Do Containers Dream of Electric People?

This article is a first attempt to specify some technical and conceptual aspects of the productive process under Informationalism, and to cut through some of the ideology surrounding it. The text suggests the role of the imaginary both in enabling and potentially disabling this social form (i.e. the value-form as expressed in contemporary society); but it doesn't deal with the integrative processes. Some research on migrant labor struggles in the US intermodal and warehouse sectors is underway, so hopefully we will publish something on it soon. All comments welcome, changes can still be made. Thanks to Armin for the just-in-time critique on version 1.0.

The social form of just-in-time-production

The British sociologist John Urry has come up with an unusual idea: defining society by the ever-accelerating mobility of its members. To do this he proposes the concept of mobility-systems: “Historically most societies have been characterized by one major mobility-system that is in an evolving and adaptive relationship with that society’s economy, through the production and consumption of goods and services and the attraction and circulation of the labor force and consumers.... The richer the society, the greater the range of mobility-systems that will be present, and the more complex the intersections between such systems.”1 Urry devotes chapters of his book Mobilities to four infrastructural systems: pathways, trains, automobiles and airplanes. Interestingly, he suggests that these infrastructures are complemented by cultural systems serving to represent the movement of people and things, to communicate about it and to imagine its further possibilities. Yet strangely, in a book that gestures toward the concept of a technological unconscious, he says next to nothing about production and distribution. What's missing from his “mobilities paradigm” are container shipping and intermodal transport, with their associated representational, communicational and imaginary techniques. What’s missing is the social form of just-in-time production.

Like Margaret Thatcher, Urry believes that in the postnational era “there is no such thing as society.”2 He’s against what has been called the “container theory” of the social, which relies heavily on spatially bounded categories, reinforcing methodological nationalism.3 In Mobilities he refers to Foucault’s concept of governmentality, observing that “state sovereignty is exercised on territories, populations and, we may add, the movements of populations around that territory.” In contrast he insists on the increasingly transnational movement of populations, and claims that “such a ‘mobile population’ is immensely hard to monitor and govern.”4

Urry is an innovative sociologist, seeking patterns of emergent order in the vertiginous circulations of neoliberal globalism. At its best, his work reads like a kaleidoscopic register of contemporary life. However, like other complexity theorists describing the dynamics of open systems, he fails to take into account the powerful drive toward closure that inhabits all large-scale system design. Thus he ignores the determinant social form of informational capitalism – as though, entranced by mobilities that exceed the capture of the nation-state, he had fallen into the very unconsciousness that contemporary technologies impose.

How to awaken from electric dreams? In this text I will describe both the technical and the cultural dimensions of what is arguably the major mobility-system of our time: the distributional machinery of intermodal transport that circulates commodities through the global economy. The vector I will use to approach this far-flung system is an imaginary one: the artistic image.

Contained Mobility

Picture a video projection on the walls of a global museum (but it could also be your laptop, or an iPhone in the city). The video opens with the sound of a female voice against the background of a swelling sea. It then resolves into two contrasting scenes. On the left, the computerized view of a container port, showing ships at berth or in motion through the channel. On the right, a surveillance camera inside a container, where a robust-looking man in an orange shirt moves between the spartan furnishings of an improvised room (bed, desk, table lamp, maps on the corrugated wall). The scenes shift back and forth from screen to screen; the graphics change in content, granularity and focus. The man gets up, sits down, strides about, meditates, sleeps. His name is Anatol Kuis Zimmermann.

A scrolling text recounts his destiny: born in 1949 of a Belorussian mother and an ethnic German father who were deported to Siberia; childhood in Brest near the Polish border; university in Minsk; marriage, children, displacement of the family after Chernobyl; liberal, pro-European political activities and attempted migration to Germany. Thus begins an odyssey of deferral, transit and legal limbo, carrying this asylum-seeker through nearly every country in Europe. Life as a geography of refusal. The container, we are given to understand, is now his only home. As the off-screen voice explained at the outset, Anatol Zimmermann has “come ashore in an offshore place, in a container world that only tolerates the translocal state of not being of this place – not of any other really – but of existing in a condition of permanent non-belonging, of juridical non-existence.” He slips into his makeshift bed as a closing text appears on the left-hand screen: “Everything new is born illegal.”

The video by Ursula Biemann is entitled Contained Mobility (2004).5 It’s an extradisciplinary investigation, by which I mean an artwork that seeks knowledge of the world through a confrontation with technical operations and discourses. A crucial part of this search is the interview leading to the reconstruction of Zimmermann’s itinerary. But that’s classic documentary, and as such, it’s not even shown. Nor is the location of the container given. What makes the artwork so striking, and so useful for an examination of contemporary social relations, is the juxtaposition between the existential narrative of refusal and the abstracted imagery of global transport. One feels they are mirrors of each other. As Biemann notes, the visuality of the work is based in every respect on simulation: “None of the images of Contained Mobility document reality. Every image is an artificial construct: a simulated seascape, a visual rendering of digital data, a webcam set up for a staged scene. The video is a conceptual statement about a particular state of being in this world.”6

The question that emerges from the conceptual image is double. First, what materially constitutes “the translocal state of not being of this place”? And second, what is the relation between this displaced mode of existence and the representational techniques of computer simulation?

