We obsess over three dead people, a couple hundred injured. It seems a bit extreme. The Boston Marathon bombing was nothing more than a pathetic attempt to express rage by a couple of disillusioned young men who had come to America and learned to hate it. According to a report in the New York Times, the older brother was radicalized (I really hate that word and that concept, as if being against the mainstream, i.e., a radical, is inherently evil) against America sometime after he was prevented from competing in a boxing tournament because he wasn’t a citizen. The morass of laws and regulations that must be navigated when slogging through America’s immigration and naturalization bureaucracy may have been a factor in the young man’s radicalization. It’s easy to see how the inhumanity of a bureaucracy can do that sort of thing, especially one which, acting pretty much on its own whim, doles out favors profoundly affecting people’s lives. Even when bureaucracies are ostensibly there to help people, such as the vast children’s health care bureaucracies that have arisen independently in various locales (one of which I am well familiar with), they can still be so frustrating in practice as to leave one wondering whether their main purpose is their own self-perpetuation and not much else.
Even without the immigration and naturalization bureaucracy making the path to citizenship a byzantine and unpredictable lottery, there’s a lot to hate about America, not least the utter barbarity and decadence of its culture. Americans think nothing of nameless faceless killing of innocents via Predator drone. It calls them collateral damage. Yet it wails at anything that impairs its impulse to accumulation. Since at least the end of the Cold War, the sum total of American foreign relations could be expressed as barbarity in the service of decadence. The young Muslim cry is the same as the cry of so many—there must be more to life than the banality of relentless accumulation, but the banality of relentless accumulation is all that America offers. There is no such thing as an American value, except that more is better. AT & T, the biggest cell phone carrier in the country, even touts the simplistic value in its commercials—letting a group of grammar school kids gathered around a narrator explain how more is always better. It’s so simple even kids get it. Ugh.
And with the barbarity-purchased decadence comes vulgarity. America’s vulgarity is especially expressed in the manner with which its females dress, something which particularly offends the Muslim value system. The Muslims might have a point when it comes to the modesty they demand of women. The subordinate, second class status they otherwise afford women is indefensible, but the modesty of dress they require doesn’t seem such a bad thing. It is not wise to advertise products which aren’t actually for sale, yet every single day in America’s schools and businesses, never mind its gossip pages, women and girls are locked in a fierce competition to gain superior sexual attractiveness and attention through their attire, advertising and flaunting their sexuality as brazenly as they believe is possible without turning people off or unduly sullying their reputation. And that’s just the everyday ordinary women. Female cultural icons (e.g., pop “divas”) are sexually provocative and shocking as a routine matter these days, so much so that it takes raucously prurient behavior on their part to garner much attention.
As there are no, or very few, rules governing female modesty, competition among women for sexual attention and attraction becomes an arms (or to be less metaphorical, a hair, face, rear, breast and legs) race to the bottom (especially among the divas). Business women dress in the tightest, shortest skirts and most revealing blouses possible that will still comport with maintaining some sense of professional decorum. School girls wear jeans so tight and dresses so short that they can’t bend over. Forcing a bit of modesty on women in America might be a very good thing, and for the women, too. Feminists and professional women constantly caterwaul that they don’t wish to be sexually objectified, while for many, every last stitch of clothing and makeup they wear is strategically selected to enhance their sexual appeal. If they were prohibited , like the women in some Muslim countries, from showing any skin in public, except perhaps the face and hands, maybe they could quit with the sexual attractiveness strategizing and actually find something productive to do, submitting to society’s judgment the quality of their work and not the beauty of their skin. But who am I kidding? Women who can get by on their looks, or who can just use their looks to advantage, will not willingly relinquish the opportunity. They want to profitably exploit their sexual attractiveness, without limit, and without any responsibility for untoward reactions that might be elicited. Being sexually attractive isn’t counter-productive; for many, it is the essence of what they produce.
For the two women of reproductive age with whom I live (one, at sixteen, is just entering her reproductive years; the other, at almost fifty, has all but departed hers), life would be far less complicated if they did not have to agonize for hours on end over what to wear each day. The household budget could afford to feed another family on the wealth it devotes to female fashion. Several more people could comfortably abide in the shelter that is our home were the place not stocked floor to ceiling with dresses, skirts, pants, shoes, etc. But removing the incentive to dress to attract sexual attention (or actually to compete with the sisterhood for who among them is considered to be the most attractive to men), would carve from their existence a huge portion of the essence of their being. Life would be simpler indeed, but far less enjoyable, at least for a while, until something else arose to fill the void of meaning that life under something like the Hijab would entail.
