term “globalisation” is supposed to mean, as marker for a new historical phase. Capitalism has been global from the very start, emerging from within the blood-soaked matrix of the mercantile expansion of the early modern period. Later on, its factories and mills were fed by planetary flows of raw material, and produce for a market which is likewise international. The real question, then, is what kind of globalisation we have today. What is the differentia specifica of today’s globalisation? What is the precise relationship between production and circulation?
Today’s supply chains are distinguished not just by their planetary extension and incredible speed but by their direct integration of manufacture and retail, their harmonisation of the rhythms of production and consumption. Since the 1980s, business writers have touted the value of “lean” and “flexible” production models, in which suppliers maintain the capacity to expand and contract production, as well as change the types of commodities produced, by relying on a network of subcontractors, temporary workers, and mutable organisational structures, adaptations that require precise control over the flow of goods and information between units.5 Originally associated with the Toyota Production System, and Japanese manufacturers in general, these corporate forms are now frequently identified with the loose moniker Just In Time (JIT), which refers in the specific sense to a form of inventory management and in general to a production philosophy in which firms aim to eliminate standing inventory (whether produced in-house or received from suppliers). Derived in part from the Japanese and in part from Anglo-American cybernetics, JIT is a circulationist production philosophy, oriented around a concept of “continuous flow” that views everything not in motion as a form of waste (muda), a drag on profits. JIT aims to submit all production to the condition of circulation, pushing its velocity as far toward the light-speed of information transmission as possible. From the perspective of our blockaders, this emphasis on the quick and continuous flow of commodities multiplies the power of the blockade. In the absence of standing inventories, a blockade of just a few days could effectively paralyse many manufacturers and retailers.6
In JIT systems, manufacturers must coordinate upstream suppliers with downstream buyers, so speed alone is insufficient. Timing is crucial. Through precise coordination, firms can invert the traditional buyer-seller relationship in which goods are first produced and then sold to a consumer. By replenishing goods at the exact moment they are sold, with no build-up of stocks along the way, JIT firms perform a weird sort of time-travel, making it seem as if they only make products that have already been sold to the end-consumer. As opposed to the older, “push production” model, in which factories generated massive stockpiles of goods that retailers would clear from the market with promotions and coupons, in today’s “pull” production system “retailers share POS [point-of-sale] information with their vendors who can then rapidly replenish the retailers’ stock”.7 This has lead to the functional integration of suppliers and retailers, under terms in which the retailers often have the upper hand. Massive buyers like Wal-Mart reduce their suppliers to mere vassals, directly controlling product design and pricing while still retaining the flexibility to terminate a contract if needed. They gain the benefits of vertical integration without the liability that comes from formal ownership. Whereas in the early 1980s some thought that the emphasis on flexibility and dynamism would shift the balance of power from big, inflexible multinationals to small, agile firms, lean production has instead only meant a phase change rather than a weakening of the power of multinational firms. The new arrangement features what Bennett Harrison has called the “concentration without centralisation” of corporate authority.8
Lean manufacturing, flexibility, just-in-time inventory systems, “pull” production: each one of these innovations now forms a component part of the so-called “logistics revolution”, and the corresponding “logistics industry”, which consists of in-house and third-party specialists in supply-chain design and management. Enabled by the technical transformations of the shipping and transport industry, containerisation in particular, as well as the possibilities afforded by information and communications technology, logistics workers now coordinate different productive moments and circulatory flows across vast international distances, ensuring that the where and when of the commodity obtains to the precision and speed of data. Confirming the veracity of the oft-quoted passage from Marx’s Grundrisse about the tendential development of the world market, through logistics, capital “strives simultaneously for a greater extension of the market and for greater annihilation of space by time”.9 But logistics is more than the extension of the world market in space and the acceleration of commodital flows: it is the active power to coordinate and choreograph, the power to conjoin and split flows; to speed up and slow down; to change the type of commodity produced and its origin and destination point; and, finally, to collect and distribute knowledge about the production, movement and sale of commodities as they stream across the grid.
