Ghosts of Christmas Past, Rising from the Gaps of Capital

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It is, once again, that time of the year.  As markets and streets get lined with Christmas glitter, out come facts and anxieties about children’s lives that fly in the face of the season’s celebration of sharing life’s gifts with others.

Here are two recently revealed facts.

  • Children, some as young as ten years old, were found working in a sweatshop for Gap in New Delhi, in conditions akin to slavery: sold by their parents, they were not paid for their labor.  As the British paper the Observer reported, these children worked for 16-hour days in a derelict building with overflowing toilets, embroidering smocks to be sold for the Christmas season.  Punishment for crying included beatings with rubber pipes and pushing oil rags into the mouth.
  • The National Labor Committee noted that Wal-Mart’s Christmas ornaments were made by 12-16 year-old Chinese children who worked 10 to 15 hours a day, seven days a week, for months without a single day off, some of them earning “as little as 26 cents an hour — just half of China’s legal minimum wage.”

These facts, however, went largely unnoticed in mainstream U.S. media, which was preoccupied with another threat to children, this one from the elves in Santa’s factory themselves.  Ominous headlines — such as this one from Time: “It’s September. Do You Know Where Your Children’s Christmas Toys Are Coming from?” — set the stage for hapless, consumer victims like this “concerned Grandmother”:

Toys are supposed to bring joy, but these days they are bringing Parents and Grandparents a lot of anxiety.

“I don’t want my grandson to be retarded because of a toy I brought him to enjoy,” says a concerned Grandmother. 1

It is easy to prompt American consumers, who are already burdened with debt and yet doing more and more of the work of consumption, to hunker down and clamor for safety from Others who take away jobs, answer calls with foreign accents, and now are about to contaminate their children.  By making the system that endangers workers as well as consumers invisible, corporations can sell even more stuff, such as home testing kits to arm middle-class vigilance against the hidden hazards of toys made in foreign lands (see, for example, the Public Interest Research Group’s recent report Trouble in Toyland filled with a list of dos and don’ts for parents).  In other words, the liberal solution is to constantly update the home with the latest gadgets so as to secure it as a private fortress, a paranoid fantasy played out in recent films such as Panic Room (David Fincher, 2002).

Revisit the first leading imperial nation, Britain, a century and a half ago where this opposition between workers and consumers was first solidified, and where the bourgeois home was imagined as a haven from the world of factories, and you’ll see how remarkably close we are to losing some of the first advances made by the first modern workers’ movement.

The neo-liberal consensus today is that children do not deserve any special protections just because they are children.  This reverses the development of childhood and its democratization, based on the idea that all of the world’s children are our children and that everyone wants the best for them — an idea which gradually took hold in the process of agitations against child labor, the agitations that, as Marx writes, were part of the struggle of the working class against its exploitation by capital.

Now, as then, childhood is incompatible with capitalism, and the first proletarians who come under attack by capital are the children of the working class.  In the U.S., since the Reagan-Bush years there has been a consistent tendency to consider children as little adults, whether in courts, markets, or social policy, on issues ranging from trying juveniles like adults to withdrawing social benefits for children.  The most recent example of this was Bush’s veto on expanding the children’s insurance program, S-Chip, which would have provided health coverage to children whose families cannot afford it.

Similarly, India’s turn to neo-liberalism, made final with the IMF- and World Bank-supervised economic “reforms” that started in 1991, has been accompanied by a disavowal of social welfare.  Indian Minister of Commerce, Kamal Nath, responded to the recent GAP disclosure by chastising NGOs for bringing “bad publicity,” which he argued would enable the rich countries to set up non-tariff barriers to Indian exports.  In other words, child labor and poverty gave India a competitive edge in the global market, an advantage which would be lost if India were to insist on labor laws.  This is completely in keeping with a neo-liberal Indian state, which has redefined governance as selling Brand India, i.e., making India a good place to do business in.  The very same arguments — that abolishing child labor would thwart the profitability and strength of British industry — were made in the 19th century as well (see Jeremy Seabrook and Viviana Zelizar’s excellent summary).2

Liberals refused then, as now, to see any link between capital and the exploitation of children, arguing instead that the factories provided children of the poor with an opportunity to support their families.  Even those liberals whose consciences was pricked by the obvious cruelties of child labor tended to put the blame on working-class families: working-class parents were blamed for having too many children, selling their children, and having undisciplined, criminal children.  Their solution was to drill “innocence” into streetwise working-class children in prison-like schools immortalized by Dickens in Nicholas Nickleby.

