Disrupting Distribution: Subversion, the Social Factory, and the “State” of Supply Chains

Image via Wag­ing Non­vi­o­lence.

 

The State of Supply Chains

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

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

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

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

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

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

Disruption as Threat and Tactic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Disrupting Futurity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


  1. Thomas Reifer, “Unlock­ing the lack Box of Glob­al­iza­tion,” in The Trav­el­ing Box: Con­tain­ers as the Icons of Our Era, ed. Nel­son Licht­en­stein (New York: New Press, 2011), 7. 

  2. Anna Tsing, “Sup­ply Chains and the Human Con­di­tion,” Rethink­ing Marx­ism 21 (2009) 148-176. 

  3. Ibid., 150. 

  4. Glob­al Trade Logis­tics: South Asia needs more pro­gress to spur faster eco­nom­ic growth,” World Bank. 

  5. Eri­ca Schoen­berg­er, “The Ori­gins of the Mar­ket Econ­o­my: State Pow­er, Ter­ri­to­ri­al Con­trol, and Mod­es of War Fight­ing,” Com­par­a­tive Stud­ies in Soci­ety and His­to­ry 50 (2008), 663-691. 

  6. When trade and secu­ri­ty clash,” The Econ­o­mist, April 4, 2002. 

  7. World Eco­nom­ic Forum, “Build­ing Resilience in Sup­ply Chains.” 

  8. Marc Duffield, “Total War as Envi­ron­men­tal Ter­ror: Link­ing Lib­er­al­ism, Resilience, and the Bunker,” South Atlantic Quater­ly 110 (2011) 757-769. 

  9. Mar­t­in Cow­ard, “Net­work-cen­tric Vio­lence Crit­i­cal Infra­struc­ture and the Urban­i­sa­tion of Secu­ri­ty,” Secu­ri­ty Dia­logue 40 (2009) 399-418. 

  10. Price­Wa­ter­house­C­oop­ers, “Secur­ing the Sup­ply Chain: Trans­porta­tion & Logis­tics 2030, vol­ume 4,” (accessed August 27, 2014). 

  11. Panalpina, “2013 Third-Par­ty Logis­tics Study: The State of Logis­tics Out­sourcing.” 

  12. Peter Linebaugh and Mar­cus Redik­er, The Many-head­ed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Com­mon­ers, and the Hid­den His­to­ry of the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Atlantic (Boston: Bea­con Press, 2001). 

  13. See also, JoAnn Wyp­i­jew­ski, “The Car­go Chain.” Coun­ter­Punch 17, no. 5 (2010), 1. 

  14. Deb­o­rah Cowen, The Dead­ly Life of Logis­tics: Map­ping Vio­lence in Glob­al Trade (Min­neso­ta: Uni­ver­si­ty of Min­neso­ta Press, 2014). 

  15. Video: Wom­an Welder Sits In Atop Crane to Protest Job Cuts.” 

  16. Both U.S. and Chi­na lose in Wal-Mart’s Glob­al Econ­o­my,” Wal­Mart Watch.  

  17. 20 hurt in Chit­tagong port vio­lence,” Long­shore and Ship­ping News

  18. Jon Jen­son, “Strikes and sit-ins up the pres­sure on Egypt’s gov­ern­ment,” Glob­al Post, July 11, 2011.  

  19. Strike vio­lence in Johan­nes­burg CBD,” News24, Feb­ru­ary 14, 2011. 

  20. Moroc­co Port Expan­sion Takes Off,” The Mid­dle East Mag­a­zine

  21. Pana­ma Canal Expan­sion Project Stalled Due to Strike,” Lat­in Amer­i­ca Dai­ly Tri­bune, (accessed Sep­tem­ber 1, 2014). 

  22. Coast Long­shore Divi­sion sup­ports Peru­vian long­shore union under fire from DP World,” ILWU.org; “Rite Aid work­ers score vic­to­ry in 5-year fight,” ILWU.org; “ILWU peti­tions US to invoke CAFTA pro­vi­sion to defend Costa Rican dock­work­ers’ rights,” ILWU.org. 

