Sunday, February 28, 2010

Marx and Walking-Around Money

When I read Roger’s remarks of Feb. 25 on the piece ‘Wages’ by Marx, I wanted to comment immediately. But by the time I had outlined my response, it far exceeded any reasonable length for a comment box. I have reservations about the approach Roger has taken. His interpretation selects a single sentence from the text and draws from it implications that presume it conveys a scientific claim of universal scope. I read this sentence very differently. I believe we will find it has a very different force and scope if we consider in some detail the generic texture of ‘Wages.’

Four aspects of this texture indicate that the force of the text and of that one sentence follow from an immediate practical goal and that the scope of any claim it establishes are correspondingly limited. We need first to consider what kind of text ‘Wages’ is and how that status determines the logic that governs its argumentative construction. To specify the force of the sentence itself within this argument, we need to trace the topic of wages and their allocation fully. To understand the formulation of this topic in the crucial sentence, we need to consider how the text engaged its auditors. To grasp this engagement as concretely as we can, we need to connect the topic of wages and their use by the wage-earner to the political project Marx was embarked on.

The editors of the Marx-Engels Werke propose that Marx drafted ‘Wages’ in preparation for a talk he presented to the Deutscher Arbeiterverein (German Workers’ Club) in Brussels. This talk was the next to last or last talk in a series. I believe this ascription to be correct and that we must accordingly look at the constitution of this text as a ‘lecture’ if we are going to appreciate what Marx was saying and why he said it the way he did.

The lecture notes opens with a summary of the conclusions drawn in passages of the draft which have not survived. These conclusions establishes a ‘logic arc’ within which the statement functions. Now just as it is erroneous to retrospectively project the Marx of the future into his earlier works, it is equally erroneous to ignore the Marx of the past in reading the present Marx. At the time of ‘Wages,’ Marx’ work still retained much of the form and substance of Hegel. In keeping with Hegel’s style of dialectical argument, Marx has initially defined a fundamental relationship, then proceeds to elaborate the contradictions that unfold within this relationship. The first point of the summary establishes that capitalism treats human activity as a commodity and for workers this relationship reduces their life activities to a mere means.

The following points elaborate the processes implicit within this relationship which determine the rate of wages, such as supply and demand or the profit motive. Marx abstracts the logical properties capitalism, a logic in which life activities have already been completely permeated and transformed. After this abstraction what remains to discuss are the internal dynamics of that transformed instrumental life. When Marx concludes the lecture with a statement of the positive aspect of wages, he introduces a twinkle of starlight in this vast darkness. In Hegelian terms, after treating at length ‘necessity,’ that which capital must do in and of itself, he finds in it ‘possibility,’ that aspect of the relationship which can in its turn generate an new system of relationships out of the old.

The draft continues with notes on eight bourgeois economists pertinent to the second point of the summary. After these notes, the draft has three fully written sections in which Marx discusses his own insights into the system-internal determination of the level of wages. These sections correspond to points three through seven of the summary.

In the last two sections before the conclusion, Marx discusses measures which ameliorate the dismal rigors of wages. To appreciate the significance of these sections to the lecture’s conclusion, we now have to pay closer attention to the formulation of the test. We will see that the logic of the argument transforms dramatically and prepares the force of the conclusion.

In the first, lengthy section titled “Suggestions for Relief,” Marx mentions and criticizes three popular bourgeois proposals to insulate wage earners against fluctuating income or to generate higher wages. He then criticizes these measures because they cannot counteract the entire range of systemic pressures to reduce wages. In the second, much briefer section ‘Workers’ Associations’ Marx addresses the organizing undertaken by the workers themselves to obtain and maintain better wages. First he points out two objections to workers’ association advanced by bourgeois economists. Then he defends the formation of such associations.

To recognize how Marx transforms the logic of his presentation at this point, we must consider ‘Suggestions for Relief’ and ‘Workers’ Associations’ as a single rhetorical unit, despite their formal separation. Marx was widely read in the Greek and Latin classics in the original languages. Just as he had absorbed the principles and materials of Hegel’s philosophy, he had mastered the devices of Classical rhetoric. Marx has ordered the presentation of the topics in these two sections to form a single rhetorical unit through the mirror-symmetrical figure of chiasmus. Chiasmus consists of two parallel constructions in which the order of the constituents is reversed in the second construction. We could schematize this construction, A:B::B:A.

