Modernization Theory – A Steady Record of Failure

Greece being the latest casualty, as demonstrated by sociologist Costas Panayotakis in the New York Times Examiner:

“Writing this column has heightened my awareness of how often and how quickly the representation of social reality by The New York Times is contradicted by the facts.  In such cases, the journalist whose past reporting has proven to be widely off base continues reporting like nothing had happened.  Now s/he presents a completely different picture of reality, one that completely contradicts the picture s/he had given just a few weeks and months earlier.  The optimistic explanation of such phenomena is that the reporters become chastened by the failings of their previous reporting and change their story to more closely fit the facts.  The less optimistic explanation is that they understand journalism not as an effort to capture reality as accurately as they can but rather as a form of entertainment, where self-contradiction is not a problem as long as one can keep churning out colorful stories that will kill readers some time as they commute to and from work.  Given how frequently I find myself having to debunk articles by The New York Times that cover Greece, I have to admit that it is the latter, less optimistic explanation that seems more plausible to me.

The trigger for these thoughts was a recent article reporting on Greek protesters pelting a German diplomat with coffee. (i)  The article rightly links this incident to a statement by German “Chancellor Angela Merkel’s special envoy to Greece, Hans-Joachim Fuchtel” who said that “1,000 German local government officials could do the work of 3,000 Greek officials.”  The article then points out that, at a time of high unemployment in Greece, “Mr. Fuchtel’s comments were seen as tone deaf.”  It also quotes Nikos Xydakis, a columnist for a conservative Greek newspaper, who suggests that Mr. Fuchtel seems to have no understanding of the suffering Greek people are currently undergoing and to “[lack] ‘the flexibility and the diplomatic skills’ to speak more carefully”.

(…)

It should be added here that both articles by The NYT are informed by a ‘modernization’ theory of development.  This theory, developed after World War II by American academics who were often members of the Cold War anti-communist establishment, blamed the great inequalities in the global capitalist economy on the failure of poor countries to follow the good example of those countries that purportedly became rich through the adoption of modern institutions, such as market capitalism and liberal democracy.  In this model, poor countries that emulated the institutions of rich countries would catch up with them, leaving behind problems, such as intense poverty and deprivation.  Needless to say, development strategies based on this model did not lead to a closing of the gap between the global North and the global South, leading to alternative understandings of the origins of global inequalities, which point out the ways in which the technological advances and wealth of the rich countries is to some extent the product of the intense exploitation of people in the less affluent countries.

By focusing on the “[m]entoring and … know-how” that Mr. Fuchtel brings to Greece and by identifying his mission as one of making Greece “a bit more efficient and perhaps a little more German,” Mr. Kulish in effect adopts the modernization narrative.  The problem, however, is that Greece’s present state was the product of a period in which the country had converged more closely to the institutional realities of advanced capitalist countries than it had ever done in its past.  Hence, Greece is only the latest example of the failures of modernization theory and the latest example of the ways in which great global inequalities, with all the human suffering they entail, cannot simply be blamed on domestic institutions and cultural attitudes.  Instead, they have to be seen as a regular and predictable product of global capitalism’s exploitative nature.”

Modernization theory is indeed the basis for the disastrous structural adjustment programs that the IMF pushed on developing countries that led to the lost decade. And that is the underlying narrative when development gets discussed in the media.

And it does not work.

Extracting Free Labor

There is the old-fashioned way, second shift style. In this case, though with a reverse twist:

And then, there is the “new” way, made famous by Arianna Huffington, where you get paid in whuffie, hugs, beer or prestige (as when one blogs or reports for the HuffPo):

“Album in hand, Palmer prepared to tour. She advertised for local horn and string players to help out at each stop along the way: “join us for a couple tunes,” as the post on her Web site had it. Even better, “basically, you get to BE the opening ACT!”

Just one thing, local musicians. There would be none of this million-plus dollars available for you. Supposedly, Palmer had spent it all on producing her album, along with things like airfare, mailing costs, and personal debt, and so couldn’t afford to pay anyone else. She promised instead to “feed you beer, hug/high-five you up and down (pick your poison), give you merch, and thank you mightily.” This is a compensation package which, honestly, might be worse than nothing. Depends on the beer.”

