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Vol. 28 No. 14 · 20 July 2006

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Planet Wal-Mart

John Lanchester writes that ‘the most damaging damage done by Wal-Mart is in the developing world,’ citing as instances the 189,000 seamstresses employed in Bangladesh in conditions that he and I would find unspeakably harsh, and the imports from China to Wal-Mart of $18 billion per year (LRB, 22 June). Does Lanchester imagine that Wal-Mart has created the poverty in Bangladesh and China that makes their citizens willing to accept such conditions? Has he any idea how many hundreds of millions of people live in conditions of subsistence farming and agricultural labour, and how awful that life is? Subsistence farmers and agricultural labourers do not tend to feature in documentaries made by Western film-makers, or in political analysis written by Western novelists, perhaps because there are fewer obvious villains to blame for their poverty. But no one has suggested a credible long-term solution to that poverty apart from the expansion of labour-intensive industrial employment. Unlike the inhabitants of the US prison at Guantánamo Bay to which Lanchester refers, most workers in Asian factories are not trying to return to the way they lived before: they are hoping to climb further up the ladder that many Western campaigners want to kick away entirely.

Regulation of labour standards is right and necessary, not least to reduce workers’ vulnerability when they place their livelihoods in the hands of managers who may unilaterally rewrite the terms of the deal. And Lanchester is right that a company like Wal-Mart could do a lot of good by committing itself openly to such standards rather than having to be forced. But should these be much better than they currently are, at the price of employing many fewer of the rural poor, or will the expansion of the demand for cheap labour eventually make such labour less cheap, as seems to be happening in China and parts of India? Contrary to what Lanchester writes about Wal-Mart ‘sucking standards down across the world’, increasing labour demand tends to raise standards rather than lower them. This is not economic sophistry but common sense: how could companies recruit workers on such a scale if they offered worse conditions than those elsewhere?

No one imagines Wal-Mart is in the business out of charitable motives, but it’s the effects that matter. To imply that Wal-Mart and companies like it are the root of world poverty rather than a necessary component of the solution is a bit of crowd-pleasing that does no favours to the poor.

Paul Seabright
Toulouse, France

John Lanchester writes: I entirely agree with Paul Seabright’s last paragraph. It would be absurd to say that ‘Wal-Mart and companies like it are the root of world poverty.’ I’m not clear what the connection with my piece is, though, since I don’t think that and didn’t say it.

If Seabright knows a practical way in which we can help the rural poor of the developing world, I would be eager to know what it is. The people we can do a little bit to help are the factory workers of the developing world, and the way in which we can help them is by pressuring their employers to obey the already existing laws about their conditions of employment. Does he really think Robina Akther, the Bangladeshi factory worker I quoted, should just shut up and accept being beaten, and be grateful for the chance to work? The statement that Wal-Mart is ‘sucking standards down all over the world’ did not come from me, and is an opinion widely shared by students of the subject. I’d be interested in evidence to the contrary; if Seabright knows any, I notice he doesn’t cite it. I did not make a general argument about trade but a specific one about Wal-Mart. We aren’t talking about 35-hour weeks and the like. We’re only talking about obeying the law.

It would be nice to think that Seabright is right, that things will gradually get better of their own accord, and the invisible hand of the market will magically make everything all right. But I think he is missing the point that for the first time companies can access an effectively infinite pool of extremely low-cost labour. Standards in Chinese factories will improve: a. never, b. because of ethical pressure exerted by Western consumers, or c. because the Chinese are running out of cheap labour. Seabright thinks c. I disagree. I also think that even if he were right, we would still be under an obligation to know and care about the conditions under which our consumer goods are made.

This week Hitler saw …

I wonder what Jeremy Adler’s source is for the claim that Hitler heard Tristan around fifty times in one year (LRB, 6 July). If it’s Hitler himself I’m pretty sure it’s hyperbole: apart from the unlikelihood of his finding the time (and if in Vienna, the money) to see it virtually once a week, there’s also the question of opportunity. Were there really fifty performances for him to see?

Colin Matthews
London SW11

Colonial War

Anna Neistat powerfully evokes the realities of life in Chechnya, and the systemic brutality of Ramzan Kadyrov’s rule (LRB, 6 July). The ongoing catastrophe of the war there has vanished from the world’s consciences and TV screens, so the publication of such reports is to be welcomed, especially as Putin’s neo-authoritarian turn has made them increasingly rare. She also makes some important points about the West’s connivance in the Chechen disaster, and is right to stress the feebleness of excuses based on a desire not to anger Russia or endanger Europe’s gas supplies: Nato and EU enlargement have proceeded without any thought for such niceties, and Russia is just as dependent on European demand for gas as the continent is on Russian supply. (Gas flowed constantly through pipelines across the Iron Curtain throughout the Cold War, amply demonstrating the same point.)