Logistics is a multivalent term. It names an industry in its own right, composed of firms that handle the administration of shipping and receiving for other corporations, as well as an activity that many businesses handle internally. But it also refers, metonymically, to a transformation of capitalist production overall: the “logistics revolution”. In this latter sense, logistics indexes the subordination of production to the conditions of circulation, the becoming-hegemonic of those aspects of the production process that involve circulation. In the idealised world-picture of logistics, manufacture is merely one moment in a continuous, Heraclitean flux; the factory dissolves into planetary flows, chopped up into modular, component processes which, separated by thousands of miles, combine and recombine according to the changing whims of capital. Logistics aims to transmute all fixed capital into circulating capital, the better to imitate and conform to the purest and most liquid of forms capital takes: money. This is impossible, of course, since the valorisation process requires fixed capital outlays at some point along the circuits of reproduction, and therefore someone somewhere will have to shoulder the risk that comes with investing in immobile plant and machinery. But logistics is about mitigating this risk, it is about transforming a mode of production into a mode of circulation, in which the frequencies and channel capacities of the circuits of capital are what matters. In this the logistics revolution conforms to the hydraulic conception of capitalism outlined by Deleuze and Guattari in the 1970s, in which surplus value results not so much from the irreversible transformation of worked matter but from the conjunction of one flow (money) with another (labour).10 In this account, influenced by Fernand Braudel’s description of the origins of capitalism, and its revision by world-systems theory, capital is nothing so much as the commander of flows, breaking and conjoining various currents in order to create a vast irrigation and drainage of social power. Logistics turns solids into liquids — or at its extreme, into electrical fields — taking the movement of discrete elements and treating them as if they were oil in a pipeline, flowing continuously at precisely adjustable pressures.11
So far our project of cognitive mapping has successfully situated our blockaders within a vast spatial horizon, a network of reticulated flows, against the backdrop of which even the gargantuan containerships, even the teeming thousands of blockaders, are mere flyspecks. But the picture we have given is without depth, without history; it is, in other words, a picture, and we might wonder whether some of the disorientation to which the concept of the cognitive map responds is aggravated by the spatial (and visual) approach. Perhaps “map” functions as metaphor more than anything else, referring to an elaboration of concepts and categories in both spatial and temporal dimensions. A map, but also a story, chart, and diagram, because once we adopt the view from somewhere, the view for somebody, we place ourselves between a past and a future, at the leading edge of a chain of causes that are as much in need of mapping as the spatial arrangement of the supply chain, especially if we want to have any sense of what might happen next.
In other words, we will want to know why capital turned to logistics. Why did capital reorganise in this manner? In pursuit of which advantages and in response to which impasses? One answer, hinted at above, is that logistics is a simple accelerator of commodity flows. Logistics is a method to decrease the turnover time of capital, and thereby raise total profits. Short turnover times and quick production cycles can produce very high total profits with even the very low rates of profit (per turnover) which capitalists encountered in the 1970s. Logistics was one solution, then, to “the long downturn” that emerged in the 1970s and the general crisis it ushered in, as opportunities for profit-taking through investment in the productive apparatus (in new plant and machinery) began to vanish. As we know from numerous accounts, one result is that capital flowed into financial assets, real estate, and the like, amplifying the velocity and bandwidth of the money supply and the credit market, and concocting novel forms of finance capital. But this well-documented process of financialisation had as its hidden counterpart a massive investment of capital in the complementary sphere of commodity (rather than money) circulation, increasing the throughput of the transportation system and accelerating the velocity of commodity capital through a buildout in the form of tankers, port complexes, railyards, robotically-controlled distribution centers, and the digital and network technology needed to manage the increased volume and complexity of trade. The shipping container and the commodity future were thus complementary technical innovations, streamlining and supercharging different segments of the total circuit of reproduction. The ever-faster rotations of credit and commodities around the globe are mutually enabling relays. However, investment in these areas is not just about brute velocity; it also aims at reducing the associated costs of circulation and thereby increasing the total load of the transport systems. Alongside the obvious economies of scale and mechanisation afforded by container technology, integrated information systems vastly reduce the administrative costs associated with circulation, freeing up more money for direct investment in production.12
But these developments cannot be understood in terms of quantitative increase and decrease alone: increase in speed and volume of commodital flows, decrease in overhead. There is an important qualitative goal here as well, described by logistics as “agility”— that is, the power to change, as quickly as possible, the speed, location, origin and destination of products, as well as product type, in order to meet volatile market conditions. Corporations aim for “responsive supply chains”, as the chapter title of one popular logistics handbook has it, “such that [they] can respond in shorter time-frames both in terms of volume change and variety changes”.13 In their interventive role, logistics experts might seek to identify and remedy bottlenecks in order to maintain agility. But as a matter of preventive design, specialists will strive to synchronise and distribute information across the entire supply chain so that suppliers can take appropriate action before intervention becomes necessary. This distributed information is referred to as a “virtual supply chain”, a chain of transmitted symbolic representations that flows opposite to the physical movement of commodities. Entirely separate firms might use distributed data of this sort to coordinate their activities. The result, as Bonacich and Wilson note, is that “competition … shift[s] from the firm level to the supply chain level”.14 But transparency of data does not level the playing field at all; typically, one of the actors in the supply-chain network will retain dominance, without necessarily placing itself at the centre of operations — Wal-Mart, for instance, has insisted its suppliers place Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags on pallets and containers, allowing it to manage its inventory much more effectively, at considerable cost to the suppliers.15
