Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Whiteness and Corporate Social Responsibility in China

There's been a good deal of discussion in the corporate media lately about the harsh and often unsafe working conditions in Chinese factories. It turns out that the folks who assemble those shiny gadgets that dominate the American consumer landscape - the smart phones, tablets, laptops, and such - lead less than shiny lives. They routinely work six day weeks, ten to twelve hour days, and spend much of that time standing or sitting on backless stools. They are sometimes forced to work double shifts or given corporal punishment for minor infractions. And they live in overcrowded dorm rooms, with as many as twenty people sharing three rooms.

A recent episode of PRI's This American Life featured monologist Mike Daisy describing some extremely disturbing things he learned from talking directly to Chinese factories workers about their treatment. A few of weeks later, as part of their iEconomy series, the New York Times published an exposé detailing similar safety problems and labor abuses. Although the fact that most electronics products are manufactured in China by exploited workers could not have been a big surprise to anyone who's been paying attention, this story received a flood of attention. The reason for this, I'm guessing, has a great deal to do with what these factories were making, for these were not just any factories. These were the factories where the Apple Ipad is assembled.

Apple's most brilliantly realized product may in fact be its brand image. It is seen as different from other companies, as holding itself to a higher standard, as somehow embodying antiestablishment, countercultural values. These stories, however, threaten to cast the company as just another corporate miscreant, willing to think differently about product innovation maybe, but sticking with tradition when it comes to labor exploitation. This contradiction creates a sort of cognitive dissonance for many Apple fans, engendering the sort of moral shock that animates Mike Daisy's This American Life story.

The ensuing conversation has, predictably, taken shape as a debate about corporate social responsibility and whether Apple is ultimately good or bad for Chinese workers. Critics of Apple, like Mike Daisy, point to the harsh working conditions in the factories and the meagerness of Apple's efforts to improve them, especially compared to the resources they put into ensuring product quality and brand image. According to these critics, Apple has a responsibility to ensure that working conditions among it suppliers meet internationally accepted standards. Their position is not really that Apple is bad for workers, just that they are not nearly as good as they ought to be.

Meanwhile, some supporters of the status quo argue that Apple is good for Chinese workers because, they claim, what China is going through is a necessary and inevitable phase of industrial development. These commentators suggest that the sweatshop phase of development is itself beneficial because it lifts people out of poverty, gives them an alternative to village life, and improves the status of women. They even suggest that working conditions are bound to improve, as employers are forced to compete for workers. The critics reject, meanwhile, the notion that brutal exploitation is necessary or inevitable and insist that everyone, everywhere, is entitled to the basic protections that workers in developed countries take for granted. 

While these debates tend to be focused on how workers are treated and the degree to which corporations should be held responsible for working conditions in their supply chains, one obvious issue rarely comes up in the corporate media. That is the question of workers' ability to determine their own working conditions through collective bargaining. Although it occasionally merits a passing mention, as just one right among others, collective bargaining is rarely acknowledged as the fundamental right that made all the others possible.

Organized labor has always been the only effective counterbalance to the power of corporations. Perhaps this is one of the reasons labor history is unfailingly marginalized by the corporate media. At the same time, of course, our collective memory is being steadily degraded by corporate funded think tanks constantly working to turn the labor movement into a historical footnote. The fact remains, however, that the labor protections taken for granted in developed countries did not originate from corporate good will or from a competition for workers. And they certainly did not develop out of some deterministic progression to the next stage of social evolution (an ironically Marxist notion for a capitalist to hold). They were hard won through a difficult and often bloody struggle by workers to organize and make demands.

There is another subtle but insidious factor helping out in the effort to downplay the significance of organized labor for the Chinese workers' struggle. That factor is racism, which should come as no surprise, since labor control is the original reason for racism. Consider the way in which the issue is typically framed. As I said, rather than discussing the reasons why workers' are denied the right genuinely to affect their own circumstances, most critics focus on the responsibility of corporations and U.S. consumers to insist on better treatment. When we cast the labor rights debate as a debate about corporate and consumer social responsibility, Chinese workers end up in the role of helpless victims.

