Friday, January 27, 2012

Redirecting the Attacks on Apple

This morning Larry Dignan used a post to the Between the Lines blog on ZDNet to give “equal time” to Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, in the face of the beating that Apple has been taking from two extended reports in The New York Times by Charles Duhigg, the first co-authored with Keith Bradsher and the second with David Barboza.  The good news is that Dignan definitely got it right in shifting the focus from Apple to the broader issue of the impact of globalization on supply chain management.  He probably even got his punch line right:

The bottom line here is we enable a supply chain that has a lot of warts. We want to examine those warts, but not really. This flap about worker safety isn’t about Apple, the tech industry or any other vertical. It’s about us.

However, there is still a need to establish a context for this broader view;  and, for me, the best way to set that context is by recalling two movies that, by all rights, should have had greater impact.  The one most relevant to the case Dignan made is Robert Greenwald’s 2005 documentary The High Cost of Low Price, which is basically a systematic study of the consequences that have evolved from the “Wal-Mart economy” that has consumed our culture’s attitude towards just about any commodity.  However, if we also wish to focus on the consequences of brutal working conditions (for which Dignan offers an inadequate gloss on viewing supply chain abuses “through the Western lens”), then we need to turn to Richard Linklater’s 2006 docudrama Fast Food Nation and the book by Eric Schlosser on which it was based.

There is a subtext in Duhigg’s reports based on the old joke that everybody likes to eat sausage, but nobody wants to know how sausage is made.  Upton Sinclair investigated that “inconvenient truth” in The Jungle, which Schlosser acknowledged as a major source for his own writing.  The thing is that, while Schlosser made the case that things have not changed very much for sausages, there has been a change in that the sausage is now a metaphor for the iPad.

Dignan asserts that “the buy American movement never quite worked.”  He has good warrants for this claim;  but, after yesterday’s stake in the ground at Davos, I would suggest that his vision is dangerously narrow.  We now view the global supply chain as a potential risk to “homeland security,” from which we conclude that we need a strategy to protect it (which would mean protecting all of those abusive work practices that make the whole machine tick).  However, if we were really serious about homeland security, we would be strategizing to restore a level of self-sufficiency that started to go down the tubes when we first got bitten by the bug carrying the infection of profits-through-global-outsourcing.  (I would love to single out Tom Friedman as the infecting agent, and he may well have been the first bug to deliver an effective bite.  However, we have to be fair and realize that he was just the messenger of a message whose consequences he could not fathom.)

Ultimately, this is a matter of dueling propaganda campaigns.  The party line of the consciousness industry is the one that Dignan accepts as an axiom:  We are addicted to consumerism and demand to satisfy our addiction through low prices.  The fact that Apple has become a “drug kingpin” for this metaphor is purely incidental.  One way to reject this propaganda is through an alternative campaign that promotes self-sufficiency.  This may be what Barack Obama originally had in  mind by making “Yes, we can” a campaign slogan;  but in all likelihood he had sold out to the consciousness industry even before he had won the election.  We, as a culture, need to believe that we can restore self-sufficiency without retreating into isolationism.  The 1% do not want us to believe this, but we need to see whether or not the 99% will embrace such a vision and decide to move towards it.

1 comment:

Jones said...

Global trade has always been a national security issue. That's a large part of why Article I Section 8 of the US Constitution specifically discourages standing armies but requires a navy and advises punishing piracy on the high seas.

While Apple may be a symbol for current sweatshop labor, this too is a bit of a diversionary tactic. Sweatshop labor evokes vocal condemnation because it invites clear imagery and such abuses are easy to empathize with. But larger issues of industrial pollution go unmentioned, and mineral supply issues like those surrounding the coltan used in most electronics remain ever more remote.

But the 200 ton gorilla in the room -- the most difficult to address directly -- is the clear implication that China isn't actually a Communist country. We may not question the phrase "Communist China" because "Communist" has become shorthand for "authoritarian" but why you really look at what China is doing economically, their economy is a form of state capitalism foreseen by anarchist critics of Marx, and by all indications, the Chinese are interested in a laissez-faire market arrangement that will enable them to exploit, pollute, contaminate, and cut corners with as little oversight or regulation as possible.

Even as the conservatives denigrate "communist" China, they push for the same laissez-faire policies that China embraces.