Leapfrog logistics: digital trucking platforms, infrastructure, and labor in Brazil and China

Wei Wei, Jörg Nowak and Steve Rolf (2023), Review of International Political Economy

Critical political economy analyses have principally conceptualised platforms as unproductive economic forms (rentier capital) skimming value off each intermediated transaction and/or illegitimately extracting and capitalizing user data. This scholarship has also focused heavily on extractive dimensions of global North platforms’ operations within the global South. However, a small but growing literature is examining the productive aspects of digital platforms, while important digital platforms are emerging in Southern economies. These trends draw attention to the prospect of platforms playing a role in leapfrog development. This article examines digital trucking platforms in two major economies of the global South: Brazil and China. We argue that trucking platforms are engendering dramatic transformations of these countries’ disorganised road transport logistics systems. Platforms are centralising investment and co-ordinating control. Utilising technologies which surpass those deployed in the global North, they rationalise disorganised and inefficient transport systems by subjecting them to algorithmic rule and minimising bureaucratic inefficiencies. Through greater centralisation, co-ordination and rationalisation, trucking platforms further serve to proletarianize their owner-operator workforces, driving down costs and eliminating barriers to the geographical circulation of capital. While this offers some benefits to workers, it also exposes them to the vagaries of market discipline in new ways.

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