Globalisation has involved the creation of a global working class that is fragmented, involving a high proportion of women, covering a vast range of activities sub-contracted and sub-sub-contracted, whose only unity lies in that they are called into an existence by the integrating power of global privilege.
By Jeremy Seabrook Third World Network Features
The dissolution of the Western working class in general, and of Britain in particular, has been generally seen in isolation from the process of globalisation which brought it about. One consequence of this has been that the making of a global working class has been obscured by the noisy celebration of the end of class antagonisms in Britain. Of course.
Everyone in the West is now united around the inclusive objective of 'wealth-creation'. Divisions between rich and poor have been submerged in this common quest. The fact that the gulf between rich and poor has actually widened has not significantly damaged the shared goal, the universal commitment to economic growth and expansion which will waft the whole population upwards into capitalism's realm of freedom.
This happy state of affairs has not been paralleled in the wider world. We hear a great deal about increasing global interdependence. Yet the relationship between different peoples and countries in this common destiny has been accompanied by growing global inequality and by a declining popular interest in the fate of the poor in the brave new integrated world. This is strange, since the experience of people all over the world who live and work in conditions reminiscent of the Britain of the early industrial era, replicates, to an astonishing degree, that of the workers of Manchester, London or Leeds 150 years ago.
Of course there are differences. People live in other climates and cultures, they are the inheritors of other religions and ethnicities. In spite of this, the inhabitants of the slums of Sao Paulo, Manila, Dhaka or Manila suffer the same want and insecurity which were characteristic of our own workers. People are always poor in the same way. Hunger, insufficiency, sickness know nothing of cultural difference, but torment the body of Hindu, animist, Nigerian and Burmese in an identical fashion.
And with the spread of the market economy to virtually every country on earth, the strategies for survival on which they rely show an extraordinary convergence. The workers in the spinning mills and weaving-sheds of Jakarta are subject to the same evils that shaped the sensibility of the working class in Britain - wages below subsistence, brutal overseers, long hours of labour, absence of social benefits, effective denial of the right to combine.
The children working in the markets of the Cut and the Brill in Victorian London, the mudlarks scavenging among the coal-barges on the Thames, the little serving-maids incarcerated in attics at the top of three-storey town houses, have their identical counterparts in the street-children earning a few opportunistic rupees in the markets of Mumbai, the children who, deprived of all possessions except a pair of ragged pants, who live on the river terminal of Dhaka, the maidservants imprisoned behind the ornamental grilles of villas in the Rio suburbs.
It is precisely this creation, elsewhere, of our own past, that ought to make us pause and wonder at the nature of our own transformation, the sunny conflict-free consensus of New Labour, with its undeniable insistence that the world has changed. It has indeed. Yet it remains eerily the same.
And how easy it is to reconcile oneself to the sufferings of others; how readily we accommodate the exported misery, the distant wrongs and evils which have been displaced from our immediate experience! How eager we are to take credit for our own good fortune, and how unwilling to reflect on the basis on which it is constructed, how secure it may be, whether or not it can last!
The daily life of the city-dwellers of Asia is more like that of 19th century London than that of Manchester. These are not, on the whole, single-industry cities, even though in Dhaka, garment factories now employ almost one million, mainly young, women. But for the most part, it is the images of Mayhew and Booth which prefigure the daily existence of the street-vendors, the beggars, the waste-collectors, those who manage to create for themselves some precarious livelihood in the already overcrowded city economy.
The majority of the people - like those in the industrial cities of the North in the early decades of the 19th century - are overwhelmingly recent country-dwellers, and they bring with them vestiges of an archaic peasant psyche, memories of subsistence and an exchange-economy not based upon the calculus of the global market. They are employed in the informal sector, as was the case with London or Liverpool, rather than the great concentrations of industrial labour of Leeds, Glasgow or Manchester. In Calcutta or Nairobi, most of the workers are not in sweat-shops sub-contracted to the transnationals, but are in small workshops, employed by local companies for the home market; they provide some service for the rich, or they exist on the leavings of the classes above them.
