Actually yes, do keep it personal

Posted: February 26, 2013 in Consumer campaigns
3D TV static

3D TV static (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The early advocates of universal literacy and a free press … did not foresee what in fact has happened, above all in our Western capitalist democracies – the development of a vast mass communications industry, concerned in the main neither with the true nor the false, but with the unreal, the more or less totally irrelevant. In a word, they failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.

-Aldous Huxley, Brave New World Revisited (1958)

I was thinking more about the “Boomerang” theory of activism, which relies on getting results through media embarassment (see earlier post).

If you think about it, it’s inherently limited.

Realistically there is only so much airtime that the media is going to give to labour issues. Have a look at this infographic to see what I mean. Labour rights stories rarely make glamorous news, unless they are tragic.

There’s only space for one labour rights story at any given time. A few weeks ago it was Foxconn. Before that it was the Bangladesh factory fire. Before that it was the Pakistan factory fire. These factories represent a drop in the ocean. It just underscores the difficulty of ‘scaling up’ advances in labour rights.

Maverick social critic Ivan Illich was on to this decades ago. He asked people to take a hard look in the mirror: What is it that you are trying to accomplish? Do you want to “fix” things permanently? Why? He called this the ‘soft underbelly’ of delusions of power.

Institutions of public health and education are, he said, the empty husks of the formerly Christian values of Western society, trying to make things better but no longer wanting to make any personal contact with their beneficiaries. I suspect that he would include labour regulations on that list.

I visibly encountered what he meant when I visited an aboriginal settlement in Australia’s Northern Territory some years ago. The largest building in town was the “CDEP” shed (the acronym stands for Community Development Employment Projects). It contained every imaginable kind of building or farming tool, up to and including articulated motorised diggers. It was all provided free by the Australian Government in a kind of guilty reparation for taking the aborigines’ land without compensation all those years ago. And it was all sitting there unused. People don’t put a value on free gifts.

You can pay people to work, but you can’t pay them to care

Similarly if labour advances are brought about by distant organisations that are not in touch with the beneficiaries, then who are they really for? The results will inevitably evaporate as they are not used. Advances won by public relations and legal means do not, on their own, represent a victory; the victory is the winning of respect.

The workers who’ve migrated from rural areas to manufacturing districts aren’t doing it so they can have lives filled with ‘things’, they just want to contribute to their families and gain dignity and respect along the way. When I glance around the train carriage, though, and see the number of people looking at their little glowing screens I sometimes wonder who is free and who is enslaved.

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  1. Thank you so much for this post! I so related to this, as a labor organizer AND a media critic. I wrote a piece on what is wrong with the American media that you might enjoy:

    I will save this for a piece I am writing about why it is that people aren’t made to ‘look’ about the horror of labor injustice, thank you!

  2. […] I wrote about Illich’s ideas in this post. […]

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