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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.

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