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The Laborer in the Culture of Capitalism

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The Laborer in the Culture of Capitalism

The Laborer in the Culture of Capitalism







/ have read in E. P. Thompson's ' The Making of the English Working Class ' that the first man who attempted to establish a labor union in England at the end of the 18th century was arrested, tried for sedition, found guilty, drawn and quartered in a public square by attaching draft horses to each of his arms and legs and pulling him apart. He was then disemboweled and his guts were burned. Then they hanged what was left of him. One gathers from this that the propertied classes were slow to accept the idea of organized labor.

—Robert Hass, San Francisco Examiner, September 8, 1999

The capitalist system makes it very much easier for people not to realize what they are doing, not to know about the danger and hardship, the despair and humiliation, that their way of life implies for others.

—Edmund Wilson, The Shores of Light

The consumer may drive the culture of capitalism, but without the laborer there would be no commodities to consume. Yet the emergence of the laborer—the person who survives by selling labor—is a recent historical phenomenon. In past centuries most people had access to land on which to grow their own food, selling whatever surplus they produced, or they owned tools—implements for weaving, metalworking, or producing other objects for sale or trade. Thus, to understand capitalism it is necessary to examine why people choose or are forced to sell their labor. Before beginning this examination, it is necessary to have a fundamental understanding of the workings of the capitalist economy.

Capitalism is not an easy term to define. Pierre Proudhon, who first used the term in 1861, called it 'an economic and social regime in which capital, the source of income, does not generally belong to those who make it work through their labor' (cited Braudel 1982:237). The term capitalism does not appear in the writings of Karl Marx and did not gain currency until 1902, when the German economist Werner Sombart used it to denote the opposite of socialism. But definitions alone won't help us to understand fully the dy­namics of something as complex as a capitalist economy. We need to understand the major



characteristics of capitalism to appreciate how it has permeated our lives as an economic and a cultural system.

Few people will deny that the genius of capitalism lies in its ability to produce goods—commodities for people to buy and consume. Let's start our excursion into capi­talism with a product, beginning with something nearly all of us buy at one point or an­other—sneakers—and examine, briefly, the largest manufacturer of sneakers, Nike, Inc. Today most of the sneakers—and clothes—we wear are assembled overseas because large corporations, such as Nike, have increasingly relocated assembly factories from their home countries to countries on the periphery. Consequently, the clothes we wear; the TVs, stereos, and compact discs (CDs) we listen to; and the computers we use are at least partly produced by a person in another part of the world. This situation creates a clash of cultures that can be illuminating for what they tell us about other cultures and what they may tell us about ourselves. The effects that these factories have on other countries high­light the distinctive features of the capitalist economy and perhaps approximate the impact of early capitalism on our own society. But first let us digress briefly to an under­standing of the economic logic of capitalism and, particularly, the role of labor within this economic system.

Part of the genius of the culture of capitalism is its ability to produce vast quantities of goods, such as these Nike products, that consumers all over the world clamor to buy.


A Primer on the Economic Elements of Capitalism

Let's run through a quick primer on the economics of capitalism and its development. Briefly stated, the economics of capitalism grew out of the interactions of the following five items:

1.           Commodities (C). There are basically two types of commodities: capital goods and
consumer goods. Capital goods, such as land, raw materials, tools, machines, and
factories, are used to produce consumer goods (e.g., television sets, VCRs, comput­
ers, houses) to be sold to others.

2.     Money (M). Money is simply a standardized means of exchange. It serves to reduce
all goods and commodities to a standard value. By putting a monetary value on
something (e.g., a forest), it can be compared with any other commodity (e.g., gov­
ernment bonds). Money, thus, greatly facilitates the exchange of commodities.

3.     Labor power (lp). Labor power is the work that is needed to transform one type of
commodity into another (e.g., steel into an automobile).

4.     Means of production (mp). Another term for capital goods, that is, the machines,
land, and tools with which other commodities are produced.

5.     Production (P). The combination of lp and mp to produce commodities.

In precapitalist societies or noncapitalist production, as in capitalist production, people either make or obtain commodities—food, clothing, shelter, and the like—to use. These commodities have what economists call use value. If someone needs a shirt, they make it; if they need food, they gather, hunt, or grow it. Occasionally, they may trade for what they need or even buy it. Thus, a farmer might barter some corn (C) in exchange for a shirt (C') or use money to purchase it, but the object is always to obtain something for use. We can diagram this type of exchange as follows:

C-> C’ or  C -> M -> C’

In capitalism, people produce or obtain goods not for their use, but for the purpose of exchange. That is, their object is to produce or obtain commodities (C) not to obtain another commodity (C') but to get capital or money (M). The goods have what is called exchange value. Thus, in a business transaction, when a person buys a commodity at one price and sells it at a higher price, the commodity is said to have an exchange value.

M -> C -> M’

Some people might argue that this exchange is capitalism, although most would call it mercantile exchange, suggesting that the formula for capitalism is incomplete. You still need one more development: to combine labor and the means of production in a unique way. From this perspective, fully developed capitalism looks like this:

M -> C -> P -> C’ -> M’                    OR

M -> C -> mp/lp -> C’ -> M’




Thus, a manufacturer or producer has money (M) to buy commodities (C; e.g., raw material, machines, and labor) that are then combined (mp/lp) to manufacture commodi­ties that carry a value greater than C (C). The sale of these commodities permits the pro­ducer to receive a sum of money greater than M (M') that constitutes profit. Note that at this point, labor is considered a commodity to be purchased or rented, in the same ways that raw materials, machines, factories, or land are purchased or rented. Labor becomes a factor of production in the same way that raw materials, land, or machines are factors of production. In addition, at this point the accumulation of wealth comes to consist increas­ingly of productive capital (raw materials, machines, factories).

Let's apply the formula to our sample capitalist enterprise, the Nike Corporation. Nike invests money (M) to buy commodities (C), consisting of such things as leather, rub­ber, machines to make textile, and factories (mp), which they combine with labor (lp), the people who design, produce, and assemble the commodity—sneakers—(C) that they then sell for money (M')- The object of this entire process is to get M' to exceed M as much as possible. That constitutes the profit—the bottom line, so to speak.

Furthermore, Nike doesn't just keep M'—it reinvests it in commodities and recom-bines it with mp and lp in order to repeat the process and earn/accumulate still more money and profits. (Figure 2.1 is a diagram of the cyclical nature of capitalist production.)

However, in the real world of finance there are other factors to consider. For exam­ple, producers of commodities do not often have the money (or capital) to start the pro­duction cycle on their own; they have to borrow money from banks or sell stock to investors to raise money to obtain the means of production and pay the labor power to produce goods. Consequently, some of the profits take the form of principal and interest to repay investors' loans. The higher the rate of interest that the manufacturer offers in­vestors, the easier it is to obtain loans. Moreover the producer, for example, Nike, doesn't have to put its profits back into producing more sneakers. It may invest that money else­where with the possibility of earning greater profits; in other words the manufacture and


(Production)


(Money/Investment)

C (Product)

M' (Sale) FIGURE 2.1    Cycle of Capitalist Production


C = Commodities (capital goods) C = Commodities (consumer goods) M = Money invested M' = Money invested plus money earned (profit)


sale of sneakers may produce a profit of 10 percent, but if those profits can be reinvested elsewhere at 12 percent, so much the better.

This reveals one dilemma that Nike and other producers of commodities face: making a profit is not enough. They must give their investors (the banks, stockholders, and so on) who supplied the money or capital to start the cycle of production enough of a return on their money so that they do not take it elsewhere. If they go elsewhere (and in­vestors in today's world, as we shall see, have an enormous number of investment op­tions), Nike may find it harder to locate investors and put together the money necessary to restart the cycle. Consequently, they may have to pay higher interest rates and charge more for their products. In that case, however, they might not sell as many units, espe­cially if Adidas or Reebok can sell their sneakers for less.

In order to make a profit, it is imperative to keep the money spent on factories, ma­chines (mp), and labor (lp) as low as possible. In fact, according to some economists, the ability to minimize the production costs of mp and lp will determine the success or failure of the company. (We will return to that in a moment.)

It soon becomes apparent that the capitalist production process is very much a money-making game: Investors and manufacturers put money in at one end of the produc­tion process and get more money out of the other end in the form of profits or interest. It is very much like a hypothetical device that engineers call a 'black box.' Engineers assume that the black box produces something, but for the purposes of design and plan­ning they do not concern themselves with how things are produced, that is, with the inter­nal functioning of the box. They simply assume that if they put something into it—fuel, electricity, and so on—they will get something out (e.g., power, movement).

For most capitalist producers or investors, capitalism or capitalist enterprises, such as corporations, banks, bonds, or stocks, are like black boxes: You put money in one end and get more money out the other (see Figure 2.2). It is, of course, a highly complex business to know where to put the money, how much to invest, and so forth. But it is the amount of the return rather than the way that it is generated that is uppermost in importance.

Nevertheless, it is in the black box that commodities are produced and consumed. It is also in the black box that we find the patterns of social, political, economic, ecological, and ideological life that either promote or inhibit the conversion of money into more money.

Thus capitalism is more than an economic system; its operation has far-reaching consequences for almost all aspects of our existence. Most of us order our lives in some way to produce and consume commodities that generate the profits and interest that make the capitalist system work. But although most people who invest money do not concern

Investments (Input)                            Profits (Output)
Money (M)  -------------------------- ► I                       I----------------------------- ► More Money (M'

The Black Box FIGURE 2.2   The Black Box


themselves with how it is produced, others who are affected by this almost magical trans­formation often conceptualize the process in profound ways. For example, peasant farm­ers in Colombia have a way of conceptualizing capitalist exchange that may help us understand its essential elements and its cost.

The Baptism of Money

After losing their land to large farmers and being forced to supplement their farming ac­tivities with wage labor, peasants in the lowlands of Colombia developed the practice of illicitly baptizing money in a Catholic church—instead of baptizing a newborn child. When presenting a child to the priest to be baptized, a peasant would hold a peso note that he or she believed received the priest's blessing instead of the child. The note, thus magi­cally transformed and given the name of the child, would, it was believed, continually return to and enrich its owner by bringing with it other notes. In other words, the note would become interest-bearing capital that continued to generate more and more money. Peasants tell stories of such notes disappearing from cash registers, carrying with them all the other notes, and of the store owner who saved his money only because he heard two baptized notes fighting for possession of the drawer's contents.

The idea that money is animate, that it can magically bring back more money, may at first seem strange to us, but Michael Taussig (1977) argued that the Colombian view of money is very close to our own—the major difference having to do with their conception of the black box.

The major feature of capitalism is that money can be used to make more money. To do so, the money must be invested in goods that must be sold, or invested in factories in which people work to make goods to be sold, and so on. Yet, we often talk as if it is the money itself that makes the money, or as if money somehow has a life of its own. We speak of 'the sagging dollar,' 'cash flows,' or 'putting our money to work.' The news will report that 'earnings have surged ahead,' or that we have 'climbing interest rates.' Factories are even referred to as 'plants' where our 'money grows.'

In other words, our language conveys the notion that capital has an innate property of self-expansion. It is talked about as if it were a living being that reproduces itself (just as the Colombian peasant believes baptized money has a life of its own and can reproduce itself).

The belief that money has a life of its own is beautifully illustrated in Benjamin Franklin's classic work, Advice to a Young Tradesman (1748). Here is Franklin's advice:

Remember, that money is of the prolific, generating nature. Money can beget money, and its offspring can beget more, and so on. Five shillings turned is six, turned again it is seven and three pence and so on, till it becomes a hundred pounds. The more there is of it, the more it produces every turning, so that the profits rise quicker and quicker. He that kills a breeding-sow, destroys all her offspring to the thousandth generation, (cited Taussig 1977:140)

The attitude expressed by Benjamin Franklin and expressed daily in our own lives is one that Karl Marx called commodity fetishism. Fetishism attributes life, autonomy, and


power to inanimate objects—dolls, sticks, places, or, in capitalism, money or other com­modities. But commodity fetishism also performs another function. By attributing ani­mate life to money, by speaking of it as if the money itself produces money, we mask and hide the actual manner in which money begets money—the exploitation of labor, land, and people. In this magical way of thinking, we begin to think of money as being able to generate value and yield interest in the same way that pear trees bear fruit or pigs bear piglets. The whole process of capital investment, making a profit, finding the cheapest labor, and so on, comes to appear natural because the real source of profits and the non-economic consequences of capitalism are largely hidden from view.

Money, however, does not produce money by itself. It requires other things, and this is where the Colombian peasant belief about the baptism of money is quite profound. Co­lombian peasants' practice of baptizing money so that it brings back more money is a ra­tional interpretation of our own view of money but with one addition: for the Colombian peasant the process is immoral. It is immoral because it is money rather than the child that is baptized; profit can come only at the cost of the child's soul. In this way, the Colombian peasant is offering a critique of the capitalism that has been imposed on his society in the past century by the expanding world system.

These peasants are also posing key questions: How does capitalism perform its magic, converting money into more money, and do we pay a price for that conversion?

The Construction and Anatomy of the Working Class

As noted in Chapter 1, capitalism involves interactions among three sets of people: consum­ers, laborers, and capitalists, each doing what it is supposed, indeed has, to do. The con­struction of the consumer took place largely in the twentieth century. The nineteenth century witnessed the development of the working class. Although the flowering of the consumer occurred largely in the United States, the laborer was largely a creation of the British econ­omy, a creation that gradually migrated from Great Britain to the rest of the world.

Characteristics of the Working Class

The new working class was unlike any that had existed before. Four characteristics of this new category of persons stand out: (a) members of this class were by necessity mobile, free to move to wherever workers were needed, unhampered by property or family con­nections; (b) they were segmented or divided by race and ethnicity, age, and gender; (c) they were subject to new kinds of discipline and control; and (d) they were militant, often protesting the conditions in which they were placed. Let's examine each of these characteristics in turn.



Labor Mobility. First, the new laborers were remarkably geographically mobile, moving temporarily or permanently to sources of employment. Most were mobile be­cause they had been forced off their land or because the products they produced were no longer in demand. Take the situation of the Italian worker, for example. Beginning in the



Geographic mobility is one characteristic of the laborer in the culture of capitalism. Here Chinese boys await medical examinations at Angel Island immigration station in San Francisco around 1910.

1870s, the sale of public domain and church lands created a situation that allowed large landholders to add to their land, whereas small landholders were squeezed out as prices for agricultural products declined, in part because of the importation of Russian wheat. A blight destroyed many vineyards, and cheap imported goods disrupted local handicrafts. In the 1860s, some 16,000 people emigrated permanently; in the 1870s, the number grew to 360,000; between 1881 and 1901, the number rose to 2 million, 80 percent of whom were agricultural laborers.

The countries to which these Italian migrants scattered, including Australia, Can­ada, and most often the United States, quickly utilized the cheap labor in factories, rail­roads, mines, stockyards, and oil fields. In the period between 1820 and 1860, the main contingents of immigrants came from Ireland (2 million), southwestern Germany (1.5 million), and the British Isles (750,000). More English, Swedes, and Germans arrived be­tween 1860 and 1890; again they were mainly displaced agriculturists driven off their land by the importation of cheap American and Russian wheat (as Mexican farmers are currently being displaced by the importation of cheap American corn).

In 1890, the source of the new immigration shifted to southern and eastern Europe and consisted largely of displaced peasants from Italy, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Balkans, and Poland, along with Jews from Russia.