Logistical Living

Let’s try to answer that first question. Intermodal transport, a.k.a containerization, is based on three pillars: rigorous standardization of the box allowing for stackability in ships and transfer by specialized cranes to truck or rail; continuous traceability thanks to a machine-readable bill of lading; and finally, the ability to lock a shipment from initial departure to final destination. Locally standardized containers had been used for land and water transport since the late 19th century, but the onset of intermodalism dates to April 26, 1956, when Malcom McLean loaded 58 aluminum truck bodies onto a tanker named the Ideal-X for shipment from Newark to Houston.7 The water-to-wheels concept offered increases in speed and security as well as big savings on labor, all of which was recognized by the US government and the military, spurring a national standardization process that was ratified by the International Standards Organization in 1970. Deregulation of the US transport industry began around the same time, as a crucial component of the emerging neoliberal order; it was completed in all branches by the early 1980s. The rationalization of the docks broke the power of the longshoremen’s unions, historically the strongest and most internationalist sector of the labor movement.8 These developments smoothed the way for an integrated intermodal system that spread rapidly across the world, slashing freight costs and making logistics the key operational discipline of a globalizing economy. Given the military origins of logistics, it’s significant that the first big government contracts with McLean’s Sea-Land corporation were for war matériel to Vietnam. And it’s equally significant that Sea-Land’s wartime business became immensely profitable when McLean realized that the returning containers could be filled with the rising tide of manufactured goods from Japan.

The late 1960s saw the take-off of the Japanese economy, first in light consumer goods and then, after the oil shock of 1973, in fuel-efficient automobiles. Already the Toyota Motor Corporation had developed its system of continuous information flow between manufacturer and supplier, allowing for the delivery of custom-built parts in exact proportion to current needs without costly warehousing. The advent of containerization meant that “just-in-time” production could be extended to an entire East Asian maritime network including the “Four Tigers” of Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan and South Korea – a network that would ultimately recenter on coastal China.9 In the wake of Toyota’s success, just-in-time or “lean” production imposed itself on global auto-makers. It received wider attention through a best-selling industry study entitled The Machine that Changed the World (where “machine” refers not to a single device but to an integrated process).10 JIT is what made the world translocal. However, its adoption by Western corporations after 1989 turned it into something very different from the trust-based relations between manufacturer and supplier extolled by the venerable Mr. Toyoda. What emerged from the open markets of neoliberalism was a vast delivery system commanded by retailers engaged in a vicious search for the best possible price. And that turned out to be the “China price”: the lowest number on the planet for any category of basic manufactured goods.

By 2005, Wal-Mart imported some 350,000 forty-foot containers a year of manufactured goods. That’s almost thirty thousand tons per day, the majority from China.11 The containers pass through the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles before departing by rail to truck transshipment centers feeding warehouse-sized stores. Thus “the box” spawned “the big box” – and with it, a whole new science of supply chain management, whose effect has been to drive both prices and wages to rock-bottom levels.12 Though big-box retailing is most common in the USA, a list of global firms operating on the Wal-Mart model now includes “Carrefour, Aldi, Metro, Royal Ahold, Tesco, Ito-Yokado, Kingfisher, and IKEA, as well as Home Depot, Costco and Best Buy.”13 What began as a formula for automobile production has led to a world-wide rearticulation of industry, merchandising and consumption.

Since its origins in the early 1980s, supply chain management has become the obligatory model for globalizing businessmen, who adopt just-in-time principles as a logistical ethos for corporate existence. As a technical manual explains, “the footprint of the firm’s global facilities... for sourcing, research and development, production, distribution and retail sales, and the effective coordination and management of all flows between them (information, physical/product, and financial flows) become the major determinants of competitive success.”14 Marc Levinson, author of The Box, describes the effects such practices had on an American consumer icon as early as the mid-1990s: "Workers in China produced her statuesque figure, using molds from the United States and other machines from Japan and Europe. Her nylon hair was Japanese, the plastic in her body from Taiwan, the pigments American, the cotton clothing from China. Barbie, simple girl though she is, had developed her very own global supply chain."15

Logistics assembles the raw material of our lives. It is in this sense that everyone – not just Anatol Zimmermann – lives in a “container world.” But crucial questions emerge, when logistics is generalized into supply chain management. How are global flows coordinated with local markets to make a profit in real time? And what effect do the giant distribution machines have on the stationary people who ultimately receive and consume the mobile commodities?

Real-Time Unconscious

To answer those questions we must deal with the representation of mobility-systems. At stake are the abstract models that regulate the temporal and spatial functioning of large and complex production lines. Surprisingly, it turns out that by the late 1950s the major problem of the big-box retailers – coordinating the levels of accessible stocks with the rates of flow through stores – had already been solved, theoretically at least, by a pioneer of computer simulation.

Jay Wright Forrester was a servomechanisms engineer in WWII, then head of a program to build the Whirlwind, a multipurpose digital computer that was initially to be used in a flight simulator. That project morphed into the basis of the SAGE radar-defense system (for “semi-automatic ground environment”).16 By 1956, after inventing magnetic core memory and overseeing the rise of IBM as the USA’s mainframe supplier, Forrester decided that the excitement in the computer field was over, and switched to management studies. His breakthrough came two years later when General Electric executives asked him to examine their appliance factories, which would oscillate wildly from peak demand to near inactivity, irrespective of business cycles. He immediately recognized the classic “hunting pattern” that occurs when a servomechanism receives undamped feedback from an initial action, then overcorrects, generating more distorting feedback.