  23. As one exam­ple of a recent vic­to­ry, in 2014, fol­low­ing 5 years of orga­niz­ing of the DHL Worker’s Net­work by the ITF and UNI, the Glob­al Deliv­ery cam­paign helped Turk­ish DHL work­ers (and their union Tumtis) secure a major vic­to­ry social secu­ri­ty, reg­u­late DHL’s use of sub­con­tract­ing, and make 750 sub­con­tract­ed employ­ees into per­ma­nent work­ers. 

  24. Matt Smith, “Labor Strife That Could Dock U.S. Econ­o­my,” Paci­fic Stan­dard

  25. Ruwan­tis­sa Abeyrat­ne, “Man­ag­ing the Twen­ty-First Cen­tu­ry Pira­cy Threat: The Soma­li Exam­ple,” in Sup­ply Chain Secu­ri­ty: Inter­na­tion­al Prac­tices and Inno­va­tions in Mov­ing Goods Safe­ly and Effi­cient­ly, ed. Andrew R. Thomas (San­ta Bar­bara, CA: Praeger, 2010) 121. 

  26. Cowen, The Dead­ly Life, chap­ter 4. 

  27. Quot­ed in Patrick Burn­son, “Port of Oak­land and Pro­l­o­gis move for­ward on Oak­land Army Base devel­op­ment,” Logis­tics Man­age­ment, August.  

  28. Tim Groves and Mar­t­in Lukacs, “RCMP Spied on Protest­ing First Nations,” Media Co-op

  29. Shiri Paster­nak, “The Eco­nom­ics of Insur­gen­cy: Thoughts on Idle No More and Crit­i­cal Infra­struc­ture,” The Media Co-op

  30. Tia Dafnos, “Paci­fi­ca­tion and Indige­nous Strug­gles in Canada,” Social­ist Stud­ies / Études social­is­tes 9 (2013) 57-77. 

  31. Paster­nak, “The Eco­nom­ics of Insur­gen­cy.” 

  32. Lara Kiswani, “Why We are Block­ing the Boat,” Mon­doweiss

  33. Kiswani, 2014. 

  34. Con­ver­sa­tions with orga­niz­er Max Rameau. See also: “Occu­py Our Homes: Take Back the Land Has Lessons For Home ‘Lib­er­a­tors,’Huff­Post Miami.  

  35. In 2011, the late Cree chief Randy Kapash­e­sit recount­ed sto­ries of a full day of con­ver­sa­tion with Toron­to ‘occu­py’ orga­niz­ers. Randy described frus­tra­tions with the lim­it­ed knowl­edge and vision of some occu­piers, but was also deeply impressed with their ener­gy and efforts such that he would devote his own pre­cious time to the exchange. 

  36. The Sto­ry: Idle No More.” , See also: Lau­ra Zahody, “Idle No More Orga­niz­ers Reach Out to Queer Com­mu­ni­ty,” Xtra, Jan­u­ary 28, 2013; Gale Toens­ing, “Pales­tini­ans Endorse Idle No More,” Indi­an Coun­try, Decem­ber 29, 2012; “Over 100 Peo­ple Storm Tran­sCanada Offices in Hous­ton”; and “Immi­grants in Sup­port of Idle No More.” 

  37. Cathy Cohen, “Punks, Bulldag­gers, and Wel­fare Queens: the Rad­i­cal Poten­tial of Queer Pol­i­tics?” in Black Queer Stud­ies: a Crit­i­cal Anthol­o­gy, ed. Patrick E. John­son and Mae Hen­der­son (Durham, NC: Duke Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2005), 21-51. 

  38. Inter­view with Judith But­ler,” Transna­tion­al Queer Under­ground. 

  39. José Este­ban Muñoz, Cruis­ing Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futu­ri­ty (New York: NYU Press, 2009), 1. 

  40. Alber­to Toscano, “Logis­tics and Oppo­si­tion,” Mute

  41. Crash­burn, “The Logis­tics of a New Resis­tance Move­ment,” Dai­ly KOS

Author of the article

Deborah Cowen teaches in the Department of Geography at the University of Toronto. Her research explores the role of organized violence in shaping intimacy, space, and citizenship. She is the author of Military Workfare: The Soldier and Social Citizenship in Canada, co-editor with Emily Gilbert, of War, Citizenship, Territory.