If we consider that dialectics assumes a dynamic relationship between at least two elements and that the dynamism induces a new relationship between those elements, then we can recognize in the chiasmus a rudimentary, prototypical schema of the dialectic. We can specify the schema that binds the two sections of the lecture. First there are two points of view, bourgeois and proletarian. There are two types of content, model and criticism. The chiastic structure of the two sections of the argument is bourgeois model:proletarian criticism::bourgeois criticism:proletarian model. The process begins in bourgeoisie’s conceptualization of their own practical activity and ends in the practical activity of the working class. The texture embodies rather than explicitly describing this historical and social development.

In the schema ‘::” stands in the place of the fulcrum on which the order is overturned. Let us consider the dramatic assertion which occupies this position in the argument. Marx prefaced his reprise of the bourgeois criticisms of association with the assessment, “What the economists remark about associations is correct …,” a characterization perhaps all the more surprising once we have heard that the economists claim association cannot maintain or raise wages. After completing his reprise of the objections, Marx repeats his assessment, but adds a crucial explanation, “ All these objections of the bourgeois economists are, as I said, correct, but correct only from their point of view.”

In moving through the rhetorical reversal of order, we have moved into a new logical grounds for understanding. We began with bourgeois models which characterize the reciprocal relations of the factors that determine wages in terms of mathematical ratios and which seek the optimal equilibrium within this constrained range of necessities misconceived as possibilities. At the same time, we have moved from the conceptual proletarian critique of the bourgeois model’s categorical insufficiencies to the workers' practical critique via organizing associations. Returning to the level of the lecture’s logic, as we pivot on this fulcrum, we also pass from the formal dialectic of ideas to the material dialectic of activity. Marx has refuted the bourgeois ideas not by an immanent critique, but by demonstrating that they advance the interests of capital in and within wage relationships and that they are irrelevant to solving the problems wages pose for workers.

After this assertion of the distinct and irreconcilable bourgeois and working class viewpoints, Marx completes this section with a discussion of associations. He does not analyze the inherent logic of associations in the way he analyzed capital. Marx approaches the organizing of associations as a practical activity and focuses on a single, salient aspect of that activity. In fact, the meaning and the force of the claim that workers can do whatever they want with their money follows from this topical focus. The reiterated perspectives on the topic delineate a textually specific sense for workers using their money, and the truncated paraphrase in the concluding section of the lecture must be read as a summarization of this more elaborate presentation of the topic.

Marx comments take as their point of departure the first of the two bourgeois criticisms of association, namely that the cost of creating and maintaining an association will exceed any increase in wages obtained through the association. He rejects the very pertinence of this utilitarian logic. Against it he poses claims about how workers’ consciousness of their struggle and its depth lead them beyond a utilitarian view of wages. If the apparent struggle for wages entails an ultimate struggle against wages, then the workers “rightfully laugh” at the kind of pedants who would even try to calculate “the cost in dead, wounded and money.” In fact, “Anyone who wants to beat the enemy, will not discuss with him the costs of the war.” The mere fact that workers really are forming associations refutes the economists' claim that workers are selfish self-calculators. When we look at the organizing underway, we see wages play an obvious role in the process, “the best paid factory workers form the most associations.”

Workers assume the expense of self-organization even though it requires sacrifice, “the workers use everything they can scrimp together from their pay to form political and industrial associations and to cover the costs of this movement.” Accordingly, the employers and economists, who award minimal wage increases thinking they will be absorbed in modest luxuries like tea, rum, sugar and meat, are outraged when the workers “include in their calculation of these raises a little of the costs of the war against the bourgeoisie.” The section climaxes with the pithy contrast between the bourgeois view of wages as a means to participate in markets and the workers view of money as a means to meaningful life activity, “they even make out of their revolutionary activity the maximum of their pleasure in life.” In four, sometimes lengthy sentences, Marx crams in seven instances of the use of the meager disposable income provided by wages for the purposes of self-organized political and industrial organizing and motivated by class-consciousness.

