Distraction Free Reading

Infrastructure as New Life?

Aerial view of freight village Port of Nüremberg, Germany, hosting 260 companies and 5500 employees. Industrial products travel about 5000 miles to get there from China’s Port of Chongqing, another freight village. CC-BY-SA 3.0.

Today, logistics as the science and industry of cross-border transportation of mainly industrial products drives “revolutions” from energy to retail. As most world economies continue to accelerate their involvement with economic globalization, logistics continue to take over local economies in many regions around the world.

Paradoxically, many states and sovereigns around the world are also looking (back) to logistics infrastructure as a panacea to curb the half-century-long devastating effects of deregulation of trade, finance and services on nation-state-centric political economies. One can observe this move both in countries of North America and Europe, where the post-1950s deterioration of public infrastructures has long been a problem. The Right’s recognition of this deterioration was at least partly responsible for carrying it into power, for example, in the U.S., although the Left has also occasionally touted this kind of infrastructure politics. In places like China, or Turkey, a country with which I am more familiar, economic development based on the infrastructure, transport, and construction sectors is much newer. This move toward infrastructure, though, at the same time may reflect the end of sovereign state authority, at least as we know it, and the beginning of a new kind of statecraft.

What intrigues me about these moves is their role in the future-present condition of hypercapitalism, wherein infrastructure not only serves, but may shape, collective life as in radical new ways. In a recent essay, the landscape architect and urban planner Pierre Bélanger (2016) asks: “Is infrastructure landscape? That is, can we consider non-biologic, non-dynamic, and non-adaptive material of infrastructure as a constructed landscape and lived experience?” Here, I want to explore this question by looking at the generative infrastructures of hypercapitalism. In particular, I am interested in the growing number of logistics villages, otherwise known as dry ports, inland ports, or freight villages, around the world, particularly in Turkey. Equipped with smart technologies, these infrastructures are designed to move the products of human-machine labor piece by piece across vast geographies. Logistics villages celebrate landscape as infrastructure for global capitalism in crisis. But can infrastructure “supplement,” in a Derridean sense, collective forms of life, be they economic, political, social, and cultural?

Turkey, the World’s New Entrepôt

Faced with stagnant industrial growth, Turkish leaders now dream of cashing in on the hypercapitalist anxieties that brew in their region.

The Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan wants to use the power of his country’s geography to turn it into energy and logistics hub, unprecedented in modern Turkish history. To become a logistics hub, Turkish politicians argue, requires building as many lines of high-speed motor and railways as possible, and connecting these to numerous sea- and inland ports, gigantic warehouses and entrepôts.

Transforming the Turkish territory into a logistics hub will purportedly make Turkey a champion in supply (tedarik), transit (transit), consumption (tüketim)—“3Ts” in the president’s formulation. The government wishes particularly to attract the attention of global logistics giants, giving state guarantees and incentives to them in the form of cheap labor and land, no taxation and less regulation. Together, they try to convince the world that transport corridors for westbound global trade need to go through Turkey, itself a sizable market. In earlier pieces, I have talked about the infrastructural hype that Turkey is currently experiencing with regard to its government’s ambition to become an energy hub, despite the fact that the land lacks indigenous energy sources. I’ve argued that the Turkish state under the current rule of President Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party is becoming an infrastructural state (see Firat 2016 and n.d.). Clearly, Turkey’s plans for becoming a logistics hub have far-reaching targets.

Leaders of other countries such as India, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Russia and Greece, through whose territory Chinese products are likely to move, share the Turkish ambitions of transforming their territories into logistics hubs. While the Turkish rulers’ vision per se is not novel, their approach may be. Their hopes to turn Turkey into a logistics hub evoke strange feelings of colonization among the concerned and affected populations. They feel that their rulers carve out territory with urgency and callous disregard, as if their own country’s topography and peoples are alien to them. In this moment, the hypercapitalists in Turkey are retooling the age-old militarized idea of how to bring together state (Mann 1984), logistics (Cowen 2014), and infrastructure (Carse 2017).

A Gigantic Logistics Village

The most recent incarnation of Turkey’s becoming a logistics hub finds its materiality in intermodal logistics centers and logistics villages (lojistik köy, in Turkish). There are currently about twenty-one logistics centers in operation, under construction, or being planned, all of which require compulsory and locally contentious land expropriations.