Repeating the assumption that underlay that solution, Bibek Debroy, an economist, responded to the GAP sweatshop news by commending GAP for its “sensitivity” while asking its critics to imagine what alternatives are open to the kids who worked there.  According to him, these would be slavery, prostitution, criminality, and drugs; universal health, education, and human dignity appear to have escaped his imagination.  According to Debroy, what we need is more capitalism, not less.  The argument is twofold: greater privatization will generate wealth, some of which will trickle down and make it unnecessary for working-class children to work to support their families; and new technologies requiring a more skilled labor force will eliminate child labor.  Never mind that the trickle down has not happened in the last two centuries.  Nothing is more indicative of the class war in neo-liberal India than discussion about children.  While India’s turn to neo-liberalism has created a class whose wealth is comparable to the world’s richest (this year Mukesh Ambani outran Bill Gates), the only imaginable alternatives presented for working-class children are from a century and a half ago.

Which is why another ghost from Christmas past also looms large on the landscape — that of class war.   For Marx, working-class poverty was not a natural fact of life but a logical outcome of capitalist exploitation — absolutely unnecessary poverty because of the wealth generated by socialized labor and new technologies.  “What earlier century had even a presentiment that such productive forces slumbered in the lap of social labor?” Marx asked in The Communist Manifesto, as he recounted the technological achievements of the 19th century — railways, telegraphs, advances in agriculture, etc.  Yet, a century and a half later, working-class children are still being pulled under the same “wheels of the Juggernaut of capital” to use Marx’s phrase, paying the price of the capitalist war on the working class with their lives, their childhoods, and their future.  We may well recall, as Terry Eagleton tells us, that the word proletariat — which shares its etymological origin with the word prolicide, i.e., to kill one’s children — described a class too poor to own property which offered instead its children as labor power to the state.3

Jonathan Swift satirized this very relationship earlier in 1729, when he made his “Modest Proposal” in which he offered a way to prevent “the children of poor people in Ireland, from being a burden on their parents or country, and for making them beneficial to the publick.”  He suggested that the poor sell their children as meat to landlords, who having “already devoured most of the parents, seem to have the best title to the children.”  “I have been assured,” Swift elaborated in this bitter satire, “by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed, is, at a year old, a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricasie, or a ragoust.”4

First time as history, second time as farce.

The Left needs to prioritize the fight for children.  It could get us the clear-headedness and consensus that we otherwise lack.  Children themselves have already taken up the fight.  The NLC report on China was made possible by the collaboration of high school students who documented their own working conditions and even went on strike (see the Mother Jones report on this heartening development).  The generation radicalized since Seattle is as much a product of capital as are its sweatshops.


1  Ken Amaro, ” Trouble in Toyland,” First Coast News, 12 November 2007. 

2  Jermey Seabrook, Children of Other Worlds: Exploitation in the Global Market (London: Pluto, 2001).   Viviana A. Zelizar, Pricing the Priceless Child: The Changing Social Value of Children (New York: Basic Books, 1985).

3  Terry Eagleton, Walter Benjamin or Towards a Revolutionary Criticism (London: Verso, 1981), p. 47.

4  Jonathan Swift, A Modest Proposal, 1729.  

Jyotsna Kapur teaches in the Department of Cinema and Photography at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale.  She is the author of Coining for Capital: Movies, Marketing and the Transformation of Childhood, Rutgers University Press, 2005.

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