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“300 Chinese Foxconn Workers ‘Threaten Mass Suicide’”

January 12, 2012

Around 300 Chinese workers who manufacture XBox consoles took to a factory roof and threatened bosses with mass suicide over a dispute about pay, unconfirmed reports have claimed.

The workers were employed at the Foxconn Technology Park in Wuhan in Hubei province. Foxconn is an independent, global manufacturing partner to companies including Apple, Microsoft and Sony.

Excerpted from here at the Huffington Post.

Upon whose backs do our happy gadgets rest?

November 10, 2011

As an addendum to my last post pointing out the horrid work conditions (some of the worst in the world) under which all these happy Apple products are created, I thought I’d post this galvanizing quote from Prince Kropotkin from more than a century ago:

In order to remunerate certain classes of workmen, peasants must become the beasts of burden of society; the country must be deserted for the town; small trades must agglomerate in the foul suburbs of large cities, and manufacture a thousand things of little value for next to nothing, so as to bring the goods of the greater industries within reach of buyers with small salaries. That bad cloth may sell, garments are made for ill-paid workers by tailors who are satisfied with a starvation wage! Eastern lands in a backward state are exploited by the West, in order that, under the capitalist system, workers in a few privileged industries may obtain certain limited comforts of life.

-Peter Kropotkin, 1892, The Conquest of Bread, pp. 131-3

Kropotkin died 90 years ago and much has seemingly changed in the global economy since the time he was alive to write, and likewise thousands or millions of books, articles and television hours have been spent ostensibly analyzing the changes that have taken place. But I doubt one could come up with a more honest and clear picture of the core dynamic of our economic globalization than that given by Kropotkin in the above. So much of what else has been written or said on the subject invariably takes the form of a paean to the wonderful technology we now have at our fingertips and how it comes to be simply by entrepreneurship, innovation, leadership, vision. Everything else about the situation is left out. So Steve Jobs put out more easily consumable products. And look at all this marvelous technology they cram into yet smaller and smaller boxes. How do they do it? But we really are never told. Who makes our electronics? Do you know them? Though in this stupendously connected world we must be, how absolutely little do we hear of the people on whose backs the affordability of our happy gadgets and other happy products do indeed rest.

Steve Jobs’s Legacy of Slave Labor

October 11, 2011

From this Gawker article:

In 2010, the Daily Mail managed to get a reporter inside a facility in China that manufactures products for Apple and the paper shared a bit about what life is like:

With the complex at peak production, operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week to meet the global demand for Apple phones and computers, a typical day begins with the Chinese national anthem being played over loudspeakers, with the words: ‘Arise, arise, arise, millions of hearts with one mind.’

As part of this Orwellian control, the public address system constantly relays propaganda, such as how many products have been made; how a new basketball court has been built for the workers; and why workers should ‘value efficiency every minute, every second’.

With other company slogans painted on workshop walls – including exhortations to ‘achieve goals unless the sun no longer rises’ and to ‘gather all of the elite and Foxconn will get stronger and stronger’ – the employees work up to 15-hour shifts.

Down narrow, prison-like corridors, they sleep in cramped rooms in triple-decked bunk beds to save space, with simple bamboo mats for mattresses.

Despite summer temperatures hitting 35 degrees, with 90 per cent humidity, there is no air-conditioning. Workers say some dormitories house more than 40 people and are infested with ants and cockroaches, with the noise and stench making it difficult to sleep.

A company can be judged by how it treats its lowliest workers. It sets an example for the rest of the company or in Apple’s case, the world.

What we say we are for is irrelevant

September 21, 2011

According to the political class (e.g., Republican and Democratic politicians, the U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, the Obama Administration more generally, the British Foreign Secretary William Hague) and pundits (too many to be worth naming): The Palestinians should not pursue statehood before the U.N.. And the reason that they should not is that, while we support Palestinian statehood, trying to gain it through the U.N. is a dead end, because we will veto it.

