Thinking Outside the Sweatshop…err…Box

It is the driving force behind many students enrolling at Harvard and immersing themselves in this mentally injurious environment as oppose to a less academically rigorous school, perhaps one that would have paid for their enrollment entirely. It is the reason for spending 14-hour days in a lonely and hot Wall Street office for Morgan Stanley during the most vibrant years of one’s life. It is the reason why Adam Smith has been more detrimental to the prolonged existence and prosperity of the human species than Adolf Hitler, HIV-AIDS, and trans-fat combined. It is the reason parents explicitly encourage their daughters to marry a doctor or a lawyer as oppose to, say, someone she loves or would like to raise a family with. It is the theoretical underpinning of the (theoretical) root of all evil. What I surreptitiously speak of, of course, is capitalism.

In our world today, nothing can possibly be considered more radical than being anti-capitalist. “Who doesn’t want to make money?” is what everyone from the local street pharmacist to George W. Bush would say. Capitalism rules our lives like one would not believe and not to participate in it is something that I struggle with everyday. Perpetuating this system that causes international strife including but not limited to war, famine, and genocide is something that is very nearly impossible to do unless one pulls a Henry David Thoreau and decides to withdraw from society (keep tempting me…I dare you). My critique of capitalism is far-reaching and deep but I will engender to explain what parts I can in hopes of bringing some of you future global oppressors to my side. The correct side. The human side.

(more in expanded post)

Capitalism is the underlying reason for many of the nation’s (and world’s, to a degree) negative “-isms” and must be destroyed in order to bring the others tumbling down as well. This economic theory holds profit as its chief bottom line, seeks to have the means of production (i.e. advanced machinery, tools, etc.) privately held by individuals, and wants these individuals to control the market as oppose to the representative state, or theoretically the general populace, in a democracy. Due to the fact that monetary capital or cash—a theoretical concept that is widely adhered to by oppressed and oppressive people alike the world over—is placed above the concerns of individuals, the impact that capitalist policies have on innocent populations and environments is obscene. An insatiable appetite for land, power, and money is what fueled the founders of the U.S. Government. The original U.S. Constitution (deemed little more than a business contract between select colonial elites by some) governed all within the borders of the novel nation though benefited only land-owning, White males. All women, Blacks, Native Americans, and poor Whites were excluded from the rights guaranteed in this capitalist document and, not surprisingly, I will demonstrate how this can be seen as the underlying reason for racism, sexism, and classism in our society today seeing as how our nation was founded on the elite minority setting laws and standards for the subjugated majority.

Capitalism’s relationship to racism is apparent in light of a little labor phenomenon commonly known as the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. Prior to this period, the interaction between people from Africa and people from Europe may be deemed as just that—Europeans and Africans interacting. Even more specifically in the days back when city-states ruled the “known” world Romans interacted (read: violently warred) with Carthaginians. People noticed physical and pigmentation differences but deemed geographic and religious differences more important. One of the most eye-opening courses I’ve taken during my time here at Harvard was “Marxist Theories of Racism” taught by Tommie Shelby. This course posits that racism and capitalism’s developments are very closely related and racism may even be seen as a means of justifying the rabid capitalism that drove the Triangular Trade involving Europe, West Africa, and the “New World”. During the peak period of the slave trade in the early 19th Century capitalism was also rapidly developing and was employed by all of the major European powers plus a young though ambitious nation known as the United States of America. Increased pleas from abolitionists for the abolishment of slavery in light of moral and religious contradictions that arose from the forced subjugation, exploitation, rape, and murder of one group of people by a purportedly more “advanced” and civilized people had to be defended somehow. What these individuals decided to go by was a belief that the Black race (and all other “colored” races, in time) was inherently inferior to the White race. This also served to divide the labor movement as early as 1676 as White indentured servants and Black slaves were masterfully divided along racial lines while dually exploited by the ruling capitalist colonists. This shows that the capitalist practice of suppressing labor costs and unrests (often practiced by dear Harvard University) is not anything new at all but goes back hundreds of years, just as corporations try to divide labor movements along racial lines.

