Friday, April 26, 2013

Bangladesh & Mrs Jones

With over 300 people dead in a collapsed sweatshop in Bangladesh, plus a string of earlier incidents—including 111 in a fire in November—is it time we started asking what part we play in these accidents?

How could we play a part? We’re on the other side of the world.

What are you wearing? Do you know where it came from? Did you pay what it was worth? Or are you like me, a little strapped for cash and therefore looking out for a good deal? Even if you’re not short of moolah, you still know a good price when you see one. It’s human nature: bargains are hard to pass up.

It’s also a foundation of capitalism: the best price often wins.

But what about the hundreds of people who just died giving us great prices? Even before they died, they worked in terrible conditions for pay just above the squalor line. If this was your neighbor, would you allow it to happen? If it was a relative, what would you do to stop it? They’re so far removed from us, yet as this world becomes more globalized, we are all becoming neighbors. And whether you believe in Adam and Eve or Lucy, we are all somehow related. So where is the line? Three doors down and second cousin? Different nationality and different color? Somewhere in between? We all have a line, and that is the point at which our humanity is replaced by our self-interest.

Can this line be blurred? Can we wipe it out completely? Is there a way to see our place in the world differently? Every time a disaster of this magnitude comes to our attention, it gives us pause. We go to a place—if only for a moment—where we feel sympathy for a distant fellow human being. And then we get in our car and drive to Walmart and shop ourselves back into unconsciousness. It is so hard to connect their suffering to our behavior. We didn’t build the sweatshop. We didn’t negotiate the contract. We didn’t know what their working conditions were like. We didn’t do it. But boy, did we get a deal on that sweater.

There are many sides to every transaction. We see some of them (great price, how do they make a profit?) and are blinded to most of them. How do we open our eyes? How do we see the true cost of our actions? All we have to compare with are the people around us—the Joneses—and keeping up with them becomes a central focus of our reality. Immediacy trumps dissociation every time, and the only time Bangladeshi sweatshops emerge into immediacy is when disaster strikes and a pang of empathy erupts. Then, very quickly, Made in Bangladesh once again means only that it’s cheap.

So what do we do? Do we accept personal responsibility for this tragedy? Do we blame the importers? The retailers? The factory owners? The factory’s builder? The officials that watched it go up without a permit? Do we put it down to globalization? To capitalism? Every one of these is a factor in all this suffering: hundreds dead, hundreds wounded, hundreds of families experiencing loss with little compensation. And every one of us is in a position to deflect responsibility to one of the other parties.

Is that who we are? Is that what being human is all about? Can we simply be reduced to seven billion egocentric organisms? Or is there a way to see us as one organism with seven billion parts? If we are the latter, then we just received a stab wound from the sudden loss of 300 significant elements. How many more self-inflicted wounds do we need to subject ourselves to before we recognize that we’re suffering from a self-harming disorder?

According to the Credit Suisse Research Institute, global wealth is sitting at over USD 50,000 per adult. Surely that’s enough? There is enough to go around. But while I have the mentality that I need much more than I really do, and while I value my success more than someone else’s existence, there will never be enough for many. We are seeing this play out here in the US, as income inequality approaches the extremes of the ‘20s; those who are best at getting more for themselves are doing so at the expense of those who don’t have the same skills. And while this kind of thinking pervades economic rationale this will continue to happen—at least until the system implodes under its own weight as it did in 1929.

Our whole economic system depends on factories like that one in Bangladesh. It needs cheap labor and cheap means of production. It’s been happening since the Dickensian age. The industrial revolution required a minor revolution in thinking: the serfs who served nobility were now required to serve industry. Globalization just helps keep the serfs out of sight, out of mind, in collapsing factories in countries like Bangladesh, while we—the nobility—preoccupy ourselves with the Joneses and all the things we don’t yet have.

Until we’re ready for a real revolution in thinking, we’ll have blood on our hands every time we seek a bargain. But don’t worry, there’s always someone else to blame.

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