The entire brunt of the argument is that any wage that allows more than the bare necessities can also provide a resource for the struggle to end the wage relationship altogether. When Marx concludes his lecture with the claim that wages have the “Advantage: that the worker can do whatever he wants with his money,” he summarizes the more extensive argument of the preceding section with a brevity comparable to the condensed conclusions with which the draft for the lecture began. The brevity should not mislead us. Marx does not argue that workers can spend whatever money they have on whatever commodities they want. He never once says “spend” or “buy.” He says, “use” and “do.” Within money he sees possibilities outside capitalist production and circulation. He advocates uses of money as an instrument of non-instrumentalized life activity.

So much for today and so much for the conventional, internal verbal factors in the analysis and understanding of genre. Structure and diction contribute essential components in the constitution of genres, but we still have to consider the articulated text as an active element in the dynamic relationship between Marx the lecturer and the workers in his audience. Those elements will allow us to reflect not just on what Marx said, but on the force of his talk, why he said what he said and to what end. What is the situated, pragmatic sense of “the worker can do whatever he wants with his money”? I’ll be back in a day or two with more of the story.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Commodity Fanaticism - I

Anodyne Lite comments on an evident trend of excessively passionate fanaticism for entertainment commodities and the way many young leftists seem to mistake their personal, capricious tastes in music and videos for political commitments and moral virtues.

I would offer as especially vivid specimens of this infirmity Dominic Fox (a gifted writer) and Owen Hatherley (a knowledgeable commentator on architecture). They exhibit the extreme of the principal element - the certainty that their personal preferences in art and entertainment are political and moral virtues, giving rise to an almost tearfully disgruntled pedantry, based in the most superficial kind of erudition, about the objects of their obsessions - but also display an additional symptom of the syndrome, which is that they have convinced themselves that they discover everything they like, and hasten to plant their flags in canons and bestseller lists like Colombus discovering the New World. It brings to mind a comedian whose routine involved the line, delivered in a Bimshire lilt, "Ay, get your flag out me roses man." They assert - ludicrously, because they prefer only the most popular mass culture and the best known high culture works - that everything they like was underrated and unknown before they resurrected it with their admiration and uniquely intelligent and sympathetic understanding. This then acts as a kind of explanation for the absence of any commentary on the reception history and scholarship of their favourite stuff (they are unfamiliar with this and can provide no account of it), but also permits them to become midwives to their idol's divine creativity in fantasy, almost like auxiliary authors of their favourite artworks and culture commodities. Both Fox and Hatherley seem to believe they have, for example, rescued Samuel Beckett - canonical nobelist, more frequently analysed by US academics and students than Shakespeare, and almost uninterruptedly performed - from obscurity.

From Hatherley's Militant Modernism:

Beckett’s Late Review devotees seem to have an idea of him as some sort of amalgam of Zeno the Stoic and Father Ted, yet one can’t imagine Tom Paulin or Bonnie Greer relishing being assaulted by the panic attack of Not I or wading through the thick, impenetrable tangle of repetition and horror of How it Is.

I know for a fact that Bonnie Greer has a far deeper and broader knowledge of Samuel Beckett's oeuvre than Hatherley, and also is capable, which he is not, of engaging in interpretation of the work, informed by knowledge of history, genre, medium, institution, and existing scholarship, which Hatherley could not even begin to produce, having simply no acquaintance with Beckett scholarship or with any method of literary criticism or performance theory whatever. He produces a kind of commentary on art and literature (always stressfully sincere but often insightful and despite common diction errors - he doesn't know what "replete" means but uses it often, and other awkward tics of this type - engagingly written) relying solely, as in his popular remarks on architecture, on the elaborately displayed intensity of his opinion and the forcefulness and insistence of the mock aristocratic rhetoric with which he expresses his personal tastes and prejudices. And in the passage above, he does not quite assert, but clearly implies, that the heroic, self-sacrificing acts of recognition and appreciation required for the true Beckett devotee's progress to enlightenment (which nonetheless produce from Hatherley only vague, bland, obvious description without even a hint of interpretation - horror, tangle, repetition, panic) can be accomplished only by his little clique of narrowminded, chauvinist, parochial mutual admirers. Dominic Fox similarly suggests that only these possessors of a "British" national character are capable of giving Samuel Beckett the "approval" - that white ball of clubbability that is evidently the only reaction Fox is capable of having, apart from the black ball of ostracism, to anything - that Fox, perhaps psychotically and certainly wrongly, perceives Beckett to be suing him personally for with his novels. Without their courageous unsentimentality and hyper refined aesthetic organs, these two suggest, Samuel Beckett’s genius would have gone forever unrecognised. They barely stop short of congratulating themselves for making the works of Samuel Beckett what they are today.

