Discussion: What if there was no ‘cheap labour’?

This post is an open thread. My question is: what if there was no “cheap labour”? I’m asking because, depressingly, I have never heard this seriously discussed. And I’m putting it in quotation marks because it’s a term I hate. Is there a prevailing ideology among the nobs and bigwigs and mandarins and politicians? Have they discussed it at all? My gut feeling is that this is too utopian to make the discussion table.

Businesses like growth. They like to watch avidly as nice, populous countries slide over the income threshold to start buying whatever it is they’re selling. However, there is a fundamental tension here: they want economic growth, but they also want “cheap labour”.

In her book, No Logo, Naomi Klein explains how multinational outsourcing of clothes manufacturing was a race to the bottom. Once one company had upped sticks and moved its production to developing countries, everyone else simply had to follow suit to compete. Apparently.

Imagine if that wasn’t an option. Imagine if all of the countries in the world had the same wages as today’s rich countries. What would the implications be?

Most obviously, things would get more expensive. Salaries make up varying proportions of the costs for different items, so it might be more noticeable for some than others.

If Things were more expensive, we would buy fewer Things. Less retail therapy. Fewer impulse buys. Would we value quality manufacturing and durable goods again? It’s almost as if – whisper it quietly – we would stop commodifying things!

Food waste

Presumably we would start by cutting out the least necessary things, but it might also prompt us to be more sensible with essentials like food. We waste a vast amount of food nowadays. It inflates food prices and increases greenhouse gas emissions. The EU is looking into it and everything.

What I find more interesting are the implications for countries which don’t have first-world wealth. It’s beyond this post’s scope to even contemplate whether international wage equality would mean equal living standards. We don’t even have that within the wealthiest countries today.

It would be massively insulting to try to predict how cultures would change if they had the same opportunities as we do in more privileged climes. So if this post seems to lack human insight, to skimp on humanity in favour of the hard mechanics of it all, that is why. But I’m allowing myself this one example.

We’re very big on motivation in the UK. At school, we were told to aim high, work hard, and never give up on our dreams. In some places, it’s the polar opposite. Rigoberta Menchu, the Guatemalan Nobel Peace Prize laureate, has spoken of how her parents would explain to their growing children that they would never achieve their dreams. Dependent as they were on seasonal plantation work for starvation wages, they should be prepared for a life of the most extreme hardship. I bet the owners would have described them as “cheap labour”.

Beyond the bare basics

Billions of people are impoverished today. In this vision we’re contemplating, would their ability to buy things beyond the bare basics compensate for these retrenchments in the west, deprived of its present exorbitant privilege? It seems like we might return to local products: if everywhere makes things at the same cost, having the factories half way round the world is no longer an exploitative economy – just a pain in the arse.

Judging by past trends, people would become very keen on automation. Chinese companies are already starting to report problems with labour costs. The US Department of Agriculture is already saying that these companies will need to mechanise.

What would we all be doing for a living in that case? Working in a rich post-industrial knowledge economy in the way that the UK, I understand, views itself? What about hyper-technical manufacturing like Germany? Of course, those suggestions both presume that we continue in the vein of our current models. How about a six-hour working day and less stigma surrounding unemployment? I mean, we might find that we don’t actually need all of the people working all of the time.

Could modern business cope if everywhere was equally prosperous? Would we reach a fresh equilibrium, or would it mean the end of capitalism as we know it? My personal feeling is that businesses are dangerously dependent on other people living in abject poverty. In the kind of conditions that chief executives would give life and limb to save their own children from. Most don’t go as far as wishing for poverty, but they could certainly decry it louder. And that should worry us.

Dear readers, I’m interested to hear what you all think. Please comment. You probably have a better idea about these things than I do.


Won’t Cameron please think of the children?

Didn’t David Cameron’s spiel about families just warm your heart? Nothing matters more than his family, apparently. Coming from a creature like him, that sounds more than anything like a freakish cross between the Stepford Wives and the Thought Police, but, you know, whatever. For a moment there, I could almost smell the apple crumble.

