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What can we learn about a system by examining not what it is made of but how it works? In medicine, such a shift in perspective from form to function has paved the way to important advances. Modern medicine has traditionally focused on structural disorders, or diseases that have a basis in the structure of bodily systems. In recent decades, though, increased attention to functional disorders—which have a basis in the way organs work—has led to improvements in the understanding and treatment of a number of chronic conditions.
Sandro Mezzadra and Brett Neilson propose a similar reorientation to the study of global capitalism in The Politics of Operations: Excavating Contemporary Capitalism. Whereas social and political theory has long concerned itself with the description and analysis of structures—states, classes, national economies—Mezzadra and Neilson ask what we might learn about contemporary capitalism by instead studying its operations. How are the global workings of capital reshaping the state and its institutions? What are the implications of these processes for the continued encroachment of capitalism on new spaces and new realms of social life? And crucially, what kind of politics is best equipped to confront capital’s predatory operations and open up “new vistas of liberation and life beyond the rule of capital” (p. 9)?
The answers are not straightforward, nor is the path by which they are arrived at. Like Mezzadra and Neilson’s first co-authored book, Border as Method, or, The Multiplication of Labor (2013), The Politics of Operations is a challenging, highly ambitious work. Its 312 pages survey a vast landscape of political thought, charting out a course that the longtime collaborators describe as “purposely disorienting” (p. 18). The book ranges over an impressive number of planetary sites (Istanbul’s Gezi Park, Argentina’s soybean fields, Bangkok’s Don Mueang Airport, St. Louis’s freeways), engages with a diverse lineup of interlocutors (from Arendt to Aristotle, Marx to Mbembe, Virilio to Varoufakis), and enters into debates on a staggering array of topics (globalization, neoliberalism, crisis, imperialism, totality, racial capitalism, territory, social reproduction). Several of the chapters have been reworked from articles previously published in the likes of South Atlantic Quarterly and Radical Philosophy. All this makes for a book so expansive that at times it strains to hold itself together.
What unifies the text is the notion of the operations of capital, which serves as both a concept to be elaborated in its own right and a lens through which the ideas of others can be interrogated and extended. In both respects it is the book’s cardinal contribution. Mezzadra and Neilson define an operation as “a process with a beginning and an end; a process that accomplishes something without necessarily yielding a material thing; and a process that impinges on others, affecting possibilities and establishing multifarious and not necessarily predictable connections.” (p. 67) For them, a focus on capitalism’s operations entails a rejection of high-level abstraction or predefined ideal-typical categories. It demands, instead, rigorous empirical investigation of the ways in which capital “hits the ground” (p. 22) in the context of concrete “spatial, social, legal, and political formations” (p. 3), where it becomes “enmeshed with material configurations of flesh and earth” (p. 166). That ground, the “operative surface on which capital intervenes” (p. 3), is profoundly variegated. Capital encounters a multiplicity of differences, and the exploitation and retooling of hierarchies –particularly those of race and gender–is constitutive of its workings, not external or incidental to them. In other words, capital does not simply negotiate social difference; “difference is an internal feature of its operations” (p. 37). The tensions and conflicts that inevitably arise mean that a focus on the workings of capital requires a rethinking of the political. A politics of operations, the authors write, is “necessarily involved in the world,” “messed up with dirt, extraction, and exploitation” (p. 244). Political thought reconsidered in this way must abandon pretensions to an idealized realm of “pure politics” (Žižek, 2006: 55–56) and attend to the material relations that make politics inseparable from economy, culture, and society.
Above all, an operational perspective on capitalism demands attention to scales and spaces beyond those of the nation-state. Much of The Politics of Operations can be read as a reckoning with the state of the state, which Mezzadra and Neilson argue is in need of new analytical framings in light of the transformations of territoriality, jurisdiction, and governance being wrought by processes of capitalist globalization. Here the authors eschew both outworn “state-centric” (Brenner, 2004: 38) approaches and exaggerated claims (popular in the globalization debates of the late twentieth century) about the withering away of the nation-state. Between these two extremes, Mezzadra and Neilson stake out a position that does not disavow the state’s continued agency and relevance but insists on the need to interrogate how state territories and actions are increasingly crosscut by the workings of capital. Drawing on the research of Saskia Sassen (2006) and Deborah Cowen (2014), among others, they show that the operations of transnational financial and logistics corporations are blurring borders and traversing territories in ways that challenge the inside/outside boundary that is so foundational to the modern state. In this regard, capital can be understood as a direct political actor, having acquired “the power to produce territory of its own accord” (p. 25). This situation is not wholly unprecedented, however. Citing the example of early chartered companies like the British East India Company and the Hudson’s Bay Company, Mezzadra and Neilson suggest that these corporations acted like sovereign entities—exercising military power, engaging in diplomacy, and establishing welfare systems—across large territories well before the foundation of modern territorial states.
