Re-assessing Anticapitalist “Internationalism”
Just a few of weeks ago, we were devastated (but not wholly surprised) to hear of yet another tragic disaster taking place in Bangladesh. I’m talking of course, about the collapse of textiles factory in a district of Dhaka, the nation’s capital. One of our Comrades from the ACI wrote an article highlighting many of the key underlying reasons explaining why yet again, we are are presented with even more loss of life just to struggle by on a less-than subsistence wage. The factory was a sub-contractor to the usual likes of Primark & Wal-Mart, and it came as little surprise for us to know they had ignored health and safety warnings, and opened up for “business as usual”. Some of us may have been pleased to learn that following the disaster, several trans-national corporations did in fact react to public outcry by agreeing to a new and improved voluntary health & safety set of regulations. But I wonder if anybody reading this actually thinks that those who did sign (let alone those who didn’t) won’t commit similar failures in other countries (or even again in Bangladesh), or that there aren’t still one-hundred-and-one other problems with the wider way they operate.
We know how capitalist economics work. Consumers demand, so markets supply. Countries like Bangladesh and other “developing” nations are falling over each other trying to offer the most competitive offers for foreign direct investment (FDI), in the hopes of playing “catch up”, whilst the likes of H&M, Marks & Spencer and the Arcadia group are busy battling amongst themselves over who can get there first. In order to keep a contract with one of these lucrative western companies, businesses in the global south must show their girth by completing the ludicrous orders dumped on them by the demands of western consumers. Work is essentially seasonal, and large amounts of staff are laid off on frequent intervals during the low periods. If both contractor and contractee want Top Shop to come back, there is no choice but to enter the workplace, regardless of what health and safety warnings dictate.
I was a little disappointed after two weeks of leaving a comment under the article I read on the ACI website to find that neither the author, or other comrades had a response to what I had to say. The question in hand, was essentially along the lines of whether or not we should consider boycotting these sort of multi-national organisations given there are less-worse offenders out there for the time being. Obviously I do not know the personal circumstances of the author, and respect they may not be in favourable situation to sit down and offer a reply, but the silence from others spoke volumes about current discourses in “radical left” politics.
Reminiscent of this to me is a quote from Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience – “The soldier is applauded who refuses to serve in an unjust war by those who do not refuse to sustain the unjust government which makes the war…”. Similarly, we love hearing how the courageous, ultra-exploited, comprador-nation workers’-struggle occasionally musters such a critical mass they can finally stand up and offer resistance in the form of a (short-lived & unresolving) picket, having risked job, home, limb or life in the process. We cheer, we praise, and we enthusiastically offer our workers-solidarity. After all, we’re humble proletarians too. But then we leave the comfort of our computer chair, and proceed down the high street, cross the picket-line and offer the same evil oligarchs a reward for devastating humanity! Just yesterday I picked up some nice 15% discount ‘blood’ to go with that new ‘sweat’ picked up last week in the spring clearance sale. I needed something else after getting through all those ‘tears’ so quickly!
Despite it being our long term goal, it’s surely up to us to find alternatives to funding large-scale capitalist projects in the immediate – assuming an understand that our contribution as consumers is ultimately what props up this dynamic and complex global system of exploitation and carnage. I couldn’t stomach the idea of sitting down face to face and explaining to someone who’s lost a family member in another industrial catastrophe that I can’t go without all those creature comforts, despite my net-exploitation as a first-world resident means that “come the revolution”, I’ll have probably left very little with which the majority world can actually use for itself (given our projected rates of global resource plunder). Remember, not only does international capital benefit us absolutely (i,e overall raised living standards in the global north etc…) as well as relatively (e,g abundance of “cheap” and “affordable” luxuries), there is the objective fact we live on a planet of finite resources. Where is all this coltan coming from that makes the circuit board for this computer I’m sat at (it was probably hewn from the ground, by slaves, in the aftermath of the last NATO backed invasion by Uganda & Rwanda into the DRC)? What are the majority world going to build their computers with once we’ve taken everything in the West?
I reckon we’ve all got a pretty shrewd idea of the criticisms usually attached to modernising, updating or complementing radical theory. Traditionally, the left doesn’t always like re-inventing it, and we take challenges as criticism. It’s usually seen as an attack on our personal identity; politics is the person – to borrow that nice feminist phrase. Denial of first-world, white urban privilege and position as the international labour aristocracy ensured Maoism got the boot in the west long ago (“don’t mention the holy proletariat’s exploitation of rural workers…the peasants are backwards anyway!”), and Neo-Marxism went the same way in the 70’s/80’s (“academic women/ethnic minorities? They must be bourgeois!”). Until recently we even turned our nose up to environmental considerations (“just another middle class problem!”) to the detriment of every living thing on the planet, including ourselves! At least at the ACI we’ve already taken steps to over-coming these old tenacious tendencies. One central criticism I can think of in suggesting that we shouldn’t purchase from companies who operate using slave labour in developing countries, is that without “developed” nations buying those products, there wouldn’t be any employment at all, and things would be worse. But to me, that’s no different to suggesting that it’s acceptable to use work-for-welfare schemes in the UK, because it’s somehow “good” for our economy, and you still get your (rapidly decreasing) benefits. Thankfully, this resurgent development in a first world economy has been a revelation in bringing some of the reality of the majority world closer to home for many of us (I myself will most likely be starting a work scheme very soon, though I certainly do not profess I’d be just as happy working in a sweat shop or going down a mine with limited safety equipment as I would stacking shelves during night shifts).
Does all this mean we should “consume” less as individuals then? Probably; if we really want to challenge existing power structures on all fronts. Definitely; if we want to shake ourselves away from being unconscious agents of capitalism and work towards environmentally sound and localised methods of production. If we don’t, whether we like it or not, we’ll continue in our role as hapless consumers, and perpetuate and strengthen the machine we’re trying to destroy, and commit the same adulteries from the last 50 years. Does this mean we have to completely abandon civilisation as we know it, and drop out of society like disciples of John Zerzan? Good luck convincing other people to leave their homes to settle in the Forest of Dean! However, common sense (and Mao!) should dictate that a revolution isn’t a dinner party.
I certainly can’t provide some X-point plan of action of what is to be done. If I could have, I might have. However, what is imperative is that we start constructively addressing the technical issues of our consumption patterns as they become more acute and pressing in the 21st century. To do so, we must better understand our own roles, our actions, and their consequences, if we are to make meaningful headway in over-coming the difficulties we both endure and secure within the post-imperial globalized economy. With reference to my point from the start, organising both large-scale and individual boycotts, though limited as an individual response in the context of the wider situation, might aid movement building as it would expose us to more liberal audiences who could be introduced to radicalism (it seems like a perfect time for “soft” direct action given the growing drift and disillusionment with Labour/Liberal/Green centrist politics). Enough from me though. I’ll leave you with another one from Thoreau; “I quarrel not with the far-off foes, but with those who, near at home, co-operate with, and do the bidding of, those far away, and without whom the latter would be harmless”.
As if fate was playing some sick trick on us, the evening of me finishing this essay saw the section of a footwear factory collapse in Cambodia, killing at least two, and injuring others.