Capitalism’s connection to sexism is apparent in light of the fact that the main parties involved in the development and spread of capitalism have been males while women’s roles in business and high levels of government have been historically scarce. This is despite the fact that, as is the case today, women made up the majority of the world’s population. The reasons for women not being active players in the game of capitalism are numerous, but a few of the most salient are: (1) women weren’t well educated in colonial America (the first women’s college in the “New World” wasn’t founded until 1837) when capitalism was rapidly expanding, (2) women are charged with domestic tasks and largely unable to explore outside vocations due to the rigors and personal constraints inherent to these tasks, and (3) women are socialized to be more passive than men and capitalism involves vicious and contentious competition (very unladylike, you know). All of these contribute to the fact that capitalism is a sexist practice with sexist results such as the fact that women make up 90% of all sweatshops workers. No economic development or wealth building there. In order for the land-owning White males who founded America to retain their superior position socially, financially, and politically through capitalism women HAD to be oppressed. They were the chief competitors of these males since they did own land (even if through inheritance or marriage only) and were White.

Capitalism’s connection to classism is apparent in light of the fact that capitalism widens the gap between the haves and the have-nots in society through a division of labor that is predicated upon a capitalist ruling class owning the means of production. By owning the means of production, the capitalist ruling class attracts labor to work for what is easily considered chump change when compared to the end price of some of the products produced. For example, Nike’s sweatshop workers in nations with ridiculously cheap labor such as Indonesia (where Nike operates 47 facilities) can work for anywhere for 10 to 20 cents per hour while producing sneakers that often sell for +$100. Assuming that these Indonesian workers only worked for eight hours a day (yeah, right) they wouldn’t even make enough money to buy a bag of potato chips in a snack machine at Harvard after eight hours of arduous and meticulous labor for Nike. Nike now actually publishes the names and addresses of all of their “contracted factories” (their term in place of sweatshops) in the world. This system perpetuates classism by disconnecting the wealthy from the poor, privileged from oppressed, employer from laborer and allowing misconceptions from one group of individuals about another to go unchecked. Also, working from a definition of classism describing the belief of people in one socioeconomic group of their superiority to those in another such group, capitalism does not allow for the distribution of wealth across a population that would make this definition null. Capitalism pillages poor peoples and nations and feeds their best to corporations and their investors whether “their best” be minds (through the brain drain), bodies (through labor), or souls (through cultural exploitation; i.e. Elvis making rock & roll “White music”).

Capitalists are able to maintain this system of extracting the cheapest labor possible while constantly increasing their profit margins through the fostering of a society of fear that is predicated upon the belief in the necessity of money for one’s prosperity in life. This belief is highly false. Numerous societies have functioned without money, a prime (even WESTERN) example being that of ancient Sparta whose residents experienced unimaginable pleasure, devoted lots of time to leisure activities, and ERADICATED crime through the expulsion of money, precious metals, and gemstones. If you took a random sample of elderly, wise individuals throughout the nation most would count family and health as the most important things in life. Not money (this was probably realized after many years of pursuing it without happiness or personal fulfillment). Few people can plausibly visualize a world without money or where capitalism was not the dominant economic system. The confused looks that people give me when I tell them that I’m trying to visualize a political, social, and economic world that is not under the dominant foot of capitalism is sad. Too many people operate under the belief that since capitalism is the game that is currently being played we must all play by the rules. Nothing can be farther from the truth.

Recently in my Social Psychology class taught by Ron Butzlaff (Psychology 15) a movie of an ingenious psychological experiment by Stanley Milgram was played. In the experiment, one participant (called a “teacher”) and another participant (called a “student”) were instructed to take part in an oral exercise with punishment in the form of electrical shocks administered by the teacher every time the student got a question wrong. As the exercise went on the voltage was to be increased by 15 with every subsequent wrong answer with a range of 15 to 450 volts (note: lethality from electrical shock is somewhere between 100-250 volts). Various markers at different intervals of voltage had different labels from “Slight Shock” to “Danger: Severe Shock” and the final two markers at 435 and 450 volts were ominously labeled “XXX”. In the majority of cases, the teacher began the test as normal and had no problem administering shocks to the student. Due to the fact that they were in different rooms, the teacher could not see the student. However, after a certain level of voltage (say 175) the teacher would hear the student exclaim in pain and consequent shocks resulted in the student screaming and asking to be let out of the experiment. The teacher would often turn to the experimenter, the person in charge of the experiment, and make a plea on behalf of the student to stop the experiment since the student was being hurt and asking to be released. The experimenter would encourage the teacher to continue and the teacher did in the majority of the cases. In continuing, the teachers administered progressively higher voltages ALL THE WAY UP TO 450 Volts in 65% of the cases and not a single teacher stopped before 300 volts. After the experiment was over, the teachers were informed about the true purpose and happenings of the study; namely that the study was meant to measure the obedience of a subject (the teacher) to an authority figure (the experimenter) in light of inflicting extreme pain, suffering, and even death to an individual, possibly deemed as subordinate (the student), on command. Also, the student was actually an actor and had not been electrocuted at all during the course of the experiment.

