Jack Rusk / 2019
Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies
What is social revolt but a generalized game of illegal matching and divorcing of things.
Supply chain capitalism and its world decomposes and reconstitutes itself through the data it generates. The real existence of objects is multiplied by their representation in the space of distributed computing and data storage. The sense of the world is expressed in machine-readable non-sense, is digested by algorithms, and fed back to the world’s denizens in a language of desire, of libidinal optimization, of fatal certainty.
This feedback loop between reality, algorithm, and desire is at the heart of the logistic regime. This loop appears as a perpetual motion machine, a prime mover unmoved. In fact, its motive force is provided by fossil energy, the inheritance of the world from previous forms of life, and by sweated labor, the exploitation of the currently living.
The violence embedded in both modes of extraction—and instantiated in gendered and racialized practices—generates resistance to the logistic regime. Contemporary social struggles contest logistics by interrupting its network of flows: Black Lives Matter activists block freeways, longshoremen refuse to unload boats, indigenous peoples disrupt pipeline construction.
The dominance of the logistic regime means that the people disrupting these linkages are still dependent on them for survival: Blocking logistics creates discontinuities and further scrambles sense-making. These discontinuities emerge as a scherzo within the careful orchestration of logistics. The theme is played back against itself and, therein, logistics appears a second time as farce, crude and unkempt. Nested one in the other, the discontinuities multiply outwards like a network diagram. Or a broken pane of glass.
The omnipresence of logistics suggests that it's fruitless for resistance to logistics to position itself as an 'outside' to the logistic regime. Instead, resistance might look like a counter-flow against logistics, simultaneously disrupting and inhabiting the network. This simultaneity isn't novel. Haphazard urban development at the periphery of megacities, where cheap goods trading on international markets are reterritorialized to meet local needs, might be one example of this.
Another set of examples might be a series of deaths in 2014 in France, China, and Mexico. Here, this assortment of events—events that have nothing to do with each other save the violence of the logistic regime—are smashed together. Tracing the debris of the collision suggests a new ethic of intervention against logistic capitalism, one that is unafraid to inhabit the flows it seeks to disrupt.
Every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own threatens to disappear irretrievably.
A few years ago, a friend of mine wrote a travelogue about their time at the ZAD near Nantes, France. I wanted to find it again when I sat down to write this. The text ended up receiving a pretty wide distribution; I encountered copies of it on both coasts of the United States, saw it translated into Spanish, and cataloged, evidently temporarily, in a few online repositories.
The ZAD—zone à defendre—is an occupation against an airport that began in 2009. The struggle against the airport stretches into the prehistory of the 20th century but the ZAD, this vast occupied space, took hold in the revolutionary imaginary of the last decade. My friend’s travelogue captures why people were captivated by the revolt of the farmers and squatters in France. Against the ‘airport and its world,’ a patchwork of resistant elements arose, less subcultural than anti-globalization protestors, willing to engage in protracted combat against the police, but also willing to dream up the space of the zone which they imbued, à la the zone from the Tarkovsy classicn Stalker, which a tangible but invisible magic. The youthful magic of the struggle, the whimsy of their living structures, and the fierceness of their resistance found fellow travelers around the globe.
That his writing is now lost feels fitting. When he returned from Europe, he and I would chain smoke in the front room of the squat he shared with a half dozen other people, our conversation fuguing around some recent friend arrested or evicted. The writings sprung from this moment in time and passed with it.
This past, of course, isn’t past. The exploration of logistics spaces to follow is inspired by his ephemeral text and the spirit it represents. It is also inspired by Remi Fraisse, who died defending the zone à defendre in Tarn, France, on October 26, 2014, killed by a flashbang grenade thrown by the French national gendarmes.
Remi was a botanist by training and a member of the precarious working class by circumstance. Like many others his age (he was 21 when he was killed), he had thrown himself in with the revolutionary ecological element in France. Without a future for myself, he may have reasoned, why not try to secure a future for the living earth.
