More from Less

Brett Neilson and Ned Rossiter

Known in Chile as los hombres verdes, the green men of Ventanas are former copper smelter workers whose skin is scarred with green lesions produced by chemical reactions. Located some sixty kilometres north of the port of Valparaíso, Ventanas has been declared una zona de sacrificio due to pollution from heavy industry. The area’s general toxicity mirrors the purity of its copper exports, which travel primarily to China. Copper is undoubtedly a form of elemental media, essential to today’s digital capitalism and logistical technologies. Yet the reputed purity of the copper refined at Ventanas cannot fix the price of this commodity, which rather follows the fluctuations of trading on metal exchange markets. In the face of this financial uncertainty, data and logistics have emerged as the last hope to squeeze more from less in the Chilean copper industry, recasting the heroic role of the miner in a country ‘married’ to this metal. Wracked by strikes in the mining and the port sectors, Chile has become a laboratory for a new cycle of struggles, much as it was for twenty years a testbed of neoliberalism. Under these conditions, the Logistical Worlds research shifted to Latin America.

Our previous research in Greece and India focused on shipping ports and their hinterlands. Of particular interest was the role of infrastructure, software and labour as well as the connection of these facilities to China’s international logistical expansion. The port of Piraeus, now majority owned by Chinese state-owned enterprise Cosco Shipping, is one of the world’s fastest growing container facilities and renowned as the ‘dragon’s head’ of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). By contrast, the port of Kolkata is an unavoidable choke point in the establishment of logistical routes between India and China. Although it is one of the few locations on BRI maps where land and sea routes meet, the challenges in channelling logistical flows through this former outpost of British imperial power are multiple: geographical, geopolitical, financial and environmental. In the case of Valparaíso port, our initial point of interest in Chile, the situation regarding China is different. Despite China’s prominence as the port’s first export partner and the Chilean government’s signing of a BRI cooperation agreement in 2018, plans for expansion at Valparaíso port have stalled. This predicament led us to shift our attention to the copper supply line and the wider logistical systems that support it.

Follow the software has been a credo of the Logistical Worlds research. Rather than investigating the supply chain for the production, distribution and consumption of a particular commodity or following patterns of finance, we have preferred to track the role of software in controlling labour and the logistical movement of goods. A special interest has been the interoperability of software systems and especially situations where this breaks down. Our empirical research has sought to test the hypothesis that such situations correspond to instances of social struggle, cultural conflict, political unrest and technical inoperability. Our interest in Chilean copper production was not a departure from this approach. Rather than seeking to understand the addition of value at each step of the production chain, we focused on the role of data analytics and algorithmic governance in efforts to make extraction, refinement and transport processes more efficient. Apart from taking us to sites such as the Andina mine and the Ventanas smelter, both run by the Chilean state-owned company CODELCO, the research also involved meetings with data scientists, visits to ports and other logistical facilities, inspections of data centre and cable landing sites, and even investigations into concurrent lithium mining practices in the Atacama desert.

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On the face of it, each of these sites and the facilities and infrastructures special to them are undoubtedly distinct. This goes all the way down to the bodies of labour and across to tools, systems and operations to say nothing of geographical features and social conditions. The quest for interoperability between these different kinds of elements and agents stretches back to the utopian ‘cybernetic socialism’ (Medina) trialled briefly during the Allende era and is more generally considered a core feature of global capitalism organized through the purview of logistics. That computational architectures designed for managing economy and society can calibrate to radically different political values and ideologies suggests their emergence and implementation do not join capital to state in straightforward ways. How is it possible to reconcile methodologically and analytically systems and infrastructures whose logistical coordination seems at once unhitched from social contingencies and vital to the articulation of labour and life? This was among the guiding questions that motivated our research in Chile and the Logistical Worlds project more broadly.

Ports are connected to intermodal terminals by rail and road, copper is mined and trafficked to smelters for processing, and near real-time computational systems remotely measure mining operations deep underground. Yet the switch between extraction economies and optimization economies (Halpern) is highly variable and frequently inconsistent in terms of industry sectors, institutional settings and labour regimes. Indeed, optimization and efficiency gains through techniques such as computational modelling and simulation of work environments and data analytics enabled by smart devices seemed, to us at least, very much in a testing phase. The exertion of labour appears in no hurry to retire for productivity dreams attributed to machines.

Today, protestors and civilians maintain a popular revolt. They are impatient and fed up with a government divorced from ensuring a redistribution of wealth to address issues of social inequality and financial hardship. These disparities stem in part from years of a privatization agenda, which extended to water supply, for instance, although never fully to the copper mining sector, as CODELCO’s continued presence attests. We look back to the time of our collective research in Chile and register this period around 2014–17 as one of transition. While evidence of urban gentrification was clearly apparent in parts of Santiago and the heritage section of Valparaíso on the hill above the old finance district and port area, these spaces were also scenes of social struggle and political protest. For instance, barricades blocked the entrance of various privatized universities. Occasionally we would run into confrontations between protestors and authorities, finding ourselves caught in clouds of teargas. Significantly, a logistical matter – the fair rise on the Santiago metro – sparked the popular insurgency of 2019/2020. Without claiming direct influence between the logistical focus of our research and the insurrection that was to follow, it is no secret that labour struggles in transport and mining, which would join with student revolt and Indigenous protest, were crucial to the subsequent social explosion.