Anodyne Lite asks if I have anything to recommend to read on this topic - because these two are just examples of a widespread phenomenon - and I don't. It's something I wish the EC would fund me to study. I would ask Jonathan Beller's advice, as I feel sure his already published observations imply something yet to be said explicitly about why this kind of irrational attachment, this commodity fanaticism (sedulously ignored by the legions of pundits advertising a new age of fanaticisms) has become so widespread and yet remains imperceptible to its victims even when someone takes the pains to point it out with meticulous specificity.


When The Wire, sold as something like "to blaxploitation what the Sopranos is to gangster films", failed to attract an audience, HBO and the producers/creators devised a thoughtful promotional campaign that showed an acute sensitivity to fashions in the trendsetting sectors of the culture consuming public, lifting the terms and themes of its branding effort not from Esquire but from The Nation. It measured some distance travelled between the age of a substantial oppositional dissident critical intellectual culture and that of a dominantly delightedly and gratefully complicit one.

Twenty five years before The Wire's inauspicious first broadcasts, it was still unusual for people to admit liking, much less admiring, the television programmes they watched. Fifty seven channels and nothing on. But the mainstreaming of pomo irony launched a reversal of this attitude by at first introducing the (consoling, reassuring) idea that mindless shit could be watched with an attitude that transformed the activity of watching it into politically subversive cultural sabotage.

Audience fragmentation had to advance considerably before this pomo posture could really be widely exploited, since it belonged to an elite not the majority. ABC, under the guidance of an inexperienced hip former development executive Jamie Tarses, foolishly and without the confirmation of scientific study launched a re-branding campaign expressing this Nick at Nite, Harvard Lampoon irony at an extreme (TV is Good. and Watch TV. You have plenty of brancells to spare. or It's a beautiful day. What are you doing outside? Watch TV) which was a disastrous failure. For HBO's then tiny subscription base, upscale and confident that its consumption expressed its entitled and free "choice", this campaign might have worked, but for a major network still in the days of national airwaves broadcasters' dominance, aiming at a broad general audience, the tone was severely ill-judged.

Year after year, however, the posture steadily conquered television, in typically softened and veiled versions. From there, it was an obvious and easy step to the creation of programmes which absorbed this suggested audience irony and could be themselves perceived as critical or subversive, "quality" television vended as a traditional rich dramatic experience, but not spoilt by any pose of sincerity which would imply an insulting assumption of audience gullibility, and liberated from some difficult traditional requirements for dramatic writing by post-modern gimmickry, updated with irony and reflexivity. With these new programmes which collapse the relation pomosity established between the viewer and re-runs of Donna Reed, the audience participates in the programme's own sensibility with a newly justified reversion to passivity and endorsement. Mad Men is the most complete case, and unsurprisingly is set in the period which was the contemporary setting for many of the programmes on Nick at Night for which the suggestion of subversive, ironic consumption was originated by Harvard Lampoon veterans.

Those tasked with puffing the ailing cop-soap-blaxpolitation series The Wire decided - how very cannily would become evident after a couple of seasons - to claim for their show qualities which specifically academic, intellectual fans of The Sopranos (that programme it was trying in a sense to supply the "black" version of) - qualities defining serious dramatic art with lofty aims, socially responsible and intellectually nutritious rather than violent sensational junk - had attributed to HBO's first series to get a network sized audience. The influential culture critic and celebrated 2nd wave radfem Ellen Willis was the one to provide inspiration for the elements of The Wire's future branding for the newly active niche of culture industry and academic viewers who considered themselves critically sophisticated connoisseurs of an underappreciated art form they would rescue from its status as unjustly despised:

The richest and most compelling piece of television--no, of popular culture--that I've encountered in the past twenty years is a meditation on the nature of morality, the possibility of redemption and the legacy of Freud.

