Mar 21, 2012

Assumptions and exploitations in fact and fabrication

The working conditions at Chinese factories making Apple products are harsh.

Brutal even.

This, it seems, is generally agreed upon.

If one sorts through the inventions and exaggerations in the story Mike Daisey tells This American Life about Foxconn, this fact remains. A lot of the fabrications are actually incidental. The guards at the gates don't have guns, e.g. The exaggerations, too, don't really change this basic point.

Daisey lied, and lied about his lies, and undermined his own credibility, and the story has now been retracted by This American Life, in a fairly impressive act of journalistic integrity. But, in the well documented, very fact-based story about Foxconn offered as a corrective to Daisey's untrustworthy account, a less dramatized version of the same point is made.

These people in these factories about being exploited. They're working in conditions that are bad for people to work in.

There's another commonality between the true story and the false one that gives me pause, though.

Both stories, in the way they ask questions and the questions they ask, assume and presuppose one kind of answer. And only one kind of answer. An answer which, once presumed, precludes other answers from the discussion. And which, in being assumed, reiterates and reinforces an entire system, which may in fact be the system producing the problems the questions are purportedly about.

To let Ira Glass explain:

To get to the normative question that's kind of underlying all the reporting and all the discussion of this. The thing that we all want to know when we hear this is, wait, should I feel bad? You know? As someone who owns all these Apple products, should I feel bad?
Is that the question? Is that the right question?

Daisey very much assumes that his, and by extension his listeners', participation in the so-called "cult of Mac" is the root cause of this pain and suffering in the world. More, that it's the American consumers' lack of empathy and awareness that has caused this situation, where there are people working in these horrible working conditions. In doing this, he implies -- and bases his whole story on this implicit assumption -- that working conditions exist solely because of consumer demand. That is, that the invisible hand moves because of the wishes and desires of consumers. The market would regulate such things as the use of neurotoxins, if only the demand-side of market equations made it necessary to do so to turn a profit.

Charles Duhigg, the New York Times investigative reporter who produced the reliable and factual version of this story lays this out explicitly in his response to Glass:
I think the way to pose that question is, do you feel comfortable knowing that iPhones, and iPads, and other products could be manufactured in less harsh conditions, but that these harsh conditions exist because of an economy that you are supporting with your dollars?
[...]
You're not only the direct beneficiary. You are actually one of the reasons why it exists. If you made different choices, if you demanded different conditions, if you demanded that other people enjoy the same work protections that you yourself enjoy, then those conditions would be different overseas.
This is the same assumption in Daisey makes: My choices, our choices, are the determining factor producing this exploitation of Chinese workers.

But wait.

Duhigg also says the difference between producing an Apple iPhone in good working conditions and brutal working conditions is a difference of, at most, $65.

A brand new iPhone is $200 right now.

The initial version cost $600.

Consumers paid $600 for an iPhone. In the first six months, Apple sold more than $1 million worth of iPhones.

And yet, we're supposed to believe consumers wouldn't pay $265 for this product, and that's why iPhones and other Apple things are made the way they're made?

These are, let's acknowledge, high-end products. And status symbols. People often pay a lot for Apple products, which are always the more expensive versions of whatever they are. There's a price point, of course, but there's no reason to believe that price is a main factor in any consumers' choice to buy an Apple product.

There's nothing in the facts of the story of Apple manufacturing and Foxconn and Chinese working conditions, in either the true facts of the false ones, that leads one to conclude consumers' ethical awareness and financial commitments to empathy are the root cause of any of this. This is, rather, an assumption.

It's a conception about how the market works that's projected onto this situation. It's the "normative question" that not only underlies the reporting and the discussion, as per Glass, but also the way the problems are conceived, the kinds of answers that are possible, and, importantly, the kinds of answers that are not possible.

There are other possible questions besides whether I should feel bad, though.

Consider starting with this: "To get to the normative question that's kind of underlying all the reporting and all the discussion of this. The thing that we all want to know when we hear this is, shouldn't there be a better kind of Communism in China?"

Because, actually, one can imagine various economic systems in China that wouldn't allow for this kind of worker exploitation. If the factories were cooperatively owned by workers, say.

Or, to dial it down from socialism, we could start with the "normative question": Should we want some form of governmental regulation that would allow non-market considerations to determine the kind of production American consumers support? Perhaps a tariff on products produced more cheaply because of bad working conditions would give companies the incentive they need to not exploit people.

Or, should we limit the ways in which American corporations are allowed to make profits? Since, after all, this is the driving factor in cost-cutting, which either increases profit margins, or is passed along to consumers, lowering costs and increasing unit sales, which increases profits as well.

Or, perhaps, to broaden this question by rephrasing Duhigg's version: "Do you feel comfortable knowing that iPhones, and iPads, and other products could be manufactured in less harsh conditions, but that these harsh conditions exist because of an economy that you are supporting by refusing to question basic premises of that economic system?"

Instead, though, the way this story has been told, the only determining factor in the conditions of factories in developing nations' is consumer demands. Corporation profits are assumed. Laissez-faire is assumed. That consumers control everything and are the only mutable force in the economic system of globalized consumer capitalism is assumed.

Very much assumed.

Even though there's really no evidence consumers' actions, much less their nebulous, free-floating angst and empathy, can have any significant affect on this exploitation. There's no evidence that if I "feel bad" or not has anything to do with anything.

It may well be the case that there's something wrong with Western consumption. Perhaps there're even lots of things wrong with how we consume. And there are a lot of arguments to support the idea that we -- Mike Daisey, Ira Glass, me, you, and everybody who's ever been to a Mac store -- are morally tone deaf, and generally cold hearted, and disinterested in the real havoc and pain supporting our lavish comforts.

It does not follow, though, that being "aware," and being willing to spend an extra $65 on a phone or $100 on a laptop or whatever the case may be, is the real solution to the problem.

Even if one thinks those assumptions about how markets have to work and how the world works are right, recognize that they're not conclusions, falling out of the facts of this story, nor naively following from what we know, but guiding, shaping presuppositions. They're allowing only certain answers, ensuring that, whatever we do, we leave certain crucial components of the system that produced this situation entirely intact. They're questions that, to whatever extent they do or don't lead to answers that solve the problem at hand, also work really really hard to preclude other questions from being asked.

And the stories here -- even the factual, non-fabricated one -- reenforce the system behind the instance of the system we're pretending to question.

What we have here, in the case of the fabricated story and the non-fabricated story, is a case of ideological mystification. As Slavoj Zizek says:
The lesson is that there are not only wrong answers, there are also wrong questions. These are questions, in the sense that in the very way we perceive the problem, which can be a very real problem -- the very way we perceive a problem is effectively a part of the problem. It mystifies the problem.