‘Logistics is capital’s own project of cognitive mapping’, Jasper Bernes argued a few years ago, 1 borrowing a concept coined by urban planner Kevin Lynch in 1960 and re-actualised by political theorist and critic Fredric Jameson in 1989.2 Indeed, to ‘organize [one’s] immediate surroundings perceptually’, and map one’s position cognitively, in a ‘mappable external world’ 3 is to manage logistics, namely trade, money, life. Last month, Amazon announced that it was hiring 100,000 US workers at minimum wage ($2 higher than usual), 4 while just a few days earlier those employed in the warehouses of the company in Italy went on strike to demand higher security in the face of Covid-19. 5 A week later, the same happened in New York, 6 whether initiated by the newly hired or those whose salary never rose. Regardless, the bulimic adjustment of workforce undertaken by the multinational company demonstrates that at this point in history the cognitive map of infrastructure for circulation and distribution when shaken or disturbed only redesigns itself with each new shake – not to mention the recent earthquake in Zagreb, ignored by most media this spring. 7
The last weeks have seen various suggestions of what such a cognitive map in the making may mean, economically, politically, socially. I will attempt to trace here the lines of distortion as it has appeared, not only on a mappable external world, but in the most obscure place of all, within each of us, as bio-borders. That is, liveness bordering autonomy and authority: a trembling threshold value which the living, quarantined self continuously performs as relative surplus to the nation’s absolutism. From this perspective, the cognitive map is a forced performance, the bio-borders operate at every moment we wash our hands (or forget to do so). The question thus arises, how may immanent cognitions other than those that Bernes refers to be possible during lockdown? Let me offer one example.
At the moment the autonomous left across Europe gathers via community radio stations. Through listening people assemble, despite the borders that today not only surround the nation, but each legal (or condemned as non-legal) body. Joining the sonic commons of these off-screen DIY endeavours, I cannot help but think about the way national radio in Sweden (Sveriges Radio) developed around a century ago: it was established primarily to teach the Swedish population about how to stay clean, healthy, and speak properly – many of the country’s minor languages and dialects were at risk. Today, the current imperative of ‘common cleanness’ (or as Mette Frederiksen, prime minister of Sweden’s neighbouring country Denmark, puts it ‘a sense of society’ [samfundssind]) 8 marks a time of new authoritarianism, but this time it is crowdsourced. Without jobs or working ‘from home’, we keep it up from within and between ourselves, while kids cry, friends collapse and lovers are closer than ever. Under a thin layer of alcogel – never properly dry before a new layer is applied – the Covid-19 litmus test clearly shows up the cracks in the ground we’re walking on. Be it in a state of lockdown or the necro-laissez-faire of herd immunity, what previously wasn’t transparent, now is becoming clearer.
A ‘counter-logistics’, Bernes explains, would be something that ‘employs the conceptual and technical equipment of the industry in order to identify and exploit bottlenecks’, allowing any possible blockade ‘a sense of where they stand within the flows of capital’. 9 It could be that we are all embodying that bottleneck right now, but how to map it from the inside if we don’t know where we’re at? In his essay ‘Anti-Capitalist Politics in the Time of COVID-19’, 10 David Harvey underscores that while viruses always have (and will) mutate, ‘the circumstances in which a mutation becomes life-threatening depend on human actions’. So, independent on the ungraspable state of the virus; it is still the invisibility of the ‘hand’, as economist Adam Smith defined the free market in the mid-eighteenth century, on which we need to focus. Today though, the invisible hand is not only an absent mechanism governing surplus, but also the hand of each and every worker active at Amazon, in hospitals and in supermarkets, or quarantined yet undertaking unpaid labour 24/7. So, what kind of surplus liveness is it that the Covid-19 factory implies? The question brings us back to the old problem of logistics: it is not meant to be graspable. Or, again, as Bernes puts it: ‘One cannot imagine seizing that which one cannot visualise, and inside of which one’s place remains uncertain.’ 11 Those words indeed apply to the position of so many of us right now, managing our own captivation and staying away from a structure that all of us are embodying but which we cannot properly see – taking care of a nation that otherwise never cares about us. In her book Contract and Contagion: From Biopolitics to Oikonomia (2012), political theorist Angela Mitropoulos writes, ‘The classical premise of self-management is property in one’s self; situated as a question of temporal persistence, it becomes a matter of genealogy, the legitimate and unadulterated transfer of both property and properties (construed as attributes)’. 12
