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Bastille Day, Individualism and the Concept of Progress—in 1939

La Prise de La Bastille

 Prise de la Bastille, by Jean-Pierre Houël (1789)

Are we to ignore the 225th anniversary of the storming of the Bastille?

Sure, there is Kurdistan to think of, the fate of Central American child refugees to consider, a highway funding bill to craft.

But seventy-five years ago, on the 150th anniversary, there were also a few distractions. Adolf Hitler, for instance, was threatening to take over Europe, first, and then the world. The very flame of enlightenment itself flickered and seemed about to go out.

Crane Brinton was a Harvard professor of history and perhaps the world’s foremost scholar of the French Revolution; his 1938 book The Anatomy of Revolution, which divined similar patterns in various revolutions, remains highly influential. In an essay titled “The Bastille Tradition,” published in the July 15, 1939, issue of The Nation, Brinton contemplated the meaning of the event on the eve of what he predicted would be “changes which, in pure logic, are quite antithetical to what the men of 1789 were striving for.” His remarkable essay is reprinted in full below:

The fall of the Bastille was a marked day from the start. Even in Tsarist Moscow enlightened gentlemen put candles in their windows when the news came. The very first anniversary, July 14, 1790, was celebrated at Paris with impressive ceremonies at the Champ de Mars. It rained, perhaps in retrospect a not unhappy symbol; for the democratic faith in which July 14 is one of the holy days has had to prove itself no fair-weather faith. Now, on the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the taking of the old feudal castle by the people of Paris, it still looks very much like rain. But, here and there all over the world, men will still celebrate the fall of the Bastille.

What are they celebrating? In France and the French dominions, they are in part celebrating a French national holiday. As an element in the culte de la patrie, July 14 is now so firmly established that it might well survive changes which, in pure logic, are quite antithetical to what the men of 1789 were striving for. Even a fascist France would probably have to make room for July 14, as the anti-clerical Third Republic has had to make room for Saint Joan of Arc. But Bastille Day, even more than the Fourth of July, is not just a national holiday. To the rest of the world, and to most Frenchmen, it is a memorial to the “principles of 1776 and 1789,” to ideas common to Western democracy.

These ideas are to be found in eighteenth-century political writers of almost every nationality, in the American Declaration of Independence and Bills of Rights, and in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen which followed hard on Bastille Day. About their meaning and application historians and political theorists have debated endlessly. Was the French Declaration, for instance, intended to protect the individual citizen against the tyranny of the government, or, on the contrary, was it meant to clear away the complicated web of surviving medieval restraints and associations in order to make the Leviathan state supreme over the helpless individual citizen? Is Rousseau’s “Social Contract” at bottom an individualistic or a collectivistic document? So complicated are political processes that the answers men give to these and similar questions are confusingly at variance. Four years after 1789 Robespierre, who certainly thought of himself as a good child of the Revolution, could justify the Reign of Terror as “the despotism of liberty against tyranny.” Nevertheless, if we go behind words to the sentiments, habits, and ways of life which words crudely bring together and focus, we find that after one hundred and fifty years Bastille Day still has concrete meaning for us.

In the first place, the storming of the Bastille was an act of defiance against vested authority, a dramatic and concrete assertion that men can and will overthrow a government with which they are dissatisfied. It is true historically that the governments brought in by such revolutionary acts have not been slow to claim for themselves all sorts of imprescriptible authority. Jefferson’s generous willingness to contemplate the necessity for a revolution every twenty years or so has not usually been characteristic of successful revolutionists. It is also true that this revolutionary heritage has helped to breed a blind and foolish hatred of all governmental action, a hatted which skillful conservatives have often put to the paradoxical use of preventing political and economic change. Yet both for good and for bad, this vague feeling that there is nothing particularly sacred or final in anything a government does is one of the realities often disguised as “individualism.” It is not, even in France and in the United States, a feeling so strong and universal as to come anywhere near what the political theorist calls anarchism. The crisis over President Roosevelt’s Supreme Court plan taught us that even in the land where good citizens leave their cars under “No Parking” signs and picnic where “No Trespassing” is allowed, some governmental arrangements are almost sacred and final.

In the second place—and this is most important—the revolutionary tradition is tied up with an attitude which, for purposes of analysis, we shall have to call metaphysical. Like most such attitudes, it is not with most men consciously and elaborately worked out in words, as the professional philosopher likes to work it out. But to deny that ordinary men cherish metaphysical sentiments, and possess at least a set of stereotyped ideas to express such sentiments, is to be guilty of a very grave intellectualist fallacy. Briefly, the reason why no governmental arrangement is final in the democratic faith is that in this faith nothing is final, nothing absolute. Governments are made by human beings who cannot possibly be right all of the time.

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It is clear that this operational conception of truth is at variance with some very fundamental human dispositions. No orthodox Christian theologian, for instance, can entirely accept it: it is, however, the basic assumption of what we call natural science, and, if only through the triumphs of applied science, it has played a great and obvious part in the modern world. In its naked form of scientific skepticism, it seems clearly too much for ordinary men to bear, since in our daily lives habit and conditioning must put on something of the absolute. But in such modified forms as the nineteenth-century doctrines of evolution and progress, it has penetrated down into cultural levels for which the intellectual is likely to have a good deal of contempt. Try and tell most Americans that the idea of progress is meaningless! Not even the perfected totalitarian state has dared jettison the concept of progress.

Politically, these notions of government as a set of arrangements necessarily subject to change lead to the third general underlying characteristic of the democratic tradition: that government will change most readily which is conducted on the principle of the freest possible discussion. Since decisions must somehow be made, discussion will be followed by voting, and the wishes of the majority will prevail. But not forever. Renewed discussion will bring new problems and new majorities. From this there follows the apparatus of democratic government with which we are all familiar—universal suffrage, universal education, freedom of speech and of association, guaranties to minorities and to the individual, and, in practice, a party system of “ins” and “outs.”

Such we take to be, in very, simple form, the basic tradition of 1776 and 1789: a government by discussion in which all may take part, a belief in the necessity of change, a willingness in the final pinch to appeal to armed revolution to obtain change. There is a good deal else in the tradition, but on this much .at least almost all the faithful would agree. It is a tradition still alive today, one hundred and fifty years after it received its most dramatic modern assertion, but a tradition never unchallenged, and today challenged with especial vigor. Large parts of Europe which played no small part in forming the tradition appear to have repudiated it entirely.

