KERNEL: During the last decades the concept of ‘logistics’, a term that seems to have been pivotal in your work, has been expanding from its traditional logic of being the optimization of the movement of material and human resources, in order to include the distribution management of immaterial goods at large, like energy and information. One of the things that look crucial to logistical practices is their networked, increasingly globalized character that constitutively deals with flows between what could otherwise had been unconnected places and populations. If we were to see the idea of logistics as a dominant framework with the potential to determine the structure of social, political and economic relations, then at the same time we could assume obscure centers of political and economic control or, in fact, logistics as being an apparatus of control themselves. Is this the only way we could understand and tackle logistical processes in the wider sense? Could we, for example, ever see logistics as emancipatory commons?
Stefano Harney: We might begin by saying that logistics is after something, in both senses of the word ‘after.’ It is in pursuit of something, some set of relations, and those relations are also prior to it, not just historically but in every instance. Then we might ask not only what these relations are, but why, and why now, is the capitalist science of logistics so fixated on these relations, so determined to pursue them, harness them, exploit them. My suggestion is that logistics represents the second attempt we have seen in the history of capitalism to free itself entirely from labour. The first fantasy was finance. This fantasy continues despite the setbacks but it has been joined by a new fantasy, one in a sense closer to Marx’s own prediction, in which as he writes in the Grundrisse, ‘men would step to the side of production.’ He does not say men would step above production, and this is why I consider his vision in the Fragment on Machines to be a logistical vision not a strategic vision. And yet logistics is not quite the right word for Marx’s vision in this famous piece because while man stands to the side, he is also standing to the side of something in which he is taken up, in which his qualities are socialised and recombined in ‘the general intellect.’ I would rather call what Marx glimpsed a form of ‘logisticality,’ a capacity amongst us to connect, yes, but to connect in a way that the connection, adaptation, translation, resonance, rhythm or communication does not go through fully formed subjects. Indeed it was necessary for Marx when talking about the future to think about communism without subjects (and perhaps for this reason he did not like to do it). Because the only subject he had to work with was going to abolish itself. What social capacities, relations, what social ontology would survive this abolition of the proletariat? What was it, in other words, what was this thing that was not a proletarian subject anymore, that was to step to the side of a production composed of a productive process composed of this thing’s capacities? The word I would use for this productive relation among things, bodies, capacities, is logisticality. And it is the historical development of this logisticality that is today pursued with such frenzy by the capitalist science of logisitics. But why now?
The answer you may find unlikely, even callous given the immediate circumstances around us, but I believe it is the failure, the collapse of neo-liberalism. Neo-liberalism has been quite rightly understood as a strategy but already such a diffuse strategy that it stretched to the border of logistics. Neo-liberalism was to work through every strategised subject, producing human capital, through which finance would circulate. Labour would not so much be abandoned as in the fantasy of earlier finance capital, but dissolved from within. But in the end, there were not enough subjects, and they were too concentrated. These insufficient neo-liberal subjects are the famous ‘cognitariat’ and ‘precariat,’ the famous middle class, and the famous settlers. They were supposed to strategise a frictionless transition of labour into human capital, finacialised selves, entrepreneurs. But in the end even they, they who had subjectivities with which to strategise, through which they were interpellated, even they rebelled. But the before they did the problem was already evident. Most people on the planet are not subjects, and never have been. Both because they have been denied this status and because even before this status was denied to them they rejected it. And this is of course the anoriginal genesis of logisticality, in the first massive logistics of the modern, capitalist era, the global slave trade, the motley crew following in the red wakes of those ships, the indentured, pressed into service, the migrant in the container or in the back of the truck, the shipped. Logisticality is the inheritance of the shipped, a way of being together amongst those who rejected subjectivity before it rejected them, of those, as Edouard Glissant said ‘consented not to be a single being.’