It’s not that I have any kind of problem with parents being given the state support they need. That is a good thing. This post is not a complaint about the fact that policies are now meant to be parent-friendly. It is a complaint about the fact that our dear leader seems to have decided that his election campaign and subsequent policies will seemingly be based in a wholly inappropriate appeal to the nation’s rose-tinted spectacles. If your family are best when they’re a long way away, or you don’t want children, marriage, monogamy, or relationships, you’re in for a rough ride.

Cameron’s announcement this morning that traditional family values would be at the heart of the Tory gameplan left me cold, rather than warm. “There are some cases where it is better for parents to split up,” he told the BBC. “I wouldn’t for one minute want to stop that.” Then came the “but”: “But where you can help people come together and stay together, then surely the government should play its part.” These measures, apparently, are about “persuading families to remain together”.

Let’s not lose sight of the facts here. This is still a society which, to a greater or lesser extent, stigmatises divorce. Divorcees were pariah for many years. It is telling that our prime minister is saying this stuff at all. And that we still talk about “failed” marriages. And that there’s such judgement in the phrase “She’s been married twice before”.

As recently as 2008, the country’s three largest charities that tackle domestic violence received less money put together than The Donkey Sanctuary. Most people still don’t really understand domestic violence and abuse, or how prevalent they are. All too often, people don’t need help to stay: they need help to leave.

Cameron is harping on about all these things our families apparently teach us: values, knowledge, good citizenship, cheese pie recipes, whatever. Yes, that’s the ideal. Yes, if we are fortunate then we will develop all these things and more with our families. Personally, I couldn’t wish for a better family. But not everyone is fortunate.

The NHS quotes findings that one in four women and one in six men will be a victim of domestic violence at some point in their lifetime. Fleeing domestic violence is a horrific ordeal. For the survivor, it can mean fleeing their entire support network with no money and no roof over their head (but it’s OK, because Dobbin the donkey has a new nosebag). The Tories should think very carefully before firing up the vast government PR machine aimed at making couples feel they should stay together if humanly possible.

But it’s OK, because he said that part about how sometimes you’re allowed to split up, right? Phew. Because those figures are so high, and so easy to come by, that if he hadn’t said that bit, I might have thought he was spouting ridiculous election rhetoric. Apparently this is a change in tone from his “broken Britain” theme, but it smacks of a superficial change only. After all, castigating divorcees in a country which has this many of them is not going to win him many votes.

Many, many people really do not have good relationships with their parents. I know some who say they have been happier since they minimised or even cut contact with them. Parents can be outright abusive, but less stark problems can also be immensely damaging. Whatever the reason, people should not be made to feel dysfunctional if they cannot find David Cameron’s rose-tinted family portrait experience in their biological relatives.

This also raises the question of whether the Tories think they’ve found a disingenuous way of washing their hands of all responsibility for young welfare claimants, who can now safely and securely return to their parental abode – which has magically become a safe, peaceful place to deal with the vicissitudes of unemployment and illness since they had some state-funded relationship counselling. That would be a convenient way of solving the housing shortage, wouldn’t it?

Just in case you think I’m sounding like a conspiracy theorist, this is what Cameron said this morning: “Long before you get to the welfare state, it is family that is there to care for you when you are sick or when you fall on tough times.”

He’s trying to put families “at the heart of his government,” apparently. In other words, we’re going to be hearing a whole lot more about this.

Are you a woman who doesn’t want children? Get yer character assassination here! Polyamorous? Don’t worry, you’ll soon get over it with David Cameron’s super discounted relationship therapy. In a happy home with friends? You must be a bot. People like that don’t actually exist.

This rhetoric sounds like clouds on the horizon. It is the sound of a hell of a lot of public money being spent on romanticising a white gown, with all the sexist, religious trappings. Of a highly questionable attempt to shoehorn the nation into sealed family units which can often act like pressure cookers, where crimes such as domestic violence and emotional abuse go under the radar as long as you keep it in the family. Of co-workers smirking a bigger, nastier smirk of publicly condoned entitlement when they probe me on why I’m not married. And I can tell you, if I told them, they really wouldn’t like the answer.

