Celina Su’s anecdote in n+1 about visiting an aid worker in Cambodia, Holiday in Cambodia, includes this observation:
These women [in Phnom Penh] sewed clothes and reported to Chinese factory contractors, who reported to American managers, who reported to shareholders. Every once in a while, an exposé about the sweatshops reached American televised news. To Z, shareholders had an astoundingly predictable, biannual ritual of expressing shock about the sweatshop conditions in which these women earned less than $2 a day.
This is followed by an encounter with backpackers who disappointingly make excuses for the conditions, which allow workers to live at one-third the poverty level according to the United Nations. It’s only an aside, but it’s a misleading one. The rest of the piece describes a visit from a set of resolutely point-missing U.S. Congressional aides to the author’s friend Z’s aid projects. But the sweatshop aside shows a similar lack of attention.
I worked with anti-sweatshop advocates for two years putting together an anti-sweatshop purchasing policy, and they routinely held up Cambodia as an example of third world manufacturing done right. Garment export factories must submit to inspection by the International Labor Organization, described here at length. Violations still exist, but Cambodia’s monitoring regime is among the developing world’s most robust. Su’s observation isn’t wrong, but it feels much more like a pro-forma gesture at “conditions in the third world” than an informed account, even at the level of an aside.
For someone who usually gets more excited to go door-knocking on Election Day than on Halloween, I’ve had a fairly detached view of the national political scene in the run-up to Tuesday’s election.
It’s clear that the Democrats will lose the House and keep the Senate, and that the President will spend the next two years doing small-bore politics frustrated by Congressional investigation a la the last six Clinton years. His re-election will depend on the state of the economy (political constraints suggest to me that it will not turn around very fast, which will cost Obama the 2012 election).
The last two years suggest to me that the next two will not cost progressives huge opportunities that were ever real. The utter failure of two years of a Democratic Presidency and a Congress under lopsided Democratic control to get anything done on climate change suggests that prospects for the future of the earth haven’t been very high and though they’re now dimmer, it’s not by much. The structural reform that could make the biggest difference would be the elimination of the filibuster, but too many Democratic Senators are too fond of their privileges to make that a reality, and even in a majority-rule Senate, I think that regional concerns would defeat effective climate change intervention.
It’s tempting to ask what if? I’m inspired by the round of What if Al Gore had taken power in 2000 over at Unfogged to ask this question: what if, for the past two years, the labor movement had been united?
For a while there, Mother Yale had one of the worst labor-management track records among United States corporations, with strikes every four years like clockwork as the university saw with the expiration of a labor contract another opportunity to extract concessions from its unionized workforce, and then acted surprised when the unions resisted their evil plan to fire everybody with a decent job and replace them with minimum-wage subcontracts to Betty Crocker International or some such.
When I went there, the two head honchos were University President Richard Levin and Yale College Dean Richard Brodhead. There persisted a stubborn belief among the students that Levin was the Bad Dick and Brodhead the Good Dick, mostly because Levin, an economist, is a geek and is less fun to be around than Brodhead, a literary humanist, who can deliver a fine and funny lecture on American literature. As far as I could tell there was no other basis for thinking Brodhead had better politics, and I’m not surprised to see the prejudice definitively refuted in Brodhead’s practices as University President at Duke:
The cushy administrative salaries and bonuses add up to an indictment of the Brodhead administration for allowing the burden of the fiscal crisis to fall unevenly: bonuses for the brass, a direct hit for cafeteria workers, groundskeepers, housekeepers, clerks and underpaid adjunct faculty who lost their jobs.
There. I said it. So, apparently, does Michael Moore, who featured her in Capitalism: A Love Story and now has her on the front page of his website, urging action on everything from health care…
you have to call, write and email your Senators over the health care bill. This week the fight is in the Senate, as they work to merge two bills — the Baucus finance committee bill and the HELP committee bill. The Baucus bill benefits the health insurance companies and is worse than no reform at all, whereas the HELP committee bill includes a public option. Of course I prefer a single-payer health care plan (Medicare for All) and I will definitely tell my senators that a national health plan would be the best solution, but also that I strongly prefer the HELP bill over the disaster that is the Baucus bill. To find your senator’s contact information visit: http://www.senate.gov/general/contact_information/senators_cfm.cfm.