Before we consider the final reason for the logistics revolution, a brief historical note is in order. Until WWII, the field of corporate or business logistics did not exist at all. Instead, logistics was a purely military affair, referring to the methods that armies used to provision themselves, moving supplies from the rear to the front line, a mundane but fundamental enterprise which military historians since Thucydides have acknowledged as a key determinant of the success of expeditionary wars. Business logistics as a distinct field evolved in the 1950s, building upon innovations in military logistics, and drawing upon the interchange of personnel between the military, industry and the academy so characteristic of the postwar period, interchanges superintended by the fields of cybernetics, information theory and operations research. The connection between military and corporate logistics remained intimate. For instance, though Malcolm McLean introduced stackable shipping containers in the 1950s, and had already managed to containerise some domestic transport lines, it was his Sea-Land Service’s container-based solution to the logistics crisis of the Vietnam War that generalised the technology and demonstrated its effectiveness for international trade.16 Likewise, RFID technology was first deployed by the US military in Iraq and Afghanistan, at which point Wal-Mart begin exploring its use. Shortly afterwards, the Department of Defense and Wal-Mart issued mandates to their largest suppliers, requiring them to use RFID tags on their merchandise. The link between corporate logistics and military logistics is so strong that the many of Wal-Mart’s managers and executives — who set the standard for the industry as a whole — come from the military.17
Logistics, we might say, is war by other means, war by means of trade. A war of supply chains that conquers new territories by suffusing them with capillarial distributions, ensuring that commodities flow with ease to the farthest extremities. From this martial perspective, we might usefully distinguish, however, between an offensive and a defensive logistics. The offensive forms we have already described above: logistics seeks to saturate markets, reduce costs and outproduce competitors, maintain maximum throughput and maximum product variety. In this offensive aspect, logistics emphasises flexibility, plasticity, permutability, dynamism, and morphogenesis. But it finds its complement in a series of protocols which are fundamentally defensive, mitigating supply chain risk from blockades and earthquakes, strikes and supplier shortages. If “agility” is the watchword of offensive logistics, defensive logistics aims for “resilience” and emphasises the values of elasticity, homeostasis, stability, and longevity. But resilience is only ostensibly a conservative principle; it finds stability not in inflexibility but in constant, self-stabilising adaptivity.18 In this sense, the defensive and the offensive forms of logistics are really impossible to disentangle, since one firm’s agility is another’s volatility, and the more flexible and dynamic a firm becomes the more it “exports” uncertainty to the system as a whole, requiring other firms to become more resilient. In any case, we can expect that, in the context of the economic crisis and the looming environmental collapse, logistics will become more and more the science of risk management and crisis mitigation.
Logistics is capital’s art of war, a series of techniques for intercapitalist and interstate competition. But such wars are, at the same time, always fought through and against workers. One of the most significant reasons for the extension, complication and lubrication of these planetary supply chains is that they allow for arbitrage of the labour market. The sophisticated, permutable supply chains of the contemporary world make it possible for capital to seek out the lowest wages anywhere in the world and to play proletarians off of each other. Logistics was therefore one of the key weapons in a decades-long global offensive against labour. The planetary supply chains enabled by containerisation effectively encircled labour, laying siege to its defensive emplacements such as unions and, eventually, over the course of the 1980s and 1990s, completely crushing them. From there, with labour on the run, logistics has enabled capital to quickly neutralise and outmanoeuvre whatever feeble resistance workers mount. Although capital must deal with the problem of sunk investments in immovable buildings, machines, and other infrastructures, reconfigurable supply chains allow it unprecedented power to route around, and starve, troublesome labour forces. By splitting workers into a “core” composed of permanent workers (often conservative and loyal) and a periphery of casualised, outsourced and fragmented workers, who may or may not work for the same firm, capital has dispersed proletarian resistance quite effectively. But these organisational structures require systems of coordination, communication and transport, opening capital up to the danger of disruption in the space of circulation, whether by workers charged with circulating commodities or by others, as with the port blockade, who choose circulation as their space of effective action, for the simple reason that capital has already made this choice as well. The actions of the participants in the port blockade are, in this regard, doubly determined by the restructuring of capital. They are there not only because the restructuring of capital has either left them with no jobs at all or placed them into jobs where action as workers according to the classical tactics of the worker’s movement has been proscribed, but also because capital itself has increasingly taken the sphere of circulation as the object of its own interventions. In this regard, theory provides us not only with the why of capital’s restructuring but the why of a new cycle of struggles.
