Friday, October 7, 2011

In My Back Yard

The above image makes a good point, but there are some problems with it. For one thing, while there is too much hunger in the world, 99% of the population don't look like the children in the lower half. The worldwide maldistribution of wealth has as much to do with relative standards of living as with catastrophic famine, but it is really not a good idea for everyone to use as much electricity and own as many cars and generate as much garbage as Americans do. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak said in a recent interview that a lot of talk about "sustainability" is misconceived, because the lifestyles people want to sustain simply aren't sustainable.

And some well-meaning people just don't get it: one person commented on Facebook, "When I have enough to feed myself for the month and not Overdraft ... Overdraft ... I will undoubtedly suffer help I those less fortunate." It's a nice sentiment, but it misses the point. Personal, private charity can't fix the systemic structural problems the world faces.

For example: as everyone knows by now, Steve Jobs died yesterday. I'm sure I don't need to tell the readers of this blog who he was, any more than I'd need to tell you who Michael Jackson was. There has been an enormous outpouring of commentary about him, some of which annoys me. I do perhaps need to tell you who Fred Shuttlesworth and Derrick Bell were, both of whom died yesterday as well, and both of whom matter more to me than Jobs. That's not because I don't own a Mac, because I expect to shudder just as much at the tidal wave of goo that will be generated when Bill Gates cashes in his chips. I'm not a brand loyalist.

But I've been amazed at what otherwise sensible people have written about Jobs. Part of it is normal de mortuis nil nisi bonum, of course, but "transformative genius"? IOZ beat me to the punch on that sort of thing. I love computers and the Internet, but there are problems: the toxic byproducts of microchip production, for example, the harm done to the workers' health in computer factories, the economic exploitation of the workers, and so on. And on and on. The first reaction to Jobs' death by one friend of mine, with whom I'm in accord on politics, was: "Wouldn't it be nice if Jobs's iconic 'American' products had been made in the U.S.A.? Jobs, indeed." Well, no, it wouldn't be nice, not without very extensive regulation in working conditions -- which isn't going to happen without some intense struggle.

You see how difficult it is to disentangle these matters, though? I don't mean to imply that it's okay for Chinese workers to be underpaid, overworked, and slowly killed by poison; no one should work in those conditions. We need to improve conditions for workers around the world. But such efforts will be opposed by countries like China, which will claim that Chinese don't expect the silly "rights" that soft Westerners expect. Western corporations, with their multicultural sensitivity, will second that claim enthusiastically. Chinese and other Asian workers won't, but who cares about them? As Amartya Sen wrote in Development as Freedom (Oxford, 1999),
Are the citizens of third world countries indifferent to political and democratic rights? This claim, which is often made, is again based on too little empirical evidence .... The only way of verifying this would be to put the matter to democratic testing in free elections with freedom of opposition and expression -- precisely the things that the supporters of authoritarianism do not allow to happen. It is not clear at all how this proposition can be checked when the ordinary citizens are given little political opportunity to express their views on this and even less to dispute the claims made by the authorities in office. The downgrading of these rights and freedoms is certainly part of the value system of the government leaders in many third world countries, but to take that to be the view of the people is to beg a very big question.

It is thus of some interest to note that when the Indian government, under Indira Gandhi's leadership, tried out a similar argument in India, to justify the "emergency" she had misguidedly declared in the mid-1970s, an election was called that divided the voters precisely on this issue. In that fateful election, fought largely on the acceptability of the "emergency," the suppression of basic political and civil rights was firmly rejected, and the Indian electorate -- one of the poorest in the world -- showed itself to be no less keen on protesting against the denial of basic liberties and rights than it was in complaining about economic poverty. To the extent that there has been any testing of the proposition that poor people in general do not care about civil and political rights, the evidence is entirely against that claim. Similar points can be made by observing the struggle for democratic freedoms in South Korea, Thailand, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Burma (or Myanmar) and elsewhere in Asia [151].
The appeal of cheap labor isn't limited to the US. That's one of the revealing things about the development of capitalism in Asia. South Korea began developing its industrial plant in the 1960s under the dictator Park Chung-hee, in an intimate partnership between the government and business. This was capitalism, and Park's Korea was included in the propaganda category "the Free World," but it was far from free, and far from free markets. Working conditions were terrible, and we'll probably never know how many human beings South Korea's industrial revolution used up. In theory, workers weren't supposed to be worked to death; the Republic had an extensive labor law code that in theory protected workers' rights, but it wasn't enforced. (Park Gwang-su's 1995 film A Single Spark, based on the 1970 martyrdom of textile worker Jeon Tae-il, has never been released in the US, but it is currently available with English subtitles on Youtube, starting here. It made a powerful impression on me when I first saw it years ago. Jeon set himself afire, along with a copy of the Korean labor code, in protest against the conditions in the sweatshops of the Peace Market, the Seoul garment district. The biography on which the film was based was translated into English by Jeon's sister, who's now a professor of labor studies, and is worth reading if you can find it. Se-hui's Cho's novel in stories The Dwarf [Hawaii, 2006] gives a vivid picture of the impact of factory work and forced modernization on ordinary Koreans; for a sociological study of young factory women, see Seung-kyung Kim's Class Struggle or Family Struggle? [Cambridge, 2009]; Janice C. H. Kim's To Live To Work [Stanford, 2009] shows the roots of the system during the Japanese colonial period.)