So, Amanda Palmer took a lot of heat for this and rightfully so but this goes beyond her case (y’know, the whole C. Wright Mills, personal trouble versus public issues):

“This is a time-honored dodge, which might be called “the Oompa-Loompa defense.” It goes something like this: outsourcing labor to people who will work for less is fine because they are “happy” to do it. Such practices and accompanying rationales have been continually refined—think the helpline that dials a tech in Bangalore. But the fantasy of the happy worker has taken on newer and more mind-bending aspects, as has work itself. It now includes things like the unpaid microlabor of providing content for Web sites. It includes the amateur photographer who provides her images of, say, the police killing a young black man to the local news as an “iReport” for nothing but a credit and a T-shirt. Or a music lover scratching out a review on some hip site for a byline alone. Or consider the subtlest and arguably the most exemplary case: how, in wandering the byways of Facebook and Google, you are diligently rendering gratis a host of information about the preferences and habits of you and your friends—data they sell to advertisers. This, too, is unpaid labor.

In general, there is the boom in such practices that seems tied to the digital era; you can’t spell Internet without intern. As the argument goes, you are paid in access to a desirable milieu, or the chance to do good. Work for nada at an N.G.O.: you are being paid in justice itself. Oh, you might also get the vague promise that such valuable experience will pay off later. This promise is packaged with the threat that if you don’t take the gig, you will be closed out of the disastrous job market altogether. You had better be happy about it.

Ideally, you don’t even know you are working at all. You think you are keeping up with friends, or networking, or saving the world. Or jamming with the band. And you are. But you are also laboring for someone else’s benefit without getting paid.”

Let’s definitely call this the Oompa-Loompa economy: where happiness pays off in itself. And remember that part of Michelle Obama’s speech at the Democratic Convention where she told that moving story of teachers teaching for free after furloughs or lay-offs? Same idea. If it is your passion, your calling, you vocation, then, surely, money does not matter.

And don’t get me started on internships.

Then, there is all the work we volunteer for the m/billionaires who created social networking platforms, from Facebook, to Twitter, to Tumblr, to Pinterest, etc.

This means a radical redefinition of the modern dichotomies: work / leisure, home / workplace, public / private. Digital information and communication technologies break down barriers between these different spheres, often with innocuous names (crowdsourcing, crowdfunding) but they involve the redefinition of labor (as something paid based on different factors but always compensated) to labor as not-work but fun, voluntary, bringing its own rewards (remember playbor?).

This does not just affect creative workers but can potentially extend to anyone. And as the article above notes, working for free might now be seen as a prerequisite before entry in the job market proper. Of course, these years of unpaid internships and gigs will do wonders towards reimbursing these student loans.

But this is a zero-sum game, every bit of free labor, volunteered or extracted, makes someone else wealthier. Every time one creates value but does not benefit from it, then such value creation benefits someone else. So, there are one billion people working freely (as in voluntarily and without compensation) for Mark Zuckerberg. Every blogger or reporter providing content without pay on HuffPo makes Arianna Huffington wealthier (along with investors of course).

But I guess as long as we are happy to do it, that’s ok. This is the version 2.0 of the old argument that peripheral workers are happy to have low-paid, long-hours factory jobs because these jobs are better than what they had before Nike or Foxconn opened that factory.

The morality of the story: every form of labor extraction comes with a cute ideological justification that makes it sound neutral, if not actually beneficial. But it is still extraction, therefore, predatory and inequality-deepening.

Isn’t This Einstein’s Definition of Insanity?

Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

Well:

“Throughout the 1980s and 90s, when many developing countries were in crisis and borrowing money from the International Monetary Fund, waves of protests in those countries became known as the “IMF riots”. They were so called because they were sparked by the fund’s structural adjustment programmes, which imposed austerity, privatisation and deregulation.

The IMF complained that calling these riots thus was unfair, as it had not caused the crises and was only prescribing a medicine, but this was largely self-serving. Many of the crises had actually been caused by the asset bubbles built up following IMF-recommended financial deregulation. Moreover, those rioters were not just expressing general discontent but reacting against the austerity measures that directly threatened their livelihoods, such as cuts in subsidies to basic commodities such as food and water, and cuts in already meagre welfare payments.

The IMF programme, in other words, met such resistance because its designers had forgotten that behind the numbers they were crunching were real people. These criticisms, as well as the ineffectiveness of its economic programme, became so damaging that the IMF has made a lot of changes in the past decade or so. It has become more cautious in pushing for financial deregulation and austerity programmes, renamed its structural adjustment programmes as poverty reduction programmes, and has even (marginally) increased the voting shares of the developing countries in its decision-making.

Given these recent changes in the IMF, it is ironic to see the European governments inflicting an old-IMF-style programme on their own populations. It is one thing to tell the citizens of some faraway country to go to hell but it is another to do the same to your own citizens, who are supposedly your ultimate sovereigns. Indeed, the European governments are out-IMF-ing the IMF in its austerity drive so much that now the fund itself frequently issues the warning that Europe is going too far, too fast.

