THE BLOG

Oral History Puts a Human Face on Global Economy

06/02/2014 12:24 pm ET | Updated Aug 02, 2014

A review of: Invisible Hands: Voices From the Global Economy
Compiled and edited by Corinne Goria
Voice of Witness, McSweeny's Books, 2014

This new and completely engrossing book of oral history testimonials by workers in factories and fields all over the world is a welcome addition to the Voice of Witness series. Oral history is always about contributing to the historical record, creating historical narratives, from the ground up and the people at McSweeny's Voice of Witness project make it their mission to give voice to the marginalized and silenced people of the world. This in itself is a powerful human rights accomplishment.

Previous volumes have consisted of interviews with immigrants, women prisoners, the wrongly convicted, and oppressed people in Sudan, Zimbabwe, Burma and post-Katrina New Orleans. Invisible Hands gives a face and a narrative to the lives of people who make up the sweat and blood, the strong backs that power the global economy.

We meet such unforgettable figures as Martín Barrios whose city of Tehuacán in Mexico has seen its rivers run blue with the toxic dyes of jeans that are "stone washed," the latest first world fashion. Others are global workers inside the U.S., such as Fausto Guzman, from Oaxaca Mexico who works in the grape fields around Healdsburg, California. Like many of the increasingly southern immigrants, his first language is not Spanish but Trique. He has suffered extensive health damage from his working conditions.

In this volume the compiler of the interviews, Corinne Goria, has gone a long way to address the ethical issues of collecting stories. While oral history interviews give us history from the bottom up, the voice of the common person, it is important to attend to who is speaking -- but also who is watching, who gets to define, who is the one to interpret and explain the interviews. In Invisible Hands, Voice of Witness pays serious attention to such issues. For example, the forward to the book is written not by an academic, but by Kalpona Akter, from Dhaka Bangladesh. Thus the voice and perspective of the global workers in this piece are naming and contextualizing the project.

While getting an up close understanding of the lives of the people whose labor powers the global economy, we are reminded to step back and understand the macro forces that create these conditions. For this we must pay attention to the newest developments in production and consumption.

The title Invisible Hand is most appropriate. The phrase refers to the claim by the first great theorist of capitalism, Adam Smith, that as each person exerts effort to improve his or her lot, the market forces of capitalism improve the state of the whole society. He argues that mechanisms as supply and demand, product improvement, and improved efficiency are the result of the self-regulating "invisible hand" of the market.

In reality there is nothing invisible or automatic about the market. It is a set up game and those who benefit from it constantly tinker with it in order to make the outcome go their way. The neo-liberal ideology that has gripped the world is not based on research or evidence; it is a matter of faith. It is not predicated on the existence of a natural market, something deep in human nature. It is based on markets that are carefully constructed. When a new problem presents itself, like the issue of carbon pollution in the atmosphere, instead of simply requiring reduced carbon emissions we create carbon futures, carbon trade. Marketize any problem even if the solution does not fit well with the problem.

But what is most invisible today, what is the most hidden elephant in the room, is the daily labor of billions of people around the world who power the global economy today. It is their labor that fills the coffers of the people in the metropolitan centers of the world. A smart kid in Palo Alto does not create millions of dollars by developing a new app. That kid might get paid millions of dollars, but these riches are simply the surplus values created by the labor of the invisible masses working for pennies an hour around the world, surplus values that slosh around the U.S. economy in our excess of consumption.

The current structure of exploitation is relatively new. Earlier imperialism, perfected in the now distant past of the 20th century, involved military domination of third world countries from which raw materials (mined or drilled from the earth) and agricultural products were seized at super-low prices and shipped to the "mother countries," the metropoles (primarily the US and Europe) to be processed in factories. Thus was born the industrial proletariat and eventually the growth of a working middle class -- all of whom profited from this cruel extraction.

These relationships were fraught with contradiction and struggle. In the Third World, people were continually struggling to get their resources back, to drive out the occupiers, to control their own economies, cultures, and destinies. In the metropoles, the working class struggled for a greater share of the pie, for basic benefits as well as health and safety standards. By the 80s the bosses realized they could extract even more profits by moving industrial production out of unionized industrial cities like Detroit to poorer, non-unionized areas. They moved textile mills to the South and television assembly to the Mexican border. But that was just the beginning; soon they moved all kinds of manufacturing to Latin America and then to even cheaper sites in east and south Asia while European manufacturing also set up in Africa. Wages could be rock bottom and pesky environmental regulations as well as safety measures could be scuttled. The result was predictable: factory fires in Bangla Desh that killed hundreds, coal power in Beijing that shuts out the sun, and a parasitic U.S. economy whose main activities are reduced to service and so-called information technology.

Take for example Shenzhen China, a city that became a "special economic zone" which exempted manufacturers from taxes, regulations, and labor laws grew from 300,000 people in 1979 to over ten million now. In the pages of Invisible Hands, we meet Li Wen, who worked in an electronics factory, helping to provide for the $125 billion in electronics sales in the U.S. every year, and lost his hand in a machine accident. Another Shenzhen worker who is interviewed is Sung Huang who produces mobile phones for Nokia at the infamous Foxconn plant. It is striking that the migration of young, able-bodied workers from the Chinese countryside to the cities exactly parallels the migration of Mexican and other Latin American workers to factories and fields in the U.S. In both cases the workers are kept unorganized and with few rights; in both cases they have left back home the elders, who hold down the family home in a rural economy which has come to ruin through the workings of global trade. Young workers live in deplorable conditions and long to go home, where their identity and caring community still resides.

The harassment these migrant workers face is another part of the exploitation. Their semi-legal status forces them to be cautious, to avoid demanding their rights or even the wages promised. It is interesting that the economists of the "free market" are all for the free movement of goods, of capital, and of profit across borders. The only part of the equation they oppose is the free movement of people -- as that would disrupt the depressed price of labor power they have put in place.

Finally, we must recognize that, even as the 1% reaps record profits, their situation is shaky for many reasons. For one they have to worry about how to make the next expansion because the current economic system, like a cancer, must always grow to survive. Then there is the competition from these regions which were providing the cheap labor -- as local capitalists establish their own power centers and their own consuming classes. And finally there is the volatility of the labor force itself, the working classes with their hands on the means of production. If working class rebellion was a frightening prospect when confronting auto workers in Detroit in the 30s, imagine the battles they will face against millions of Bengali garment workers in the 21st century. The massive U.S. military machine is not there simply for fun -- it is there to police and protect these lines of manufactured resources that are loaded on thousands of ships to send to the metropole. But the signs of the end of empire. We can only work to make this new world, to make the expansion of global equity, as painless and violence-free as possible.

Marx defined the proletariat as those who have nothing to sell but their labor power and nothing to lose but their chains. The great service that Corinne Goria and the Voice of Witness project has done with Invisible Hands is to transform these people from abstractions to real people, people who have made and continue to make choices, people whose actions in the coming decades will have the most important consequences for the quality of life and the very survival of life on earth for all of us.