Skip to content

Seize and Resist

The global supply chain is up for grabs

Martín Arboleda, Planetary Mine: Territories of Extraction under Late Capitalism. Verso, 288 pages.

Globalization is under attack from all quarters. It’s hard to pinpoint when the discord began: the concept, and the process it grasps, is nearly coterminous with the contention swirling around it. January 1, 1994, the day the North American Free Trade Agreement went into effect, was also the day the Zapatista Army declared war on the Mexican government. In the United States, the alter-globalization movement erupted in the 1999 Battle of Seattle; in the hemisphere, it peaked with the 2005 World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil, which registered over 150,000 participants. A few years later came the “movements of the squares” as protesters occupied public spaces from Athens to New York to Cairo. These events coincided with an entire era of resistance to free trade and U.S. hegemony in Latin America, culminating in the Pink Tide, which in turn foreshadowed the global spread of populisms left and right that, though diametrically opposed in their diagnoses, targeted the insipid managerialism of market democracies.

And that was just the beginning. Having survived the turbulence of social movements and financial crises, the fate of the flat earth utopia—the dream of a global humanity linked by the sinews of peaceful trade, digital communication, and international institutions, all protected by benevolent American imperialism—entered into yet another phase of uncertainty. Across multiple continents, right-wing nationalism, itself nurtured by neoliberalism, captured state power. Trade wars, withdrawals from multilateralism, and reconfigurations of historic alliances ensued. Global integration already appeared at a nadir when the novel coronavirus emerged in China before spreading everywhere through the pathways of transnational interconnectedness. Supply chains premised on frictionless circulation and just-in-time production ground to a halt; meanwhile, political leaders of all ideological stripes bemoaned “dependency” not just on China, but on globally dispersed production itself, which manufactures everything from the superficial (fast fashion) to the essential (personal protective equipment). In their place, they called for “re-shoring” supply chains, scaling down production to domestic and regional levels, and balancing economic efficiency with newly salient exigencies of public health. Are we witnessing the twilight of globalization?

Actually existing capitalism has always relied on the globally uneven cheapening of labor and nature, the sacrifice of far-flung lives and ecosystems at the altar of relentless production, and the constant expulsion of populations alternately surplus and super-exploited.

As always under capitalism, appearances are deceiving. Dismantling the globe-spanning processes of extraction, production, distribution, and finance would prove a bewilderingly complex task. These processes are mediated by technologies of transportation (containerization, intermodal transit) and computing (AI, machine learning, robotics); arranged in variegated economic geographies (corridors, gateways, clusters, special economic zones); structured by evolving inter- and intra-firm relationships (outsourcing, sub-contracting, vertical reintegration) and forms of market power (monopolies and monopsonies); and ultimately enabled by state authority, which furnishes the necessary logistical and regulatory infrastructure, and the repressive apparatus to defend the flow of goods at all costs. “Deglobalized capitalism” verges on an oxymoron. Since its dawn in the trans-Atlantic slave trade and Indigenous dispossession, the profit logic exerts a centrifugal force; the drive to accumulation is a spatially totalizing one. Whatever might be possible in theory, actually existing capitalism has always relied on the globally uneven cheapening of labor and nature, the sacrifice of far-flung lives and ecosystems at the altar of relentless production, and the constant expulsion of populations alternately surplus and super-exploited.

Nationalist retreat is thus a fantasy. But fantasies can prove politically powerful: in practice, calls to “bring manufacturing back home” portend a grim world of even harsher policing of migrants and supply chains increasingly securitized by state violence. The task of the left today is to grasp the fundamental planetary scale of global capitalism—and the planetary horizons of our transformative projects. It is this planetary interdependency—its brutal reality and emancipatory possibility—that Martín Arboleda depicts with rigor and generosity in Planetary Mine: Territories of Extraction Under Late Capitalism (Verso Books, 2020). And, by doing so from the vantage point of the sprawling zones of extraction that stretch from Chile to China—mines, refineries, ports, ships, power plants, data processing centers, and entire cities that serve as capital’s logistical hubs—Arboleda not only centers the periphery but inverts our impoverished spatial vocabulary. The margins of the world system are far from backwards: they are sites of novel techniques of exploitation—and of the vanguard of subaltern futurisms.

