Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Agony and Ecstasy of Maoism Meeting Mindless Consumerism

I just saw Mike Daisey's funny/sad opus, The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.

Seattle Repertory Theater had a sardines-packed-in-a-can vibe. My seat was smack dab up against one of the theater tech's work stations. But for over two hours, Daisey was a dynamo of brilliance on stage.

Most people by now know the gist of the play -- Daisey, a life-long computer geek and die-hard Apple fan -- recounts his ups and downs worshiping at the altar of Mac and his intrepid visit to the monolithic FoxConn factory in Shenzhen, China where workers literally kill themselves making iPods and iPhones for consumers in North America and the rest of the western world.

With stand-up comedic humor and a keen perspective on social trends, Daisey verbally bounces back and forth in time between his earliest experiences with computers to the horrific revelation of what life is like for the modern factory worker in China. He recounts interviews with 14-year-old workers who have crippling arthritis in their hands from thousands of hours spent polishing iPods. People who make iPads literally don't have the dexterity to use them, and anyway, no one in China can afford to buy one.

This play got me thinking about my Dad. In 1987, he was one of couple dozen US attorneys who traveled with then AG, Edwin Meese, to China for the Joint Session on Trade, Investment, and Economic Law. Supposedly they went under the auspices of helping then still mostly Communist China to "westernize" their court system. Although, maybe Meese just wanted to compare notes with Chinese censors?

Anyhoo, I don't know if it really worked. I mean, Tiananmen Square happened just a few years later and today people are still in prison in China for protesting. The Chinese government also imprisons practitioners of Falun Gong and harvests their organs (when they're not encasing them in plastic so their remains can go on tour in the US). Also, being from the Tibet province in China really sucks. If you're Tibetan, just speaking your own language can get you thrown in prison.

My Dad made a point of recounting to me (I was 23) how ridiculously hard young Chinese people worked. He mentioned one young man who worked 10-hour shifts in a Beijing restaurant and then skipped off to his other job in the bowels of a factory some where. Then my Dad gave me the Critical Look. (Several years later I took a job as a wildland firefighter and worked 10 to 16-hour shifts fighting wildfires in insane conditions. I know, lazy me!)

My Dad was from the WWII generation. The Boot Strap Generation. The War Effort Generation. He exalted mindless labor above all else -- especially when someone else was laboring on his and my step-mother's behalf, like the hapless construction workers who built their second home for them.

It's easy to glorify and admire mythically tireless workers, especially when you're not the one running the chainsaw or, in the case of the FoxConn slaves, polishing the iPod.

Ironically, my Dad admired an ethos that was in direct opposition to the era he came from. American idealism and individuality have no place in Maosim where the worker is told he/she is exalted while simultaneously being exploited and worked to death by the State.

Daisey succinctly ties these two philosophies together in his play. China wanted to "modernize" and the US wanted dirt-cheap labor, devoid of real unions, to manufacture all the toys and gizmos Americans have been told endlessly that we are "entitled" to as free Capitalists so long as we can afford them. The mindless consumerism of the West has met the (faux) tireless Communist worker at the nadir of Orwellian dystopia in Shenzhen. It's the place where dreams of the future go to die.

Anti-suicide nets installed along the roof of one FoxConn building in China.


Jan said...

an eye-opener. Well said!

Belle said...

This is just incredibly sad. These companies should be forced by the U.S. government to make sure the workers in other countries are treated well. It is hard to believe people are so cold hearted. Evil, actually.