Forrester was convinced that industrial mangers were unable to grasp the multiple rhythms of giant plants hooked into even larger distribution systems, and were actually worsening their problems instead of curing them. He designed a non-linear computer modeling program to show how policy decisions affecting the rates of flow between five interconnected categories of stocks – materials, orders, money, capital equipment and personnel – could be represented graphically in their effects over time, so as to reveal the unforeseen consequences of single interventions. The policy decisions could then be corrected via a sixth category, coordinated feedback information. This analysis laid the basis of a new managerial logic, known as system dynamics.17

Most histories of cybernetics never mention engineers, focusing instead on scientists and the occasional philosopher.18 Yet Forrester is undoubtedly the single most influential cybernetician, since his work has allowed the coordination of vast production, distribution and consumption processes taking place on opposite sides of the planet. It is fascinating to realize that his SAGE radar-defense program led very quickly to SABRE, or “semi-automatic business-research environment,” which is still the world’s largest airline ticketing network. The ease with which we ignore the very existence of such crucial transport systems has everything to do with the technological unconscious, arising from the automation of large numbers of routine actions to which we no longer pay the slightest attention. Nigel Thrift explains this computerized repetition-compulsion: “Through the application of a set of technologies and knowledges (the two being impossible to separate), a style of repetition has been produced which is more controlled and also more open-ended, a new kind of roving empiricism which continually ties up and undoes itself in a search for the most efficient ways to use the space and time of each moment.”19 As the designer of semi-automatic environments including human beings in subordination to mechanical and computational devices, Forrester was at the origin of this roving technological unconscious. Yet he found that his ideas could not be understood by the corporate class he was addressing. Only in the 1980s did they start making intuitive sense to managers.20

There was a technical reason. In the 1960s-70s, Forrester’s simulations could not yet run with real-time information. Instead, approximate models were created and statistical forecasting techniques were employed. From the 1980s onward, quantum leaps in data-gathering and communications technology transformed all that. With the advent of electronic data interchange (EDI), every aspect of production, transport, display and sales could be recorded, communicated, represented and analyzed, so as to continuously map out the position and trajectory of each single object being handled by a world-spanning corporation.21 The result is an “executive information system” that gives managers centralized access to a continuously evolving set of logistical data, bringing dynamic simulation over the line into real-time representation. This provides the unprecedented ability to rationalize labor at every point along the chain, accelerating the pace and squeezing workers for higher levels of productivity. Still it’s not enough for contemporary capitalism. As systems designer Paul Westerman explains, “Aggressive retailers (like Wal-Mart) will not stop there; they will continue until all company data is available for analysis. They will build an enterprise data warehouse. They give all this information to their internal users (buyers) and external users (suppliers) to exploit and demand measurable improvement.”22 Such is the formula of global supply chain management, in an information-age economy where the “push” of Fordist industrial production and state planning has been replaced by the “pull” of giant retail conglomerates.

With enterprise data warehousing, the just-in-time machine becomes both extensively and intensively pervasive. EDI is correlated with cash-flow, marketing and financing information. Point-of-sale data is associated with individual names on credit cards, then combined with cascades of other data gleaned from the Internet, generating behavior profiles that can be used for the fine-tuning of display and advertising strategies. The models of optimal future performance built on the analysis of past actions are then relayed upstream to govern the behavior of workers, middle managers and suppliers, and downstream to influence consumers, creating what Westerman calls a “unified data system” (UDS) embracing every aspect of corporate planning. The big boxes of Wal-Mart now cast a 70-terabyte information shadow. To be sure, the possibilities of UDS have not yet been fully implemented. EDI is still rare among Chinese suppliers, while surveillance operators like Google and Facebook are only beginning to codify and sell our intimate data-bodies. There is no need to exaggerate the deployment of data integration. But even less can one ignore the tremendous advances in communication between manufacturers and distributors, the increasing granularity of representation that this communication makes possible, and last but not least, the accelerating absorption of consumer imaginaries into the managed flows of the pull economy.

What appears on the horizon is a self-shaping or “autopoetic” modeling process that can integrate hundreds of millions of individuals and billions of discrete objects and desires into a single mobility-system, where every movement is coordinated with every other in real time. The integrative capacity of this kind of autopoetic system is what defines the boundary of each corporate entity, struggling against all others to increase the market-share that it controls. Under these conditions we live in an “open” world of universal free trade across national borders, where giant organizations strive to impose closure on mobile populations. Their computerized map becomes our intimate territory.