This experiment mirrors capitalism and capitalist toolage in numerous ways. Far too often capitalist cogs adhere to their superior’s requests without asking a second question or digging deeper into what their actions are actually bringing about in relation to the well-being of another—often distant, darker, and poorer—party. When the direction comes from an authoritative figure (i.e. a departmental supervisor) the employee is very likely to try and complete the action despite whatever misgivings they may personally have about the work. The disconnect between these cogs and the people they harm, unlike in the Milgram experiment, is often much further and deeper. A capitalist doing consulting for Nike in Manhattan cannot hear the screams of pain from the 10 year-old in Shanghai whose finger is dismembered from a machine after the child is fatigued from working on it for the past several hours straight. Even if they could, would they stop their actions in light of the above experiment? Sadly and remarkably, probably not. In this case, capitalism would be that experimenter in the back telling them “Continue”, “The experiment requires you to continue, please go on”, and “You have no choice, you must continue”. We always have a choice. Once enough people realize that they DO NOT have to choose the route of capitalism, myriad other communally beneficial roads will fortuitously open up to a better or truly more advanced society.


8 responses to “Thinking Outside the Sweatshop…err…Box

  1. words cannot reach your ears, you remain obdurate and stubborn. a few years out of college, when you meet your significant other and choose what sacrifices to make for marriage and family will make you realize.

    i will not hold it against you when your youthful fire burns out. such things are not meant to be eternal anyway, and once gone you will see that such desires as providing for ones family is a good one. what you point out are perversions of that desire, as you will see such perversions of church, sex/love, and other things in life. i will not fault you when you choose to grow up.

  2. Do you seriously belive that racism, sexism, genocide, and classism are derived from capitalism; or that it is their “foundation?” Did they not exist thousands of years before Wealth of Nations was a twinkle in Adam Smith’s great-grandfather’s eyes? Did slavery not exist prior to that point as well? What about the arguments many theorists made that slavery was a natural condition of man? Surely this is predicated upon capitalism as well?

    Your Sparta analogy is really a stretch and an example of being disingenuous. I don’t think many people consider the Spartan lifestyle as something where people could have “experienced unimaginable pleasure, [and] devoted lots of time to leisure activities.” Surely, here you must be referring to the oligarchies that often ruled Sparta, or its rigid class system which included both a permanent military class and, gasp, serfs. I take it, given your recent posts on the military, that it is really a pleasurable experience for seven year old boys to be forcibly removed from their homes (families?) and forced into near life-long military service. And slavery, what more leisurely a lifestyle I can not imagine. And minor criminal acts punishable by death or forced slavery, no wonder they eradicated crime. Maybe we should copy the same criminal justice system as well?

    But, yes, for all this, what we really must concern ourselves with is that the “expulsion of money” etc. is really all that is necessary for unimaginable pleasure.

    I will echo the sentiment of the previous anonymous poster. Unfortunately, reality forces us into situations that are almost always grey and very rarely clear cut. Capitalism surely has its injustices, but the case that you have made here does not hold up to scrutiny (blaming capitalism for evils thousands of years older than the system). What other system do you propose? By the ridiculous early Soviet-era propaganda poster (and I use that word with full knowledge of its complexity and nuance and baggage) perhaps you’ve subscribed to the doctrine of Marx (not that you need to be a Marxist to realize that there is much truth in his doctrine). The link you provide at the end of your post further supports my hunch. If so, please remember that, despite its ability to sound extremely intellectual and provide a simple worldview, it suffers from at least as many flaws (some, including myself, would argue many more) as the capitalist system you condemn.