…to, well, capitalism.
Leah organizes workers in the scrappy, independent United Electrical union. She helped run the heroic Republic Windows and Doors factory takeover last winter. (I spent a good hour on the phone with my friend at Bank of America encouraging them to resolve the dispute in time for Leah to come to my wedding, which I’m sure made the difference.) She was one of my first welcomes to the labor movement at Union Summer in Chicago in 1996, she is a superhero, and you should do what she says.
John Sweeney retires. Two and a half cheers for the last fourteen years! Sweeney’s rise to the top of the AFL-CIO was an unambiguous victory for the labor movement against its worst self. It was a successful trickle-up of the renewed organizing energy that took over service worker unions in the late 1980s. The New Voices coalition, Sweeney’s governing troika, comprised fire-breathing orator (and now successor) Rich Trumka from the United Mine Workers and AFSCME’s Linda Chavez-Thompson, who came out of open-shop organizing in Texas’s public sector. Their election in 1995 struck the first real blow from the left to Clintonism that came from north of Chiapas’s Zapatistas.
Harold Meyerson gets it right in the article linked above: “Sweeney repositioned labor as best he could, and with considerable success, at the center of American liberalism.” Its fortunes have not been so far off those of liberalism, either, with occasional displays of strength marred by fecklessness and disunity. His AFL-CIO was riven by internal stress over the appropriate resources and perceptible rewards of electioneering and organizing. The Change to Win split of 2005 might have presaged a renewal comparable to John Lewis’s extraction of the Congress of Industrial Organizations from the original American Federation of Labor. Instead, labor is mired in turf battles, leaving legislative opportunities around health care and labor law reform twisting in the wind.
But this can all be found, in greater detail and more perceptive analysis, on the public record. By way of fond farewell, I want to retell my memory of Sweeney speaking at the giant civil disobedience arrests during the Yale contract fight in the winter of 1996. Several thousand people stood at the corner of College and Grove streets, more than three hundred of us prepared to be arrested in protest of Yale’s plan to replace its unionized blue-collar workforce with subcontracted minimum-wagers. The unions’ logos were projected–a new tactic, then–onto Woolsey Hall, the massive rotunda that defines Fortress Yale against the surrounding city. Sweeney, not known as a firebrand, took the podium and declaimed, in a kind of Long Island honk, words that had been written all too particularly for this occasion:
“In the words of seventeenth-century poet John Donne, ‘Ask not for whom the bell tolls, Yale… It tolls for thee!‘”
The crowd went wild, though a kind of bemused, did-that-just-happen wild. And then I got arrested for the second time.
The thought of cultivating solidarity as a precondition of collective action brings up a long-standing question for me about the work of Jon Haidt. Haidt describes five inherent moral modules — I first heard them discussed here — that structure morality as it is practiced around the world. The five modules:
1) Harm/care, related to our long evolution as mammals with attachment systems and an ability to feel (and dislike) the pain of others. This foundation underlies virtues of kindness, gentleness, and nurturance.
2) Fairness/reciprocity, related to the evolutionary process of reciprocal altruism. This foundation generates ideas of justice, rights, and autonomy.
3) Ingroup/loyalty, related to our long history as tribal creatures able to form shifting coalitions. This foundation underlies virtues of patriotism and self-sacrifice for the group. It is active anytime people feel that it’s “one for all, and all for one.”
4) Authority/respect, shaped by our long primate history of hierarchical social interactions. This foundaiton underlies virtues of leadership and followership, including deference to legitimate authority and respect for traditions.
5) Purity/sanctity, shaped by the psychology of disgust and contamination. This foundation underlies religious notions of striving to live in an elevated, less carnal, more noble way. It underlies the widespread idea that the body is a temple which can be desecrated by immoral activities and contaminants (an idea not unique to religious traditions).