Coal miners in Pennsylvania had been British, Irish, and German prior to 1890, but after that time they were increasingly Poles, Slovaks, Italians, and Hungarians. The textile


mills of New England that had been run by French-Canadians, English, and Irish were, after 1890, run by Portuguese, Greeks, Poles, and Syrians. In the garment trades Rus­sians, Jews, and Italians replaced Germans, Czechs, and Irish.

Some 90,000 indentured Chinese laborers were sent to Peru between 1849 and 1874; more than 200,000 were sent to the United States between 1852 and 1875 where they were employed in fruit growing, processing and panning for gold, and railroad con­struction. Some 10,000 to 14,000 Chinese were used in the construction of the Central Pa­cific Railroad of California.

Segmentation. A second characteristic of the working class was that they were di­vided, or segmented, by race, religion, ethnicity, age, and gender. The new working class split into two broader categories: a labor aristocracy better able to defend its prerequisites through union organization and political influence, and workers who had to accept lower wages and less secure jobs. These divisions were often reinforced by the use of racial or ethnic distinctions that relegated certain groups such as Blacks and, earlier in the century, the Irish to only the lowest paying jobs. Capitalism did not create these racial and ethnic distinctions, but it did help in defining and reinforcing them and their economic conse­quences (Wolf 1982:380).

Ironically, the ethnic identities of new immigrants rarely coincided with their self-identification. They first thought of themselves as Hanoverians or Bavarians rather than Germans; as members of a village parish (okolica) rather than Poles; as Sicilians, Neapol­itans, and Genoans rather than Italians; and as Tonga or Yao rather than 'Nyasalanders.' In effect, migrants had to be socialized to see themselves as members of particular ethnic groups. They were, as Wolf (1982:381) said, 'historical products of labor market segmen­tation under the capitalistic mode.'

The ethnic or racial groupings created or reinforced by capitalist culture often came into conflict with each other as they competed for scarce jobs and resources. The case of the Irish in England and the United States is telling. In the mid-nineteenth century, Karl Marx (1972:293-294) made the following observation about the relationship between English workers and newly arrived Irish laborers:

Every industrial and commercial center in England now possess a working class divided into two hostile camps, English proletarians and Irish proletarians. The ordinary English worker hates the Irish as a competitor who lowers his standard of life. In relation to the Irish worker he feels himself a member of the ruling nation and so turns himself into a tool of the aristocrats and capitalists of his own country against Ireland, thus strengthening their domination over himself. He cherishes religious, social, and national prejudices against the Irish worker. His attitude towards him is much the same as 'poor whites' to the 'niggers' of the former slave states of the USA. The Irishman pays him back with interest in his own money. He sees the English worker at once the accomplice and the stupid tool

of the English domination in Ireland This antagonism is the secret of the impotence of

the English working class, despite their organization.

In the United States, the same degree of ethnic antagonism developed, particularly between Irish and Blacks. Irish leaders in the early nineteenth century generally were strong critics of slavery and supporters of its abolition. However, once the Irish emigrated


to the United States, they, who in their own country were treated almost as badly by Brit­ish rulers as African Americans were in the United States by Whites, became strongly pro-slavery and anti-Black. What accounted for this change in attitude?

Noel Ignatiev (1995), in his book, How the Irish Became White, maintained that during the first half of the nineteenth century in America, free African Americans com­peted successfully in the North for relatively good jobs. Before the Irish arrived in large numbers in the United States, the distinction between freedom and slavery was blurred by such intermediate conditions as chattel slavery, indentured servitude, and imprisonment for debt. But the American Revolution had eliminated these intermediate economic cate­gories and reinforced the tendency to equate slavery with blackness and freedom with whiteness. If Blacks, then, were allowed to work in the same jobs as Irish, the Irish would be assigned to the same social category as Blacks. In fact, the Irish risked being considered lower in status than Blacks, largely because as slaves Blacks had value that the Irish did not. As one official of an Alabama stevedoring company put it, 'The niggers are worth too much to be risked here; if the Paddies are knocked overboard, or get their backs broke, nobody loses anything' (Ignatiev 1995:109). Consequently, the Irish did all they could to distance themselves from Blacks, including supporting slavery. But the major task of the Irish was to ensure that Blacks did not have access to the same jobs that they did.

Gradually, by taking the menial jobs that had been done by Blacks, as they were en­couraged to do by priests, the Irish began to dominate the ranks of the unskilled laborer— by 1855, the Irish made up 87 percent of New York City's 23,000 unskilled laborers. In 1851, The African Repository, a magazine devoted to African American concerns, wrote (cited Ignatiev 1995:111) that

in New York and other Eastern cities, the influx of white laborers has expelled the Negro almost en masse from the exercise of the ordinary branches of labor. You no longer see him work upon buildings, and rarely is he allowed to drive a cart or public conveyance. White men will not work with him.

'White men will not work with him,' became the rallying cry of labor in elbowing out Blacks from jobs that were then taken over by Irish; as Frederick Douglass said, 'In assuming our avocation [the Irishmen] has assumed our degradation.'

The key to the distinction between White and Black became work; White meant doing 'White man's work,' while Black meant doing 'Black man's work.' The distinction was ar­bitrary because many jobs that became White man's work when reserved for Irish had been performed by Blacks earlier. 'White,' Ignatiev pointed out, was not a physical description, but rather a term of social relations. This distinction resulted, then, in a situation in which to be 'White' the Irish had to work in the jobs from which Blacks were excluded (Ignatiev 1995:111). Thus, a division of labor was hardened into a distinction of race and ethnicity.

The workforce was segmented in other ways, most notably by gender and age, with women and children assigned to the lowest-paying and most menial jobs. (A discussion of that development in more detail follows later.)

Discipline. The new working class was mobile and divided by race, ethnicity, gender, and age. In addition, it had to be disciplined. Central to this process was the factory. The


factory is a relatively recent historical phenomenon, having developed largely in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in Europe (although factory production in tex­tiles may have existed as early as the fifteenth century). Prior to its development, most work (e.g., weaving, spinning, pottery making) was done in homes or small shops. The first factories were modeled on penal workhouses and prisons. Spinning mills were built and installed in brick buildings four or five stories high and employed several hundred workers. The iron and cast iron mills of the metal industry brought together several blast furnaces and forges and a large workforce (Beaud 1983:66). These settings may have in­creased the efficiency of production, but the new job discipline required of workers also created tensions between workers and their employers that, at various points in the years to follow, would result in situations approaching civil war.

The factory setting, for example, necessitated workers being disciplined to accept a new conception of time. Time, another of the things we take for granted, is subject to cul­tural definition. Our time is dictated, by and large, by our means of measuring it—clocks and watches. Time in other societies tends to be task oriented or dictated by natural phe­nomena: in Madagascar, it might be measured by rice cooking (about one-half hour); in seventeenth-century Chile, the time needed to cook an egg was the time it took to say an Ave Maria aloud; in Burma, monks rose when there was enough light to see the veins in their hands; in oceanside communities, the social patterning of time depends on the ebb and flow of tides. British anthropologist E. E. Evans-Pritchard (1940:103), in his classic account of the life of the Nuer of the Sudan, noted that

the Nuer have no expression equivalent to 'time' in our language, and they cannot, there­fore, as we can, speak of time as thought it were something actual, which passes, can be wasted, can be saved, and so forth. I don't think they ever experience the same feeling of fighting against time because their points of reference are mainly the activities themselves, which are generally of a leisurely character. Events follow a logical order, but they are not controlled by an abstract system, there being no autonomous points of reference to which activities have to conform with precision. Nuer are fortunate.

Historian E. P. Thompson (1967) noted that until the institution of modern notions of time, work patterns were characterized by alternating bouts of intense labor and idle­ness, at least whenever people were in control of their own working lives. He has even suggested that this pattern persists today but only among some self-employed profession­als, such as artists, writers, small farmers, and college students.