This tendency to see the predicament of Chinese workers as something that companies like Apple or their customers can solve by insisting on improved working conditions is simply another instance of white savior complex. This attitude, like its colonial antecedent white man's burden, is a form of paternalism rooted in a tendency to view colonial others as somehow less than fully human. The sine-qua-non of the white supremacist imagination is that only white people are seen as individuals who exist for their own sake, and possess their own intentions, aspirations, and dignity. The rights of workers to organize may be getting short shrift in this debate, in part, because of a difficulty among white liberals to imagine Chinese workers' capacity to determine for themselves their own best interests.  

Well meaning white liberals cannot advance the cause of human liberation as long as we imagine that we have a special responsibility to intervene in the suffering of poor victims in far off places. The problem is not only that this strategy is ineffective; more often than not, it reinforces the very structures of oppression that are the true source of the suffering. The emphasis on corporate social responsibility, for example, accepts and even endorses the unchecked power of the corporation. These white savior strategies thus distract attention from the deeper structural issue. By concentrating on ostensibly bad actors, we are able to avoid looking at our own complicity in the neocolonial, neoliberal institutions of global capitalism, the very existence of which depends on an unending supply of exploitable labor.   

 Barry Deutsch / CC BY 3.0 

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Reflections on Community and Spirituality

I found myself in a church service recently, where I had gone to hear a sermon given by my friend Nichola Torbett, founding director of Seminary of the Street. I'm glad I went, since the sermon was as brilliant. Sitting through the service, however, I noticed in myself a longing for the sense of community that the congregants seemed to enjoy. Although the church was exceedingly warm and welcoming to us non-regulars, I felt unable fully to take comfort in their acceptance. The problem is that I'm a not a Christian believer, which means that the full experience of Christian community must remain out of reach, no matter how much kinship I may feel with particular Christians. 

Moreover, it's difficult, in the church setting, to remain stealthy about one's lack of belief because of that unambiguous moment of truth called Communion, when the congregants are called on to testify to and literally embody their faith. Whatever one may think of this ritual, it works well to establish who the genuine Christians are. Yet, "communion" moments are by no means exclusive to Christianity. They are a standard element of group psychology, which usually manifest as subtle pressure to show that one shares the group's worldview. In my own circles, which tend to include many "spiritual but not religious" types, there is often a moment when someone says something about past lives or "indigo children," and I immediately feel like an outsider, a spy for the skeptic police. I become conscious only of my intellectual resistance and, as a result, the prospect of staying fully connected with these comrades feels like a threat to my integrity (or is it just the integrity of my identity?).

As I ponder this situation, I wonder if my inability to believe and the alienation it fosters might somehow be products of the dominant culture, a sort of ruling class "strategy" evolved to keep the population isolated and fragmented. I realize this may sound outrageous, since, after all, religious belief is supposed to benefit the ruling class. The conventional view, at least on the political left, is that religion is an opiate of the masses,” keeping people passive by placating us with ultimate meaning and the confidence that our oppression and suffering in this life will be redeemed in the next.

It is certainly true that, for some populations, religious faith functions to rationalize suffering and justify inequity. But that’s a topic for another blog. Here I want to focus on another kind of faith, the kind that represents a threat to powerful interests because of its capacity to unite and empower the oppressed. This is the faith that got Jesus and Martin killed, along with who knows how many other spiritual revolutionaries. And I want to consider the possibility that, as a gay man, my capacity for this sort of faith was part of the price I paid for my individual liberation. I’m wondering, in other words, if I’ve gained my sense of liberation by identifying (however unconsciously) with my whiteness. Racial solidarity most definitely is a ruling class strategy.  