The World Cup: a poison chalice for Germany’s left?

Germany may have won the World Cup, but for many on the left, this will be a mixed blessing.

In Germany, FIFA’s championship is marked by black, red and gold popping up in every window, bar and corner shop. The German flag is emblazoned onto special editions of everything from T shirts and mugs to – my personal favourite – washing up sponges.

But for the German left, the World Cup fever sparks one discourse above all: the debate about nationalism.

I was living in Germany during the 2010 World Cup, doing a weekly shift in a studenty cafe. Come the Cup, we had a big screen up, and during one Germany game, a coworker exuberantly smeared black, gold and red on my cheek. I didn’t mind. But not everyone saw it that way.

What is this nationalist bullshit?” asked one friend, pointing at the paint like offensive graffiti. He was well aware that I wasn’t German, of course, but that was beside the point. It was a symbol of the nation, to be interpreted in some way as being pro-German. As far as he was concerned, it was too much.

That wasn’t the only time I came across such sentiments. I once made the apparent faux-pas of uttering the words “national identity”. As a student of German, the term was as much part of the academic vocabulary as “Middle High German” or , you know, “Berlin”. However, my companion stopped me mid-sentence to reproachfully inform me: “You know, ‘National identity’ is the kind of language that Nazis use.” Attempts to explain that this was an academic term, or that it didn’t imply the slightest soupçon of national pride, fell on deaf ears.

National identity, is one of the plethora of ways of analysing the differences between some human beings and others, along with gender identity, cultural and subcultural identity, religious identity, and anything else you might care to name. It is the product of a subset of a shared language, culture, history, education system, and everything else that makes a country.

It is the question of what parts of our history, traditions, national leadership and families have created a world where great moral store is set by being “happy” in some places, while others condemn this same trait as superficial or dishonest.

It should not be taboo. Of course, making sweeping generalisations based solely on someone’s nationality is not OK. There are huge cultural differences within some nations, and perhaps these make distinction along borders pointlessly arbitrary. There are regions where it has been argued that division into nations in the modern sense of the word doesn’t actually make sense.

This is a trait which lays us wide open to massive cultural faux pas. In practical terms, this means racism, xenophonbia and violence. It cannot be taboo.

I’m a citizen of Berlin, and a citizen of Europe, but I’m not a German,” another friend told me confidently.

To these people, it seemed, “German” is a word that is quietly printed in your passport, and sees the light of day as little as the unfortunate mugshot it shares the page with.

When I lived in Germany as a green-haired student, I once told my housemates that I was venturing to Dessau, deep in the former East Germany, for a festival. They told me to be careful, almost as a parent might a teenager off to a party. But unlike a parent, it was not benign nagging, but genuine fear in their voices.

This is a country still haunted by the evils of the Holocaust, the Third Reich and the Second World War. It is also a country where a string of arson attacks in the early nineties left people dead, and where as recently as the mid-2000s, right-wing extremists are believed to have gone on a killing spree targeting those with an immigrant background.

It is beyond the scope of my post to say whether right-wing extremist killings happen more in Germany than in other countries. For the left, along with the rest of the country, the horrifying part is that they happened at all. Perhaps this is why the rejection of symbols of the nation remains high on the agenda.

It is certainly a big enough deal for direct action. In 2010, Berlin shop-owner Ibrahim Bassal and his cousin, Cengiz Kaan Kocyigit, hung a giant Germany flag from their balcony during the World Cup. It was summarily burned. The pair replaced it. The replacement was stolen. Both acts were seemingly by anti-nationalist activists. Originally from Lebanon, Ibrahim Bassal and Cengiz had both arrived in Germany twenty years earlier, and hung the flags up in celebration of what they perceived as Germany’s multiculturalism, judging by an interview with AFP.

