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Feature Story June 26, 2003
 
Elite versus Elitny
By Mark Ames Browse author Email
 
Page 2 of 9
 
Wal-Mart is one of the few bones with a little meat on it that America throws to its tens of millions of lower-middle and semi-middle classes. Goods that once may have been unattainable are now attainable, almost free, thanks to union busting, employee abuse, Third World slave labor, the destruction of over-priced ma and pa stores, the homogenization of Middle America and every other horrible sin. When I said "Fuck 'em," I didn't mean it in the sense that I'd turned coat and gone right-populist like some David Horowitz. I just meant that I needed those cheap dishes. And I understood how, from the point of view of the economically struggling millions, you could mistrust and loathe all the natty left-wing intellectuals, all the rasta-haired, chin-studded anti-consumerists who want to steal that one bone that you've been given: access to goods. Goods that allow you to keep from slipping down yet another terrifying notch on America's cruel socio-economic fortress walls. You may not have health insurance, job security or a pension, but if you have goods, even inferior imitations of Crate & Barrel, then at least you're not entirely out of the picture.

Which brings me back to my Old Navy shopping spree in early January. I'll admit, as much as I loathe shopping, that was a glorious day for bargains. My boxers, which I hadn't replaced in years, were in tatters. I bought several new pairs for $3 each. New pants: $19. Socks for a couple of dollars. And sweaters for $12. The store that day was full, but I was the only white person. Mostly young Latino couples and a few blacks.

The tags on the $12 sweaters said "Made in Indonesia."

Sweat-shop labor. Multinational. The Gap (Old Navy's parent company). Shopping malls. All the reasons why such authentically middle-class-quality clothes were available for lower-middle-class prices. This, I realized, is The Gap's strategy: use globalization to make middle-class clothes available to the lower classes at Old Navy; solid middle to upper-middle class-type clothes clothes at struggling middle-class prices at The Gap; and yuppie/upper-middle-class-level clothing at solid middle-class prices at its "high-end" store, Banana Republic. Each offers you an affordable and real climb up the socio-economic ladder. Like Wal-Mart.

Here a cruel and almost funny cycle revealed itself. Think about it. The $12 sweater in the Old Navy bin is made by grossly underpaid Indonesian sweatshop workers. Their exploitation allows me and the Latinos to stock up on nice sweaters for prices far less in real terms than these sweaters might have cost a decade ago. But the exploitation also feeds the resentment against America that draws Indonesians towards Islamic extremism. That extremism feeds terrorism, which leads to America's military response: war. The war is fought predominantly by America's underclass -- the very people who shop at Old Navy, the very people who benefit from the sweatshop labor that produced the terrorism that drew them back onto the battlefield.

Another nasty cycle: the multinationals move factories out of America due to its high labor costs, thereby adding to the bottom half's increasing poverty and wage stagnation in order to further enrich the shareholders, America's thin upper layer. Production of goods is sub-contracted out to a factory in Indonesia which pays its employees pennies and offers no benefits or protections. The Indonesian slave labor camp ships its sweaters to Old Navy stores across America at prices cheap enough for the increasingly impoverished American working class to afford. This is how the nasty effects of globalization are masked: Ralph may lose his job at the factory, but the wages he makes at his temp work are enough to keep him afloat, and the cheap Third -World-produced goods just affordable enough to keep him from being completely disenfranchised.

The lower wages/cheaper goods cycle will continue to work so long as there is mass poverty and misery in the Southern hemisphere, meaning that goods produced there and sold back to the downsized Americans will continue to drop in price in sync with the downward-pushed wages. If all goes well, that is. This downward push on wages is the shareholding class's biggest advantage: it can shut any factory down at any time and always find a cheaper, more exploitable place; or it can hang that threat over any existing factory's head in order to force concessions out of it: reduce wages, dismantle unions and strip benefits from its workers, so that they produce goods which other downsized workers can afford.


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Ames
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Email Mark Ames at editor@exile.ru.
 
 
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