The Politics of Operations: Excavating Contemporary Capitalism

The Politics of Operations: Excavating Contemporary Capitalism

by Sandro Mezzadra, Brett Neilson

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In The Politics of Operations Sandro Mezzadra and Brett Neilson investigate how capital reshapes its relation with politics through operations that enable the extraction and exploitation of mineral resources, labor, data, and cultures. They show how capital—which they theorize as a direct political actor—operates through the logistical organization of relations between people, property, and objects as well as through the penetration of financialization into all realms of economic life. Mezzadra and Neilson present a capacious analysis of a wide range of issues, from racial capitalism, the convergence of neoliberalism and nationalism, and Marx's concept of aggregate capital to the financial crisis of 2008 and how colonialism, empire, and globalization have shaped the modern state since World War II. In so doing, they illustrate the distinctive rationality and logics of contemporary capitalism while calling for a politics based on collective institutions that exist outside the state.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781478003267
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 02/14/2019
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 312
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

Sandro Mezzadra is Associate Professor in the Department of Arts at the University of Bologna.

Brett Neilson is Professor in the Institute for Culture and Society at Western Sydney University.

Mezzadra and Neilson are coauthors of Border as Method, or, the Multiplication of Labor, also published by Duke University Press.

Read an Excerpt


The Space and Time of Capitalist Crisis and Transition

At Don Mueang Airport

Put yourself in the old Bangkok airport. Handling more than thirty-eight million passengers per year at its peak, Don Mueang was Asia's second busiest airport until its closure in September 2006. This relic of twentieth-century jet travel has emerged as a hub for low-cost and charter operators. As you move through the terminal, connecting to flights bound for regional destinations such as Chennai, Kunming, and Phnom Penh, you encounter an old world map stylized in 1960s design and featuring at its base a row of clocks displaying the time in twelve cities: Dallas, San Francisco, Montreal, Sydney, Moscow, Zurich, Rome, Frankfurt, London, Amsterdam, Paris, and Copenhagen. As Max Hirsh notes in Airport Urbanism (2016, 119–24), no flights leave from Don Mueang these days for those destinations. If you wish to fly to those cities from Bangkok, you must pass through Suvarnabhumi International Airport, the massive glass and metal structure to the city's east that replaced Don Mueang as Thailand's major gateway in 2006. Yet despite the shopping amenities, environmental engineering, and modular design that makes Suvarnabhumi feel much like any other world airport, one experiences a more striking sense of global contemporaneity staring at the old world map at Don Mueang. The radical disjuncture marked by the mismatch between the times on the clocks and the cities to which flights depart suggests the impossibility of forcing together in a single historical moment the heterogeneous times and spaces of the present.

The dizziness and disorientation induced by moving through a space such as Don Mueang Airport provides an appropriate prelude for this book. Readers may wonder how a study that begins in the Argentinean pampas ends up taking them to a discount air hub in Bangkok, a shipping port in Athens, a national park in Bolivia, or any of the other sites and installations visited in this book. As in the case of the cities listed on the world map at Don Mueang, the lines of connection are not obvious or given. But this is precisely the point. By seeking to excavate and analytically describe the operational logics that animate and drive the making and unmaking of global arrangements of space and time, we interrogate the workings of contemporary capitalism and delineate their changing relations with political practices, subjectivities, forms, and institutions. Such an investigation requires a wide-ranging analysis that is capable of confronting the continuities and dissonances of these logics as they play out across a vast and variegated panorama. To make our analysis, we draw on an array of sources, including but not confined to academic works produced within the disciplinary limits of anthropology and geography. Occasionally, we supplement these accounts with knowledge drawn from our own research and political experiences. We are committed to the proposition that concept production is most effective when it stems from specific, concrete situations, and we try to stay true to this proposition even when we do not directly discuss the experiences and encounters that have driven our thought. Conversely, we are very much interested in the labor of translation that is always needed when such concepts are applied to concrete situations that may be significantly different from the ones in which they originate. We are convinced that the ensuing frictions and even clashes may generate resonances that are very productive in terms of knowledge production (both regarding the concrete situations at hand and the terrain of conceptual elaboration). We thus present a study that is intentionally broad and, dare we say, purposely disorienting. This choice is only partly a question of writing style. Certainly, we try to convey a sense of the turbulence of contemporary capitalism. But we also suggest that a wide-ranging analysis offers insights and conclusions unavailable to studies that restrict themselves to a single locale or a closed set of sites. While we respect the lures of ethnographic immersion, we are wary of claims that the distinct forms of engagement it offers provide an exclusive or reliable index of analytical depth. Rigorous and probing analysis, we submit, can be generated in other ways.

