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he South Caucasian Republic of Georgia is at the center of ambitious infrastructural investments aimed at transforming the country into a logistics hub for the Chinese-lead New Silk Road project. These developments are reshaping Georgian territory as well as its economy, making for a logistics revolution. This substantial transformation is powered by the performance of a new geo-economic logic of territorial expansion. According to this logic, the "One Belt One Road"1 initiative and the global connectivity it promises, will mark the end of the era of geopolitical conflict. Throughout this essay, I reflect on this alleged turn in light of recent critical work on logistics. My analysis grounds itself in the Belt and Road Forum, which took place in November 2017 in Tbilisi. The discourses and policies which were presented during the two days of the event, illustrate the workings of what Brett Neilson has themed "logistical power," the capacity of logistics to engender spaces, politics, and subjects (2012). By looking at the Georgian example, a bleak picture of this power emerges, one characterised by the friction between seamless-ness and the exploitation of labour and territory, operating at the intersection of, rather than beyond or outside, the geo-economic future and what is been cast as the geopolitical past.
The Belt and Road Forum was held in Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, on 28 and 29 November 2017. This meeting, which follows the one held in Beijing in May last year, consolidates the post-Soviet country’s bid to establish itself as a key point in the development of the "New Silk Road." Whilst the extension, the routes and the territorial impact of this project are still under discussion, the Chinese government expects a traffic of $24 trillion worth of commodities by 2030 and is engaged in an infrastructural effort never seen before, allocating almost a billion dollars as of today to develop the infrastructures necessary to activate the various corridors. Far from being simply concerned with transit this project implies a strategic rearrangement of the territories it crosses, generating new markets on its way—a fundamental outlet for the bursting Chinese market—and consolidating China’s influence as a hegemonic manufacturing force on a global scale. The Tbilisi Belt and Road Forum, therefore, hosted for two days the speculations, predictions and performances that characterize the expansion of this huge logistics network.2
Throughout the forum geopolitics, with the rivalries and territorial calculations that characterize it, seem to disappear, overshadowed instead by what Chinese Deputy Commerce Minister Quian Keming’s describes as the "win win approach" which the new Silk Road project proposes to adopt. The pursuit of such mutually beneficial strategy, according to the deputy minister, will result in "a victory for all humanity." What is being presented is a new geo-economic rationality, brought forward through global logistics, which ostensibly aims to erode the geopolitical rivalries that currently organize global territory.
As Deborah Cowen and Neil Smith point out (2009), geopolitics is a discursive and constituent practice that organizes global space according to struggles for the territorial domination of specific areas. The functioning of geopolitics is based not only on warfare practices that exceed the territorial boundaries of nation states but also on what they refer to as the "geopolitical social." This is namely the historical assemblage of discursive practices that justify and materialize geopolitical calculations. The New Silk Road is presented as overcoming this geopolitical social in favor of a new geo-economic rationality that reorganizes the security of the territories and their historical rivalries to favor the passage of supranational flows. This new mode is articulated through various planes, encompassing economic calculation and reshaping sociabilities. During the two days of the forum, the performance of a new geo-economic sociality took shape.
Within this new configuration, fundamental movements take place. First of all, a new territorial epistemology: if Mackinder, one of the founders of modern geopolitics, defined the territorial competition as a "struggle for the heartland” (1904), the New Silk Road ostensibly rejects the very definition of heartland. The Chinese project redefines the global space as a continuous flow. Within it, the resources that drive the desire of competing nations are no longer located in a specific place, on the contrary they stretch along the entire logistic network that constitutes the skeleton of this new territorial vision. The new heartland is therefore a deterritorialized cyborg, resulting from the agglomeration of infrastructure, territory, manpower, and resources.
An account of the reforms and investments taking place in Georgia in view of its participation in the One Belt One Road initiative can shed light on this relocation of conflict, pivotal to the making of logistical connections.
Infrastructures are central to Georgia’s logistical development. These are currently quite poor across its territory; however, in 2016 the government launched a four-item spatial plan that expects investment of 3.5 billion dollars to speed-up transit connections. The plan foresees for 2020 the construction of two logistics centers on the outskirts of Tbilisi and Kutaisi, 550 km of motorways and an upgrading of the railway network that will connect the center of the country with the village of Anaklia on the Black Sea coast where a deep sea port is currently under construction.
These material developments, however, are secondary to the network of business-oriented "soft infrastructures" that the country has built over the 25 years of independence.3 Notably, a key factor behind Georgia’s 'success' according, to the Forum’s participants, is the weakness of its labor code. At present, Georgian legislation does not include minimum wage regulations and, paired with the absence of an effective system of workplace inspections, this guarantees a cheap and highly blackmailable labor force.
Despite the advancement of automation, the logistics sector still relies on great amounts of labor power. The cost of this labor, as well as its bargaining capacity are considered chief obstacles to a seamless flow (Curcio, 2014). Seamlessness is one of the keywords of the new geo-economic logics governing logistical investment. Within the discourse of seamlessness, however, lies an awareness of the potentiality of disruption, lurking at the corner of every smooth transaction in the form of worker’s demands, their capacity to sabotage or even just their fragile humanity. Logistics, far from being an exercise in seamlessness, is a struggle to suppress, incorporate and silence the infinite possibilities of disruption.
The spaces engendered by logistics materialize this struggle. As Keller Easterling argues in her work on the architectures of extra-statecraft (2014, 2005), logistics expansion is predicated on the emergence of "zones." These are "spatial products" powered by a spatial/ethical/temporal regime that is exceptional with respect to those governing the rest of the territory which hosts them. Zones can take many forms, from special economic zones, to bonded custom areas and free industrial zones (FIZ) to entire city states (Easterling 2014:42).