The threat to livelihoods has reached such a dimension that renewed bouts of rioting are now rocking GreeceSpain and even the usually quieter Portugal. In the case of Spain, its national integrity is threatened by the separatist demand made by the Catalan nationalists, who think the austerity policy is unfairly reducing the region’s autonomy.

Even if these and other European countries (for other countries have not been free of protests against austerity programmes, such as Britain’s university fees riot and the protests by Italy’s “recession widows”) survive this social unrest through a mixture of heavy-handed policing and political delaying tactics, recent events raise a very serious question about the nature of European politics.

What has been happening in Europe – and indeed the US in a more muted and dispersed form – is nothing short of a complete rewriting of the implicit social contracts that have existed since the end of the second world war. In these contracts, renewed legitimacy was bestowed on the capitalist system, once totally discredited following the great depression. In return it provided a welfare state that guarantees minimum provision for all those burdens that most citizens have to contend with throughout their lives – childcare, education, health, unemployment, disability and old age.”

And this is all done on the backs of the poor. This will do nothing to get these countries out of their economic slump. But what this also does is also deepen a crisis of legitimation that opens to the door to fascist parties (see France and Greece).

The Visual Du Jour – Affirmative Action

Via the New York Examiner (also here), when people tell you that we have to keep an oil-based economy because there are no alternatives, show them this:

As the article notes,

“The production tax credit (PTC) for wind energy is set to expire at the end of the year, and Congress doesn’t look likely to extend it anytime soon. This precarious situation is already causing some layoffs in the industry, as the New York Times reports today. A studycited by the American Wind Energy Association predicts that as many as 37,000 jobs in the industry could be lost in the first quarter of 2013 alone if the PTC is not extended.

Of course, there’s a healthy debate about how much and for how long we should subsidize any energy source. But wind power is still a relative newcomer to the energy scene, and subsidies that expand its use also help meet other national goals like reducing emissions and reliance on fossil fuels. Moreover, the US has provided billions of dollars in subsidies to the coal, oil, and gas industries for decades. Wind power has barely had a chance to catch up since the PTC was first enacted in 1992.”

The Visual Du Jour – The Good Life

[Since it is an interactive visual, I decided to have some fun with Camtasia rather than just take a few screen grabs… and yes, I really sound like that.]

A quick overview of the annual OECD Better Life Index, a really neat data set on a variety of social indicators, summarized in a very visually attractive form (the video works better at full screen setting):

Re-Embedding The Greek Crisis

I am always suspicious of broad generalizations about entire populations or generations. So, I am not entirely sure what to make of this argument by sociologist Sophia Mappa. Something to think about. It is in French, so here is the gist of it in English.

The starting point of her argument is that Angela Merkel’s inflexibility is incomprehensible to ordinary Greeks. The reason is that such inflexibility is rooted in the protestant culture of the 16th century, something well-known thanks to Max Weber’s classic The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. This moral culture is one of individual obedience to divine law, disregarded due to the corruption of the Roman Catholic Church. It is a culture of glorification of labor as a means of salvation which led to human dominion over nature (and other humans) in order to generate wealth and where frugality and puritanism are the norms of individual moral conduct. According to Weber, this is what led to the rise of capitalism. For Mappa, this is what explains its persistence in Germany, even as this system is being questioned all over Europe, as part of both the economic crisis and the legitimation crisis. From this perspective, the laborious and strong Germans’s views of the weakening of their European neighbors stems from these protestant roots.

Mappa argues that German culture is both close and very different from European Latin cultures. It has produced grandiosity and misery at the same time, including a certain intolerance to other cultures and a desire to dominate them and force them to accept the German model. Merkel’s policies reflect such an attitude. Her position seems to push for the punishment of the heretic rather getting out of the crisis.

At the same time, Greek history has different roots, linked to the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires. After all, according to Mappa, Greece did not directly contribute to the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Westphalian order or capitalism (except as historical remembrance but not as active power player, if I may use that expression). The Greek state, set up in the 19th Century, was not a product of its people’s will. As with all colonized countries, the state apparatus, the constitutions, the kings, the polity and their financing, were provided, right off the bat, by the European chanceries.

The spirit of these institutions never took hold in Greek society. There was no adaptation or emergence of alternatives in order to get closer to Europe. The Greek society then invested these foreign institutions with its own culture, and especially with the centrality of the Church. And so, if it accepted Europe-approved kings, it opposed the emergence of central governance mechanisms, typical of the modern nation-state.

For Mappa, Greek political power is rooted, even to this say, in the imaginary of the Ottoman Empire, that of the beys and other clan chiefs, reigning over their clients and kinship networks, trading material welfare for political allegiance. The now-famous refusal to pay taxes, so widespread in this society, stems this imperial past where taxation was domination, and not construction of a central authority, for the common welfare (at least in theory) beyond particularisms. For the past two centuries, this state has been regulated from the outside: the European chanceries, the US after WWII, and since 1981, the European Commission.