Moreover, within the democratic states themselves, fascist-minded groups are articulate and aggressive, while the democrats are confused and discouraged. The attempt to apply to the study of social problems methods successful in the natural sciences—an attempt thoroughly in accord with the democratic tradition—has added to the discomfiture of the democrats by casting doubt on some of their fundamental assumptions. The social science of the eighteenth-century founders of our tradition seems now to have been based on an untenable intellectualism. We simply cannot now think of man as a rational animal in the way a Holbach, a Godwin, or even a Bentham once thought of him. Experience has taken some of the rationalistic bloom off “government by discussion.” To say this, however, is perhaps no more than to say that the eighteenth century cannot prescribe for the twentieth—which is in itself a statement in full accord with the democratic tradition. Holbach and Tom Paine may not have the whole answer to our contemporary dictators, but does this mean that there is no democratic answer? Surely not. A renewed democratic tradition may lack the freshness and innocence of the golden days that followed the fall of the Bastille (they were, by the way, very brief days), but it will still prove a going tradition.

Democracy has been a relatively rare political phenomenon, and would seem to depend for its existence on favoring conditions that in the past have been very difficult to maintain. Montesquieu was being more realistic than his vocabulary might now indicate when he said that the mainspring of a republic is “virtue.” He seems to have meant that government by free discussion depends on those who discuss being pretty decent fellows, patient, good-tempered,’ informed, sensible, industrious, conditioned not to expect the impossible from themselves or from others. Thinkers as different as Plato, Aristotle, Polybius, and Machiavelli are in surprising agreement with Montesquieu. But we need not fall into Utopian exactions: the thing is a matter of balance, of something like a statistical generalization. A going democracy can absorb, or keep down, a lot of unfit material. Dozens of potential Hitlers are probably displaying their indecencies in the half-worlds of our big cities, as Hitler once displayed his in a Viennese poorhouse. A going democracy can put up with a considerable number of grafters, racketeers, pimps, show-offs, and Napoleons of finance, industry, amusement, education, and what not. But not with an unlimited number. Your average citizen of a democracy has got to be a fairly good human being, even to the extent of being a little priggish about it.

Moreover, this average citizen must not be too sorely tried by circumstances. Even with such consolations as a revealed religion can afford him, he does not bear up well under prolonged adversity. The decencies necessary to the democratic life cannot long be maintained in a population subject to serious economic want, to prolonged warfare, or to great and unchanging inequalities of wealth and social esteem. A great many men, even majorities, may be lifted briefly into heroism—a battle, a camp-meeting, a crusade, the siege of a Bastille—but few inductions from history are more certain than that this inhuman pitch of effort and excitement can not and does not last long. Populations long exposed to conditions that would try the endurance of a hero do not behave heroically—or democratically. They howl for a savior, and usually get him, and his name is often Hitler.

What is less obvious, and less studied—North Whitehead has made a beginning—is the upsetting effect of industrial and economic changes on the apparently necessary routines to which even democratic workers are conditioned. We have said that democracy depends on change. So it does, but clearly some changes can be made too fast and too recklessly. Democracy also depends on various subtle and none too well recognized balances. It may be that our efficiency engineers are too far ahead of democracy, and that not in a strictly Veblenian sense.

What we have managed to make of the heritage of 1776 and 1789 in the last century and a half has been influenced in large measure by the expansion of our civilization on two frontiers: the external frontier of empty lands in the Americas, Australia, Africa, and Siberia, and the internal frontier of applied science—the industrial revolution. The first, we are told often enough, is almost shut; the second also seems to be closing a bit, but for reasons less unavoidable. There is always the hope that applied science may yet include applied social science. If it does we shall have an almost boundless frontier for democratic expansion.

Democracy is in for harder sledding than it had throughout most of the nineteenth century. Yet it still seems to promote certain ways of life, even disciplines, which lead to adaptability, initiative, and cooperation, and these are assets in the most ruthlessly Darwinian of worlds. It has survived a lot in the last 150 years—dicta-tors like the two Napoleons, contrary faiths, at least two world wars, and some economic depressions which, judging from the newspapers of the time, must have seemed almost as bad as this one. It is now, if in no heroic measure, some part of the personal emotions of millions of Frenchmen, Englishmen, Americans, and Scandinavians, and, though for the moment suppressed, of Germans, Italians, Spaniards, and Russians as well. It is a part of the way we see the world. This sesquicentennial anniversary may be celebrated under a cloud, but the chance that our children will celebrate a bicentennial anniversary in 1989 is at least as good as the chance that in 1973 Italy will celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Rome, or that Germany in 1983 will hail the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the Third Reich. For the external frontier is as closed to the totalitarians as it is to us; and we may believe that with all our failings the internal frontier, which is the frontier of human intelligence, foresight, and decency, is more accessible to us than to them.

Brinton died in 1968.

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Curious about how we covered something? E-mail me at rkreitner@thenation.com. Subscribers to The Nation can access our fully searchable digital archive, which contains thousands of historic articles, essays and reviews, letters to the editor and editorials dating back to July 6, 1865.

Read Next: More from Back Issues, Great War and the Immiediate Response to Franz Ferdinand’s Assassination

In Politics and Art, ‘Stories Are Dangerous’

Anne Bogart

Anne Bogart (Screenshot Courtesy CUNY TV/YouTube)

Something to keep in mind this political season comes from the theater world. “Stories are dangerous,” even “fascistic,” says Anne Bogart, artistic director of the SITI Company and author of the new book What’s the Story: Essays about Art, Theater and Storytelling.

Humans have always told stories, myths and fables to impose order and meaning on life, of course. But, speaking on public radio’s The Really Big Questions with host Dean Olsher this weekend, Bogart said there are two ways to tell stories: There’s the “fascistic” way, which she defines as telling “a story that has everybody feeling the same thing.” (She says that’s why she doesn’t like Spielberg.) “The other way to tell a story,” she says,

is to create moments in which every audience feels something different or has different associations. Much, much trickier. It requires more responsibility…. And I say fascistic and I mean it literally. The role of fascist art was to make one feel small and the same. And the role of humanist art—I would just make up a name—is for everyone to feel that they take up a lot of space and that they have an imaginative and associative part to play.

Olsher: Stories can mesmerize us. In fact, research is showing us that stories break down our critical function and we are suckers for stories. That doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy them as art, but when they start to get into our politics, which they do in a big way, and even in our science, that’s when I get scared for us.

Bogart: Stories are super-dangerous, and I think it’s why most of my life I resisted them. And yet… a story is a tool. So the question is, how can you be responsible with stories, and can you find room for discourse inside of stories? It’s just too easy for stories, as I said, to be fascistic. But I do not believe that we’re ever going to get away from stories, and so therefore we have to learn how live with them or live in relationship with them.

Olsher: They are propaganda, aren’t they?

Bogart: Oh, absolutely. I use stories all the time to get my point across, and that’s a kind of propaganda, too—to talk people into my point of view. And they’re powerful and they’re seductive.

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Listen to Bogart here, and listen here to Olsher analyze the power of stories with other guests, including psychologist Melanie Green, who says that stories influence our behavior and beliefs even when we know they’re false.

