Nicholas Kristof, Joan
Robinson and sweatshops
Posted to www.marxmail.org on June 6, 2006
I imagine that most people who read the NY Times op-ed
page--a chore if there ever was one--might not make the connection between the
pull-quote that appears in Nicholas Kristof's 6/06
defense of sweatshops and the leftwing economist who first articulated it:
"What's worse than being exploited? Not being
We are speaking here of course of Joan Robinson, whose
general political and economic views could not be further apart from Kristof's. Indeed, the quote does not seem to appear in any
of her writings but was something that she stated in her lectures from time to
time. Michael Meerpol, the economist son of Julius
and Ethel Rosenberg and someone much more in sympathy with Robinson than Kristof, once wrote the following on PEN-L, a mailing list for
I don't have a cite but it's not
apocryphal. Joan Robinson made that comment orally a number of times --- both
in conversation and in lectures. The first (and only specific) memory I have of
that was in the context of discussing rural poverty in places like India, etc.
--- where she said many people on the scene told her that the only real
solution for massive rural poverty in overpopulated regions was
"capitalist agriculture" --- and then she went on to state, "the
only thing worse than being exploited, is not to be exploited!"
If there are written cites, I don't know about them.
Cheers, Mike -- Mike Meeropol
The opening sentence of Kristof's
op-ed piece is meant to startle the reader:
needs Western help in the form of schools, clinics and sweatshops."
in his pith-helmet, Kristof discusses the misfortune
of a group of construction workers who cannot get regular work. According to
him, "they would vastly prefer steady jobs in, yes, sweatshops."
Well, whatever. Mr. Kristof seems
to have a real knack for eliciting the truth out of the natives, namely that
they hunger after low-paying jobs for Western corporations. One can't imagine
anybody channeling these construction workers better--except Thomas Friedman of
course who has never seen a sweatshop he didn't like.
Some things are true even though Phil Knight, the
chairman of Nike, believes them.
Mr. Knight recently made news by suddenly withdrawing a
contemplated $30 million gift to the University
of Oregon after the university balked
at joining a coalition -- the Fair Labor Association (F.L.A.) -- that was
formed by human rights groups, colleges, the U.S. government and companies such
as Nike to alleviate global sweatshop conditions. Oregon opted to join an
alternative group being pushed on college campuses, the Worker Rights
Consortium (W.R.C.), which also plans to combat sweatshops, but refuses to
cooperate with any companies, such as Nike.
The natural assumption is that Mr. Knight is wrong. The
truth is, Nike has a shameful past when it comes to
tolerating sweatshops. But on the question of how best to remedy those
conditions in the future -- which Nike has now agreed to do -- Mr. Knight is dead
right and Oregon
(NY Times, June 20, 2000)
The infatuation with sweatshops on the NY Times op-ed page
even extends to Paul Krugman, the liberal icon who
really differs little from Thomas Friedman when it comes to a belief in the benefits
of low-wage coolie labor. Basically, Krugman wrote a
column identical to Kristof's on April 22, 2001:
There is an old European saying: anyone who is not a
socialist before he is 30 has no heart; anyone who is still a socialist after
he is 30 has no head. Suitably updated, this applies perfectly to the movement
against globalization -- the movement that made its big splash in Seattle back in 1999 and is doing its best to disrupt the Summit of the Americas
in Quebec City
The facts of globalization are not always pretty. If you
buy a product made in a third-world country, it was produced by workers who are
paid incredibly little by Western standards and probably work under awful
conditions. Anyone who is not bothered by those facts, at least some of the time, has no heart.
But that doesn't mean the demonstrators are right. On the
contrary: anyone who thinks that the answer to world poverty is simple outrage
against global trade has no head -- or chooses not to use it. The
anti-globalization movement already has a remarkable track record of hurting
the very people and causes it claims to champion.
The most spectacular example was last year's election.
You might say that because people with no heads indulged their idealism by
voting for Ralph Nader, people with no hearts are running the world's most
Even when political action doesn't backfire, when the
movement gets what it wants, the effects are often startlingly malign. For example, could anything be worse than having
children work in sweatshops? Alas, yes. In 1993, child workers in Bangladesh were
found to be producing clothing for Wal-Mart, and Senator Tom Harkin proposed
legislation banning imports from countries employing underage workers. The
direct result was that Bangladeshi textile factories stopped employing
children. But did the children go back to school? Did they return to happy
homes? Not according to Oxfam, which found that the displaced child workers
ended up in even worse jobs, or on the streets -- and that a significant number
were forced into prostitution.
So, you get the picture. It is better to get crumbs from the
table than nothing at all. Of course, well-fed bourgeois ideologists like Kristof, Friedman and Krugman
could never imagine that there are alternatives to super-exploitation and
To begin with, Namibia has other sources of wealth
besides a pool of cheap labor that a Nike can exploit. It is endowed with many
different minerals, including diamonds. That Kristof
can omit any reference to these natural resources suggests a combination of
ignorance and bad faith.