This line of argument should prove that the one espousing it is a patent scoundrel. When dealing with scoundrels, one cannot trust their words. One must ferret out where they are misleading. In this case, it is not difficult to locate the core untruth. I think we can take at face value that they oppose, as they say they do, the Palestinians taking their cause to the U.N.. I think we can take roughly equally at face value that, if it comes to it and they must for their sake, they will veto any resolution that would make the Palestinian territories a member state of the U.N.. So it can only be that they lie when they say they support Palestinian statehood. And, what is more, if they lie about this, they also lie about wanting Middle East peace, as for decades they have said that the way to Middle East peace is a two-state solution (sure, there have been other proposals and ideas floated, but this is the only one around which they all have  been in broad consensus).

Now let us ask, Why do they oppose U.N. recognition of a Palestinian state? They would most likely give a vague answer such as: because it will destabilize the situation. We should ask, then, How? The answer is: because it will frighten Israel. Why will it frighten Israel? Because Palestine will be recognized with the force of international law behind it as a state.

Like all other major parties, Israel says it is for a two-state solution. Nothing in Palestine will change the moment it becomes a state. If it has weapons and terrorists or militants in it before it may still have all of these after. Although, in fact, these things and the threats they may pose will most likely be reduced after Palestinians have been brought into the net of international law and must thereby assume certain responsibilities of their own.

This is the point. What changes, what fundamentally comes of international recognition of statehood—in particular, as a U.N. member state—is the requirement that as such one becomes more fully the “subject” (the standard jurisprudential parlance) of international law, meaning there is greater requirement to act in accordance with international law. This means that states have the legal responsibility, lest face the possibility of internationally sanctioned intervention, not to allow terrorists or militants to operate out of them in any way which is substantially in violation of the laws of armed conflict and the use of violence. This also means such things as that Israeli occupation and settlement in the territory of a Palestinian state contrary to the legitimate demands of said state is illegal and would constitute an act of war which the enforcement of international law would require the U.N. to intervene in and restore any disputed territory through a legal process such as by way of the rulings of international legal tribunals. This also means such things as that, as the president of the Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas correctly indicates, the Palestinians (as well as Israel, if it had cases it wished to pursue) could take claims of the violation of human rights (such as in Israel’s indiscriminant bombings of Gaza in 2008-07) to the International Court of Justice.

When Israel and the U.S. oppose the Palestinians’ attempt to gain statehood at the U.N. this is what they most directly oppose: the encroachment of international law. The encroachment of the international law into their racket, we should add. Politicians and pundits say that the Palestinians are trying to score a diplomatic victory. This may be so. But such victory cannot come without the concomitants of nation-state status I have mentioned.

When the U.S. and Israel oppose the Palestinian’s attempt to gain statehood they impy that the status quo is preferable. The situation is similar to the U.S.’s stance on the “Arab Spring”. When the Arab Spring takes place in U.S. client states, e.g., Iraq, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain, Yemen, the U.S. opposes it. Again, mind not their words but the record of their deeds.

Sometimes the push to quell uprisings  in client states scores victories, as when Saudi Arabia invades and occupies Bahrain or when the U.S.-Iraqi regime imprisons and tortures hundreds of artists, journalists and activists. But when it appears inevitable that the uprisings will seize the day, as in the U.S. client states, of one time or another, of Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen, begrudgingly applaud them and proclaim to have supported these movements all along, even while having had its members imprisoned, tortured and murdered for years and decades.

The U.S. and Israel say they are for Palestinian statehood, but the problem is that this U.N. move could bring it. Thus it must be opposed and, if it makes it far enough, vetoed. The status quo is good enough. Yes, we mean what we say. Yes, we want Palestinian statehood but just not when we can have it. Whatever pace we are moving towards or away from peace is better. Thus whether we are moving towards or away from peace is irrelevant. What we say we are for is irrelevant.—Then what they say is true.

Learning, Cooperation and Avoiding Self-Destruction

April 19, 2011

Here are just a few brief disparate, but not wholly disconnected, thoughts I had the other day. They started with me thinking about one of my recurrent obsessions these days: physical pain. In particular, I was thinking about how it can really upset me, physically so, to see other people experience certain pains or discomforts. It’s like I become sick for a time with their pain; it casts a shadow over me for a while.

This got me thinking about the hypothesis that humans—indeed, probably most other sufficiently neurologically complex animals—have what are somewhat erroneously called “mirror neurons”. I say this terminology is somewhat erroneous in that there is not exactly some proper subset of neurons which are specifically “mirror neurons” and thereby distinct from the rest. It would be more accurate to say that there is a mirror neuron effect which takes place in certain systems of the nervous system. What the effect consists of is the activation of the neurons that would be used in an action but only by seeing someone else performing that action. It follows that when we see someone, say, getting punched in the stomach, we imagine what that is like, which is to say, the same neurons that would be involved in processing that stimuli are activated, even though for us the stimuli is only experienced second-hand.

So I’ve pointed up the fact of the existence of this mirror neuron effect. We could add to this further in calling it mirror neuron learning. That is, the simple evolutionary explanation for this effect is that it broadens the experiences we may have in life while keeping the costs of having those experiences down. A person can learn that fire is hot by observing another’s reaction after coming into contact with it. A person can improve his or her golf swing by watching a professional golfer. Tottlers can quickly pick up new behaviors just by watching others already learned in them. In short, the mirror neuron effect makes learning more efficient.

What I want to say and to emphasize here is that it is impossible to decouple mirror neuron learning from the possibility of empathizing with other people’s suffering. That is, it is impossible to do this and yet retain the same robustness of the learning faculty. If we get rid of the general faculty of empathizing with others’ pain, then to learn that contact with fire is painful it would not be sufficient to watch another person have their unfortunate reaction; rather, we too would have to get burned, thus suffering ourselves even more so. This fact offers us an answer to those who would too hastily curtail the role of what Adam Smith called “sympathetic passion” in grounding morality. For they say, “Sure, I may have a sympathetic pain or discomfort or suffering to another’s, but then why should that impel me to help them? Why should I not just turn away?” Yes, and so why not just turn off the pain empathizing component of our mirror neurons and leave everything else about them intact to suck up all that beneficial learning?

It sounds nice if we take too narrow or short-term a view of what is good for us. But then, as I said, to learn that contact with fire hurts, each one of us would have to relearn that same painful lesson. Everyone would suffer more, including ourselves. That’s the irony of proposing that the most expedient way to deal with empathizing with other people’s suffering is just to turn away or change the channel.

Now, I am not one who says that empathy is the foundation of morality; rather, I say that the existence of empathetic reactions, and their very necessity in such fundamental processes of evolutionary change as learning and the transmission of knowledge, is an expression of the moral law of the universe which is toward mutual cooperation rather than “nature, red in tooth and claw”.

Speaking of a certain form of irony, this leads me into a separate but related line of thought. And that is that the kind of individualism or egoism most famously trumpeted by Ayn Rand and her followers is inherently self-destructive. Even if one’s most important goal is the maximization of one’s own individual satisfaction, one will be thwarted if one aims at it directly or solely. This is not a simple matter of strategy. It’s more fundamental than that. It’s a matter of not holding onto a self-defeating, indeed, a self-contradictory, philosophy.

Interpreted as a philosophy, it is self-contradictory. What Epictetus said of Epicurus over 2000 years ago could apply quite closely: “So too Epicurus, when he wishes to get rid of the natural fellowship of men with one another, makes use of the very principle of which he is getting rid. For what does he say? ‘Men, be not deceived, be not misled or deluded. There is no natural fellowship of rational beings with one another: believe me. Those who state the contrary deceive you and mislead your reason.’” So Rand comes along. Listen to me! I have found the bedrock truth of reason and now I will tell it to you. Do not do anything for others. Do only what’s in your own self-interest.

