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Deborah Cowen, The Deadly Life of Logistics: Mapping Violence in the Global Trade. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2014, 328 pages, 44 b&w photos, $25.00 paper ISBN 978-0-8166-8088-7, $75.00 cloth ISBN 978-0-8166-8087-0.

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Deborah Cowen’s The Deadly Life of Logistics is the first of its kind: an original, imaginative, and critical theorisation of the centrality of violence to the modern logistics business. The book beautifully illuminates the conjuncture between capital accumulation and practices of security and securitisation on a global scale, zooming down to specific places and moments to better illustrate the inner workings of this conjuncture.

In recent years, several exciting books have engaged the history, politics and sociology of today’s logistics, shipping, and maritime transport infrastructure in exciting ways.  Some have dealt with questions of labour on the docks and aboard ships (among them see Bonacich and Wilson, 2008 and Sampson, 2013). Others have examined global production networks and supply chains via the disciplinary lenses of economic geography or political economy.  Still others have examined the emergence and transformation of historical trade routes or technologies of transport (including Marc Levinson’s wonderful The Box about container shipping, 2006), and a handful have excavated the roots of today’s logistics and transport infrastructure in war. But the majority of these books have focused on one aspect of this vast behemoth, or on one specific geographic area or corridor. Most have had little to say about the role of coercion, militarisation, and securitisation in this enormous business sector (though Levinson’s The Box has an extraordinary chapter about containerisation of the Vietnam War). What Cowen’s book does brilliantly is to ask us to think of logistics as a global phenomenon with its many moving parts interconnected through the very objects that move, the capital that animates them, the coercive apparatuses that are the ghost in the machine, the discourses and laws that compel them, and the bodies that move or obstruct this vast machinery.

Cowen makes a series of linked arguments at the very outset. First, the book insists on “the precarity of the distinction between ‘civilian’ and ‘military,’ even as it also attends to the political, historical, and geographical force of that distinction’s effect” and she intends to “separate war and trade so as to study their entanglement” (page 4).  Second, her aim is to shed light on “profoundly political forms of knowledge and calculation that present themselves as purely technical” (page 4).  Third, she studies the “shifting boundaries between ‘civilian’ and ‘military’” (page 4).  Finally, she wishes for the book to be “a queer engagement with logistics” whereby she illuminates “the vital role of this banal management science –a science that was born of war– in the recasting of the economies of life and death” (page 5).

The book delivers all this and so much more, although I have to confess that I was not entirely persuaded by the "queering" element, which seemed to me to stand as a kind of euphemism for a 'critical' approach. Once "queering" was mentioned in the earliest pages of the book, it did not recur in the text again until the very end, few pages in the conclusion. This absence not only did not detract from the argument, if anything, it averted a potential distraction. Though  there is room for a discussion of how logistics can be queered, I think that discussion requires more space than Cowen’s already rich book can give it without diverting attention from the central contentions of the book.

The Deadly Life of Logistics is organised around a series of themes whose interconnections are clear throughout: the integral conjuncture between the discourses of management studies and of logistics; the securitisation of labour; and perhaps most important, the illusory boundaries produced between the domains of “economics” and “politics” and between “civilian” and “military”, which again and again structures practices and political relations around piracy, labour unrest, “supply chain security”, and the making of “logistics cities” out of the ruins and wreckage of endless wars.

In what follows, I hope to give a flavour of the striking theoretical conclusions Cowen extracts from her multifaceted work, but cannot do justice to the richness of either the material or the arguments herein.

The first two chapters of the book trace the emergence of the behemoth that is the contemporary logistics industry out of the concurrent processes of deregulations, technological innovations, and especially diffusion/disaggregation of production networks and supply chains across the globe.  The large new logistics sector depended on the knowledges accumulated within management studies but more importantly adapted from the vast experience of military logistics in distant wars. Although this military origin was carefully cloaked, its influence and contours can still most clearly be glimpsed in the practices of “supply chain security” that are crucial and inseparable adjuncts of the logistics industry today.

Cowen argues that “experimentation with the protection of globalized networks” of production and distribution “has given rise to ‘network’ or ‘systems’ models of security, wherein borders are reconstituted and governed differently.  Indeed, while these models of security prioritize flow, they are organized through new forms of containment – new kinds of borders and security zones” (page 56).  And not only borders and security zones, but also corridors, hubs, and gateways.  These new geographical imaginaries require disaggregation or recombination of different conceptual actors: producers, private security-providers, distributors, nation-states, state and transnational security apparatuses (such as EU-NAVFOR) and so on; and it requires a global security architecture with overlapping domains of sovereignty and force fields.

Cowen’s book then looks at those bodies and persons and groups who may disrupt the flow of goods. These disruptions –whether they arise from workers activating “chokepoints” along the corridors through which goods flow, or pirates whose extraction of a kind of a “tax” from shipping concerns that move through their territories– are considered as threats to security and dealt with accordingly.  Though, here, “accordingly” indicates the use of different strategies on shore and at sea.