About four weeks before the death of Remi Fraisse, Xu Lizhi took his own life at the Foxconn complex in Shenzen, China. Xu Lizhi was a poet and, a day after his death, fellow poet Zhou Qizao wrote the following eulogy:
The loss of every life
Is the passing of another me
Another screw comes loose
Another migrant worker brother jumps
You die in place of me
And I keep writing in place of you
While I do so, screwing the screws tighter
Today is our nation's sixty-fifth birthday
We wish the country joyous celebrations
A twenty-four-year-old you stands
in the grey picture frame, smiling ever so slightly
Autumn winds and autumn rain
A white-haired father,
holding the black urn with your ashes, stumbles home.
Xu Lizhi had worked in a Foxconn factory since age 19 until his death in 2014. In the year he started work at Foxconn, fifteen workers committed suicide. There was a small protest at an Apple store in San Francisco, CA, following those suicides. I don’t imagine that word of this protest ever reached Xu Lizhi. Nor is it likely that news of the ZAD struggles in France ever reached the worker’s dormitories in Shenzen.
For the last few years of Xu Lizhi’s life, he published poems in an internal Foxconn newspaper. These poems were visceral in their subject but written in careful and measured verse. It is clear, reading them, that the writer had come to terms with the brutality of the world without losing the sensitivity necessary to write poetry about it. In one poem, he describes himself opening a window as “a dead man/ slowly pushing open the lid to a coffin.” The building with the window—the coffin—was a Foxconn dormitory, perhaps the same one he would throw himself from a few months later. To call Xu Lizhi's death a suicide might be to miss the point; it was Foxconn, we must remember, that put Xu Lizhi in the coffin.
Some people walk in daylight
while others walk at night
Light ‘em boys, there’s your picture.
Keep the shadows out of sight.
-Bertolt Brecht, Threepenny Opera
At the ZAD at Notre-Dame-des-Landes, people had rallied against ‘the airport and its world.’ Shenzen, China, is a part of that world. If Xu Lizhi were to invoke ‘Foxconn and its world,’ we can be sure he was also describing the proposed airport at Notre-Dame-des-Landes. The most far-flung events in global capitalism are drawn together within the value chains that encircle them.
This global connection in death also knits us together in life. The atmosphere is a well-mixed combination of gases. In this mixture is the oxygen we all, as humans, breathe. In this same mixture is the carbon dioxide that plants respire. This carbon dioxide, well-mixed throughout the entire atmosphere, is warming our earth at a steady rate. Remi Fraisse and Xu Lizhi shared in breathing this air. Both were aware that the earth was warming.
France’s electric grid contributes very little to the overall warming trend, especially compared to China. Generating a kilowatt-hour of electricity—enough to watch TV for about six hours—emits only 44 grams of carbon dioxide in France while generating the same amount of electricity in Shenzen emits over 750 grams. The majority of power in Guangdong, the province where Shenzen is located, is generated from coal. The emissions from these plants have deleterious health effects for the workers and residents in cities nearby.
Low emissions in France are possible thanks to the country’s 58 nuclear reactors that provide over 70% of its power. Another 20% is generated from hydropower. This clean energy is accompanied by a shadowy uranium extraction industry in the DRC on one hand and the death of Remi Fraisse on the other.
France’s low carbon emissions from electricity generation belie the country’s total carbon footprint. Western countries like France consume high quantities of goods produced in countries like China. In 'consumption-based' carbon accounting, France inherits the carbon emissions associated with the production of goods that fulfill final demand within its borders.
In the carbon accounting literature, these emissions are considered 'virtual'—made to exist by being represented. These Foxconn, where Xu Lizhi worked, produces expensive electronics for companies like Apple and Sony. Virtual emissions, and real violence, accompany these products as they move around the globe.
If these emissions continue unabated, they threaten to upend the world as we know it. Sea levels could increase a few feet worldwide, temperature could rise 8.5 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100, and up to one in every six species on earth are likely to go extinct. On a global scale, these patterns will increase already vast patterns of inequality.
People and the of carbon emissions embedded in goods move in tandem from poorer countries to richer ones. As every force has its counterforce, this movement is balanced by the flow of cash remittances back to the poorer country. Every year, half a billion US dollars of remittances flow from France to China. This is approximately a thousand dollars for every person of Chinese descent living in France but, of course, not everyone sends remittances. There are likely a smaller number of people sending back much larger amounts. These remittances are almost nothing compared to the global flows of capital but they can account for large differences in the livelihood of those who receive them.