It should be obvious by now that logistics is capital’s own project of cognitive mapping. Hence, the prominence of “visibility” among the watchwords of the logistics industry. To manage a supply chain means to render it transparent. The flows of commodities in which we locate our blockaders are doubled by flows of information, by a signifying chain that superintends the commodity chain, sometimes without human intervention at all. Alongside the predictive models of finance, which aim to represent and control the chaotic fluctuations of the credit system and money, logistics likewise manages the complex flows of the commodity system through structures of representation. We might imagine, then, a logistics against logistics, a counter-logistics which employs the conceptual and technical equipment of the industry in order to identify and exploit bottlenecks, to give our blockaders a sense of where they stand within the flows of capital. This counter-logistics might be a proletarian art of war to match capital’s own ars belli. Imagine if our blockaders knew exactly which commodities the containers at particular berths, or on particular ships, contained; imagine if they could learn about the origin and destination of these commodities and calculate the possible effects — functionally and in dollars — of delays or interruptions in particular flows. Possession of such a counterlogistical system, which might be as crude as a written inventory, would allow antagonists to focus their attention where it would be most effective. Taking, for example, the situation of the French pension law struggles of 2010, in which mobile blockades in groups of twenty to a hundred moved throughout French cities, supporting the picket lines of striking workers but also blockading key sites independently, the powers of coordination and concentration permitted by such a system are immediately apparent.19 This is one example of the strategic horizons which unfold from within struggles, even if most discussions of such counterlogistics will have to be conducted with particular occasions in mind.
But beyond the practical value of counterlogistic information, there is what we might call its existential value: the way in which being able to see one’s own actions alongside the actions of others, and being able to see as well the effects of such concerted action, imbues those actions with a meaning they might have otherwise lacked. The contagiousness of the Arab Spring — for example — arises in part from the affirmative effect of transmitted images of struggle. Being able to see one’s own action in the face of state violence reflected in and even enlarged by the actions of others can be profoundly galvanising. This is another one of the values of theory with regard to praxis — the ability to place struggles side by side, to render struggles visible to each other and to themselves.
This importance of visibility — or legibility, as he calls it — is essential to one of the best discussions of the restructuring of labour in late capitalism, Richard Sennett’s The Corrosion of Character. Sennett suggests that the “weak work identity” of contemporary workplaces — distinguished mainly by computerisation, in his treatment — results from the utter illegibility of the work processes to the workers themselves. Visiting a bakery which he had studied decades earlier for his first book, The Hidden Injuries of Class, Sennett finds that, in place of the physically challenging processes of the 1960s bakery, workers now used computer-controlled machines which can produce any kind of bread according to changing market conditions, simply by pressing a few buttons. As a result, unlike bakers in the past, the workers do not identify with their jobs or derive satisfaction from their tasks, precisely because the functioning of the machines is fundamentally opaque to them. The difference between entering values into a spreadsheet and baking bread is negligible to them. Concrete labour has become fundamentally abstract, scrambling at the same time distinctions between material and immaterial, manual and mental labour:
Computerized baking has profoundly changed the balletic physical activities of the shop floor. Now the bakers make no physical contact with the materials or the loaves of bread, monitoring the entire process via on-screen icons which depict, for instance, images of bread color derived from data about the temperature and baking time of the ovens; few bakers actually see the loaves of bread they make. Their working screens are organized in the familiar Windows way; in one, icons for many more different kinds of bread appear than had been prepared in the past — Russian, Italian, French loaves all possible by touching the screen. Bread had become a screen representation.
