The Hidden Price of the Fabulous Bargain
A photograph haunts my waking hours. In it a man is curled embracing a woman. His eyes are closed, his head against her chest. Her back is arched, right arm resting on his left; elbow finding a niche in the crook of his arm. From the pose alone, it is as though he had reached for her in his sleep; as though her wrist, bent down against his brow, might bend again, directing her hand to stroke his hair, his face, his bowing back; as though she and he together had paused to feel the beating of their hearts.
The Kama Sutra must have a name for their embrace, for it is beautiful and common. But catastrophe and not love is the subject of this scene, for these two are dead.
We don’t know how they lived or what they were called, whether they were lovers or strangers taking desperate hold of each other as the ceiling crashed and the walls came down and a bolt of aqua cloth with polka dots loosened like a winding sheet against their tomb of concrete and bent metal.
We know them by their work, as garment makers; by their workplace, Rana Plaza near Dhaka, Bangladesh; by the date they were killed, April 24, 2013, because factory bosses valued the return on whatever rag they were sewing more than life. We know—because their final gestures were exposed enough to be captured by the photographer and activist Taslima Akhter and published in CounterPunch—that their loved ones were among the first of those mourning the 1,000-plus dead and not among those wandering for days near the wreckage carrying tattered hopes and a different type of photo, of faces bright and alive, belonging to the scores who were missing. We know that 2,437 workers, some grievously injured, were pulled from the rubble alive. We know that all who sewed in the eight-story Rana Plaza were paid between $35 and $70 a month; that they belong to the second-largest population of garment workers in the world; that the day before the collapse they heard a rumble, almost like an explosion, as the building cracked, but were called on to work the next day anyway; that the factories in Rana Plaza were among 100,000 in Dhaka, this century’s satanic mills, where women, men and children toil long hours, under brute conditions, at punishing speed, stitching cheap fashions that an American will buy today and toss in the trash next year.
Beware the fabulous bargain, union workers in the US garment trade used to say; it conceals a world of pain.
If the dead bodies of Dhaka seem remote as a concern for sexual politics, that merely reveals how shallow those politics often are, and indeed how limited are the familiar, compartmentalized politics of the progressive brand.
As wails of grief and shouts of protest pierced the air half a world away, there were but a few bleats here. Earnest consumers complained about Wal-Mart and vowed not to buy clothes made in Bangladesh. Some unionists called for safety measures and industry-sponsored factory inspections. Confessors of body politics, meanwhile, were prepping for Masturbation Month (May), or planning a StronicTM Sex Toy Race for Gay Pride (June), or arguing that maybe police ought to arrest the female fan who tried to fellate rapper Danny Brown onstage, or advertising another academic meeting to discuss the elemental stuff of life in a language intelligible only to themselves.
The dead of Dhaka ought to prompt a deeper consideration by everyone of the punishments of capital, and of the relationship between desire, repression and power.
That relationship, so central to the mass-production and commodity-circulation system whether routed through Dhaka or Detroit, is also fundamental, in different shadings, to the history of sexuality as an object of politics—as something to be controlled, contained, classified and struggled over. It has been meat for sex radicals from Edward Carpenter to Audre Lord and others who have explored the terrain upon which erotic desire and repression contend, and who have expanded the vista of sexual freedom to its full reach, as a freedom to be. On the other side, the vice squad, the jailer, the straightjackets of racial, sexual and social status, the economic system, the security state that protects it, the war-and-torture state, all the mechanisms of power, become threats or potential threats to that essential freedom, that being.
The two people locked in death’s embrace were workers, but the totality of their life was not contained within the harsh parentheses of their labor. It happens that they were a man and a woman; they might have been otherwise. We mourn them not because of their tools or even because of the manner of their death but because they were: human, like us; with desires, like ours, for kindness, justice, pleasure, desires attenuated and finally foreclosed by human systems—cruel ones, but not functioning by fate. Having been made by acts of human will, they can be unmade. It seems necessary to say that.
These two, these 1,000, the countless, unremembered others, might have been people caught in any horror, dead and deserving of our sensitivity. But they occupied a particularly revealing, almost intimate, position in the circulation of commodities. They were terribly poor in a worldwide system that shields us from their poverty and that ordinarily renders them invisible even as it provides multiple, tangible and highly visible signs of their presence: the work of their hands.
And what a work that is! The garment—comfort and adornment, practical necessity and object of allure, medium for self-presentation (why this shirt and not another?), designed to attract, marketed through sex and wrapped up in eroticism if only because of the flesh it conceals.
Before the building in Dhaka collapsed, telephone stands and subway walls near Union Square in New York sprouted with ads for H&M. The model, Vanessa Paradis, rises like a haughty Venus in flowery prints within a bower of spring blossoms. She is the face of H&M’s Conscious Collection: “more sustainable fashion,” made from organic cotton and recycled polyester at $29.95 for the faux-jeweled jacket; $19.95 for the sweeping sundress; $9.95 for the flirty blouse.
H&M may not have had subcontractors at Rana Plaza on April 24, but it places more orders with factories in Bangladesh than any apparel company in the world. Its “manager of sustainability and social issues,” Pierre Borjesson, told the AP last December that the company would not sign on to a plan for independent, industry-financed factory inspections drawn up by the International Labor Rights Forum because safety should be a public responsibility. It’s estimated that the plan would have added 10 cents to every garment made by every company if spread out to include all Bangladeshi apparel exports. The 10 cents was never the issue, which is why the inspection regime, while beneficial, also hits short of the mark. To keep the rate of profit ticking to the max, someone somewhere has to die, if not dramatically then slowly over years at their machines, if not their bodies then their souls, as cash gets shoveled upstairs and shoppers get a pretty distraction. H&M’s face for summer is Beyonce as Mrs. Carter: $4.95 for the bikini top.
Almost ten years ago Tony Kushner wrote an essay for The Nation called “A Socialism of the Skin.” It repays rereading. In part an extended argument with gay conservatives, it is so much more: a political appeal to conjoin the pursuit of pleasure with an active hatred for misery and the structures that require it. The man and woman who held each other as their last act as fellow workers, as human beings and heirs to life, call out to us. Let their epitaph be our standard. They died for capital; we must live and work for freedom, love, solidarity.
JoAnn Wypijewski writes the Carnal Knowledge column for The Nation, where a shorter version of this article originally appeared. She can be reached at email@example.com.