To be sure, The Sopranos is much else as well. For two years (the third season began March 4) David Chase's HBO series has served up a hybrid genre of post-Godfather decline-of-the-mob movie and soap opera, with plenty of sex, violence, domestic melodrama and comic irony; a portrait of a suburban landscape that does for northern New Jersey what film noir did for Los Angeles, with soundtrack to match; a deft depiction of class and cultural relations among various subgroups and generations of Italian-Americans; a gloss on the manners and mores of the fin-de-siècle American middle-class family; and perfect-pitch acting, especially by James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano; Edie Falco as his complicated wife, Carmela; Lorraine Bracco as Dr. Melfi; and the late Nancy Marchand as the Sopranos' terrifying matriarch, Livia.

Cumulatively, these episodes have the feel of an as yet unfinished nineteenth-century novel. While the sheer entertainment and suspense of the plot twists are reminiscent of Dickens and his early serials, the underlying themes evoke George Eliot: The world of Tony Soprano is a kind of postmodern Middlemarch, whose inhabitants' moral and spiritual development (or devolution) unfolds within and against the norms of a parochial social milieu.This era being what it is, however, the Sopranos' milieu has porous boundaries, and the norms that govern it are a moving target. In one scene, the family is in mid-breakfast when Tony and Carmela's teenage daughter, Meadow, apropos a recent scandal brought on by a high school classmate's affair with her soccer coach, declaims about the importance of talking openly about sex. Yes, Tony agrees, but not during breakfast. "Dad, this is the 1990s," Meadow protests. "Outside it may be the 1990s," Tony retorts, "but in this house it's 1954." It's wishful thinking, and Tony knows it.

Ellen Willis, Our Mobsters, Ourselves, The Nation, 2001

The first thing one notices is that Ellen Willis has lost her mind. At least, she has lost the critical capacities which once operated in, or were operated by, her mind alongside the functioning of sensual and aesthetic responsiveness. Here we see an unmistakable case of rationalisation, but one so frantic and excessive it's laughable. Or ought to be. A once sharp and curious culture critic devotes herself now to concocting a truly risibly exaggerated encomium to her favourite show, probably to alleviate some anxiety about the intensity of her own attachment to it. In the period known as the post-modern, consensus became difficult and even suspect with regard to the evaluation of aesthetic and entertainment products. But it is worth asserting the continued obviousness and intelligibility of aspects of discourse and symbolic artifacts. And it is obvious, not contestable, that The Sopranos is not particularly like Middlemarch, and that it is rather very much like other, earlier television, all the television Willis once pretended not to be watching and therefore must not now seem to recall. Tony Soprano declaring it 1954 at his table is a strikingly exact echo of Archie Bunker at his. The patriarch champion of Tradition, disconcerted by modernity and its disruption of hierarchies and order, is a beloved topos of popular culture - before Archie Bunker and George Jefferson's celebrated comic versions there were dozens upon dozens, in varying styles and temperaments, notably Yul Brenner's Siamese King, Topol's Shtetl milkman, and yes, of course, most relevant here, Don Corleone who resists 'the future' and its messenger the narcotics trafficking Virgil Solozzo - but it is not found in Middlemarch.

Where the culture critic who remained critical and serious should sense the obligation to interpret the representations and symbolic material, as for example the change from All in the Family to The Sopranos involving the erasure of any unpleasant acknowledgements of the discomfort of real class stresses (working for a living), Willis abdicates or evades, shields her eyes from signification which might distress a fanatic devotee of the programme invested in its virtue as a confirmation of the innate instinctive virtue of her tastes. Instead of interpreting the programme's content, in context of history, genre, tradition, medium, instituion, etc, Willis, spaniel-like, sniffs out and feasts on the bits of bloody meat that are the pomo references (to Freud, for example, or Queer Theory or Billy Budd), these mere flashes that, as Jameson explained, create an illusion of content without the substance, empty passing mentions scattered through the otherwise formulaic dialogue and scenes precisely to distract, delight and defang the submissive critic who has lost her mind.