The Southern African Development Community website informs
us: "Namibia produces gem quality diamonds, uranium, copper, lead, zinc,
arsenic, cadmium, antimony, pyrite, silver, gold, semi-precious stones,
industrial minerals and dimension stone." Furthermore, "Namibia
is one of the largest producers of gem quality diamonds with around 98 percent
of production being gem quality." One imagines that diamonds can generate
a better standard of living than the wage you get for making athletic shoes for
Wal-Mart on an assembly line.
However, it is foreign companies who own the means of
production in Namibia,
like the South African De Beers Corporation. De Beers's
Elizabeth Bay Mine in Namibia
produces about 110,000 carats/year. At $300 per carat, that's 33 million
dollars a year. Multiply that by all the other mining, copper, uranium, silver
and gold operations in Namibia
and you are dealing with serious money, much more serious than sewing together
play clothes for tots.
To my knowledge, this is Kristof's
first foray into Thomas Friedman's territory. He has spent the better part of a
year beating the drums for intervention in Darfur,
for which he has earned the Pulitzer Prize. Since my employer hands out these
prizes each year, I tend to be a bit more jaded. The President of Columbia
University is President of the Pulitzer board that also includes such
luminaries as Thomas Friedman, who is infamous for having stated that:
"The hidden hand of the market will never work without
the hidden fistMcDonald's cannot flourish without
McDonnell Douglas, the designer of the F-15. And the hidden fist that keeps the
world safe for Silicon Valley's technologies
is called the United States Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps."
But one wonders in light of Kristof's
hymn to sweatshops whether there might be a connection to Friedman's more
openly mercenary understanding of how the dollar and the bullet intersect. Could
this insufferable moralizing prig be possibly be more
interested in corporate profits than he is in missionary-style rescues?
For an answer to this, I'd recommend John Bellamy Foster's
article in the current Monthly Review, which does a really good job of
describing the emerging strategic interests of US
imperialism in Africa--especially in regions
that are the focus of Cruise Missile liberals like Kristof.
In "A Warning to Africa: The New U.S.
Imperial Grand Strategy," Foster writes:
Here the flag is following trade: the major U.S. and
Western oil corporations are all scrambling for West African oil and demanding
security. The U.S. militarys European Command, the Wall Street Journal
reported in its April 25th issue, is also working with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to expand the role of U.S. corporations in Africa as part of an
response. In this economic scramble for Africas
petroleum resources the old colonial powers, Britain
and France, are in
competition with the United
States. Militarily, however, they are
working closely with the United
States to secure Western imperial control of
military buildup in Africa is frequently justified as necessary both to fight
terrorism and to counter growing instability in the oil region of Sub-Saharan Africa. Since 2003 Sudan
has been torn by civil war and ethnic conflict focused on its southwestern Darfur region (where much of the countrys
oil is located), resulting in innumerable human rights violations and mass killings
by government-linked militia forces against the population of the region.
Attempted coups recently occurred in the new petrostates
of S㯠Tom頡nd Principe (2003) and Equatorial Guinea
(2004). Chad, which is run by a brutally oppressive regime shielded by a
security and intelligence apparatus backed by the United States, also
experienced an attempted coup in 2004. A successful coup took place in Mauritania in
2005 against U.S.-supported strongman Ely Ould
Mohamed Taya. Angolas
three-decade-long civil warinstigated and fueled by
the United States, which together with South Africa organized the terrorist
army under Jonas Savimbis UNITAlasted
until the ceasefire following Savimbis death in 2002.
Nigeria, the regional hegemon, is rife with
corruption, revolts, and organized oil theft, with considerable portions of oil
production in the Niger Delta region being siphoned offup
to 300,000 barrels a day in early 2004.16 The rise of armed insurgency in the
Niger Delta and the potential of conflict between the Islamic north and
non-Islamic south of the country are major U.S. concerns.
Hence there are incessant calls and no lack of seeming
justifications for U.S.
humanitarian interventions in Africa. The
Council on Foreign Relations report More than Humanitarianism insists that the
United States and its allies must be ready to take appropriate action in Darfur
in Sudan including sanctions and, if necessary, military intervention, if the
Security Council is blocked from doing so. Meanwhile the notion that the U.S. military might before long need to
intervene in Nigeria
is being widely floated among pundits and in policy circles. Atlantic Monthly
correspondent Jeffrey Taylor wrote in April 2006 that Nigeria has become the
largest failed state on earth, and that a further destabilization of that
state, or its takeover by radical Islamic forces, would endanger the abundant
oil reserves that America
has vowed to protect. Should that day come, it would herald a military
intervention far more massive than the Iraqi campaign.
Returning to Joan Robinson, whatever she thought about the
need to be exploited, there are still the overarching concerns that she brought
to her economic writings and lectures, which--to repeat myself--are about as
far from the Nicholas Kristof's of the world as can
be imagined. Let's turn to her own words as a reminder of where she stood:
"The United States
record in Western Asia and Latin America
follows the same pattern. The good, well-meaning individuals [like Kristof, giving him the benefit of the doubt] sent out to
aid underdeveloped countries are in a false position (as, by the way, many of
them admit) because the object of the operation is not to aid the people there
to develop, but to keep reactionary governments in power."
(The Chinese Point of View, International Affairs, April