A World Gone Mad

by Eduardo Galeano

The Progressive magazine, Dec 2000


Fear of losing your job and terror at the prospect of never finding one can't be separated from a ridiculous statistic that could only seem normal in a world gone mad: over the past thirty years, formal working hours, which tend to be less than real hours worked, have gone up in the United States, Canada, and Japan and diminished only slightly in a few European countries. This trend constitutes a treacherous attack on common sense by the upside-down world: the astonishing increase in productivity wrought by the technological revolution not only fails to raise wages but doesn't even diminish working hours in countries with state-of-the-art machines. In the United States, frequent polls indicate that work, far more than divorce or the fear of death, is the principal source of stress, and in Japan, karoshi, overwork, kills 10,000 people a year.

When the French government decided in May 1998 to reduce the workweek from thirty-nine to thirty-five hours, offering a basic lesson in common sense, the measure set off cries of protest from businessmen, politicians, and technocrats. In Switzerland, where unemployment is not a problem, I witnessed an event some time ago that left me dumbfounded. A referendum was held on reducing working hours with no reduction of pay, and the Swiss voted the proposal down. I recall that I could not comprehend the result at the time. I confess I still don't. Work has been a universal obligation ever since God sentenced Adam to earn his daily bread by the sweat of his brow, but we don't have to take God's will so literally. I suspect that this urge to work has something to do with fear of unemployment-though in Switzerland unemployment is an abstract threat-and with fear of free time. To be is to be useful; to be you have to be salable. Time that isn't money, free time lived for the pleasure of living and not dutifully in order to produce, provokes fear. There's nothing new about that. Along with greed, fear has always been the most active engine of the system that used to be called capitalism.

Fear of unemployment allows a mockery to be made of labor rights. The eight-hour day no longer belongs to the realm of law but to literature, where it shines among other works of surrealist poetry. And such things as employer contributions to pensions, medical benefits, workers' compensation, vacation pay, Christmas bonuses, and dependents' allowances are relics that belong in an archaeological museum. Legally consecrated universal labor rights came about in other times, born of other fears: the fear of strikes and of the social revolution that seemed so close at hand. The powerful who trembled in fear yesterday are the powerful who strike fear today, and thus the fruits of two centuries of labor struggle get raffled off before you can say good-bye.

Fear, father of a large family, also begets hatred. In the countries of the North, it tends to cause hatred of foreigners who offer their labor at desperate prices. It's the invasion of the invaded. They come from lands where conquering colonial troops and punishing military expeditions have disembarked 1,001 times. Now this voyage in reverse isn't made by soldiers obliged to kill but by workers obliged to sell themselves in Europe or North America at whatever price they get. They come from Africa, Asia, and Latin America, and, since the burial of bureaucratic power, from Eastern Europe as well.

In the years of the great European and North American economic expansion, growing prosperity required more and more labor, and it didn't matter that those hands were foreign, as long as they worked hard and charged little. In years of stagnation or weak growth, they become undesirable interlopers: they smell bad, they make a lot of noise, they take away jobs. Scapegoats of unemployment and every other misfortune, they are condemned to live with several swords hanging over their heads: the always imminent threat of deportation back to the grueling life they've fled and the always possible explosion of racism with its bloody warnings, its punishments: Turks set on fire, Arabs stabbed, Africans shot, Mexicans beaten. Poor immigrants do the hardest, poorest paid work in the fields and on the streets. After work comes the danger. No magic ink can make them invisible.

Paradoxically, while workers from the South migrate North, or at least risk the attempt against all odds, many factories from the North migrate South. Money and people pass each other in the night. Money from rich countries travels to poor countries attracted by dollar-a-day wages and twenty-five-hour days, and workers from poor countries travel, or try to travel, to rich countries, attracted by images of happiness served up by advertising or invented by hope. Wherever money travels, it's greeted with kisses and flowers and fanfare. Workers, in contrast, set off on an odyssey that sometimes ends in the depths of the Mediterranean or the Caribbean or on the stony shores of the Rio Grande.

In another epoch, when Rome took over the entire Mediterranean and more, its armies returned home dragging caravans filled with enslaved prisoners of war. The hunt for slaves impoverished free workers. The more slaves there were in Rome, the more wages fell and the more difficult it was to find work. Two thousand years later, Argentine businessman Enrique Pescarmona praised globalization: "Asians work twenty hours a day," he declared, "for $80 a month. If I want to compete, I have to turn to them. It's a globalized world. The Filipino girls in our offices in Hong Kong are always willing. There are no Saturdays or Sundays. If they have to work several days straight without sleeping, they do it, and they don't get overtime and don't ask for a thing."

A few months before Pescarmona voiced this elegy, a doll factory caught fire in Bangkok. The workers, women who earned less than a dollar a day and slept in the factory, were burned alive. The factory was locked from the outside, like the slave quarters of old.