Today, the property of one’s own self is floating in a sea of corporations and trade agreements between nations, a body of water that in a recent video message from Madonna transformed into a luxurious bubble bath; from the tub she almost self-parodically insists that ‘viruses don’t discriminate’. 13 Needless to say, those words only re-enforce the class differences that Covid-19 underscores worldwide. Simultaneously, Britney Spears counters with a self-made Instagram video, in which she reminds her followers to pick up diapers for their friends’ kids, a suggestion seemingly aligned with the recent growing movement of redistributed reproductive labour, care and wealth. 14 But there is more to it: Britney then offers to help everyone and anyone, they just need to send her a ‘dm’ (direct message), proving the mécénat characteristics of the influencer and simultaneously marking the moment when, as Harvey properly points out, all ‘“event based” forms of experiential consumerism’ are closed down and exchanged by the performance of abstract labour time – time which is materialised into a relative surplus value through the screens in front of which the unemployed sit, dm-ing Britney and waiting for an answer; the problem is that she is the only one who is being paid for it.
Indeed, while bodies are dispersed, live mediation of social interaction is returning with a slam. From phone and video calls – instead of incessant chats and comment threads – to live screenings of artistic as well as social performances in bedrooms, kitchens, or empty black boxes, lecture halls, or (if legally possible) public spaces. Without people, all locations are homogenised into vacant containers of a collapsing event management, while the urge to produce surplus life grows larger than ever. Through the screen presence is transferred as commodity in an exhausted trade of live actions, performed as much by the barista off duty as by the ‘home office’ employee, all in all taking the labour of life to another level. In between the web of meetings and calls aesthetic experiences are mass produced in single format, especially by artists who don’t know when they will next be paid. Influencing the institutions who refuse to secure their living, they perform their authorship instead of their art. In fact, this logic is not much different to the normal state in which artistic labour is assumed to occur, while the final presentation (along with the living artist) is actually refunding the production of the work. So, when such enactments of ends are lost, how to transform the means to what seems at least to be an end? This question likely exceeds the arts and can be applied to all digital endeavours in Covid times, when workers sell the last thing they might just have in unpaid quarantine: themselves. This development disables many capacities, knowledge and, not at least, infrastructure. The last of which must be discussed in perspective, beyond the segregation of the workforce. While Germany and the Netherlands prepare subventions for the arts, the larger infrastructure that upholds it is ignored, including cleaners, technicians, etc. The class difference between professions couldn’t be starker, but hopefully it may spark a rethinking of wages, social security and care, not as an individual end but as a means for a collective prospect. Simultaneously, it catalyses the question of what kind of institution the arts may reside in or disappear into, from now on.
Like many other writers of the somewhat left, Harvey considers the blockade that a possible pandemic might imply for the dominating system of circulation as dependent ‘heavily on how long the disruption might last and spread’. Turning to Marx, he further underlines that ‘devaluation does not occur because commodities cannot be sold but because they cannot be sold in time’. 15 Today we see the same devaluation clearer than ever amongst workers too. As a consequence, risk management of time becomes a highly valued business. In an earlier essay on the privatisation of detention centres in Australia, Mitropoulos suggests a concept that may be useful for those of us who are privileged enough not to be in detention as such. She calls it ‘the archipelago of risk’, borrowing from Michel Foucault’s concept of the ‘carceral archipelago’, which he describes in Surveiller et Punir (1973) as the modular system of continuous containment. But while Foucault referred to the containment of the defined, each of us today embody a potential risk to be subjected to such definitions and the modules have been transformed into our homes. And as Mitropoulos states, this carceral archipelago serves as an ‘index of how systems of confinement and risk analytics have changed’. 16 Such neoliberal detention management ‘bundled together the legal exceptionalism of administrative detention with the history of quarantine laws and assumptions, along with a more recent emphasis on national security doctrines of pre-emption’,17 which also applies to Covid-19.