As a result of working in this way, the bakers now no longer actually know how to bake bread. Automated bread is no marvel of technological perfection; the machines frequently tell the wrong story about the loaves rising within, for instance, failing to gauge accurately the strength of the rising yeast, or the actual color of the loaf. The workers can fool with the screen to correct somewhat for these defects; what they can’t do is fix the machines, or more important, actually bake bread by manual control when the machines all too often go down. Program-dependent laborers, they can have no hands-on knowledge. The work is no longer legible to them, in the sense of understanding what they are doing.20
There is an interesting paradox here, which Sennett draws out very nicely in the following pages: the more transparent and “user-friendly” the computerised processes are, the more opaque the total process they control becomes. His conclusion should trouble any simplistic conception of the powers of visibility or the “cognitive map” as such, a problem that Jameson recognised early on, declaring “informational technology the representational solution as well as the representational problem of [the] world system’s cognitive mapping”.21 The problems for Sennett’s workers, as well as for our blockaders, are practical as much as they are epistemological, a matter of doing and knowing together. Unless the representations such systems provide widen our capacity to do and to make, to effect changes upon the world, they will make that world more rather than less opaque, no matter how richly descriptive they might be. And though Sennett’s discussion is geared only toward the world of labour (and imbued with typical left-wing nostalgia for the savoir-faire and stable identities that skilled work entailed) the problems of legibility pertain as much to our blockaders as to the dockworkers at the port. To persist beyond an initial moment, struggles need to recognise themselves in the effects they create, they need to be able to map out those effects, not just by positioning themselves within the abstract and concrete space of late capital, but within a political sequence that has both past and future, that opens onto a horizon of possibilities. All of this requires knowledge but it requires knowledge that can be practiced, that can be worked out.
Our blockaders are therefore dispossessed of usable knowledge by a technical system in which they appear only as incidental actors, as points of relay and insertion which require at most a stenographic compression of their immediate environs into a few kilobytes of usable information. Bernard Stiegler, who despite an often tedious Heideggerian theoretical apparatus is one of the best contemporary theorists of technology, describes this process as “cognitive and affective proletarianization”, where proletarians are dispossessed, as producers, of savoir faire and, as consumers, of savoir vivre. This is part of a long history of what Stiegler calls “grammatization”, in which knowledge and memory is discretised into reproducible and combinatorial bodily gestures — phonemes, graphemes, keystrokes, bits — and then exteriorised through inscription in matter.22 The digital and telecommunication technology of contemporary grammatisation is the final stage of this process, such that our memories and cognitive faculties now exist in the data cloud, as it were, part of a distributed technological prosthesis without which we are effectively incapable of orienting ourselves or functioning. In this largely persuasive account, which thankfully cuts against the optimistic readings of information technology as a progressive socialisation of “general intellect”, we are dispossessed not just of the means of production but the means of thought and feeling as well.
In many ways, Stiegler shares a great deal with the rich exploration of the concepts of alienation, fetishism and reification that followed the popularisation of the early Marx in the 1960s, by Herbert Marcuse, Guy Debord and others. We might, for this reason, wonder about the latent humanism in Stiegler. Sennett, however, provides us with an important caveat against reading Stiegler in humanist terms: whereas a certain kind of classic Marxist analysis might expect his bakers to want to reappropriate the knowledge of which they had been dispossessed by the machines, few of them have any such desires. Their real lives are elsewhere, and hardly any of them expect or desire dignity and meaning from their jobs as bakers. The only person who conforms to the expected outline of the alienated worker, in Sennett’s bakery, is the foreman, who worked his way up from apprentice baker to manager, and takes the wastage and loss of skill in the bakery as a personal affront, imagining that if the bakery were a cooperative the workers might take more interest in knowing how things are done. The other workers, however, treat work not as the performance of a skill but as a series of indifferent applications of an abstract capacity to labour. Baking means little more than “pushing buttons in a Windows program designed by others”.23 The work is both illegible to them, and utterly alien to their own needs, but not alien in the classic sense that they recognise it as a lost or stolen part of themselves they hope to recover through struggle. This is one of the most important consequences of the restructuring of the labour process superintended by the logistics revolution: the casualisation and irregularisation of labour, the disaggregation of the work process into increasingly illegible and geographically separate component parts, as well as the incredible powers which capital now has to defeat any struggle for better conditions, mean that it is not only impossible for most proletarians to visualise their place within this complex system but it is also impossible for them to identify with that place as a source of dignity and satisfaction, since its ultimate meaning with regard to the total system remains elusive. Most workers today cannot say, as workers of old could (and often did): It is we who built this world! It is we to whom this world belongs! The restructuring of the mode of production and the subordination of production to the conditions of circulation therefore forecloses the classical horizon of proletarian antagonism: seizure of the means of production for the purposes of a worker-managed society. One cannot imagine seizing that which one cannot visualise, and inside of which one’s place remains uncertain.
