IT’S HOW YOU PLAY THE GAME

Last week, the New York Times reported on the move in China to better protect workers’ rights, and in so doing stem the tide of rising social inequality. And it discussed the instant blowback from American companies:

Hoping to head off some of the rules, representatives of some American companies are waging an intense lobbying campaign to persuade the Chinese government to revise or abandon the proposed law. The skirmish has pitted the American Chamber of Commerce — which represents corporations including Dell, Ford, General Electric, Microsoft and Nike — against labor activists and the All-China Federation of Trade Unions, the Communist Party’s official union organization…One provision in the proposed law reads, “Labor unions or employee representatives have the right, following bargaining conducted on an equal basis, to execute with employers collective contracts on such matters as labor compensation, working hours, rest, leave, work safety and hygiene, insurance, benefits, etc.”

This episode is an object lesson in how corporate-driven globalization works. While orthodox world systems theorists debate when we will shift from an era of American dominance to one of Chinese dominance, and the globalization gurus estimate how long it will take for “open markets” to unleash a new era of liberalism and freedom, corporate-driven globalization is lived by millions as a cudgel wielded not by a national government but by an economic clique, and wielded in the service not of human freedom but of management power.

When workers have the freedom to organize without retaliation and bargain collectively for better futures, they win better working conditions for themselves and their families, and they make it harder to treat them as infinitely flexible and fully disposable resources. That increase in the freedom and democracy of the workplace breeds understandable resistance from people who would otherwise get to call all the shots. Without global standards, global markets ease a global race to the bottom.

This is easy to lose track of in the bipartisan haze of “competition” and the elite faith that if a given nation just does enough to keep its workers cheap and contingent, it can outdo another nation’s efforts at the same. That’s a competition most everybody loses.

I got some skepticism from my family after we saw The Incredibles when I said I enjoyed it but I didn’t like the politics. But it really was the most conservative movie I think I’ve seen since S.W.A.T.. What’s interesting is the way it turns the liberal paradigm of a super hero film like Spiderman 2 on its head. In Spiderman the basic conflict is one extraordinarily powerful man’s struggle to resist, and then comes to terms with the great responsibility that comes with his great power. His exercise of great power for just ends is critical in facing down society’s great enemy: A creature seeking to consolidate all power for itself, at the expense of the most vulnerable members of society.

In The Incredibles, the victims are not the powerless, but the empowered. The movie is soaked in what Jon Stewart called “the anger of the enfranchised.” Society’s superior, more powerful members are held back by the resentment of the masses who are driven by jealousy to bring them down. Armies of lawyers and reams of regulations are deployed by the masses against their betters, leaving the super heroes bored and petulant and the masses unsafe. And who’s the ultimate adversary this elite must spring into action to confront? A scientist who resents that he couldn’t be a super hero. What’s his dastardly plan? To use science to give the masses super powers of their own so that they can be special too. And, various characters contend throughout the script, “If everyone’s special, then no one is special” (Says who?). The society of Spiderman is threatened by Enrons and Halliburtons; the society of The Incredibles is threatened by affirmative-action-admits and welfare queens.

The question posed by these movies, then, is which represents the real threat. Is America more endangered by those working to empower the disempowered, or by those working to further consolidate power for a narrow elite? I think it’s clear where I come down on this one.