Tuesday, September 29, 2009

More on the G-20

On the other hand, here's an interesting take on the G-20 protests from Pittsburgh labor historian Charles McCollester. He recalls earlier protests in the city that descended into violence. And he describes the varied reactions of residents to today's demonstrators.

McCollester also argues that the Pittsburgh leadership doesn't want green manufacturing because it doesn't want manufacturing, period. It wants to continue to be "green" more through an absence--of industry and a troublesome working class--than through starting anything new.

Friday, September 25, 2009

G-20 protests

I've had fantasies elsewhere on this blog of teabaggers getting their comeuppance from rowdies of our own with fists and I've just barely held myself back from rooting for anti-racist rioters in Lund, Sweden.

I'm also disappointed by the media's unwillingness to take anarchists seriously. If students and professors in my international affairs classes were comfortable with the idea of states weakening and CEOs replacing or at least joining elected governments as the big players on the world state, what's so outlandish about horizontal, non-state structures that serve local, long-term needs, not short-term profits? Such a system existed in the Middle Ages, after all, when guilds controlled cities and princes had to ask permission to enter.

But the self-centered-ness of some of the G20 protesters is hard to escape. In their videos, posted at G-finity and elsewhere, the police are dehumanized from the get-go and are fought in an almost ritualistic manner, despite officers' working class roots. Local residents sympathetic to the anarchists are interviewed, but mostly as a sort of loyal workers' chorus. Sort of like, "See? They like us!"

I know that this grassroots support for anarchists can be genuine. At an anti-death penalty rally in Columbus, Ohio many years ago, the family of the condemned man in question spoke movingly afterward, away from the main event, about the support they had felt from those "masked bandits" (or some phrase to that effect). Leftists---not just anarchists, but the ISO and Socialist Alternative activists known from campus campaigns---often put down real, productive roots in urban communities. This dynamic was hinted at in a superficial way during the Reverend Wright controversy last year.

Nonetheless, there's a forced feeling to the thing in Pittsburgh, at least the marches with black banners and trash cans. As if it's time to search for a new mode of resistance.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Palin in Hong Kong!

Sarah Palin stunned Hong Kong with her BRILLIANT analysis of the global financial crisis and Sino-US relations the other day.

Not only that, she brought COMPLEX issues down to earth, down to "Main Street, USA," as she repeatedly put it, before a crowd of businesspeople carefully screened for pesky journalists (but not carefully enough--the AP slipped through). I mean, only a "Main Street" person would care about such a PRESSING, ABSOLUTELY DEVASTATING issue as intellectual property rights, right? Or eliminating capital gains taxes and estate taxes for the wealthy?

And Palin showed a knack for Daoist mental puzzles with her claim that only the unbridled market could fix problems in the long run and that government meddling caused the financial crisis. Deepening the puzzle into a sort of puzzle within a puzzle, she singled out one kind of meddling for particular rebuke, namely the sort of government action that, well, left the market unbridled. As Palin said, because the government intervened to not intervene in housing markets in particular, "Speculators spotted new investment vehicles, jumped on board and rating agencies underestimated risks." Damn socialism! Death panels!

Amid all this heady discussion, though, some of which, I must admit, went over my head, as it did over the heads of some attendees, who, heads exploding with new ideas, walked out, Palin touched on one issue that left me genuinely puzzled. This was the issue of, as she put it so eloquently, "the protest of... Chinese workers throughout the country," which, she said, along with the protests of Tibetans and Uighurs, "rightfully makes a lot of people nervous."

Her focus on workers was, of course, no surprise. She highlighted Joe the Plumber during the campaign, remember (OK, maybe he qualifies more as "petit bourgeoisie" or "would-be-petit-bourgeoisie-if-he-can-ever-buy-that-business"). Republicans, moreover, have a proud tradition of staunch support for the rights of working people---in other countries.

But Chinese workers, as Palin must know, are protesting against market policies that have shut down their plants. In some cases, they are quite explicitly calling for more government intervention in their workplaces, in the form of wage and hour law enforcement, of all things, or the investigation of occupational illnesses.

Surely, by Palin's logic, China's workers are clearly in the wrong.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

More on tires

I'd like to add to my previous post. Some, like Adam Bobrow, have responded to Obama's tire tariffs with considerably more nuance than the critics I mentioned earlier. They have done so from a perspective of a "comprehensive" approach to trade liberalization, one that tries to make the loss of certain industries in the U.S. and elsewhere more palatable through job retraining programs, improved social safety nets, etc. Basically, Jagdish Bhagwati's line (a loyal Democrat, by the way).