Interpreted as a way of life, it is self-defeating. As I said above, if one aims to eliminate one’s empathizing with other people’s suffering, then one’s own ability to learn from and extract information from other people’s actions will be impoverished. So making one’s own comfort or happiness the end-all-be-all of one’s life is self-defeating. This is a familiar pattern. When we make such and such our main focus we end up subverting that very thing. I find this to be similar to the fact that science would be hobbled if it too narrowly construed its goal as being that of improving human well-being, or if it did as some people demand of it when bearing witness to some of its more theoretical arcana: be more practical. But much greater things come, including ways of advancing humanity, when science reaches for the stars. To paraphrase Francis Bacon (and many others): Aim large; seek truth for its own sake and the fruits will take care of themselves.

So here’s the didactic summary of this post  (a la George Orwell in his review of Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom): “Men can only be happy when they do not assume that the object of life is happiness.”

The March towards Miseducation

March 20, 2011

By far the most impressive thing about all of the recent talk ostensibly about how to improve education is how studiously it has avoided actually talking about education, let alone how to improve it. This is shown by the fact that what education is supposed to be is never confronted. Most discussion begins rather somewhere with the following: how to make schooling more regimented, how to remove or at least inhibit all positive purposes for being at school, how to demean and make more precarious teachers’ jobs, how to increase top-down managerial control, how to restrict people’s access to the public resources of schools and how to liquidate those resources and place them into the hands of private beneficiaries. In short, talking about the schools we have and how to manipulate these to become more of what they already are is not the same thing as talking about how to improve people’s educational possibilities.

While the state-allied education gurus, experts and policy-makers studiously avoid confronting what education is supposed to be, they do set some goals for themselves, though these are not related to education but to the above set of concerns. So, for instance, one of the most important barometers of “education” is standardized test scores. Why do these relate to education? How could we tell? We don’t even know what education is supposed to be. Thus the best we can say is that standardized testing is meant to evaluate how close all students are to some prescribed more or less educationally arbitrary standard. Standardized testing is only obviously meant to regiment the schooling process that students go through. Regimentation of this sort, that is, through testing and the ways in which this is used to rate students, condemn or advance students, and relinquish or restrain resources, is both meant to get all students to conform to a centralized mental standard, as well as to provide administrators with data on how well the student population is satisfying administrators’ wishes.

But even if the resources and force of will could be mustered to get students to perform well on, let us say, apparently well-meaning tests relating to certain mental disciplines, such as in math and reading, there is no reason to suppose that this would be a good thing for those students’ educational developments. What does becoming good at some prescribed math skills have to do with education?

Let me quote John Dewey here.

Collateral learning in the way of formation of enduring attitudes, of likes and dislikes, may be and often is much more important than the spelling lesson or lesson in geography or history that is learned. For these attitudes are fundamentally what count in the future. The most important attitude that can be formed is that of desire to go on learning in the future (Experience & Eductation, p. 48).

What is more,

We often see persons who have had little schooling and in whose case the absence of set schooling proves to be a positive asset. They have at least retained their native common sense and power of judgment, and its exercise in the actual conditions of living has given them the precious gift of ability to learn from the experiences they have. What avail is it to win prescribed amounts of information about geography and history, to win ability to read and write, if in the process the individual loses his own soul: loses his appreciation of things worth while, of the values to which these things are relative; if he loses desire to apply what he has learned and, above all, loses the ability to extract meaning from his future experiences as they occur (Ibid., pp 48-9).

So it is not obvious that any of the most prominently proposed schooling reforms have anything to do with education. I think it is hard, if not impossible, to get to education through any of the measures that are being pursued. This is because what they take us towards is again and again quite the opposite of education. Regimentation and manipulation by authorities leads most directly not to education but to being used in ways which those authorities see fit for you. Thus if the prevailing interests of this country need more assembly line engineers, then schools must produce more of those. If they need more accountants, schools must foster the skills and mindsets for those. If they need more menial laborers, then schools must make it impossible for a certain number of people to see or to have any other possibilities in life. In general, as well, an uncriticalness of the totality of our grand system, a reverence of masters, and a resignation to a life of but subsistence and servitude must be securely erected via the power of schooling.

We seem to have a basic sense of what education is supposed to be. It is meant to change what is in a person’s mind. But for whom and by whom? These are, I have little doubt, also essential to what education is supposed to be. Would we even naively proclaim that education is meant to involve the changing of some student’s mind in accordance with the outlines of some bureaucrat and so that that student can most readily be fit into the current economic landscape. Oh what a noble view of education! And why is it we are meant to be disappointed with what we get out of schools?