Such a dystopian state was once the exclusive province of science fiction: Philip K. Dick novels, where androids dreamed of electric sheep. But the container, having spawned the big box, now seems destined to bring a world-spanning containment strategy into being. The electronic dream is to maintain continuous contact between a global production system and you, the consumer, whose mobility need not signify uncertainty of behavior. According to this dream, no desire should linger free without a sale. The representational techniques that enable such a strategy have seen vast changes since the 1960s. Today they include multi-agent systems, where the decisions of autonomous actors are simulated on both the supply and the demand sides of the equation.23 On the basis of such simulations, multiple autopoetic systems are orchestrated into smoothly functioning machines serving unified purposes. Yet behind such sophisticated devices one can still recognize the outlines of semi-automated environments, where the individual flow-chart of every object and actor is analyzed into the coordinated curves of system dynamics.24 Like an architectural plan for a global factory in motion, those intersecting curves define the social form of just-in-time production.


To tie up the threads of this argument, let’s return to what started the whole thing rolling: John Urry’s intriguing but radically undeveloped concept of mobility-systems. It’s ironic to find Urry, in Sociology Beyond Societies, reflecting that his own discipline will not survive its transition to the global scale if it does not once again link its destinies to social movements.25 Had he done exactly that with the social movement closest to his own concerns – namely, transnational migration – he might have seen how the spatially bounded “containers” that formerly defined national societies are being replaced, not by the liberal ideology of “open systems,” but instead by postliberal constructs like the big-box retailers, whose JIT distribution machines are enabled both by advanced technology and by deterritorialized state-functions (monetary regimes, transport surveillance programs, selective border controls, “foreign trade zones” inscribed in domestic territories, etc.). The exploitation and oppression that such hybrid constructs exert on cut-price migrant labor has been made explicit by recent struggles of workers in the intermodal transport industry.26 And the society shaped by these “postliberal aggregates” has been theorized by a group of sociologists who take their stand with the migrants.

In a book entitled Escape Routes: Control and Subversion in the 21st Century, these theorists find an example of social form in the automobile industry: the recently opened BMW plant in Liepzig, designed by the architect Zaha Hadid. As they explain, “the building enables innovative working-time models and operating times of 60 to 140 hours per week, and because of this the plant can react quickly to specific changes in the market.” What the just-in-time factory reveals is the peculiar articulation of openness and closure that defines a contemporary mobility-system:

"The BMW plant is an interactive order, neither open nor closed, but open as soon as it incorporates the actors necessary for its functioning, and closed as soon as it can protect and sustain its functionality. The plant is not maintained by its exclusivity nor by an internally generated authenticity, but rather by a fluid belonging of different independent trajectories to an effective system of production. It is an aggressive structure, opposing everything that sets limits to its own internal interests or tries to infuse it with impurity. The BMW plant reacts aggressively to the fear of viruses, it is aseptic, clean, pragmatic: Western oblivion at the highest level.”27

Hadid’s jaggedly flowing architecture enables the material process of inclusion/exclusion in today’s society, while helping the public to forget its very existence. Here again, semi-automated flows create unconsciousness, erasing histories of emancipation. For the authors of Escape Routes, the coercive structures of postliberal globalization took form as “the answer to the wild insurgency and escape that emerges after the Second World War.” This insurgency reached a peak in 1968 when the nation-state’s promise of rights and representation (“the double-R axiom”) was challenged by excluded minority subjects. Yet the opening of borders and the relaxation of social strictures soon gave way to the new state-corporate aggregates, operating in transnational zones of exception without any requirement of legitimacy. Under these conditions, demands for class, ethnic and gender equality lose their effectiveness. The paradoxical response is a “politics of imperceptibility,” whereby migrants in their fleeting singularity become invisible to postliberal power formations. Recalling the liminal figure whom we encountered at the outset, the authors of Escape Routes might claim: “We are all Anatol Zimmermann.”

The incongruity of the asylum-seeker, abandoned in his improvised dwelling amid technological desolation, could evoke this sense of newfound freedom. As Ursula Biemann claims, “Everything new is born illegal.” On a more troubling note, however, Biemann recounts that at one point in her interviews with Zimmermann she felt compelled to drop her documentary neutrality, offering to buy him a counterfeit Polish passport that would eventually grant him entry to the European Union: “Anatol declined. Salvation would have meant the death of his problem, which by now was obviously not only a burden but also the condition with which he has come to identify: to march in the cracks between nations as the post-migratory subject into which he has mutated.”28 Are we to understand the migrant’s fate as double, permanently excluded from a fully satisfying life, yet irremediably attached to the mirage of inclusion? Would this be the condition of life in a container world?

I’ll close, not with an answer to those questions, but with a restatement of the enigma constituted by the social form of just-in-time production. As we’ve seen, global society is filled by a rising tide of inexpensive goods, managed by increasingly automated systems and destined for consumers whose very desires are modeled by the supply chains. This is the world of the commodity, whose concrete promise of use-value is constantly belied by its abstract form as exchange-value. The conditions of exchange are such that despite the productivity gains of technology, work is still devalued to a bare minimum: the working day as the “socially necessary labor time” required for the purchase of a minimal basket of commodities. Today it is the price of an exploited Chinese working day that exerts downward pressure on wages everywhere, throwing other workers out of a job even as it floods our lives with cheapened goods that must be thrown away almost immediately. In this sense, society reallyis defined by the ever-accelerating mobility of its members: workers, managers, consumers, all differently caught within the same compulsion to step on the pedal. The Marxist philosopher Moishe Postone points out that this dynamics of commodity production amounts to a strange destiny of “domination by time.” His abstract statement of the problem reads like a concrete description of existence in the capitalist mobility-system:

