Sabrina Apicella’s Response to Bologna Research Group

Response to MOBILIZING BORDERS: RESHAPING BOLOGNA’S TERRITORY THROUGH MIGRANTS STRUGGLES by the Bologna research group: Niccolò Cuppini, Mattia Frapporti, Floriano Milesi, Alberto de Nicola, and Maurilio Pirone

By Sabrina Apicella1

Talks on logistics normally evoke images from military or business processes of efficient and profitable management of flows from physical or immaterial commodities such as food, ideas, weapons or energy, from a place A to B. But also they become increasingly prominent in debates on contemporary capitalism and globalization in disciplines like social and political sciences and anthropology (see work by Sandro Mezzadra and Brett Neilson, Ned Rossiter or Anna Tsing). Here, logistics seems to offer an analytic for understanding spatial processes of globalization, mobilities at various scales and at the same time teach us about subjectivation. Nevertheless, research on concrete questions around and in concrete fields of logistics are rare. The research presented by Cuppini, Frapporti, Milesi, de Nicola, and Pirone presents an exception and we can hope to hear more from them in future.

Allow me to begin a little further back. During the summer school “Teaching the Crisis” (2013) the Bologna research group, which consisted of many of the same researchers, held a talk on how logistics point to new geographies of capital accumulation, migration and mobilities, which criss-cross nation-state territories2. The group traced the development of the Northern Italian Po Valley became a logistical hub. Historically, cooperative businesses, originally established to dismantle hierarchies within companies, became a motor for the rise of logistics in that region. The analysis followed up with how today the cooperative model has turned against the mainly migrant workers both retracting labor rights and depressing wages, while the economical importance of logistics continues to increase.

An exposition of the struggles of migrant workers in the logistics sector during the last years concluded their presentation, pointing to differentiated working conditions and subjectivities amongst the migrants, but also to their desire for better working conditions, infused with echoes of the Arab Spring uprisings in northern Africa. For the summer school “Expanding the Margins” (2014) the authors followed up on their research on migrant struggles in logistics. This led to several reflections on their previous research and to further investigations, including reflections on the history of migration in Italy, the biographical narrations of those that where part of the struggles, and the impact of logistics on the post-Fordist urban space. The group presented empirical data showing how the struggles around working conditions transformed and expanded to the city of Bologna and created new alliances and movements around living conditions in Bologna, especially around the issue of housing. They also linked their findings with an Italian leftist debate on ‘social unionism’, which intends to connect social movements with workers struggles, thus including very different subjects, going beyond the sphere of work and classical forms of strikes, and mixing up with protests against austerity and for commons3.

My own research on strikes at the German Amazon warehouses points to similar questions and the presentation pushed my thinking beyond the above cited, common understanding of logistics but also beyond the area of workers struggles. One question that arose after the presentation, posed first by the summer school faculty member Gregory Feldman, was: what concepts could help to grasp what is outside the struggles, as the conditions for and as relating to them? Or in other words: how far does the power reach of those struggles we learned about? This question, in other words, raises the issue of a debate over our conception of struggles.

But let me discuss now an approach to logistics that includes theoretical assumptions by the authors, giving weight to yet another dimension of logistics, the one of everyday life. This might help us to understand the conditions for social unionism.

It is remarkable how logistics reach life not only through peoples work in processes of production and distribution, but also into (individual) reproduction. The ground for this is how , through infrastructure (as an expression of social relations), logistics become and reproduce the condition for every day life. This argument becomes obvious in the area of consumption, where in companies as Amazon the precarity of the employees meets online retail based on a post-Fordist, logistical mobility. While in online retail labour becomes totally taylorized, the services, the “shopping experience”, adapts flexibly to the costumer’s life – it has to be quick, cheap, and guarantee access to whatever you search for; orders can be placed from anywhere, and the product will be sent to everywhere. This is quite revealing with respect to post-Fordist lifestyles. We are not only witnessing the amazing growth of such companies because they attend to this needs (and in a highly profitable way for the company); but also how we as subjects become both increasingly dependent on and increasingly important for logistics. That this lifestyle is expansive and that it has the tendency to adapt to very individual needs including not least those of marginalized persons also became clear in Ralph Litzinger’s comment in later discussion: the Chinese online retailer Alibaba recently addressed internal Chinese migrants as costumers. We can moreover witness the expansion of logistics in inner cities (at least in the so-called industrial states) where we see and hear more and more delivery cars, while classical retail warehouses close and slowly disappear. The impact on rural zones is still unexplored, even if companies like Amazon are not located in urban spaces. Lifestyle as an object of study is no black box, but it has been discussed intensively within cultural studies, by Lefebvre and others. I propose to give it attention again:

  1. Research on lifestyle has the potential to include precarious working conditions and struggles relating them to reproduction – but we have to push the discussion beyond its tendency to only consider consumption.
  2. Research on logistical lifestyle could provide a better understanding of how logistics matter in contemporary capitalism and to explain its qualitative significance today,delineating from its historical importance for military, trade, colonialism or earlier industrialization.
  3. Focusing on logistics as a condition for daily life and also for the housing struggles described by the Bologna group helps to understand different forms of subjectificationinvolved: this could be productive when thinking through questions of social reproduction, precarious, flexible and mobile lifestyles, austerity or acceleration. It will become clear that logistical lifestyle entails also a moment of desire and emancipatory interest, involving contradictions that occur in the conflictual space between heteronomy and autonomy. This discussion, extending the presentation, invites us to translate our findings to political discussions around commons and social unionism, and to continue the discussion over how we might research logistics and how we understand terms such as migration or gender in both their moments of inertia and their shifting significances. If we accept the last point, we will have to examine the limits on the one hand, and possibilities and powers of movements and subjects in struggle on the other – our research has to include both.

Show 3 footnotes

  1. With special consideration to Kelly Mulvaney for the linguistic revision and Niccolò Cuppini and Maurilio Pirone for their valuable comments.
  2. See research paper by Floriano Milesi, Mattia Frapporti, Niccolò Cuppini, Maurilio Pirone and Luca Padova. “Logistics and crisis: The supply chain system in the Po valley region”,
  3. Michael Hardt (2014): Social Unionism. On: