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Factories are Better than the Alternative

March 20, 2012

Mike Daisey’s defence of his lies about Chinese factory workers seems to be that he’s doing the noble work of making people care about “the state of our manufacturing, about the shape of our world.” (Though he lies about these greater truths anyway.)

But he’s not even doing particularly noble work. People complain about factory conditions in poor countries because they have a poor imagination and a poor sense of history. All rich countries got there through a brutal process of industrialization, and what existed before was generally just as brutal. To suppose that China might get rich in some other way is to indulge in a feel-good fantasy.

Here’s Matthew Yglesias‘s very proper take on this topic:

Apple makes lots of stuff that lots of Americans own and therefore it’s possible to make people feel a kind of psychic chain of guilt when they hear about bad conditions in the factories building the components. But this is a bit like the South By Southwest human hotspots problem, what Apple stands accused of is complicity in the misery of Chinese workers but its real crime often seems to be exposing our delicate western sensibilities to the misery.

You don’t read articles about working conditions in factories making socks destined for export to Kazakhstan, and you don’t read articles about working conditions on the rice farms that people eagerly leave to go toil in the sock factory. That rice and those socks are invisible to us and so too are the workers. What we need to see and hear about are bad conditions wherever they may be, not just the ones that provide the appealing news hook. When you read something bad about a Foxconn factory and then see that thousands of people line up for the chance of a job at one of them, that really ought to make you wonder. What were those guys doing the day before they decided to stand in line? How did that look? If you want to understand the depths of poverty that exist in the world, you can’t just look under the streetlamp.

A lot of us in the wealthy West have forgotten how cruel the world is.

*     *     *

James Fallows has some interesting things to say about the Daisey story, including this:

When they get all huffy, Chinese nationalists love to present the Western press as being irremediably biased against Chinese achievements and ambitions, and willing to pass along the most outrageous slanders about China without checking them for accuracy or even plausibility. A site called Anti-CNN is a well-known outlet for such views. This is a constant nuisance when you try to write critical assessments. Worse, it gives ammo to those inside China who want to pooh-pooh complaints about safety, pollution, working conditions, and so on. Daisey is everything they warned against, come to life.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. March 31, 2012 6:38 pm

    I agree completely. The middle-class in the modern west looks down on factory jobs because they’re no longer a part of our community and culture, as our economy has been transitioning out of industrial production for a while now. Like you said, it’s a necessary step in an economy’s development, and when you’re a part of that economy factory work is something to aspire to.

    Humans were farmers, industrial workers, office workers in that order. Each step in development is satisfied by progression to the next step, but you don’t skip steps. People who struggle for food don’t yearn for a college degree, they just want a steady job. We can’t transpose our heady, neurotic standards of worth onto a group of people for whom a factory job is a source of pride.

    • April 3, 2012 5:48 pm

      I agree about the “looking down on it” aspect of this.

      I sometimes make a similar point about people in North America, too—lots of people aren’t suited to white collar work, and should be directed to vocational training more quickly. When I say this, people act like I’ve insulted those people horribly. But why? There’s nothing wrong with fixing cars or whatever.

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