A few days after the Boston bombing, while America self-indulgently obsessed over the quite meager death and destruction the two puny bombs caused (more people die in Boston of murder by ordinary means—strangulation, gunshot, knifing, etc.—in a regular weekend than died by bomb on the day of the marathon), over a hundred times as many died in Bangladesh when a garment factory collapsed. The garment workers weren’t engaged in meeting their self-actualization needs such as voluntarily running 26.2 miles represents. They were simply working to provide for themselves and their families, reportedly for $38 per month. It would have taken them three or so months to accumulate enough money for the marathon’s entrance fees, and that’s assuming they could have saved all of their salary, which is obviously a poor assumption, as $38 a month is maybe enough to keep one from starving, but only maybe. The garment worker’s efforts were specifically directed at meeting America’s fashion needs and wants—the customers of Bangladesh’s garment industry include nearly every major American retail outlet–no doubt in some measure helping American girls and women compete with their sisters for sexual attraction and attention through their sartorial splendor.
The garment industry in Bangladesh is every bit as Dickensian as Oliver Twist. It almost goes without saying that working conditions are pretty lousy when the factory in which the work is performed is so shoddily put together that it collapses in a heap on top of the workers. It would be hard to win an argument asserting that slavery in the Antebellum South was worse by comparison. Both means of organizing production depend on humans being treated as something less than human, but at least the slave owner had a vested, tangible economic interest in the continuation of his slave’s life. In contrast, the Bangladeshi factory owner, in a country of over 150 million, the vast majority of which live in wretched poverty (per capita income is about $1,300, according to the CIA World Factbook), has no such interest in the continuation of his employee’s lives. There are always others living in grinding poverty willing to work for the meager wages he offers. Aside from the civil unrest fomented by the factory collapse (which may very well be this particular capitalist’s undoing but won’t likely change the system in the least), the factory owner probably has more grief for the lost plant than for the lost employees, simply because he has more invested in the plant than he does the employees.
This is not how Adam Smith envisioned capitalism would operate. In the quaint example of a baker baking his bread for the selfish purpose of enriching himself, but who ends up also enriching the community by his efforts, Smith did not envision that the baker had every incentive to enrich himself by running his bread baking operation on the backs of workers being paid as little as possible, just barely enough to keep them alive. The capitalist does indeed do well by doing good, but only if the people who are exploited by the capitalist are ignored. As soon as capitalists realized that human effort could be commoditized and exploited as if the humans were just another factory implement or farm animal, Smith’s virtuous capitalist, whose selfishness supposedly operated to enhance public welfare, became simply a selfish exploiter of his fellow man.
Capitalism as a means of economic organization depends on viable, identifiable and defensible property rights, taking it as far from the realm of mankind’s hunter/gatherer ancestry as imaginable. The idea of individual property rights in anything except one’s personal effects is a product of the rise of sedentary agriculture and civilization, which is not more than ten or fifteen thousand years old. In such a short span of time, it can’t be an idea that is hard-wired into the human soul. But capitalism depends upon it.
The Bangladeshi factory owner would not enter a contract to supply American retailers without which there was a means of enforcing the contract, of protecting his property interests. So the Bangladeshi factory owner must either provide his own force that will ensure the enforceability of all the various contracts (employment, vending, supplies, etc.) he must enter in order to supply American retailers with garments, or he must co-opt an existing entity with the necessary mechanisms and resources to provide such enforcement. As the raison d’etre of government in all times and all places is protection, and protection is a monopolistic good, i.e., the marginal cost of expanding the protective ambit declines all along the production possibilities curve, it makes good economic sense for the capitalist needing protection to seek it from his government. Which is exactly how the Bangladesh garment industries operated. At least 10% of the Bangladeshi parliament seats are occupied by garment industry scions. Bangladeshi government rulers and the Bangladeshi garment industry capitalists often are one and the same. And beyond Bangladeshi shores, American world hegemony took over to protect the Bangladeshi capitalist’s property interests. Like the advertisements say, “The US Navy, a force for good.”
But the Bangladeshi government, like any government anywhere, will jettison capitalists if its survival is threatened by their excesses, just as it is now doing with the owner of the collapsed factory. Much the same thing happened, except on a broader scale of time and geography, during the 1930’s Great Depression in the US. The US government realized its capitalist overseers endangered its very existence (and concomitantly, theirs) by their actions, and severely limited their influence in crafting policies to deal with the economic calamity.
There are several fundamental flaws with the capitalist model of economic organization. Property rights that depend for their enforcement on the government also depend for their enforcement on the consent of the governed. No matter the type of government—monarchy, parliamentary, constitutional, etc.—government power arises from the consent of the governed. When the governed are also the object of the capitalist’s exploitative economic model, that is, when the governed are being paid barely subsistence wages and treated worse than antebellum slaves, enforcement of the capitalist’s property rights by the government becomes problematic, as the factory owner in Bangladesh is learning. When the protectors are part of the exploited classes, protection efforts can lose the zeal necessary to lend them credibility.