The stories Cowen tells about death and injury at the docks open the chapter on ‘Just-in-time jobs’.  Cowen shows the horrible concreteness of such bodily damage and then attends to the more abstract and virtual techniques used to discipline the body of the worker on ship and on shore.  Here her argument is that as demand for productivity along the supply chain grows, so too do bodily injuries and also the “arsenal of managerial techniques and technologies of automation that target the body of the worker” (page 105).  She shows the extent to which labour protest is securitised, monitored, scrutinised, and controlled, because “disruption to commodity flows” by labour disruption “exposes the vulnerability of the just-in-time production systems and so too the centrality of logistics infrastructure and its protection to the political of our present” (page 116).  Cowen then delineates the techniques used to control the labour, from mapping technologies to “stretching factories” across the globe to robotics and other electronic forms of surveillance. She is careful however to also show how this vast machinery of control and discipline is disrupted by work stoppages, strikes, and sabotage. In return, labour activism is subjected to the deployment of security forces and even militaries. The larger conclusion she draws is that because the logistics business depends on “efficient trade flows”, “the interference that comes from ‘inefficiencies’ like democracy and the actors that demand it may themselves be construed as security threats” (page 126).

Pirates are another group of actors who disrupt the efficiency of trade flows, and Cowen discusses them –and more specifically, Somali pirates– sensitively and interestingly.  She argues that “for piracy to be managed by this diversity of unregulated violence, it cannot become an object of outright warfare; the pirate must remain conceptually and legally distinct from the figure of the terrorist.  If Somali pirates are ‘people who have consistently identified themselves as Somalia’s Coast Guard’ (Ali and Murad, 2009: 91) and who thus claim an explicitly political position for their actions, the distinction would seem to dissolve.  The political dimensions of Somali action are thus denied at the same time as the state military interests in transnational corporate trade are asserted” (page 131).  In the case of Somali pirates however, the institutional and security voices in the US are multivalent.  While some insist on distinguishing pirates from terrorists, there is within the US military epistemic community (of military writers, historians, strategists, and legal scholars) a substantial body of work that does not distinguish between the two in discussing tactics of pacification, and a significant number of US legal theorists and historians who in fact draw clear lines of continuity between the Barbary Pirates of eighteenth and nineteenth centuries through anticolonial insurgents and terrorist of the mid-twentieth century to today’s Somali pirates.  And although no evidence has been shown to link the Somali pirates to the Al-Shabab forces there (who are considered terrorists in some quarters), these same security mavens worry about imagined links.

Piracy is also somewhat of a complex conundrum, because although of course the geopolitics of empire are crucial in the way security forces define piracy, those who most benefit from piracy are not the pirates themselves –who are more often like peons in informal armies.  Those who benefit are more affluent paymasters in cities at some distance from the coasts who invest in the implements of piracy and the technologies needed to track ships, and who pay for the pirates to go out to sea. The benefits of piracy accrue to this bourgeoisie of marauding rather than to the coastal communities most affected by the toxic dumping, illegal fishing, and maritime violence that acts as the motivation for piracy.

Cowen is nevertheless persuasive in showing the global security structures mobilised to fight these pirates, where the overlapping and complementary forms of sovereignty and fields of force, private and state violence-workers, and half-elaborated and suitably ambiguous legal regimes all work in particular ways that predictably benefit the Global North geopolitically and the capitalist classes more economically.  Her argument about the extraordinary discursive and practical work that goes into maintaining the line between “economics” and “politics” (to better cloak the alignment of global interests) is urgent and persuasive and the work that she does in showing how the institutions of law and security preserve the extant power relations at sea around the Horn of Africa is compelling.

Cowen’s final substantive chapter concerns logistics cities. These are major transport hubs which combine access to multiple air-land-sea transport routes with massive tax-breaks for businesses and appallingly lax regulation of labour regimes.  Cowen describes them as “the factory ... now ‘stretched’ across a highly uneven economic and political geography, exploiting and producing difference” (page 184). She begins the chapter with a discussion of the Basra Logistics City built on the site of massive US military base and detention centre, Camp Bucca. The gleaming new transport hub benefits from the kind of military investments made into the base, its buildings, runways and the like, while reproducing economic inequality by tying in Basra to global regimes of wealth extraction and accumulation by dispossession. She then traces the idea of “logistic cities” to Dubai, an innovator and exporter of the concept. This chapter show the close conjugation between military and civilian logistics, where, for example, DHL’s marketing material boast about being “the first express carrier to service all US Department of Defense theaters worldwide” (page 186).  Not only do corporations in this way blur the ostensible military/civilian and public/private boundaries that come with outsourcing military logistics, but also the logistics cities themselves show the overlaps between “urban political economies and urban geopolitics” (page 187).

The book as a whole is beautifully written, intensively researched, and crosses the arbitrary boundaries between a number of disciplines (including international relations, political economy, and geography).  That Cowen writes with passion and commitment shines through the pages of the book. She excavates the links between war and trade and between capital and coercion, while never losing site of the fragile human bodies that animate this world and whose labour and resistance is ultimately the underlying force that injects so much value into the work of moving cargo across the seas. 


Bonacich E and J Wilson (2008) Getting the Goods: Ports, Labor, and the Logistics Revolution. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Levinson M (2006) The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Sampson H (2013) International Seafarers and Transnationalism in the Twenty-first Century. Manchester: Manchester University Press.