As virtual carbon emissions move from China to France, real people follow. There are more Chinese people in France than anywhere else in Europe. The Chinese community thriving in the 13th arrondissement is growing as immigration continues. In the past few years, Chinese people in France have been killed by both the police and other racist gangs.
Was Remi Fraisse aware of these killings? Perhaps, but perhaps not. As our fates in this world are folded together by climate and by capitalism, our identities continue to diverge.
Mourn the living,
fight like hell for the dead.
The investigations into the deaths of Remi Fraisse and Xu Lizhi were insufficient. Prosecutors in France initially accused Remi Fraisse of carrying explosives whose accidental detonation killed him. Foxconn blamed Xu Lizhi’s death on a larger societal problem of suicide—an excuse which, at the very least, exempted Foxconn from membership in society.
The flows of global capital connect these deaths. Like Mackie Messer in Brecht’s Threepenny Opera, logistic capitalism is often at the scene of crime though is rarely implicated in its commission. While Remi Fraisse was protesting against a local dam project and Xu Lizhi against his conditions at Foxconn, their struggles connect across the web of supply chains that is drawing all of us into the breach. Two kinds of violence cut across this web: the immediate violence of capital accumulation and the eventual and mounting violence of climate change.
Remittances travel upstream along supply chains might be a proxy for human resilience in the network of logistic capitalism. These contributions to livelihoods back home cannot slow the tide of violence that accompanies the creation of value and its transit through the world. Still, the spreading network of value chains could be used to send more than remittances up the value chain. An ethic of solidarity, based in a shared subjectivity under supply chain capitalism, could also flow back up through the nodes in the global networks.
The spread of global solidarity is bolstered by the fact that we all breath the same air, air getting warmer year by year. The best proxy for carbon emissions on a national scale is the gross domestic product. On an individual level, the best proxy is income.
Remi Fraisse died protesting a hydroelectric dam that promised France a small source of low-carbon electricity at the expense of twelve hectares of forest land that would be permanently flooded. Foxconn provides its own solutions to climate change as a leading manufacturer of solar panels. These are not substantive solutions to climate change, predicated as they are on the continued accumulation and concentration of wealth.
More efficient sources of electricity in France enable greater consumption, raising the carbon footprint. Foxconn’s solar ambition is to capture a share of a growing market, not to address anthropogenic climate change. Foxconn has fallen short of its internal energy efficiency targets year after year: While marketing their solar panels as increasing energy efficiency for others, they are unconcerned with the effects of their own consumption.
The proper response to these conditions isn't indignation, moral outrage, or symbolic protest. Better, it might be to imagine how to mobilize the global network as a conduit through which solidarity and disruption might move uphill while the shit continues to roll down.
Against the slow violence of climate change or the immediate violence of the economy, a practice of solidarity flowing up the supply chain could sketch out a network of capable of contesting the present state of affairs.
Against the smooth futurity promised by logistics, this solidarity should find its basis in the unkempt remembrance of its dead. The power of the downtrodden class nourishes itself “on the picture of enslaved forebears, not on the ideal of the emancipated heirs.”
Some pundit said that the future is already here but it's unevenly distributed. This contemporaneous futurity is exactly the problem. In his commentary on the Ferguson uprising, Frank Wilderson reminds us that its the social managers who are "trying to build a better world" while we're "trying to destroy the world."
This resistant network might stretch to the Foxconn factories in Ciudad Juarez, where a group of 30 workers set fire to a portion of the factory as redress for poor working conditions. Contemporaneously in Ciudad Juarez, hundreds of women working in the maquiladoras—factories—were murdered each year, united in death only by their gender. Ciudad Juarez is also a common crossing point for migrants entering the United States. Some of these migrants are fleeing the creeping effects of climate change in Guatemala, others flee gendered violence on the border, and many hope to return remittances from the United States back to their natal places. In 2019, about one person a month crossing from Ciudad Juarez was dying in the custody of US Border Patrol. The lives lost to femicide, the migrants, and the arsonists, shine as clear objects of a solidarity against logistics.
