Welcome to the third post in our #7CheapThings blog series! Raj Patel & Jason W. Moore’s A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things focuses on seven areas that are the foundation of modern commerce: nature, money, work, care, food, energy, and lives. How has the cheapening of these things made the world safe for capitalism? Follow along to find out.
The concept of cheap work can be traced back to Christopher Columbus and Spanish and Portuguese usage of slaves on sugar plantations, and is far from gone in today’s society:
The appropriation—really, a kind of ongoing theft—of the unpaid work of “women, nature and colonies” is the fundamental condition of the exploitation of labor power in the commodity system. You can’t have one without the other. When we talk of cheap work, then, we’re getting at the ways that capitalism sets in motion not just human work and not just agriculture and resources—but how they fit together, and the relations that bind human and extrahuman work at every turn.
As Edward Thompson observes, the governance of time follows a particular logic: “in mature capitalist society all time must be consumed, marketed, put to use; it is offensive for the labour force merely to ‘pass the time.’ ” The connection of specific activities to larger productive goals didn’t allow for time theft, and the discipline of the clock was enforced by violence across the planet.
As such, the cheapening of work continues today, albeit under a different guise than several centuries prior. With wages stagnating and hours increasing, current labor conditions benefit capitalism with a cheap and disposable work force. To help understand our current labor climate, we’ve selected a few books from our list that shed light on this issue and offer some solutions.
Precarious Creativity: Global Media, Local Labor edited by Michael Curtin and Kevin Sanson
This pathbreaking anthology peeks behind the hype and supposed glamor of screen media industries to reveal the intensifying pressures and challenges confronting actors, editors, electricians, and others. It examines working conditions and organizing efforts on all six continents, offering broad-ranging and comprehensive analysis of contemporary screen media labor in such places as Lagos, Prague, Hollywood, and Hyderabad. The collection also examines labor conditions across a range of job categories that includes, for example, visual effects, production services, and adult entertainment.
For more than a century, accounts of progress in the West foregrounded the technological feats performed while canals and railroads were built and lionized the capitalists who financed the projects. This book salvages stories often omitted from the triumphant narrative of progress by focusing on the suffering and survival of the workers who were treated as outsiders. Ryan tells the story of the immigrants and Americans—the Irish, Chinese, Mormons, and native-born citizens—whose labor created the West’s infrastructure and turned the nation’s dreams of a continental empire into a reality.
The Big Rig: Trucking and the Decline of the American Dream by Steve Viscelli
Long-haul trucks have been described as sweatshops on wheels. The typical long-haul trucker works the equivalent of two full-time jobs, often for little more than minimum wage. But it wasn’t always this way. Trucking used to be one of the best working-class jobs in the United States. The Big Rig explains how this massive degradation in the quality of work has occurred, and how companies achieve a compliant and dedicated workforce despite it. The author outlines how deregulation and collective action by employers transformed trucking’s labor markets–once dominated by the largest and most powerful union in US history–into an important example of the costs of contemporary labor markets for workers and the general public.
Scratching Out a Living: Latinos, Race, and Work in the Deep Southby Angela Steusse
This book takes readers deep into Mississippi’s chicken processing plants and communities, where large numbers of Latin American migrants were recruited in the mid-1990s to labor alongside an established African American workforce in some of the most dangerous and lowest-paid jobs in the country. As America’s voracious appetite for chicken has grown, so has the industry’s reliance on immigrant workers, whose structural position makes them particularly vulnerable to exploitation.
Invisible Labor: Hidden Work in the Contemporary World edited by Marion Crain, Winifred Poster, and Miriam Cherry
Across the world, workers labor without pay for the benefit of profitable businesses—and it’s legal. Labor trends like outsourcing and technology hide some workers, and branding and employer mandates erase others. Invisible workers who remain under-protected by wage laws include retail workers who function as walking billboards and take payment in clothing discounts or prestige; waitstaff at “breastaurants” who conform their bodies to a business model; and inventory stockers at grocery stores who go hungry to complete their shifts. Invisible Labor gathers essays by prominent sociologists and legal scholars to illuminate how and why such labor has been hidden from view.
Sewing Hope: How One Factory Challenges the Apparel Industry’s Sweatshops by Sarah Adler-Milstein and John Kline
Sewing Hope offers the first account of a bold challenge to apparel-industry sweatshops. The Alta Gracia factory in the Dominican Republic is the anti-sweatshop. It boasts a living wage three times the legal minimum, high health and safety standards, and a legitimate union—all verified by an independent monitor. It is the only apparel factory in the global south to meet these criteria. The Alta Gracia business model represents an alternative to the industry’s usual race-to-the-bottom model with its inherent poverty wages and unsafe factory conditions. Workers’ stories reveal how adding US$0.90 to a sweatshirt’s production price can change lives: from getting a life-saving operation to a reunited family; from purchasing children’s school uniforms to taking night classes; from obtaining first-ever bank loans to installing running water.
Raj Patel is an award-winning writer, activist and academic. He is a Research Professor in the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, Austin and a Senior Research Associate at the Unit for the Humanities at Rhodes University. He is the author of Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System and The Value of Nothing.