"As a result of the general social mediation, labor time expenditure is transformed into a temporal norm that not only is abstracted from, but also stands above and determines, individual action. Just as labor is transformed from an action of individuals to the alienated general principle of the totality under which the individuals are subsumed, time expenditure is transformed from a result of activity into a normative measure for activity.... This process, whereby a concrete, dependent variable of human activity becomes an abstract, independent variable governing this activity, is real and not illusory. It is intrinsic to the process of alienated social constitution."29

Cigar-smoking billionaires still exist, of course: I saw them last night in Oliver Stone’s new film, Money Never Sleeps. But the enigma of our era is the depersonalized principle that governs the estranging machine. Capital itself, in all its abstraction, is the electric dream. For those who do not feel at home in its translocal container world, nor free in the “wild anomaly” of imperceptible wanderings, awakening will have to come through an as-yet unimagined social subversion of capitalism's universally represented and constantly communicated laws of motion. It's a matter of somehow altering society's unconscious rhythms. A tiger’s leap just out of time?


1 John Urry, Mobilities (Cambridge: Polity, 2007), p. 51.

2 John Urry, Sociology Beyond Societies: Mobilities for the Twenty-First Century (London: Routledge, 2000), p. 5.

3 Ulrich Beck, What Is Globalization? (Cambridge: Polity, 2000/German ed. 1997), pp. 23-24; John Law, John Urry, “Enacting the Social” (Department of Sociology / Centre for Science Studies, Lancaster University, 2003), at

4 Urry, Mobilities, op. cit., pp. 49-50.

6 Jan-Erik Lundstrom, ed. Ursula Biemann: Mission Reports (Bristol: Arnolfini Gallery, 2008), p. 59. The same book includes my essay, “Extradisciplinary Investigations,” also at

7 Marc Levinson, The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger (Princeton University Press, 2006), p. 1 and passim.

8 For a photo/text reflection on containerization’s consequences for labor, see Allan Sekula, Fish Story (Rotterdam: Witte de With/Richer Verlag, 1995).

9 Peter J. Katzenstein, Takashi Shiraishi, Network Power: Japan and Asia (Cornell UP, 1997); Ho-Fung Hung, “America's Head Servant? The PRC's Dilemma in the Global Crisis,” New Left Review 60, November-December 2009.

10 Womack, Jones, Roos, The Machine that Changed the World: The Story of Lean Production (New York: Rawson Associates, 1990).

11 Edna Bonacich, Jake B. Wilson, Getting the Goods: Ports, Labor and the Logistics Revolution (Cornell University Press, 2008), p. 25.

12 See the PBS documentary, Is Wal-Mart Good for America? ( 2004), available at

13 Misha Petrovic and Gary G. Hamilton, "Making Global Markets: Wal-Mart and Its Suppliers," in Nelson Lichtenstein, ed., Wal-Mart: The Face of 21st Century Capitalism (New York: New Press 2006), p. 108.

14 Kouvelis and Su, "The Structure of Global Supply Chains," special issue, Foundations and Trends in Technology, Information and Operations Management 1/4, 2005, pp. 1-2.

15 Marc Levinson, The Box, op. cit, p. 264.

16 For Forrester’s involvement in SAGE, see Paul N. Edwards, The Closed World: Computers and the Politics of Discourse in Cold War America (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1996), chaps. 2 and 3.

17 Jay W. Forrester, Industrial Dynamics (Waltham, Mass.: Pegasus Communications, 1961); Principles of Systems (Cambridge, Mass.: Wright-Allen Press, 1968).

18 A notable exception is David A. Mindell, Between Human and Machine: Feedback, Control, and Computing before Cybernetics (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002).

19 Nigel Thrift, “Remembering the Technological Unconscious,” in Knowing Capitalism (London: Sage, 2005), p. 223.

20 See Lawrence Fisher, "The Prophet of Unintended Consequences,” in Strategy + Business 40 (Fall 2005), p. 7.

21 For definitions of EDI, see Gene Boone, David Kurtz, Contemporary Business, 13th Edition (Hoboken: Wiley, 2010), pp. 219-20, as well as Bonacich and Wilson, Getting the Goods, op. cit., esp. pp. 5 and 35.

22 Paul Westerman, Data Warehousing: Using the Wal-Mart Model (San Diego: Academic Press, 2001), p. 26.

23 For a definition see any of the recent business manuals, such as Brahim Chaib-draa, Jörg P. Müller, eds., Multiagent based Supply Chain Management (Springer, 2006).

24 This is the thesis of H. Akkermans, N. Dellaert, eds., “The Dynamics of Supply Chains and Networks,” special issue, System Dynamics Review 21/3 (2005).

25 Urry, Sociology Beyond Societies, op. cit., p. 18.

27 Papadopoulos, Stephenson and Tsianos, Escape Routes: Control and Subversion in the 21st Century (London: Pluto, 2008), p. 26.

