Mardi Gras: Made in China:
A Socio Economic View: Globalized Positions of Privilege and Disadvantage
Economics and state authority work in an interconnected fashion to shape public policy in ways that have encouraged an ever-increasing expansion of capitalism and an increased rate of globalization. This has resulted in growing disparities of wealth amongst both people and nations, creating privilege for some folks while simultaneously producing situations of disadvantage for others. This essay explores this phenomenon as it was documented in the film, Mardi Gras: Made in China (Redmon, 2005), demonstrating the disparities amongst the players along the commodity chain that existed between the partygoers in New Orleans and the laborers in China who produced the beaded necklaces for their Mardi Gras celebration.
The film began with the Mardi Gras celebration in New Orleans where folks gathered to party, drink alcohol, and engage in exhibitionism in exchange for brightly colored plastic bead necklaces. Some folks spent up to five hundred dollars on the purchase of plastic bead necklaces. The film then took the viewers overseas to Fuzhou, Fujian province, China, to where the beads were produced. Fuzhou became a free trade area allowing for the establishment of capitalist industry in 2010.
In contrast to the consumer excess of the U.S. partygoers, the Chinese workers received very little enjoyment from the beads. In Fuzhou, workers labored long days at the Tai Kuen bead factory to make the Mardi Gras bead necklaces for approximately ten cents an hour. Most of their earnings were sent home to their families. These workers lived in cramped factory-provided housing. They generally received only one day off from their fourteen-plus hour workdays, once every two weeks, with the exception of the two-week Chinese New Year celebration, a time when all employees, including the factory owner, returned home to be with their families. A situation of privilege on one side of the supply chain translated to relative situations of disadvantage on the other end.
This is perhaps, because working conditions in China are regulated less than they are in the U.S. In Roger’s factory, production quotas were listed on blackboards on the factory walls. Workers’ official day off was Sunday, but they were often assigned to work Sundays in order to meet production goals. Roger repeatedly stressed that punishment was very important for keeping the workers focused on their tasks. Failure to meet production quotas, for example, resulted in a ten percent pay cut. Attempting to organize labor could result in punishment, too. These were only two of many rules for which penalties were charged to workers if they were not adhered to. The working conditions shown in the film are not unusual for factory work in China. The Chinese government reinforced these conditions by arresting leaders of organized labor on the grounds of inciting social unrest.
Age and gender also played a role in the oppression of Chinese labor, as it was illustrated in the film. Roger, the factory owner, explained that he employed mainly women, aged between fourteen and nineteen years old, because they were easier to control than the men. He employed men only for jobs that required heavy lifting. Not surprisingly then, the workers that Roger found to be most accepting to oppressive working conditions were primarily teenaged young women.
Near the end of the film, photos of the Mardi Gras celebrations were shared with the Chinese workers, and likewise, films of the Chinese workers were shared with the U.S. partygoers. Players on each side of the supply chain were surprised by what they learned about the other.
The factory workers were shocked that the necklaces, which they considered ugly and not worth owning, were purchased by the partygoers for more than a thousand times what they were paid to produce them. They were even more shocked at the notion that a woman would disrobe to obtain them. In contrast, Roger took much pride in hearing about the celebrations, knowing how much Americans loved his beads. Although the Chinese workers obviously felt exploited, they did not want consumers to stop purchasing the beads they produced, because they appreciated the work it provided to them. The workers only request was for the end of punishment in the form of withheld wages. The producers of the beads realized the degree to which the system allows for their exploitation and asked for change.
The U.S. partygoers had mixed reactions to the images of the bead makers. Some were clearly uncomfortable with their new awareness of the social inequality. One woman said that this knowledge ruined the fun and made her want to take her beads off. Others denied and resisted the implications of exploitation. A young man said that in China, ten cents an hour was a lot of money, maybe even more than most people in their country had the opportunity to earn. A woman said that when she found something that gave her joy, she didn’t question it. It seemed that a few partygoers were unsettled by the knowledge of their part in an oppressive exploitation of others, but most partygoers preferred to deny that reality. Situations of privilege can be blinding such that it blocks opportunity for social change.
Don, the U.S. importer, was not disturbed by the work conditions in China. He simply acknowledged that there were cultural and economic differences between the two nations, yet doing business with the Chinese did indeed provide economic benefit to everyone along the commodity chain. He explained that U.S. workers could not create the beads at a price which consumers are willing to pay, and that Chinese people needed the work and income that the bead manufacture provided. Don’s viewpoint seems harsh, but it did describe one perspective of reality.
Cultural positions of privilege and disadvantage are clearly evident in the circumstances of the festival celebrations between the two countries. In the U.S., folks left their home to celebrate Mardi Gras by means of excess consumption and reckless abandonment of propriety and social norms. In China, folks left work to go home and celebrate the Chinese New Year in a conservative manner with their families. This was true even for the rich factory owner, who did not realize the same degree of leisure as presumably working class folks in the U.S do. Value is subjective and dependent upon cultural perspective. Economic privilege in the U.S. resulted in different cultural and social values than did the relative economic disadvantage present in China. In China, a relative economic disadvantage resulted in the valuing of family relations; while in contrast, the U.S. situation of relative economic advantage resulted in the valuing of consumption and the abandonment of social norms.
State authority, through the establishment of regulations such as those concerning labor also contributed to positions of privilege and disadvantage. In the U.S., labor was highly regulated, and this allowed workers higher wages and more leisure time in comparison to Chinese laborers, whose working conditions were regulated less. Labor regulation resulted in the loss of manufacturing jobs in the U.S., while at the same time, lack of labor regulation resulted in an increased interest, by manufacturers, in the labor market in China. Because of less labor regulation, China offered manufactured goods at much less cost than what the U.S was able to provide. This relationship demonstrates that when benefits for workers increase, benefits to owners decrease, thus encouraging owners to seek more competitive labor, creating new economic opportunities elsewhere.
In this way, state authority can simultaneously create both advantages and disadvantages, for both producers and consumers. In a globalized capitalistic economic system, the reality of competition for labor may result in a loss of manufacturing jobs in a nation that comparatively pays their workers more in salary and benefits than competitive nations. Additionally, when benefits to workers are less, products can be produced for less and sold for less, offering an economic benefit to consumers. Advantage or disadvantage is dependant on one’s situation and perspective.
Many levels of economic positions of privilege and disadvantage were evident in the film. Gendered positions of privilege and disadvantage were evident in the Chinese labor market. Because young women were the preferred labor in Roger’s factory, young women realized a greater opportunity to find employment than men. Yet, the greater opportunity carried with it a gendered expectation of feminine submission to men of authority. Although women had the privilege of a much larger percentage of jobs, they realized a disadvantage because they were controlled and exploited for cheap labor.
Exploitation existed as hierarchies all though the commodity chain. Fathers exploited their daughters by sending them to work so that they could send money home to benefit the family. The factory owner exploited the workers to maximize his profit. The U.S. distributor exploited the free trade arrangement between the U.S. and China to maximize his profit. The U.S. consumers exploited the entire system, although generally unknowingly, because they were able to enjoy the consumption of cheap goods made possible only though a system that would keep hidden the true cost of cheap goods. Although there was exploitation at many levels, each level realized a benefit to some degree within a hierarchal system of power and privilege.
These hierarchies of power and privilege can be explained by economic theories. For centuries, economic theorists have attempted to explain how the capitalistic economic system is either beneficial to society or how it is harmful to society.
Economic theories that Scottish philosopher, Adam Smith (1723-1790), developed in the eighteenth century are playing out today in the example of global trade between the U.S. and China. Smith favored capitalism and he theorized that a division of labor would produce innovation resulting in the trade of goods in the proportions that a society desired and at a price that it was willing to pay. The film demonstrated that there are workers who are willing to produce for very little profit to themselves in order to meet an economy’s demands. Smith also argued that money was necessary for the facilitation of trade and social relations among people and this has clearly taken place. Yet Smith also theorized that individuals pursuing self-interests in an environment of others acting similarly yet following contracts and laws could compete without strife. This could be true, but in the film, it was demonstrated that the situation in the bead factory was one where the workers felt that they were exploited and attempted to organize labor to prevent punishment and the withholding of wages. Some of Smith’s theories have held true, while others have not.
German philosopher, historian, sociologist, and economist, Karl Marx (1818-1883), believed that capitalism alienated people from the products they produced, the process of production, other people, and also one’s own self. He theorized that specialized labor would result in loss of knowledge of the process of production, and loss of control of one’s own time as profit maximization monetized a wage labor system. He further surmised that wage labor would translate to valuing or devaluing persons according to production capabilities.
Marx’s broad view influenced his theories on alienation that have played themselves out in this example of globalized trade. In the situation described in the film, social alienation was realized in many ways. Factory workers were alienated from their families and they were not in control of how they spent their own time. They lived most of their lives at the factories and they lived for dreams, if not for themselves, then maybe for their family’s wellbeing. One factory worker said of her devalued worth, that her work and salary go to her brother’s education that all her dreams were for her brother now. Also, the bead producers were alienated from their products. They stated that they had absolutely no interest in the beads that they produce. The bead producers were also alienated from the consumers of what they produced. They had no idea how the beads were used. Consumers were alienated from the knowledge about the life circumstances of the producers of the goods they consumed. Additionally, Roger recognized the possibility of alienation in that if Don, the U.S. distributor, retired there was a possibility that the next CEO might not reciprocate Roger’s loyalty, but might instead favor capitalistic competition. The capitalistic system simultaneously creates and dismantles social relationships in ways that affect the worker producers, the management, the distributors, the retailers, and the consumers each differently. Marx’s theories on alienation, loss of control of one’s time, and the devaluation of human life have all been demonstrated in this film.
Although many dimensions of alienation were demonstrated in the film, it was also clear that new relationships were also created in the global capitalistic economic environment. There were obvious relationships such as those between national industrialists. Roger discussed his loyalty to Don, the U.S. distributor, who bought and resold the beads to retailers such as K-Mart and Wal-Mart. There were also less obvious relationships such as those between the young factory workers who left their homes to live in the controlled and intimate living environment of Chinese style factory work. Even as some relationships were torn down, as Marx predicted, others were simultaneously built up.
German sociologist, philosopher, and political economist, Max Weber (1864-1920), shared Marx’s negative point of view concerning the capitalistic economic system. He theorized that both technology and ideas generated social change. Yet Weber did not think in terms of alienation, but instead he considered modern industry and its associated bureaucracy and rationality as creating an ‘iron cage’. Weber’s theory concerning these ideas was demonstrated by the new ideas that allowed for capitalist expansion in China resulting in new economic opportunities for industry and the people who lived there. The iron cage Weber theorized about consisted of a bureaucracy of rules and regulations and hierarchies of power that trap people into situations that they do not control. This theory can be demonstrated with Roger’s management style. He knows that he must be competitive or else risk losing his business to competitors, and the competition could be located anywhere in the world. His response to this situation was to govern his factory in almost a militaristic style, even including the control of workers personal time and relationships, and meeting out punishment for misbehavior. In the example provided by the film, it was clear that new social relationships did form, even if they arose within an iron cage of a globalized hierarchal order of privilege and disadvantage in the environment of a globalized economy.
Another German philosopher, sociologist and economic theorist, Georg Simmel (1858-1918), also favored capitalism, as did Smith, but he believed that the use of money depersonalized social relations. He saw labor as stepped, ranging from piecework to wage labor to salary and even honorarium, and where each relationship had a different degree of de-personalization. It was his belief that depersonalization would provide benefit by eliminating the distrust in competitive social relations by allowing the maintenance of separate economic and private arenas in people’s lives. This could be true in some circumstances, but it is clear that the competition between labor and management was not relieved by the payment of wages, in the situation in the bead factory. The desire for the owner to reach predetermined goals encouraged him to use a punishment of withholding wages, resulting in strife between labor and management. Simmel’s theory concerning the benefits derived from the depersonalization of labor has not proven true in this example of a globalized economy.
Although economic theorists sometimes attempt to classify the capitalistic economic system as either beneficial or harmful to society, in reality, as demonstrated above, capitalism is neither strictly beneficial nor strictly harmful, but rather its qualities are situational and relational. Economies operate within relationships of give and take. Sometimes players in this relationship gain a greater advantage than others. Over time, relationships evolve and change resulting in new relationships of advantage and disadvantage.
Mardi Gras: Made in China illustrates capitalism’s hierarchic system of privilege and disadvantage. It exposes exploitation based on the classes embedded within hierarchies of class, gender and nationality. Capitalism is a hierarchical economic system that is based in the belief of a need to compete for limited resources. This system of competition works to provide privilege and advantage to some groups of people while it simultaneously creates situations of disadvantage for others. In a globalized capitalistic economy, such as what we know today, the desires of consumers in one part of the world can unintentionally influence the life circumstances of producers living in other parts of the world.
Redmon, D. (Ed.). (2005). Mardi Gras: Made in China. Carnivalesque Films.
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