For the past two centuries, then, those in charge of the state have submitted to the diktats from the outside, while adapting them to their own benefit and those of their clients and cronies. That is what the lat Prime Minister – Georges Papandréou – did, and that is what his successor, Loukas Papadimos, will do despite his much vaunted technocratic credentials.

Economically speaking, according to Mappa, there was never any collective acceptance of the spirit of capitalism. Economic activity remained tied to Greek history and traditional trade: agriculture, commerce, fishery, banking and tourism, but not industry. It is not that the Greeks are lazy, as Merkel and other might think. But, despite the common – yet false – idea that capitalism is part of human nature and therefore universal, the Greeks, as many others on this planet, do not get its spirit and mechanisms. And Greece’s entrance into the European Union has not changed that.

And quite predictably, European financial flows, allocated by the European Economic Community were used not for production, for clientelism and and consumption of European-made goods, including weaponry from France and Germany. And under neoliberal governance, the liberalization of the markets and competition from Western goods, the traditional gap between production and consumption led to the current disaster. For Mappa, without a doubt, there is a great deal of responsibility from the Greek society and especially its elite.

BUT… (you knew there was a “but” coming, didn’t you)

European leaders are also to blame for their simplistic economic dogma and the illusion of their omnipotence in governing other countries. They are currently ruining their own societies and preventing EU peripheral countries from recovering from the crisis.

At this point, an EU commissioner would bring nothing to Greece. Quite the opposite. This would only be seen as yet another humiliation that would aggravate the despair and rebellion that are already quite widespread.

So, certain ideas need to be questioned: austerity measures, Merkel’s illusion that one can just shape societies at the snap of a finger, with some stern disciplining from the hegemon. It is not just the destruction of Greece that is at stake, but that of the entire European Union.

And if that was not convincing enough, there is this:

“Homelessness has soared by an estimated 25% since 2009 as Greece spirals further into its worst post-war economic crisis.

The country is now in its fifth straight year of recession and the official unemployment rate is nudging 20%, exacerbated by the austerity measures being pushed through in return for more bail-out money.

Greeks now speak of another section of society: the “new homeless”.

“They don’t have the ‘traditional profile’ of homeless people,” says Ms Nousi.

“They are well dressed and well educated. Until last year they had a good flat or a nice car – and now they have nothing.

“So it’s another kind of misery – another kind of poverty. We were not prepared for this poverty, but it exists.”

One of the new regulars at the kitchen is Vicky Kolozi.

A former journalist with the state broadcaster ERT, she lost her job a year ago and now cannot afford to feed herself and her daughter.

“It is hard to feel that I have to depend on this now,” she tells me.

And that reality is particularly harsh at the moment as Greece shivers in freezing temperatures.”

And beyond Greece, Italy:

“With around one in three young Italians now unemployed, many of its younger generation are contemplating emigrating to destinations as far afield as Africa and South America, in the hope of better employment prospects.”

World-System 2.0 – In Time

Sorry about the lack of recent posts, guys. Between the beginning of the term and the massive amount of academic writing I have foolishly and irresponsibly agreed to do, I will be swamped until February 15th.

That being said, while taking a break from The Writing, I watched this film, scifi fan that I am:

The movie was directed by Andrew Niccol who also directed Gattaca (which I really loved) and Lord of War (ditto). Now, the main plot is rather stupid and the main characters were poorly cast, in my view, but, as usual, I got more interested in the social background underlying the story.

For those of you who have not seen it, the story takes place in a dystopian future (aren’t they all?) where the dominant currency is time. People are genetically programmed to grow up until they reach 25, then, a clock embedded their arms starts and they have one year to live unless they can get extra years through labor, gambling, prostitution, or financial dealings. Everything is bought and paid for in time (minutes, hours, days, etc.). The whole language reflects the prevalence of time. When your clock gets down to zero, you just (literally) drop dead.

This society is highly stratified in a very Wallersteinian way. Financial investors are at the top of the social ladder and they live in wealthy (gated and highly secured) time zones that resemble Wallerstein’s core areas. There are middle time zones (the semi-periphery) and the ghettos (the periphery) where people are fully precarized in terms of time. They work for a few extra days, take out loans that deplete their clocks. The whole time system (financial system) is controlled by very large corporation, controlled by time-financiers who continuously extract time-value from the less wealthy time-zones (through labor, loans and control of the costs of living… when they need a time boost, the wealthy – in New Greenwich, a major core time zone – bump up the cost of living in the ghetto which extracts more time from the poor, that is transferred to the wealthy.

