Logistical Worlds: Territorial Governance in Piraeus and the New Silk Road

Brett Neilson and Ned Rossiter

Our previous collective research project, Transit Labour (2009-2012), investigated circuits of labour and logistical operations in Shanghai, Kolkata and Sydney. Transit Labour traced the informality of e-waste industries and the political economy of standards in printed circuit board manufacturing in China. An extensive period of field work, site visits and archival research made clear how the rise of ‘New Towns’ supporting the IT sector in Kolkata was made possible by land zoning policies that resulted in the seizure of land from peasants, which we understood as a process of primitive accumulation. In Sydney our research focused on labour in regimes of governance related to shipping container loading and unloading times, transport routes, warehousing and inter-modal terminals. We saw how these primary components of a logistical city present a model of space, time, labour and economy whose dynamics register in ways distinct from the global city of finance capital and the industrial city of factories. Peripheries become primary spaces of coordination and control. Global infrastructural and software standards stitch spaces, labour and operational procedures together across diverse geographical scales and modalities of time.

The publication of this pamphlet signals the beginning of a new program of collective research that extends our interest in logistical operations along global lines of influence and connection marked by Chinese infrastructural expansion. Dubbed Logistical Worlds: Infrastructure, Software, Labour (2013-2016), this project moves between Athens, Kolkata and Valparáiso, investigating regimes of circulation and containment that connect China’s manufacturing industries to different corners of the world. Although these regimes are central to our interest, logistics applies not merely to circulation or transport, which is to say that it troubles the heuristic division between production and distribution. This is particularly evident in processes of global production where the assembly of goods across distant sites means that objects and knowledge must continually travel between locations. The reduction of transport costs through the introduction of efficient logistical systems has been an important factor in encouraging the relocation of industrial facilities to sites where the cost of labour is cheaper. Logistics has thus contributed to the production of an increasingly heterogeneous arrangement of global space and time.

One sign of this is the proliferation of special economic zones, concessions, industrial parks, transport hubs and other dedicated spaces, which have provided a new geography for organizing production, attracting investment and regulating the supply of labour. But logistics is something more than a system for searching out and connecting diverse firms and labour forces on the basis of cost or other parameters. Logistics also actively produces environments and subjectivities, including those of workers and labour forces, through techniques of measure, coordination and optimization. This is to say it is not simply a socio-technical system that adapts to existing economic and material conditions. As Brian Larkin writes of infrastructures more generally, they ‘also exist as forms separate from their purely technical functioning’ and need to be analysed for their aesthetic and semiotic qualities. As such, they ‘address and constitute subjects’ and show ‘how the political can be constituted through different means’. Understood in this way, logistics must be seen as a set of practices that make worlds.

We begin the second phase of this research with an interest in how infrastructure and software combine as technologies of governance that coordinate and control logistical operations and labour practices situated in select sites along the China-centred trade network known as the New Silk Road. Recalling the historical Silk Road of trade and cultural transmission that connected Asia to Europe, the geostrategic concept of the New Silk Road has emerged to register the logistical measures already being put in place by commercial entities and policy makers to meet the expected changes as Asia overtakes Europe as the world’s largest trading region. At stake is the forging of new trade corridors that connect East Asia to Latin America and extend across the Indian subcontinent to southern Europe, where China’s state owned shipping company, Cosco, has undertaken a major infrastructural investment in Piraeus.

Granted as a concession by the Greek government-controlled port authority to the Chinese state-owned company Cosco in 2009, the second pier of the port of Piraeus has become a crucial site of Chinese economic expansion in Europe. It is at once a space of infrastructural investment, economic transition, and changing labour processes and relations. Piraeus is also a political space, produced not only by dealings between states, companies, and continents but also by the exercise of power inherent in the management science of logistics. A crucial aspect of the port’s governance is vested in the infrastructural installations and logistical routines that guide its operations. The standards and software protocols surrounding the movement of shipping containers are key factors here. Approaching the Cosco concession in this way means not only investigating its position in global meshes of transport, communication and software but also understanding how it expands the frontiers of capital to facilitate processes of accumulation, dispossession and exploitation.

There are currently three piers at Piraeus. Pier 1 is operated by the Piraeus Port Authority (OLP), the existing Greek organisation vested with control of the port in its entirety up until 2009 when the concession agreement was signed with Cosco Pacific, a subsidiary of Cosco Holdings whose majority shareholder is the Chinese (PRC) state-owned enterprise Cosco Group. With a 35 year lease of Piers II and III, Cosco’s Piraeus Container Terminal (PCT) runs its port operations, planning and management using CATOS, a software system developed by the Korean based maritime logistics solution company Total Soft Bank. At Pier 1 OLP coordinates activities with NAVIS SPARCS N4, a US developed terminal operating system (TOS).

