Georgia, of all countries, is not only an important junction of the “New Silk Road,” but also a junction of global logistic capitalism. But problems are piling up in the small post-Soviet republic: construction projects are repeatedly delayed and left unfinished, workers are exploited on all sides, and environmental damage is increasing. Infrastructure projects have a long tradition in the region, as do workers’ struggles. But the view of the past is obscured by ideological dummies. In her contribution to the text series “Black Box East,” critical geographer and activist Evelina Gambino shows how history can be learned under these conditions.
In her book “Molecular Red” McKenzie Wark, puts forward a simple yet radical proposition: namely that in order to come to terms with, or perhaps in order continue to exist, within the current planetary predicament known as the Anthropocene, we must cease to create new horizons of revolutionary triumph and rather retrieve from the wreckage that constitutes our world fragments, stories, concepts and practices that can equip us for the struggles yet to come. Echoing a distinction made by Deleuze and Guattari, Wark begins weaving some of the threads of what she calls a molecular theory: a toolkit made of flashes, hints and of individuals who did not ride the victorious tides of our recent histories, but nevertheless left traces that can be picked to tell other stories of the damaged and divided world in which we live in. Molecular Red is a book about accretions, about the often awkward ways in which sedimented histories or even ideas can converge and be channelled into forms of collective labour. Intellectual excavations, like the one performed by Wark, are crucial for the piecing together of these scattered efforts, but these useful fragments can be also found elsewhere.
Today much of the geographies of the former Eastern Bloc are been repurposed as a vast network of trade arteries connecting China with Western markets as part of the gigantic logistical project known as the New Silk Road. Within and against this background, the very infrastructures that sustain this vast and ambitious connectivity can reveal forms of collective labour that challenge logistical capitalism and the temporalities that it seeks to establish. These forms of collective labour, past and present, can be seen as flashes of that molecular red teased out by McKenzie Wark, tesserae of a puzzle of resistance that can be interrogated for future organising.
Between 2017 and 2019, I undertook ethnographic fieldwork in Georgia. Ever since the aftermath of Soviet demise the country has attempted to turn itself into a transit hub for the region and beyond, and throughout my research I have aimed to critically engage with the latest wave of large scale infrastructural developments. Currently, the Black Sea Coast is being promoted as a gateway for multimodal transit to Europe, while the railways that cut the country from East to West are being upgraded to welcome a constant stream of cargo. Looking closely at the projects that dot the country, many of which remain unfinished to this day, I sought to challenge the account of logistical connectivity as a gathering of seamless and efficient flows, showing instead the violence and friction necessary to sustain logistical connections. I observed the ingenious and not so ingenious strategies through which workers and ordinary people are made to pay for reckless operations of capital, and traced the scars of years of failed speculations now permanently impressed into the environments they sought to transform. But there is more. Observing the yet-to-be-made infrastructures of Georgia’s logistics, I encountered other, less immediately visible, yet still very material infrastructural worlds.
One of the foundations of contemporary logistical capitalism is the possibility of turning infrastructures into durable assets of accumulation. As assets infrastructures are particularly good, this is because unlike many other objects, that are perishable, they have the ability to last in time, granting thus a steady stream of revenue for fifty or even one-hundred years. As Timothy Mitchell suggests (2016), this durability turns infrastructures into time-machines of sorts, able to capture revenue from the future and bring it into the present. But it’s not just the future that infrastructures can reach into: if we reverse our temporal direction, infrastructures can catapult us into semi-forgotten pasts, from which we can excavate stories, knowledges and testimonies of collective labour and struggle to transport into the present.
In Georgia, like in much of the former Socialist states, the legacy of the Soviet Union remains a battlefield whose camps are difficult to navigate. The triumphalist accounts of post-Soviet transition promoted by international institutions and parroted by local elites persist in pitching their fetishism of the market against the perceived horrors of state ownership. These narratives are easily contradicted by listening to the experiences of working class people who are old enough to remember their life before and after the collapse of the USSR, and by looking at the results of almost three decades of deregulation on the country’s welfare. Yet market-fetishism still orients most public policies and provides a self-serving justification for placing the interests of investors over those of populations. Meanwhile the country is covered in ruins: these are ruins of the country’s industrial past that are either left to rot or made to work under new regimes of accumulation that add new horrors to the lives of those who suffered under the restrictions of the planned economy. Amidst this process, moreover, new ruins are created by the many failed speculations that have oriented the country’s future in the recent past. Half-finished projects dots Georgia’s villages and shores, altering the topographies of villages and shores. Amidst this discursive and material chaos many things are obfuscated and historical inquiries into the multiplicity of Soviet worlds are condemned as mere revisionism, or worse, as pro-Russian propaganda. Yet paying attention to the infrastructural networks that still run through the country it is possible to view the legacy of Soviet worlds from a different perspective: one that rejects binary oppositions in favour of an attention to permanence, sediments and accretions.
Anthropologist Nikhil Anand has suggested that “infrastructures accrete. They gather and crumble incrementally and slowly, over time, through labor that is at once ideological and material” (2015:1). It is no mystery that the infrastructures that are set to sustain Georgia’s logistics revolution have Soviet – and indeed pre-Soviet – pasts. As they are being integrated into new networks of circulation, Soviet-era infrastructures acquire material accretions through new technological feats. Going even further into the past, the trade routes violently drawn up by 19th century capitalists who sought to extract the valuable resources of Central Asia and the Caucasus still underwrite present logistical networks. The futuristic promise of a world of uninterrupted flows largely travels on the same railway tracks, stops at the same stations and docks that served the complex and now abject logistics of the Soviet Union and in many cases it inherits its problems.