Read Next: Greg Mitchell on racial politics in theater

The Preordained: Why LeBron James Was Always Coming Back to Cleveland

LeBron James

Cleveland Cavaliers fans cheer as then-Cav LeBron James takes the floor in the 2007 NBA playoffs. (AP Photo/Amy Sancetta)

In 2013, I predicted that LeBron James would shock the world and return to the Cleveland Cavaliers. Many, “insiders” with pipelines into executive suites and owners’ boxes said there was no way this would happen. The consensus was that the four-time-MVP would never marry the last years of his prime to a profoundly dysfunctional franchise and a wretched team owner, Dan Gilbert, who insulted James like a bratty adolescent on his way out of town.

All logic said they were right. But I still thought they were wrong and was confident, even throughout this last Bynum-and-Bailey circus of a season in Cleveland, that LeBron would find his way home. I apologize for this self-aggrandizing “snoopy dance” over my predicting something correctly, especially when my personal record of predictions is, on the whole, wretched. (My belief that a Zach Randolph, Eddy Curry–led Knicks team would make the 2008 NBA finals remains a sore subject.)

But for me, the idea that James would return to Cleveland, no matter how much of a train wreck of a franchise it had become, seemed preordained, even obvious, to anyone paying attention to his off-court persona. First of all, LeBron James is the most “meta”, self-aware, consciously cinematic athlete we have ever seen. If Michael Jordan was the superstar of his own blockbuster movie, LeBron has always aspired to be actor, producer and director. Every step he takes has one eye on posterity. “The Decision” of 2010, when LeBron “took [his] talents to South Beach”, which brought him the rings that he craved but left hurt feelings and bad vibes in its wake, did not fit the script that LeBron James had already written in his own mind. If LeBron sees himself as Martin Scorsese, The Decision was his Bringing Out the Dead. By coming home to possibly bring a sports championship to the city of Cleveland for the first time since 1964, LeBron James can make Goodfellas. He can produce and direct his own magnum opus even—perhaps especially—if it means an ending where he’s eating egg noodles and ketchup.

Securing a title for Cleveland would establish a legend far greater than winning multiple championships in Miami. Dragging a snake-bitten city to the heights of the sports world and smashing on all of the Modellian bad karma in his path would establish a narrative singularly his own. Choosing to return to Cleveland, a city that has lost almost a fifth of its population over the last two decades, makes him a prospective folk hero.

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LeBron, as I wrote in 2013, has always aspired to be something more than a collection of specialty sneakers. Early in his career, he said he wanted to be a “global icon like Muhammad Ali” without the clearest sense about what that meant. In recent years, by speaking out for Trayvon Martin or becoming the first prominent NBA player to say that Donald Sterling had no business in the league, it seemed like he was figuring out what Jordan never did: that “being Ali” meant standing for something bigger than yourself.

By going back to Cleveland, LeBron is embracing his power as someone transformative, someone who could be, without cliché or Nike branding, more than an athlete. By making all the haters, from Dan Gilbert to the fans who burned his jersey, to the vicious media voices, sob in gratitude over his return, he is making this about more than just his own redemption, but theirs as well. Even by insisting on maximum money and not succumbing to the owner-friendly media-driven narrative that stars should accept less “for the good of the team”, he is doing right by young players currently getting hosed by a boss-friendly collective bargaining agreement. It may take some time to make it all work in Cleveland, but by shouldering the burden of a city’s collective damaged psyche and demonstrating the power to rebuild the most burned of bridges, LeBron is going for folk-hero status. He is attempting to produce the ultimate movie of his athletic life. Succeed or fail, it will be a collective thrill to see him try to write the final act. In other words, he’s already won.

 

Read Next: Dave Zirin on the Real Losers of the World Cup

No Water For Motown: Why Detroit Is Denying Its Citizens This Basic Human Right

Detroit River

Detroit skyline seen across the Detroit River from the riverwalk in Windsor, Ontario (Bernt Rostad/CC 2.0)

When Netroots Nation convenes its 9th annual conference in Detroit this month, I hope that attendees arrive pre-hydrated. Because despite living at the hub of the largest group of freshwater lakes on the planet—taken together, the Great Lakes represent more than one-fifth of the world’s surface freshwater—Detroit residents are running out of running water. They’re also running into city and state bureaucracies that, alarmingly, don’t seem to care.

In March, when the winter freeze finally began to thaw, Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD), the city’s public utility, announced that it would resume shutting off water to delinquent customers, at a rate of 1,500 to 3,000 per week. As a result, some 40 percent of DWSD customers will lose their water supply by the end of the summer; 70,000 of these customers are residential, which means that 200,000 to 300,000 Detroiters could be directly affected. This is, to be sure, a public health crisis.

The city would have an easier time explaining itself if it were being at all consistent in its treatment of delinquent customers. In a New York Times op-ed, journalist Anna Clark noted that Joe Louis Arena, home of the National Hockey League’s Red Wings, was $82,255 in arrears on its water bill as of last April; Ford Field, where the NFL’s Detroit Lions play, owes more than $55,000; and city-owned golf courses owe more than $400,000. No date has been set to give these commercial customers their shut-off notices. Meanwhile, Clark writes, “the city is going after any customers who are more than sixty days late and owe at least $150.”

In a Los Angeles Times op-ed that (sadly) compares Detroit to Donetsk, Michael Hiltzik writes bitterly that in Ukraine, “[W]arring pro- and anti-Russian forces are using basic necessities of life, such as water, as weapons against the civilian population….The same thing is happening in Detroit, where city officials have subjected the civilian population to mass shutoffs of water for past-due bills, then placed bureaucratic obstacles in the way getting service restored.” And it’s service, mind you, that’s seen a 119 percent rate increase over the last ten years, including an 8.7 percent uptick approved by the city council just last month.

The average monthly water bill for a family of four in Detroit is nearly double the national average. Chris Hayes reported on MSNBC that, though the E.P.A. recommends that families spend no more than 2.5 percent of their pretax income on water and sewage, some residents of Detroit pay 20 percent of their pretax income for these services. Those who can’t pay face a shutoff—and a stigmatizing blue slash of paint in front of their houses, signifying that they are, in fact, waterless.

On June 18, four advocacy groups—Detroit People’s Water Board, the Blue Planet Project, Food & Water Watch, and the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization—submitted to the United Nations a report documenting the situation. In response this week, UN experts condemned DWSD, noting, “Disconnection of water services because of failure to pay due to lack of means constitutes a violation of the human right to water and other international human rights.” Catarina de Albuquerque, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the Right to Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation and Senior Legal Adviser at the Prosecutor General’s Office, continued, “Disconnections due to non-payment are only permissible if it can be shown that the resident is able to pay but is not paying. In other words, when there is genuine inability to pay, human rights simply forbids disconnections.”