In moving across sites, experiences, and processes, the giddying surface of our text searches for the multiple edges and frontiers along which contemporary capital expands. We aim to specify how this expansion displays a systemic logic that both exploits discontinuities between existing social differences and produces new forms of spatial and temporal heterogeneity. Our writing seeks not simply to claim solidarity with the many populations and struggles it encounters along the way, but also to ask what form such solidarity might take and how it might be meaningfully expressed in the current conjuncture. To this extent, we are not too invested in drawing parallels between the book's wide analytical remit and the itineraries of passengers who pass through Don Mueang Airport. Many of these travelers are, as Hirsh (2016, 5) points out, "nouveaux globalizes — new members of Asia's flying public, such as migrant workers, students, retirees, pilgrims, tourists, and traders from the Global South." In this case as in many of the others we study in this book, the differences between the lives of these populations and our own circumstances and positionality are manifest. Nonetheless, the problem of getting from A to B remains, and the operational logics governing the making and breaking of air routes apply, regardless of who occupies the seat on the next flight.

The sensory overload experienced standing before the world map at Don Mueang is complicated by the fact that some of the clocks have stopped. Different times are displayed for cities such as Frankfurt and Rome, which are in the same time zone. It is as if time has gone awry, and the neat demarcation of the world into uniform time zones has been consigned to a past moment of history. Although clocks around the world are still set against Greenwich Mean Time, the fractured moment of the present is not easily flattened onto a single cartographic surface. It is not only that the movement of time along scales not representable on the clock face weighs so heavily on our sense of the contemporary — whether it is the millisecond differences that provide arbitrage opportunities for high frequency financial traders or the slow geological time that underscores planetary existence itself. More important, the "disjunctive unity of present times" (Osborne 2013, 17) that underlies the global sense of contemporaneity cannot be separated from the growing heterogeneity and interconnectedness of global space.

Not accidentally do these spatial and temporal complexities come to a head in an airport, a space deliberately made to facilitate transfers and connections. Recent critical thought has struggled to give a name to such spaces of transit and circulation, whether they are fixed locations such as airports or container terminals, distributed nexuses of exchange such as financial markets, or networked spaces produced by communication technologies or transport infrastructures. The first-wave globalization theory in the 1990s located sites of this kind within a "space of flows" (Castells 1996) or described them as "non-places" (Augé 1995), seeking to define their specificity by building a contrast with the embedded sociality and plenitude of "places." With echoes of the classical sociological distinction between Gesellschaft and Gemeinschaft, this specification provided a rough conceptual vocabulary with which to begin an analysis of global space in the making. However, the tendency, particularly marked in the writings of Manuel Castells (1996, 416), to attribute to this "space of flows" an "ahistorical" or "timeless time" obscured the way in which these spaces occupied a historical present that was part of a longer trajectory of change and development. Formulations such as David Harvey's (1989) notion of "time-space compression" came closer to describing this condition. But it was ultimately difficult to distinguish such compression from earlier rearrangements of space and time — for instance, those facilitated by technologies such as the telegraph, railway, automobile, or airplane in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (Kern 1983). Harvey (2001a, 30) argued that contemporary globalization is the product of "distinctive processes of the production of space on the ground under capitalism." By contrast, many subsequent attempts to account for the current proliferation of global flows, such as the "mobilities" paradigm in sociology (Urry 2007) and arguments drawing on Foucault's (2007) concept of "governmentality," have become disconnected from accounts of the production, circulation, and exchange of capital.

