By Bozhin Traykov
It was quite upsetting to listen to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s The Invisible Hand on August 1st 2012. The particular CBC program, entitled “Offshore Labour, Human Capital, and Economic Development,” hosted by MatthewLazin-Ryder with guests Benjamin Powell and Kalpona Akter, was an excuse for the existence of sweatshops and a justification of the human-rights violation practices of transnational corporations in the so-called “underdeveloped world.”
To paraphrase the argument: sweatshops are a necessary evil in the development of capitalism, the “West” had them, so it follows that the “East” now has them; it is a “natural” process. The discussion went on to assert that while sweatshops are bad, there are worse alternatives—like selling your body, for example (this incredibly insightful observation was made by an anthropologist, Randy Mont-Raynoud, working for the Clinton Foundation). The program also stated that conditions in sweatshops in the “West” have gradually improved (I don’t know whether this was a muzzled attempt to acknowledge the century long struggle of organized labor), and so they are bound to improve in the East or in the South too. How is not a concern, but they will! (And this is as far as the “historical analysis” progressed). The conclusion was that people working in sweatshops are suffering, but banning sweatshops and stopping Western consumption of sweatshop products will be very, very bad…for the “economy”. That view was expressed even by Kalpona Akter, the labor activist interviewed.
Returning to the anthropologist, one of the more ridiculous claims that she made, which in my opinion surpassed the one recounted above, was that for Haitians, who are starting to build their country, exploitation (which she refused to call by its real name) was a necessary step towards development. For the purposes of historical accuracy I would have to say that Haitians have been trying to build their own country since the revolution in late 18th century. However, the colonial powers Spain and France and the capitalist hegemonic power of the U.S. had made sure to stomp on any possibility of national independence for the Haitian people. But Ms. Mount-Raynoud should know that. After all, she is working for the foundation of one of the instrumental figures in the later stage of this long process of stomping on freedom and independence—President Bill Clinton. Her claim just goes to show the hypocrisy of court scholars.
There was no mention in the program of the fact that the rise of sweatshops required neoliberal regimes of governance. Or a comparison with Southeast or East European societies for example, which did not “have to build their countries” but supposedly were going “back to Europe” with a well developed infrastructure from the Soviet model, after the Fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Interestingly, being prescribed the shock therapy remedy of rapid privatization no matter what the consequences, the journey to Europe entailed surrendering their competitive state enterprises to a bunch of gangsters who made sure to destroy them (following the advice of Gordon Gekko) and thus open the door for sweatshops. This translates into a process of de-development, comparable to Latin America’s Lost Decade.
I guess the name of the program should make it no surprise that the only understanding of economic development of the experts interviewed relied on the model of “free market” fundamentalism. Yet, it’s upsetting how under the pretext of objectivity neoliberal extremism is presented as a moderate view. This poses the question whether in a far right ideological climate one can speak of journalistic balance and objectivity. Programs like The Invisible Hand ultimately advocate the same paternalistic, top-down attitude toward the non-Western world that modernization theory did during the Cold War, though this time re-packaged in a neoliberal fashion, equating the hegemony of big business with human progress.
More than three decades ago, Ms. Thatcher formulated the slogan of the neoliberal conservative revolution—There Is No Alternative (TINA). When later she added that “there is no such thing as society,” it became obvious what kind of world model she envisioned—one based on the perception of humans as homo economicus, driven by hyper-individual, private self-interest and lack of responsibility for their social environment despite the outcomes. The TINA slogan had become the dominant discourse that drives decision-making policies on a global scale. CBC’s The Invisible Hand serves as a prime example of how even public media are not immune to the bias of the dominant discourse. But in the context of the global discontent with the social, economic, financial and environmental results of unfettered capitalism in both—to use a term from system theory—the core and the periphery, it seems valid to ask ourselves: Is the CBC staying on the wrong side of history?
Bozhin Traykov is a graduate student in the School of Communication at Simon Fraser University. His work concentrates on cultural, political and economic transformations in Eastern Europe. He focuses on the characteristics of the Soviet model and the neoliberal regimes of governance in Bulgaria. His case study examines the ideological narratives and symbolic battles over a contested cultural symbol – The Monument of the Soviet Army in the Bulgarian capital Sofia.