And as if depriving people of a basic human right isn’t outrageous enough, the byzantine legal and financial machinations behind the city’s actions are truly galling. The details, as described in Counterpunch by Detroit lawyer Tom Stephens, are dizzying—even the oversimplified Godfather analogy that he uses to analogize the city’s shady dealings requires a careful parsing—but they boil down to the simple premise that Motown values its financial-institution creditors more than its own citizens. It’s but another example of the 1 Percent’s preferences taking precedence over the Ninety-nine’s necessities. Indeed, many believe that DWSD’s strong-arm tactics are part of a larger plan to make the utility more attractive to private investors.

One of emergency city manager Kevyn Orr’s first acts was to sign off on the hiring of his former employer, Jones Day, as the law firm supervising the city’s bankruptcy—”despite the fact,” Mark Binelli wrote in The New York Times last year, “that Jones Day already represents some of the very banks holding said debt, including JPMorgan Chase and Bank of America.” (Experts estimate that Detroit’s bill for Jones Day’s services will be around $100 million.) None of this is, of course, evidence of cronyism, but if it walks like a duck…

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As part of the Netroots Nation conference, National Nurses United (The union is also active in the Robin Hood Tax movement) is holding a march and rally on Friday, July 18, to condemn Detroit’s shut-off program as a violation of human rights. If you’re attending Netroots Nation, I encourage you to participate in the action, which begins at 12:30 pm outside the Cobo Center in Downtown Detroit.

“There is,” writes author and activist Jane Jacobs in the introduction to The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), “a quality even meaner than outright ugliness or disorder, and this meaner quality is the dishonest mask of pretended order, achieved by ignoring or suppressing the real order that is struggling to exist and to be served.” She could have been describing the Chapter 9 bankruptcy restructuring of Detroit. As Michigan’s brahmins work to appropriate and repurpose every last penny, they’re strangling and humiliating Detroit’s most valuable asset—that is, Detroiters themselves.

 

Read Next: John Nichols against austerity in Detroit—“Water Is a Basic Human Right.

Sherwood Anderson Has Some Notes on Ohio to Share with LeBron James

LeBron James and Sherwood Anderson

LeBron James (Photo by Keith Allison/Creative Commons) and Sherwood Anderson (photo by Carl Van Vechten/ Library of Congress)

Clever, indeed, LeBron James’s purchase of a round-trip ticket when he took his talents to South Beach in the summer of 2010. Everyone knows it is the most efficient way to travel.

But does he have something to read for the flight?

Southbound, sources tell The Nation, James was spotted with a well-thumbed copy of Thomas Wolfe’s You Can’t Go Home Again.

But northbound now, what will James (and his talents) read?

The Nation humbly submits that James could do worse than Wolfe’s predecessor, Sherwood Anderson, native and bard of the state of Ohio. Anderson’s most well-known work is Winesburg, Ohio, but more apropos, more to the point, perhaps, would be an essay Anderson published in the August 9, 1922, issue of The Nation, titled, “I’ll Say We’ve Done Well.”

From 1922 to 1925, The Nation published a series of essays called “These United States,” with contributions from some of the most prominent writers of the day: Willa Cather, Theodore Dreiser, W.E.B. Du Bois, Sinclair Lewis, H.L. Mencken, Edmund Wilson. (We have written previously on this blog about the essay on California.) Sherwood Anderson’s essay on Ohio is easily one of the best.

“In Northeast Ohio, nothing is given. Everything is earned. You work for what you have,” James declares in his Sports Illustrated announcement.

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In the essay excerpted below, Sherwood Anderson, though from the western part of the state, arrives at a similar conclusion about Ohio. He does so, however, through somewhat more roundabout, sarcastic reasoning.

I am compelled to write of the State of Ohio reminiscently and from flashing impressions I got during these last ten years, although I was born there, my young manhood was spent within its borders, and later I went back and spent another five or six years as a manufacturer in the State. And so I have always thought of myself as an Ohioan and no doubt shall always remain, inside myself, an Ohioan.

Very well, then, it is my State and there are a thousand things within it I love and as many things I do not much like at all….

Ohio is a big state. It is strong. It is the State of Harding and McKinley…. And now Ohio has got very big and very strong and its Youngstown, Cincinatti, Akron, Cleveland, Toledo, and perhaps a dozen other prosperous industrial cities can put themselves forward as being as ugly, as noisy, as dirty, and as mean in their civic spirit as any American industrial cities anywhere. “Come you men of ‘these States,’” as old Walt Whitman was so fond of saying, in his windier moods, trot out your cities. Have you a city that smells worse than Akron, that is a worse junk-heap of ugliness than Youngstown, that is more smugly self-satisfied than Cleveland, or that has missed an unbelievably great opportunity to be one of the lovely cities of the world as has the city of Cincinnati? I’ll warrant you have not. In this modern pushing American civilization of ours you other States have nothing on Ohio. Credit where credit is due, citizens. I claim that we Ohio men have taken as lovely a land as ever lay outdoors and that we have, in our towns and cities, put the old stamp of ourselves on it for keeps.

Of course, you understand, that to do this we have had to work….

To be sure, the job isn’t all done yet. There are lots of places where you can still see the green hills and every once in a while a citizen of a city like Cleveland, for example, gets a kind of accidental glimpse at the lake, but even in a big town like Chicago, where they have a lot of money and a large police force, a thing like that will happen now and then. You can’t do everything all at once. But things are getting better all the time. A little more push, a little more old zip and go, and a man over in Ohio can lead a decent life.

He can get up in the morning and go through a street where all the houses are nicely blacked up with coal soot, and into a factory where all he has to do all day long is to drill a hole in a piece of iron….Nowadays all you have to do, if you live in an up-to-date Ohio town, is to make, say, twenty-three million holes in pieces of iron, all just alike, in a lifetime. Isn’t that fine? And a night a fellow can go home thanking God, and he can walk right past the finest cinder piles and places where they dump old tin cans and everything without paying a cent….

And so, as far as I see, what I say is, Ohio is O.K.

* * *

Curious about how we covered something? E-mail me at rkreitner@thenation.com. Subscribers to The Nation can access our fully searchable digital archive, which contains thousands of historic articles, essays and reviews, letters to the editor and editorials dating back to July 6, 1865.

Read Next: The Nation Welcomes Canada Into Existence… With a Shrug ”

Against Austerity in Detroit: ‘Water Is a Human Right’

 A mother and child sit on the beach on Belle Isle in Detroit, Michigan. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

Water is a human right.

The United Nations formally “recognizes the right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation as a human right that is essential for the full enjoyment of life and all human rights.”

A new European Citizens Initiative declares, “Water is a public good, not a commodity.”

Former President Jimmy Carter writes, “Clean water is a basic human right. Without it, the other rights may not even matter. Human societies cannot be healthy, prosperous and just without adequate supplies of clean water. What could be a more basic right than clean water?”

