Dirty, Pretty Things Part 2
By Dennis Loo
Part I can be found here.
The New York Times’ articles on Apple in China (I and II) have struck a chord and there is talk of an Apple boycott circulating among American journalists. Since Apple’s success depends a great deal on its being seen as cool, the explosions and suicides caused by its “drive the costs down as much as possible” that lead directly to their suppliers trying to cut corners on workers’ safety and welfare, present them with a PR nightmare.
So enter Larry Dignan at CBS rising to Apple’s defense in a January 27, 2012 article entitled “Roughing up Apple: Time to whistle time out.” In it, Dignan says that Apple is being unfairly singled out when the picture fits for not only all of hi-tech but also clothes and nearly any other manufactured product bought in the US today. So far, so good, on that he’s right. But then he goes on to say:
[A]ll of these takes on the abused supply chain are all viewed through the Western lens. To that person working in the Foxconn plant he’s providing for his family and future generations. To him, the pay is probably pretty good. Maybe the second and third generations wind up running Foxconn. Ditto for the guy in the textile worker in Africa and every other person in an emerging market.
The bottom line here is we enable a supply chain that has a lot of warts. We want to examine those warts, but not really. This flap about worker safety isn’t about Apple, the tech industry or any other vertical. It’s about us.
I don’t know. Western lens: does it look different from the Chinese lens when parents learn that their children have committed suicide at their Foxconn dorm by jumping to their deaths? Do Chinese people feel differently than Americans when they’re forced to work 16 hour shifts and some of them stand for so long that they can’t walk because their legs have swelled up so much? Do Chinese lens regard with casual indifference the fate of their family members who are burned over 90% of their bodies and their faces a mass of red and black and unrecognizable after explosions due to poorly ventilated factories that allow the aluminum dust to collect in combustible quantities? Is that why Lai Xiaodong's mother fled sobbing from his hospital room when she saw him after the accident? Do they think differently about being forced to sign agreements not to sue for permanent lung damage due to toxic chemicals being used to clean the shiny iPad screens rather than regular rubbing alcohol because n-hexane dries three times faster? In other words, in the statement that has always driven me crazy when Americans say it: “Those Asians don’t regard life the way we Westerners do.”
According to Dignan, this man who is so broadminded that he can appreciate that his “Western” regard for life is not the same as the degraded one that non-Westerners must operate from, maybe the second or third generation of the deplorably exploited assembly-line worker goes on to run Foxconn. Even if this were true, what about all of the other 1.2 million workers that Foxconn employs? Are they ALL going to be running Foxconn one day? Does that mean that there will be 1.2 million Foxconn companies for them all to run?
You see, this is the problem with the logic of apologists for capitalism like Mr. Dignan. They can’t do simple math. A few individuals who experience upward mobility does not mean that everyone escapes the fate of being a savagely exploited worker. You don’t have billionaire capitalists like Steve Jobs without most of the rest of the people being exploited workers.
Which brings me to my next point: Apple got started because Steve Jobs’ friend Steve Wozniak single-handedly built the first user friendly personal computer/Mac. Wozniak had the outlandish idea that he’d give the idea away, get this, for free to the world. Steve Jobs, that genius, that technical wizard, that man who changed the world, persuaded him to instead co-found Apple with him. Wait. I thought that inventors and the drive for innovation is what must be rewarded with money in order for inventions to happen? And you’re telling me that Steve Wozniak, the actual inventor of the first Mac, wasn’t motivated by material incentives? Get out of here!
The race to the bottom that characterizes the U.S. economy and neoliberalism more generally throughout the world today is not here because, despite the erudite Mr. Dignan’s piercing insights, the U.S. consumer suddenly started demanding that everything be cheaper and that if this meant that Main Street should languish and die and that Wall Street should laugh all the way to their banks bulging with cash, that the manufacturing sector should be exported lock stock and barrel abroad, and that a substantial part of the working class and now the middle class should be rendered disposable, then so be it. Why, the joys of shopping for bargains at Walmart and getting crushed on Black Fridays surely exceed those tired old things like a decent job, a house, and a thriving Main Street! What would have made the U.S. consumer suddenly decide that - to, in essence, commit social and economic Hari-Kiri? How come they weren’t doing this during the middle part of the 20th century when the gap between the rich and the rest of us was actually contracting?
