The special power of disruption in an age of logistical warfare

It's easier to imagine spectacular violence than the banal, logistical governmentalities that constitute warfare. Yet it is often the same corporations delivering weapons to the frontlines as welfare checks on the home front.

Krystian Woznicki Deborah Cowen
6 November 2017

Defiant Dakota Access Pipeline water protectors faced-off with various law enforcement agencies on Wednesday, February 22, 2017, the day the camp was slated to be raided. Michael Nigro/PA Images. All rights reserved.

On Saturday the 4th November, the Berliner Gazette‘s Friendly Fire ( conference asked: how is citizenship changing in war times? Two prolific speakers looked for answers: the geographer Deborah Cowen, whose books "War, Citizenship, Territory" and "The Deadly Life of Logistics" explore the politics of violence in the global age, and the historian Felicity Scott, whose Silicon Valley research sheds new light on the emergence of the military-entertainment complex. Closing the three-day conference, their talks reflected the crises of citizenship in the context of states of exception. In the following interview Deborah Cowen reflects on the role of logistics for emergent forms power and counter-power. 

Krystian Woznicki (KW): The post-'89-logic of war still prevails today, characterized by ever-shifting and gradually increasing states of exception. Could you briefly explain this logic of war and elucidate what it means to introduce critical geography into the analysis of the ubiquity and normality of war?

Deborah Cowen (DC): We have certainly seen significant reorganization of warfare since 1989, but I would not locate a new experience of permanent war, or the growing ubiquity of states of exception, in that specific moment or in the geographies it centers.

Growing up in a settler colony like Canada made it impossible to ignore a kind of permanent war against indigenous peoples. Likewise, if we take a more global perspective that accounts for the histories of colonial and imperial violence, I think we would have to see the ‘state of exception’ as a perpetual feature of liberal rule.

War doesn’t stop at the national border; rather, it sculpts domestic space.

Against this backdrop, the newness of contemporary warfare is not its ubiquity. The newness rather is how it is organized across national territories – in the course of this even recalibrating sectorial boundaries (e.g. corporate and governmental). And the newness is how it thereby creates new forms of power that undermine, last but not least, the "capacities" of citizenship. 

That is why my larger project, including but not limited to my work on logistics, has in fact been concerned with the intimate life of war in the ostensibly civilian spaces of the modern settler nation-state. This work insists that war doesn’t stop at the national border; rather, it sculpts domestic space. The historical separation between police and military institutions that accompanied nation-state formation in much of the world did not actually mean that war became something only outward facing. We can see this in domestic deployments of military force, but also in the continuities with police force. And we can also trace the entire organization of the war machine domestically – in how war-making shapes economic policy, in military recruitment and retention, for example.

In uneven and historically and geographically specific ways, war in its most contemporary manifestation traverses national territory.

KW: To add another crucial layer into reflections about the contemporary logic of war: which role does the military art of logistics play in this context? Or, more specifically, how does the invention and 'institutionalization' of the supply chain inform the contemporary geography of war?

DC: My recent book 'The Deadly Life of Logistics' suggests that logistics has come to shape war and trade, in their profoundly entangled contemporary existence. Logistics has gone from being a minor art of war – the seemingly banal and innocuous work of supply – to the leading management science around which corporate and military strategy and tactics are organized. I trace two important historical transformations through which this took place – first in the world of national militaries where over the early decades of the last century, the battlefield became increasingly mechanized and dependent on fuel supply lines. This propelled logistics to a defining rather than residual role in sculpting warfare. 

The second transformation took place largely in the postwar period when the US state invested in bringing military and corporate leaders together to port the experience and insight of logistics from the latter to the former sector. This marked the birth of logistics as a corporate management science – although it remains powerfully tethered to martial institutions, actors and expertise. Imperial history insists that the close collaboration of public and private actors in warfare is not exactly new – but it has taken on new forms. 

The national border is increasingly seen as a problem for national security, not a solution, and a host of new security policy work to protect corridors of circulation regardless of whether they traverse ‘foreign’ or ‘domestic’ space. We can also see the outright militarization of logistics spaces – and perhaps the best example comes from the Gulf of Aden, where a special zone of multinational naval security has been established to protect the crucial transit zone leading to the Suez Canal.

