Recycling free market myths

January 21, 2009

IT SEEMS that conservative New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof missed the memo that the economic crisis has exposed his neoliberal "the free market will solve everything" ideology as bankrupt.

His January 15 column on the lives of the poorest of Cambodia, "Where Sweatshops are a Dream," while a good source of toilet paper, also provides an opportunity to confront neoliberalism for what it is and how it reveals the bankruptcy of capitalism in general.

Kristof's argument can be summed up in a two-sentence quote:

Mr. Obama and the Democrats who favor labor standards in trade agreements mean well, for they intend to fight back at oppressive sweatshops abroad. But while it shocks Americans to hear it, the central challenge in the poorest countries is not that sweatshops exploit too many people, but that they don't exploit enough.

He argues that while those of us who oppose sweatshop labor are well-meaning (and naïve) idealists, to really improve the lives of the world's poorest people, those who survive by scavenging in landfills, we should advocate the expansion of sweatshops.

This argument is supported with such gems as: "Talk to these families in the dump, and a job in a sweatshop is a cherished dream, an escalator out of poverty, the kind of gauzy if probably unrealistic ambition that parents everywhere often have for their children," and "one of the best hopes for the poorest countries would be to build their manufacturing industries...but global campaigns against sweatshops make that less likely."

By referring to sweatshop a "cherished dream," Kristof reveals how privileged and out of touch he is. By simply recycling the old neoliberal argument, trumpeted by such organizations as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, that free trade and "development" will end poverty, and that labor unions and standards, social services like public education, health care, and food subsidies for the poor are what is holding this project back, Kristof uses his podium to attack working people.

This argument states that poor countries can eventually develop into advanced economies free of poverty, which is implied in the term "developing countries." This theory has been proven false after decades of "development" that has done little (or worse) for the masses of people in the global South.

Removing barriers to trade and slashing social services has not alleviated poverty, but has deepened and spread it, and has worsened living standards for the working class as a whole in industrialized nations, as well as in developing countries like Cambodia.

Wages and benefits for workers in most industrialized countries, including the U.S., have stagnated or declined in recent decades, and as Eric Toussaint lays out in his book Your Money or Your Life, following a gradual increase in quality of life in the developing countries from 1945-80, "after 1982, eruption of the debt crisis and generalization of structural adjustment policies brought on the degradation of living conditions."

The capitalist class and its cronies in governments around the world, not anti-sweatshop movements or the broader labor movement, are to blame for the lack of jobs in the poorest nations.


TODAY, PRODUCTION is slowing on a global level because of the contradictions of capitalism itself. The credit crunch that is a major cause of the deepening economic crisis has made it impossible for many businesses to secure the loans required to keep factories running.

On the demand side, workers whose living standards have been cut again and again during the three-decade-plus reign of neoliberalism, have watched their sources of credit evaporate and are no longer able to afford to buy the goods those factories would have produced.

Capitalists, in competition for a limited market defined not by human need but by those with the money to buy, continually seek to cut wages and increase productivity, so that fewer workers produce greater amounts of goods for less wages. This undercuts demand and leads to crises of overproduction like the one we're in today. Factories close, leading to even weaker demand, and the cycle repeats itself. This is not the work of omnipotent anti-sweatshop activists; it is a tendency built in to capitalism as an economic system.

The growing gap between rich and poor under late 20th and early 21st century world capitalism, both internationally and within the borders of individual nation-states, has led to the tragic absurdity of unemployment due to a lack of capital in some countries alongside unemployment due to an excess of capital in others.

And internationally, the means and potential exist to meet the human needs of everyone on the planet several times over.

This state of affairs underlines the relevance of Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky's century-old theory of combined and uneven development, which provides a much better analysis for understanding and changing the world today than the pipe-dreams offered by apologists for capitalism. This theory argues that under capitalism national economies do not develop in an even or straightforward manner.