This is not to say that preindustrial work was easy. Thompson (1967:8) described the typical day of a farm laborer in 1636: He rose at 4 a.m., and cared for the horses, ate breakfast at 6 a.m., plowed until 2 or 3 p.m., ate lunch, attended to the horses until 6 in the evening, ate supper, did other chores till 8 p.m., cared for the cattle, and then retired. How­ever, this was during the height of the laboring year on the farm, and it was probably the laborer's wife, says Thompson, who labored the hardest.

It is difficult to say precisely when the Western concept of time and work began to change. Clocks were not widespread in Europe until the seventeenth century, although most towns probably had a church clock. But by the early 1800s, our present sense of time was well established.


Time was an entity that should not be wasted. 'Time,' as Benjamin Franklin wrote in Poor Richard's Almanac, 'is money.' At about the same period, the idea that idleness was wicked began to gain currency. As Youth's Monitor phrased it in 1689, time 'is too precious a commodity to be undervalued. This is the golden chain on which hangs a massy eternity; the loss of time is insufferable, because irrecoverable' (quoted Thompson 1967:8). Leisure time, in general, was attacked; in some religious circles seeking amuse­ment was considered to be sinful. Anything that did not contribute to production was dis­couraged.

At about the same time the school was being used to teach a new time and work dis­cipline. Social reformers in the late eighteenth century suggested that poor children be sent at the age of four to workhouses where they would work and be given two hours schooling each day. As one person said,

There is considerable use in their being somehow or other, constantly employed at least twelve hours a day, whether they can earn their living or not; for by these means, we hope that the rising generation will be so habituated to constant employment that it would at length prove agreeable and entertaining to them, (cited Thompson 1967:84)

Thus, by the middle of the nineteenth century, through the supervision of labor, fines, bells and clocks, money incentives, preaching, and schooling, a new time discipline was imposed on society at large and on the laborer in particular.

Resistance. Finally, in addition to its mobility, segmentation, and discipline, the new working class was characterized by a new militancy that would lead to the closest thing the world has seen to a 'world revolution.' Early in 1848, the French political thinker and chronicler of American democracy, Alexis de Tocqueville, addressed the French Cham­ber of Deputies, saying what many Europeans feared. 'We are sleeping,' he said, 'on a volcano. Do you not see that the earth trembles anew? A wind of revolution blows, the storm is on the horizon' (cited Hobsbawm 1975:9).

At about the same time, the thirty-year-old Karl Marx and his twenty-eight-year-old friend Friedrich Engels were drafting the Manifesto of the Communist Party, which ap­peared in London in February 1848. Perhaps within days, revolutionaries in France de­clared the establishment of a new republic; by March the revolution had moved into Germany, Hungary, and Italy; within weeks the governments of an area today encompass­ing France, Germany, Austria, Italy, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, part of Poland, Belgium, Switzerland, Denmark, and the old Yugoslavia were all overthrown. However, within six months of the outbreak the movement faltered, and within eighteen months only the new government of France remained, and it was trying to put distance between itself and the insurrectionists. The only long-lasting change was the abolition of serfdom in what had been the Hapsburg Empire.

Although they had the support of moderates and liberals in the various countries, they were, nevertheless, 'social revolutions of the labouring poor,' as Hobsbaum (1975:15) put it. The revolutions were an expression of developing patterns of conflict be­tween the rich and poor, each group developing its spokespersons. On the one side were


people such as Jean-Baptiste Say in France and David Ricardo and Thomas Robert Malthus in England who argued that the poor had only themselves to blame for their con­dition. On the other side were those such as Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Robert Owen, Henri Saint-Simon, and Charles Fourier, who blamed the exploitation of labor for pov­erty. The debate is not unlike the ones still being argued over such issues as welfare and the role of the state in alleviating poverty. Malthus argued, for example, that

it is not in the power of the rich to supply the poor with an occupation and with bread, and consequently, the poor, by the very nature of things have no right to demand these things

from the rich_ No possible contributions of sacrifices of the rich, particularly in money,

could for any time prevent the recurrence of distress among the lower members of society, (cited Beaud 1983:78)

It is a matter of morality, said Malthus, that those who are poor must not produce children until they can adequately provide for them. To those who violate this rule, there should be no pity.

To the punishment, therefore of nature he should be left, to the punishment of want. He has erred in the face of a most clear and precise warning, and can have no just reason to com­plain of any person but himself when he feels the consequences of his error. All parish as­sistance should be denied him; and he should be left to the uncertain support of private charity. He should be taught to know that the laws of nature, which are the laws of God,

had doomed him and his family to suffer for disobeying their repeated admonitions              It

may appear to be hard that a mother and her children, who have been guilty of no particu­lar crime themselves, should suffer for the ill conduct of the father; but this is one of the invariable laws of nature. (Malthus 1826:343)

One French industrialist could write matter-of-factly that 'the fate of the workers is

not that bad: their labor is not excessive since it does not go beyond thirteen hours_ The

manufacturer whose profits are poor is the one to be pitied' (cited in Beaud 1983:101).

For others, such as Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, society was being divided up into two hostile camps and classes—the bourgeoisie and the proletariat.

Masses of laborers, crowded into the factory, are organized like soldiers. As privates of the industrial army, they are placed under the command of a perfect hierarchy of officers and sergeants. Not only are they the slaves of the bourgeoisie class, and of the bourgeoisie State, they are daily and hourly enslaved by the machine, by the overlooker, and above all, by the individual bourgeoisie manufacturer himself. The more openly this despotism pro­claims gain to be its end and aim, the more petty, the more hateful and the more embitter­ing it is. (Marx and Engels 1848/1941:14)

The proletariat must, said Marx and Engels, embody the suffering, rise against it, and produce a classless society free from the exploitation of one class by another. It must free itself but only by transcending the inhumane conditions of present-day society. Marx had attempted in his writings to create a scientific theory of the fall of capitalism, in the


same way that Adam Smith and David Ricardo had tried to create a scientific theory of the rise of capitalism. The results were not only a blueprint to be used by union organizers and revolutionaries but also the creation of two Utopian ideologies—that of capitalism and that of socialism—which would do battle into the twentieth century.

These, then, are some of the characteristics of the laborer and the relationship be­tween labor and capital as established in the nineteenth century. There were other features as well, such as the increased vulnerability of the laborer to hardship and the greater like­lihood of impoverishment. To understand better how the laborer was constructed, let's turn to the contemporary world. In countries all over the world, the nineteenth-century processes through which the laborer was constructed are being repeated. We can see this most clearly in the growth of overseas assembly plants.



The Growth of Overseas Assembly Plants

In capitalism, profits and interest depend on the difference between the cost of producing a product and the price at which it is sold. If someone has a monopoly on a product, and if people need it, producers can charge as much as they need to to maintain or increase profits. But if other companies produce the same merchandise, it is likely that the price a company can charge will be determined by what others charge. Thus, Nike can charge one hundred dollars for its sneakers, but if its competitors are charging only forty dollars for the same product, Nike had better lower its price or face bankruptcy. Consequently, profit must come not from increasing the price that people pay but from controlling the cost of producing the product. Cost increase can be contained by controlling the cost of raw materials and machines—the means of production—or by controlling the price of labor.

The activity of work is common to all societies. In gathering and hunting societies, women and men spend a portion of their time gathering wild foods and hunting game, in pastoral societies people spend time herding and caring for animals, and in agricultural societies they work at tending fields, harvesting and storing crops, and so on. But work in the black box of capitalism takes a different form. In fact, some economists believe the key to understanding the way money creates more money is understanding the way labor figures in the production process. For them, profit comes directly from what they call the surplus value of labor.