In applying these modules to contemporary American politics, Haidt has proposed that liberals tend to dwell on modules 1 and 2, developing their politics around fairness and kindness, and conservatives base their politics on modules 3, 4 and 5. You’re not a real American, you don’t respect the flag, and don’t put that in your mouth. (Here’s a summary of Haidt’s work on politics.)
But module 3 and its analysis present a number of problems. For one, discussions of Haidt’s work tend to deride it. For another, written mostly before the rise of the Obamanation, they underestimate the degree to which liberals are capable of forming in-group/out-group moral judgments (still less toxic than the real right-wing love-it-or-leave-it efflorescences).
Now, I have no background in evolutionary psychology, comparative anthropology, or moral philosphy, not to mention precious little book-larnin’ of any kind, but I have always been struck by the paucity of understanding this discussion shows for the concept of solidarity. In-group loyalty strikes Haidt as an atavism, an emotion for policing who’s in and who’s out. But the success of social movements depends on it–or, perhaps, an expansive, apotheotic form of it.
It may be the case that solidarity operates as a synthesis of modules 2 and 3 — a dialectical purple moral module derived from the primary colors of reciprocity and loyalty.
Interestingly, in this 2005 Believer article, Haidt is claiming the existence of four moral modules, and in-group loyalty does not come up. I’d like to know how it emerged in his work.
Bonus: Take the Disgust Scale! Here are my results:
Yesterday, several dozen people in my Facebook feed changed their status updates to read:
No one should die because they cannot afford health care, and no one should go broke because they get sick. If you agree, please post this as your status for the next 24 hours.
Because I’m an asshole, I changed mine to read “No one should die, etc.” My favorite variation was “Everybody should get sick go broke die,” and J.H.P. babelfished in with “Nobody must die because they cannot allow well-taken care of doctor, and nobody must break because patients obtain. If you agree, you satisfy fix this like its state for the rest of the day.” In Soviet Russia, Facebook updates you!
What have we really done when we “donate” our status update to a cause? While certainly tempting, I think it’s wrong to say we’ve done nothing — at the very least, we’ve taken a public stand, we’ve added our number to a count — and yet it’s very hard to pin exactly what the something we’ve done is.
It’s a question, I think, that takes us to the heart of digital identity. What is at stake in this sort of signaling behavior? What status does your status update have?
It’s easy to be crabby about this sort of thing. My friend V. complained that “if you care so deeply about the health care issue you should do something more than put a blurb on your FB page about it”, to which one of her friends responded:
Because the politicians seem to have forgotten their promises (as usual) at a critical moment in the debate, any action that helps remind people this is a topic worthy of attention and solidarity is one I consider worth pursuing.
This is a typical defense of decentralized activism: any little thing helps. I heard it a lot in response to my Whole Foods boycott-bashing. And I was guilty of it myself in this blog’s very comments. Let’s be clear about at least one thing: there’s plenty of things you can do on your own that, while nice, aren’t the slightest bit helpful. And the vague hope that one action will beget another, while not wrong, is almost always unfalsifiable. So let’s evaluate digital activism for what it is, not for what it might inspire.
Additionally, though it’s hard to make an argument that slacktivism will change the world, the arguments in favor of more accepted forms of politics, such as voting, aren’t a hell of a lot stronger. Short of owning an insurance company, a news network, or a United States Senator, there’s no guaranteed method for effective participation in politics. So why not take this one seriously?
I’ve noticed that liberal-sentimented people of a certain caste get unbearably twitchy around collective action. Raised on 1984 and Brave New World, we’re reflexively suspicious of lock-step action and automatic agreement. We overestimate our own agency and indulge in a fatuous civics of individuality. As a result, we can be very bad at politics.
So status-update “signaling” resists that tendency (though it also brings it out in assholes like me). It’s less than collective action, but I think it can be understood as cultivating solidarity, a precondition for successful collective action. It’s an emotional warm-up.
It still leaves the question, “what is to be done?” But by allowing it to be asked in (otherwise creepy) unison, I think it makes the question less academic.