For a visitor along for the ride, the ocean voyage meant fresh sensations. The sound of the waves drowned out by the roar of the engines. The deck scattered with dead flying fish after a storm. The breeze filled with the smell of cheap bunker fuel.
But for the seamen, perhaps the only thing worse than the repetitive drudgery of their harsh labor was the boredom that came when they were done, any romance with the sea long since faded.
The unnerving truth is that facelessness and placenessness are part of the value Amazon offers. Amazon culture is anonymity culture: anonymous objects ordered through an anonymous interface from anonymous sellers, funnelled, sorted, shipped, and delivered by workers who are often unseen. Even the company’s brick-and-mortar Amazon Go markets, which sell prepared foods and snacks, are designed to minimize interpersonal interaction by eliminating things like visible food production and checkout registers. (In its advertising, Amazon describes these shops in terms of the software that runs them: “What if we could weave the most advanced machine learning, computer vision, and A.I. into the very fabric of a store?” a marketing video asks.) The Amazon shopping experience appeals, in part, because it strips away the emotional dimensions of consumerism, like shame, guilt, or impatience. And yet—while it can be a relief to use a digitally mediated portal to purchase items like Spanx, or postnatal perineal balm—this efficient blankness comes at some human cost. It’s in this sense that the fulfillment-center tours run counter to the company’s self-image. Amazon is actually a company full of people, with all their inefficiencies—their bodily needs, their grief, their camaraderie, boredom, humor, and despair. The anonymity to which Amazon shoppers are accustomed is palliative, illusory.
I felt bad after visiting the fulfillment center, too. (“You sound like someone who has just seen an industrial chicken farm for the first time,” a friend said, when I recounted the trip.) I was mad about the perverse incentives of capitalism; disgusted by the extractive nature of the global supply chain; ashamed at myself for being so susceptible to marketing. I also felt awe at the scale and precision of Amazon’s logistics. From its strips of perfectly measured packing tape to the minute-long breaks it metes out to its workers, the company operates with unprecedented efficiency. It would be wonderful if Amazon didn’t fight worker efforts to unionize, or increased their hourly pay, or consumed less energy, or better moderated its marketplace. But that version of Amazon could only exist if the company revised its core values: speed, frugality, optimization, and an “obsession” with the customer. Reformers talk more and more about breaking up the big tech companies; some leftists muse about nationalization. Regulation may change Amazon. For now, it’s exactly what it wants to be.
The Atlantic slave trade – which Stefano Harney and Fred Moten link to the rise of logistics – provides the most hellish example of this: slaves, treated as indistinguishable from other commodities such as spices or gold, were not only loaded onto ships and carried across oceans to the New World. As Paul Gilroy traces for us, during stormy weather, it was also regular practice to toss slaves off the ship into the churning waters below as an effort to shed weight, well before captains would be willing to relinquish their cargo — the sea a liquid graveyard for black bodies regarded less valuable than cotton or tea.
Flattening produces all objects – even people – as fungible commodities. In a recent article, Cuppini, Frapporti and Pirone have argued that this subjectivation of people as slaves bears striking similarities to the contemporary logistical mode, which “works to transform the logistics laborer into something like a drudge, and android, a working machine.” But if logistics flattens bodies, objects, and affects, we must also remember that, as Lisa Lowe argues, “capital has maximized its profits not by rendering labor ‘abstract’ but precisely through the social production of ‘difference’… marked by race, nation, geographical origin, and gender” (emphasis mine). Markers of identity otherwise regarded as non-economic are, in other words, essential to the structure of capitalism rather than exogenous to it.
For the past decades, Filipino seafarers have been in high demand – constituting almost 40% of all crews worldwide – because they speak good English and come cheap. “They know the money they pay us is not enough for what we do,” the 2nd mate tells me as he plots a navigational path on a map, “but they also know that we accept it because in the Philippines, our salaries are better than most of our countrymen.” The Filipinos on the ship have accordingly painted a picture of their cities and towns choked with maritime institutes and training centers, offering the promise of high salaries and the thrill of seafaring life. Men line up for days at a time at crewing booths hoping to get a job, playing the waiting game, and taking one entrance exam after the other in the hopes of getting selected. The ones who’ve made it on the ship count themselves lucky.