So why are children in Detroit marching through that battered city’s downtown with signs reminding officials that “Kids Need Water to be Healthy” and “Kids Without Water Can’t Brush Their Teeth”?

Why are religious leaders being arrested when they seek to prevent the shutoff of water services to families who cannot afford to pay bloated bills?

The answer is that, thanks to Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, Detroit is again providing a stark example of what happens when right-wing officials implement an unthinking and inhumane austerity agenda. Since Snyder imposed “emergency manager” control on Detroit last year— effectively disempowering local elected officials and putting the governor and his appointees in charge—the city’s residents have faced plenty of threats from unelected “managers” who are determined to balance the books of a financially strapped city on the backs of its hardest-hit residents.

But none of those threats has been so extreme, or so dramatic in their illustration of the crisis created by austerity policies, as the rush by the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) and its for-profit contractors to shut off water to some of the poorest families in America.

Under pressure from the governor’s emergency manager, the DWSD has so far this year shut off the water for approximately 17,000 households and small businesses that owed on their bills. And that’s just the start. In a city that has been brutalized by deindustrialization— where the official unemployment rate is 14.5 percent and where the real rate is dramatically higher; where 44 percent of residents live below the poverty line—water rates have spiked by almost 120 percent over the decade. Even as the city has gone through a bankruptcy crisis, rates have continued to rise at a dramatic rate.

Families and small business owners have struggled to keep up, but today an estimated 138,000 accountsare past due— including those of roughly 90,000 low-income families. Many families have paid their bills by cutting back on other necessities, but many others are struggling— while, at the same time,Snyder’s managers are pocketing hefty checks and toying with privatization schemes that have the potential to enrich private, out-of-town interests.

The Detroit officials who have ordered the shutoffs say they are simply creating pressure to get bills paid, and argue that they are trying to do so in a responsible manner. But environmental writer Martin Lukacs counters:

The official rationale for the water shut-downs—the Detroit Water Department’s need to recoup millions collapses on inspection. Detroit’s high-end golf club, the Red Wing’s hockey arena, the Ford football stadium, and more than half of the city’s commercial and industrial users are also owing—a sum totalling $30 million. But no contractors have showed up on their doorstep.

The targeting of Detroit families is about something else. It is a ruthless case of the shock doctrine—the exploitation of natural or unnatural shocks of crisis to push through pro-corporate policies that couldn’t happen in any other circumstance.

Congressman John Conyers, D-Detroit, has called on the DWSD to stop the shutoffs, making the case that “in the 21st Century, in the wealthiest nation on earth, no one should ever go without safe, clean water.”

The congressman has aligned with the Detroit Water Brigade, a grassroots movement that is organizing to stop the shutoffs and to get water to families. They’ve drawn international support. Canadians living across the river in Windsor have been organizing to deliver water to Detroiters.

Catarina de Albuquerque, the UN special rapporteur on the right to safe drinking water and sanitation, has made it plain that “[d]isconnections due to non-payment are only permissible if it can be shown that the resident is able to pay but is not paying. In other words, when there is genuine inability to pay, human rights simply forbids disconnections.” And the Blue Planet Project, a global movement to promote water justice is petitioning President Obama (and Governor Snyder) with a message that “[t]he U.S. government is obligated to respect the human right to water and sanitation, yet the thousands of water cut-offs currently taking place in Detroit, Michigan, is a violation of this basic right.”

Conyers says the Obama administration and federal officials have options to act. In particular, he is “calling on President Obama to make available some of the $200 million still apportioned for Michigan from the Hardest Hit Fund, a reserve made available for relief from impacts of the Great Recession, for water service relief.” Additionally, the senior congressman is “requesting that US Secretary of Health and Human Services Sylvia Mathews Burwell formally designate the water crisis a public health emergency eligible for federal relief.”

But Detroiters have over the past several years come to be recognize that the plight of their city, even as it is assaulted by the governor’s austerity measures, is often neglected by federal officials.

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It will be harder to neglect Detroit in coming days, however, as Netroots Nation brings its ninth annual gathering (and Vice President Joe Biden and Senator Elizabeth Warren) to the city. And National Nurses United, the activist union that has been promoting a “Robin Hood” tax on financial speculators as an alternative to austerity cuts, is working with dozens of local, state and national groups to organize a July 18 “Turn on the Water! Tax Wall Street!” march and rally.

The registered nurses plan to “declare a public health emergency and demand a moratorium on the unprecedented water shutoffs in Detroit.”

Their message is a blunt challenge to austerity:

Gov. Snyder is allowing the tragedy to continue with an endgame of privatizing the public water department—the latest in a string of gifts to Wall Street. The historic transfer of public wealth to private hands overseen by Snyder has cost the public jobs, pensions, vital public safety services, and civic jewels like Olmstead Island Park.

Now they have come for our water.

Let’s Tax Wall Street, Get Our Money Back, and Turn on the Water!

Read Next: Katrina vaden Heuvel asks why Detroit is denying its citizens water.

The 12 Scariest Findings in the New Report on the Bundy Ranch Standoff

Bundy Ranch Protestor

An armed protester patrols a bridge near Cliven Bundy's ranch outside Bunkerville, Nevada. April 12, 2014. (Reuters/Jim Urquhart)

The standoff at the Bundy Ranch in Clark County, Nevada, has faded from the headlines, but a startling report released today by Southern Poverty Law Center warns that the incident may have some long-lasting, and potentially bloody, consequences.

Many of the militia members that flocked to the ranch were part of the anti-government Patriot Movement, an extremist movement with a long history but that gained serious steam during the Obama presidency. In 2008 there were about 150 Patriot groups nationwide—and there are over 1,000 today.

The SPLC report finds that this reawakened movement has drawn a very dangerous lesson from the standoff, which ended with the Bureau of Land Management backing off and leaving the ranch: a lesson that the federal government can be scared off by heavily armed militias.

That’s not to say the Bureau of Land Management should have engaged in a firefight, but the report makes clear the Patriot Movement has been energized by the “victory.” Already, a couple that was at the ranch undertook a headline-grabbing shooting spree in Las Vegas after getting amped for conflict weeks earlier in Clark County. The report highlights several other low-level incidents that haven’t gotten much media attention.

It also details, through interviews with militia members who were at the ranch—goaded on, also, by support from conservative politicians and media outlets—just how eager many participants were for battle. Here are the twelve scariest findings from the report:

1. “Almost overnight, thanks largely to the Bundy’s video going viral on antigovernment websites, the family’s fight with the federal government became a touchstone for various Tea Party Republicans, libertarians, antigovernment Oath Keepers and militia members, many of whom saw in the footage the beginnings of a war.”

