ENMESHED EXPLOITATIONS: WORK, COLONIALISM, AND DEATH
EDITED BY SOPHIA MONEGRO
It is challenging to consider studying labor without engaging Marxism in the process. In Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Karl Marx offers us an essential guide for considering the inner workings of labor and the exploits of colonialism. Reviewing Capital‘s founding concepts—the commodity, use-value, exchange-value, and dead labor—we see that Marxist theory is the underlying thread in this section’s reviews. The books in this section critique processes of decommodification, capitalist overvaluation of quantity, mounting suicides on the factory line, and the historicizing of ideology—all part and parcel of Marxist theorizing. Beyond Marx, the reviewers in this section devise other ways of reading that broaden our understandings of intimacy. Much like Lisa Lowe, our reviewers discard the seemingly neat lines that separate the machinations of political economy from people; they utilize intimacy as a lens for studying “‘close connexion,’ that is, the implied but less visible forms of alliance, affinity, and society among variously colonized peoples” (Intimacies of Four Continents, 2015). This section asks us to consider the intimacies of Marxism or the interpersonal ethics that mediate our understanding of capitalist economies, in some ways, demanding that we center the species in our study of species being/essence.
Amber Taylor’s review of Leigh Claire La Berge, Wages Against Artwork: Decommodified Labor and the Claims of Socially Engaged Art (2019) highlights unwaged labor in the intimate spaces of the home. Referencing La Berge’s predecessor, Silvia Federici’s Wages Against Housework (1975), Taylor aptly emphasizes how the devaluation of artistic production mirrors unwaged labor in the home. Taylor explains La Berge’s definition of decommodified labor as a reduction of wages with an increase in work demand. The book shows how systems of student debt, unpaid child and animal labor, and the overarching ethos of art’s sacredness render artistic production “particularly vulnerable to decommodification.” Marx might interject in this conversation to remind us of the two characteristics of a commodity: use-value and exchange-value. Use-value is independent of the amount of labor needed to activate a commodity’s utility. Exchange value is inherently relative. Thus, it shares no loyalties with intrinsic value. Art’s intrinsic value and the substantial labor needed to produce it necessitates just wages from a virtue ethics standpoint. However, for art to enter the capitalist marketplace, it requires that “the commodity [be stripped] of human labor, natural resource, geography, and temporality,” for it is not a product of our species essence but an extraction baked with sufficient surplus labor for the accumulation of wealth to occur (Intimacies of Four Continents, 2015). It is an ugly process our objects of fancy undergo, bringing us to Taylor’s take on La Berge’s book that asks us not “whether art can be commodified, but whether it should be.”
Emblematic to our discussion of interpersonal ethics and how we perceive capitalist economy is Roger L. Martin’s When More is Not Better: Overcoming America’s Obsession with Economic Efficiency (2020). Building on the belief that capitalism is the optimal economic system, Martin argues that rising social inequalities are not caused by structural issues but by behaviors and laws that mistakenly bolster efficiency. Hélène Estèves enumerates Martin’s various answers to the problem of hyper-economic efficiency. Martin’s text contains four chapters on possible solutions. Namely, Martin emphasizes the importance of regulations and laws to apply productive friction and foster better behaviors. Appreciating Martin’s clarifying antidotes and general optimism, Hélène’s review ends by noting the book’s limitations—the belief that democratic capitalism is “the best politico-economic system there ever was”—in doing so, the review illustrates how our personal ethical frameworks shape our thoughts on capitalism.
Authors Jenny Chan, Ngai Pun, and Mark Selden likely share a distinct perspective on capitalism. In Dying for an iPhone: Apple, Foxconn, and the Lives of China’s Workers (2020), the authors use interviews and research to “expose the dehumanizing acts of Foxconn,” the multi-million-dollar iPhone corporation. Reviewers Anathasia Citra and Grace Amin recant suicide attempt survivor Tain Yu’s stressors: long working hours, strict disciplinary code, and nearly no social life. The pressure and alienation this 17-year-old girl felt pushed her over the ledge of the Foxconn factory dormitory’s fourth floor in 2010. The reviewers enumerate strategies, such as a Care and Love Hotline, Foxconn deployed to ameliorate their public image. Nevertheless, no public relation attempts can compensate for the structural issue at play: interpersonal strains caused by processes of dead labor and alienation that this factory work entails. Anastasia Citra and Grace Amin point to the need for Foxconn to care for and respect their workers, a call that often requires a more leftist approach to employee management.
Versed in the workings of leftist thought, Kevin A. Young’s Making the Revolution: Histories of the Latin American Left (2019) offers valuable insights into relationality within leftist politics. Reviewer Teresa Martínez Chavez elegantly walks us through how the book makes “visible the shifts in alliances, informal networks, and conflict among the different opaque actors involved.” Focusing on leftist movements in Mexico, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Chile, Young pays particular attention to subaltern players and how social forces impact available histories. This emphasis on elucidating occluded dynamics runs through Oscar G. Chaidez’s review of Gustavo Morello’s Lived Religion in Latin America: An Enchanted Modernity (2021). Chaidez beautifully synthesizes the book’s aim of scrutinizing secularization theory that Morello contends was formulated in a Western vacuum. Focusing on the collective dynamics of Latin American daily life, Young unsettles the literature’s secularization ethos, as Chaidez notes “since Latin Americans experience a different modernity than Europeans and North Americans, it only follows that they also experience religion differently.” Young turns the lens from theory determining praxis to the intimate relations of community practices formulating theory.
Kevin J.A. Thomas’ Global Epidemics, Local Implications: African Immigrants and the Ebola Crisis in Dallas (2019) also centers on the importance of community. J.A. Strub describes how the book not only informs us of “the ways in which the increasingly global movement of peoples facilitated the spread of the disease, but also how representations and media portrayals of the epidemic within the United States contributed to the scapegoating and subsequent marginalization of African migrants.” Much like this section, this review excels at threading macro perceptions with the realities of communities’ lived experiences. Similar to how Marx provides us a framework for understanding the economic precarity produced by capitalism, but in studying intimacy, we arrive at an epidermal knowledge of capitalism’s exploitation. The reviews in this section emphasize the personal, quotidian, and intimate fragments rarely centered in our study of political economy, an approach that emulates the enmeshed and intersectional nature of capitalist exploitation.