The evidence that a subject-based strategy would fail go all the way back to the anti-IMF riots in the global south in the 1980’s, and from then on, all the propaganda of globalisation producing a world of subjects never caught up to reality. But the sub-prime crisis in the US housing market was especially revealing in a country where millions had to be jailed to produce a population of neo-liberal subjects. Even many of these subjects, it turned out, had other plans, operated in a register of logisticality beyond the strategic domain of neo-liberalism. For example, one reason few officially saw the sub-prime crisis coming is that the actuarial models failed. In a credit crisis, people normally default first on a credit card, then a car, then a home. The model has built-in early warning signs when credit card defaults go up. In the sub-prime crisis, people got in their cars with their credit cards and drove away from their homes, abandoning them. Of course they were not for the most part abandoning ‘home’ or ‘family’ but were in a sense following a four hundred year old tradition in the US, let’s call it the unsettling tradition, if we can even use the word tradition, in which, slaves and ex-slaves, indigenous people, runaway indentured servants, and a motley crew that stretches from early pirates to hobos and hippies know each other not through the subject-fixing life of settlement, place, identity, citizenship, but through its opposite, its absence which is the rich presence of logisticality. The sub-prime will, and have, found other places to live, to unsettle.
Strategy requires a subject. Logistics abhors a subject. To read the academic literature on logistics is to enter the crisis of strategy more generally. Where the subject is understood as a controlling agent of the body’s capacities, it is understood as a problem. No matter how much that command and control is dedicated to capital’s movement, it is still a problem, and given that it has been too rare and too unreliable, such a commanding subject is today under assault from logistics. Logistics speaks about eliminating human time, about mobile agents who can connect without a command and control function in the system. These are modelled with evolutionary algorithms, with genetic versions of ‘the traveling salesman’ problem. There is no room for a strategised self here. Indeed such processing slows and impedes the flows and transfers of the logistical imperative. Thus the body is accessed directly, socialised directly, and affect is aggregated, thought accumulated both below and above the level of the individual, as Patricia Clough would say. And where did logistics get the idea that it could bypass the individual? From the history, the inheritance we have, the capacities we possess from those who have long been bypassed, those who have long been on the move, the unsettled, the stranger, the migrant, the shipped. Things not individuals because individuals insist on strategic participation however pathetic in practice. But if bodies, if affect, if intellect could be just things among things as logistics imagines, the smooth movement of capital would be free even of the residual ghost of labour in the neo-liberal subject. And yet this is of course untrue. Things resist, and things are resistant. Risking the ire of traditionalists we might even say logistics is the third fantasy in history of capital escaping labour, of being an automatic subject amongst subjects (empty and therefore not a subject at all), because slavery and colonial indenture surely were attempts to escape labour in the crudest way of trying unsuccessfully to deny such labour any quality except the barest of life. But that failed. Things resisted, and in a sense this third fantasy is the first returned.
KERNEL: Besides the domain of logistics, the idea of frictionless connectivity and unconditional modularity could also be found in the way you look at an emerging ‘logistical subject’. One that, by reflecting the structure and processes of logistical operations, defines the decisive development of a new way of production. Moving beyond the perimeters of the post-Fordist paradigm, you have seen this subject as even overcoming statistical–and thus biopolitical–categories, now being more autonomous, continuously networked and fully compatible. In an attempt to understand the relationship and dynamics between a contemporary, extended concept of logistics and the one of an emergent logistical subjectivity, we would like to ask you what you see as being the special processes, the specific forces, or even the clashes that shape and perpetuate these advancements today.
Stefano Harney: I teach in Singapore now, self-proclaimed logistical capital of the world. And Singapore is an interesting example of the uneven-ness of the development of the logistical subject, an automatic subject who is subject in name only because there is no decision-making function, strategic function in this subject, since what flows through this subject is not processed through any kind of command and control, but flows directly through the body as sensation, information, energy, as a protocol of the optimisation of movement, connection, translation, speed. And yet Singapore is failing to produce a logistical population. It cannot convert its older logistical infrastructure of ports, containers, re-fuelling, and administrative handling, into the new logistical imperative. Why? Because the government itself is so dedicated to command and control in its political system. Consequently it imagines it needs, and must create, a certain kind of citizen to support this government and its national project, which remains a mix of liberal and neo-liberal population command and control. At a moment when it really needs people to let go of any definitions of citizenship, to be not just as Michael Hardt says the subjects of whatever, but objects of whatever, things of whatever, Singapore’s govenrment implements more and more specific citizenship drives to ‘creativity’ or to becoming an ‘regional education hub’ or ‘renewing small entrepreneurship.’ In other words, having spent forty years suppressing its own logiticality amongst its population, trying continuously to produce subjects for an authoritarian liberal capitalism, it is further than ever from making a transition to logistical populations, an unanticipated price of its history of oppression.
