Towards the end of the first chapter of James Cairns and Alan Sears’ “The Democratic Imagination,” the authors describe the application of the globalised paradigm of neoliberal capitalism through the spread of westernized systems of democracy. Regarding the opportunity for development of greater political stability in Libya in 2011, Barack Obama noted “even as we promote political reform and human rights in the region, our efforts cannot stop there. So the second way that we must support positive change in the region is through our efforts to advance economic development for nations that transition to democracy” (21).
Cairns and Sears temper Obama’s purported motives of selfless intent with perspectives of economists who point out that the advancement of democracy internationally also provides supportive conditions for self-interested western nations to increase their GDP by means of increased export, bolstered by stable and reliable governmental institutions including courts, an independent judiciary, and rule of law (21). In addition, although economic development in the form of industrialization allegedly leads to greater quality of life for citizens in impoverished nations, it also conveniently alleviates the responsibility of more prosperous western nations to provide foreign aid, whether directly or through contributions to the United Nations or other NGOs.
An example of a case study that illustrates the damage of an emphasis on capitalist democratic politics to the detriment of liberal human rights (or really any structure which could be called “ethical”) is the garment industry in the Global South. No longer called the “third world”, the Global South has been collectively redefined as “developing” or “underdeveloped” countries. The self-centeredness and egocentrism underlying the agenda of western nations in their overseas promotion of democracy becomes apparent when one asks whose definition of “development” is being prioritized. For example, Jeff Noonan discusses the life-blindness of money-value growth as measured by quantifiable data such as GDP that conceals the practically unrestrained environmental damage caused by capitalistic economic growth (142). This is especially true in the global south where industry regulations can vary from being loosely enforced to practically nonexistent. Simply put, it is more convenient for western nations if the environmental degradation inherent in modern industrial practices is relegated in the far-off global south. In relation to the textile and garment industries, the amount of chemical waste and polluted water and air is enormous, with the World Bank estimating that the textile industry alone produces 20 per cent of all global industrial water pollution. Such an emphasis on “development” conceals the fact that such practices are not authentically in the best interest of said nations’ inhabitants.
Solutions for sustainable economic growth and local development which respect the integrity of the environment and human rights are considered impossible to implement if the residents of the Global South are to progress towards experiencing the same quality of life as westerners. That is, quality of life as defined by access to a wide range of goods and services produced by a competitive local market or imported from the west, particularly consumerist domestic goods like cosmetics, clothing, food, and entertainment. The cultural propaganda promoted within the content of such goods further reinforces narratives of the prestige of western democracy. Thus, a common-sense western style of thinking dictates that the only option available for “developing” nations is industrialization since it opens additional avenues for export, reinforces the legitimacy and prestige of democracy, and prevents environmental damage from taking place within the borders of western nations.
Another benefit of western “development” is increased access to the inexpensive and easily exploited labour force of the Global South, which arguably has an even greater impact on its respective societies than environmental degradation. In the garment industry, women primarily dominate the workforce due to structural issues of patriarchy worldwide. Capitalist practices of ruthless exploitation in the garment industry add to the oppression by further subordinating them, especially in Muslim countries such as Bangladesh where women are conditioned to not have a voice.
On a personal note, I’ve had the privilege of doing some research and writing on the topic of the female-dominated workforce in the textile and garment industry since the Rana Plaza collapse in Dhaka in 2013. I have talked at length with friends and family regarding the inhumane practices that are entrenched in the labour system due to a lack of international intervention for the promotion and securing of workers’ rights. I’ve noticed when sharing information regarding the desperate working conditions of garment labourers that there is a point at which individuals tend to reach “maximum saturation,” indicated by a glazing of the eyes. I’m guessing that this indicates that the individual is either overwhelmed with the horror of it all and is experiencing feelings of hopelessness, or, that they’re apathetic and don’t desire to have their belief system challenged regarding the westerner’s entitlement to cheap and disposable clothing. Westerners have become accustomed to having access to inexpensive, disposable clothing for so long without asking questions or thinking about it critically that it’s become part of the cultural narrative.
On the topic of the conflation of life-value and money-value in capitalism, Noonan writes:
the money-value system is the ruling value-system of liberal-democratic capitalist society. As the ruling value-system it is the ultimate basis of legitimacy of both public policy and individual choice...This instrumentalization of life requirements and capacities is the basic structure of ethical harm in liberal-democratic capitalist societies. Where policy and people mistake the growth of life-value for the growth of money-value, they can support policies or make decisions in their own lives which reduce life-value but increase money-value without noticing the loss of life-value” (144).
The money-value system as the ultimate basis of legitimacy for individual choice is illustrated by the fact that I can purchase an exceptionally cute cream-coloured boho-inspired peasant top at H&M for $15 and not worry about it if it just sits in my closet or I throw it out because it’s so cheap. I would argue that “cheapness” is the guiding rule for purchasing upheld by the vast majority of western consumers, and not whether the person who constructed the garment received a fair wage or worked in conditions that were reasonable. I make this observation (at least on behalf of those who identify as women) based on the outrageous success of fast-fashion retailers such as H&M, Joe Fresh, Forever 21, Zara, Charlotte Russe, Bershka, Primark, Topshop, Uniqlo, etc. But if cheapness is the only ethical standard informing our habits of consumerism, by extension, we are also making judgments regarding the value of labour for the individual who produced the garment, and ultimately, of their life-value (or lack thereof).
