Posts Tagged ‘sweatshops


The Common Evil

Last post I mentioned the opening scene in The Boondock Saints, in which it is declared “We must all fear evil men, but there is another kind of evil that we must fear most, and this the indifference of good men…”. It got me thinking.

A couple years ago, I saw a documentary called The Corporation– an excellently done critique of the issues of globalization, neo-liberalism, and Capitalism in general. One particularly interesting segment was devoted to looking at heads of corporations, with commentaries added by Noam Chomsky and ‘Sir’ Mark Moody-Stuart, the former chairman of Royal Dutch Shell (better known simply as “Shell”). Moody-Stuart recounts a demonstration that was held at his house, in which protesters hurled accusations at him and his involvement in the Shell corporation. Moody’s wife (the event was recorded on film) retorts “Who is the corporation?”. Moody-Stuart continues on in his narration to say “But then we sat down and talked to them… in the end what we found in that discussion was that all the things they were worried about I was worried about as well… climate, you know, oppressive regimes, human rights…”. Now Chomsky, on the other hand, had prefaced that segment with some commentary on individuals within corporations. He argues “When you look at a corporation, just like when you look at a slave-owner, uh, you want to distinguish between the institution and the individual… slavery, for example, or other forms of tyranny are inherently monstrous, but the individuals participating in them might be the nicest guys you can imagine. Benevolent, friendly, nice to their children, even nice to their slaves… as individuals they might be anything- in their institutional roles they’re monsters because the institutions is monstrous.”

And there’s the issue. GAP clothing is made by sweatshop labor in South-East Asia- who should be put on trial? Who is responsible for the atrocities that are committed? We look at the people doing the actual work- the sweatshop managers and owners and they point up asserting that they were only following orders, and that they don’t have any real power. At the top the CEOs and Executives are pointing down, declaring that they only deal with the big figures- that they’re not aware of anything that goes on at the ground level and can’t be held responsible for the treatment of workers or the environment. It’s the lynch mob scenario- because no one person does the entire murder, figuring out which one person is to blame is tricky.

Personally, I say take ’em all. Just because the guilt is spread around doesn’t mean it’s at all diminished. If Person A brings the rope, and Person B grabs the victim, and Person C points out a convenient tree, it doesn’t mean that each person’s committed a third of a murder- it means that all three are responsible. Same seems to go for a corporation- at any point someone can throw up their hands and say “**** it- I’m not going to do this anymore!”. The sweatshop overseer can walk away, the middleman can walk away, the CEO can walk away. Even if no one person can put a stop the unethical practice, at the very least they can remove themselves from it. We would expect a single German officer in the 1930s to bring down Hitler but a resignation of his post and a denouncement of the Nazis would be in order.

Of course, it’s easy to bash corporations, but guilt reaches far beyond the boundaries of corporate HQ. We, as consumers and workers alike, have to stand back and with scathing objectivity look at ourselves and question our involvement. Am I being party to exploitative or unethical systems? Am I doing all that I can to remove myself? Am I part of the problem?

And it’s not easy- we think of evil as being committed by Bond style villains with maniacal laughter and white cats, or by sadistic concentration camp guards and doctors. The idea of common evil- evil weaved into the very fabric of modern society- is an idea alien to us. However, as theologian and writer C.S. Lewis once asserted “The greatest evil is not done in those sordid dens of evil that Dickens loved to paint but is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried, and minuted) in clear, carpeted, warmed, well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voices.”. In short, there is no single person who commits the atrocities that plague us. The evil is within the system- and the system has to go.


The Point Of It All

I’m not feeling so great. I’ve been up since six this morning with no real sleep for the past two days. My stomach is aching from a combination of stress and oily, fatty college cafeteria food. I’ve spent the past three hours having my brain clubbed into a gooey pulp by a statistics test, and I’ll be having to write up a major presentation and memorize it by tomorrow evening.


I have it easy.


There are millions of people out there who would sell their own children to be in my place. Thousands of people have sold their own children to have a chance at being where I am. There are millions of people who, no matter how hard they work or how long or how well, will never be where I am.