*          *          *

I would briefly offer here that education means not the dutiful absorption of facts and rudimentary mental skills but, as Dewey, one of the founders of the Progressive School Movement, made clear, the possibility for growth, that is, more particularly, the opening up of what experiences one has now and can have in the future. We often think of education as something that’s done to young human beings. While this is somewhat arbitrary when one properly conceives of education as experiential growth, it does suggest an aspect of education which is thought to imply authoritarianism. It is thought that since younger humans lack the experience of older humans, older humans must impose limits and constraints on them. However, if such is truly for the well-being of the younger humans, this should be a matter of servicing the particular and special needs of those younger humans, and not of dictating to them that this or that is right. People’s needs change at various stages in their lives. Babies need certain outside help that teenagers do not and geriatrics, too, often need special external support. Attending to these groups’ needs as needs means setting up things for them, and that clearly does not entail imposing anything on them against their wishes. Further, the impression, whether right or wrong, that something is being imposed will most likely result in that person rejecting it, that is, unless the human will has been sufficiently broken, which often seems to be a design of many of our social institutions, especially here schools.

It is thus that I note two recent and prominent pieces of “education” reform propaganda. The first is the much acclaimed Waiting for Superman. One part of this makes the very curious juxtaposition between levels of confidence amongst current American youth and their performance on standardized tests. On the one hand, they claim that confidence is skyrocketing (a highly dubious claim) while performance on standardized tests in math, science, etc. is floundering. What is the point at all of this juxtaposition? Is their high confidence a cause of their poor performance? Does their performance on standardized tests invalidate their confidence? Thus should we tell them this so as to try to lower their confidence? Or should we rather focus on bringing up their test scores? Thus wouldn’t it have been enough to focus on test performance? So why bring in the matter of their high confidence (I should mention the confidence they talk about doesn’t even seem to have to do with American youth’s confidence about how well they do on standardized tests)? What is the relevance? The way this is all set up, suggesting that parenting and educating cultures in our country have coddled children, made them feel too special (however, look at China where there is a prevalent culture of placing only-children on pagodas), could be seen as an attack on the caricature of Progressive schooling which Dewey went to pains to refute in his writings on education (cf. Experience & Education, Chs. 1 & 2). In fact, it is something of a present theme in mainstream calls for school reform that all of the improvements in the methods of schooling, such as arose from the Progressive and other alternative school movements, which sought more directly to put schooling in the service of the experiential needs of the students, must finally be scrapped.

The second is from a recent 60 Minutes segment on another attempt in school reform. The novelty of this school is that, despite the usual lionized accoutrements of school reform, which usually include such things as making students wear color-coded uniforms to identify which parts of the school-block (much like a prison-block) they are assigned to, increasing the amount of school time, pushing hard on improving standardized test performance, enacting greater managerial dictatorialism (as with the lionized Michelle Rhee, former chancellor of D.C. public schools), and the mass firing of teachers and requiring of the remaining teachers to take on even greater burdens, as well as providing substantial school supplies out of their own pockets lest there would be not nearly adequate enough supplies, this school has decided that a simple way of off-setting all of these counter-educational measures might be to give a select few teachers higher salaries. But that aside, what struck me about this school was the familiar fetishization of mechanically regimenting students’ experiences. So for instance, one teacher stresses the importance of getting all students everyday to perform the same educationally meaningless series of actions in unison. At the start of every class every student has to clap in unison, say the same words and vows in unison, then stomp in unison, then raise her or his writing hand in unison, and then, on command, start writing in unison. I can only say that if I had been a student in such a classroom I probably would have protested it with all my marrow and that would have been the summum bonum of my educational experience.

A Simple Question

February 27, 2011

Is there an anti-worker bias in capitalism?

When workers operate to get the best deal for themselves that they can, we say they’re greedy. When CEOs operate to get the best deal for themselves that they can, we say they’re just doing what they do.

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