Meanwhile the vibrant heritage of logisticality in a place like the Philippines offers a sharp contrast, not only in the operation of logistics, but also in the immanence of what Fred Moten and I would call the undercommons, an undercommons infused with logisticality. Throughout a history colonialism, exploitation, migration and dispersal, the Philippines has nonetheless not been without its liberal moments of the subject, but its people has certainly been enriched with other social forms of being together when such liberal moments were denied at home and abroad. The activism accompanying global seafaring, global care-giving, global service work, and global sex work occur within increasingly self-organised, self-defined, transnational organisational forms that certainly sometimes imagine a return to laws and national protection, but often operate in the realm of a logisticality in which people recognise each other, attach to each other, enter a rhythm with each other that has no reference point outside of its sociality, its mutual support. To put this in theoretical terms, for instance through Lukacs, the shipped have every standpoint and so none. They are worker, product, means of circulation and production, and their bodies realise value and reproduce labour. They stand everywhere and nowhere in the circuits of capitalist production.. It is for this reason they are sought out by logistics, put into global circulation as bodies, but it is also for this reason that they resist with the priority of organisation forms that do not require a standpoint of the subject, the state, the law.
KERNEL: As it happens with a certain conception of economy, in our understanding management finds its purpose in a generic idea of maximization of efficiency and utility, concepts that often appear as technical and deprived of ideological associations. Today’s developments bring forward in a persistent way an additional imperative, the one of the ‘real time’, a condition made possible by the worldwide expansion of digital telecommunications. Besides being a tool towards the objectives of efficiency, the idea of the real time also suggests new modes of organization of time and life. Would you see this attempt for constant approximation of the real time as a progressive or systemic one? In which cost does such a progress really come?
Stefano Harney: Logistical populations are a capitalist project, just as neo-liberalism was. The logisticality that provokes this project is everywhere put to work, and yet as Foucault said about life, somehow it always escapes. If we work, how many times a day in work do we communicate without thinking, how many times a day are affected without having an emotion, and how many times each day raise or lower our energy levels without any distinct goal? Logistics is at work in us and we are at work logistically.
The obsession with real time is a way for logistics to imagine the simultaneity of the concrete, the possibility that anything can happen, anything can be. This concrete might also be understood as the informal, as Fred Moten puts it, as the place and time out of which place and time come, out of which form is produced. And the informal is also the dwelling of the shipped. The informal of language, music, bodies, organisation. This is as far as can be imagine from command and control and so for logistics it is a fantasy, this concrete, this informal, what they name real time. They can never reach the informal though.
Because logistics has two problems, two problems which are really one. Capital must still realise itself, which is to say at some point all of this logistical production must be de-socialised, pulled into private hands for private gain. And this requires the re-introduction of strategy, of command and control, resulting a disruption of the logistical flow. And yet logistics does not require this or want it, and logisticality in this sense is more attuned with logistics than capital. Logisticality does not need or want any return to sovereignty in its organisation, any return to self-possession or the individual. Logisticality is intent on remaining at the side of the production, to allow such production to remain social, to continue to animate a mass of social properties, capacities, and propositions powered by our ability to be at home with others, homeless with others, unsettled together. Logistics cannot realise this state for capital without becoming logisticality, and therefore without foresaking capital itself. I will put it finally this way. The maroonage took in those who found themselves unsettled, whoever they were. The act of taking in, of joining made the maroonage. (As opposed to a neo-liberal notion of becoming multicultural or global or the older liberal notion of settlement, or race war as Foucault more accurately put it, followed by settler justications). Maroonage is made through a double unsettling. It is not a settlement and is not settled. The only thing to join is the joining. Today this is widespread condition of families, neighbourhoods, cities, this maroon form. These organisations of logisticality unsettle as logistics would wish to unsettle, put into movement, but also into a new light amidst new properties, everything that is touched, felt, contact, sensed. Logistics wants logisticality. Lets’ hope its wish is its deathwish.
Stefano Harney is Professor of Strategic Management at Singapore Management University.