The difficulties which Sennett’s bakers (or our blockaders) encounter are not simply failures of knowledge, ones that can be solved through pedagogical intervention; as valuable as a cognitive map of these processes might be, the problems we confront in visualising some self-management of existing productive means originate from the practical difficulties — in my view, impossibilities — that such a prospect would encounter. The opacity of the system, in this regard, emerges from its intractability, and not the other way around. In an insightful article on the logistics industry and contemporary struggle, Alberto Toscano (who has lately devoted considerable effort to critiquing theorists of communisation) faults the “space-time of much of today’s anticapitalism” for its reliance on “subtraction and interruption, not attack and expansion”.24 Toscano proposes, as an alternative, an anticapitalist logistics which treats the various productive sites and infrastructures of late capitalism as “potentially reconfigurable” rather than the object of “mere negation or sabotage”. No doubt, any struggle which wants to overcome capitalism will need to consider “what use can be drawn from the dead labours which crowd the earth’s crust”, but there is no reason to assume from the start, as Toscano does, 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”. As we saw above, the use-value which the logistics industry produces is a set of protocols and techniques that enable firms to seek out the lowest wages anywhere in the world, and to evade the inconvenience of class struggle when it arises. In this sense, unlike other capitalist technologies, logistics is only partly about exploiting the efficiencies of machines in order to get products to market faster and more cheaply, since the main purpose of the faster and cheaper technologies is to offset the otherwise prohibitive cost of exploiting labour forces halfway around the world. The technological ensemble which logistics superintends is therefore fundamentally different than other ensembles such as the Fordist factory; it saves on labour costs by decreasing the wage, rather than increasing the productivity of labour. To put it in Marxist terms, it is absolute surplus value masquerading as relative surplus value. The use-value of logistics, for capital, is exploitation in its rawest form, and thus it is truly doubtful that logistics might form, as Toscano writes, “capitalism’s pharmakon, the cause for its pathologies (from the damaging hypertrophy of long-distance transport of commodities to the aimless sprawl of contemporary conurbation) as well as the potential domain of anti-capitalist solutions”.
For workers to seize the commanding heights offered by logistics — to seize, in other words, the control panel of the global factory — would mean for them to manage a system that is constitutively hostile to them and their needs, to oversee a system in which extreme wage differentials are built into the very infrastructure. Without those differentials, most supply-chains would become both wasteful and unnecessary. But perhaps “repurposing” means for Toscano instead a kind of making-do with the machinery of logistics as we find it, seeing what other purposes it can be put to, rather than imagining an appropriation of its commanding heights? Any revolutionary process will make do with what it finds available as a matter of necessity, but it is precisely the “convertibility” or “reconfigurability” of these technologies that seems questionable. The fixed capital of the contemporary production regime is designed for extraction of maximum surplus value; each component part is engineered for insertion into this global system; therefore, the presence of communist potentials as unintended features —“affordances”, as they are sometimes called — of contemporary technology needs to be argued for, not assumed as a matter of course.25 Much of the machinery of contemporary logistics aims to streamline the circulation of commodities and not use-values, to produce not the things that are necessary or beneficial but those that are profitable: individually packaged boxes of cereal, for instance, whose complex insignia distinguish them from the dozens of varieties of nearly identical cereals (sold and consumed in sizes and types that reflect certain social arrangements, such as the nuclear family). How much of the vaunted flexibility of the logistics system is really the flexibility of product variety, of wage differentials and trade imbalances? How much would become useless once one eliminated the commodity-form, once one eliminated the necessity of buying and selling? Furthermore, the contemporary logistics system is designed for a particular international balance of trade, with certain countries as producers and others as consumers. This is a fact fundamentally entangled with the wage imbalances mentioned earlier, which means that the inequality of the global system in part has to do with the unequal distribution of productive means and the infrastructures of circulation — the concentration of port capacity on the West Coast of the US rather than the East Coast, for instance, because of the location of manufacturing in Asia. Rebalancing the amount of goods produced locally or at a distance — if such a thing were to be a part of a break with capitalist production — would mean an entirely different arrangement of infrastructures and probably different types of infrastructure as well (smaller ships, for instance).