That’s just a little something to put things in perspective.


I’m sitting here, eyes-bloodshot, stomach churning, neck-aching and I’m wondering why? Why am I putting myself through this everyday (sure it’s nothing compared to other people’s hardships, but let’s stay focused here)?


Why do people go to college? Well, some people are in college because they want to party for four years before the responsibilities of life and the universe hit them. Some people are here (at my college especially) to find someone to marry, but in general, the overwhelming number of us are in college to get degrees so they can get jobs.


Not sure, you don’t need a college degree to get a job. You don’t need to know how to find a t statistic for related samples or the definition of a theodicy to get a career in a textile mill or as a janitor. Only problem for those who try going down this road is that in the West, the vast majority of jobs you would be able to get without a degree can be done infinitely cheaper by a twelve-year old in Indonesia or an illegal immigrant. Sure there are still jobs out there for the degree-less, but it’s hard to support yourself, let alone any sort of family, working the grill at McDonalds or mowing lawns. There’s always the army, but considering the pay isn’t much better and the work is slightly more than hazardous, it’s a bit of a gamble.


So that’s where degrees come in. You want to have a decent-paying job at some point, you’ll need a degree. I’m at college to get a degree and chances are that you were/are/will be at college to get a degree. But is that really enough? I can’t help think back to a Peter Kreeft book where the resurrected philosopher Socrates approaches a college student to figure out why he’s attending college. I’ll paraphrase it briefly:

Socrates: Why are you here?

Student: To get a degree so I can get a job.

Soc: Why?

Stu: To make a lot of money so I can have a family and send my children to college.

Soc: Why will you send them to college?

Stu: So they can get degrees and get jobs.


It goes on like that.


Now this is really what I’m seeing here at my college. Students come in from generally the middle-class/upper-class to get degrees, get jobs, and return to being part of the middle-class/upper-class. People will take jobs on the basis of pay, whether said jobs are fulfilling or not, and spend the next forty years or so grinding away at their jobs. Why? To do what they really want to do. To go fishing, to take care of a garden, to spend time with family, to paint, to read, to tinker with cars, to cook, to write, and so on. It’s seems to me to be awful rate of exchange if we’re working sixty-plus years at jobs we don’t care about (or even hate) to spend our old age desperately trying to do the things we we wanted to do from the beginning (indeed, the things we were born to do). I don’t want to work on the machine that going to sap me of my life, rewarding me with the chance to do what I love doing when I’m too old to do it! I don’t want to have wealth, I want to have purpose.


That, I think, is the point of it all.

The only question we’re left with is “what purpose”?



A More Perfect Union

We have a complicated relationship with labor unions in the West. We have the timeless image of decent, simple, blue-collar men (and women) who work hard to put food on their family’s tables, until the company they work for decides to cut wages, leaving the worker’s no choice other than to form a union, strike, and eventually victor over the soulless corporate fat-cats in a heartwarming, straight-to-television kind of way. Balancing this image is that of the corrupt, surly, indolent teamsters, siphoning off cash from both the company and the workers, and bullying any opposition into submission.


Now there’s a bit of truth to both sides. On the one hand, unions were once (and in many parts of the world, still are) violently persecuted and harassed by companies and corporations who had men, women, and children working long hours for low pay in dangerous and unsanitary conditions. Unions were, for the working class, their sole means of getting a fair wage or better conditions. On the other hand, it’s undeniable that there is corruption within many unions- just look at the news stories of unions hiring non-union workers to picket for them (linked here).


Now as you can probably guess, Communists side unilaterally with unions. Indeed, Communists were among the first to push for worker’s rights and unionization, and continue to do so to this day. However, what is the Marxist response to the problem of unions becoming parasitic organizations that exploit both employees and employers?