This translates in different behavior. In the ghetto, people are constantly checking their clock and rushing and running everywhere. That is how the main character gets spotted as “different” when he crosses into wealthier time zones. In the wealthy time zones, people move slowly. They have time.

There is more than enough time for everybody but the wealthy want to live forever, so, in that zero-time game, someone has to die for that to happen. And so, while the poor live highly precarized lives, doing anything to live a few more days, including engaging in fights through organized criminal groups where the goal of the fight is to deplete the other guy’s clock, the wealthy live lives surrounded by luxury but also lots of bodyguards in order to avoid the only deaths they can expect, through crime or their own stupidity (accidents).

In this society, law enforcement takes the form of poorly paid (based on a limited per diem allotment of time) time-keepers who keep track of time and maintain the stratification system. They are what Guy Standing would call the salariat, ideologically aligned with the global time elite, and making sure the precariat in the ghetto does not steal someone’s time even though they are economically closer to the precariat.

As I mentioned, the rest of the film is pretty much either garbage (the rich have it hard too!) or teenage nonsense (the bad boy from the ghetto and the poor little rich girl fall for each other and turn into Bonnie and Clyde 2.0). Apart from that, I think it is definitely meant as a metaphor for our times.

The Visual Du Jour – Teaching Small Countries a Lesson

Via: as you can see, the Greek debt is small potatoes compared to a lot of other things, so why the persistence in pushing it against the wall with measures that actually increase such a debt and make life miserable for the Greeks? And note that the European banks need about twice as much in recapitalization, which they might get without the draconian conditions of the kind imposed on Greece. Of course, the total costs of the war on terror is itself absurd.

Other Mediterranean countries might have to go through the same thing, based, largely on the prejudice that Continental Europeans have against their Southern counterparts (lazy, hedonistic, shades of La Fontaine’s La Cigale et La Fourmi except that the ants lecturing the crickets are not exactly better stewards of public finances and masters of frugality).

Who’s “We”?

No, seriously:

Let’s see:

“Two weeks later, at the next gathering of finance ministers, he had overseen passage of a €28bn (£24.4bn) fiscal plan of spending cuts and tax increases and a law accelerating implementation of the measures, and he had kickstarted the biggest privatisation drive in western history.

“We are in the midst of a battle,” he says, slumping into a sofa in his sixth-floor office on Syntagma Square, the arena for many of the violent protests that have rocked Greece this summer. “A battle to implement a program of fiscal consolidation … a battle to execute the budget, a battle to enforce privatisations.

(…)

At the EU summit in July, where Greece was rescued to the tune of €109bn, following an initial bailout of €110bn last year, Jean-Claude Trichet, the president of the European Central Bank, had gone so far as to invoke the ghost of Lehman Brothers to goad Europe’s finance ministers into action.

“I think that says a lot of things,” Venizelos said. “No country, and no banking system in Europe, will be left [to suffer that fate]. I am certain the eurozone’s members and its banking system are safe.””

There you go then.

And for those of you who don’t speak Greek, “we will make a superhuman effort” = “shared sacrifice” in American. Glad to clarify this y’all. Ordinary Greeks are as screwed as ordinary Americans, but at least the banking system is safe. Thank Πλοῦτος 🙂

The Visual Du Jour – Danger Zones

(Via)

The country-by-country review points to systemic failure.

Also:

“The IMF believes there are three conditions for a mega recession: it should affect the core of the global economy, have its genesis in the financial sector and should involve a large number of countries. A budgetary crisis in the US would, according to analysts, fulfil all those criteria, rippling out to the rest of the world and producing a wave of fresh losses for banks. Although the IMF believes the global economy will grow this year, it thinks the risks are skewed to the downside and that potential problems lurk in every continent.”

And of course, the social consequences would be devastating and point to global chaos.

Book Review – Fugitive Denim

Rachel Snyder’s Fugitive Denim: A Moving Story of People and Pants in the Borderless World of Global Trade is an interesting book but boy would the author have benefited from a sit-down with a good editor who would have told her that it needed a tighter structure and line of thinking. I initially picked up the book because I thought it was going to be about a specific global commodity chain (jeans) and it is partly that and it should have been that. But then, the author starts running in all sorts of direction that completely dilute that initial premise. So, at various points in the book, I was still wondering where the author was going.