The government promised its people that conditions and pay would eventually improve, and that everyone had to work together to make this happen. Just as this promise began to be fulfilled in the 1980s, Korean corporations found that they couldn't afford to pay higher wages, so they began moving production overseas to other Asian countries, especially Southeast Asia. At around the same time, South Korean citizens began demanding more of a political voice, climaxing with the overturning of the military dictatorship in 1987 and the first real elections in 1993. I think there's a two-way relationship here: that the corporations began moving overseas to escape the growth of Korean democracy and an independent and militant labor movement, while the democracy and labor movements became more militant as Korean business began to welsh on the long promise of better pay, better working conditions, and more leisure. (I believe I figured this out after reading John Kie-chang Oh's Korean Politics [Cornell, 1999], though he probably wouldn't agree with my interpretation. See also South Korea's Minjung Movement [Hawaii, 1995], edited by Kenneth M. Wells, and Echoes of the Past, Epics of Dissent [California, 1996] by Nancy Abelmann, for accounts of the grassroots movement against the dictatorship.)

Almost as soon as the military dictatorship caved in, international capital and its government partners increased pressure on the South Korean government for more access to the Korean economy. It should be no surprise that these agents were not happy about growing democracy and civil freedom in the countries they sought to buy; the US Chamber of Commerce, for example, has often called for a crackdown on what it calls "anti-American" sentiment in Korea. The International Monetary Fund sought to destroy the social services Koreans enjoyed through privatization, and in the economic crisis of the late 90s many government-owned businesses and services were sold off at fire-sale prices to foreign corporations; for a good account of the neoliberal assault on Asian economies, see Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine (Metropolitan Books, 2007). Koreans have continued to resist these trends, and the struggle continues.

There was a similar pattern in the United States after World War II: American business fed at the public trough, to its great benefit, both at home and abroad. The prosperity of the 1950s was the fulfillment of the American dream, we were told, and there was speculation about shorter work weeks, more leisure, and the benefits of technology (television, household appliances, etc.) that would give all Americans a better life. The prospect of more leisure made corporate elites uneasy, however, and they began trying to tighten their control on their workers. Higher wages were seen as wasteful, except for CEOs. When Ronald Reagan became President in 1981 and unemployment rose to near-Depression levels, new jobs were mostly part-time, low-wage, and devoid of benefits, a pattern that continues to this day. During the Reagan and Clinton regimes, this meant that many people were working two or sometimes more jobs at once to try to support their families, and the breadwinner/housewife model faded not because of feminism but because wives also had to work outside the home. Corporations had already begun moving production overseas to more hospitable business climates, which in practice meant not only lower wages but freedom from environmental and worker-safety regulations, and especially friendly governments that would crush any labor agitation by force. (A "docile" labor force is their Impossible Dream; workers in other countries tend to be more militant than Americans, but a regime dedicated to what the Koch Brothers call "economic freedom" will torture, abduct, and kill any workers who get too uppity, let alone try to organize.) Then the official line changed: the prosperity of the Fifties was not the inevitable flowering of Free Enterprise, but a historical blip. Americans had gotten spoiled, and now we were going to have stop coasting along and work.

This isn't a "conspiracy theory." It doesn't really matter how conscious business and governments elites are of what they're doing, though they are more aware than they pretend in public. (See David Gordon's Fat and Mean: The Corporate Squeeze of Working Americans and the Myth of Managerial "Downsizing" [Free Press, 1996] for a good account.) What matters is that the pattern I've described keeps turning up in different countries, even "socialist" ones. Capitalism is capitalism, whether it's overtly or covertly intertwined with a nation-state, as I'd long suspected and as the late Chris Harman showed in Zombie Capitalism [Haymarket Books, 2010] and Raymond Williams explained in his ecological essays in Resources of Hope (Verso, 1989).

Of course we need good jobs here in America, as people do everywhere, but the trouble is not so much that jobs are being shipped to other countries, but that no good new jobs are being created here to take their place. As those jobs make their exodus to
Latin America, Southeast Asia, and other such countries, they're stripped of most of the economic benefits that made them worthwhile at home. The myth of America's conversion to a service-based (as opposed to a production-based) economy also overlooks this problem: the new service jobs are mostly low-wage, no-benefit work tied to "flexible labor markets," or the elimination of job security. And as we've seen very forcefully in the past few years, the outcome is increased economic inequality, a wildly oscillating business cycle, and a new Depression as economic elites try to ride the economic tiger and turn to the government to bail them out when they fall off.