Of course, I’m not suggesting that whiteness is somehow antithetical to faith. That is obviously false. Whiteness is not a fixed category with a specific ideology. As I’ve argued consistently on this blog, it is a value system; a worldview; a cosmology. As Thandeka explains in Learning to be White, the acquisition of white identity often involves learning to deny or repress sensual, embodied feelings (and often to project them onto racialized others) in order to be seen as suitably self-possessed and rational by white culture. Children are praised and rewarded for valued qualities, such as emotional restraint, self-control, and competitiveness, and they are penalized for such devalued qualities as spontaneity, vulnerability, and emotional expressiveness. Is it just a coincidence that these latter qualities are precisely those that make genuine communal life possible?

For me, the path to whiteness was clear and wide, having woken up with much of it already behind me. I grew up in a working class town at a time when groups of European immigrants were still struggling to claim white identity. My racial status was secure enough, but, being gay, I found that I still fell far short of the patriarchal (not to mention puritanical) standards of whiteness, for they cannot abide any deviation from its strictly proscribed sexual norms. I dealt with this predicament in some of the same ways as other white, middle class, gay men: I developed those of my qualities that are esteemed by the dominant culture – careerism, the appearance of social conformity, and, of course, good grooming – while avoiding the messy complications of embodied existence by overdeveloping my critical intellect. 

So I came to identify very strongly with my critical stance, and my faith was one of its numerous casualties. According to the story I typically tell myself, my critical outlook first undermined my belief in God, which was fairly strong in my youth, and then proceeded to render all intimations of cosmic purpose and meaning untenable to me. The last vestiges of my faith were finally swept away once I began to think about whiteness and to see the ways in which dominant conceptions of the divine coincide with white middle class privilege.

What I have not reflected on until now is how my critical stance also serves white middle class privilege. As I said, one of its main consequences is that it keeps me from feeling deeply connecting into the communities I move in. Maybe it's not my faith or lack of it that I should be focused on, but the satisfaction and rewards I get from remaining separate. Perhaps I’m simply addicted to alienation, to my identity as an isolated individual. Indeed, it is this identity that allows me to feel that I'm in control of my circumstances, that I'm responsible only for my own private choices. As an individual in an individualistic society, I get to imagine myself as free from social obligations and communal accountability. Alienation serves individualism, and individualism, by casting relationships as voluntary and/or transactional, supports and promotes the group interests of middle class white men like myself (see Whiteness and the Utility of the Colorblind Paradigm). 

The impulse to remain separate is obviously problematic, but individualism may also undermine spirituality in less direct ways. I've participated in a variety of spiritually oriented classes and workshops, from which I have definitely learned and grown as a person. I've noticed, however, that, due to their focus on personal transformation, many of them seem to have been designed to produce some sort of big insight or "peak experience." These experiences, though often valuable, are likely to be unstable and unsustainable. For me, the peak experience has usually been the feeling of group bonding that often happens among the participants. It is beautiful, in its way, and yet I can't help but wonder if this is actually just a sort of spiritual buzz.

In the safe container of a weekend workshop, the dictates of the dominant culture are temporarily suspended. Participants are permitted to show vulnerability and express genuine feelings, which makes it possible for us to connect in a way that seems to satisfy our longing for community. However, because these experiences are bracketed from normal life, it is possible to enjoy them without actually having to risking the real world benefits of individualism. I can bond with a group in a weekend workshop without questioning my white middle class privileges, and more importantly, without becoming accountable to anyone. Not surprisingly, this communal buzz eventually dissipates, and the seemingly insatiable longing for connection and community returns. This creates something like an addiction cycle. 

I am becoming convinced that spirituality as an individual path (as distinct from an individual practice) is actually a contradiction. Not only does individualism produce and perpetuate unjust and violent social relations, it may be fundamentally incompatible with genuine spirituality. The latter may simply be impossible in the absence of sustainable human connection and community. Where does that leave me with my hypercritical attitude, my addiction to individualism, and my longing for genuine community? Well, at the moment, I am participating in a number of ongoing groups, and although it is often a struggle, I am not allowing myself to disengage. I have come to recognize that cultivating genuine community is the true essence of my spirituality. I guess for now I just need to keep showing up and doing my best simply to stay engaged, which may be the most demanding a spiritual practice I can think of.