Monday, May 21, 2007

Marigold Girl and the Wal-Mart System

Recently I sat across from a migrant-labor family on a train ride in an interior Chinese province. The mother was exhausted and the father was somber, but it was their daughter who attracted my attention. Only four years old, she burned with an incandescent fury. Her parents, unlike her, had been allowed the luxury of a childhood, having grown up back before market reforms (which began in 1978), and although they were worn out by the migrant life of legal discrimination, little respect, fewer rights, and less money, as adults they were still able to endure it. But the daughter, dressed in a hand-knit sweater the blazing color of marigolds, was a living sacrifice to the Wal-Mart export system. Her gaze never shifted. She sat as still as a stuffed doll. I tried looking directly into her eyes, a trick that unnerves even stoic children. But Marigold Girl’s eyes were as steady and cold as the mouth of a gun.

It was I who averted my eyes.

Nor was it easy to take my eyes off of them. The family rode alone in their own bubble of utter powerlessness, a bubble marking them off as clear to the eye as the chapped cheeks and down-turned mouths of mother and daughter. I have observed other sacrifices to Wal-Mart’s system of moral convenience, people with faces so molded by the bitter winds of fate that they belonged to a world I could not imagine inhabiting, but Marigold Girl’s eyes expressed a desolation that could not be met without an ominous twinge – without the strong need to turn away. Neither Mr. Walton, nor Mr. Hu, nor Mr. Bush need ever meet her gaze. The powerful live within their own bubble, a bubble of privileged moral separation.

They need never meet those radioactive eyes.

Though Sam Walton is often credited for the genius of his supply and pricing systems, such a “genius” is merely a leaf carried along on a deep current of human exploitation. Walton’s sophisticated tracking systems and buying techniques, in other words, could only be built atop the backs of people whose lives, labor, and rights, are held very cheaply by those managing them. The real genius of this essentially bi-national system is moral: American consumers buy cheap goods made under conditions no American law, or American conscience, would ever willingly allow within American borders. But morality tends not to cross national borders very well. Faced with declining income security for the middle and lower classes, the government is able to partially diffuse rising class resentments with the promise that a Christmas tree, made in China, may be purchased for next to nothing at Wal-Mart. Because the Christmas tree is manufactured in Guangdong rather than in Ohio, the American consumer can more easily pretend moral ignorance. Wal-Mart’s greatest service to consumers is not low prices but the moral convenience of buying tainted goods in a store proclaiming its own essential American decency.

Within the larger picture of global economic restructuring, the United States government clearly requires cheap consumption if the working and middle classes are to be kept politically quiescent. (Rituals of patriotism, such as war, are another crucial aspect of this strategy.) In addition, the current United States regime’s continued electoral success rests in large part upon monopolizing the corporate money of people such as Mr. Walton, who are paying for the right to play ball where and how they please, regardless of niggling details like labor rights.

Neither can it be plausibly denied that the Chinese government relies politically on the Wal-Mart system for its survival, as well. For the Chinese government, however, the benefit accrues not so much from cheap consumption to keep quiet declining social classes, but rather from the direct infusion of money collected from manufacturers (both foreign and domestic) into state coffers. This infusion of cash allows a monopolistic regime to extend its life and purchase new legitimacy by building massive roads and buildings. Much of this public spending ends up in the hands of well-connected regional and national elites whose companies do the building. These architectural and engineering monuments to state power festoon every major Chinese city and extend the regime’s lease on life. The Chinese government, just like the American one, owes its continued existence to the blood and sweat of tens of millions of never-named migrant laborers.
A new internationalism is in order.

In recent years, non-governmental organizations throughout the developed world have made efforts to influence consumer consciousness by creating systems of certification. Such certifications state that a given product, such as coffee, was produced under certain “fair conditions,” such as the producer receiving a minimum percentage of the final sale price. In addition, labor unions in developed countries have continuously called for greater attention to labor standards in countries considered to be “taking” jobs. These efforts, too, have made inroads within the American garment industry, by resulting in certification which guarantees that a certain article of clothing was not produced under “sweat shop” conditions. In such initiatives, bodies within the producer and consumer nation work in concert. I propose that the United Nations take the idea of “fair production” or “fair trade” as pioneered by NGO’s (such as Oxfam in the United Kingdom) and labor unions, and enlist governments of both consumer and producer nations in promoting its more extensive use. In the United States, a coalition of interested parties – including consumers with the means to purchase more expensive, certified products -- can rise to help promote the creation of such a system. An international system of certification would change national borders from walls of moral silence, behind which corporate giants strike deals with governments, to points of contact between peoples in a broader struggle for justice.

No nation can benefit from the blood and tears of another nation’s people without itself paying a moral price. No class of people can benefit from the blood and tears of another class’ people without itself, one day, paying a moral price. And moral prices paid on credit have a way of piling up into debts with ominous political and economic consequences. War is the easiest way for undemocratic governments to divert attention from these debts. The current shared scheme to exploit the poor, mainly the Chinese poor, is no substitute for true friendship between two great nations. Let us stand together, then, as people of conscience -- first for labor rights, and then for the peace that would flow from the guarantee of these rights. Let us stand together in denouncing the Wal-Mart system for what it is: a barbarous, bi-national pact of silence, a secret handshake made over the bodies of China’s rural and migrating poor.

A new internationalism is in order: a globalization of conscience.

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