We might also question the reconfiguration thesis from the perspective of scale. 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. Another problem, though, is that administration at such a scale introduces a sublime dimension to the concept of “planning”; these scales and magnitudes are radically beyond human cognitive capacities. The level of an impersonal “administration of things” and the level of a “free association of producers” are not so much in contradiction as separated by a vast abyss. Toscano leaves such an abyss marked by an ominous appeal to Herbert Marcuse’s concept of “necessary alienation” as the unfortunate but necessary concomitant of maintenance of the technical system. Other partisans of the reconfiguration thesis, when questioned about the scaling-up of the emancipatory desires and needs of proletarian antagonists to a global administration invariably deploy the literal deus ex machina of supercomputers. Computers and algorithms, we are told, will determine how commodities are to be distributed; computers will scale up from the demands for freedom and equality of proletarian antagonists and figure out a way to distribute work and the products of work in a manner satisfactory to all. But how an algorithmically-mediated production would work, why it would differ from production mediated by competition and the price-mechanism remains radically unclear, and certainly unmuddied by any actual argument. Would labour-time still be the determinant of access to social wealth? Would free participation (in work) and free access (in necessaries) be facilitated in such a system? If the goal is rather a simple equality of producers — equal pay for equal work — how would one deal with the imbalances of productivity, morale and initiative, which result from the maintenance of the requirement that “he who does not work does not eat”? Is this what “necessary alienation” means?
But the non-scalarity (or unidirectional scalarity) of the logistics system introduces a much more severe problem. Even if global communist administration — by supercomputer, or by ascending tiers of delegates and assemblies — were possible and desirable on the basis of the given technical system, once we consider the historical character of communism, things seem much more doubtful. Communism does not drop from the sky, but must emerge from a revolutionary process, and given the present all or nothing character of the international division of labour — the concentration of manufacturing in a few countries, the concentration of productive capacity for certain essential lines of capital in a handful of factories, as mentioned above — any attempt to seize the means of production would require an immediately global seizure. We would need a revolutionary process so quickly successful and extensive that all long-distance supply chains ran between non-capitalist producers within a matter of months, as opposed to the much more likely scenario that a break with capital will be geographically concentrated at first and need to spread from there. In most cases, therefore, maintenance of these distributed production processes and supply-chains will mean trade with capitalist partners, an enchainment to production for profit (necessary for survival, we will be told by the pragmatists) the results of which will be nothing less than disastrous, as a study of the Russian and Spanish examples will show. In both cases, the need to maintain an export economy in order to buy crucial goods on the international markets — arms in particular — meant that revolutionary cadres and militants had to use direct and indirect force in order to induce workers to meet production targets. Raising productivity and increasing productive capacity now became the transitional step on the way to achieving communism then, and in anarchist Spain, as much as Bolshevist Russia, cadres set to work mimicking the dynamic growth of capitalist accumulation through direct political mechanisms, rather than the indirect force of the wage, though in both cases economic incentive structures (piece rates, bonus pay) were eventually introduced as matter of necessity. It is hard to see how anything but a new insurrectionary process — one mitigated against by the establishment of new disciplines and repressive structures — could have restored these systems even to the labour-note based “lower phase of communism” that Marx advocates in “Critique of the Gotha Program”, let alone a society based upon free access and non-compelled labour.
The traditional discussions of such matters assume that, whereas underdeveloped countries like Russia and Spain had no choice but to develop their productive capacity first, proletarians in fully industrialised countries could immediately expropriate and self-manage the means of production without any need for forced development. This might have been true in the immediate postwar period, and as late as the 1970s, but once deindustrialisation began in earnest, the chance had been officially missed — the global restructuring and redistribution of productive means leaves us in a position that is probably as bad as, if not worse than, those early 20th-century revolutions, when some large percentage of the means of production for consumer goods were ready to hand, and one could locate, in one’s own region, shoe factories and textile mills and steel refineries. A brief assessment of the workplaces in one’s immediate environs should convince most of us — in the US at least, and I suspect most of Europe — of the utter unworkability of the reconfiguration thesis. The service and administrative jobs which most proletarians today work are meaningless except as points of intercalation within vast planetary flows — a megaretailer, a software company, a coffee chain, an investment bank, a non-profit organisation. Most of these jobs pertain to use-values that would be rendered non-uses by revolution. 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. The idea that 15% or so of workers whose activities would still be useful would work on behalf of others — as caretakers of a communist future — is politically non-workable, even if the system could produce enough of what people need, and trade for inputs didn’t produce another blockage. Add to this the fact that the development of logistics itself and the credit system alongside it, greatly multiplies the power of capital to discipline rebellious zones through withdrawal of credit (capital flight), embargo, and punitive terms of trade.