On the contrary, as capitalism proceeds, national markets become more and more integrated into the world economy while development proceeds unevenly. Some countries become highly developed while others stagnate and can go backwards, and within nations advanced production can exist side by side with some of worst conditions imaginable for human beings, with peasants living under near-feudal conditions and masses of the unemployed living off of refuse.

This is a chaotic process driven by competition and the drive for greater profits, for the benefit of a few at the expense of the many.

The only solution, according to Trotsky, was Permanent Revolution, an international revolutionary movement of the working class to expropriate the exploiters who benefit from our misery and take control over production and distribution to meet the needs of all.

The recent film Slumdog Millionaire, set in India and featuring images of modern skyscrapers towering above sprawling slums, strikingly illustrates the applicability of Trotsky's theory to today's world. Millions of Indians live in dire poverty, their ranks growing as farmers continue to be displaced by "special economic zones" where international corporations have free reign, while a few have become fabulously wealthy as a result of advanced development.


CAMBODIA IS an interesting example for Kristof to have chosen. As an American conservative pundit, Kristof is a member of a group that manages to discuss (scapegoat) African American poverty while minimizing or ignoring slavery, Jim Crow segregation, and institutional racism perpetrated and upheld by the U.S. ruling class, injustices that are at the root of the high rates of poverty faced by African Americans to this day. So it's no surprise that he manages to discuss poverty in Cambodia as if it, too, can be torn from its historical context and dealt with without holding to account those responsible for the current state of affairs.

In 1969-70, in the middle of its criminal war on the Vietnamese people, the U.S. military dropped over 100,000 tons of bombs on "neutral" Cambodia as part of "Operation Menu." The bombing killed hundreds of thousands of Cambodian civilians and paved the way for the rise of the brutal dictator Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge regime, which killed 1.5 million more.

Instead of sweatshops to allow U.S. and other capitalists to exploit the survivors of this brutality and their descendants, the rich who benefit from the U.S.'s wars should be taxed and the money used for reparations so that no Cambodian has to pick through garbage to find food to eat.

More generally, a look at the history of imperialism and colonialism that continues to this day shows that the ruling classes of the U.S., Europe and Japan (the "Triad"), by far the richest in the world, built their fortunes by exploiting their own working classes while plundering, slaughtering and exploiting those of the Global South.

Pathetically, remittances from immigrants working low-wage jobs are responsible for a greater flow of money from the richest nations to the Global South than official aid, and the net flow of wealth is from the Global South to the industrialized Triad, as payments on debt and capital outflows greatly exceed any aid from the Triad.

To claim that employment sweatshops should be viewed as a "step up" for the world's poorest is to ignore this history of injustice and accept that a just and sane world is impossible, so we should settle for what little we have because "it could be worse." Instead of praying for jobs in sweatshops, we must demand the reparations we are owed by our exploiters.

Kristof, in a time when the rich are richer than ever and the U.S. government can find trillions of dollars to bail out the big banks, wants us to believe that the best the world's poor can expect is a chance for a sweatshop to open up in the neighborhood. In his sick version of reality, the labor movement, those who seek better wages, benefits and working conditions for the people who produce this wealth, is portrayed not as a champion of the poor but as an obstacle in their way.

In this time of crisis, we must reject this and every other cynical ploy to weaken the only force capable of fighting back against the ruling class's attempt to make us pay for their crisis: the international working class.

It is international solidarity, not sweatshops, that will improve the lives of those currently going without from Cambodia, to Cairo, to California. We need more of the solidarity shown by the hundreds of thousands around the world protesting the slaughter in Gaza; although they are not Gazans, they see an injury to the Palestinians is an injury to all. We need more of the solidarity exhibited by members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) who shut down the west coast ports in the U.S. this past May 1 to protest the wars against the people of Iraq and Afghanistan and immigrants in the U.S., and were joined by Iraqi dockworkers striking in their country.

We need to reach back into our own history, to proud struggles like the Seattle general strike of 1919, when workers took control of the city in a strike that halted shipments of arms being sent to crush the workers government in Russia, so that we might learn the lessons that will enable us to move forward to a better future.
Gary Lapon, Northampton, Mass.

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