In a web-extended version of his broadcast essay, Bill Moyers gives examples of how indiscriminate killing by our military forces not only cuts down innocent bystanders, but drives “their enraged families and friends straight into the arms of the very terrorists we’re trying to eradicate.” Bill says the Vietnam War, the Iraq War, and President Obama’s prolific use of drones all share a “blind faith in technology, combined with a sense of infallible righteousness.”
Of weights and measures
Makes robbery easier.
Signing contracts, setting seals,
Makes robbery more sure.
Teaching love and duty
Provides a fitting language
With which to prove that robbery
Is really for the general good.
A poor man must swing
For stealing a belt buckle
But if a rich man steals a whole state
He is acclaimed
As statesman of the year.
Excerpted from “Cracking the Safe,” by Chuang Tzu.
From “China in Revolt” by Eli Friedman
The Chinese working class plays a Janus-like role in the political imaginary of neoliberalism. On the one hand, it’s imagined as the competitive victor of capitalist globalization, the conquering juggernaut whose rise spells defeat for the working classes of the rich world. What hope is there for the struggles of workers in Detroit or Rennes when the Sichuanese migrant is happy to work for a fraction of the price?
At the same time, Chinese workers are depicted as the pitiable victims of globalization, the guilty conscience of First World consumers. Passive and exploited toilers, they suffer stoically for our iPhones and bathtowels. And only we can save them, by absorbing their torrent of exports, or campaigning benevolently for their humane treatment at the hands of “our” multinationals.
For parts of the rich-world left, the moral of these opposing narratives is that here, in our own societies, labor resistance is consigned to history’s dustbin. Such resistance is, first of all, perverse and decadent. What entitles pampered Northern workers, with their “First World problems,” to make material demands on a system that already offers them such abundance furnished by the wretched of the earth? And in any case, resistance against so formidable a competitive threat must surely be futile.
By depicting Chinese workers as Others – as abject subalterns or competitive antagonists – this tableau wildly miscasts the reality of labor in today’s China. Far from triumphant victors, Chinese workers are facing the same brutal competitive pressures as workers in the West, often at the hands of the same capitalists. More importantly, it is hardly their stoicism that distinguishes them from us.
Today, the Chinese working class is fighting. More than thirty years into the Communist Party’s project of market reform, China is undeniably the epicenter of global labor unrest. While there are no official statistics, it is certain that thousands, if not tens of thousands, of strikes take place each year. All of them are wildcat strikes – there is no such thing as a legal strike in China. So on a typical day anywhere from half a dozen to several dozen strikes are likely taking place.
More importantly,workers are winning, with many strikers capturing large wage increases above and beyond any legal requirements. Worker resistance has been a serious problem for the Chinese state and capital and, as in the United States in the 1930s, the central government has found itself forced to pass a raft of labor legislation. Minimum wages are going up by double digits in cities around the country and many workers are receiving social insurance payments for the first time.
Trenton Oldfield, who disrupted the annual Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race in April this year to protest against inequality, was sentenced to six months in jail for the offence of “public nuisance”. Although the race was restarted 25 minutes later, Judge Molyneux made it clear that Trenton had disrupted the smooth running of things, and for that he must go to jail: “Thousands of people had lined the banks of the river to enjoy a sporting competition. Many more were watching at home on live television.” The message is blunt: if it’s on TV and aristocrats are involved, then the state can deprive you of your liberty for as long as it likes.