After Supply Chain Capitalism – Data & Society: Points

After Supply Chain Capitalism – Data & Society: Points

When supply chains break, the first thing that becomes immediately apparent is that “chain” is and has always been the wrong metaphor. They are more like constellations or ecologies, or if chains, they are maybe more like a mesh of chain maille. Their effects cascade across a network rather than discretely unlink one system from another. The legibility and order of containerized standardization in supply chains doesn’t resolve or erase on-the-ground complexity or risk, it only obscures it from consumers (and, in most cases, from companies themselves).

Also apparent is that the decisions that tend to make supply chains fragile (such as excessive concentration of production under one vendor or point of distribution) are decisions that tend to be rewarded by markets and governments. You want to build a factory here? Have all these tax breaks, and while we’re at it, let’s make you a special economic zone where dozens of factories making similar products can go! You’ve destroyed all of your competitors and now we can only get testing swabs from one part of Italy? That’s not a weak supply chain, it’s proof that the market rewards the best products.

In the market, industry consolidation is merely survival of the fittest. Price hikes due to low supply may cause panic and bad PR, but at some point in the chain someone’s profiting, and in theory that profit’s going to return to shareholders.

In the market, industry consolidation is merely survival of the fittest.

The failures of healthcare manufacturing supply chains in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic have been very hard to ignore or view as simply the market working as it should (despite the fact it sort of is). Massive shortages of personal protective equipment and ventilators may be producing profits at some point in the supply chain, but the public primarily sees price gouging, fraud, and hospital workers having to make dangerous improvisations like wearing trash bags instead of protective gowns. A combination of industry consolidation, trade war-induced conservative inventory, and government incompetence all contributed to this perfect storm of conditions.

At the same time, the supply chain infrastructure for consumer goods has helped maintain lifelines and an appearance of normalcy through the COVID-19 pandemic for the less at-risk (those already high-risk—the disabled, the poor and precarious, the undocumented, and Black people who are less likely to be believed by doctors anyway—have heard stories of such normalcy). Workers who are stuck at home may be frustrated and anxious, but they can still fulfill their consumer desires—and they’re encouraged to, if not for personal benefit (go ahead, treat yourself to that new blazer—gotta look good on those Zoom calls!) then as a way of supporting small businesses and the faltering economy. But the economic beneficiaries of retail therapy aren’t the warehouse and delivery workers making those deliveries possible, who are forced to fight tooth and nail to receive basic workplace safety measures and paid sick leave, and certainly not the laid-off employees of direct-to-consumer (DTC) retail companies whose bosses are using the pandemic as cover for retaliation against workplace organizing. It’s Jeff Bezos and the DTC startups in search of more venture capital.

The dynamics of healthcare and consumer supply chains are not unique to supply chains in the time of COVID-19, so much as COVID-19 uniquely amplifies them for audiences that normally take them for granted.

The dynamics of healthcare and consumer supply chains are not unique to supply chains in the time of COVID-19, so much as COVID-19 uniquely amplifies them for audiences that normally take them for granted. These are more or less the workings of what Anna Tsing has previously described as supply chain capitalism, a process that “stimulate[s] both global standardization and growing gaps between rich and poor, across lines of color and culture, and between North and South,” reliant on, and at times undone, by its emphasis on outsourcing and exploitation of cultural myths around work, identity, and the pursuit of wealth.

Supply chain capitalism principles—reliance on outsourced labor, an emphasis on just-in-time delivery, faith in data-driven decision-making, pursuit of economies of scale—have played, at times, an under-appreciated role in the emergence of digitally-enabled inequities that COVID-19 will also likely exacerbate. The languages of supply chain management and software engineering tend to overlap and borrow from one another (lean operations, just-in-time delivery, containerization); arguably many of the operations underlying surveillance capitalism can’t happen without supply chain capitalism. Admiration of supply chain management has also been used to justify data-driven disruptions of industries and aspects of public life. For me, the most visceral example of this link remains the 2009 Police Chief magazine essay entitled “Predictive Policing: What Can We Learn from Wal-Mart and Amazon about Fighting Crime in a Recession?”, one of the earliest articles written by and for the law enforcement community about the now much-disputed technology. While other examples aren’t quite so blunt, the rhetoric of efficiency and emphasis on outsourcing and data collection can be found in other sectors. What is the gig economy, if not a just-in-time supply chain for disposable human labor?

What is the gig economy, if not a just-in-time supply chain for disposable human labor?

As weird as it feels to even gesture at the future right now, decisions made out of anxiety and expediency in the coming days and weeks will reverberate for a very, very long time. To create conditions so that the next time there’s a pandemic (and there will be one) we don’t have massive shortages of medical supplies or workers compromising their health and safety, the whole of supply chain capitalism needs to be broken apart and reconsidered—including the values and beliefs that make so many other systemic inequalities possible before COVID-19. The illusion of a contractor’s independence as plausible deniability and the right to be exploited by someone further up the chain needs to be undone. The insistence that dignity and life aren’t as essential as efficiency and market performance needs to be undermined with a social safety net that protects all people, including and especially workers most at risk, whether faced with a pandemic or simply faced with run-of-the-mill cruelties of capitalism.