The reason, Virginia, that his blaming all of us (and therefore none of us) doesn’t make any sense is because that’s not why deindustrialization, privatization, and deregulation have been happening over the last thirty plus years.
The rise of neoliberalism is due to a movement that began among elites and that became possible for them to implement when the socialist camp came apart and capitalism no longer had to try to appeal to people. Capitalism without any rivals could now present to the world the Hobson’s choice – take it or starve. To paraphrase Henry Ford, you can have any color of unemployment and degrading living standards you want, as long as I, and the capitalist class, are still in charge. These dramatic changes aren't because of the American consumer. It’s because of the American (and German and Russian and English and Japanese and Chinese… ) capitalist and the capitalist system worldwide.
In the wake of the Left’s decline, the capitalist camp now ruled the world roost as unchallenged champion. No longer restricted by countervailing forces such as socialist states or vibrant unions, capitalism could now slough off the welfare state’s unwanted strictures and dictate terms the way a victorious army sets the terms of the peace.
Contemporaneous technological developments—especially computerization, more advanced telecommunications, and automation—also made production’s internationalization more feasible and inexpensive. As a result of the Left’s retreat and the emergence of these technical innovations, virtually the entire world’s labor force, consumer markets, and resources were now flung wide open to capitalist expansion and exploitation. If corporations such as Walmart and Nike could pay Third World and former socialist bloc workers a fraction of what they paid US workers and still sell their finished products for the same price, what right-thinking executive with demanding shareholders and Wall Street to satisfy could resist sending their factories abroad and outsourcing relentlessly? Even if some compassionate US executives wanted to preserve American jobs and the communities that grew up around those jobs, to buck this trend meant that they were both compassionate executives and career suicides. (Globalization and the Demolition of Society, p. 49)
To be continued
This site aims to accomplish two related goals. First, it complements Dennis Loo's book Globalization and the Demolition of Society so that people reading the book can get more deeply into it. (See navigation bar above, labeled "GDS Book Annotations"). We believe that his book is a landmark, providing a solid foundation for politics of a new path. Taking such a path is critical to humanity and the planet's future. As his book's dust jacket states:
[F]ree market fundamentalism - also known as neoliberalism - makes us not more secure or prosperous: it tears the social fabric and undermines security, leading inevitably to disasters on the individual, regional, and global levels.
Neoliberalism is based on the mantra that market forces should run everything. It aims to eliminate job and income security, the social safety net (including welfare and other social guarantees), unions, pensions, public services, and the governmental regulation of corporations. It consequently undermines the basis for people to voluntarily cooperate with authority as almost everyone is increasingly left by themselves to face gargantuan private interests, with governmental and corporate authority ever more indifferent to the public’s welfare.
Those in charge of our collective fates in government and business personify a heartless system based on profit and plunder. They have been relentlessly instituting profoundly immoral and unjust policies even while they insist that they are doing the opposite. We, on the other hand, stand for and are fighting for a radically different system and set of values than this.
Defeating the empire is not something that occurs only on the literal battlefield. It is also something that is determined throughout the continuum of battles over many issues, including: ideas; philosophy; forms of organization and leadership in economy, politics, and other realms; ways of arguing; ways of responding to and respecting empirical data; interest in truth as opposed to expedience; how people and the environment should be treated; the nature of relations among people (e.g., between women and men, different races and ethnicities, rich and poor countries, etc.); ways of responding to criticism and ideas that are not your own; ways of handling one’s own errors and those of others; and more, all the way up through how warfare is carried out. The contrast between the methods and goals of the neoliberals and those of us who seek an entirely different world is stark. (Globalization and the Demolition of Society, Pp. 326-7)