The whole is the false, in this case, not so much because it can’t be adequately represented or because any attempt at such representation does violence to its internal contradictions, but because all such global representations belie the fact that the whole can never be possessed as such. The totality of the logistics system belongs to capital. It is a view from everywhere (or nowhere), a view from space, that only capital as totalising, distributed process can inhabit. Only capital can fight us in every place at once, because capital is not in any sense a force with which we contend, but the very territory on which that contention takes place. Or rather, it is a force, but a field force, something which suffuses rather than opposes. Unlike capital, we fight in particular locations and moments — here, there, now, then. To be a partisan means, by necessity, to accept the partiality of perspective and the partiality of the combat we offer.
The weak tactics of the present — the punctual riot, the blockade, the occupation of public space — are not the strategic product of an antagonist consciousness that has misrecognised its enemy, or failed to examine adequately the possibilities offered by present technologies. On the contrary, the tactics of our blockaders emerge from a consciousness that has already surveyed the possibilities on offer, and understood, if only intuitively, how the restructuring of capital has foreclosed an entire strategic repertoire. The supply chains which fasten these proletarians to the planetary factory are radical chains in the sense that they go to the root, and must be torn out from the root as well. 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. The logistical problems they encounter will have to do with replacing that which is fundamentally unavailable except through linkage to these planetary networks and the baleful consequences they bring. In other words, the creation of communism will require a massive process of delinking from the planetary factory as a matter of survival. We will not have the opportunity to use all (or even many) of the technical means that we find, since so many of these will be effectively orphaned by a break with capitalist production. But what, then, of strategy? If theory is the horizon which opens from present conditions of struggle, strategy is something different, less a horizon than a prospect. Strategy is a particular moment when theory reopens to practice, suggesting not just a possible but a desirable course of action. If a horizon places us in front of a range of possibilities, the strategic moment comes when struggles reach a certain crest, an eminence, from which a narrower set of options opens up — a prospect. Prospects are a middle ground between where we are and the far horizon of communisation.
What are our prospects, then, based upon the recent cycle of struggles? We now know that the restructuring of the capital–labour relationship has made intervention in the sphere of circulation an obvious and in many ways effective tactic. The blockade, it seems, might assume an importance equal to the strike in the coming years, as will occupations of public space and struggles over urban and rural environments remade to become better conduits for flows of labour and capital — as recent struggles in both Turkey and Brazil have demonstrated. Our prospects are such that, instead of propagandising for forms of workplace action that are unlikely to succeed or generalise, we might better accept our new strategic horizon and work, instead, to disseminate information about how interventions in this sphere might become more effective, what their limits are, and how such limits could be overcome. We might work to disseminate the idea that the seizure of the globally-distributed factory is no longer a meaningful horizon, and we might essay to map out the new relations of production in a way that takes account of this fact. For instance, we might try to graph the flows and linkages around us in ways that comprehend their brittleness as well as the most effective ways they might be blocked as part of the conduct of particular struggles. These would be semi-local maps — maps that operate from the perspective of a certain zone or area. From this kind of knowledge, 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. How to ensure that there is water and that the sewers function? How to avoid meltdown of nuclear reactors? What does local food production look like? What types of manufacture happen nearby, and what kinds of things can be done with its production machinery? This would be a process of inventory, taking stock of things we encounter in our immediate environs, that does not imagine mastery from the standpoint of the global totality, but rather a process of bricolage from the standpoint of partisan fractions who know they will have to fight from particular, embattled locations, and win their battles successively rather than all at once. None of this means setting up a blueprint for the conduct of struggles, a transitional program. Rather, it means producing the knowledge which the experience of past struggles has already demanded and which future struggles will likely find helpful.