Piecemeal Leviathan

Fragments of the planetary mine are everywhere you look. Given the provenance of materials for plumbing fixtures, electrical wiring, windows, and more, cityscapes are “inverted mines”: skyscrapers are not only built with mined materials; their construction was enabled by the lighting, ventilation, and elevators originally invented for underground extraction. The fragments are also present in the “nearly imperceptible practices and habits that . . . weave together the fabric of everyday life”; rare earths, lithium, cobalt, nickel, and copper are essential ingredients for myriad electronic devices. The planetary mine enables our romantic encounters and exercise routines—and the vastly expanded realms of state surveillance and labor discipline.

Technological progress is the product and instrument of extraction. It is thanks to a “quantum leap in . . . robotization and computerization” that the extractive frontier keeps expanding, encompassing the towering peaks of the Andes that loom large in Planetary Mine and, more speculatively, the mineral riches of the ocean floor and the extra-planetary deposits of near-earth asteroids. Minerals feed the machines, and the machines extract yet more. Human labor—whether the degraded work in the informal service sectors that proliferate around mines and logistics hubs, or the increasingly proletarianized professional work of engineers and programmers—functions as an appendage to the technical apparatus. The pace of automation has quickened with increasing trade between Latin America and China, which grew more than thirteen-fold in volume between 2000 and 2011. Much of this is composed of Latin America’s minerals, soy, oil, and beef, locking the two regions into a dense set of “sociometabolic interdependences.” To give a sense of the scale: the Valemax, which transports coal from China to Brazil and iron ore on the return voyage, is “the largest bulk ship carrier in the world” with a capacity of 450,000 deadweight tons. Arboleda’s account renders an industrial sublime, equal parts “frightening and awe-inspiring” that recalls the Victorian bestiary of Frankenstein monsters and vampires—albeit with a cyborg update, such as the robotized “megabulldozers” that can “operate in conditions of high altitude, zero visibility, and inclement weather.”

It is only in combination with labor, of course, that machines take on their lively powers. Since 1992, 400 million Chinese peasants have been forcefully “depeasantized” and put to work in industrial factories. On the other side of the Pacific, campesinos and Indigenous peoples are also being driven off their land. Marx dubbed this process “primitive accumulation”: the forcible separation of people from their means of subsistence, compelling them into wage labor and the cash nexus. These shifts in class structure aren’t unfolding in parallel; they are internally related. The reproduction of the Chinese working class hinges on the dispossession of Latin American peasants—and the deforestation, contamination, and cancer epidemics that rapacious extraction and mega-agriculture entail. Their shared domination is, for Arboleda, a clue to the shared conditions of their emancipation: Chinese and Chilean workers have more in common with one another than they do with their respective ruling classes. And, in a useful corrective to Sinophobic tropes, China shouldn’t be seen as a conniving, conspiring hegemon bent on world domination. Rather, riffing on Stuart Hall, imperialism is the modality through which global capitalism is lived. In this reading, the role of Chinese banks and firms in expanding the extractive frontier is an expression of a process that is global in scope.

From this planetary perspective, the traditional world system theory categories of “core” and “periphery” don’t map onto nationally bounded units. They instead exist in a fractal relation that repeats itself across scales. Arboleda focuses on the urban. In Chile, the planetary mine unfolds across a “bewildering, arid, and fractured urban landscape,” the northern desert region “where wealth and destitution coexist side by side.” The city of Antofagasta constitutes a key node in the mining economy; its urban space functions as an infrastructure to enable “flow, connectivity, and speed” across mining supply chains. Undergirding the seamless circulation of products, labor, and capital is a “frenzied movement of port cranes, cargo ships, trains, trucks, and industrial workers.” Cities and workers alike exist to serve what the late Marxist scholar Moishe Postone called the “treadmill” of accumulation. Landscapes and labor are intimately tied together: the same built environment transformed by capital-intensive extraction and its supporting logistical infrastructures brings into being the “collective laborer,” an internally heterogenous organism comprising engineers and domestic workers, coders and truck drivers who reside in a segregated landscape of gleaming towers and polluted shantytowns.