So, starting from an environmentally and labor-conscious brand of jeans associated with Bono and his wife, Snyder retraces the global steps of what it takes to produce denim as a reflection of the the rules of global trade and mechanisms of global governance as they trickle down to local factories in various parts of the world. For instance, Snyder starts with the way the end of the quota system by the US:

“Part of the problem, at least as it pertains to global trade, is something known to the industry as the quota system. On January 1, 2005, a few months after Scott and Rogan’s meeting with Ali and Bono, a decades-old system called the Multi-Fibre Agreement (MFA) expired, in accordance with rules established by the World Trade Organization under something they called their Agreement on Textiles and Clothing (ATC). Members of the WTO were signatories of the agreement to end the MFA. In place for the better part of the post–World War II era under various aliases and auspices (the WTO took over the administration of the quotas when it was created in 1994), this system evolved as borders became more porous, consumers more aware, and organizations more global. Basically, the MFA set limits on the amount of textiles and apparel any one country could export to the United States. For example, of the roughly 365 million sweaters imported to the United States every year, the Philippines got to manufacture and export 4.2 million of them.2 The quota given to each country varied, and for the bigger manufacturers like China and India, a void was left when they reached their quotas—a void other, smaller countries like the Philippines gladly stepped in to fill.

From 1974 to 1994, the MFA dictated the global terms of the textile and apparel industry. It began as a way to protect manufacturing in industrialized countries in the face of competition from textile industries first in Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan after World War II, then in China, India, and other developing nations. The quotas ensured that no single developing country ever captured a monopoly of the developed world’s market by limiting what could be exported to countries like the United States. What this meant, in real terms, was that countries like Cambodia, recuperating from decades of war and genocide, had a clear entrée into a market that otherwise might have been prohibitively competitive. The same applied to Mauritius, Nepal, Laos, Lesotho, Peru, Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico, Indonesia, Tunisia, and dozens of other countries. Left on its own, the textile production market may have concentrated in just a handful of countries, rather than the sixty or so that compose it today. Ending the quotas was an attempt to rebalance our first attempts at, well, rebalancing. We would eradicate the trade laws we’d written and revised to partly protect the impoverished countries and thereby give the impoverished countries a chance to make it on their own, with not much more than their own pluck. What the World Trade Organization is doing by eliminating the MFA and eradicating the convoluted quota system is, in essence, pretty simple.” (23-24)

Snyder then examines the anticipated consequences of the removal of the quota for small countries that risk to be squeezed out by China. So, the first stop in Snyder’s examination is Azerbaijan, which is a major producer of cotton and where cotton growing and picking is still done in the old-fashioned way, mostly by women. Actually, throughout the whole global production chain, one finds women in the trenches and men in the offices. In the case of Azerbaijan, cotton experts (those who evaluate the quality and rating of the cotton) are men.

Compared to US growers, of course, Azeri farmers are at the usual disadvantage: US growers are heavily subsidized, while they get to experience the joys of “free trade”. And, of course, most of these subsidies go to large agribusiness firms, not family farms. The US is not the only culprit. The EU and Japan are also heavy subsidizers. The Azeri think they should move up the commodity chain and produce the finished jeans and other cotton products rather than limit themselves to growing cotton. The World Bank disagrees:

“The World Bank wanted Azerbaijan to sell only raw cotton and would subsidize this, but Vasif feels if the World Bank really wanted to help the country, it would give subsidies to start small factories to weave fabric or make finished garments.4 Ready-made thread sells for nearly double cotton’s price on the world market. Vasif and other Azeris who put forth this argument may never have heard of the quota system, but they all knew about the subsidies paid to U.S. cotton farmers by the American government. It’s a system that has helped keep farms in America afloat since the 1930s and which infuriates farmers around the globe, from Burkina Faso to Uzbekistan to Brazil. “Basically, the World Bank doesn’t want you to improve,” Vasif says. “The more finished a product is, the more money it demands from the global market. The World Bank gives credit if we do what they want, but we lose our freedom.” (63)

And so, Azeri growers remain poor because the rich countries’ subsidies depress the price of cotton on the world market. Never mind that the WTO has declared these subsidies to be illegal. That double standard has been a source of contention in world trade for a while.

Not only is growing and picking cotton hard work, but it is also one of the most toxic crops as well:

“THOUGH COTTON MAKES UP ONLY ABOUT 3 PERCENT of our global agricultural land, it consumes nearly a quarter of the world’s insecticides and 10 percent of the world’s pesticides—more than any other crop—with cost estimates for the pesticides alone totaling $2.6 billion. The average pair of jeans carries three quarters of a pound of chemicals.1 Pesticides, of course, allow for the global cotton empire by killing the pests that would otherwise kill the cotton; but in short order, these pests build up a resistance and farmers need ever-increasing amounts of chemicals to combat the insects. Most of the conventional cotton in the United States is genetically modified, or Bt, cotton—with insecticides contained inside the seeds. (73)

Emphasis mine.

