Kanban Capital and
    Digital Fordism

Kanban capitalism represents the moment at which private enterprise no longer is tied closely by time, space or location, and it now can evolve by exploiting profit-making opportunities that are time-free, space-less, and anti-locational. As Taomira claims, the just-in-time methodology simply is a manufacturing system that "calls for parts and subassemblies to be ready just in time for them to be assembled into the next assembly step," which is a much more open managerial technique requiring "very careful planning and partnering with suppliers," to disembed production from set-in-place warehousing of parts and subassemblies.1 A valorization nexus emerges in digital Fordism from speed, placelessness, and even nonlocationality as its practitioners operate beyond set-in-place markets just-in-time. Kanban capital resists the presumed legitimate monopoly of states to set the value of monies, course of business cycles, nature of laws, porousness of borders, and use of arms simply because they dominate set-in-place lands and peoples. It continues capital's instrumental rationality: the relentless pursuit of performativity.

The material basis for more traditional forms of industrial capitalism developed within the institutional interstices of agrarian feudalism across Western Europe in the urban markets of free cities. In turn, the consolidation of larger nation-states under autocratic imperial dynasties created the market base, labor reserves, and resource access needed for the industrial revolution to succeed. Similarly, the material basis of kanban commerce in globalized modes of capitalist production emerged during the Cold War. The creation of developing nations out of the collapsing old European empires, the consolidation of mass consumerism as industrial corporate democracy's ideological and practical response to state socialism, and the invention of digital computing/ communication technologies to manage the strategic arsenals of the nuclear superpowers all were needed to pull just-in-time capitalism together. Just as the initial operating system and key network for industrial-era capitalism was bourgeois urbanism in imperialist nation-states, so too now are digital computing environments and global telecommunications networks providing the key material basis for informational-era kanban capitalism.2

 

Kanban, or just-in-time, methods of component outsourcing and assembling in contemporary factories, largely because of Toyota's successful implementation of them, have been a subject of analysis for nearly two decades. Beginning as an unavoidable quirk in the supply chains of big Japanese manufacturers with scores of smaller outside industrial partners, kanban techniques of organizing essentially created virtual warehouses of materials by keeping inventories in motion rather than at rest. These assemblies, in turn, constituted a supra-factory out of the assembly lines of outsourcers and transporters, which all became elements of factories-without-walls. Set-in-place storage centers, marshalling yards, and parts warehouses are reduced, if not eliminated entirely, by modularizing the manufactured goods and then accurately tracking their lines of flight toward final assembly out of many sub-assemblies. Even though this technique began a special case study in logistics, the revolutionary temporal and spatial reasoning implied by its efficient practice challenges many of the stable hierarchies of traditionally territorialized states and markets with its new industrial ecologies.

These changes all contributes to the creation of the "extended enterprise" in which closed stable hierarchies are collapsing before open fluid networks that "reach out and develop new relationships with external organizations"3. The articulation of such extended enterprises, in turn, use an electronic data interface between suppliers and buyers to integrate firms in complex partnering relationships. Such collaborating companies practice kanban capitalism by organizing manufacturing and selling alliances through just-in-time techniques.4

By substituting accessible information for inflexible institutions, the theory and practice of digital Fordism conform better to the webs of informational influence working in electronic networks. They also easily confound the pyramids of analog authority implied by existing organizational hierarchies. In a world being remade by the informational revolution, flexible just-in-time practices and theories are displacing many fixed set-in-place activities and ideas in ways that disrupt the market structures, state system, and civil society of the industrial era. Many of those referents are analytical abstractions that do not exist outside of our theoretical analysis of them. Nonetheless, those concepts have a practical concreteness; and, in their current instantiation, one sees new tendencies breaking up the prevailing consensus about markets, states, and society that formed during the industrial era.

With digital Fordism, supply chain management and enterprise application ensembles use bits to command, control, and communicate intelligently with atoms in ways that further rationalize transnational, resource, capital, labor, and tax transactions. Hitherto, these real-time transactions had been prohibitively expensive or practically impossible. Hence, virtual firms and factories can be constructed now as just-in-time kineformations to evade labor regulations, exploit tax advantages, elicit capital investment, and elude consumer pressures. This is "how a business does e-business."5 And, the telemetries of virtual business, as Cisco knows and Ford aspires to possess, can create new webs of dependency through data flows and code capabilities separate and apart from conventional power politics.

Such tendencies in kanban capitalism, as Turkle suggests, add up to "taking things at their interface value" in new workplaces where "people are increasingly comfortable with substituting representations of reality for the real." The communities of production and consumption, which are generated out of computer-mediated communications, mean "programs are treated as social actors we can do business with, provided that they work."7 If people treat computers "in ways that blur the boundary between things and people," then the identities of all those things and people, which once had fixed boundaries and clear distinctions set-in-place, begin to blur along many of their political dispositions as well.8 Provided that these cybernetic ties work, and now they do when it comes to making cars, trading parts, creating identities designing products, or tracking assemblies, kanban capitalist relations blur the distinctions between local and global, domestic and foreign, real life and virtual life, homeplace and marketplace in private sectors of telematic nodality beyond the public sectors of territorialized nationality.

Because of on-going technical innovations, which assemble the work of many from numerous outsources as one "in house" product, the number of factory workers "set-in-place" across the United States has fallen from 33 percent of the workforce in 1966 to less than 17 percent in 1996.9 Even so, U.S. firms, like Ford, have been able to maintain their global competitiveness, mobilize new technologies, and manage global operations in such an efficient fashion that the U.S. still is the world's pre-eminent manufacturing nation in 2000, just as it was in 1960 or 1920. This on-going revolutionization of production by kanban capitalist methods, however, will reduce the U.S. labor force in manufacturing to less than 12 percent of the total labor force by 2006,10 even as big companies increase in size and market value by building cars in Mexico, Korea, Czechoslovakia, Australia or Brazil.

Footnotes



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