But at no stage does Neistat address the fundamental source of the conflict, which remains the question of Chechen independence. Indeed, at several points she makes errors which serve to elide the matter altogether. She refers to Akhmad Kadyrov, who was killed in 2004, as ‘the republic’s last president’. This is the view from Moscow. Kadyrov was ‘elected’ in 2003 in a fraudulent poll in which 20,000 occupying soldiers were eligible to vote, but from which huge numbers of ordinary Chechens abstained. The last legitimately elected president of Chechnya was in fact Aslan Maskhadov, who in 1997 won an election validated by the OSCE and recognised by Russia’s own president; he was assassinated by Moscow’s Chechen proxies in 2005. No vote held in Chechnya since the Russian invasion in 1999 can have any democratic legitimacy or credibility, since all candidates have been pre-approved by the occupying power, and all those sympathising with the cause of independence barred from running – thus removing the principal issue from the agenda.

Whenever the Chechens have been given a genuinely free choice, they have opted for leaders who support the idea of independence: Dzhokhar Dudaev in 1991, Maskhadov in 1997. The latter, as Neistat says, presided over a period of ‘lawlessness and increasing Islamic fundamentalism’, but the disasters of interwar Chechnya should above all be laid at the door of Russia, whose military reduced the country to rubble, and whose government choked off any possibility of diplomatic recognition for Chechnya, and hence aid, while also refusing to honour its own obligations to fund reconstruction. Moreover, when one takes into account the level of devastation inflicted on Chechnya during the war of 1994-96, the countless atrocities against civilians and the network of torture camps the Russians established there from the war’s outset, Neistat’s assertion that, by 1999, the Chechens ‘wanted the Russians to come and clear the republic of the “wahhabis"’ is ludicrous, as is the notion that it was ‘Russia’s indiscriminate brutality’ that subsequently ‘destroyed their trust’. The Chechens knew perfectly well what was in store when Russian tanks rolled across the border in 1999; what little trust there ever had been was destroyed by the same tanks several years earlier.

Such slips are exacerbated by a more significant occlusion. In Neistat’s piece, separatist forces appear merely as ‘fighters’, ‘occasionally carrying out attacks on police vehicles or military convoys’. The threat seems minimal; the widespread use of torture by Kadyrov’s militias therefore seems a senseless rampage. But Kadyrov’s terrifying reign of violence has its logic. He needs to strike fear into every family because in every family there is someone connected to the resistance; he needs to torture people for information because it would otherwise be withheld; it would be withheld because he is a ruler whom no one in Chechnya chose, engaged in a battle against his own people.

This is the logic of a colonial war which Moscow has sought to portray as an ‘anti-terrorist operation’ and is now busily repackaging as a civil war between Chechens. Both these efforts have proven dismally successful in Western media and government circles, to the extent that even critics of Putin give little indication of disagreeing with his stance on Chechnya’s juridical status. Objections largely relate to the methods of the Russian army and Kadyrov’s militias, rather than the key political question of Chechnya’s right to self-determination. But there is nothing arbitrary about these methods: they are a targeted means of strangling Chechen aspirations to independence. Were Western governments merely to pressure Putin to rein in Kadyrov – as Neistat and other commentators urge – the occupation would continue, and the same poisonous dynamics of counter-insurgency would still apply. Neistat is right to insist that Russia be held to account ‘for its brutal and illegal policies’; but there can be no impetus for this to happen unless the outside world ceases to evade the real substance of the conflict.

Tony Wood
London NW5

Double Whammy

Maya Jasanoff, opposing the essential truth (despite factual errors) of Edward Said’s Orientalism to the ‘fundamentally insupportable’ case made for the Afro-Asiatic roots of ancient Greece in Black Athena, contrives thereby a double insult (LRB, 8 June). Said once told me that among the things he most admired about Black Athena was Martin Bernal’s explicit commitment to the principle of relative plausibility in theory construction, and his scrupulous acknowledgment of critics who challenged his hypothetical etymologies. Ironically, Jasanoff’s concession to Orientalism, ‘passé’ though she thinks it is – that its central argument has survived close criticism, that it has been a fertile inspiration within the world of scholarship, and that it reveals the way in which knowledge always has a politics – certainly applies to Bernal’s magnum opus. Indeed, Black Athena and Orientalism belong side by side as 20th-century beacons in the struggle against defamation and racism.

Iain Boal
Berkeley, California

Jumping the Shark

Jenny Turner suggests that the expression ‘jumping the shark’, as it pertains to the decline of long-running television series, means ‘dropping with a lurch’ (LRB, 22 June). In fact, it means inserting ludicrous plot devices in a desperate attempt to boost ratings. The locus classicus is an episode at the beginning of the fifth season of Happy Days, in which the Fonz leaps on water skis over a shark. Happy Days went on to run for a further six seasons.

Bill Grantham
Los Angeles

Ourselves to Ourselves

David Simpson asks: ‘Can we imagine a world in which we do not invest our built environment with the function of representing ourselves to ourselves as culturally alive?’ (LRB, 25 May). Imagine it? I grew up there (in Don Mills, Canada’s first planned community).

Eleanor Allen

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