But this does not mean that their relation to the global rich is any different from that in which we stood towards our sometime betters in the recent past. Quite the contrary. Globalisation has involved the creation of a global working class; not by any means homogeneous, but fragmented, involving a high proportion of women, covering a vast range of activities sub-contracted, sub-sub-contracted, whose only unity lies in that they are called into an existence by the integrating power of global privilege.
The disparate peoples of the earth are increasingly called into the service of global wealth-creation; and the most conspicuous beneficiaries of this proces are precisely the former working class in the West. No wonder we are always being invited to accept at face value the changed realities that have brought our good fortune, an invitation to avoidance which New Labour has elevated into high principle.
It is this relationship - between the harsh visitations of industrialism then and now - which has been obscured by all the tendentious and hyperbolic urgency over 'modernisation', 'radical change', the 'information revolution'. There is no market for any serious appraisal of global injustice, since we have benefited spectacularly from it; only slowly and hesitantly during the colonial period, but in a highly systematic and institutionalised way since the ostensible end of imperialism, and at a much accelerated tempo since the death of the Soviet Union.
According to the Financial Times, in 1820 the ratio in living standards between the very richest and poorest countries in the world was about three to one. By 1913, this ratio had risen to 11 to one; by 1950 it was 35 to one. It is now more than 70 to one.
The origins of this model of global development are not obscure. It was pioneered by the USA and Britain, and represents the great compromise between capital and labour, the social peace that was predicated on the promise that the poor may become less poor if the rich are permitted to become richer and richer in perpetuity. It is this idea which has now been embodied in the principles of globalisation.
The neo-liberal moment of the Thatcher-Reagan era was no such thing; it represented merely the entrenchment of Western dominance of the world, its capacity to cancel alternatives and to institutionalise existing patterns of power and control. According to the theory, it is only by the creation of wealth (and not, of course, any wealth, but wealth measured in money), untrammelled by government interference, that the poor can ever hope to be lifted out of their wretched secular misery.
Many comforting myths are at hand to gain the support of the former Western working class for this view of the world. Of course the seven million child workers of Bangladesh suffer; naturally the people living on rubbish-heaps, in crumbling tenements, in bamboo houses on stilts driven into polluted waters, in hovels of polythene and plywood and other industrial detritus, present a pitiful and regrettable spectacle.
This may all the more readily be justified by the conviction that, after all, this is what we went through in the early industrial period. Our recognition of the samenesses and echoes of our own experience serve, not to horrify and revolt us, but to perceive all this merely as a stage of development, a necessary phase in the process of growing rich which will eventually raise those people to the levels of consumption enjoyed by a majority in the West.
Yet the improvements won by the people of the West were achieved only by the fiercest struggle and sacrifice; struggles that have been de-legitimised by globalisation, where a dispersed and fragmented working class across national boundaries is set in competition for even the most degrading and ill-paid labour. The paradox that everything is changed yet nothing is changed, is the contradiction that haunts the conflict between Old Labour and New Labour.
The need for continuing struggle and fight for social justice has not gone away - it is simply that the actors are different, and have become unrecognisable to those who were once at the centre of these efforts. We have indeed benefited from the growing inequality of the world; and if the former working class in the West know how to react to the unfavoured of the earth, this is because we were for so long on the receiving end of responses and attitudes which we are now sufficiently privileged to turn upon those unfortunates who did not have the wisdom to be born rich, or white, which more or less comes to the same thing.
To dwell in denial and unknowing is a seductive and comfortable posture, which few resist. Life is so short. There is so much to do. You can't change the world; indeed, we can scarcely even understand it any more. Get a life, even if it means depriving distant unseen others of theirs. - Third World Network Features
About the writer: Jeremy Seabrook is an author and freelance journalist based in London.
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