Following the Rana Plaza disaster in 2013, subsequent collapses and fires happened in Bangladesh in other factories, bringing some much-needed international media attention to some of the worker’s rights deficits in the nation. Information on the complex situation of the garment industry is becoming harder to avoid, which means that hypothetically, the consumption patterns of fast-fashion shoppers should be evidencing development of an ethical conscience in alignment with increased awareness. Following the 2013 disasters in Bangladesh, however, the fast fashion industry had its most successful year ever.
So why do westerners abandon residents of the global south to their dreary futures? In my estimation, it’s because of underlying beliefs of entitlement to western privilege based on imperialism. If I were to translate this statement into a mathematical equation in order to depict this relationship in the reductionistic quantitative terms typically appropriated by capitalism, I estimate that it would look like this:
Whereas w = white people and b = brown people, w > b
Although, to make the equation more accurate, there could be a number of variables that contribute to structures of consumption fostered by western privilege. Perhaps individuals feel that the west is entitled to reward itself for having attained a certain standard of living, or that they’re helping people in “developing” nations to obtain a higher standard of living, or perhaps they live under a rock and are not aware of the media attention that has been paid to Bangladesh in the past few years, or perhaps they are simply wilfully ignorant and refuse to acknowledge their role in a system that has and assuredly will continue to contribute to a system of human oppression. Regardless, I think it would be appropriate for the international sphere to quit prioritizing western interests by labelling the global south a region of “developing” or “underdeveloped” nations, and use the more fitting label of “nations vulnerable to exploitation” or perhaps “habitually exploited nations.”
At the domestic level, I repeat the words of Lenin in asking, “what is to be done?” Bangladeshi workers who survived the tragedies of 2013 and were asked for solutions to the problem simply encouraged westerners to continue to purchase Bangladesh-made garments. At the same time, a BBC documentary shot after the Rana Plaza disaster in 2013 recorded a male factory worker as saying, “after five hours of sleeping, in the morning we have to get up at 5. My mind doesn't want to do this, brother. This, in fact, is inhuman. Compelled, we are compelled. We are prisoners. We have to come." Another documentary produced by the Australian Broadcasting Company in 2013 reported that there had been 43 factory fires in the past 18 months. A Globe and Mail article from October 2013 reported that according to a national safety assessment performed by Bangladeshi engineers, approximately 90 per cent of Bangladesh’s garment factories are structurally unsound.
The vast majority of textile and garment TNCs are well aware of the working conditions in Bangladesh but are unwilling to reinforce the vast changes needed to systems of labor through firsthand on-the-ground checks that ensure appropriate standards of building safety and labour practices. A few have signed on to organizations such as the Bangladesh Fire and Safety Accord (BFSA), which provides a minimal structure of accountability by ensuring the structural stability and fire-preparedness of factories. The Joe Fresh brand, which was heavily implicated in the Rana Plaza disaster for having subcontracted an order to the factory, resisted responsibility for weeks after the disaster, despite Joe Fresh clothing items being strewn about the wreckage. They eventually signed on to the BFSA. Minimal-intervention organizations don’t address numerous other continued violations of worker’s rights such as denial of work breaks, forced over-time, lack of access to plumbing facilities and running water, lack of ventilation, sexual harassment of women by male co-workers and overseers, and so on. Perhaps, however, the evidence of a few fast-fashion companies signing on to the BFSA following the media blitz is a hopeful sign that collective action in the form of consumer pressure can produce change that moves in the direction of respecting the rights of workers.
My own solution has been to purchase everything I need or want from local second-hand shops. I work at a consignment store, which makes it much easier for me to find what I need. If I can’t find said items locally through the second-hand market, I try to find a product that’s made in a country where ethical standards of labour are enforced, such as in North America or Europe. I’ve written to a few companies to tell them that I think they have ethical responsibilities that need to be fulfilled or to tell them that I appreciate them joining organizations such as the BFSA. I figure the BFSA is better than nothing - it’s a start. Despite the pleas of Bangladeshi garment workers to continue buying Bangladesh-made clothing, I don’t buy “fast fashion” anymore. I recognize that for garment industry workers, this industry is their livelihood, but I’m also extremely reticent to support an industry that places individuals in such a difficult double-bind (you can be a working slave and make a tiny amount of money, or you can be unemployed and be free but possibly starve) and causes emotional anguish because of its oppressive practices.
I would rather advocate for change through letter writing and spreading awareness rather than directly feeding into a system that ruthlessly exploits. On that topic, I was thinking today about how I used to revel in my victory as a fashion hunter when I found a pair of basic black pants by Joe Fresh on the clearance rack at Superstore for a measly $3. I’d reminisce with my woman friends about my “thrill of the find” and that I managed to get several years of use out of them. It only dawned on me today as I started to write this piece - talk about western privilege. An actual human being with as much intrinsic worth and as much capacity to feel and think as myself may have died for me to wear those $3 pants.