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Awakening To A Web of Theft

It’s been a sobering and inspiring month with you, exploring an institutional take on the Second Precept, or a Buddhist look at systemic stealing.  Thank you for joining us in this process of learning and reflection.

To close out our month, and in honor of May Day tomorrow, we want to leave you with the insights of author, historian, and journalist Vijay Prashad, on the recent tragic and infuriating deaths of over 300 garment factory workers in Bangladesh.  In “Made In Bangladesh: The Terror of Capitalism,” Prashad traces a larger web of theft: one tying a globalized capitalist system to downward pressure on safety standards in the garment industry, and even the assassination of worker-organizers struggling for livable conditions. Stolen time, stolen health, stolen lives.

The list of “accidents” is long and painful. In April 2005, a garment factory in Savar collapsed, killing seventy-five workers. In February 2006, another factory collapsed in Dhaka, killing eighteen. In June 2010, a building collapsed in Dhaka, killing twenty-five. These are the “factories” of twenty-first century globalization – poorly built shelters for a production process geared toward long working days, third rate machines, and workers whose own lives are submitted to the imperatives of just-in-time production. Writing about the factory regime in England during the nineteenth century, Karl Marx noted, “But in its blind unrestrainable passion, its wear-wolf hunger for surplus labour, capital oversteps not only the moral, but even the merely physical maximum bounds of the working-day. It usurps the time for growth, development and healthy maintenance of the body. It steals the time required for the consumption of fresh air and sunlight…. All that concerns it is simply and solely the maximum of labour-power that can be rendered fluent in a working-day. It attains this end by shortening the extent of the labourer’s life, as a greedy farmer snatches increased produce from the soil by reducing it of its fertility” (Capital, Chapter 10).

These Bangladesh factories are a part of the landscape of globalization that is mimicked in the factories along the US-Mexico border, in Haiti, in Sri Lanka, and in other places that opened their doors to the garment industry’s savvy use of the new manufacturing and trade order of the 1990s. Subdued countries that had neither the patriotic will to fight for their citizens nor any concern for the long-term debilitation of their social order rushed to welcome garment production. The big garment producers no longer wanted to invest in factories – they turned to sub-contractors, offering them very narrow margins for profit and thereby forcing them to run their factories like prison-houses of labour. The sub-contracting regime allowed these firms to deny any culpability for what was done by the actual owners of these small factories, allowing them to enjoy the benefits of the cheap products without having their consciences stained with the sweat and blood of the workers. It also allowed the consumers in the Atlantic world to buy vast amount of commodities, often with debt-financed consumption, without concern for the methods of production. An occasionally outburst of liberal sentiment turned against this or that company, but there was no overall appreciation of the way the Wal-Mart type of commodity chain made normal the sorts of business practices that occasioned this or that campaign.

Read the rest of the piece here.

In the tradition of BPF, we strive to “not turn away” from the suffering engendered by systemic theft and institutionalized greed.  Not only this, but we envision a growing, strengthening contingent of political Buddhists who openly and strategically  organize toward systems that value people over profits.  We want systems that reflect, in the words of Shodo Spring, that what we have is not a right to the earth, but a responsibility to it.  Systems that value being — not just doing, producing, or possessing.

We love hearing your ideas on how to make this happen.  We learn, we keep working.  Thank you, always, for being with us.

Top photo: In the rubble of Rana Plaza. Photo by Taslima Akhter.

 

Comments (4)

  • Juliana Essen

    Ugh, that’s a tough photo to look at…Frankly I almost didn’t read on. But that’s the point, isn’t? We look away because we feel there is nothing we can do in the face of such devastation; but if we do look, it can actually make us stronger. I won’t be tempted by the “Made in Bangladesh” pricetag this weekend while shopping for my daughter’s birthday presents. This piece has (re)strengthened my resolve to resist the Killer Bargain (a great documentary on the real cost of cheap consumer goods). In fact, maybe I’ll make something for her instead.
    Cheers,
    Juliana

  • Patrick S. O'Donnell

    I’m not so sure boycotting goods made in Bangladesh is part of any solution or a wise tactic, as that would harm the workers who depend on such employment. Indeed, capitalist globalization is not entirely negative, economically speaking (something Marx himself appreciated), although the neoliberal form it has taken of late is of course particularly troubling on many fronts. For a taste of the complexity of assessing the virtues and vices (so to speak) of the latest form of globalization, please see, in particular, Pranab Bardhan’s essay, “Globalization and the Limits to Poverty Alleviation,” in Pranab Bardhan, Samuel Bowles, and Michael Wallerstein, eds., Globalization and Egalitarian Redistribution (New York: Russell Sage Foundation/Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006): 13-32.

    As to moral and political criteria and standards for assessing proposed and actual models of development as well as development attainments to date, see in particular David A. Crocker’s Ethics of Global Development: Agency, Capability, and Deliberative Democracy (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2008) and Richard W. MIller’s Globalizing Justice: The Ethics of Poverty and Power (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010). For those interested in more research along these lines, I have a ten page compilation of book titles (in English) on the “ethics, economics, and politics of global distributive justice” I can send to anyone interested.

    Finally, there are some helpful links at my latest post at Religious Left Law that likewise highlights Prashad’s article: http://www.religiousleftlaw.com/2013/04/neoliberal-capitalism-in-bangladesh-the-violence-of-free-markets-in-the-real-world.html

    All good wishes,
    Patrick

  • Juliana Essen

    Patrick: Good point about the harmful effects of boycotts…though I do think that if there were such a thing as “right consumption,” we would think twice about consuming goods that are produced in such an exploitative and destructive manner. I do agree with you that what will be more effective than simply exercising our consumer power is to support the development of sustainable right livelihoods.

    Thanks for the references–I’ve read a bit on deliberative democracy when I was trying to make an operational model for Amartya Sen’s capability approach. Interesting and helpful. Can you send me your bib? esse0026@yahoo.com
    Cheers!
    Juliana

  • Patrick S. O'Donnell

    Juliana,

    Sent!

    By the way, I think Martha Nussbaum’s “capability approach” (which built on his original ideas) is now more developed than anything Sen has had to say by way of clarifying or explaining his approach (he remains, no less, one of my favorite economists).

    All the best,
    Patrick

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