2. “After watching the video from his home in Anaconda, Montana, 650 miles away, Ryan Payne, 30, an electrician and former soldier who had deployed twice to the Iraq war, became enraged […]

“Payne left that day with another member of his militia, Jim Lardy, and drove through the night, a few sleeping bags in tow, burning up cell phones hoping to bring every militia member they could. On April 9 he sent out an urgent call for the militias to mobilize. ‘At this time we have approximately 150 responding, but that number is growing by the hour,’ he wrote, offering directions to the Bundy ranch. ‘May God grant each and every one of you safety, wisdom and foresight, and courage to accomplish the mission we have strived for so long to bring to fruition. All men are mortal, most pass simply because it is their time, a few however are blessed with the opportunity to choose their time in performance of duty.’”

3. “In a low-lying wash where gates held the Bundy herd, an angry, heavily armed crowd grew, defying orders and engaging in a tense game of chicken with BLM rangers in riot gear demanding through loudspeakers that they disperse. They shouted profanities and gripped their weapons.

“Militia snipers lined the hilltops and overpasses with scopes trained on federal agents. What happened was not unplanned. As Payne later told the SPLC, he had ordered certain gunment ‘to put in counter sniper positions’ and others to hang behind at the rance. ‘[M]e and Mel Bundy put together the plan for the cohesion between the the Bundys and the militia…. Sending half of the guys up to support the protestors…and keep overwatch and make sure that if the BLM wanted to get froggy, that it wouldn’t be good for them.’”

4. “Writing on his blog hours after the standoff, Mike Vanderboegh, an aging government-hating propagandist from Alabama who heads the III Percent Patriots, characterized the standoff in grandiose terms. ‘It is impossible to overstate the importance of the victory won in the desert today,’ he gushed. “The feds were routed—routed. There is no word that applies. Courage is contagious, defiance is contagious, victory is contagious. Yet the war is not over.’”

5. “Ignoring the fact that Bundy and his followers were the ones who drew their weapons, U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) told The Los Angeles Times, ‘You can’t just show up with guns blazing and expect to win the hearts and minds of the public.’ Chaffetz, a firm advocate of those protesting the BLM, concluded, ‘The federals need a little more Andy Griffith and a lot less Rambo.’”

6. “A month after the standoff, San Juan County, Utah, Commissioner Phil Lyman led a protest against a ban on the use of motorized vehicles in Recapture Canyon that was meant to protect archaeological sites from damage.”

“Waving Gadsden flags just like those draped over the slain officer in Las Vegas and decrying the actions of the BLM, Lyman and several dozen ATV riders—including members of Bundy’s family—rode into the canyon to defy BLM authority. Lyman told the SPLC that the ride was meant to be a peaceful protest, but he did little to conceal his rage over what he characterized as federal tyranny.”

“‘If things don’t change, it’s not long before shots will be fired,’ Lyman said, joining other conservative lawmakers such as Chaffetz in warning of violence if the federal government didn’t rein in the BLM. ‘We can avoid it. But it’s not going to be by the people changing their attitudes and accepting more intrusion into their lives. It’s going to be by the federal government acknowledging people’s freedom.’”

7. “This May in Texas, militias and their allies came to protest a BLM survey of more than 90,000 acres along the Red River, fearing the federal government was planning a land grab.”

8. “A month earlier in Utah, two men pointed a handgun at a BLM worker in a marked federal vehicle while holding up a sign that said, ‘You need to die.’”

9. “In New Mexico’s Otero County, a brewing confrontation between state and federal officials ended after BLM officials opened gates cutting off water for grazing cattle to protect the jumping mouse. Again, there were conspiracy theories demonizing BLM efforts to protect the environment.”

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10. “[I]n mid-June, more violence erupted, as a BLM ranger and a California Highway Patrol officer were shot and wounded, allegedly by a self-declared sovereign citizen, Brent Douglas Cole, who was camping outside of Nevada City, Calif.”

11. “None of this has tamped down the rhetoric. The Bundy standoff has actually brought the spotlight to the antigovernment movement, and its leaders are soaking up the attention. Polarizing figures such as former Arizona sheriff Richard Mack and Stewart Rhodes of the Oath Keepers have been eager to take advantage of the moment. Mack, a longtime militia darling who has led a push for county sheriffs to stand against federal law enforcement agencies, told one crowd, ‘We don’t believe that bureaucratic policies and regulations supersede the Constitution. I came here because I don’t believe the BLM has any authority whatsoever. Grazing fees do not supersede life, liberty and the pursuit of property.’”

12. “Among [Bundy’s current supporters] are politicians belonging to the Independent American Party (IAP)— the same party whose banner rabidly anti-immigrant former U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo ran under during his bid for to become governor of Colorado. In late May, at an IAP event to honor Bundy for ‘his courage in standing up for state sovereignty,’ Bundy and his wife, Carol, signed paperwork to join the Nevada chapter. ‘Cliven Bundy is my hero,’ Janine Hansen, an IAP candidate running for Nevada’s 2nd congressional district, told a gathering of supporters. ‘We cannot allow this incredible opportunity that Cliven has given us to die.…  It’s time that we are no longer serfs on the land in the State of Nevada. It is time that we become sovereign in our own state, our own sovereign state. It is long past time. We are not the servants of the BLM.’”

 

Read Next: An interview with Jesse Jackson about stopping the rebirth of the Old Confederacy in the New South

What ‘Nation’ Interns Are Reading the Week of 07/11/14

STEM Woman

(AP Photo/Paul Sancya, File)

—Hélène Barthélemy focuses on the criminal justice system, activism and culture.

Netanyahu government knew teens were dead as it whipped up racist frenzy,” by Max Blumenthal. Electronic Intifada, July 8, 2014.

After the three Israeli teenagers disappeared, the Shin Bet and Netanyahu soon learned that they were dead and who was responsible. Yet, they lied to the teenagers' parents and withheld that information from the public, imposing a gag order on the national press to legitimize a crackdown on Palestinians and a new, deadly attack on Gaza. This scandalous withholding of information meant to legitimize further ransacking of Palestinian societies (with lynch mobs, propaganda and frightening calls to shed blood) should even render indignant people who are habitually less critical of the Israeli government.

—Summer Concepcion focuses on race, gender and criminal justice.

"Women, Blacks Most Likely to Leave STEM Careers, New Research by AIR Finds.” American Institutes for Research, July 9, 2014.

As Verizon Wireless's recent commercial points out, young girls aren't encouraged enough to pursue careers in the STEM fields. But for the young girls who grow up and end up in STEM careers, is there discouragement from staying in those fields? A new study by the American Institutes for Research finds that women and Black grads in STEM careers are more likely to leave and pursue careers outside of those fields. Although the exact reasons leading to this trend have yet to be studied, gender and race seem to be major factors as to why women and Blacks struggle to have a stronger presence in STEM.

—Erin Corbett focuses on national security and reproductive rights.

‘There’s just too much money in it’: the war on drugs’ profitable attacks on communities of color,” by sosadmin. Privacy SOS , July 7, 2014.