28 Ursula Biemann: Mission Reports, op. cit., p. 59.

29 Moishe Postone, Time, Labor and Social Domination: A Reinterpretation of Marx's Critical Theory (New York: Cambridge UP, 1993), pp. 214-15. Among many commentaries I recommend Howard Slater’s text on counter-cultural artistic practice as a political cure for alienation: “Toward Agonism – Moishe Postone’s Time, Labour & Social Domination” (2006), available at


black market container economies

Hi Brian

Great text - and really cool to see Ursula Biemann's work (which I love for its complexity and integrity) in this context. Perhaps it is also interesting to consider the material role that the container plays in other globalised black markets - drugs, smuggling of people as either asylum seekers, displaced people or sex slaves, counterfeit goods, and so forth. Biemann's work as an inroad to a larger discussion of the dynamics. ...

The entire Season 2 of the brilliant US tv show The Wire centred on the Baltimore docks and what came in and out thru containers... leaky transit zones between diffferent forms of circulation, and the dense networks of power in which they are embedded



glad you find some interest

and yes, you are right, I feel I have only scratched the structural surface with this text, I will probably rewrite with a longer version and definitely teach something much more ambivalent and problematic. I should watch the Wire too!... But I wanted to do the structural thing first, because nowadays, people quite understandably jump straight to whatever escapes (the black market, all the things you can do with leftover containers) and yet they do not do the technical update on how the systems actually work. So I tried to do it. The next thing I will do is try to learn much more about the labor struggles on the receiving end, particularly right around Chicago where I live, which is the biggest rail hub in the US (70% of rail traffic in the US, or maybe it's 80, goes through Chicago). So anyway, much left to do! Thanks for your comments, ONE LOVE (such a great song, we all agree), Brian

australian waterfront dispute 1998

Hi again

the technical update is incredibly important, i agree

what you have written abt containers/neoliberalism relationship reminds me of the australian waterfront dispute of 1998 - the liberal (ie, rightwing) govt was fairly new then, and prime minister john howard loathed the union movement ..and so involved the state in a very partisan position in the huge battle between the stevedoring company patricks and the maritime union..altho many of the sacked workers were later reinstated, this dispute is generally considered a turning point (for the worse) in australian social history

here is a link to transcript of an interesting radio interview (from the ABC) from that period with someone who worked as a productivity improvement consultant with Patricks. it talks a lot abt the actual containers and productivity

integration and break (Marx, Deleuze/Guattari and us)

Thanks for the link, I can't wait to listen to that. This is all tremendously interesting to me, because it's by digging into the real that you can make a theoretical break - and then turn that into something embodied, a movement. I dunno if it's really doable in these times, but it's the most interesting thing to try anyway!

Marx studied the factory of his time via the theory of Ure, who was an engineer and an organizer of production (a Scot if I recall correctly). Marx was then able to contribute immensely to class struggles against the factory division of labor. Deleuze and Guattari approached the cyberneticized factories of their time through the concepts of stocks and flows developed by Forrester - that's where they got the whole notion of flows in the Anti-Oedipus. They were not able to contribute as much as Marx, but still, recent social movements have made great use of their ideas, because they come from a consideration of work as it is structured today. I am hoping to carry this antagonism further by approaching just-in-time production through its theorists: first of all Ohno, the Toyota engineer, and beyond him, the people who are now inventing multi-agent networks to coordinate global supply chains. Clearly the global supply chains are no longer just about exploitation and class struggle: they bring an ecological dimension into play (one that is very clear in Forrester's own theories) and they can only be answered by a new kind of revolutionary subject, neither the worker of Marx nor the minorities/multitudes of D&G.

It seems to me that we don't understand well enough how a kind of global factory has been created, which also inherits the Keynesian-Fordist capacity to integrate consumers into the productive system, to loop it. However the loop is no longer national, so it's harder to see. The clearest way to see this is to understand what I call "Chimerica," or the circulations of knowledge, finance, labor and goods between China and America, which happens in a mainly unconscious and denied way. But similar loops have been set up throughout the world in order to weave the global economy. Becoming conscious of this kind of circuit is the first thing; then you can introduce breaks, both psychic and social. Yet to become conscious means confronting its systemic nature.

Basically this whole text is an attempt to recreate in contemporary terms the idea of the machine that Marx developed in the Grundrisse when he wrote this:

"Once adopted into the production process of capital, the means of labor passes through different metamorphoses, whose culmination is the machine, or rather, an automatic system of machinery, set in motion by an automaton, a moving power that moves itself; this automaton consisting of numerous mechanical and intellectual organs, so that the workers themselves are cast merely as its conscious linkages. In the machine, and even more in machinery as an automatic system, the use value, i.e. the material quality of the means of labor, is transformed into an existence adequate to fixed capital and to capital as such; and the form in which it was adopted into the production process of capital, the direct means of labor, is superseded by a form posited by capital itself and corresponding to it.
In no way does the machine appear as the individual worker's means of labor. Its distinguishing characteristic is not in the least, as with the means of labor, to transmit the worker's activity to the object; this activity, rather, is posited in such a way that it merely transmits the machine's work, the machine's action, on to the raw material – supervises it and guards against interruptions. Not as with the instrument, which the worker animates and makes into his organ with his skill and strength, and whose handling therefore depends on his virtuosity. Rather, it is the machine which possesses skill and strength in place of the worker, is itself the virtuoso, with a soul of its own in the mechanical laws acting through it; and it consumes coal, oil etc. (matières instrumentales), just as the worker consumes food, to keep up its perpetual motion.
The worker's activity, reduced to a mere abstraction of activity, is determined and regulated on all sides by the movement of the machinery, and not the opposite. The science which compels the inanimate limbs of the machinery, by their construction, to act purposefully, as an automaton, does not exist in the worker's consciousness, but rather acts upon him through the machine as an alien power, as the power of the machine itself."