The flipside of the smooth flow of goods is the relentless precarization of workers. This condition is experienced both on the job (the majority of Chile’s port workers labor under temporary contracts) and in the domestic sphere, where insecure urban settlements predominate. Stitching these “sclerotic spaces” to the “autonomous mechanical apparatus” of supply chain logistics is the state. Technocratic regulation and repressive force keep the treadmill going.

Capital’s Chokepoints

State power establishes the conditions for capitalism. In Chile, legal frameworks from the era of Augusto Pinochet’s brutal neoliberal dictatorship (1973-1990) transformed water into a commodity, privatized state-owned companies, and established a system of mining concessions that enabled the expropriation of peasant and small-holder land. In the process, vast stores of natural wealth were transferred to capitalists, laying the groundwork for Chile’s so-called “economic miracle.” The creation of private property and market exchange went hand in hand with a violent “logic of expulsion,” with the state’s legitimacy predicated on the institutional insulation of technocrats from the domain of military violence. But the deployment of extraeconomic force isn’t just an artifact of history; it is an ongoing guarantor of “economic liberty.” The organizational unity of state and capital is expressed in “police trucks, water cannons, and tear-gas canisters unleashed on picketing port and mine workers.” Indeed, mine worker insurgency—which has arisen in lockstep with the flexibilized labor regime—constitutes a key concern of supply chain managers in the bureaucracy and private firms. As Deborah Cowen recounts, ever since their origin in military logistics, supply chains have always imbricated capital and coercion. In the post-9/11 era, these global networks are governed by a security logic that equates strikes, terrorism, and piracy as so many threats to the speedy movement of goods through transnational “corridors” and “gateways.”

In the post-9/11 era, these global networks are governed by a security logic that equates strikes, terrorism, and piracy as so many threats to the speedy movement of goods through transnational “corridors” and “gateways.”

Resisting, let alone transforming, such a behemoth is daunting. But Arboleda finds hope in the rebellious activity of workers, peasants, and Indigenous peoples who revolt against exploitation, dispossession, and contamination. He sees this “plebeian” popular subject not as a romantic, pre-capitalist community but rather as an assemblage. Part human, part machine, this insurgent collectivity repurposes the technologically mediated interdependency imposed by capitalist modernity. Capital may be a Frankenstein creature, but capital’s own monster is the emancipatory subject it unleashes. When workers and communities go on strike, sabotage infrastructure, and occupy mines and the broader territories they swallow up, they assert their control over the movement of people, commodities, and profits. Such actions are at once economic and political; they expose the interlocking totality of state and corporate power.

Struggles at the mine go beyond labor grievances narrowly understood. During the 2006 occupation of the Escondida copper mine, operated by several foreign companies, the workers’ union set up an encampment in coalition with a women’s movement, holding assemblies, playing music, and teaching radical pedagogy. Subaltern politics also extend beyond the mine itself. In the long conflict over the Pascua Lama gold mine, which commenced with its opening in 2001, directly affected campesino communities are key protagonists. Residents of the Huasco Valley have mobilized through a variety of agricultural, land defense, and environmental groups, taking direct actions—including the destruction of mining infrastructure—as well as organizing marches and showing up to Barrick Gold’s shareholder meetings to denounce the company’s threat to livelihoods and ecosystems. These actions have proven effective: the mine remains in a state of legal limbo and has not been in operation for three years. Their organizing has achieved something perhaps just as vital as stalling the mine: affected communities have forged a translocal collective actor, emancipating their alienated interdependency from the domination of capital.

These forms of popular power have real impact, slowing the advance of extractivism at critical chokepoints. Complexity is the contemporary supply chain’s strength—but is also its source of vulnerability. Resiliency and risk are intertwined. Each node of the chain is a potential location of technological glitches, labor insurgency, Indigenous protest, and, increasingly, climate change-induced extreme weather. The planetary mine multiplies the sites of class struggle, which reverberate from ports to mines, shantytowns to courts. Such struggles point toward the radical reordering of the relationships between the “peoples, ecologies, and technologies” that capital combines in its nonstop pursuit of profit.

Monographs on extraction tend to focus either on the elite worlds of private firms, political repression, and high finance—or on the grassroots mobilization of local communities. Planetary Mine does both. Arboleda’s interrogation of exploitation is matched in intensity by his fidelity to the “dream images of the technological landscapes of tomorrow.” Utopias are nowhere to be found in the bleak present, but their ingredients are everywhere we look.