    Perhaps withdrawing from society wouldn’t be a bad thing. Then you would learn that the evils of the world aren’t necessarily predicated on an economic system, but more likely as a result of man’s failings.

  3. To Anonymous at 3:06 a.m.: In all likelihood my revolutionary fire WILL dwindle over the course of my life as it has with many who adhere to my line of thinking, but it will never burn out. I also will never become a capitalist player in the global oppression of sooo many populations in the name of cheap(er and cheaper) labor and proressively redcued civil liberties. I will provide for my family but not through the oft-used means of society. For, as many of the privileged at Harvard can attest to, money buys material things but not that which people most ardently desire from their family such as love, support, and direction.

    I will never sacrifice even the plight of the few thousand people that live in my neighborhood in Trenton, NJ–let alone the plight of billions of oppressed peoples the world over–for marriage or family. It’s too important. It’s far bigger than me or any person who shares my last name. My girlfriend knows that. My mother and siblings know that. Now you do too.

    To Anonymous at 10:05 a.m.: In this day and time, sexism (i.e. the glass ceiling), classism (i.e. the cognitive dissonance of the suffering of the poor from the flourishing of the rich), and genocide (i.e. the genocide in Darfur’s relation to oil profit distribution) ARE predicated upon capitalist footings, though these have existed before capitalism, you are right. Nevertheless, none of these existed to the degree they do now (with the exception of sexism) since capitalism has exacerbated these injustices to previously unheard of levels. Also, slavery is not a national condition of man (humans, I guess you mean). It is what one group of individuals forces on another as was artificial, meaning it does not occur naturally but was created over time as was capitalism.

    The point of the Sparta reference was that it is a historical example of a society where money didn’t exist. I am aware of the other societal flaws (namely compulsory military service for males) but can see that Sparta was doing something huge and different well. Our criminal justice system is a whole ‘nother story. It’s cruel though not unusual (sadly) punishment that also reached previously unimaginable levels in the U.S. and is spurred on by the labor exploitation of criminals (for as little as 4 cents an hour) for capitalist corporate interests. But I digress…

    As far as the Marxism stuff is concerned, just as Adam Smith is the “father or capitalism” Karl Marx is the “father of anti-capitalism” (all of this is in the realm of predominant Western ideology, of course). His views (and those of his contemporaries) on economic systems outside of capitalism are widespread and readily available and many sites bear his name or variations of it. I can’t control this. I DO follow a strand of Marxism that I may write about at some point in the future as well, but open your mind. The site links at the bottom of my post just point to alternatives to capitalism. The poster may be ridiculous (as in funny looking) but it’s true. It’s like Dave Chappelle comedy. Ridiculous but true. Throw in sad as well for an adjective. It fits. What’s also sad is that you (and many others I’m sure) feel forced by reality to be a player in this game. Don’t be so fooled as if you’re that disempowered. It’s psychological and just like overcoming any other psychological dilemma (i.e. a fear of flying but need to visit the moon) it takes courage to stand up and make change but collectively it is possible. Realizing that collective potential is the first step to changing this system and taking the power (that we already possess, uknowingly to many) from the corporations back to the people.

  4. Just wanted to clarify that I don’t think slavery is a natural condition, just that it was theorized about (as a justification for the existence of slavery) a long time before capitalist systems came on the scene.

    And your Sparta reference was not really just “an example.” You referenced it as an example of system without money in which people actually lived with great pleasure and leisure. It wasn’t even close, no matter what egalitarian overtones some aspects of Spartan society took on.

    You are right to note that capitalism does extenuate the effect of some evils, and in some cases does create incentives unique unto itself, but I would hesitate to say that capitalism has “exacerbated these injustices to previously unheard of levels.” Over the broad stretch of history I’m sure we can find more than a few examples of genocide made possible by pure ethnic hatred or classism made possible by other methods.