The problem of union corruption arises from an attempt to fight for worker rights within the Capitalist system, rather than recognizing Capitalism as the source of exploitation. Imagine that you lead a union of textile workers. You’ve just got the company you work for to agree to good wages, safe working conditions, good benefits (healthcare and whatnot)- where do you go from there? If you dissolve the union, there’s the high likelihood that the company will simply begin to exploit the workers again. If you continue to fight for higher wages and more benefits, then you might damage the company by draining it of its profits (demanding $100 hourly-wages in a lemonade stand that has a weekly profit of $5- extreme example, but you get the idea). And since we live in a society based entirely on acquiring the most cash possible, the best option for you is to line your pockets with money from both sides- higher wages from the company and union dues from the workers. This is the problem- if nothing is done about the Capitalist system that caused the exploitation in the first place, unions can be just as bad as the company.


So what’s the solution?

A change of priorities.


Communists, both in this country and around the world are working both with and in unions to fight for worker’s rights, but in a very different way than their Capitalist counterparts. Instead of working towards the end goal of more money, the Communist solution is for unions to work towards more control. Instead of continuing to work for the corporations, unions are to work for greater control over their places of work, be it a textile factory, a automobile assembly line, or a fast-food chain. Ultimately, all workers would have a fair and equal wage, and an equal share in the company. Essentially, the textile factory would be owned and run by those working there. With an equal share of the company, profit becomes secondary to the well-being of the workers and the quality and quantity of the  product being made. Exploitation would be impossible, and there would be no dichotomy between the will of the workers and the will of the company. This is the kind of union worth fighting for.


Marx and History

If one were to read the works of Marx, or indeed, any major Communist writer, one would find that large portions of the publications are dedicated to criticizing (or often, lambasting) Capitalism and Capitalists. Even this blog has almost as many anti-Capitalist arguments as it does pro-Communist. This of course leads to issues with the Communist image- Marxists are often perceived as self-righteous, angry, and destructive malcontents bent on ripping apart the fabric of society. Perhaps on some level this is true, however, there is a simple and often overlooked factor that contributes to all this: Marx’s theory of history.

In his works, Marx describes his theory as “Historical Materialism”. Now the term “materialism” is often misinterpreted (particularly by members of the religious community) to mean atheistic, worldly, and Darwinist. As I’ve said, this is a misinterpretation. In this case, “materialism” merely means “pertaining to resources” including capital (money), land, and most importantly, people. While Marx’s description of his theory is more than slightly complex and long winded, it can be broken down and simplified.

According to Marx’s theory, the history of the world is shaped by economics and politics, the pair of which are- as Marx claims- inseparably linked. Humanity once lived in a state where the elite- the aristocracy, nobility, and royalty- controlled their nations and the wealth of their nations. The middle class is almost nonexistent and the remainder of society not fortunate enough to be born to the elite are slaves or feudal serfs and peasants. Eventually, as kingdoms become less warlike and more permanently established, merchants, bankers, etc. will be created, resulting in the middle-class or as Marx called it, the “Bourgeoisie”.

As time progresses, the public will become increasingly dissatisfied with the system of monarchy and aristocracy and revolt, creating a democracy. While the elite class will still exist, due to the fewness of their numbers, the political power they once wielded will be limited, and the wealthy and numerous Bourgeoisie will dominate society. In this new society it is not claims to divine heritage or noble blood that count as power but money. The Bourgeoisie will compete viciously with each other in the attempt to gain as much money as possible, and in the process the proletariat (working class) will be used and exploited by the upper-classes. The proletariat themselves living in a state of “wage-slavery”, bound to work for whatever pay is available in order to survive.

After so long, the proletariat will be unable to take any more exploitation and violently revolt- toppling the class system and establishing a single-class society where all wealth and resources are shared equally: Socialism. The state- which controls the public- will wither away and be replaced with a system of government where the public controls the state. Marx defines this state of egalitarianism, public property, and democracy as “Communism”. Marx states that when Communism is achieved Historical Materialism ends (at least for those living in the Communist system).

