Hands without bodies
Jeremy Seabrook charts the course of an epic shift: of industry from North to South,
and of self-confidence from workers to workaholics.
For two hundred years of industrial development there have been constant efforts to cut labour and labour costs. Written into the whole project has been a sustained attempt by capital to eliminate, diminish and disgrace labour – to get it at the cheapest price and to prevent workers from combining to express their own power.
Every technological innovation has disemployed people and evicted them from familiar ways of working, before absorbing them – or their children – into new forms of labour. It has been a story of driven, perpetual mobility and change. The industrial system has found ever-more ingenious ways of discarding human beings: manufacture, machinofacture, automation, robotization, jidoka (the investing of machines with human-like intelligence). People have continuously become redundant, deskilled, unwanted, superfluous to productive requirements.
It took labour the first half of the nineteenth century, according to the historian Eric Hobsbawm, to understand the rules of the capitalist game – a game into which it had been enlisted against its will. It took another half century for workers to learn how to apply the rules in their own interests. The first half of the twentieth century saw the highest point of labour organization, solidarity and self-confidence: the second half has witnessed the unmaking of this achievement.
The decline of class consciousness in the Western industrial countries is well documented. It is, in part at least, a consequence of the decline of the basic industries of the early industrial era, which created a sense of shared predicament, a common culture and the need for collective resistance and solidarity. The end of much mining and manufacture, the increased mechanization of production and the export of labour-intensive work to the Third World have left a generation in the West with a sense of damaged purpose and injured function.
In the vacuum the epic, heroic tradition which gave strength and hope to the struggles of labour seems to have vanished. In fact, it has been the object of a strange appropriation, not by the workers by hand or brain but – paradoxically and audaciously – by the most powerful and privileged.
According to them, the work of society is now both too scarce and too important to be left to the working class. They see themselves as the new martyrs of self-sacrificing labour: business tycoons, makers of fortunes, executives of transnational corporations, financiers and wheeler-dealers, speculators in strange abstractions – futures, derivatives, invisibles – global celebrities and media stars whose busy mobility sets armies of subordinates, servicers and hangers-on dancing. The generators of wealth have usurped a role which in some versions of history once belonged to the oppressed and work-burdened labouring poor.
The commitment to work is at its most showy in what is portrayed as the punishing schedules of corporate commuters, the sufferings they endure in a series of identical luxury hotels, the jet-lag and the hangovers from the hospitality that is part of their duty to boost exports, chase orders, make contacts, open up markets, clock up sales; the indulgence of potential customers on rain-swept golf-courses, discreet sex parlours; the vast expenditure of energy in a pursuit of volatile and punitive markets which burns people up before they reach the age of 35.
These devotees of labour can often be heard wishing they had a humdrum, nine-to-five job, envying those who work merely for the wage-packet. Such carefree employees don’t wake up in the early hours with a parched throat, trembling with the responsibility of having to face all those people in the morning; they aren’t up at dawn, scribbling down notes, the outline of a lecture, a few selling points, ideas on a new creative thrust that will keep some brand fresh, relevant and motivating; they don’t get up feeling like nothing on earth, knowing they must be at their sparkling best for that 10.30 meeting, ransacking an inadequate wardrobe for something to give that little extra life so that their contract will not be abruptly terminated. They can be heard loudly justifying their self-administered consolations: ‘What’s wrong with share options?.. My doctor says I must get out from under... I need a break... A ski-ing holiday... The gîte in France...’ or more commonly, at the end of each exhausting day, ‘I need a drink...’
It amounts to a self-immolating excess of labour that should, we are told, properly command awe and compassion from those who perform less exalted tasks in the world. Never in the history of labour has there been such a claim to tribute as the wealth-creators extort for themselves today.
Of course all this is mummery, ornament, decoration – the gilded facade of a society whose principal product is images, the reflection of dazzling surfaces. It is made possible only because the really damaging, destructive labour of the earth has been exported from the Western heartlands to the sulphurous, poisonous sites of exploitative labour in the growing industrial areas of the South.