German is a multi-cultural country and you can see that in its football team. As for the fact that the flag is gone, I would say that people are definitely jealous, and if they were proud of it, they wouldn’t steal it,” Kocyigit told the agency.

We don’t know who exactly stole the flag. Perhaps they had lost loved ones to right-wing extremists. Perhaps they had suffered relentless racism at the hands of German nationalists. But to take action against people who are themselves of a demographic often on the receiving end of such abuse seems a little presumptuous.

In a blog post so self-righteously overwritten it would have made Nietzsche proud, the “autonomous World Cup group” argued that people use the multiculturalism of the German team as an excuse to show that Germany is past the Nazis, when in fact there are plenty of xenophobic attacks and Nazi salutes during the tournament. Point taken. http://fahnenflucht.blogsport.eu/

What they don’t appear to consider is that most people, irrespective of their background, don’t tend to think it through that far. The sociopolitical theorising often comes with a certain degree of education and cultural capital not accessible to everyone. That’s not to say that the “Don’t you think that nationalism could still be a problem?” conversation shouldn’t be had. But perhaps shouting it in people’s faces before burning their mascots is not the way to create change.

The German media are well aware of this issue, of course. Over at the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Marco Herack argues that the Germans follow the World Cup with such gusto because it allows them to experience a sort of long-forgotten glory. “…the sporting act cannot be disentangled from a certain vicariousness,” he writes. “In a society said to be in a ‘post-heroic state’, struggles take place on the sports pitch that people, as members of this society, have not experienced for this society, or with it, for a very long time. This is the context in which we must understand the public viewings where the masses drunkenly gather and cheer their team on together. It seems understandable, or at least becomes visible, that in these times of peace, the heroics of our ancestors are searching for another means of expression.”

Herack is referring, apparently, to gladiators. An excessively psychological reading? Perhaps. He does also make the point that much of the heap of flag-branded merch is little more than advertising, intended to promote a sense of belonging. Santander is doing it with the best (worst?) of them, and that’s a Spanish company.

The fear that our society might begin to call our nation forth once again is not entirely wrong. However, the symptoms of it have changed. It’s nothing to do with wanting ‘more land’ anymore… as Joachim Gauck put it, it is human rights which have us reaching for our weapons today. Or, if you go by his predecessor Horst Köhler, through trade and markets.”

In the UK, we view the Nazis as atrocious war criminals, yes, but also as a thing of the past. The British media responded to Germany’s World Cup victory with articles like The Guardian’s “Whisper it softly: it’s OK to like Germany” and The Mirror’s “Official: it’s cool to be German – and it’s OK to love them now”.We are sealed off from the past by many years of history.

As an almost cariacature-like epitome of evil, we regard the Nazis more than anything else as a hilarious synonym for authoritarian strictness and power tripping. We talk about parking Nazis or grammar Nazis as a sort of idle insult and little more. But in Germany, their spectre looms large, and its mark is still keenly felt in activist culture.

Plus, who knows? Maybe they just like football so much because they’re so much better at it than the Brits. That much you have to hand them.

Postcards from Nowhere: sun, storms and stories in the badlands of Spain

„If that pole goes, we’re gonna have to evacuate,“ bellows Rolf. Gale-force winds buffet our camp as the storm rolls in. I’m hanging onto a support with my full body weight we wrestle to hammer rebar stakes into the ground. Gradually, the wind gives way to rain and thunder and sky-splitting lightning.

This is probably not what my colleagues were picturing when I said I was going to a festival in Spain – but then, Nowhere is no ordinary festival.

Tucked away in the dusty Spanish badlands, the event is 12 kilometres from the nearest settlement. The surrounding mountains are parched and ruddy, with just a few stunted shrubs, and the earth is a fine, brown dust that clings to your skin and gets in your shoes, your tent, even your food. There is no running water or mains power, let alone buildings and streets – and yet every July, a remarkable temporary community springs up as if from nothing, only to disappear without a trace a few weeks later.

