Invisible Hands: Voices from the Global Economy–A review

Writing about the recently deceased Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Greg Grandin in The Nation describes the author’s first novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude, as a “powerful parable of imperialism.”

According to Grandin, the climax of the novel is based on a real story– the massacre in 1928 of a group of striking Colombian farmworkers at a plantation owned by the United Fruit Company.

In the novel, the memory of the massacre is erased by a whirlwind conjured by a US administrator named Mr. Brown.

Garcia Marquez’s ending was prescient, writes Grandin. Shortly after One Hundred Years was published in 1967, the US conjured a real whirlwind in the form of invisiblehands_cover_FINAL_PR-lowresmilitary dictatorship that swept across Latin America.

Using terror and torture to silence those advocating other paths to development, the dictatorships helped give birth to the latest iteration of imperialism, sometimes known as neoliberalism or sometimes as the global economy.

Those dictatorships for the most part are relics of a bygone phase of the global economy.

However, one similarity shared by past and present is their relentless obsession with erasing obstacles to business, especially if those obstacles are the desires of other human beings.

Invisible Hands: Voices from the Global Economy published by McSweeny’s Books gives voice to a few of those whose desires became obstacles to business.

Invisible Hands is a collection of oral histories gathered by Corrine Goria for the Voice of Witness, “a non-profit organization that uses oral history to illuminate contemporary human rights crises in the US and around the world.”

In it, 15 people tell their stories about their struggles for fair treatment, respect, and dignity.

Here are just a few things that I learned from reading their stories:

  • During the last 16 years, more than 250,000 farmers in India have committed suicide. For many, suicide became the only alternative to the crushing debt they incurred while trying to fit into the new global economy.

One of those farmers was named Hanshal. His wife, Pourima Akolkar, told Voice of Witness the story of his tragedy, which unfortunately is all too common.

Hanshal and his father worked a small cotton farm that their family owned. They used traditional methods, particularly the reuse of seeds from harvested crops.

As it turns out, the reuse of seeds was an obstacle to a global agribusiness selling a new miracle seed called Bt. Fewer Bt seeds produced more, higher quality cotton than traditional seeds. Bt was also pest resistant and required less fertilizer.

Hanshal started using Bt around 2002. He had to if he wanted to remain competitive with other local cotton producers.

The problem with Bt was that, unlike traditional seed, Hanshal couldn’t reuse Bt. He had to buy a new, expensive batch every year.

While Hanshal’s expenses increased significantly, the price he received for his cotton did not.

His debt swelled, and local bankers would not finance his new crops. He turned to local moneylenders, who charged higher interest.

A three-year drought increased his burdensome debt. He grew despondent and killed himself in 2010 by drinking pesticide.

  • While its boosters tout the liberating impact of the new global economy, the repressive state remains at its beck and call, eager to spring into action when obstacles to business arise.

One such obstacle is Martin Barrios, a labor organizer in the Tehuacan Valley of the Mexican state of Puebla.

After the passage of NAFTA, the Tehucan Valley became a center for Mexico’s garment industry. “New maquilas (factories) were popping up everywhere,” said Barrios.

Barrios, director of the Tehuacan Valley Labor and Human Rights Commission, was a leader of a growing labor rights movement among local garment workers.

In 2003, Tarrant Apparel, A US company, closed its maquila without paying workers their severance pay. Barrios helped the workers win their severance pay.

A month later, he was hospitalized after being attacked and beaten in broad daylight. The police never arrested the culprits.

Two years later, “the maquila owners were fed up with our commission’s labor rights campaign, and they began to fight back hard,” said Barrios.

He was told that a company where he was helping workers to organize had decided to take action against him.

In December 2005 as he was walking to his office, Barrios was abducted by the police, taken to jail, and charged with extortion, a charge for which there was no evidence, only vague accusations by maquila owners.

Despite the lack of evidence, the police held Barrios in jail for more than a month and tried to force a confession from him.

While in jail, Barrios’ attorney called him a political prisoner. The case against Barrios was so flimsy that the police finally had to free him.

  •  Terri Judd of Boron, California and Clive Porabou of Mamung, Bougainville have something in common. They successfully defended themselves from an international mining corporation that considered both to be obstacles to business.

The Pacific island of Bougainville where Porabou lives is an autonomous region of Papua New Guinea. Rio Tinto, an Australian-based mining corporation, constructed the world’s largest open-pit copper mine on the island. Waste from the mine poisoned the rivers, killing the fish and causing vegetation to shrivel.

Local residents formed the Bougainville Revolutionary Army and took up arms against the mine owners and the central government. Porabou joined the rebellion.

After years of struggle, the central government granted Bougainville a measure of autonomy and agreed to a referendum on independence, which will be held in 2014.

During the rebellion, mining operations shut down. Porabou said that during the shut down, the island returned to life–rivers became clean and the island turned green again. He’s hoping that a vote for independence will allow his homeland to remain as pristine as it was before the mining began.

Judd is a mine worker at a borax mine in a community located on the Western edge of the Mojave Desert. After Rio Tinto bought the mine, the company sought to take away hard-won gains that kept the mine safe and provided miners with a decent standard of living.

In 2010, Rio Tinto told the miners they had to accept a new contract containing concessions that made work less safe and jobs less secure. The workers refused. Rio Tinto locked them out.

Instead of caving in, the workers stood strong and united. They were supported by other workers in California and Australia.

After months of hard struggle, the miners won a decent contract. “We won the battle,” said Judd to Voice of Witness. “But the war still wages on.”

Indeed, the war does rage on, and the voices in Invisible Hands gives witness to the impact of the war.

The result of the war has been the stifling of some particular desires–getting a fair wage in return for hard work, living in a clean environment, having common security in place, so that when disasters like a drought occur, people have the resources to bounce back.

What’s missing from Invisible Hands is a voice that can articulate the commonalities that unite these particular desires. That’s not so much a criticism of the book as it is an observation about the times in which we live.

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