As we noted earlier, to produce commodities for sale, labor must be purchased and combined with the means of production. For example, I might buy cloth and make shirts to sell. I may pay two dollars for the cloth and sell the shirt for ten, thereby making a profit of eight dollars. Where does that profit come from? One obvious place is the labor that went to convert the cloth into a shirt. In this case we might say the labor was worth eight dollars. But what if, instead of making the shirt myself, I paid someone else to do it, but paid him or her only two dollars, and still sold the shirt for ten. The value of the labor that went into making the shirt is still eight dollars, but the worker I hired received only two; I get to keep the other six dollars. It is this money that constitutes the surplus value of labor.

Obviously, then, one way for a company to maximize profits is to maximize the sur­plus value of labor and pay workers as little as possible. Another way to increase profits


is to get the laborer to produce more in the same period of time. Thus, if I paid my shirtmak-ers an hourly or daily wage, I could double my profits by getting them to produce two shirts in the time that they used to produce one shirt. This I could do by getting them to work faster or by improving the technology or process of shirt-making to make it more efficient.

Companies that produce commodities such as textiles, electronic goods, and toys are labor-intensive; that is, they require human labor more than improved technology to manufacture their products and are, consequently, always trying to minimize what they pay workers. Given the economic logic of capitalism this makes perfectly good sense: The more they save on labor costs and the less they charge for their product, the more they will attract consumers. Furthermore, the more they sell, the greater their profits and greater the return for investors and stock owners. Thus, the role of labor in the black box is critical to our understanding of the amount of profit the box can generate.

There are various ways that producers can keep labor costs down. For example, they can import labor from peripheral areas, particularly for low-paying jobs. In 2000, there were 15.7 million immigrant workers in the United States, some 12 percent of the nation's workforce. Most of these people worked as poultry plant workers, meatpackers, gardeners, hotel maids, seamstresses, restaurant workers, building demolition workers, and fruit and vegetable pickers (Greenhouse 2000). Corporations are also making use of the growing prison population. In 1998 there were 60,000 inmates in the United States employed by private companies. Employers see the two million people in U.S. prisons as a major source of potential labor. But the greatest source of cheap labor exists in the pe­riphery, and it is there that corporations go to reduce their labor costs.

Corporations in core countries, such as the United States, made much use of foreign labor in the nineteenth century. However, as previously discussed, most of that labor moved to the source of employment, traveling largely from Europe and Asia to work in American mines, railroad yards, and factories. By 1900, 14 percent of the population of the United States was foreign-born (see Haugerud, Stone, and Little 2000). Once jobs were filled, however, the immigrants or their descendants who filled them were not anx­ious to see more immigrants arrive and compete for their jobs. Consequently, they lobbied through unions, churches, and political parties for the government to pass restrictive im­migration laws. When Chinese laborers were brought over to help build the transconti­nental railroad, groups such as the Knights of Labor protested, even demanding that the Chinese get out of the laundry business. As a result, the U.S. Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, and anti-Chinese agitation broke out on the West Coast, marking one more stage in the emergence of racism in the United States.

Although importing laborers from overseas worked for a time, corporations soon found that they could more easily tap into pools of cheap labor by relocating their manufac­turing processes when possible to countries on the periphery of the world system whose governments were committed to economic development through industrialization. For ex­ample, to facilitate the establishment of assembly plants, governments in Indonesia, Malay­sia, Guatemala, and Mexico, among others, created in their countries free trade zones, areas in which large corporations were permitted to deliver goods to be assembled—cut cloth for wearing apparel, electronic components, and so on—and for which they were not required to pay tariffs, provided that the items were not then sold in the country in which they were assembled. In exchange, the multinational corporations, such as Nike, agreed to hire local


workers. The home countries, such as the United States, contributed by passing legislation that allows corporations to transfer the assembled goods back to the United States, paying an import tariff only on the labor cost of each product rather than on the total value of the prod­uct. Thus, the sneakers you wear were probably cut by machines in the United States, shipped to Indonesia or Vietnam to be assembled, and then shipped back to the United States to be distributed and sold there and elsewhere in the world.

As an economic arrangement, almost everyone seems to benefit from the growth of assembly plants.

    Nike and other companies are able to compete with other manufacturers by paying
workers in Third World countries a fraction of what they would have to pay Amer­
ican workers.

    Workers in the Third World find employment.

    Consumers pay less for their clothes, electronic devices, toys, and so on.

    Investors get a higher return on their money.

It seems that the only ones who don't benefit are the American workers who lose their jobs (some half-million in the textile industry alone in the 1980s).

As a result, the growth in assembly plants was dramatic. In 1970 there were an esti­mated 1,000 women working in manufacturing in Malaysia, for example; by 1980, there were 80,000 concentrated in textiles, electronics, and food processing. In Mexico, the number of maquiladoras, as assembly plants are called, grew from virtually none in the 1960s to 1,279 employing 329,413 people in 1988, to over 4,000 employing over one mil­lion workers in 1999 (Hodder 1999). However, there are some problems. Critics have cited assembly plant workers' poor working conditions, their low pay, the actions of for­eign governments in discouraging the formation of workers' unions, and the loose envi­ronmental regulations that have in some cases resulted in considerable environmental degradation around free trade zones.

For example, in 1995, American labor and children's rights groups called for a boy­cott of all garments assembled in Bangladesh to protest the estimated 25,000-30,000 chil­dren working in garment factories in Bangladesh. The United States is Bangladesh's biggest apparel customer, with nearly 50 percent of Bangladesh's $1.6 billion in garment exports arriving in the United States. In some assembly factories in El Salvador, where women earn $4.51 for the day, or 56 cents an hour, union organizers are often summarily dismissed, bathrooms are locked and can be used only with permission, and talking on the job is prohibited. In Guatemala, workers are required to work overtime at a moment's notice and are dismissed if they refuse. There have been reports of systematic violence against union organizers in Mexico, El Salvador, and Guatemala. And, as we shall see, as­sembly plants have far-reaching consequences on the society and culture of the cities and countries in which they are located.

The Creation of Free Labor

One defining feature of capitalism is the creation of a class of people who are willing to sell their labor. There must be a working class and, subsequently, a demand for jobs. A


key question then is, why do people, particularly the workers, play the game of capital­ism? For example, if the pay is poor and working conditions harsh, why do people work in assembly plants? Although the United States is and has been largely a wage economy in which the vast majority of people, in effect, sell their labor to companies, we sometimes forget, as mentioned earlier, that the existence of a so-called working class is a recent de­velopment historically in the United States, and particularly in countries such as Malaysia and Mexico where, until recently, most people earned their living from the land or from what they themselves produced and sold. Thus, to turn landed peasants and artisans into wage laborers required that they lose their land or sources of livelihood.

In Malaysia and Mexico, countries trying to industrialize and attract foreign manu­facturers such as Nike, political developments in the nineteenth and early twentieth cen­turies led to the systematic dispossession of peasants from their land and to the increased importation of cheap products (e.g., textiles, iron implements) that put local artisans out of business. For example, up to the nineteenth century, Malaysia consisted of small states ruled over by sultans and so-called 'big men,' who extracted tribute from peasants. Peas­ants held use-rights to land and could pass on to children whatever land they worked but no more than that. The center of life was the kampung, or village. However, British colo­nialists took over the land and converted its use to the production of cash crops, leaving the unlanded population to seek labor on large plantations or migrate to cities in search of jobs. There was still more than enough land in Malaysia for everyone to farm, but it was used instead to produce crops, such as palm oil, for export rather than to produce food for the local population.

In Mexico a similar history has left most of the population without land to produce food. In the mid-nineteenth century, the vast majority of the Mexican population lived in villages. The land was divided among the residents but owned not by individuals but by the whole village. People were given the right to use land but not the right to sell it. Then, in the mid-nineteenth century, legislation was passed in Mexico declaring communally held lands to be illegal, giving peasants legal rights to their own land, which they could now also sell or mortgage to repay debts. The result was that wealthy persons—largely Americans—bought up huge tracts of land. By 1910, the year of the beginning of the Mexican Revolution, over 90 percent of the population was landless and forced to work on large agricultural estates or migrate to the cities in search of jobs. In the course of half a century, the vast majority of the Mexican population was transformed from an autono­mous peasantry working their own land to a population of dependent wage laborers.