The images that remain from the chroniclers of nineteenth-century industrial Britain – Engels, Mayhew, Booth – have not vanished from the earth. They spring to vibrant life in the barracks of manufacturing in the South, a slavery to overshadow even the infernal sites of a Britain that not so long ago thought fit to see workers as nothing but disembodied hands. Unknown places, where so many of our daily necessities are now made: shoes, clothes, TV sets, plastic goods, toys, handbags, jewellery, blue jeans. Unnamed places, like the frightful slums of Tangerang and Bekasi in Jakarta, shielded from public scrutiny by guards with guns, protectors of the frontiers of poverty; the row-houses in Bangkok where young countrywomen, industrial captives, work 16 hours a day to make shirts, and eat and sleep in the workplace; where productivity-drives mean spiking the drinking water of workers with amphetamines; where half-a-million young women live in bamboo huts in Dhaka to furnish us with cheap garments, and receive 66 US cents a day for the privilege of doing so.
The sub-contractors to the transnationals are mostly Korean, Singaporean, Taiwanese – tigers grown fat on human flesh – and they place a buffer of ‘respectability’ around the brutalities of the work-place. In Jakarta workers meet and organize under a military prohibition that echoes the Combination Laws of Britain at the end of the eighteenth century.
Uprootings, forced migrations, the violent re-working of the sensibility of people from the subsistence economy of seed-time and harvest to the rhythms of factory labour; all this increased the suicide rate in Thailand by 60 per cent in one year, from 1994 to 1995. Parts of Bangkok have concentrations of dust particles ten times the maximum safe level. Dysentery, cholera and TB rage through the slums built beside the once-fragrant pools of Dhaka. In Bangkok a fire breaks out in a doll factory into which the workers are locked so that they may work unsupervised, and 200 young people die. The slums that occupy land required for more profitable purposes than housing for workers are gutted by petrol bombs.
In the frightful mines of India stunted, subterranean people labour under the same indifference once shown by the coal-owners of South Wales; in Delhi, children work in forges and furnaces, exposed to the molten metal, the embers and hot dust that sear their flesh and corrode their lungs, just as the children of the Black Country did in the 1840s. The child prostitutes trafficked from Burma or Yunnan in China like any other commodity in the free-trade regime of Asia and imprisoned in the brothels of Bombay have the same, sad, wise faces as those rescued by Josephine Butler from the slums of Whitechapel.
Vendors all over the world sell from carts which are identical to those pushed by Mayhew’s costermongers – a wooden trestle with two big wheels and a smaller wheel to stabilize the front – even though their products are more exotic than anything known to Victorian London: papaya, noodles, tom yam, bakso, rice, mangoes, custard apples. The logos of the transnationals hissing their gaseous colours against the tropical night suggest a different decor; only the patterns of labour, exploitation and want are the same as those of the labouring poor under different skies, in another century.
So where does this leave the Western working class, dispossessed of its function, haunted by a sense of vanished purpose and thrown on the Smoky Mountain of a global market, where economic integration is accompanied by social and psychic disintegration? The epic of labour has been displaced, the shadow and appearance of it stolen by privilege, the reality removed from sight into the industrial suburbs of distant cities, where livelihood is turned against life itself. The best we can hope for in this division of labour is to beg for jobs, to become supplicants at the great, impersonal distribution of livelihood in the single, global economy.
It is difficult for people to make sense of what is happening in those towns and cities whose very reason for existence has been wiped out. People who made textiles in Lancashire, ships in Newcastle, who dug coal and made woollens in Yorkshire, pottery in Staffordshire, metal goods in Walsall and Dudley, hosiery in Leicester, lace in Nottingham, shoes in Northampton and hats in Luton, have seen a new generation born to a spoiled function and ruined sense of belonging. They have grown, not to labour, but as starvelings of the market, orphaned of the basic need to participate in the necessary work of society.
It is impossible to exaggerate what a denial of human energies and powers this is: insecurity, a sense of nihilism, futility, lack of participation, not merely in consumption but in active engagement with the production of useful and necessary things; the growth in crime, violence, drugs; the breakdown of neighbourhood and kinship networks. Neither working-class nor privileged, in a kind of limbo without identity: here is a curious new class, ground between those who have robbed us of function and the coercive, relentless labour of the urban poor in the cities of the South.
The epic of labour has not vanished from the world simply because it has been conjured out of sight so that the organized Western working class might forget who they are. To lose a sense of function, hence of identity, and then of consciousness itself, is an unimaginably cruel fate. The decline in membership of trades unions, their decreasing power, their broken resistance, all this is calculated to make us ready, in our insecurity and loss of confidence, to compete with the people of the South, who are still learning the rules of the game, the lessons we thought we had secured for all time.