    My point is that the evils you associate with capitalism (and I, perhaps, associate with Marxism) are not necessarily related to “the system,” but rather manifested in the systems’ operations. Man has the capacity for great good and great evil, and both are present in the capitalist system and in marxist systems. Each, it is true, has their own unique evils. I would argue though, that the egalitarianism of which you allude to can only be reached by a subordination of personal liberty that I would never tolerate. You may redistribute power from the corporations to the people, but the inherent problem with that (and one perhaps with no solution) is that the problem is power – thus the evils inherent in possessing power will still be present when controlled by the people, although the evil may take on new forms and methods. In practice then, to paraphrase Mel Gibson’s character in the Patriot -why exchange one, smaller, group of tyrants for millions of would be tyrants?

    Besides this, however, capitalism should argue that racism, sexism, genocide etc, are stupid simply because they are such a waste of human and economic resources.

    It’s not necessarily a matter of having the courage to stand up against the system. Many people think that the system works just fine – supplies their basic needs and wants (and most couldn’t care less about the egalitarian rhetorical devices Marxism and your post employs) – and that it will take time for prosperity to spread. Many don’t reluctantly support the system, some buy into it as they see it helps them. Maybe these people are sheep, but maybe, just maybe the proletariat no longer thinks of itself the same way that you do. They’re all so bourgie now. Just look how communist/socialist/marxist symbolism is marketed so well as T-shirts, nightclubs, posters; you know, ways to make money. And all sarcasm aside, it’s quite possible that the thousands of people you claim to represent in Trenton would much prefer the chance to make it big than the guarantee of living (as practice has shown) mediocre.

  5. It’s a shame to see what was once a serious (albeit very biased) blog like Cambridge Common degenerate into rants like this one (and the unbelievable sentinment that it’s good that the military recruiting numbers are down)! It’s just a shame. Golis, pull the plug on this “Slugger” before he ruins this site.

  6. to be clear, this is an OPINION site, bias is inherent. In this case, Jersey Slugger is expressing a fairly common Marxist critique of capitalism that you can get in a lot of Harvard courses. It is HIS opinion, and while CC endorses his right to express it (as well as your right to disagree and say so), it doesn’t necessarily endorse every opinion (which should be obvious, since often we disagree). You have the space to explain what’s wrong with the post or the idea, so go ahead, we’ll let the free market of ideas do it’s magic (pun intended).

  7. To Anonymous at 3:11 p.m.: Everything I write is my personal opinion, as Andrew has said, but do not mistake that it is all rooted in fact. This is why I include links throughout my article. Additionally, find me an ubiased news source. Any place, any time. They don’t exist. Bias develops when you become aware of the atrocities allowed to persist throughout the world the damages and destroys the precious thing that is human life at the cost of paper and ink dollar bills. Ridiculous.

    Of course it’s good that the military’s recruitment numbers are down. Are you scared of people attacking our wonderful nation? Then the U.S. shouldn’t overtake countries (most recently Iraq, Afghanistan, and don’t forget about Haiti), assasinate freedom fighters (such as the recently killed Filiberto Ojeda Rios), and turn back the hands of time on civil liberties (with the permanence of 14 of 16 sections of the Patriot Act…like you would like to do with my freedom of speech). The great Fred Hampton (who was killed by law enforcement agents of the U.S. Government as he laid in his bed in his apartment asleep next to his pregnant wife on December 4, 1969 for a pic visit once said, “You can kill a revolutionary, but you can’t kill a revolution.” Ever heard of the phrase “don’t start nothing, won’t be nothing?” Tell it to the U.S. government.

  8. “It was Peguy, I believe, who called the family man the ‘grand adventurer of the 20th century.’ He died too soon to learn that he was also the great criminal of the century. We had been so accustomed to admire or gently ridicule the family man’s kind concern and earnest concentration on the welfare of his family, his solemn determination to make life easy for his wife and children, that we hardly noticed how the devoted father, worried about nothing so much as his security, was tranformed under the pressure of the chaotic economic conditions of our time into an involuntary adventurer, who for all his industry and care could never be certain what the next day would bring…It became clear that for the sake of his pension, his life insurance, the security of his wife and children, such a man was ready to sacrifice his beliefs his honor, and his human dignity.” -Hannah Arendt, “Organized Guilt and Universal Responsibility”

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