DARA ORENSTEIN: I think of this book as a prehistory of Amazon in a way. I think of Amazon as a warehousing company. I know it’s so much more, but I think we need to think of it as a warehousing company. We need to try to understand why warehousing is more and more a dominant kind of force. And what is it that people meant in the nineteenth century when they called for the US to become the “warehouse of the world,” you know—not the workshop of the world, but the warehouse of the world? What would that involve and why would we want it?
I’m Dara Orenstein and I’m an associate professor of American studies at George Washington University, and I’m the author of Out of Stock: The Warehouse in the History of Capitalism.
The project began as a study of foreign-trade zones, and then along the way I became convinced that one of the most important points to make about foreign-trade zones is that they’re warehouses. And I started to react against the tendency to exoticize them and to think about them almost purely in terms of the law. So what I first establish in defining a warehouse is that it is active. It’s a pause. It’s an interruption more than a dead end, more than a final destination. I mean, the way that a foreign-trade zone is a warehouse, I call it like a warehouse with benefits, is simply that it’s on and off US soil, so that it has a way of kind of expanding the border of the nation state to facilitate capital circulation.
What I’m looking at is the way that warehouses are changing; and for the warehouser there’s an imperative for them to change, in terms of inventing ever-more opportunities for commodification of warehouse services. So that over the twentieth century, and particularly in the age of the container in the 1970s and on, warehouses begin to expand in kind of function. When foreign trade zones are instituted in the US during the New Deal, this is in a context of, obviously, concern around protecting domestic industry. And so there’s only so much that Congress can get away with. So with the zone, the understanding was that it needed to have nothing to do with the domestic economy, which I find bizarre that you could even imagine that that would be the case. But that was at least the notion—that these zones were to be located at just a handful of sea ports and that they were very much directed outward; and that this was about, in a small way, but symbolically meaningful way, to position the United States to trade in a modern sense. And to try to usurp the traditional role of Great Britain and Germany, and to take advantage of the chaos in Europe.
And so the way that this was guaranteed in the law, this distance from the US economy, the domestic economy, was that manufacturing was prohibited in the zone. Meaning that the zone was to be purely a space of transmission in these kinds of lanes of international trade, at a few sea ports. No production was to take place; no industry, this was purely commerce. But that model allows for only so much growth and you know, profit, right? It’s a fairly constrained model. And what I learned by studying the office paperwork of the first zone, which opened on Staten Island in New York in 1937, is that almost from day one the operator of the zone—who was a private individual contracting with the city of New York—he’s trying to figure out, along with other zone boosters, how to expand the zone; how to allow for a broader range of activities within the zone, but still falling just short of that ban on manufacturing. So Ford could not relocate to the zone and nor would he want to, they thought. Zones were small, 90 acres or so or less. The vision was for sort of what we might call light manufacturing. But that would be legal because they fell under the heading of “manipulation”: transforming commodities to use the legal language, but in the process of transmitting them.
So what that would mean in a practical sense is that a shipper saved money by landing a cargo of Brazil nuts for two months at the zone where the knots might sit in the air and evaporate water so that when they are imported formally into the US they weigh less, therefore they incur lower duties. You could think of a zone as literally a border, sort of stretched in time and space. So all that you might want to do in a border—which is a funny phrase, who wants to do anything in a border? but borders for capital are different than borders for the rest of us, for labor, in that borders can create opportunities for kind of arbitrage, for profit. Let’s be clear, they aren’t always barriers.
I was struck pretty quickly by how, I would call them imaginers, you know, that they’re both inventing the system—and this is literally the foreign-trade zone system sui generis, or you know, it’s modeled on other examples, but in the US it’s wholly unprecedented. And they’re having to build it and figure it out and market it and so on. And the same we might say for warehousing. Warehousing, like any kind of new facet of capital, involves having to kind of make a case for commodification of a part of life that was not before commodified, you know, so that storage for profit was a whole new way of being and way of thinking in the 1870s. So there’s an inventiveness that I’m constantly coming across in this archive. And it became a big point to me how much they could not capture in words what was unique and compelling about, let’s say, a foreign-trade zone. So they had to imagine this new space of capital in order to build it; and to imagine it, they had to represent it. And to do that they had to try to show it in pictures.
This system sputters along for 20 years, 25 years, 30 years. Even from the vantage point of the early 1950s, even after the law changed to allow manufacturing, zones seemed very peripheral, not likely to take off in the US. And then by the late 1970s suddenly every county wants one. In the context of a newly stagnating national economy, cities are more and more entrepreneurial, and you have cities creating offices of international trade. You have mayors visiting Japan to try to lure Toyota and Nissan. And what it all amounts to is a strange kind of Swiss cheese map of the global economy in the US, where each zone is a port of entry, is an international customs boundary. And they’re everywhere: they’re in every state in the US; over 30 in Texas.
I guess there’s a homogenization story here. I sound like the Frankfurt School or something, right? [Laughter] Where the zone is a serial spatial form—literally, zone one, zone two, zone three, zone four, zone five. They don’t all look alike, exactly. It’s not like it’s a franchise like McDonald’s or Walmart. But in a sense the analogy is appropriate. I mean that it’s a legal template and it has to conform to various regulations, and zones are set up for specific reasons. And so they take on a kind of serialized format.
I think of historians as uncomfortable with abstraction. You’ll often read them denouncing it; they dislike how it flattens the contingencies of the past. And I respect that, but because my focus is on form, I’m necessarily interested in abstraction, because form is abstract in a sense and it’s an inevitable step in the kind of process of making concrete, you know, that we think in abstractions.
Zones outside the US strike us as lawless spaces and as illegal and immoral and nefarious and just extreme. There are a number of reasons why the book omits zone from the title and centers on the warehouse. And that’s partly because I want to respond to that sort of impression by saying, No, this is just capitalism! This is not some kind of warped version of it. Capitalism has always required fixes, liminal spaces, and, you know, ways of maneuvering around the borders it needs at the same time. I mean, it’s these exceptions that are the rule.
Buy the book
Out of Stock: The Warehouse in the History of Capitalism
University of Chicago Press