This book combines the analysis of the spatial and temporal complexities of globalization with an analysis of capital's circulation and colonization of social life by exploring what we call the politics of operations. We focus in particular on three "sectors" that provide strategic points of entry for discerning and examining an operative logic whose effects on contemporary capitalism extend way beyond any "sectoral" boundary: extraction, logistics, and finance. In particular, we are interested in how the intersection of operations in these domains provides coordinates for an analysis of the changing circuits of contemporary capital and the dynamics of capitalism's transition, by which we mean the processes of change that carry capitalism toward an uncertain future. In the case of Don Mueang Airport, this intersection brings together the extraction of the fossil fuels that allow jet travel, the logistical organization of transport and human mobility, and the financial arrangements that underlie the "yield management" systems of low-cost air carriers. By conducting analyses that work through and across operations in these mutually implicated fields, we seek not only to investigate how capital produces its own politics but also to contribute to the imagination of a politics beyond capital.

The concept of operations is elucidated in chapter 2. At this stage, we want only to suggest that joining an analysis of the space and time of globalization to an account of capital's operations is important in a time of capitalist crisis. What we call operations of capital provide a thread that allows us to map both the mutations of the current crisis and capitalist attempts to move beyond it, often working within the space opened up by the crisis. There are two primary reasons for this. First, one of the most salient features of capitalist crisis is its geographical variegation, a factor often ignored in accounts that emphasize the financial moment of Wall Street's subprime crisis. Second, the structural features of such crisis require a rethinking of capital's circulation and its implications for political questions of space, labor, life, regulation, institutional coherence, sovereignty, and governance.

There is a growing sense that capitalism now, more than at any other time since the end of World War II, has entered a critical condition. The crisis of 2007–2008 has cemented a historic downturn that began with the end of postwar prosperity in the 1970s and, punctuated by spikes and troughs, acquired intensity as the world economy became more interconnected and globalized. Declining growth rates, deflation, rising levels of indebtedness, bailouts, labor precarity, and ever widening gaps in social and economic inequality are only the most obvious symptoms of this change. A peculiar temporal scrambling of crisis and recovery characterizes the current economic transition, such that a cyclical logic of boom and bust no longer seems to apply. Deep-lying structural factors guide the transformations at hand. Yet more is at stake than economic turmoil. A social and spatial disruption has crossed the processes of capitalist globalization, shattering geographical hierarchies. The faltering of US hegemony in the face of the rising BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) economies, "currency wars" and turmoil around the persistent global hegemony of the dollar, the reshuffling of geographies of development, novel articulations of nationalism and neoliberalism, and the emergence of new regionalisms and patterns of multilateralism are some of the features of this reorganization of the contemporary world. Within this turbulence, the need for a spatial perspective on current capitalist crisis and transition is manifest. New and emerging centers of accumulation have become sites of intense social struggle, as attested, for instance, by the insurgencies that have rocked Istanbul's Gezi Park, the streets of Rio di Janeiro, and Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi Airport. It has also become difficult to easily locate the "most advanced" tendencies of capitalist development, because systems of production and assembly have become globally dispersed and incorporated the negotiation of spatial, economic, and cultural differences as one of their most important internal features. Under these conditions, we need to go beyond the image of a smooth space of flows in the analysis of the global present. Only by identifying lines of antagonism crossing the production of global space can we begin to locate and politically analyze the cleavages and flash points around which these tensions and transitions unfold.