Tony Soprano is the entrepreneurial Archie Bunker, criminalised for glamour and fashionable intertextuality, but also for ideology's sake, for television's purpose is to disguise the reality of social life in the guise of exposing it, and among the things television must, and the Sopranos does expertly, conceal is the distance between the mythic condition of the small businessman/entrepreneur in the US and the real situation.

But putting Willis' particular case of commodity fanaticism and the details of the individual commodity which has provoked it aside for the moment, clearly much had changed in both mainstream and progressive dissident attitudes toward corporate mass culture since the days (beginning in the 70s) when feminist, anti-racist and anti-imperialist critics, radical and reformist, began seriously (in the academy and in a growing field of hip journalism) to look at both popular culture and mass culture commodities in search of an understanding of the symbolic and ideological aspects of class rule and the reproduction of social relations of inequality, opression and exploitation. At some point - not so long ago, perhaps 1999 - a rival function of cultural criticism, disguised as the perfection of this critical, emancipatory project, arose, and now we see that the dominant production, in both academia and hip journalism, is purely promotional, a branch of marketing. Culture critics who have lost their minds and succumbed to commodity fanaticism have reverted to the deployment, on culture commodities, not of the arsenal of critical practises developed by the radical criticism of the 70s, 80s and 90s, but of scarcely updated criteria of literary criticism and art appreciation established in the 19th century, from various formalisms to moral functionalism which in its current incarnation proposes to evaluate television programmes and movies almost solely with regard to the mass media's imagined social function of delivering democratic representation.

This latter position holds - reasonably enough - that one must welcome something like Queer Eye for a Straight Guy if only because the increased visibility of likeable gay men on television seems to reduce expressions of homophobia and violence against gay men. Not every claim of this kind is true, but the type of claim and its argument is undeniably valid, though not as a defence against full interpretation and critical exegesis of the culture commodity which has this positive trait. Unsurprisingly, however, the logic is rarely accepted thoroughly by those who deploy it, but is usually deployed opportunistically (a characteristic of commodity fanaticism is this opportunistic shuffling of criteria, axioms and critical practises) - programmes are not open to criticism, usually, on the grounds that they fail to perform such positive functions. It is a merit but not after all an obligation for television "art". And worse, the criterion can, under the influence of passionate enough commodity fanaticism, be called upon in a distorted way to justify programmes and movies which actually demonstrably incite or aggravate prejudices, hatred and violence against people conforming to a type presented as such, on the grounds that the type derives from and reflects "reality" and that real people referred to by this fictional type (say, clockers) benefit from being visible on television even if presented as terrifying, heartless, dangerous and needing to be incarcerated or annihilated, so best to be down with from the safety of the other side of the fictional bullet proof flat screen of the tv.

Monday, February 22, 2010

HOPE II: Can Disaster Capitalists Save Haiti?

Can low-paying garment industry save Haiti?

By JONATHAN M. KATZ, Associated Press Writer – Sun Feb 21, 5:24 pm ET

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – Jordanie Pinquie Rebeca leans forward and guides a piece of suit-jacket wool and its silky lining into a sewing machine, where — bat! bat! bat! — they're bound together to be hemmed.

If she does this for eight hours, she will earn $3.09. Her boss will ship the pinstriped suit she helped make to the United States, tariff-free. There a shopper will buy it from JoS. A. Bank Clothiers for $550.

In the quest to rebuild Haiti, the international community and business leaders are dusting off a pre-quake plan to expand its low-wage garment assembly industry as a linchpin of recovery. President Barack Obama's administration is on board, encouraging U.S. retailers to obtain from Haiti at least 1 percent of the clothes they sell.

But will that save a reeling country whose economy must be built from scratch?

Few Haitians have steady incomes, and unemployment is unmeasurable; before the quake it was estimated at between 60 and 80 percent. In cities, most scrape by selling in the streets, doing odd jobs or relying on remittances from abroad that make up a quarter of Haiti's $7 billion gross domestic product.

Garments are central to the economic growth plan commissioned by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon last year, a 19-page report written by Oxford University economics professor Paul Collier and promoted by former President Bill Clinton as special envoy to the impoverished nation.

