Memo - Nov. 29-Dec. 6 - Globalization

The readings to accompany our last three classes consider consumer capitalism in a broader, global context. This we will look at from two different perspectives: globalization and environmentalism. The first reading is a chapter from Naomi Klein's best-selling book No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies (2000) about branding, labor, and corporate responsibility in an age of globalization.

Klein, a journalist who writes frequently for left-leaning publications, argues that in recent decades, corporations have increasingly sought to expand their profitability by shutting down their production operations and "out-sourcing" production to low-wage foreign subcontractors. Rather than focus on selling things, she argues, corporations focus on selling brands--an abstract quality that allegedly reflects a unique "philosophy" or "ideal" or "lifestyle." Thus, what Nike sells is not so much shoes as it is the idea of "Just Do It"-ness. This abstraction can, in turn, be attached to anything, no matter where or how produced. And it means that these corporations no long have to produce the goods themselves.

It also follows that the subcontractors they use can be located anywhere in the world, and Klein details how corporations play one low-wage country off another to keep their production costs (i.e. wages) as low as possible. This chapter explores her investigation into one typical off-shore production facility, which, typically, enjoys tax-free status. (Elsewhere in the book she explores how jobs that cannot be exported, such as service industry jobs, have increasingly been reconfigured as part-time positions, euphemistically called "flexible" positions, not entitled to benefits like health insurance and pension plans.) Labor unions have been among the strongest opponents of these kinds of changes, and the chapter also details the intense hostility corporations and their subcontractors have shown to unionization.

The second reading, Alan Durning's How Much Is Enough?, is a passionate plea to consider the environmental impact of contemporary consumer society. I am asking you to read the whole book; it is short and a quick read, so I think this is reasonable.

In the No Logo reading, please think about:
  • What is an export processing zone? How does they work? What advantages and disadvantages do they hold for host countries?
  • What power do ordinary laborers have to improve their wages and working conditions?

In How Much Is Enough?:
  • How is Durning's method of calculating the "real" cost of goods different from retail or wholesale prices or factory costs?
  • What would be involved in adopting more "sustainable" models of consumption?
  • Why do you think the kinds of concerns he raises are not debated more regularly?