Amidst the many lifeworlds that can be detected by paying close attention to the infrastructural networks that make up Georgia’s logistical circuit, one is particularly poignant to the observations I seek to make in this essay: the imbrication of infrastructural development with the emergence of worker’s collective conscience and forms of organising.
Workers, infrastructure, and revolutions
Shortly after the revolution, in 1920, the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam described the Black Sea port town of Batumi as a ‘Russian-style California gold rush city’ (Mandelstam in Jones 2005: 28). What the dissident poet was observing was the peak of a development which had started five decades before. Between 1872 and the last decade of the 19th century, the Georgian Black sea coast was subject to ambitious infrastructural developments. A railway link between Tiflis and the emerging port of Poti on the Black sea was completed in 1872, at the hands of British engineers. In the following years, the line expanded to include Kutaisi and later in 1883 Batumi, which had just been acquired under Tsarist rule. That same year a connection was established between Tbilisi and Baku, the oil city on the Caspian and later the industrial towns of Tqibuli and Chiatura were included, completing the logistic corridor between the Caspian and the Black sea. The Caucasian railway network transported people as well as goods and by the end of the 19th century an estimated 1.8 million passengers travelled on it yearly (see Jones 2005:12-13). Parallel to inland infrastructures, maritime connections were implemented: from its inception in 1857 Russian Society for Shipping and trade operated routes from the port of Poti – which also hosted an oil refinery – and the black sea ports of Redut-qale and Batumi towards Europe. Between 1886 and 1906, moreover, an oil pipeline was built connecting Baku to Batumi, making the Georgian port city the main centre for oil export in the Russian empire.
In the early years of the 20th century, Batumi was home to 16 oil-drum factories, owned for the most part by foreign oil barons such as Rothschild who employed a multicultural labour force made up of Turks, Georgians, Armenians, Greeks, Persian and Russians, to name the most prominent groups. Before these developments, the Georgian word for ‘worker’ – musha – as Stephen Jones argues in his history of socialism in Georgia (2005: 78) referred to a vast category of people informally employed or trading goods around urban centres. By the end of the 19th century, however, mushebi (Plural of musha)had become the word which described those who laboured under an employer in the many workshops and small factories which had mushroomed across these emerging logistics nodes. These factories and depots were still relatively small in size, but quickly became aggregation centres for workers of a variety of backgrounds.
By the 1890s the oil and infrastructure rush had laid the basis for the creation of a multi-ethnic working class. In Tbilisi, the main railway depot had emerged as a central pivot of workers’ life and consciousness, while in Poti and Batumi workers’ newspapers were circulating, spreading labourers’ dissent for the oppressive conditions of their employment. In 1889 the newspaper ‘Gantiadi’ – dawn – published verses inciting workers’ to build solidarity networks:
‘We poor workers born in sweat
There is no one to care for us
Brothers we must look after ourselves
Or the light will disappear!
Let us light our own way
And find the path of truth
Let’s add knowledge to our might
So that the rays of light will shine upon us.’
(Gantiadi in Jones 2005:93).
This poem, only one amongst the many circulating in the ever growing set of workers-led publications, tells us of a crucial moment in the formation of workers’ consciousness in the South Caucasus. Workers’ clubs, sprouting across the cities connected by the Caucasian Railway, intertwined educational activities with labour-based discussions, producing the first workers-led literary accounts of their own conditions. From 1889 until the revolution of 1905 workers’ revolt and the revolutionary activity of the Georgian Social Democrats and Bolsheviks spread across the entire country. Starting from Tbilisi, where the 1898 government announcement of the removal of basic railway workers’ benefits gave rise to a wave of strikes blocking railway connections around the capital. This was just the first instance around which struggling workers congregated as the new found class consciousness – kept up through workers’ circles, publications and illegal meetings – lead to further uprisings at the Tiflis railway depot in early 1900. In the first years of the new century, workers’ demands grew from a reaction to the government’s provisions to radical changes of their employment condition, including a 30 to 50% increase in salary and a reduction of the working hours.
Labour is the mingling of many things, most of them not human (Wark 2015: 217)
From Tbilisi to Batumi and later to the mining towns of Tqibuli and Chiatura, the revolution moved across infrastructural connections. The railway lines and port facilities which had helped connecting this remote territory of the Russian Empire with Europe and the West through trade, provided also a network for the communication and spread of revolutionary ideas and practices. Parallel to the circuits of extractions that it helped establish and potentiate, the railways cutting across Georgia and the ports it fed enabled the revolutionary activity of workers committed to build a fairer world. Today, as these same, technologically upgraded, networks are repurposed to serve the newest frontiers of global accumulation, the memories of these struggles remain impressed in their tracks: these memories are the accretions that underwrite contemporary infrastructural networks. Unearthing them and honouring their permanence is not just an intellectual exercise but part and parcel of the labour of imagining a different world.
The current monstrous expansion of logistical networks across all imaginable geographies of this planet does not leave much space for imagining a formidable counter-logistics capable to overturn the myriad of operations that compose what we call logistical capitalism. Instead what we can do is pay attention to the other, conflictual histories that are stirred up by contemporary logistical efforts in not always obvious ways. These histories are sedimented in the very materialities of the infrastructures that are repurposed to serve contemporary global trade and form the accretions that populate them. In their continued existence they bring forward forms and memories of collective labour, it is our task now to put them to work for finding forms of resistance that suit our fragmented present.
Note from the editors: This article is a contribution to the Berliner Gazette’s “Black Box East” text series. The German version is available here. You can find more texts, artworks, and video talks on the English-language “Black Box East” website. Have a look here: https://blackboxeast.berlinergazette.de