The convergence between the fate of workers in both North and South, the rich countries and the poor, is becoming more and more plain, though the efforts at concealment by the global possessing classes are both ingenious and desperate. All workers are migrants in the industrial system, in search of rootedness, stability and sufficiency but constantly evicted, uprooted and moved on, condemned to learn afresh the bitter lessons of the imperative of solidarity and resistance. A working class that loses consciousness loses its most precious resource; regaining consciousness, not simply of our position in a national division of labour, but within the context of globalization, is the first requisite if we are to become effective once more.
Jeremy Seabrook’s most recent book, In the Cities of the South, was published by Verso in April. He is preparing a magazine for the NI which tells the story of a poor community in Bombay.
Class of ’96 – AUSTRALIA
FERTILIZING THE RICH
Maria is 24 and was born in Chile. She has been unemployed since leaving university two years ago.
My parents came here from South America 20 years ago. Mum was often sick and Dad had to work two jobs to keep us going. They were both proud that I made it to university. I’d call myself an anarchist if pressed for a label. I don’t like labels, but sometimes it’s the lesser of two evils.
I’ve been involved in student unions and other movements since mid-High School, but only over the past few years I’ve noticed that issues of class keep cropping up. What really horrifies me is the way people pretend it doesn’t exist, even if it’s wrecking their lives. People too easily use other things for scapegoats, or even blame themselves for their situation when it’s clearly forces linked with class that are the real cause of their plight.
It’s inadequate simply to blame the ‘system’ as some sort of impersonal force. The ‘system’ is full of people who’ve had the benefits of being on the upper rungs of the class system for years, and their families for years before that. I hear of rich people who say they’ve got money just by hard work. They never make the connection with what’s happening with the people who work for them or the families affected, or for those they put out of work or who can never get a good job because they’re not educated.
Young people think it’s unfashionable to do anything that shows you’re pulling rank because of your income or background. But there’s so much just beneath the surface. It’s even in little things like the way you pronounce words or the fashions you wear. You’re quickly made to feel ‘outside’. There’s a thin layer of tolerance across our society, and I fear for the day when the layer wears through. There’s almost disdain for people of the ‘working class’. In other circumstances, or in another time, I wouldn’t be surprised if someone passes a law to plough their bodies into the ground to fertilize the rose beds of the rich.
Interview by George Fisher
Class of ’96 – CANADA
A matter of degrees
John Williams is a 21-year-old from a fishing community in Nova Scotia.
Growing up in the fishing community of Lockeport everyone was pretty much in the same boat. Like most families, fishing has always put food on our table. For 30 years my father has been an in-shore fisherman, first using ‘long-lines’ to catch groundfish, now using traps to catch lobster.
Our house, again like most others, is a modest home – middle class I guess you’d call it. But there are a few houses in town that are much bigger, much more expensive, with a new car in the driveway. These belong to owners of large off-shore fishing boats – the ‘draggers’.
If class is mostly about money, then a class system has developed in the fisheries. The draggers grew out of businesses that held profit as the only bottom line. They made profit, lots of it, and could buy new and bigger boats, new equipment, and more fish ‘quota’. As they say, the rich get richer...
But class doesn’t encompass the natural world, and now our community is in crisis – the fish are almost all gone. We have severely over-fished, not so much the small-scale fishers, more so the larger boats. Modern draggers are massive vessels whose nets drag along the sea bottom. Immature and unwanted fish are often caught and destroyed in the nets, which also disrupt the seabed. The fish had been there for hundreds of years, and we thought it would last forever. But you can’t keep over-exploiting natural resources and expect them to last forever.
Even though fishing was something I grew up with, surrounded by the culture of the sea, it’s not something I – or many of my generation – will work in. Fishing no longer seems a viable option. If you want to make anything of yourself, you have to get out of town – as awful as that sounds, and as much as it might hurt the community. So I’ve taken out student loans and moved to another province to complete a university degree. Maybe I’ll be able to go back home some day if the economy has diversified.
Interview by Sean Kelly
NI Home Page
©Copyright: New Internationalist 1996
This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7