This an intense passage, and one that is important to me also because of the way it has been reinterpreted by the Italian autonomists, who very strangely make it into a theory of emancipation by general intellect. Their original intentions were most definitely to create a break, but I think they have not been very conscious of the ways the global factory has constituted itself and of the degrees to which the communicational, representational and imaginary elements that I talk about in this text have been marshaled up to create new structures of integration to the machine. When you don't face the facts, you start to tend to produce fictions whose liberating effect is only superficial. That's what I want to avoid, but it's a long story.... This text is just one piece.

best, Brian

untethered post-autonomist theory

hi brian

we have our own iteration of chimerica in australia too...altho perhaps it is more consciously articulated than in the US, mainly because most here are aware that we are China's mine/bitch. you name, we will dig it up and flog it to china literally dirt cheap.

on toyotaism..i read an interesting text last year by Shimizu (Shimizu, K. 1998, 'A new Toyotaism?', in M. Freyssenet (ed.), One best way?: trajectories and industrial models of the world's automobile producers, Oxford University Press, Oxford, pp. 63-90.) who covered the disintegration of JIT in Japan, and its reinvention

" practice this model brought its own pressures on workers, and was eventually restructured in the 1990s to both “humanise” labour and instil a “'delight in producing'” (Shimizu op. cit. 83-85)."

re marx, yes that is an intense passage and i also used it in my thesis (minus ur level of deconstruction)... i do reckon one of the probs with the italians (which has been pointed out to me many times by 1 of my phd supervisors when she saw me being seduced by them) is that unlike in the 60s when they did the situated research in the factories, in the 90s/00s they have largely ignored the materialities of the creative/symbolic sites of production... hence the fictional quality to their writing (which i enjoy nevertheless..i always did like science fiction).

anyway.,.for what it is worth , here is what i wrote in response to those same paras in the grundrisse....cheers, f.

Marx's concept of materialised, socialised knowledge was exceptional because previously people had considered the intellect as private, to the extent that Aristotle had equated the “life of the thinker” to that of the “stranger” separated from the “political-social community” (Virno 2004: 38). In contrast, Marx highlighted the “exterior, collective, social character” belonging to that intellectual activity which, in an industrial epoch, had become “the true mainspring of the production of wealth” (ibid.). Thus value is socially produced rather than being generated by the “isolated individual outside society” (Marx 1973: 84).

Production is simultaneously an “abstraction” possessing common elements across sectors and historic epochs, and something specific to a “definite stage of social development” (ibid. 85). Moreover, production is is also a “certain social body, a social subject” (ibid. 86). With capital being “among other things...objectified, past labour,” the general intellect in the industrial era entailed knowledges “objectified in fixed capital and embedded in the automated system of machinery” owned and controlled by an elite class (Marx op. cit. 86; Virno 2001, no page numbers). Given that “information, communication, knowledge, and affect” are fundamental to postindustrial production, how have post-Autonomists reinterpreted the general intellect and the social subject it creates? (Hardt 1999: 93).

In the post-Fordist era, the general intellect is decoupled from the machines, presenting itself as “living labour” via the “bodies of workers,” (Marazzi 2008: 44, emphasis in original). Rather than being removed from the social domain to be reprivatised within each individual, the general intellect is now nomadic, using the “reticular organisation of productive/distributive processes” to enter the realm of the common (ibid. 50). Decommodified and distributed, socially-produced knowledge autonomously circulates “independently of fixed capital and legal ownership” (ibid.). This is cause for corporate panic, and hence capital has marshalled its forces pertaining to intellectual property rights, patent, and trademark laws, to (largely unsuccessfully) recapture what it thought it once owned: both the seeds and fruits of social imagination. Yet the brumbies have long bolted.

These wild horses of the imagination lead us to a problem with the revamped general intellect, which is that the concept is too homogeneous and harmonious compared to the dynamics of human creativity. Information circulating in the info-sphere is one thing, but even the supposedly straightforward encyclopaedic endeavours of the Wikipedia project (itself based on a model of knowledge accumulation from ancient Rome) reveals the probable impossibility of a conflict-free, egalitarian “mass intellectuality” (Virno 2001, no page numbers).See software culture theorist Felix Stalder (2010) on Wikipedia, for example. Knowledge, invention, and wisdom require chaos, experimentation, risk, conflict, and failure to evolve, qualities which again the uniformity of the post-Autonomist rendering of the general intellect fails to consider. Nevertheless, the concept can be useful, particularly if we interweave it with threads of wild knowledge, disorderly production, and happenstance.


Hardt, M. 1999, 'Affective Labor', boundary 2, vol. 26, no. 2, pp. 89-100

Marx, K. 1973, Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy, trans. M. Nicolaus, Penguin Books Ltd, Harmondsworth.