The process of land dispossession has continued to the present time (as will be dis­cussed later), not only in Mexico and Malaysia but also in many other parts of the world, resulting in a large population of landless people with only their labor to sell. As a result, the governments of these countries are under great pressure to facilitate the growth of jobs for the population. It is into these situations that American, Japanese, German, and British corporations, among others, have come to build assembly plants.

Assembly factories, however, involve a paradox. In countries such as Malaysia and Mexico the men traditionally were the wage laborers, but women are sought by corporations, such as Nike, as employees. The women, for some reason, are willing to accept a wage level less than that needed for subsistence. Thus, we need to ask why are there jobs that pay less than a living wage and why do certain categories of people seem relegated to them?


The Segmentation of the Workforce

One consequence of the establishment of offshore assembly growth was the entrance into the labor market of a new working population of young, single women between the ages of sixteen and twenty-four. Why do the assembly plants choose to employ young women, and why is it that women choose to work under sometimes unpleasant conditions? The answer to this question requires us to understand how and why labor is segmented into different levels.

Take, for example, the case of Malaysia. Aihwa Ong (1987) spent two years studying assembly plants in Malaysia owned by Japanese and American corporations. One of the first questions she asked was, why did the plants prefer to hire young women? Plant manag­ers that she interviewed gave a number of reasons. One Japanese manager told Ong (1990:396-397) that 'females [are] better able to concentrate on routine work,' and 'young girls [are] preferable than older persons, that is because of eyesight.' Another explained, 'You cannot expect a man to do very fine work for eight hours [at a stretch]. Our work is designed for femalesif we employ men, within one or two months they would have run away. Girls [sic] below thirty are easier to train and easier to adapt to the job function.'

The idea that women are somehow more suited biologically for assembly plant work is widespread in developing countries. For example, here is what a brochure de­signed to bring foreign investments into Malaysia says about its female workforce:

Her hands are small and she works fast with extreme care. Who, therefore, could be better qualified by nature and inheritance to contribute to the efficiency of a bench assembly production line than the oriental girl? [Ong 1987: 152, emphasis added]

In Mexican maquiladoras the situation is much the same. Maria Patricia Fernan­dez-Kelly (1983) was also interested in the effects of the assembly plants on women. To study these effects she found a job in a maquiladora to share the experiences of the work­ers and to meet the women and learn about their lives. She, too, found that companies pre­ferred to hire young females because managers believed that women have higher skill levels, are more docile, and are more willing to comply to the monotonous, repetitive, and exhausting assignments. Men are described by managers as more restless or rebellious, less patient, more likely to unionize, and less tolerant of the working conditions. As one manager related to Fernandez-Kelly (1983:181),

We hire mostly women because they are more reliable than men, they have finer fingers, smaller muscles and unsurpassed manual dexterity. Also, women don't get tired of repeat­ing the same operation nine hundred times a day.

Assembly plants in both Malaysia and Mexico also preferred single women be­cause managers believed that older, married women had too many other obligations, were often unwilling to work night shifts, and may have accumulated enough wage increments to be paid more than a new, young, single woman would earn.

There is also a large population of unemployed women that assembly factories can choose from. In Malaysia and Mexico there are three applicants for every available posi­tion. Thus one maquiladora manager could announce to a conference organized by the



Young women, such as these uniformed workers at a Nike assembly in Indonesia, comprise the vast majority of workers at overseas assembly plants.

American Chamber of Commerce that the 30 percent unemployment rate in Ciudad Juarez allows for high employee selectivity. Moreover, village elders in Malaysia and family heads in Mexico are eager to send otherwise non-wage-earning women to work in the assembly plants.

There is another reason, however, for the employment practices of assembly plants, one that tells us even more about the black box of capitalism: You don't have to pay women and children as much as you have to pay men. Nor do you have to pay foreign workers as much as domestic workers. By extension you do not have to pay people of color as much as you pay Whites. That is, the contemporary labor force in peripheral countries such as Mexico and Malaysia is already segmented through various forms of social discrimination, as was the labor force in nineteenth-century North America and Eu­rope. Whether capitalism creates this type of discrimination, reinforces it, or simply takes advantage of it where it exists is arguable. Regardless, there is no question that, at least to some extent, social discrimination and prejudice—sexism, racism, discrimination against immigrants—is profitable. It is an important part of the black box. But why?

Let's return to basic economics. Modern industries can be loosely divided into two types. There are primary industries whose markets are well defined, whose profits are rel­atively certain, whose capital investment is high, and who are able to pay good wages and ensure decent working conditions. These industries include automobile manufacturing, communications, and energy industries, to name a few. They require a well-paid, well-trained, and relatively content workforce.


Then there are secondary industries that include the fast-food industry, agriculture, electronics, and, most notably, the clothing, garment, and/or textile industries. There is in­tense competition, uncertain or changing demand, a lower profit margin, and a greater de­pendence on unskilled labor in these industries. They are the least desirable for workers, because to stay competitive companies must pay the lowest wages and yet maximize worker output. These are the industries most likely to expand operations to poorer coun­tries. They are also the companies that are likely to hire the most vulnerable and the lowest-ranking members of a population. Traditionally these people have been women, children, or members of subjugated minorities. Thus, when corporations locate assembly factories abroad, they are, in effect, expanding the secondary labor market.

Of course the hiring of women for low-paying, labor-intensive work has long been a feature of industrial capitalism. Women and children formed the bulk of the factory workforce at the beginnings of the industrial revolution in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. In 1851, 31 percent of the labor force in England consisted of women, 45 percent of whom were in manufacturing. In the English textile industry of 1840, over 75 percent of the workforce consisted of women and children. The locating of assembly plants overseas is simply the latest version of utilizing a socially vulnerable workforce to secure low-paid labor.

This expansion of the secondary labor market abroad, however, has had the follow­ing economic consequences for workers and corporations at home and abroad:

1.          It has meant the transfer of jobs abroad and resulting unemployment at home.

2.    It has widened the gap between primary and secondary labor in the United States.

3.    From the perspective of workers in peripheral countries of the world system, it
has meant the development of poorly paid, unstable jobs with little opportunity
for promotion.

The process of targeting the most vulnerable segment of the population for low-wage jobs also affects the meaning that societies give to specific tasks. For example, the division between skilled and unskilled jobs is often not based on the nature of the work, as one would suppose; instead, it is based on who is doing the work. In other words, the work that women do in assembly factories is not necessarily less skilled than other work; it is considered un­skilled because it is performed by women. Fernandez-Kelly discovered this when she tried to learn the sewing techniques of women in Mexican garment maquiladoras. She could barely keep up with them; it required a skill level equal to or greater than many jobs that we call skilled. In Brazil, women are hired to tend grape vines to produce the large, unblemished grape that consumers in industrial countries desire. The work is skilled (e.g., involving the grafting of vines), but since the work is done by women, it is described as requiring 'manual dexterity, delicacy, and nimbleness of fingers' (Collins 2000). Thus, work that women do is defined as 'unskilled' because it is done by women, as work that Blacks or Irish did in the nineteenth century was defined as unskilled because it was done by Blacks or Irish.



From the standpoint of the corporation, however, the transfer of secondary jobs to un­derdeveloped countries and the ensuing expansion of a cheap labor reserve pool affords cor­porate employers the greatest degree of political and economic control over workers. They are able to employ the most socially vulnerable sector of the working class, the people least


likely to organize, demand better wages, or press for better working conditions. As one Mexican maquiladora worker put it, men are unwilling to perform the monotonous labor; women are more shy and submissive and are more used to following orders. They are more easily intimidated and forced to obey. They are the easiest to discipline.

