Foxconn’s Brave New World

So Foxconn announced the replacement of human suicidal labor with an army of robots. The message seems to be: “stop killing yourself or struggling for better labour conditions, and don’t even think about seriously organizing. Or we’ll substitute you with machines”. But the threat is dubious. Foxconn holds a factory town where hundreds of thousands of cheap chinese workers are employed. Much more cheap than drones.

Is it possibile that Foxconn has exhausted its exploitation of human labor, being “forced” to pace towards machines or even clones? Inland China still offers communities of cheap labor, even cheaper than in the southeast. So why robots? Is it just a bluff? Maybe, but we should treat is as a serious matter.

A western firm can still go down the chain of human exploitation, moving its production from one country to another. A chinese firm starts thinking about robots. Fiat assembly lines and the iPad plants are far away from each other, but they equally disprove an ipothesis probably realized only in the Rhine model and for a few decades in Detroit: that factory life and pay could fulfill (or at least not deny) the material and spiritual needs of a human being.

Foxconn suicides are not unconnected. Let’s not forget what happened in France to Renault and France Telecom workers. But only the Guangdong firm has admitted that its labour organization is inhuman, developing plans that could make history. “Our workers kill theirselves. Therefore: our labour organization is inhuman. Therefore: we must replace humans with machines”. The possibility of “humanizing” labour conditions has been obviously discharged.

Who is going to be the worker of the future? A robot? An android? A clone? A cyborg? A mutant? From the standpoint of the corporations every option is plausible and ethically irrelevant, it will depend on technological or economic opportunities. But if Foxconn is right, these workers won’t belong to human race. Because factory labor such as imposed by capital/decision makers in many cases proved to be incompatible with human life, whilst the battle for reforming it, improving it, seems to be lost.

After Foxconn’s announcement reality intersects the science fiction axis. A genre of science fiction never considered by italian writers. Orwell’s and Huxley’s dystopias are not far from the “next” Foxconn. And if one day Apple and Amazon tablets should be constructed from clones rather than by machines, we would testify some kind of “Brave New World”. Sci-fi has often been a literature of strong political and social engagement. Oppression, slavery and the exploitation of cheap labor force are among its key issues. Kazuo Ishiguro’s organ donors (“Never Let Me Go”), Philip K. Dick’s rebel androids, Margaret Atwood’s characters (“The Handmaid’s Tale”), not to mention “Planet of the Apes” and “Matrix”: it’s a long list.

On August the first, during a British Library talk on clones and class control in sci-fi, Professor Edward James asked a good question: “why clone ourselves?”. For me it meant: why are the majority of sci-fi creatures enslaved clones of human beings? Wouldn’t it be easier to exploit monsters, morphologically not-human creatures, so as to avoid feelings of empathy between masters and slaves? One possible answer is that science fiction under the veil of metaphorical worlds and imaginary times is actually speaking of (and to) our world and time. And in our world humans oppress their fellows, not monsters, often reducing them to little more than machines.

Back to Foxconn: its step towards robotics (and towards mass unemployment in the southeast of China) could indeed actualize the commonplace about “reality truer than fiction”. But such a momentous transformation wouldn’t heal the fatal illness of human societies, namely the fact that they are still divided between oppressors and oppressed. The right question that decision makers should ask is not: “who will do the dirty job tomorrow?” (A chinese worker? A robot? A clone?). Because as long as there will be dirty jobs, there will be suicides and rebellions. The right question is: “why don’t we organize things in order to have only clean jobs?”. The answer to such a question would land us in the field of utopia.

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  2. […] to make a step forward. Towards evolution and human rights. Towards recognizing labour rights in the southeastern plants of China. “Designed in California by Apple / Assembled in China”: the formula doesn’t fit […]

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