Marazzi, C. 1999, Il posto dei calzini: La svolta linguistica dell'economia e i suoi effeti sulla politica, Bollati Boringhieri, Torino.

Stalder, F. 2010a, 'Wikipedia as expert NGO', Nettime, viewed 1 October 2010

Virno, P. 2001, 'General Intellect', Lessico Postfordista, viewed 14 March 2010

I just can't hear that old song no more...

But I sure do appreciate this exchange of ideas!

The Freyssenet reference is great and I gotta get some library access somewhere 'cause the book costs 100 bucks and my favorite Russian pirate site has never heard of it... But I am quite glad to have pointers to that sort of thing, so thank you.

I was steeped in Autonomia for ten years, five on the editorial board of Multitudes, with constant reference to Virno's proposals on general intellect and, of course, Negri's "Marx beyond Marx," but now I see the limits of the general intellect proposals. "Limits" is the precise word: there are very important gains with the idea of a possible exodus from the codes of the knowledge-based economy (and that is precisely the meaning of my book, Escape the Overcode). But one of the projects emerging from the work that Armin and I have been developing is to see how the kind of technologically imposed work-discipline documented by Braverman in his great book Labor and Monopoly Capital is now being reinstated under the reign of transnational networked capital, through surveillance, software regimes and flexible organization via telecommunications. The terrible weakness of the autonomist 'general intellect' thesis is that they think copyright and patents are the only failing attempts to "recapture" a cognitive labor force which is otherwise as free as a bird. Well, no, it is not so good. That perspective shows, unfortunately, an utter ignorance of the way that the vast majority of people actually work, mainly for corporations which are still all about the managment of the labor-force, mobile or not (here, the early Chainworkers collective was much closer to reality). Not only that, but if you look into the logic of patent-production in neoliberal universities, it is very serious stuff, whereas the majority of autonomist-derived critique just looks at the subversion of copyright (which of course I am totally into and practice all the time!). I think that if a politically oppositional knowledge is going to be developed, it has to be done on the basis of a real practice of the kind of exodus that the autonomists outline (and in fact, do practice themselves); but from that strong basis, what needs to be theorized is not just our own relative freedom but also the very strong coercion successfully exerted by the present system. The autonomists have avoided this by the "method of the tendency" which claims to look at the leading edge of capitalist development and theorize what it is becoming on the basis of this idealization; but I do think Benjamin Noys has successfully destroyed this way of proceeding, for the better:

My position is now a mix of autonomist self-valorization and critical analysis of the major coercive forces in the world. I think it is slowly being understood and I will write it up someday in stronger philosophical detail!

best, Brian


hiya brian

just received a uni notice abt the following talks..thought the ned rossiter one in particular coalesced with some of your research ... mebbe they will have written papers u can access


Department of Gender and Cultural Studies 2011 seminar series


Ned Rossiter, University of Western Sydney

With militaristic origins, logistics emerged as a business concept in the 1950s concerned with the management of global supply chains. Today, the complex task of logistics is aided by specially engineered computer software and information technology (IT) tracking devices that facilitate the organization of labour, storage and goods. This paper is part of a larger study on labour regimes, IT infrastructures and questions of sovereignty within maritime logistics and electronic waste industries. Particular attention is paid to the operation of transnational shipping in and out of Ningbo Port - the second largest in China and a close competitor of its neighbouring port in Shanghai. The ship is a deterritorialized extension of the nation-state. The management of labour and control of borders associated with the maritime vessel serves as a microcosm for the problem of governance for the territorial state. My thesis in this paper is as follows: When situated in the era of the Cold War and Fordism, modern logistics is strangely out of time. As a managerial science of flexiblization and transnational flows, post-World War Two logistics arguably anticipated post-Fordist regimes of the past 10-30 years. What, therefore, might the circuits of control in contemporary maritime logistics have to say about the future-present of sovereign states and the biopolitical management of populations?

Ned Rossiter recently started a position as Professor of Communication in the School of Communication Arts, University of Western Sydney. Ned is also a member of UWS's Centre for Cultural Research. He has previously worked in China, Northern Ireland and Melbourne.


Brett Neilson, University of Western Sydney

What kind of power is manifest in logistical practices? Historically, logistics was one of the three 'arts of war' along with strategy and tactics. But it has largely been forgotten in cultural and political accounts of power. Similarly it has been neglected in critical studies of globalization that examine how capitalist production and distribution have been reorganized at a global scale. Revisiting Foucauldian arguments about the evolution of power and recent studies of the metamorphosis of economic space, this paper suggests that logistical infrastructures are actively forming new kinds of polity. In particular, it argues that the complexities of logistical life can be explained neither by theories that emphasize the transformations of sovereign power nor by those that posit decentralized modes of governance. An empirical study of semiconductor supply chains coming out of China will show how logistics at once exploits and blurs the differences between sovereignty and governance, exception and norm.

Associate Professor Brett Neilson is Principal Research Fellow and Immediate Past Director at the Centre for Cultural Research, University of Western Sydney. He is lead investigator of the transnational research project Transit Labour: Circuits, Regions, Borders (

Date: Friday 25 March 2011
Time: 14:00 - 16:00
Location: The Refectory, Main Quadrangle (downstairs from the Faculty of Arts)
Street: University Drive, University of Sydney