The raw goods shipped from Foxconn factories in China arrive on ships. In some containers, the cast parts for game consoles and the copper wire for audio cables are shipped to Ciudad Juarex and finished goods are shipped out. Alongside the goods in the containers, human smuggling in cargo containers is an increasingly common practice. It isn’t known how many migrants die in transit. When they die, however, the rest of the migrants are forced to spend the rest of the journey holding vigil over their corpse.
Around the same time as the first spate of Foxconn suicides, over forty workers at France Telecom committed suicide over a few months’ time. After these suicides, France Telecom rebranded as Orange and paints itself as a socially conscious company, with “human beings as the starting and finishing point for all of [its] activities” and “the environment at its heart.” This rebranding can be read similarly to Foxconn’s solar panels or the efficiency of the Sivens Dam: a palliative redress of the current ills promising no substantive change and unable to obscure the deaths in its wake.
These deaths are an engine of “the world” behind the airport in Notre-Dames-de-Landes, the dam in Sivens, the Foxconn factories in Shenzen or Ciudad Juarez. Against their world that flows along value chains, another is possible. Flowing alongside remittances, global solidarity against logistics moves backward through the same network, sinking the ship it arrived on.
Workers appear to the bourgeois to be as ugly and dirty as hairy sexual organs, or lower parts; sooner or later there will be a scandalous eruption in the course of which the asexual noble heads of the bourgeois will be chopped off.
Solidarity is a lovely word but it isn’t clear that we’re all in it together. The interests of the various actors along the supply chain are often opposed to each other. The cheap goods that flood western markets can exist because of the immense exploitation happening along the supply chain. Opposite that, an increase in working conditions would lead to an increase in costs, likely have an outsize effect on the poorest communities in the developed world. Any appeal to universal solidarity amongst the oppressed is blind to the real conditions under which the world moves.
Nowhere is this universalism more apparent than in the conversation about climate change. It remains spurious to argue that informal e-waste recyclers in Nigeria have the same responsibility to stop climate change as the electronics users in China’s growing middle class as supply chain managers at McKinsey in Manhattan. The effects and responsibilities of climate change are already here but they are unevenly distributed.
There are no cataclysmic contradictions contained in the supply chain. Rather, there is an infinite number of minor aporias and they are exactly what the supply chain so effectively manages. Rather than a single event, supply chain capitalism suggests that revolts will also flow between nodes, unconstrained by any need to resolve itself into an image. Multiple futures, then, present themselves against supply chain capitalism.
Every cell phone is a window unto the world and each struggle against supply chain capitalism may be a window to the next. The site of an irruption of another world into this one can’t be known but it will spread parallel kinship networks. Global kinship networks, roughly mirroring the flow of remittances, might be the ground from which the revolts spring. These border-crossing relationships mobilize the supply chain against itself, brushing history against the grain. While general solidarity can’t be guaranteed, specific solidarity can spread from node to node in these networks. A struggle against logistic capitalism will retrace its network, flowing along lines of kinship.
During the revolts against Mubarak in Tahrir Square, participants collected the empty canisters from the tear gas used against them. Much of the tear gas was manufactured by Combined Systems Incorporated (CSI) in Jamestown, Pennsylvania. As tear gas flowed into Egypt, solidarity flowed outwards—a series of protests were staged outside CSI's manufacturing plant to disrupt the flow of their products. Much ado was made in 2013 about the power of global connections to spread information about Tahrir Square but the real achievement was the spread of material solidarity. While these actions could have little effect on the tear gas supply in Egypt, a significant disruption could have affected the flow of gas to Bahrain, an Arab Spring revolt that sustained itself, despite brutal repression, until 2014.
Strengthening these global connections and embracing their unlikely consequences becomes essential for expanding any struggle. A small protest at a San Francisco Apple store against worker’s treatment at Foxconn. A series of protests against a Jamestown, Pennsylvania-based teargas manufacturer in solidarity with the occupiers in Tahrir Square. The arson against Foxconn in Ciudad Juarez. These events are instances of a struggle traveling globally through kinship or affinity (which is a nascent kinship). While it isn’t clear which struggle against logistics can challenge its core, it is clear how that struggle must spread.
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