Many industries emigrate to poor countries in search of cheap labor, and there's plenty to be had. Governments welcome them as messiahs of progress bringing jobs on a silver tray. But the conditions of the new industrial proletariat bring to mind the word they used for work during the Renaissance, tripalium, which also was an instrument of torture. The price of a Disney T-shirt bearing a picture of Pocahontas is equivalent to a week's wages for the worker in Haiti who sewed it at a rate of 375 shirts an hour. Haiti was the first country in the world to abolish slavery. Two centuries after that feat, which cost many lives, the country suffers wage slavery. McDonald's gives its young customers toys made in Vietnamese sweatshops by women who earn eighty cents for a ten-hour shift with no breaks. Vietnam defeated a U.S. military invasion. A quarter of a century after that feat, which cost many lives, the country suffers globalized humiliation.

The hunt for cheap labor no longer requires armies as it did during colonial times. That's all taken care of by the misery that most of the planet suffers. What we have is the end of geography: capital crosses borders at the speed of light, thanks to new communication and transportation technologies that make time and distance disappear. And when an economy anywhere on the planet catches a cold, economies around the world sneeze. At the end of 1997, a currency devaluation in Malaysia killed thousands of jobs in the shoe industry in southern Brazil.

Poor countries have put their hearts, souls, and sombreros into a global good-behavior contest to see who can offer the barest of barebones wages and the most freedom to poison the environment. Countries compete furiously to seduce the big multinational companies. What's best for companies is what's worst for wage levels, working conditions, and the well-being of people and of nature. Throughout the world, workers' rights are in a race to the bottom, while the pool of available labor grows as never before, even in the worst of times.

Globalization has winners and losers, warns a United Nations report. "A rising tide of wealth is supposed to lift all boats, but some are more seaworthy than others. The yachts and ocean liners are rising in response to new opportunities, but many rafts and rowboats are taking on water-and some are sinking."

Countries tremble at the thought that money will not come or that it will flee. Shipwreck, or the threat of it, causes widespread panic. If you don't behave yourselves, say the companies, we're going to the Philippines or Thailand or Indonesia or China or Mars. To behave badly means to defend nature or whatever's left of it, to recognize the right to form unions, to demand respect for international norms and local laws, to raise the minimum wage.

In 1995, the Gap sold shirts "made in El Salvador." For every twenty-dollar shirt, the Salvadoran workers got eighteen cents. The workers, most of them women and girls, spent fourteen hours a day breaking their backs in sweatshop hell. They organized a union. The contracting company fired 350 of them; the rest went on strike. There were police beatings, kidnappings, jailings. At the end of that year, the Gap announced that it was moving to Asia.

Crimes against people, crimes against nature: the impunity enjoyed by the masters of war is shared by their twins, the voracious masters of industry, who eat nature and, in the heavens, swallow the ozone layer. The most successful companies in the world are the ones that do the most to murder it; the countries that decide the planet's fate are the same ones that do their best to annihilate it.

Effluence, affluence: inundating the world and the air it breathes are floods of crud and torrents of words-expert reports, speeches, government declarations, solemn international accords that no one observes, and other expressions of official concern for the environment. The language of power diverts blame from consumer society and from those who impose consumerism in the name of development. The large corporations which, in the name of freedom, make the planet sick and then sell it medicine and consolation can do what they please, while environmental experts, who reproduce like rabbits, wrap all problems in the bubble wrap of ambiguity. The state of the world's health is disgusting, and official rhetoric extrapolates in order to absolve: "We are all responsible," is the lie technocrats offer and politicians repeat, meaning no one is responsible. Official palaver exhorts "the sacrifice of all," meaning, screw those who always get screwed.

All of humanity pays the price for the ruin of the Earth, the befouling of the air, the poisoning of the waters, the disruption of the climate, and the degradation of the Earthly goods that nature bestows. But hidden underneath the cosmetic words, statistics confess and little numbers betray the truth: One-quarter of humanity commits three-quarters of the crimes against nature. Each inhabitant of the North consumes ten times as much energy, nineteen times as much aluminum, fourteen times as much paper, and thirteen times as much iron and steel as someone from the South. The average North American puts twenty-two times as much carbon into the air as an Indian and thirteen times as much as a Brazilian. It may be called "global suicide," but this daily act of murder is being perpetrated by the most prosperous members of the human species, who live in rich countries or imagine they do, members of countries and social classes who find their identity in ostentation and waste.

The twentieth century, a weary artist, ended its days painting still lifes. The extermination of the planet spares no one, not even the triumphal North that contributes the most to the catastrophe and, at the hour of truth, whistles and looks the other way. At the rate we're going, it won't be long before we'll have to put up new signs in maternity wards in the United States: Attention, babies: You are hereby warned that your chance of getting cancer is twice that of your grandparents. The Japanese company Daido Hokusan already sells air in cans, two minutes of oxygen for ten dollars. The label assures us: This is the electric generator that recharges human beings.


Eduardo Galeano, one of Latin Americas most distinguished writers, journalists, and historians, is the author of the "Memory of Fire" trilogy (W.W. Norton). This piece is excerpted from his latest book, "Upside Down: A Primer for the Looking-Glass World," Galeano lives in Uruguay.

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