Logistics has gone from being a minor art of war – the seemingly banal and innocuous work of supply – to the leading management science around which corporate and military strategy and tactics are organized.

KW: The logic of war that you have discussed so far constitutes a blind spot in a lot of academic analysis, media reporting and collective consciousness in general: what does it mean to introduce this logic into reflections about state sovereignty and citizenship?

DC: Popular imaginaries of warfare continue to promote visions of national states and citizens fighting for a common purpose under a united flag. I am not sure this ever existed as such, but it is far from how I see warfare operating today. I think it is easier to imagine more dramatic and spectacular forms of national violence than to apprehend the banal, routine, logistical governmentalities that constitute this violent moment.

Our empires work through the ubiquitous beeping of the RFID scan at the grocery store, munitions depot, airport, distribution centre, maritime port, amusement park, or prison. Tanks and ships and planes may come in targeted ‘surgical strikes’ if something disrupts the literal or metaphorical pipelines – but a focus on logistics reminds us that it is often the same corporations contracted to deliver weapons to the frontlines as welfare checks on the home front.

Corporations are wrapped up so deeply in warfare that the largest (state) powers could not feed or fuel their troops without them. In turn, military forces are essential to clearing the ground for logistics companies, precisely because ‘global trade’ is today understood as a pillar of ‘national security’. 

KW: To move the discussion of citizenship on even further: the "rise of supply chain security", while reconfiguring state sovereignty and border management, challenges and contributes to transforming citizenship. Could you explain how it does so? 

DC: The rise of a new form of security that aims to protect trade circulation and the critical infrastructures upon which it has relied over the last decade and a half, has profound implications for citizenship. Old imagined geographies of state territoriality are directly transgressed as supply chains cut across national borders and incite new forms of securitization.

Supply chain security has emerged as a legal and regulatory architecture which aims to protect trade flows, and the networks of logistics infrastructure that underpin them, from disruption. As it follows logistics infrastructures over land and sea, supply chain security collides with the rights and livelihoods of indigenous peoples, transport workers, and so-called ‘pirates’, to name a few. Supply chain security sanctions new forms of risk management that are underpinned by intensive surveillance of targeted groups, or direct military force.

It aims to bridge the seemingly conflicting demands of rapid and reliable transnational commodity circulation, and strong national borders. While these practices are new and the effects still emerging, we can already see that old assumptions about domestic and foreign space as anchors for the rights of citizenship are being fractured. For instance, port spaces are increasingly governed as special security zones that are subject to both military and police force, and where normal rights of citizenship are suspended. 

This paradigm of security has quickly been adopted into national and supranational government as well as corporate practice over the last few years – it also has deeper roots in the forms and geographies of security crafted to protect colonial trade routes in a much earlier era. 

It is easier to imagine more dramatic and spectacular forms of national violence than to apprehend the banal, routine, logistical govern-mentalities that constitute this violent moment.

KW: How do these insights – especially with regard to citizenship – expand general notions of political agency, be it at the individual or the collective level? What does it mean to be political today, as a citizen or non-citizen? 

DC: Conflict and struggle are fertile ground for the making of political subjectivities and the practices and infrastructures that uphold them. It is often in and through struggle that relations of power and solidarity are recast. Supply chains are rife with contestation as states and corporations aggressively expand logistics infrastructures, and experiment with often pre-emptive forms of securitization over those who might resist. 

The emphasis on circulation in logistics systems gives a special power to the act of disruption, and this has become one particularly potent act of citizenship today. It is perhaps on the blockade or at the occupation where some of the most powerful forms of citizenship are emerging. This is not only because of the immediate effect of disruption, but also because of the space of the convergence itself, and how alternative relations of care and provision – alternative logistics – anchored in relations of reciprocity and solidarity can emerge through acts of disruption.

I’m thinking especially of Standing Rock and the lasting and transformatory work of the protection camps in building movements and political subjects as they worked to block the completion of oil logistics infrastructure – the DAPL, but there countless struggles of this kind underway that may never enter such a global spotlight. If logistics extends its tentacles throughout the spaces of everyday life, it also opens up the possibility for alternative political futures at every turn. 

The documentation of the Berliner Gazette‘s Friendly Fire conference will be available soon on this website. The photos from the three day event are already available in this flickr album

The German version of this interview is available on Berliner Gazette.

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