Baffling to the uninitiated is the question of what exactly Nowhere is. There’s no lineup of bands and no market stalls; in fact, many even take issue with the term “festival”. Many plump with “an arts event”. Or, to quote the Survival Guide sent to all participants (also known as Nobodies) before the event, Nowhere is “an experiment in creative freedom, participation and cash-free community”.

The event – for want of a better word – is set up, run and returned to nothing entirely by volunteers. A diverse international community head to site more than a week before the event starts and work tirelessly to transform four bare fields in the cradle of the arid Los Monegros region into a weird and wonderful collection of shade structures, composting toilets, art installations, geodesic domes, pirate ships, art cars, and anything else the community’s extensive imagination can conjure up.

Like its older sibling, Burning Man, Nowhere is based around ten core principles. These are: participation, self-reliance, leave no trace, self-expression, inclusion, no commerce, gifting, community, co-operation, and immediacy. Cerebral as this may sound, these principles interlink to form the very fabric of the event.

Self-reliance, for instance, means everyone who goes must ensure they will have – literally – everything they need to survive for a week, and that they remain responsible for themselves while they are there. Given that the temperature hits 45°C and the winds get strong enough to lift a tent, not to mention the lack of running water, this is a non-trivial task. Moreover, the No Commerce principle means you can’t buy any forgotten bits and pieces on site. That includes burgers, booze, camping chairs, and anything else that many festivals in the UK, conversely, nigh-on prevent you from bringing.

For this reason, many participants organise themselves into Barrios, or theme camps. Between them, the members of each barrio carefully ensure that their communal needs will be catered for: it is agreed in advance where the drinking water will come from, how the group will be sheltered from the sun, who can kit out the kitchen, and how the power will be generated.

The first camp to go up is Werkhaus, the hub of the very first volunteers to arrive on site and begin the mammoth task of turning nothing into really quite something. Werkhaus is a sprawling construction of red and black shade cloth hung across tall wooden poles and anchored around the perimeter.

Describing it as a tent would imply a ready-made affair – or, for that matter, something that had waterproof walls and a floor. For this reason, the community tends to use the term ‘shade structure’, meaning that whether it’s a Mad Max-style geodesic dome, a den made of shade cloth or a giant Bedouin tent, it provides shade and shelter. This is especially important given that you have to be out of your tent by 10am or be cooked like a poached egg.

Werkhaus is where I go when I arrive, four days before Nowhere officially begins. At this stage, it is emphatically not a party, but a building site. Down by the bright pink shipping containers, it is a hive of activity. Five or six people are industriously marking out, jigsawing, slotting together and painting some large wooden boxes: our toilets. My task over the coming days will be putting them in place.

On the team is a guy I initially take for Scottish but who turns out to be Norwegian, a Polish man living in London, and a shaggy-haired Belgian in yellow trousers who tells me that he is on wildlife patrol. I wonder if he’s been tasked with rounding up revellers who have started the party early, but his meaning becomes clear when we get to a deep toilet pit at the top of the hill: there’s a black thing at the bottom, and he climbs down to take a look. When he resurfaces, he has a large black beetle. “We found a snake down there the other day,” he says.

As we have driven around site, things have got busier: plastic flowers, a giant Rubik’s cube and a two-metre-high giant LED mushroom appear to have, well, sprouted out of the ground. After two days on the task, everything is in place and the atmosphere has become perceptibly more… festive. Time to head to my camp and get my clown dress out, then.

My camp is Chuchichaschtli. Being able to pronounce it is not an entry requirement – “Cooky sloshy” or “Who’s Rick Astley?” will do. The Nobodies who founded it chose Swiss German’s most unpronounceable word as an epithet; it means something akin to “little kitchen cupboard”. We used to be referred to as the Swiss camp, but like most barrios, we are now a merry mixture. This year there were not only Swiss, but Germans, Czech, French, Canadians, Dutch, Americans, Brits and more besides.

“But what do you do at Nowhere?” is something people often ask, with a slight air of suspicion. It’s as if they expect that it will turn out to be some kind of religious cult, like one of those moments where you’ve finished the free biscuit and the nice lady asks if you’ve ever heard of L Ron Hubbard.