In Georgia there are currently four FIZs and one bonded custom area. During the forum, notably, the workings and territorial organization regimes at play in these spaces emerge as the model to be imitated for the logistic development of the whole country. Within these, rights recognized as fundamental for the citizens of a state on paper, such as the right to express dissent or workers’ rights, are dislocated for the benefit of more fluid, seamless, exchange processes. As the material manifestations of seamlessness, FIZs elevate efficiency and rapidity over the human component of the processes where the bodies of workers are subjected to new and ever changing techniques of control (Kanngieser, 2013).
The normalization of these spaces as a preferential territorial form for the development of the New Silk Road has practical and discursive consequences. On one hand, observing the working conditions and recent struggles in the logistics sector on a local and global scale, we can get a hint of the practical implications of the "zonification" of economic processes4 (Cuppini, Frapporti, Pirone, 2015; Curcio, 2015). On the other, the rhetoric adopted by the participants in the forum, exemplifies the discursive implication of this economic logic: in the many hours of debate on the projects of the New Silk Road, workers are hardly ever mentioned. Although it is often indicated that infrastructure investments will produce a large number of jobs, it is never specified what kind of employment, for whom, and under what conditions. The few times the workforce is mentioned is to describe it as "competitive"—an adjective that clearly does not refer to its skill level but to its low price. Consequently, the labor force is only discussed as a commodity, one of the various "assets" that Georgia has to offer potential investors.
Such discursive approach is a symptom of what Neilson (2012), following Marx, defines as one of the central axis of logistical power: the tension between abstract labor and living labor. In Capital, Marx defines the distinction between these two properties of labor: living labor is the actuality of labor power embodied in the worker’s body, this type of labor is inherently social as it is inserted into network of social cooperation within the loci of its actuation, abstract labor on the other side is "the generalized temporal measure of labor that enables its translation into the language of value and provides the regulatory nexus for the establishment of a world market for the commodity of labor power" (Neilson, 2012: 330, cf Marx, 1973: 361). The dream-worlds of seamlessness depicted by the different voices in the Forum, which is at once barrier-less and body-less, are predicated on the desire to eliminate the gap between living and abstract labor.
Looking at these tensions—these conflicts over bodies and space—geo-economic connectivity does not emerge as the smooth encounter between willing and equal partners. Conversely, it appears more akin to the practice of warfare. Critical scholars have highlighted how logistics finds its roots in warfare (Cowen, 2014; Khalili, 2016). Deriving its routes, strategic transport hubs, techniques for shipping and preserving commodities from combat, logistics has been defined as "war by other means, war by means of trade" (Bernes, 2013). To go back to the distinction between geopolitics and the up and coming geo-economic rationality brought forward by the New Silk Road, what appears to be at stake is not an overcoming of geopolitics, but a repositioning of potential enemies. No longer characterized as the armies of rival forces, the main opponents of the development of territorial domination and extraction of resources are at the same time abstract and in the flesh. Logistical warfare operates through a more subtle, yet pervasive logic, one that is predicated through the capillary expansions and that thrives on a different kind of antagonism. This kind of warfare comes into being through the creation of zones, where oppression and experimentation take place on the bodies of the workers at the benefit of capital. Zones are thus the new battleground of this global war, as composite elements, they bring forward parallel projects of territorial subjugation, labour exploitation and experiments in new forms of governance.
The New Silk Road presents the perspective of a world without barriers, where logistics is not a means but an end. A world in which connectivity is productive in itself. This vision, repeated over and over again by the participants of the Forum, is not just a vacuous slogan for a complex project yet to be defined. It is the manifestation of the ongoing struggle between a Mackinderian geopolitics aimed at conquering resources and territories and an emerging geo-economic rationality aimed at producing new resources through infrastructural investments and the creation of new markets. This struggle, as specified by Cowen and Smith, however, will not result in a simple evolution from one paradigm to another. On the contrary, it is within the friction between these two coexisting epistemologies that the new configurations of powers are produced. As Neilson argues, it is through the engendering of spaces that logistics networks actively contribute to the setting and staging of political possibilities (2012, 328). Political power inherent in logistics—logistical power—has its roots in this process. The Belt and Road Forum, therefore, has been a stage from which logistical power has taken shape as the leading logic and active form behind the infrastructural developments reshaping the Georgian territory.
1 Official name of the New Silk Road.
2 The attendees include representatives of different governments—Georgia, China, UAE, Iran, Ukraine, Moldova, Slovakia, Slovenia, Turkey, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan,—international institutions—European Investment Bank, European Commission for Transports, European Bank for Development and Reconstruction, Asian Development Bank, World Trade Organization, World Bank—and representatives of public and private companies with interests already defined in the projects of the new Silk Road - BP, Anaklia Development Consortium, HuaLing, Azeri, Georgian, and Kazakh railways, Nenska Hydropower, Silk Road Group and the block-chain company Bitfury Group, stand out among many.
3 These reforms can be characterized with one word: deregulation. According to the World Bank no other country has managed to develop such a broad portfolio of reforms to promote free trade in such a short time. This granted Georgia the ninth place in the World Bank Doing Business Report ranking for its benefits business and the thirteenth place on the list compiled by the Heritage Foundation on economic freedom.
4 There are multiple examples, the latest to date is the strike called by Amazon workers in the company’s hubs in Italy and Germany to protest against long-hours and low-pay and the inhumane rhythms of production enforced in the warehouses.
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