Much the same calculus obtains when the capitalist economic organization yields highly concentrated wealth. Accumulating wealth also depends on a viable and defensible system of property rights—ownership is meaningless without the ability to exclude others, and the ability to exclude others depends for its viability on the force that can be brought to bear against interlopers. If the excluded others are also the exploited others, upon whose consent the government depends for its power, then defending the wealth of the 1%’er capitalists gets tricky and unpredictable. When more people than not believe wealth should be confiscated rather than defended, the capitalist foundation of property rights begins to teeter and fail. It is this tendency of capitalism to concentrate wealth, that in turn must be defended by people who have no vested interest in seeing the wealth remain concentrated, that makes capitalism inherently unstable, something that Marx observed centuries ago. Bangladesh is probably not yet at the point where the impulse to confiscate overrides the impulse to defend. But the owner of this particular factory surely will suffer the confiscation of much of his personal wealth, if not also his liberty, and maybe even his life. When the wealth of all factory owners is lumped together as similarly unworthy of defense, there will be revolution.
There is another problem with the selfish instincts of capitalists run amok. When capitalist profits depend on paying workers the bare minimum necessary to keep them alive, the workers can never become customers of the capitalist’s wares. The garment factory worker in Bangladesh can’t afford to buy the fashions she sews. Demand for the factory’s output must come from somewhere else—in this case and many others, the developed world’s citizenry. But when the Bangladesh and American capitalists exploit the low wages demanded by factory workers in Bangladesh to hire them instead of domestic workers, workers in the developed world have fewer employment opportunities for themselves, so have less capacity to buy the factory’s output. At some point, exploitative factory production far exceeds the capacity of demand to expand, and the whole system collapses on itself. It must never be forgotten that all economic activity is ultimately directed at human consumption, and if humans are not provided the wherewithal to consume that which is produced, the need for economic activities such as running a sweatshop garment factory will be severely limited. The capitalist system manufactures the rope with which it will hang itself when it treats its laborers, who are also its potential customers, as nothing more than inputs into a rope-making machine.
It seems at this juncture in history that Marxian conflict is becoming more and more inevitable. The globalized economy has resolved to mainly two classes—Marx called them the bourgeoisie and proletariat. I like to call them the exploiters and the exploited. Today’s system of economic exploitation depends upon a cabal of capitalist exploiters manipulating government entities to do their bidding. Governments try to keep their subjects in thrall to their nationalistic ideals in order to prevent them from seeing the similarities across national boundaries of the exploited populations. But the garment worker in Bangladesh has more in common with the landscaper in America who has more in common with the widget factory worker in China than any have in common with the capitalists and governments conspiring across national boundaries to exploit them. There will one day arise some entity or movement that recognizes the situation for what it is, and teaches the exploited to leverage their inchoate power in a concentrated, cooperative and focused effort to turn the tables on their exploiters. Imagine a revolution of the proletariat, but one that transcends national identity and boundaries. The world economic system of today, which exists to perpetuate its own existence such that the exploiters continue to reap the spoils of the system, will be upended. The repercussions would reverberate for centuries, far longer and more significantly than, for instance, did the French Revolution. A truly international coalition of the proletariat could render national governments an anachronism and irrelevancy, akin to what happened to the various monarchs in Europe and Asia after the rise of republican government.
America suffered three dead in the Boston Marathon bombing, an act which, though deliberate, was probably unpreventable. Angry, angst-filled young men on the cusp of madness can lash out in horrific ways, like real-life Frankensteinian monsters, feeling justified in inflicting death and destruction on the world for having been created, but not loved. It’s reasonable to assume there are a great many young men who feel just the same as the Boston bombers, but who suffer silently, or only inflict damage upon themselves. America is no country for men, young or old.
But it is nigh well impossible to predict when a creeping madness will turn violent. Analyzing the Muslim radicalization of these men misses the point. They had already been radicalized by their lot in life, and were simply looking for a vehicle through which the expression of their rage seemed to make sense. Timothy McVeigh latched onto the Branch Davidian imbroglio as justification for his heinous act, but it could have arisen from any quarter. Though his act was deliberate, successfully predicting and preventing it would have required luck more than anything else. The same is true of the Boston bombers.
But the death of over three hundred in Bangladesh was eminently predictable and preventable. It arose as a consequence of worker exploitation by a capitalist system that cared only that costs were minimized such that profits might be maximized. It required the collusion of Western and local governments, acting at the behest of international capitalist organizations, to facilitate the exploitation of human beings as cheap inputs to their profit-making designs. America ignores Bangladesh to obsess over Boston at its own peril. Boston could not have been prevented without a healthy heaping of luck, and is anyway not the result of a fixable flaw at the core of American society. Bangladesh could have been prevented and represents the essence of the rottenness at the core of the capitalist economic model to which America ascribes, and for which America deploys vast resources to defend. Bangladesh is a wake-up call. Boston, while unfortunate, is not.