At any given point, of course, a fair chunk of the community will be volunteering. Between them, welfare, toilets, power, tickets, the information tent, and countless other tasks need plenty of attention. Anyone and everyone is encouraged to help out by doing a shift: remember, no-one is being paid to work here, and participation, self-reliance and community form the backbone of Nowhere.

For me personally, some of the most meaningful and intense moments in three years have stemmed from volunteering. Part of it is that bonds formed in the driving rain, while you’re shouting above the thunder and fighting to dig trenches around vital infrastructure before it floods, are not the same as the bonds formed over a few drinks and a dance. Another part of it is that, having discovered this place where you can be yourself like never before, you can give back something really valuable.

Saying it isn’t always easy would be like saying it gets a bit warm out there. It is often stressful and always chaotic. Sometimes , when you have worked for hours in the sun only to find that you’ve been doing it wrong all day, it’s tempting to scream. But the gradual realisation that all these new faces are becoming real, bona fide friends who will support and encourage you through the hardest parts is something I have never experienced anywhere else. There is a reason people – myself included – will travel across the continent to see friends from the dust.

Sounding serious so far? Fear not: we play as hard as we work. Some like a civilised start to the day, with Coffee and Classics at Camp Babycham. Behind the bar, kind Nobodies brew some remarkably good coffee in mocha pots while Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos play in the background. If you fancy a little something in that coffee, the Bailey’s is on the bar. Not hippy enough for you? Then why not head up the mountain and do yoga or laughter meditation?

Last year, I felt like I hadn’t been cantilevered off my friend’s thighs enough, which the acrobalance workshop soon sorted. Maybe you don’t feel like that – it did leave me with fairly bruised thighs – and would prefer to learn to make your tie into a bra, or your bra into a handbag, which have both been done. This year saw Nowhere’s first Barrio dedicated to live music.

Much of the day is spent with your barrio, chatting and chilling. Some catnap on mattresses, while others paint, sew or play guitar. One guy visits my camp, greets me with a big hug and a thank you, and pushes some freshly-brewed chai tea into my hand: I helped his companion who was perhaps best described as “overly refreshed” to a quiet spot to lie down during my shift the previous night. After the tea, I investigate the trapeze which has appeared overnight behind my barrio. One thing’s for sure: it’s never boring.

After dinner, the wind changes. The Nobodies who have been languidly stretched out in the shade during the day come alive at sundown. One by one, the sound systems switch on. People disappear into their tents and emerge transformed. Lights, body paint, fur, frills, leather: here, there is no such thing as too outlandish. This is a different ball game from the onesies and beer crate robot outfits you see at most festivals. A giant, bright red fish mask that covered the wearer’s entire head was just lying around in my camp.

Thus clad, you wend your way between day-glo pyramids, giant LED mushrooms and a puzzle cube so big you can climb it. Some of the sound systems are very impressive indeed, but there’s more to it than that: with the sand between your toes and the stars above your head, exhilaration trumps exhaustion. The part of you that works in an office and pays the bills is telling you it would be sensible to sleep, but it shuts up and goes away when you start another amazing conversation or find another mind-blowing art project and before you know it, you are watching a spectacular sunrise in the valley.

The final night starts with a communal meal in the central shade structure known as “the middle of Nowhere”. Each camp pitches something in, and people dance with new-found friends and old faces from the dust for the last time before making the trip back home.

In the morning, we strike. Strike is the name for takedown: everything has to go. Anyone attempting to abandon their tent caved in under a pile of beer cans and noodle packets would be tarred and feathered. When we talk about “leave no trace”, we mean it. In one big line, we scour the entire site for MOOP (matter out of place, or rubbish). Absolutely everything is picked up, from cigarette butts to sequins and shreds of paper.

The hardcore crew are on site until Friday this year, leaving nothing behind but four barren fields. The only trace of all that has been is some tyre tracks in the dust, which fade and disappear as the wind blows.