After a weekend of violence on Chicago’s South Side this 4th of July—82 shot, and 14 killed—Roland S. Martin at The Daily Beast published an article called “Send the National Guard to ‘Chiraq.’” “Chicago needs a troop surge like what we saw in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Martin writes, calling on state police and the National Guard to join the city’s local law enforcement in fighting violence and the “war on drugs.” Martin notes that, according to the Chicago Sun-Times, most of the individuals killed from gun violence in the city are “black and Hispanic men under 35.” What Martin doesn’t mention, however, is how “drug war-driven SWAT raids are disproportionately carried out against black and Latino people… [an] ongoing assault against black and brown communities.” (Privacy SOS) The solution to violence and drugs in the city of Chicago is not a militarization of its police forces or the National Guard, who would not benefit the communities affected the most. It’s also not mass incarceration or surveillance. Privacy SOS asks an important question: rather than treating drugs as a criminal justice problem, if the discourse emphasized public health, would there still be the same kind of violence in cities like Chicago?

—Victoria Ford focuses on African-American identity, feminism/womanism and the arts.

"The Term 'Classic Rapist' Shows That People Still Really Don't Understand What Rape Is," by Mychal Denzel Smith. Feministing, July 9, 2014

At the very heart of this piece by Mychal Denzel Smith—whom I have to raise my fist toward in complete solidarity and thanks—is that we are not taught "what rape is." Beneath that, men (and women) do not know that violence does not have one face, but dresses in a myriad of costumes. This is critical for men and women to learn and it's something our culture (especially on college campuses) ignores. When rape is not called rape and when violence is not called violence, we inevitably promote that which we claim is illegal and morally wrong. The words we use cancel or heighten our realities of these situations. If acts as "small" as catcalling or grabbing a woman on the street are refused to be seen as violent, then neither will the continuation of them (which is defined as assault, battery, molestation, rape). Women have been saving our brothers for as long as America could claim itself a stolen, dirty land. Time has come, gone, and come again for our men to rescue each other. Finally along with us.

—Douglas Grant focuses on labor and income inequality, gender politics and American politics.

How I lost my middle-class life,” by Jayme Reid. Salon, April 12, 2010

Jayme Reid warns her readers that hers won't be a story that meets an easy resolution, in which she learns the value of doing more with less (in the often overused dictum of the times) or how her encounter with hard times taught her about what “really” matters. It’s a story that’s four years old but continues to have plenty of resonance in the aftermath of the Great Recession. Reid’s story is one of a series of cascading circumstances—health problems, layoffs, moving—that led her to rapidly fall out of the middle class comfort she had known before and land with a thud. It’s a grim story about just how tenuous of a grasp that millions of Americans have on their secure status. We can’t say she didn’t warn us.

—Hannah Harris Green focuses on South Asian Culture and Politics, and Sexual Assault.

Breaking Up With China?” by Rafia Zakaria. Dawn, July 4, 2014.

Pakistan is in an awkward position, since China, one of its closest allies, issued a ban on Ramadan fasting in the province of Xinjiang this week. "As a Muslim country, Pakistan has been eager to stand up to the injustices committed against Muslims anywhere in the world," writes Rafia Zakaria, a columnist for the Pakistani daily Dawn. "In most cases, these denunciations, whether they are of veil bans in France or pogroms in Gujarat, oft have not posed much of a challenge to the country’s strategic and economic interests." China is different, because it supplies Pakistan with significant aid each year. Although Zakaria thinks Pakistan should protest this breach of religious freedom in China, she expects that it will turn a blind eye.

—Alana de Hinojosa focuses on immigration, race and racism, Latin@ identity and feminism.

Finally, a Politician Admits to Having an Abortion Simply Because She Wasn’t Ready for a Baby,” by Amanda Marcotte. Slate, July 7, 2014.

Lucy Flores, a Latina Democratic member of the Nevada State Assembly, is one hell of a woman. Not only did the girl bounce back from a poor and broken family (including the deaths of her two brothers by gang-related violence), dropping out of high school (only to go on to study on scholarship at University of Southern California) and prison time related to gang activity, but now she's making her way to possibly becoming governor. And things look good for the Latina politician—especially after her recent MSNBC interview where she openly spoke about having an abortion at the age of 16. “I don’t regret it,” she said in the interview. “I don’t regret it because I am here making a difference, at least in my mind, for many other young ladies and letting them know that there are options and they can do things to not be in the situation I was in, but to prevent.” Polling data shows that 59 percent of people like Flores more after hearing her story, where as only 17 percent like her less. Finally, America has a real Latina role model that wants to make a difference by telling the truth—and in doing so breaking down the stigma of Latinas, working class backgrounds, troubled youth and pro-choice women.

What's even better is Flores has accomplished all this (with so much more to come) with a regrettable rose ankle tattoo.

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—Crystal Kayiza focuses on the African diaspora,immigration, Black Feminist thought, and police brutality.

There Are Only 16 Cities in America Where Women Earn More Money Than Men,” by Macie Bianco. Mic, July 9, 2014.

In 2014, many Americans find the fight for gender equality to be unnecessary. All the glass ceiling breaking super-moms out there don't need Washington advocating on their behalf—just controlling their reproductive rights. But as Marcie Bianco’s Mic article outlines, the economic disparity between males and females in the country is appalling. More than ever women are leading the home in more ways than one—by bringing home the bacon and cooking it too, while still earning only seventy-seven cents to every man's dollar. So, as Bianco asserts…really, is equality too much to ask?

—Agnes Radomski focuses on labor, mass incarceration, the war on drugs and the military industrial complex.

Why Kids Are Crossing The Desert Alone to Get to America,” by Esther Yu-Hsi Lee. ThinkProgress, July 2, 2014.

As we continue to hear about the thousands of children who are being apprehended at the border, it's vital we understand what is driving them to make the treacherous journey alone. It seems that politics could be put aside and empathy would come easily for this young and vulnerable group, but hostility continues to be directed toward them for trying to escape their desperate conditions back home. Yu-Hsi Lee allows us to better understand the reasons why children are taking such great risks by writing about the violence, poverty, corruption and drug trafficking in their home countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

After a 2009 coup in Honduras, Colombian drug trafficking gangs diverted their illegal weapons and drug trade routes through Honduras, writes Yu-Hsi Lee. It has become a drug transit route for South American countries that produce the drugs consumed in the United States. It is known as the murder capital of the world. El Salvador faces higher homicide rates today than during their civil war. In 2008, more than 6,000 people were killed in Guatemala, mostly due to the drug war. Children are exposed to this violence each day and face constant recruitment efforts by gangs. We truly are facing what president Obama labeled an "urgent humanitarian situation." Hopefully we'll continue to see stories like this that show our connection to the creation of some of the most appalling conditions that anyone would want to flee.

 

Read Next: What are Nation interns reading the week of 07/04/14?