Mitropoulos, like others, regards outsourcing as the main mechanism in this development, something which has ‘enhanced the risk-shifting and profit-generating capacities of systems […] of which highly-charged, racialised constructions of undocumented migration and pre-emptive detention serve as powerful conduits’.18 This brings us back to the bio-borders that each of us, involuntarily or not, embody. As an infrastructure of risk analytics, these borders are inherent to such speculation. If we want to develop a non-nationalist approach to risk, i.e. what we are facing today, we will need to de-naturalise the borders that upheld its continuum, as Mitropoulos argues. 19 This brings us back to logistics, or ‘capitalism’s pharmakon’, as Bernes calls it, an ‘absolute surplus value masquerading as relative surplus value. The use-value of logistics, for capital, is exploitation in its rawest form’ 20 – experienced by any potential labour-performing capacity in captivation.
This brings us to the question of what the use of quarantine actually is. Harvey reminds us that ‘the longer it goes on, the more the devaluation, including of the labor force’, which most probably will manifest if countries ‘open up’ again, enforcing alienation to keep the production running. And this brings us to the core of the trembling state of globalisation as we are now experiencing it: without vast differences in wage ‘most supply-chains would become both wasteful and unnecessary’, Bernes again argues. Nationalising production also implies the nationalisation of such differences, which indeed risks amplifying class differences, just like how we are already witnessing the various consequences that the lockdown has on a segregated population. One example is how the exploitation of reproductive labour (or may I call it, ‘reproductive repression’) has taken another round during Covid-19. Staying healthy, workers gain the function as ends and not means of labour: we embody the GNP. Or, should we say GNH (Gross National Health)? A speculative number making sure that the citizens remain strong enough to keep on working, turning the reproductive machine towards themselves, looping individualism harsher than ever. This is not a new calculation, rather is it as old as the history of logistics, such as transporting living labour across the Atlantic. The twenty-first century outsourced version of this is masked, however, valorising the forced embodiment of speculative ends as prospective means, collapsing the border and the being, at work.
‘There is political value in the quarantine for those who implicitly believe biological-racial purity is a condition of health’, Mitropoulos writes, and she argues that, ‘there is also financial value in substituting a social approach to health and illness with a selective, nationalist model conducive to the development of patented treatments and private health insurance’. 21 Today’s nationalistic and crowdsourced eugenics against the infective ‘other’, who is also ourselves, indeed functions like an accelerated reproduction of the floating individual, enacted in the struggle to stay well not for one’s own sake, but for the surrounding guaranty of the body-borders, the other lives around us. In this interior multitude, millions of people struggle to keep the body of their nation in statistical shape. And yet, any such upholding includes the loosening of its parts, that is, of the workers that still need to risk their health, and who only prove to function as means and not ends of the GNH.
So, we stay wealthy to keep the wealth ours, although it has never been. In Sweden as in China, healthcare is worn to the bone from working in overfull hospitals. One such hospital, in the most worn out region of them all, Stockholm, was recently sold to a private company owned by the country’s richest family. 22 Interestingly enough this hospital is located in a wealthy part of the city and it also specialises in the care for the elderly, a proved ‘risk group’. As if that wasn’t enough, a few days earlier, the Swedish state initiated monthly economic support to Volvo, after which the company divvied the surplus amongst its shareholders. 23 This ‘Swedish model’ is a very clear example of how Covid-profit grows fast, accelerating the country’s tradition of subvention for sports and contracted workers – costly activities to assure a minimum level of reproduction and as compensation for otherwise unhealthy working conditions. During Covid-19 these ‘healthy’ wages are replaced by force majeure, when non-contracted workers in the public sector and in the private arena are the first to lose paid hours. Who is to calculate the risk of such a rapid shift in the distribution of material resources? To make the risk ours instead of enacting it, we need to rethink the way in which humankind as both means and ends of production might actually come to an end. Namely, that the extraction of the workforce to reproduce more speculative production is sabotaged by its own means. By us.