In principle these two systems are interoperable and have the technical capacity to coordinate different activities across the piers. Yet the movement of trans-shipment containers from the PCT to OLP piers, for example, is clocked in manually. The coincidence of dock work and paperwork reintroduces a media apparatus that asserts a regime of governance no longer accountable to the digital logic of search and calculation that define the event logs of terminal operating systems. ‘Paperwork syncopates the state’s rhythms’ (Kafka). And, in the case of Piraeus, it invites minor technical errors that result in misplaced consignments and missing containers. Prone to human mistake and physical deterioration over time, there is also a certain autonomy of labour upheld by the media of paper files that nowadays appears strange, paradoxical, even quaint yet decidedly effective when set against real-time media of command and control.

Korea’s Total Soft Bank is currently promoting its TOS as a technology suited to process mining within port settings. Using data generated through event logs that record port activity and organizational operations, process mining is a computational form of knowledge extraction designed to garner information on the timing and potential correlation of events in order to lever productivity and organizational transformation. Port infrastructure becomes animated not just by the movement of machines, but through patterns of data. Whether through the configuration of yard systems, the stacking sequence of containers, the oversight of customs procedures or the calculation of labour efficiencies, the making of port spaces according to computational transactions instantiates the economic potential of algorithmic governance.

It should not be forgotten that the concession of Piraeus occurred amid a global economic crisis in which the sovereign position of Greece has been severely challenged, both politically and economically. Although the conservative government of Kostas Karamanlis had been negotiating with Cosco and other interested parties since 2004 to establish a concession at Piraeus, plans had been delayed by industrial action and issues concerning EU competition rules. It was only in November 2008, during a visit of Chinese president Hu Jintao to Greece, that the deal with Cosco was finally signed. By this time the economic crisis was in full swing, with Lehmann Brothers having signed for bankruptcy two months earlier, the spread of debt contagion to the European banking system, and rising social antagonism in Greece before austerity and privatization measures.Within two weeks of the signing, the police killing of teenager Alexis Grigoropoulos in the Exarchia district of Athens sparked the so-called December 2008 insurrection. The port was racked by strikes, which culminated just as the Cosco concession was due to begin in October 2009. By May 2010, Greece had accepted a bailout package that would significantly alter the country’s position with respect to the so-called troika of the European Commission (EC), the International Monetary Fund, and European Central Bank – a decision with important implications for the territorial mutations at Piraeus.

In signing a Memorandum of Understanding with the troika, the Greek government agreed to accept a three-year loan of EUR 110 billion in exchange for the implementation of strict austerity measures. Formally these agreements imposed an immunity waiver on Greece, meaning that it could not regulate its sovereign debt and that lenders could approach the state as a private contractor. It is certainly necessary to ask how troika diktats and Greek law interact to shape logistical operations and labour relations in the concession. But there are also other normative orders at hand in the concession, among them OLP administrative powers, EC free zone regulations, Cosco social responsibility protocols, Chinese party-state rules exercised through Cosco’s corporate governance, and even the rule-governed code that runs PCT’s terminal operating system. The question then becomes one about how the shifting patterns of suspension, violation, enforcement and conflict between these various normative orders affect territorial arrangements at Piraeus.

Our collective research in Athens, led by Nelli Kambouri and Pavlos Hatzopoulos, highlights the many ways in which territory exceeds the national or continental state, while also remaining very much a force of capital whose coordinates manifest in very particular and often localised ways. Think, for example, of the Roma families residing in the Newly Builts (dwellings without permits) situated on the hillside along the rail line connecting Piraeus to a freight and intermodal terminal currently under construction in Thriassion. Historically diasporic, the Romani people are frequently stripped of the right to property and denied the many privileges of citizenship. The scrap metal industry has availed Roma families with a line of income, though even this has come under increasing pressure as rival scrap metal collectors and Golden Dawn thugs mete out violence and threats of housing demolition in an effort to exert economic and social-political control. The combination of European Union transport policies, austerity politics in Greece and investment from Cosco coalesces in the construction of new Ikonio-Thriassion rail line. This yet unused piece of infrastructure traverses an area whose economy in scrap metal prizes industrial cables rich in copper. Such items in turn are eventually sold on commodity markets whose prices are shaped significantly by the strong demand for metals in China.

The logistical worlds of Piraeus are many and varied. Their scalar dimensions stretch around the Athens basin and glide across oceanic trade routes. Current tender arrangements foreshadow the possibility of a complete Cosco takeover of the port, although there are other contenders to assume operations at OLP. The tender process is managed and enforced by the Hellenic Republic Asset Development Fund, a Greek government agency created at the behest of the troika to oversee the privatisation of state assets. Yet Piraeus is something more than a case study in privatisation, which after all is a logic affecting many social institutions and utilities, not just ports, worldwide. At stake is rather a politics of logistical operations that hit the ground in ways that create distinct labour regimes and territorial mutations. These operations also mesh into wider global patterns of connection and accumulation that make up capitalism as a whole. Although we have a specific interest in Chinese infrastructural interventions that cut and change these wider formations of global capital, it is really at the juncture of specific logistical operations and this more planetary vista that our analysis proceeds. The tensions and struggles that cross the port of Piraeus and its immediate surrounds are just one sign that this juncture cannot be easily managed or governed by logistical technologies, the increasingly multilevel articulation of political power in Europe, or the mercantilist ethos of Chinese state enterprise.