But these people miss a crucial point: old-fashioned, nuts and bolts industry is good to have in ANY country, not just the "developing world." Every state will, naturally, find a different mix of sectors most suitable to its conditions. However, manufacturing, through its bringing together of large groups of people in one place, through its job stability, and through the satisfaction and pride it brings by creating something concrete, builds communities in a way that no "service" employer---whether a fast food restaurant, a call center or a hair salon, a white collar consulting this or that, a do-good NGO or whatever---ever will.

Obama's action against an "import surge" (not "dumping," as I wrongly implied in the previous post) may be procedurally just---the P.R.C. agreed to the U.S. retaining its Section 421 provisions when it joined the WTO. And it may also be substantively unjust to Chinese workers. But is also only fair to American tire employees and to hopes for a healthy nation on this side of the Pacific.

It's bridging these two fairnesses, of course, that is the biggest obstacle to solidarity between U.S. and Chinese workers.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Tire tariffs

America's recent decision to impose tariffs on Chinese tire imports isn't as clean-cut of an issue as either its supporters or detractors make it out to be.

First of all, there is nothing inherently "good" or "bad" about tariffs, protectionism, free trade or any other buzzwords of the moment. As Korean economist Ha Joon Chang has amply demonstrated, on their ascent to power, every major industrial state (yes, including Britain) protected key markets and opened them, tightly guarded intellectual property rights and wantonly violated them, and welcomed FDI and restricted it.

The winners and losers in each trade dispute vary, but it would take a market fundamentalists of a utopian variety to argue with a straight face that under absolute free trade "everyone is a winner." A little like some peppy grade school teacher saying that in sports everyone wins because it makes everyone healthy and fills everyone with team spirit. Really? Even the guy who hates to play sports? Or the one who broke his leg? Maybe a bad analogy...

Back to the dispute at hand... some criticize the Obama administration's penalties as "political." As those who make such criticisms tend to make an ostentatious show of noting that few (if any) tire companies supported the tariffs, it is clear that the heart of their argument is this: captains of industry are legitimate actors in trade decisions and not by any means "political," but unions, specifically the United Steel Workers, are not. Unions---and voters more generally---are just interest groups, goes the logic, the sort of folks who are "pandered" to by venal politicians.

On the Chinese side, there's a fair case, too, though. Many in the P.R.C. were rightly angered by the concessions that former Premier Zhu Rongji made to get China into the WTO in the 1990s, concessions that came from a Clinton administration that bombed the Chinese embassy in Yugoslavia around the same time. It is precisely these special conditions that allow the Obama administration to hit China on tires (and steel pipes and other stuff)... but not hit similar "dumping" by other countries.

Young Chinese nationalists do their countrymen a better service by fighting imbalanced treaties---as their forebears during the May Fourth Movement did 90 years ago---than they do by whining about media coverage or defending Chinese colonial policies toward ethnic minorities.

So, where do I fall? Fair to protect your workers (on both sides). Nothing right or wrong inherently about protecting this or not protecting that industry. But unequal treaties are lame.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Chinese women pilots

Whatever else might be said about the Chinese revolution, it certainly succeeded in furthering gender equality. Can the same be said for China's market reforms?

The Western media likes to carry articles about plucky female entrepreneurs and abandoned baby girls. The message: capitalism has pushed women ahead, but old, feudal attitudes persist.

However, a counter-narrative is that women made great strides under communism---hanging power lines, taking on leadership roles in communes, and, famously, flying planes---and they are now being pushed into lesser roles, valued for their beauty or home-making skills more than their physical strength or politics.

Into this debate drops an article from the English-language version of Global Times, which reports that women fighter pilots will be given "new flight suits especially designed for the female."

I would guess that the old Mao-era flight suits were baggy things, basically the same for men and women (someone can correct me on this). Are the new, form-fitting versions a sign of progress? What narrative do they belong to?

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Burma refugees

We don't have all the information we need--and it's disconcerting that journalists have been turned away from the areas affected--but it seems that China has been handling the stream of refugees from Burma very well. If this is indeed the case, it could serve as a new model for China's relations with its more troubled neighbors: focusing on human needs, on the immediacy of suffering brought on by war, human rights abuses, crime, and environmental devastation, as much as settling old border disputes (as important as that is), building security frameworks like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and reassuring small-time elites.