In sum, for corporations women represent a major source of inexpensive, transient labor; thus, women, although making up the vast majority of assembly plant workers throughout the world, occupy few skilled or managerial positions. And because they occupy the lowest positions, women can be hired and fired, depending on the overseas demand for such things as textiles, shoes, plastics, electrical appliances, and, increasingly, electronics.

In spite of the often poor pay and harsh working conditions that women working in assembly plants endure, some economists and public policymakers argue that such em­ployment is necessary if women are ultimately to gain access to better positions and change their often subjugated positions in societies around the world. They argue that the money that women earn gives them control over resources that they would otherwise not have, that as families become dependent on the income that these women bring into their households, their positions in society will improve. Some also argue that the creation of this kind of work is a necessary stage of economic development and will eventually lead to better lives for all. We must remember, however, that if the labor market remains di­vided between primary and secondary industries, then someone must continue to do the low-paying work. Women may escape low-paying jobs, but only, as the Irish in the nine­teenth century learned, if there is another group to take their places.

Control and Discipline

In nineteenth-century America, as young men and women sought work in the growing factory towns and cities, factory owners, as well as local citizens, faced a problem. These young people had been integrated into the social institutions of their hamlets and villages. As members of families and churches, they were expected to conform to certain standards of behavior; deviance from those standards could bring condemnation, punishment, and even social ostracism. But in the towns and cities to which they moved, migrant workers often were freed from such constraints, free to experiment with behaviors previously denied to them. Consequently, men often gained reputations as 'rowdies,' or 'hood­lums,' whereas, women were labeled 'immoral' or 'loose.' Thus the creation of free labor created a problem: How do you control the labor force?

For example, in turn-of-the-twentieth-century New York City, thousands of young women found employment in factories and used their new-found freedom and the wages they earned for shopping, dating, dancing, or going on excursions to recreation areas, such as Coney Island. However, their behavior alarmed some people who saw it as im­moral; consequently groups of social reformers organized and proposed ways to 'protect' working women from these 'temptations.' Some of their solutions to the problem re­sulted in the formation of social and religious clubs and associations for young women, organizations such as the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA).

These organizations also served another function as well; they relieved the fears of the parents of these young workers who otherwise might have been reluctant to allow them to migrate to cities and factory towns.


As in nineteenth-century America and Great Britain, employment in the new assem­bly plants of such countries as Malaysia and Mexico often requires young men and women to leave their homes and move to cities, freeing them from the traditional constraints im­posed by family and church, and, thus, freeing them to spend their leisure time in nontradi-tional activities. Take, for example, the situation of the largely female workforce in the new assembly plants of Malaysia. Most of the women are young, generally ranging from six­teen to twenty years old. In their villages they would have lived at home, perhaps attended school, and been involved in various household chores under the direction of their mothers. Dating would have been rare and, when it occurred, would have been carefully supervised by parents. Marriages were often arranged by parents. Factory work, however, allows these same young women to earn wages, a portion of which they control. Although most work­ers contribute one-half or more of their earnings to their families, they are free to spend the rest on themselves. Some use it for typing or academic classes to prepare for civil service jobs, in effect attempting to control their own job prospects and 'careers.' Some become consumers, taking shopping trips to town or going to the movies, 'making jolly with money,' as they say. They exchange traditional kampung garb for tight T-shirts, jeans, and Avon makeup, trying to achieve what they call the 'electric look.'

Because working women are now expected to save money to contribute to their own wedding expenses—money that had been traditionally supplied by their families—they feel justified in choosing potential spouses. Sexual freedom may be increasing, as indi­cated by an increase in abortions, and women are beginning to cross social boundaries, having 'illicit' relationships and marrying men of other ethnic groups (e.g., Chinese), something traditional family and church authorities would never have allowed.

One consequence of the growth of the number of working women in Malaysia is a stream of criticism about the loose morals of factory girls, especially from Islamic funda­mentalists. The Malay media portrays factory women as pleasure seekers and spendthrifts engulfed in Western consumer culture. A story about prostitution might promote sensa­tional headlines, such as 'Factory Girls in Sex Racket.'

All of this has resulted in a call for greater control of working women, in spite of the fact that similar behavior, such as dating and movie going, among upper-class college students has not received the same notice. Even the academic community and religious and state officials have claimed to recognize the problem of declining morals of young women and proposed measures to arrest the decline, such as counseling and recreational activities. There have also been public calls for control of working women's leisure time, despite the fact that they tend to work about three hours a day more than women engaged primarily in traditional household chores.

In some ways, the newfound freedom of factory workers is as welcome by business­people as it is by the young. Their new income—and their willingness to spend a portion of it on themselves—has turned young village men and women into consumers who buy many of the products they make. But the new freedoms create yet another problem. Capitalist en­terprise requires a disciplined and reliable workforce; with old forms of discipline falling away new forms must be developed to replace them. The question is, how is that done?

Although family and church are largely absent from the lives of working young men and women, factory managers try to use these traditional institutions to control their workers. Malaysia is an Islamic country, and according to Islamic practice, parents are


obligated to care for their children up to age fifteen, and traditional customs decree that children must also care for their parents. Thus children, particularly women, are obligated to return to their parents the care that their parents gave them. One of the major appeals made to young women by factory owners and managers is that they use their wages to pay back part of what they owe their parents.

Factory managers also seek to maintain discipline by building relations with people in the women's home villages, thus enlisting their help in controlling workers. For exam­ple, managers make donations to community organizations in the villages that supply workers. They also devise regulations to help parents monitor the activities of their daughters. When workers commute from their villages to the factories, the managers de­liver workers to their homes by bus, or they allow parents to see overtime forms so they know how much time their daughters were spending at work and at other activities. These efforts enhance the prestige of managers in the eyes of village elders whose moral support could then be obtained for the social control of working daughters.

Corporations also use traditional family values to encourage workers to comply with company goals (Ong 1987:169). Thus managers tell workers that they are part of 'one big family.' One factory had posters proclaiming the company philosophy:

   To create one big family

   To train workers

   To increase loyalty to company, country, and fellow workers

Managers portray themselves as parent figures to the larger community from which women workers come, and, although workers complain of too much control, parents rarely tell their daughters to quit.

Religion is also used as a means of discipline (Ong 1987:185). Because it is an Is­lamic country, the Malaysian government includes special departments and agencies that have jurisdiction over the application of religious law. For example, under the current in­terpretation of religious law, Muslims may be arrested for khalwat, 'close proximity' be­tween a man and a woman who are not immediate relatives or married to each other. Those caught in situations that just suggest sexual intimacy, but not necessarily in the sex act, are fined or sentenced to jail for a few months. Muslims arrested for zinah, that is, il­licit sexual intercourse, may be more severely punished. As a result of the increase in the number of young women working in assembly factories, there have been more raids by the government's Religious Department on the poor lodgings and cheap hotels used by the workers.

Then there is the factory discipline itself. We mentioned earlier that eighteenth- and nineteenth-century factories were modeled after prisons. Modern assembly plants have much the same character. In Malaysian assembly plants, workers are sometimes watched through glass partitions. In one factory, for example, three supervisors and twelve fore­men controlled 530 operators. Discipline was verbally enforced as women workers were scolded by over-vigilant foremen for wanting to go to the prayer room, the clinic, or the toilet. Some foremen would even question workers in a humiliating manner about their menstrual problems or nonwork activities. Others were reported to have forced women to


run laps around the assembly plant as a form of punishment for reporting late to work or not meeting their production quotas.

As in prisons, clothing can be used to instill discipline. Malaysian workers are re­quired to wear factory overalls that they complain are too tight and which they are not al­lowed to unbutton. They are also required to wear heavy rubber boots. These clothes are very different from the loose-fitting clothes and sandals Malaysians traditionally wear while working.