So what’s that have to do with anything? How is any of this relevant to why Communists always rant against Capitalism? As we can see from Marx’s view of history, Communism is meant to be the correction of Capitalism. Communism isn’t meant to be a form of government more comfortable or efficient than Capitalism- it’s the replacement of Capitalism. According to Marx and his view of history, Communism is the completion of Historical materialism- as inevitable as the change of the tides or the rotation of the earth. The reason Capitalism is constantly railed against by Communists is because, according to Marxist philosophy, Capitalism is a wall that needs to be knocked down before a door can be put in. Capitalism must be removed in order to be replaced with Communism.

“But what about the flaws in Marx’s reasoning?” one might ask, “The Chinese and Cuban people revolted and yet neither of these Communist countries have had the governments wither away or the class systems disappear.” In answer to that, one must remember that neither of these countries are Communist but rather semi-Socialist dictatorships. “If they’re Socialist, then shouldn’t they be on the brink of Communism?” Not at all. One must also remember that the definition of “Socialism” has changed since Marx’s time. Marx used the word to describe the abolition of private property in favor of public property- today the word “Socialism” refers to an economic system where property is largely controlled by the state, rather than individuals or the public. One might also argue that Marx’s theory of history is flawed due to the existence of various tribal societies that have shared property and no class system. Now this is undeniable- across the globe there are people groups that live without private property or the class system however one must keep in mind that these are societies are not democracies. Granted, many are ruled by general consensus however without a voting system, consensus does not equate democracy. A neighborhood might generally agree to regularly cut their lawns, but this doesn’t make that neighborhood a democracy. “That’s all well and good,” one might state, “but Marx’s predictions still haven’t come true. Capitalism has been in the US for well over two centuries now and there hasn’t been any revolt, any collapse in society!”. This is absolutely correct, though by no fault of Marx. In Marx’s time, each country had it’s own social strata- there was the French elite class, the French Bourgeoisie, and the French Proletariat, the English elite class, the English Bourgeoisie, and so on. Marx predicted that the Proletariat would rise up and overthrow the classes above. The reason this hasn’t happened is because of a sudden shift in the class system. Due to globalization, countries and their economies are no longer independent of each other. What affects the middle-class in France will affect the middle-class in England, Germany, Russia and so on (to varying degrees, according to what the event is and how related the countries are economically, culturally, and politically). With this sudden merge of the nations of the world, classes have merged as well, creating the same three-class system only on an international level. Yes, each country has a working class, but in general the majority of actual mining, fishing, forestry, agriculture, and manufacturing is done by workers in the third world. France no longer looks to the French Proletariat for utensils but to China. England doesn’t hire English miners to gather coltan but to Congolese workers. When an American buys a t-shirt, chances are that the cotton it’s made of was grown in Syria and manufactured in Taiwan. In short, as a result of internationalization, there is an international proletariat (primarily the third world), an international Bourgeoisie (such countries as Bulgaria, Mexico, Estonia, Ireland, etc.), and an international elite-class (Japan, Switzerland, Monaco, Kuwait, etc.). Yes, the “Proletariat” of the US aren’t likely to revolt, but that is because on a global level, the American proletariat are wealthy. Even the poorest person in America, England, or Denmark is well-off compared to the average Sudanese person. Does the class system still exist as Marx knew it? No. Does that make Marx incorrect? Not at all. Marx stated that the proletariat would, once conditions became poor enough, revolt against upper classes. This statement works whether you apply it to 1840s England or the contemporary third world. Does this mean that the third world will eventually invade the Bourgeoisie and elite countries? No, but if the publics of these countries were to seize control of their governments, declare their national debts nil, null, and void, and throw out all foreign industry (as Castro did to the US owned sugar companies in Cuba) then the rest of the world would be thrown into chaos. With the formerly indigent countries no longer willing to work in the fields, mines, or the sweatshops, the rest of the world would have to look to the Bourgeoisie countries to become the new proletariat, started the revolutionary cycle all over again until the global class system disappears and Communism encompasses the globe.

Does this mark the end of history? The beginnings of a global, one-government society where crime, hunger, and war have been eliminated? The answer is a resounding no. Marx claims that this will be the end of Historical Materialism– history as affected by wealth and the class system. History- the unbroken chain of events from the beginning of time to the end of it- marches inexorably on.