Time to really ‘think different’

Jenny Chan, Mark Selden, Ngai Pun – Dying for an iPhone: Apple, Foxconn, and the Lives of China’s Workers (Pluto)

I type this review on a MacBook Air. Under my fingers lie circuits and components made by labour that is often treated worse than what was called, in the 20th century west, ‘slavery by the hour’.

Violence, intimidation, excess overtime. You would have to return to the pre-reform 19th century to match it.

Still I type, and perhaps the only typing that I can now justify is that which aims at the situation which produced the thing I type on.

But it’s a marvellous machine and a thing of beauty. Are you reading this on an Apple product?

I live in it. It produces dopamine in me, and other pleasure-inducing processes. But it is produced by a world of horror.

This book tells me Apple had moved its operations to China by the end of the 1990s, so I know what I have in front of me was made there and then exported to the west.

Foxconn have factories all over China, including in Wuhan. Ireland’s Apple sites have been withered down to a skeleton.

Engels, actually, shadows me throughout this book. Engels connected up the dots of urban poor and capitalist surplus skimming in Manchester. He could walk around, of course with his female guides who remained uncredited in their time, and see it.

He saw the horror, people crammed into basements in filthy conditions. Those who made money from them fled to the edges to build villas where there was, for a time, light, air and meadows.

It is more than convenient that western consumers have to go halfway round the world to connect up the dots now. In Manchester you would have to go to a freight yard and see the China Shipping containers. There is one just south of Piccadilly Station. It is absolutely commendable that the writers here have connected with Chinese researchers and activists.

They contacted a survivor of the Foxconn suicides, Tian Yu. They describe young people moving from the countryside, an ancient way of life with some modernisation, into a living hell of factories producing parts for Apple and other companies.

There is a polemical character in the focus on Apple. Foxconn produce for lots of electronics companies, not just Apple.

The caveat of ‘other exploitative bastards are also available‘ is in force at all times. I see why this focus is in place though. Apple are still the coolest, the most representative of a middle class hip life. The gleaming surface of contemporary western life can be represented by a MacBook or iPad screen.

It is darkly poetic that Tian Yu, who survived her jump from the fourth floor – never her intention – was checking glass for screens before she jumped. She had joined Foxconn at an intensive moment, new product launches were happening.

There are other deadly ‘spikes’ to think about, not just our current one.

Here is the larger ‘user interface’ too. The user is on top, and is western. Underneath are the savage circuits that produce those powerful opiate illusions of control.

As we have been sensing lately, they are illusions. You will still drown in a flood clutching your iPad. You will still die of smoke inhalation or asphyxiation in a wildfire, as your iPhone takes messages. Debord’s spectacular society came through the liberal hippies of silicon valley. Adorno would not be surprised. Adorno and Marcuse, actually, predicted it without knowing the precise details.

Friedrich Kittler, in the opening to Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, describes a world devoid of humans, wiped out by nuclear war, as the television still scrolls its re-runs because the fibreoptic cables were designed to withstand nuclear attack. That’s where we’re at, in most places the human is sacrificed to technology, in other, more privileged places, the technology serves humans.

But I am struck by the longer historical curve. I know that my ancestors moved off the hills into the industrial north. My furthest back relatives – caught on the first census – are an Oscar and Squire Hanson, horse keepers at the dye works in Wyke, Bradford. Before that they would have come off the hills. From a life of hard privation into a life of hard exploitation. The same choice now faces millions in China.

Here I am returned to the longer history of Marxist analysis and dissent. Their history, in China, Tian Yu’s history, is the history of the British working classes too, but in a hyper-toxic, hyper-accelerated form. Taylorism and Fordism weren’t invented when Oscar and Squire wandered in off the moors. Now it is honed into a deadly, algorithmic form of control. It literally runs people within an inch of their lives.

My parents worked the tail end of cotton in the northwest. My dad a labourer, my mum a sewing machinist, until there was nothing left of it in the area. I worked shutdown shifts at Walsden Printing when I was young, just before the whole operation was moved to the Czech Republic.

Capital always seeks out those more desperate, more ‘willing’, they are its human revanchist edge. And let me tell you the workers at Walsden Printing were no longer very willing by the end. They had seen an embezzling manager buy a castle. They had been screwed out of their union subs. They had, as they often told me, ‘seen it all’.

China’s workers unionise and militate for better conditions. Capital, no doubt, keeps its eyes on weaker labour to exploit elsewhere, whether in China or anywhere else. A sicker state regime for a slicker profit.

Reading this book my anger at the working class tories in Britain redoubles. How powerful their amnesia. How quickly they forget that from which they came. The dream of modernisation and upward mobility is really the nightmare of sheer exploitation and suicide. And there seems to be nothing anyone can do to stop it.

Wuhan, Guangzhou, Shanghai, these are the current sites of intensive urban exploitation – the place the English 19th century production machine moved to. India has been used as a good example of this previously. From cloth famine to industrialisation. As machines were sold off in England they ended up over there. The dialectic of underdevelopment just runs and runs, and… Wuhan, there it is. Late 2019 nobody had heard of it. 2020 everyone had.

As Will Davies points out, the link between Coronavirus and Brexit are greater than you might imagine. So perhaps the links between Coronavirus and east-west worker exploitation are greater than you think too.

But here opens a huge junction and one we need to be very carful with. Racism operates through other knowledges. You never get ‘pure racism’. That racism in extreme form is often also a search for psychic or subjective purity is instructive.

Of course, in 2019 racism was operating through an erroneous perception of the EU as leaving UK borders completely open. The big problems around you are often the door through which racism comes. So it is no surprise that in 2020 it came through coronavirus, and at the sharp edge through police brutality. I have heard enough everyday chat to know that people have been saying ‘well over here it’s clean, social distancing, great care being taken, but over there, the asians aren’t doing any of it.’

What makes racism extremely difficult to uproot is that sometimes culturally different approaches to big events are marked. I will pass over this point agnostically, it needs much more evidence, but perhaps the gun smokes.

Is it a coincidence that a pandemic emerged from the hardest edge of instrumentalised enlightenment rationality? Wider discourses around environmental damage and global ecology seem to already assume there is a link.

These are open, much larger questions, but ones this book throws up. It is a powerful and detailed explanation of those forces in contemporary form. Its researchers and writers deserve your support.

– Steve Hanson

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