And the need for pesticides is a major source of debt for farmers in the Global South (in parts of India, indebted farmers kill themselves by swallowing the very pesticides that got them in a financial hole to begin with). Add to that the environmental devastation caused by the growth of cotton (the disappearance of the Aral sea as a result of cotton fields in Uzbekistan) or simply the death of farm workers from exposure to pesticides (in the US as well), and the picture that emerges is that of a production chain that is badly in need of sustainable practices:

“Aldicarb, phorate, methamidophos, and endosulfan were pesticides developed during World War I as toxic nerve agents; all are allowed under the EPA’s ruling.8 Another particularly nasty organophosphate called chlorpyriphos was also a World War I nerve gas and is used in more than a hundred registered products in the United States alone.9 While the EPA has banned it from home use because of “its negative impact on children’s health,” it remains commonly used in agriculture.10 Methyl parathion is also common, though it is listed as “extremely hazardous” and nineteen countries have banned it, while another forty-three make importing it illegal.11 The United States is not one of them. Nor is China, which has become the world’s biggest user of pesticides.

(…)

This does not preclude the United States from exporting products that it considers too harmful for use in American homes. The EPA has even ruled that banned pesticides are not prohibited from being imported into the United States so that they may be repackaged for export. Between 1997 and 2000 forty-five tons of pesticides that were either “severely restricted” or “forbidden” altogether were exported every hour, totaling roughly 3.2 billion pounds. More than half these products—many of which are classified as extremely hazardous by the World Heath Organization—were shipped to the developing world.” (74)

There is now a movement to get more organic cotton grown (Turkey is the leader in that) but organic cotton only represents 1% of the global production although that percentage is growing slowly because organic cotton is more labor intensive and of lower quality. And as Snyder shows, a lifetime of picking cotton is devastating on the health and life expectancy of the pickers.

Next stop down the commodity chain is Italy where jeans (fabric and models) are designed for the major store brands of Europe and the US. It is quite a contrast compared to the rough life of the Azeri farmers. Snyder describes a hectic life of design shows across the major cities of Europe and their various fashion weeks. It is pretty much the only part of the production process that takes place in the Global North. The designed models are then sent to independent contractors in the Global South, for production. And that is even a battle that Italy is losing to China as well.

Fabric design is itself quite a process:

“There are almost endless combinations of things that can be done to treat jeans, using a surprising array of materials: glass, sandpaper, diamond dust, pumice stones, enzymes, chemical or mechanical abrasion, and many others. Stonewashing, which requires the harvest of pumice from around the world, has come under fire from environmental groups, particularly when stones are first dipped in bleach and then used to treat jeans. Plastic balls and enzymes are used more and more in “stonewashing,” though the effect is still often disappointing. This washing and finishing is almost unquestionably the least environmentally friendly part of the entire manufacturing process. Clothes are sprayed with chemicals to create a variety of effects, or overdyed (with one color layered over another or an excess of color applied to the fabric), or coated in resin and baked in enormous ovens. Polymer resin is commonly used to coat creases and folds in clothing, thereby making them permanent, and to set color; it also sometimes contains formaldehyde. Workers in the laundry industry must don an array of contraptions—special respirators, boots, coveralls, gloves, protective eyewear—to shield them from the myriad chemicals in use in nearly every operation. Buckets and buckets of chemicals with names wholly unrecognizable to me sat lined up in a warehouse where purple spray—potassium permanganate—was hosed onto jeans as they dangled on metal hangers from the ceiling.” (121)

Something that has been dramatically illustrated by photographs such as these (see the rest here):

it is well known that many countries of the Global South do not have strict environmental regulations or, if they do, they may suspend them in export zones to attract contracts from Western companies. That is especially the case for Indonesia and Thailand. As we know, when it comes to such contracting, there is a race to the bottom going on and contractors in the Global South have to compete with each other and cut costs in whichever way they can, mostly on environmental and labor costs. After all, we want our jeans cheap. That cost is borne by someone else’s environment, health and wages.

Next stop in Cambodia where jean factories are pulling a generation of daughters out of the countryside to the main cities where the money they make is still better than what their families earn on farms, although Cambodia is one of the countries most likely to be on the losing side of the end of the quotas.

This is where the book gets a bit off-track. While Snyder takes a lot of time describing the lives of two factory workers (which is really interesting), she starts focusing more on corporate responsibility and standards than on the commodity chain per se. This has to do with the fact that Cambodia is a special case for the ILO through the Better Factories Cambodia program:

“Better Factories Cambodia is a unique programme of the International Labour Organization. It benefits workers, employers and their organizations. It benefits consumers in Western countries and helps reduce poverty in one of the poorest nations of the world.