Assembly plants also bring with them a Western, factory-oriented sense of the rela­tionship between work and time to which contemporary assembly workers must adapt. Traditionally in Malaysia, for example, young girls carried out their household or farm tasks relatively free from modern time and work discipline; their activities were inter­spersed with social visits, usually free of female supervision and always free of male su­pervision. If there was anything to mark the passage of time, it was the cycle of daily Islamic prayer.

Female workers in the factories, however, are clocked in daily for eight consecutive hours with two fifteen-minute breaks and a half-hour lunch break. Every month their work schedules are changed. Women begin to divide their lives into 'work time' and 'lei­sure time.' They were watched over by overzealous foremen, screened before they could leave their work benches to go to the toilet, and fined if they were late for work (in spite of the fact that pay was based on piecework). This is in vivid contrast to the traditional work routine where there was no distinction between work and life and no conflict be­tween labor and 'passing the time of day.'

People in Malaysia are aware of the shift from traditional social time to the capital­ist clock time, and they have developed their own ways to critique it. Ong (1987:112) told the story of a married couple, Ahmad and Edah, driven, say their neighbors, by the acqui­sition of wealth to carefully spend their time on capital accumulation at the expense of social obligations. Their neighbors said their obsession with time was the result of a toyal, a spirit helper that they raised to filch money from neighbors. The toyal, they concluded, turned the tables on the couple by driving them even harder to use all their time to accu­mulate wealth.

Resistance and Rebellion

Capitalism requires a disciplined working class—people willing to work for wages that allow enterprises to make their necessary profit. But herein lies a problem: in general, people do not readily accept discipline and control and will seek a way to resist, either di­rectly or indirectly.

Resistance to capitalist discipline can take direct forms, as in worker protests, for­mation of unions, and even revolution (subjects to be examined in later chapters). Resis­tance may also take the form of a moral critique, such as that of Colombian peasants who see capital accumulation represented in the baptism of money as the loss of a child's soul. Such indirect forms of resistance are not unique to the peoples of the periphery of the world system. For example, one of the stories that comes down to us from early industrial Europe is that of Rumpelstilskin. Folktales are more than just stories; they are statements


about people's beliefs. Often they are morality tales that dramatize the consequences of proper or improper behavior. Jane Schneider (1989), for example, suggested that the meaning of the Rumpelstilskin tale lies in the development of the linen industry in early modern Europe. In fact, in many ways, it offers a critique of capitalist production not unlike that of the Colombian peasants.

In one version of the Rumpelstilskin story, a father brags that his daughter is able to spin straw into gold. The king, hearing of this boast, offers to take the girl as his wife if she is able to spin the straw in his castle into gold. The girl, tries, fails, then enters into a pact with a strange dwarf who promises to spin the straw into gold for her, but only if she promises to give him her firstborn child. The girl accepts, Rumpelstilskin spins the gold, and she marries the king and has a child. The dwarf comes to claim his fee but is dis­tressed by her tears and grief and offers her a way out. If she can guess his name, he will free her from the contract.

We have forgotten much of what this tale meant to sixteenth- and seventeenth-century European peasants. For example, one of the main industries of the period was linen production. Linen was produced by spinning flax straw into linen thread that was woven into a fabric that was sold for gold coins. So straw, in effect, really was spun into gold. Moreover the spinning process was performed largely by young women. A woman's spinning skill was not only a source of money, it was a quality men sought in wives—as the king sought in his future wife. Furthermore the story contains a pact with a demon, and the price is the firstborn. Thus, as in the Colombian baptism of money, we find the symbolic statement that the generation of wealth comes only with social and per­sonal sacrifice, often of children or their souls.

Malaysian assembly plant workers have also found a subtle, generally symbolic means of expressing their resistance to capitalist discipline. It takes the form of spirit pos­session. Although Malaysia is a Muslim country, Islam exists side-by-side with indige­nous beliefs about magic and spirits. Thus, in the 1980s, assembly plant managers in Malaysia—especially American and Japanese managers—were unexpectedly confronted with an epidemic of spirit possessions in their factories (Ong 1987:204). Forty Malaysian operators were possessed in one large American electronics plant; three years later in an­other incident 120 operators were possessed. The factory was shut down for three days while a spirit-healer (bomoh) was called in to sacrifice a goat to the possessing spirit on the premises.

Another American microelectronics factory was closed down when fifteen women were possessed. According to factory personnel officers, possessed girls began to sob and scream hysterically. When it looked as though the possession would spread, the other workers were immediately ushered out. The women explained that the factory was 'dirty' and consequently haunted by a datuk.

The Malay universe is still full of spirits moving between the human and nonhuman domain. Spirit possession seemed to express themes of filth, angry spirits, and fierce struggles. Particularly prominent in the possession episodes were spirits, such as toyal, who help their masters gain wealth out of thin air; and the pontianak, who threaten the lives of newborn infants.

Aihwa Ong suggested that the women were not reacting to anything as abstract as industrial capitalism but against a sense of violation, of a dislocation in human relations,


in much the same way the Colombian peasants reacted to wage labor with the notion of the baptism of money and the sacrifice of children's souls.

Beliefs about the baptism of money in Colombia and spirit possession of factory workers in Malaysia are examples of the widespread critiques of capitalism that we find among people confronting capitalist production for the first time. Such beliefs are ways that people find to express their sense that capitalist production brings a modicum of eco­nomic betterment at high social and personal costs.

Conclusion

A major assumption of this book is that it is impossible to understand the modern world and its problems—population growth, hunger, poverty, environmental degradation, health, war, religious fundamentalism, and so on—without an understanding of the capitalist economy that, with its goal of accumulating more and more wealth, has in the past four to five centuries redefined and created new social and cultural forms and altered traditional cultural institutions to serve its own purposes. Capitalism has been characterized here as a black box whose purpose it is to convert money into more money, to take monetary in­vestments and convert them into profits and interest. For most people, this process is as magical as is the behavior of baptized money among Colombian peasants. They place money in banks, stocks, or other investments and expect to get more money back without ever questioning the process through which this conversion occurs.

We began to examine how the black box performs its conversion by looking at the growth of overseas assembly plants and the creation, segmentation, and disciplining of the labor force necessary for the box to function at its greatest efficiency. Historically, free labor has been created by removing people from the land or destroying the small-scale in­dustry that allowed them to support themselves. In different countries this was done in different ways, but the overall result has been the creation of populations whose sole means of support is in the sale of their labor. This is as true in industrialized countries as it is in developing or undeveloped countries. In fact, all of us who depend on wage em­ployment—from nuclear physicists to garment workers—constitute the pool of 'free' labor. This labor pool is further divided along a continuum comprising at one end rela­tively well-paid, desirable jobs in industries or enterprises that require a well-trained workforce, and at the other end relatively low-paying, undesirable jobs in industries that are highly competitive and dependent on the existence of a cheap labor supply. Industries and enterprises that depend on a cheap labor supply are able to take advantage of social divisions and discrimination that generally follow lines of gender, race, age, and country of origin to minimize labor costs and control the labor force.

In creating or taking advantage of the increasing supply of cheap labor, the capital­ist economy must also develop ways to maintain workforce discipline, which it does through the factory system, the redefinition of time, and the use of traditional institutions such as the family and the church. Yet in spite of the new forms of discipline, workers offer resistance in the indirect form of masked criticism—as in the baptism of money, spirit possession, or moral tales such as that of Rumpelstilskin—or in the direct forms, protest and the organization of unions.


The mobility, segmentation, and disciplining of the workforce is, of course, only one feature of modern capitalism, and an examination of labor is only the beginning of an understanding of how the black box is able to transform money into more money. It is necessary to examine other components. In order to do so, let us turn to other major ques­tions: How did the entire system develop historically? How did the black box evolve to where it is today? Most specifically, how and why did the capitalist evolve from the mer­chant trader?




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