We might say that the drive to optimize and squeeze more from less stretched working and social lives to the breaking point. Incomplete and unevenly played out across economic sectors, the logistical imperative to optimize requires not only data but also a vast reservoir of social cooperation that at once generates data and becomes an object of governance based on analysis of such data. Whether in the introduction of la nombrada electronica in Valparaíso port, which has wrested a twentieth century system of labour provision away from trade union control, or efforts to streamline the copper supply chain in the face of shifting commodity prices and Chinese stockpiling practices, logistics continues to mess with labour processes and relations. Yet the understanding of logistics that animates the Logistical Worlds project extends beyond the business sector of logistics to encompass a mode of power that alters relations between economy and politics. In questioning the distinction between social institutions and material infrastructures, logistics changes and offsets the balance of state and capital. It enacts forms of capture as much as circulation and feeds off discrepancies and contingencies through constant feats of coordination.

Although it is too much to claim that Chile’s testbed neoliberalism gave rise to this kind of logistical power, it is indisputable that the political and economic changes that swept the country from the 1970s derive from more than an application of doctrines belted out by Mount Pelerin ideologues or Chicago boys. For instance, the shift from a CEPAL-style import substation economy to an export economy based on reprimarization did not rest only on neoliberal scripts trucked in from Europe and North America (where importantly they had not yet achieved policy runs). The selective intrusion of a neoliberal regime into Chile also required low labour costs, regional developmental strategies, state apparatuses prepared to carve out space for such extractive activities, and the implementation of logistical techniques and technologies favourable to economic restructuring that moved through transnational markets rather than national settlements. Entangled with the dispossession of Indigenous and peasant populations, neocolonial debt relations and difficulties in reproducing labour power according to the norm of the ‘free’ wage, the extractive logic of these transformations presages many aspects of contemporary data economies, at least in relation to the dependence of capital on its multiple outsides and changing relations between profits and rents.

While the theorization of neoliberalism as a political project certainly applies, these circumstances stretch the capacity of the idioms of biopolitics and population management to explain the changes at hand. The emphasis on resource extraction requires not only the creation of environments or milieux that stretch capabilities of control and coordination beyond the realm of human vitality but also the testing of seemingly natural limits in the search for access to finite materials that is at once more calibrated and more sweeping. The application of logistical techniques of optimization to such extractive activities mobilizes computational routines that extend calculability beyond probability into patterns of correlation and prediction that respond to a desire for more environmentally pervasive practices of accumulation and valorization. Key here is the shift from environment as a natural resource ripe for plunder to environment as a frontier system of measure able to cut and dice speculation and contingency across a data enhanced spectrum of territory. Little wonder that the politics of resistance to estratavismo in Latin America has never stopped at the protection of human lives and livelihoods.

The imaginary of China as a new global hegemon is powerful, no less in Chile where a history of dependency on foreign investment has coupled with structural adjustment regimes that introduced neoliberal modes of economic governance and political dictatorship. However, as scholars such as Thomas Narins argue, the imaginary of Chinese foreign direct investment (FDI) in Chile and Latin America more broadly outstrips the actual increase in recent years. If FDI is one traditional measure by which economic historians and global development scholars ascertain the dynamic and extent of core-periphery relations on global scales, the role of transport and communication infrastructures coupled with financial markets complicates the analysis insofar as extraction economies may be governed at a distance. Transmission and transport always assume a capacity to send signals of control and market power across space and time. Certainly, it is the case that contemporary Latin America is populated by a diversity of economic actors, unsettling the colonial era that saw European powers divide territory along country borders and follow principles of non-interference.

While Chinese state-owned enterprises such as China MinMetals purchase copper from Chile, their investments in this sector are comparatively smaller than those made by US or EU based firms. Nonetheless, it would be a mistake to underestimate the power of imaginaries to mobilize populations in political ways. The recognition of such power does not imply a direct connection between Chile’s signing of the BRI cooperation agreement with China and the precipitation of social unrest, which seemed initially prompted by the government’s increase in subway fares. A more powerful force, similar to what we see in Hong Kong, is the accumulation of years of struggle wrought by the commodification of daily life and exhaustion with neoliberal policies and their technologies of exclusion. To understand this dynamic as separate from the logistical commerce between Chile and China, however, is to overlook how instruments of financialization condition domestic consumption in China and manipulate trade patterns of commodities such as copper, hoarded in warehouses in Qingdao and tradeable on metal exchanges. In other words, the rise of popular politics and rejection of successive years of neoliberal policy programs in Chile cannot be fully divorced from the wider meshing of speculation and material exchange in which China is increasingly a central player. That Chile’s governmental pursuit of a neoliberal agenda at all costs has met with popular revolt has not motivated our brief analysis here, no matter that our political sensibilities might align with such interventions. Rather, we simply note that techniques and apparatuses of managing social and economic life subsist in a paradigm of depletion that sees the extraction of more from less.