Did Child Labor Build Your Smart Phone?

Samsung

Samsung Electronics headquarters in Seoul (Reuters/Kim Hong-Ji)

Big electronics brands often sell themselves as the vanguard of enlightened capitalism, not only solving our everyday problems through technological fixes but also making the world a better place along the way. To polish that image of technocratic progress, multinationals like Apple and Samsung frequently conduct well-hyped “corporate social responsibility” monitoring campaigns—showing that their overseas factories are eco-friendly, and that their supply chains are humane and “sweat free.” But labor advocates say a Chinese supplier factory for Samsung reveals that dirty labor practices are still lurking within these companies’ the ultra-slick assembly lines.

A new investigation by the US-based watchdog group China Labor Watch has uncovered numerous labor violations at a Korean-owned Samsung supplier in southern China, Dongguan Shinyang Electronic. The group’s field research and undercover infiltration of the facility revealed underaged workers and punishing labor conditions.

The major allegation is that Shinyang has employed at least several teens under age 16, the legal working age in China, and many more under age 18. They were hired, CLW says, as part of a labor dispatch system in which agencies funnel short-term “student workers” to factories that need surplus labor to handle seasonal influxes in export orders. Student temps are paid at lower rates despite doing comparable work. The New York Times followed up with a report affirming the identity of three girls, aged 14 and 15, who were apparently hired with false identification.

The CLW report echoes a 2012 investigation by the group showing similar use of child labor. But it also follows a glowing annual report from Samsung about the progress of its social responsibility programs. According to that report, multiple factory audits on 100 Chinese supplier plants—conducted by an outside auditor commissioned by Samsung—found “no instances of child labor.” The report did, however, note that other labor problems were widespread, including overtime violations and chemical safety hazards. Nonetheless, Samsung accentuated the positive, focusing on its programs to monitor and improve labor standards in supplier factories.


(Courtesy: China Labor Watch, “Another Samsung Supplier Exploiting Child Labor” [PDF])

Though Samsung stood by its record after CLW’s report was released, the activists contend that abuse and exploitation remain endemic to China’s electronics manufacturing labor structure. Harsh conditions are actually built into the rigors of the job. At Shinyang, workdays last up to eleven hours, with rigid production quotas and supervisors looming over workers while barking orders. Children were afforded no special protection. In one case described in the report, child workers on the assembly line struggled to meet a 700-piece hourly production quota because the factory’s cumbersome plastic tweezers were slowing them down (evidently production rates were far better monitored than labor conditions). According to the report,

they noticed that other workers had metal tweezers, which were more effective. A supervisor told the child workers the location of a store where they could buy these metal tweezers. This… required them to take a bus to reach it. Feeling helpless, they made the trip to buy the tweezers on the next day.

The report describes a grimly disciplined factory floor: Workers were subjected to penalties for various misbehaviors, like repeated lateness, or just showing a “bad attitude.” There was a preference for hiring women over men.

Workers were ill-prepared for occupational hazards, CLW says. The production process involves routine “contact with harmful chemicals such as ethyl alcohol, industrial alcohol, and thinners,” but workers do not all receive protective gear, like gloves and masks; they must specially request it.

The steady stream of export orders allowed workers to accumulate about 120 hours of overtime in a month, more than triple the legal limit of thirty-six hours, CLW reports. Factory workers often rely heavily on overtime to scrape by, because of low base wages. Although monthly base wages at Shinyang were close to the local minimum wage, workers could more than double their pay through overtime and other subsidies and bonuses. And temp workers, who were denied overtime pay, made only about two-thirds that amount. Additionally, the company allegedly undercut workers’ long-term economic security by failing to make mandatory social insurance contributions for temp workers, and by underpaying insurance for regular workers.

The researchers noted that workers’ housing consisted of spartan, stuffy dormitories with as many as ten to a room. Cheap, plain meals were served from the factory canteen, segregated from the special dining area for Korean staff.

Meanwhile, outside the drab factory grounds lies the southern boomtown Dongguan, replete with flashy storefronts and high rises—marking the sharp inequalities that drive the massive exploitation of the vast workforce of migrants from outlying regions. The combination of poverty wages and the soaring cost of living in cities feeds into an increasingly volatile labor climate—and seems to be driving a recent surge in strikes and protests.

China’s recent efforts to strengthen social insurance for workers has sparked labor strife as well, as violations of the employer mandates are widespread. Earlier this year, a dispute over social insurance contributions at the multinational Yue Yuen shoe factory triggered a historic strike involving tens of thousands of workers.

Though Chinese law technically guarantees workers the right to unionize with the government-run official union federation, CLW observed no union presence at the factory. The closest thing to a grievance procedure was an “opinion box.”

Of all the harsh aspects of Shinyang’s labor system, perhaps the most degrading was their lack of control over their working conditions. New hires were reportedly given blank contracts to sign, and receive their final contratcts with the employment terms inked in “only a month after being employed”—effectively leaving them with no control over their working conditions for weeks.

In response to CLW’s allegations, Samsung provided a written statement to The Nation claiming that “the supplier in question” had been inspected three times since March 2013, and no incidents of child labor were detected. The company also noted a sophisticated identification security system that it had recently implemented at supplier factories in order to screen out underaged workers. But the company added, “We are urgently looking into the latest allegations and will take appropriate measures in accordance with our policies to prevent any cases of child labor in our suppliers.”

A teenage worker interviewed by the Times was undaunted by Samsung’s tightened security protocol: “The factory can just borrow real identification cards from other factories to register us,” she said. “And the system for checking employees as they enter the factory is not that strict.”

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So given the sharp contrast between reports from the shop floor and Samsung’s own audit reports, CLW isn’t buying the official line. Program Coordinator Kevin Slaten tells The Nation via e-mail:

Child labor, unpaid overtime or wholly unpaid wages and benefits, over a hundred hours of overtime a month, poor living conditions, unsafe workplaces, and other common labor violations in the electronics industry are heavily influenced by the view of buyers—often international brand companies like Samsung, Apple, HP, Dell, Sony, etc.—that the manufacturing link in their business model must be constantly costed down. Electronic manufacturing companies operate on slim margins, and they continue to operate by suppressing labor costs.

The situation at Shinyang elucidates how the market for consumer electronics in the Global North is dependant on grueling labor conditions in faraway factories. With exploitation baked into China’s warp-speed assembly lines, the CLW report suggests it will take more than glossy annual reports to correct these systemic abuses.

Yet there are reforms that could promote meaningful corporate accountability: if workers had functioning, genuinely representative unions, they themselves could serve as auditors and help enforce standards directly at work. At Shinyang, however, CLW reports that when asked about a union, “workers said they have never heard of one.” For now, they’re stuck with the opinion box—unless and until they find the courage to show more “bad attitude.”

 

Read Next: A grassroots labor uprising—at your bank?