I’m cheery about the future of the left, and the impending doom of the neoliberal consensus. I feel this way the more I see how neoliberal/technocratically bent writers are forced to drift into abstractions to avoid dealing with actual human conditions. Matthew Yglesias’s response to the grisly deaths of more than one hundred fifty human beings in a Bangledeshi factory is a parody of technocratic, soulless, supposedly a-political neoliberalism. What’s funny is I’m in the middle of preparing a Same Subject Unreadable Longpiece(tm) on the defense of neoliberalism (well…you’ll see I guess).
The more the left attacks him, the more cloistered Yglesias becomes. Which is really frustrating, because his heart is more or less in the right place and he’s crazy smart. But he’s seemingly insulated from real life experiences, and his mind has drifted so far into abstraction that he doesn’t seem to be interested any more in how human beings live lives (and die). In Yglesiasworld, all that matters is getting people more cash; political processes, moral deliberation, and merit goods are only tolerable insofar as they don’t interfere with that goal. This is because in Yglesiasworld, when people have more cash, they’re more free, because the spending of cash is freest way you have to structure the world around you–“consumer choice,” creating a spontaneous order reflecting the aggregated will of consumers, is by definition the freest.
So Yglesias can honestly say something like, yeah, Bangladesh has terrible labor standards; but that’s the choice they make to make sure they aren’t “immiserated” (good Marxist word use) by comparably onerous American safety standards. It’s what they have to do to get more cash; and besides, they’ve accepted that risk, Christ-like, so American can have slightly safer workplaces. (Though, this may have been the wrong week to point that out).
The point in Yglesias’s defense of labor standards that allow crushing misery and also crushing buildings that is the most amusing is precisely where he dips a toe into the material world:
There are also some good reasons to want to avoid a world of unlimited choice and see this as a sphere in which collective action is appropriate…but that still leaves us with the question of “which collective” should make the collective choice.
Oh, collective action and collective choice. Nobody infuriates Yglesias more than unionists and the pro-labor. He takes a perverse joy from finding ways to pit liberals against unions. For reasons that deserve their own analysis (forthcoming), a policy and political viewpoint that sees a great role for collective bargaining and action irritates the neoliberal or petit liberal viewpoint. One of the reasons is that thinkers like Yglesias, divorced from the reality of the human workplace, don’t understand the labor movement, collective action, and in some ways, labor law or economics. To see him give collective action a nod here is very interesting and provides an opportunity to those of us who have hope in Matthew and belief in the capacity of people to be persuaded.
I’d like to use this opportunity then to persuade, and do so the best way I know how: by analogy to caselaw. Consider the case of NLRB v. Washington Aluminum, (1962). In Washington Aluminum, a group of non-union workers showed up to work one day at their plant only to find that the working conditions were frigid. The heating had broken down, and it was essentially as cold inside the plant as it was outside, between eleven and twenty-two degrees. The foreman, suffering in the cold as well, casually said that if the workers had “any guts” they would go home and refuse to work until the furnace was repaired. They did. They were disciplined and fired. Availing themselves of federal labor law and a worker-friendly labor board (note that it is actually the Board, not the workers themselves, named as litigants in this case) the workers sued. The Board, and eventually the Court, punished the employer and required them to pay back pay and rehire the fired workers, because the walk-out action was concerted “concerted activity,” undertaken “for the mutual benefit or protection,” of the workers themselves (see page 13 of the opinion). Talk about collective action enforcing protection of workers: the federal government weighs in on the right of the workers to protest unsafe (even just extremely uncomfortable) working conditions, even absent a union contract, and imposes equitable remedies on the employer forcing them to hire those employees back and compensate them for lost work.
Simple application to the Bangladeshi case. Imagine if enforceable laws existed that protected workers’ rights to act in concert to protect themselves from their employer, and the punishments were real. Remember, the Washington Aluminum workers weren’t unionized. They were just cold. The Bangladeshi workers stated that they had protested having to work in the unsafe building. It was out of terror of losing their jobs (and being immediately replaced by other half-starving Bangladeshis) that constructively coerced them to work in literally murderous conditions. With a basic and enforceable labor rights regime, the workers could have walked out without fear of losing their jobs, because the state would make replacing them prohibitively expensive.
In that imagined scenario, you don’t have the “problem” of keeping Bangladeshis from “getting cash”; you just prohibit the employer (who, here, is ultimately a transnational corporation of immense size and resources) from exploiting the poverty of the workforce to coerce workers to work in conditions they know are unsafe. Yglesias’s Pangloss-like (Panglesias?) arguments (that assumes, fantastically, that Bangladeshis have “chosen” to have no decent workplace safety or labor rights regime, in exchange for $38 a month) evaporate. The typical neoliberal protestations about the need for employer “flexibility” and thus to avoid binding collective bargaining agreements, doesn’t even work. Basic international labor standards, enforceable in each state which avails itself of access to foreign markets, could have saved these people’s lives. Collective action could have saved their lives. Labor law could have saved lives.
Is it likely that Bangladesh could develop and enforce decent, enforceable labor laws? Well, the US hasn’t had a problem forcing nations to accept expansive protections of capital, IMF-like austerity, and all the other trappings of so-called “free trade.” Shrugging this off as “unlikely,” is no argument for why it shouldn’t be an objective.