They say the sector could quickly produce hundreds of thousands of jobs thanks chiefly to two things: an existing preferential trade deal with the nearby United States, and cheap Haitian labor.

The deal is the Haiti Hemispheric Opportunity through Partnership Encouragement Act, or "HOPE II." Passed by the U.S. Congress in 2008, it lets Haiti export textiles duty-free to the U.S. for a decade. Last year, $513 million worth of Haitian-made apparel, the bulk of exports, was shipped with labels including Hanes and New Balance. Factory profit margins average about 22 percent, according to Washington-based Nathan Associates Inc.

The cheap labor is Jordanie Pinquie Rebeca, and others like her.

During a recent shift at the South Korean-owned factory where she works six days a week, employees softly sang a Creole hymn beneath the hot fluorescent lights: "Lord, take my hand. Bring me through."

It was HOPE II that persuaded the bosses to move their Dominican plant and rename it DKDR Haiti SA. Nearly all the 1,200 people still working there after the quake make the new "outsourcing" minimum wage of 125 gourdes a day, about $3.09 — approximately the same as the minimum wage in 1984 and worth less than half its previous purchasing power.

Pay was even lower last year when lawmakers raised the country's minimum from $1.72 a day to almost $5 in response to protests. But owners complained, and President Rene Preval refused to enact the law. A compromise allowed non-garment workers to receive the higher minimum, but stuck factory workers with the "outsourcing" wage.

DKDR complied but cut production-based incentives, according to general manager Chun Ho Lee. Producing 600 pieces in a day used to yield a worker a bonus of $2.47. Now it's worth $1.23.

Rebeca, though stylish in her paperboy hat and spaghetti-strap dress, sleeps on the street and barely eats. With a day's pay she can buy a cupful of rice and transport via group taxi, and pay down debt on her now-destroyed apartment. Anything left over goes to cell phone minutes to call her boyfriend, who was evacuated to the Dominican Republic with a leg fracture sustained in the quake, or her 4-year-old son, Mike, whom she sent to live with relatives in the countryside.

Meanwhile, holding that low-paying job makes it tough to get handouts from relief workers.

"The foreigners are giving people food outside, but I can't get anything. I have to stay here working all day," she said.

All sides agree that garment-industry wages are too low to feed, clothe and house workers and their families. Even factory owners acknowledge that reality — though they deny running sweatshops and say the businesses have an important role.

"It's not enough to make a decent living, but it's the first step" toward economic recovery, said George Sassine, president of the Association of Industries of Haiti.

Others said relying too much on clothing assembly is risky.

"The garment sector is creating trouble for the economy because of social tensions and the low wages," said prominent Haitian economist Kesner Pharel.

Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive, himself an economist, said that while the garment industry shouldn't be ignored, increased investment should be sought in more enduring sectors such as agriculture and tourism.

Still others fear a return to darker times: Under the brutal Duvalier dictatorships that ended in the mid-1980s, a small elite reaped the profits from facilities that assembled garments, baseballs and toys for sale in the U.S.

Last month's earthquake cracked the metal-roofed DKDR building's walls and prompted a costly, two-week shutdown. Another company's factory, west of the capital in Carrefour, collapsed entirely, killing at least 300 workers.

But garment industry production has already rebounded to 80 or 90 percent of capacity, and the boosters' enthusiasm is unshaken.

In a recent opinion piece published in The New York Times, Collier likened the moment to the opening of the American West: "The earthquake could usher in such a boom in Haiti."

There are currently 25,000 garment jobs, three-quarters less than there were 20 years ago. Most are in the same industrial park where DKDR's plant is located. Owners want to expand to two new sites outside Port-au-Prince in line with government wishes to reduce pressure in the debris-choked capital where most of the 200,000 quake victims died.

At an October investors conference, Clinton laid out a vision for Haiti's economy in which garments play a central role: "The rich will get richer, but there will be a much, much bigger middle class, with poor people pouring into it at a rapid rate."

For Haitians like Rebeca, who is unable to find other work, the chances of making that leap seem dim.

"We're just fighting to survive," she said, sewing.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

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Tee-hee Party