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But today, even Filipino labor has come under threat: NSB has established maritime schools in Sri Lanka and Shanghai where labor comes even cheaper, and other companies have been following suit. Like all other industries, shipping moves on roller skates around the world, seeking lower and lower capital outlays as they experiment with bringing circulation time as close to zero as possible. Quite different from other attempted spatial fixes for crises of profitability, however, the geographical relocation of maritime labor pools does not require heavy fixed capital outlays from investment in costly and immobile infrastructure and machinery. Schools and training centers can be set up (and moved) at relatively small costs, with large payoffs in the availability of cheap maritime labor they churn out.
Yet, in swallowing whole planes such as the as-yet unrecovered Malaysian Airlines MH370, in evading the surveillance technologies we now expect to seamlessly take us to our landed destinations, and in absorbing and folding much of the Anthropocene’s heat into its warming depths, the shifting, turbulent, evasive ontology of the wet ocean contravenes the very idea of a stability-conferring foundation. On the open sea, Schmitt reminds us, there are “no limits, no boundaries, no consecrated sites, no sacred orientations, no law, and no property” – in short, none of the landlocked frameworks through which we might make sense of social and spatial terrain.
There is a massive traffic jam on the ocean, and the Ever Cthulhu is stuck in the thick of it. Already, we have been delayed for almost two weeks: the ship stayed for five days longer than the forecasted two in both Oakland and Los Angeles, and is expected to be in Tacoma for ten. Regularity, it turns out, can no longer be expected in the logistics industry, and my 26-day trip on the Ever Cthulhu is turning into a 40-day one. All along the West Coast, ports and berths have been choked with vessels in every terminal, and waiting ships have crowded into anchorages for days in far higher numbers than the captain has ever seen. Imagine the ripple effects of all this congestion: if a single ship takes six days longer than the usual 2.5 to be unloaded at berth, and ships that have been waiting experience those same delays when their turn at berth arrives, those backlogs reverberate outward in unfathomable ways, affecting ships’ travel times to other ports around the world, trucking rates inland, air freight pricing, rail service delays across the U.S., and the availability of empty containers in China.
Extraction provides the raw materials that drive capital’s creative destruction, whether it involves mining, land grabbing, extensive cultivation of cash crops, gentrification of urban neighbourhoods, or the continuous pressure placed on human activity and life to transform it into a source of value. Logistics is the art and science of building networked relations in ways that promote transport, communication and economic efficiencies.
Mapping the global landscape of extraction confronts us with a wide array of peculiarities and changing economic as well as political circumstances. What makes the Latin American instance particularly instructive is the connection between the stretching and intensification of extractive dynamics and the presence of a series of ‘progressive’ governments that have associated these dynamics with the need to use resources for new social policies that address the needs of the most vulnerable and poor sectors of society. While this has prompted the continuity of a developmental pattern rooted in the colonial history of the region, according to which ‘progress’ is only accessible through the ‘selling of natural resources’, some major shifts have occurred.
For over thirty years Deleuze and Guattari’s trope of ‘deterritorialization’ has been central to critical discussions of global space and its capitalist axiomatic. Recently, however, there has emerged a tendency to focus attention once again on the question of territory.  As understood in these discussions, territory is not necessarily or not only associated with the sovereign space of the state. Rather, it is seen as a political technology for organizing social and economic relations that has both spatial and non-spatial elements. We want not so much to participate in this return to territory as to ask, of what it is symptomatic? Clearly financialization is relevant here. There is a materiality of finance that escapes attempts to describe it with abstract metaphors such as flows and volatility. The global city and the offshore banking zone are two very obvious instances of how finance hits the ground. But it is also possible to foreground some less obvious cases of finance’s entanglement with territory which begin to expose the limits of financialization as a self-sustaining movement.