The identification of such lines of antagonism is no easy task. Territorial borders are no longer fully coincident with the borders of the nation-state, and the frontiers of capital expand and complicate our sense of geographical scale. We suggest that the Marxian concept of the "world market" provides an important analytical framework within which to track the changing relations between political borders and economic frontiers. This is not only because Marx's introduction of this concept posits a spatiality of capital that structurally exceeds the topographic space of the nation-state. It is also because Marx offers a critique of the capitalist mode of production that recognizes capital's need to continuously expand by constructing an abstract and global space for its movement. This extensive moment of capital's expansion is matched by an intensive reshaping of social life, which is submitted to the imperative of capitalist accumulation. With implications for the production of subjectivity and the theory of value, the concept of the world market can productively inform an analysis of the geographical disruption lying at the heart of contemporary global processes. In doing so, it can also register the ways in which capital "hits the ground" and shapes conditions of everyday life, always working in consonance or conflict with the active role of space and multifarious resistances in guiding and molding capital's operations. From this perspective, arguments about the relation between "territorialism" and capitalism, such as those articulated in world systems theory (see, e.g., Wallerstein 1974), are challenged and complicated. An emphasis on the nexus that links specific operations of capital to the wider networks of capitalism is a central feature of this book.

Our intention is not to belittle insights about uneven development, dependency, or the aftermath of colonialism derived from world systems theory. We recognize that Wallerstein (1985) and others have questioned the perspective that superimposes state borders over the spatial and temporal boundaries of economic systems. Such recognition, however, does not prevent us from finding the tendency of world systems theory to categorize economic spaces according to large abstractions such as core, periphery, and semi-periphery too rigid and insufficiently attuned to the "conflictual imaginary" sparked by "colonial difference" (Mignolo 2000, 57). Our focus in this book is on lines of antagonism that do not follow the established macro-divisions of international political economy, world systems theory, or development studies: core-periphery, North-South, or minority-majority world. We question the possibility of identifying global divisions of wealth and power according to established binaries or the scheme of three worlds: First, Second, and Third. Equally, we question models of the new international division of labor (see, e.g., Fröbel et al. 1980), which trace the shift of international production from more developed to less developed countries as a result of economic and logistical processes that allow different phases of production to be undertaken in different parts of the world. Nonetheless, we remain acutely aware of the analytical need to understand how patterns of power and hegemony cross the workings of the world market. This is a problematic raised in Robert W. Cox's (1987) writings on "world order," which identify the realm of "global civil society" as the battleground on which struggles for hegemony occur. Our approach contrasts this emphasis on global civil society, pointing instead to material practices of struggle that cross specific operations of capital. In this way, we test established nomenclatures of economic space against the background of the geographies of contemporary capitalism, investigating its development and crises with attention to the changing dynamics of politics and power.


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments  vii
Introduction  1
1. The Space and Time of Capitalist Crisis and Transition  17
2. Operations of Capital  55
3. Capital, State, Empire  94
4. Extraction, Logistics, Finance  133
5. Vistas of Struggle  168
6. The State of Capitalist Globalization  209
References  253
Index  287

What People are Saying About This

The Deadly Life of Logistics: Mapping Violence in Global Trade - Deborah Cowen

“Offering an ambitious lens through which to view the politics, temporalities, spaces, and struggles that constitute contemporary capitalism, Sandro Mezzadra and Brett Neilson creatively conceptualize the problems and possibilities that emerge out of the current moment's multiple forms of crisis. Their emphasis on capital as a set of relations has enormous stakes for how we understand the world and orient ourselves to the possibility of transformation. An important work, The Politics of Operations should be widely read and debated.”

Pharmocracy: Value, Politics, and Knowledge in Global Biomedicine - Kaushik Sunder Rajan

The Politics of Operations is a vital book in every sense. It is a lively and important account of the ways in which value materializes in the extractive, logistical, and financial operations of contemporary capital. Sandro Mezzadra and Brett Neilson provide us at once with analysis, diagnosis, and prescription. Grounded in solidarity with labor movements around the world, this book serves both as critique and as manifesto. Its provocative conclusions open up essential debates for praxis today.”

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