As part of my ongoing and severely unappreciated effort to proselytize Everything2, I'm going to briefly discuss Morris Berman's book The Twilight of American Culture. It's a deeply flawed work, I'll admit. Yet, there are moments of sheer brilliance, where Berman fits the pieces of the puzzle we call America together just so, so that their truths can no longer be denied. One such passage reads:


"What do we think it means... when... the label reads Made in The Philippines? What do we imagine the social and economic reality is behind these seemingly neutral words? Or the cup of Colombian supremo that we drink every morning? ... The truth is that it is a bitter drink; that the affluence of the few is purchased with the misery of many."

Charles Manson once said that he is just a reflection of our dark side, and that when we hate him, we are hating a part of ourselves. As you may or may not know, he ordered the murder of several people. He did not kill them himself. When we buy sweatshop goods, we are endorsing the exploitation of billions. This exploitation is so severe and so brutal that it could almost be called slavery. We are talking about children in India being forced to work for over 10 hours a day. We are talking about forcing people to live on a dollar a day. And it's all so that we can have cheap shoes and coffee. Was Charles Manson wrong?

You can hate me for saying that. You can try to justify sweatshops. I don't care. I'm tired of waking up every morning knowing that there is blood on my hands. It's time to move past cheap sloganeering and feel-good mantras, past Barack Obama's hollow "Yes We Can!" mentality. It's time to actually do something about it, and don't look to me for answers. I don't want to be the shepherd of a flock. I'm calling you on to look for the answer deep inside yourself. It's the only right answer and you know it, even if you would deny it.

Probably, though, you will just come up with some reason why I'm an idiot and forget that you ever read this. It will become lost, awash in a sea of white noise, that comfortable buzz that smothers your senses. It's like being suffocated with a pillow in your sleep.

"What [the Internet] provides is [an] experience of skimming across related (or unrelated) ideas, opening up kaleidoscopic windows. The medium works against depth and self-reflection ... an identity is finally forged [through] meaningless infotainment. There is no context here, and most of Generation X lacks all sense of history or cultural continuity. Subjective space evaporates to be replaced by mental theme parks that assist in moving our culture from wisdom to schlock. We have become a nation unable to think except by means of slogans ... we live in a collective adrenaline rush. 'Thinking' now means nothing more than wandering through the latest mental theme park."

I know that what I say doesn't fit in the typical American's mental theme park. Imagine walking into Disney World and seeing Islamic terrorists being waterboarded in front of Cinderella Castle. That's a close approximation of what I'm trying to do, to make the truth visible. What more can I say? Yes, you can accuse me of being a hypocrite for using the Internet. My response is that I'm an imperfect and that I want to reach as many audiences as possible. I'm not opposed to technology. I'm just opposed to its misuse.

Berman's book was first published in 2000, near the height of our economic optimism. Some at the time even had the audacity to say that economic depressions were a thing of the past. I think we can see now that the possibility of an economic depression is still very real. Berman had the prescience to warn us back in 2000 that the economic picture was not so rosy, and that we were losing our well-paying jobs at an alarming rate, exchanging them for lower-paying jobs while American corporations posted record profits. What's more, he warned that an increasing amount of wealth from the lower and middle class was being transferred to the upper class. This has only become more true over time as the wealth disparity in our nation increases. When the banks were given roughly a trillion of OUR taxpayer dollars, they used it to buy other banks or gave it out as loans to wealthy multinational companies. The money of the heavily taxed middle class was given away, and if any of it was paid back, it was paid using the interest the banks generated from investments they made using that money.

Berman also predicted that America, like Ancient Rome, would fall, and sooner rather than later judging by our indulgent mentality. Do you want to wait to see if he was right about that, too?

You're laughing now, but I'm voting this sucka down

"The misery of being exploited by capitalists is nothing compared to the misery of not being exploited at all."
-Joan Robinson

A very quick reply to the above.

I know that the OP is a statement of feeling more than fact, and that it dismisses the idea of justifying sweatshops for good reason. And I understand that a refutation of this last idea is kind of repulsive and even pedantic in the context, but please hear me out here.

IMO, the question that you should always ask yourself in matters of public policy is not "is it perfectly ethical?" but "what are the alternatives?" Additionally, you shouldn't ever let the perfect become the enemy of the improving, however glacially.

My girlfriend does research work on industrial policy in Africa, Botswana specifically. Rio Tinto is a mining firm with working conditions that are well below what we would accept in the West. And yet, people take those jobs because they are reasonably good by industry standards and, more importantly, better than other local employment opportunities. And the government is happy to have Rio Tinto in their country because they (Rio Tinto) bring deep pockets that they (again, Rio Tinto) use to create new infrastructure. Rio Tinto may create substandard working conditions by our standards, but they also create roads and jobs where there were none before.

Similarly, I have spent some time studying the political economy of China, where the West has essentially outsourced its manufacturing sector. The conditions of Chinese sweatshops are well below what we would accept in the United States. And I have a number of quarrels with Chinese economic policy, but it is also hard to argue -- at least in 2010 -- with double-digit growth over a decade and the rapid elevation of very large numbers of people out of poverty. All through essentially sweatshop labor.

Is it right? Is it just? Do the ends justify the means? Fortunately, that kind of stuff is above my pay grade, but I just wanted to push back a little on the race to the bottom rhetoric a bit. Trade may seem exploitative in the short-term, and often it is, but in the long-term game the picture is frequently more complicated.

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