It does this by monitoring and reporting on working conditions in Cambodian garment factories according to national and international standards, by helping factories to improve working conditions and productivity, and by working with the Government and international buyers to ensure a rigorous and transparent cycle of improvement.

The project grew out of a trade agreement between the United States and Cambodia. Under the agreement the US promised Cambodia better access to US markets in exchange for improved working conditions in the garment sector. The ILO project was established in 2001 to help the sector make and maintain these improvements.”

And the program seems to work and Cambodia uses its good labor practice as its comparative advantage, because otherwise, there is no way it can compete with the giant next door, China and its monumental export zones. And from the way Snyder describes it, it seems that there are improvements but there are still enormous labor issues:

“Of course, it would be naïve to suggest that problems, generally termed noncompliance, were not still rampant in the industry as a whole. Numerous examples of child labor, forced labor, abhorrent conditions, and abysmal pay abound. In the spring of 2006, the National Labor Committee put out a report on widespread industry abuses in Jordan in factories that contract with Wal-Mart, Kmart, Kohl’s, Gloria Vanderbilt, Target, and Victoria’s Secret, among others. The report cites instances of forced labor, indentured servitude, physical and mental abuse, rape, mandatory pregnancy testing (mothers-to-be are often fired so the factory won’t have to pay maternity costs), withholding payment, and unsanitary conditions. Of 60,000 factory workers in Jordan’s export processing zone, more than half are immigrants (often illegal) and thus particularly vulnerable. Jordan also receives preferential access to the U.S. consumer market as part of the U.S.-Israel free-trade deal. The report told of workers locked in a single room at night and forced to work until 2:00 or 3:00 A.M.; factories had withheld meals and in one case punished a handful of workers by locking them for several hours in a deep freezer.” (257)

But part of the improvement is because monitoring and indexing working conditions in factories has become a big business in itself. The certification processes are proliferating but there is no uniform standard so, different indexes might mean different things or countries might pick and choose which index or certification process to be part of.

In the end, as Snyder reiterates several times throughout the book, it comes down to the prices that consumers are willing to accept in exchange for jeans that are produced in a sustainable and fair fashion.

As I mentioned above, the book would have benefited from some tighter editing and greater consistency of topic. I really liked the development on the different kinds of workers involved in the global commodity chain but I don’t give a damn about Bono and his wife. Sometimes, the focus on individuals was much too strong (who cares that one of the Italian designers was pregnant and the whole story around that) compared to the big picture. Too many times, as I was reading the book, I asked myself “where is she going with this?”. Other than that, the book is an easy read.

Again, the accounts of the lives and working conditions of Azeri cotton picker and Khmer factory workers were quite interesting and moving. These are the people on whose shoulders we’re standing when it comes to our quality of life. They do deserve the exposure.

We’re All Crash-Test Dummies Now

Your must-read du jour: Mike Davis on the destruction of the three pillars of McWorld,

American consumption,

“Even if debt-limit doomsday is averted, Obama has already hocked the farm and sold the kids. With breathtaking contempt for the liberal wing of his own party, he’s offered to put the sacrosanct remnant of the New Deal safety net on the auction bloc to appease a hypothetical “center” and win reelection at any price. (Dick Nixon, old socialist, where are you now that we need you?)

As a result, like the Phoenicians in the Bible, we’ll sacrifice our children (and their schoolteachers) to Moloch, now called Deficit. The bloodbath in the public sector, together with an abrupt shutoff of unemployment benefits, will negatively multiply through the demand side of the economy.”

European stability:

“Across the Atlantic, the European Union is demonstrating that it is exclusively a union of big banks and mega-creditors, grimly determined to make the Greeks sell off the Parthenon and the Irish emigrate to Australia. One doesn’t have to be a Keynesian to know that, should this happen, the winds will only blow colder thereafter. (If German jobs have so far been saved, it is only because China and the other BRICs—Brazil, Russia, and India—have been buying so many machine tools and Mercedes.)”

and Chinese growth:

“China has caught the Dubai virus and now every city there with more than one million inhabitants (at least 160 at last count) aspires to brand itself with a Rem Koolhaas skyscraper or a destination mega-mall. The result has been an orgy of over-construction.

Despite the reassuring image of omniscient Beijing mandarins in cool control of the financial system, China actually seems to be functioning more like 160 iterations of Boardwalk Empire, where big city political bosses and allied private developers are able to forge their own backdoor deals with giant state banks.”

Conclusion: we’re all crash-test dummies now:

“As the three great economic blocs accelerate toward synchronized depression, I find that I’m no longer as thrilled as I was at 14 by the prospect of a classic Felsen ending—all tangled metal and young bodies.”