The best vantage that the book offers onto the earthly workings of capital comes in the chapter on extraction, logistics, and finance, which Mezzadra and Neilson invoke not simply as economic “sectors” but as domains of activity whose distinctive logics are increasingly driving the accumulation of capital more generally—along with new trajectories of political struggle. Extraction is conceptualized in broad terms, encompassing a range of processes “by which capital draws on its multiple outsides to sustain and perpetuate itself” (p. 38). As they argue, a focus on the extractive character of contemporary capital therefore necessitates an engagement with questions of racial capitalism and Indigenous dispossession. Logistics, similarly, is not limited to the business of transport and distribution but registers a wide-ranging reorganization of commodity production and the social relations that underpin it. Finance has provided “solutions” for a tumultuous capitalist world system since the 1970s, offering new methods not only of generating profits but also of orchestrating social production and disciplining unruly subjects. Mezzadra and Neilson are at their strongest when exploring how these three domains interact. Together, these fields of operations—the extractive appropriation of resources and capacities that lie beyond the frontiers of capital, the logistical coordination of circuits of capitalist valorization and accumulation, and the penetration of financial volatility and speculation into ever-expanding realms of social life—map out an ongoing mutation of capitalism into a brutally rationalized, globally integrated accumulation machine whose perpetuation depends on increasingly violent depredations against human and nonhuman life and sociality.
What kinds of political formations might effectively confront this horror? The book’s provocative final chapter issues a further challenge to state-centric modes of political thought, specifically to traditional leftist theories of revolutionary change that center on the seizure or reform of the state. Citing recent experiences in Greece and Spain, Mezzadra and Neilson argue that the state is not in itself a sufficient source of power to confront the contemporary operations of capital. Instead, what is needed is a politics of social transformation that goes beyond the state, rooted in collective institutions outside it. Concretely, this would be realized through a more or less enduring instantiation of what Lenin ( 1999) called “dual power,” in which formal political institutions articulate with a system of autonomous “counterpowers” (p. 241) within a stable framework of “struggle, transformation, and governance” (p. 242). This is a compelling vision of a communist politics for our times, its ambitiousness befitting that of the book as a whole.
The Politics of Operations is not a report on empirical research. Readers looking for a firsthand account of time spent in the field will not find it here: Operations is first and foremost a work of theory, and nearly all the illustrative cases considered in the book are read through secondary literature. The aerial viewpoint that characterizes much of the discussion is surprising given Mezzadra and Neilson’s insistence on investigating the specificities of how capital “hits the ground.” The one site at which the authors do position themselves directly, the Port of Piraeus in Greece, makes for a rich examination of the complex dynamics of privatization. In 2009, two of Piraeus’s three container piers were leased to a subsidiary of the Chinese state-owned COSCO Group, which made extensive technological investments and imposed a new labor subcontracting system in order to increase the terminals’ productivity. Despite opposition by Greek unionists, COSCO eventually purchased a majority stake in the port authority itself, in a transaction overseen by a government agency for the privatization of public assets, in turn guided by the “troika” of European institutions responsible for imposing austerity on the Greek state. Territorial arrangements on the ground in Piraeus today thus bring together “various degrees of Greek territoriality mediated and controlled by the powers of the troika, European Commission Free Zone regulations that allow the port to act as a container transshipment hub, the corporate governance mechanisms of the COSCO Group (which extend up to China’s State Council and the Organization Committee of the Communist Party of China), and the rule-governed software routines of the terminal operating systems operative on both sides of the port” (p. 71). Moreover, events in Piraeus cannot be divorced from the dynamics of the European economic crisis and capital overaccumulation in China, which has led to considerable overseas investment in countries like Greece. The case offers a vivid illustration of the interplay among the multiscalar workings of capital, and one wonders what more such up-close engagements with concrete places, experiences, and struggles could yield for the notion of operations.
What, in the end, does Mezzadra and Neilson’s operational perspective make visible? Unlike in medicine, it remains an open question whether a focus on function can disclose radical new vistas on contemporary capitalism. Perhaps this is because a good deal of social-scientific research, especially in field-based disciplines like geography and anthropology, already does attend to the “fleshy, messy, and indeterminate” (Katz, 2001: 711) operations of capital without naming them as such. Indeed, it is not always apparent how Mezzadra and Neilson distinguish their operational approach from other, comparable paradigms. Where, for example, does it diverge from Anna Tsing’s (2005) notion of “friction,” which similarly insists that capital’s aspirations to universality can only be enacted “in the sticky materiality of practical encounters” (p. 1), and which calls our attention to the manifold situations “where the rubber meets the road” (p. 6)? How does a politics of operations draw inspiration from, and speak back to, a growing body of work on infrastructure that enjoins us to “pay special attention to the materiality of capital flows” (Chua, 2014), or to the “material forms that allow for the possibility of exchange over space” (Larkin, 2013)? Ultimately, the reorientation that Mezzadra and Neilson are proposing is a subtle one, indebted to a rich archive of political ideas. But they rework and recombine those ideas into a book that is shrewdly reasoned, superbly written, and thick with insight into the contemporary moment.