The logistics centers and associated freight villages represent a relatively recent form of “zoning” (Easterling 2014) compared to other “zoning technologies” and “spaces of exception” (Ong 2006). Once built, they are to serve as smart nodes of intermodal transportation for westbound Chinese manufactured goods, as they travel through the China-initiated New Silk Road and One-Belt-One-Road before crossing Turkish land, sea and sky through numerous Turkish logistics centers, on their way to diverse markets. State and private advocates of this logistics program argue that these zones will boost local economies as much as they will contribute to Turkey’s national economy and the country’s becoming a key global player in world trade.

One-fifth the size of its German counterpart, the largest logistics village in Turkey is currently under construction, with a circa USD$50 million budget, largely financed (80%) by the European Union. Once built, it will employ between two to three thousand workers. Needless to say, the majority of them will work as order pickers, drivers and warehouse managers. White-collar jobs such as logistics analysts, logistics coordinators, and transportation managers will make up a fraction of jobs available elsewhere in the logistics village, in particular at logistics companies that will set up shop in the village. Essentially, these workers will be the village’s clients, whose logistical and “social” needs the new settlement is to serve.

Arguably, this new “village” has literally no ambition of becoming an urban center, or a city in its modern sense. Its goal is purely functional: to serve global economies. Propped up by greater automation, one may not immediately see how operating a warehouse or a crane will boost local economies wherever new logistics villages are located (see Sekula and Burch 2010).

The irony in all this is that Turkish society spent a good part of the previous century in a clash between the “city” and the “village.” Their modernist leaders promised many generations of great leaps forward in wholesale industrialization and urbanization of their country. Today, the promises are still there, but the goals seem to be reversed. The dynamic presence of global trade objects crisscrossing Turkish territory from one logistics village to another may, in the short run, help Turkish politicians convert their potential “infrastructural power” into “political power” (Neilson 2012:329). But on which kind of a polis and polity this political power will be exercised remains unknown.

Some analysts see a potential in logistics to subvert the capitalist system, arguing (à la Tim Mitchell’s Carbon Democracy) that “logistics is the strength and the weakness of capitalism at the same time” (Cuppini, Frapporti and Pirone 2015:131). Others speculate that these zones—whether they share an open or enclavist form, might breed alternative forms of urbanism (Easterling 2014).

For my part, I’m afraid that the new logistics hype in and around Turkey could equally turn its human and material geography into a “dead zone” of hypercapitalism, especially if the country’s rulers would choose to use their newly attained logistical-political power to strip the land and its people from their few remaining political rights.

References

Bélanger, Pierre. 2016. “Is Landscape Infrastructure?” In Is landscape…? Essays On the Identity of Landscape, edited by Gareth Dohorty and Charles Waldheim, 190-227. London and New York: Routledge.

Carse, Ashley. 2017. “Keyword: Infrastructure – How a Humble French Engineering Term Shaped the Modern World.” In Infrastructures and Social Complexity: A Companion, edited by Penny Harvey, Casper Bruun Jensen, and Atsuro Morita, 27-39. London and New York: Routledge.

Cowen, Deborah. 2014. The Deadly Life of Logistics: Mapping Violence in Global Trade. Minnesota; University of Minnesota Press.

Cuppini, Niccolò, Mattia Frapporti, and Maurilio Pirone. 2015. “Logistics Struggles in the Po Valley Region: Territorial Transformations and Processes of Antagonistic Subjectivation.” The South Atlantic Quarterly 114(1): 119-134. doi 10.1215/00382876-2831323.

Easterling, Keller. 2014. Extrastatecraft: The Power of Infrastructure Space. London and New York: Verso.

Firat, Bilge. 2016. “‘The Most Eastern of the West, the Most Western of the East’: Energy-Transport Infrastructures and Regional Politics of the Periphery in Turkey.” Economic Anthropology 3: 81-93. doi/10.1002/sea2.12046.

Firat, Bilge. n.d. “Carving Turkey: Energy Production, Land Appropriation and the New Turkish Infrastructural State.” Unpublished manuscript.

Mann, Michael. 1984. “The Autonomous Power of the State.” Archives européenes de sociologie 25:185-213.

Mitchell, Timothy. 2011. Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil. London: Verso.

Neilson, Brett. 2012. “Five theses on understanding logistics as power.” Distinktion: Scandinavian Journal of Social Theory 13(3: 323–34.

Ong, Aihwa. 2006. Neoliberalism as Exception: Mutations in Citizenship and Sovereignty. Durham: Duke University Press.

Sekula, Allan and Noel Burch. 2010. The Forgotten Space. Icarus Films.

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