Utopias are nowhere to be found in the bleak present, but their ingredients are everywhere we look.

Although the sites of supply chain struggles are various and their tactics manifold, the one possibility that isn’t directly addressed in Planetary Mine is that of seizing elements of the state apparatus to enforce a redirection of the economy, away from extraction and toward socio-ecological flourishing. That this possibility seems negligible could be an artifact of the book’s focus on Chile. Despite waves of popular uprisings, most recently from last October through early March, the Chilean state has proven deft at deflecting and fragmenting left political power. Arboleda’s state-skepticism is also a product of his rigorous theorization, which rejects the positions of both Ralph Miliband and Nicos Poulantzas in the state debates of the 1970s. Simply put, the former saw the state as an instrument of capital, while the latter saw it as “relatively autonomous” from the ruling class. In contrast to both, Arboleda emphasizes the organizational unity of state and capital—and the primacy of the planetary. States’ claim to autonomy from the ruling class is at once “illusory and real”; that contradiction is in fact the condition of their legitimating force. And nation-states, he writes, are “aliquot parts” of the world market: portions of a whole rather than discrete units.

Here and Now

Planetary Mine looks to a revolutionary horizon, in which wage labor and the state as we know it are both abolished. The movements Arboleda narrates have surely obstructed the advance of the extractive frontier. Absent some form of institutionalization, however, such victories remain provisional and prefigurative, with the futures they conjure perennially deferred. Elsewhere in the world—and at other points in the past—left political movements have taken state power and attempted, with varying degrees of success and militancy, to transform society. These experiments have raised thorny questions about how to do so, from the parliamentary road to socialism, to dual power, to concepts yet to be invented, and the pitfalls of each approach. But in a world of accelerating climate catastrophe, staggering inequality, and ethno-national violence, it’s hard to imagine a path to transformation that doesn’t pass through the state. If the nation-state is, as Arboleda rightly contends, the “concentrated expression of a process whose scale is planetary,” isn’t it also therefore a terrain of universalizing class struggle? If capital and the state form the totality of the social order, then wresting control of the state—its representative, regulatory, financial, and legal institutions—is a means of contesting capital’s control over investment, production, and distribution. The Green New Deal is animated by this strategy—as is the pacto ecosocial currently gaining momentum in Latin America (as well as, I should note, Arboleda’s current work on agricultural supply chains, which explicitly poses the question of state power and economic planning). These transformative projects propose that climate justice is only achievable through a relationship between extraparliamentary struggle and left policymakers.

Capitalism is at the gnarled root of the climate crisis. Green capitalism, albeit a contradiction in terms, is in a nascent stage of development. But no green reorientation of the economy is possible without state intervention; the question is what form it will take and whose interests it will serve. In the European Union, officials are crafting the outlines of what we might call climate-smart capitalism, using a mix of public funding and regulatory prodding to nudge investors towards green sectors. The approach to industrial policy is to socialize risk and initial investments, while privatizing profits. It’s a gift to capital in an age of secular stagnation—and greenwashed to boot.

What is the ecosocialist alternative? Arboleda argues forcefully against nationalism in either politics or analysis. It’s convincing. Like the extractive circuits detailed in Planetary Mine, the supply chains for green technologies such as wind turbines and electric vehicles will, and must, cross borders: the resources to make them are unevenly deposited in the earth’s crust, and the left’s commitment should be to global access, which means prioritizing globally equitable distribution. Their far-flung networks of production are strategic nodes to exercise popular power in the twenty-first century. From Indigenous blockades of lithium extraction in Chile to labor organizing at Tesla factories in the United States, communities and workers resist nascent green capitalism and imagine alternative green futures. Such resistance is a necessary but insufficient condition for an ecosocialist transition: with a decade to avert the worst of the climate chaos, the state has the capacities to reorient economic activity in the here and now. Public investment, democratized finance, stringent regulations, public and worker ownership, and trade and industrial policy all have a role to play in building a democratic, low-carbon future. In the hands of social movements, labor unions, and allied state actors, these tools can fashion a new world out of the dying old one.

From the planetary mine to the global factory, the future organization of supply chains is up for grabs. Grassroots struggles alongside, against, and for state power will help shape the coming economic order.