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American Swadeshi

Out looking for a bike for my son, we found ourselves at a prominent bicycle store in our town. The young man who waited on us was courteous, patient, and seemed to know everything about every bicycle in the store — except for one aspect — where the bicycles were made!

He was uncharacteristically tentative when I asked him a question I have begun to ask when buying anything, “Is it made in the USA?”. The response is rarely in the affirmative, and this no longer surprises me. But I am still shocked every time by the evident lack of disquiet over the fact. Shop assistants and customer service personnel simply shrug their shoulders as though it had nothing to do with them; worse, when they do venture a view, it frequently reflects a hapless fatalism.

“That’s the way everything is these days”, said our bicycle expert matter-of-factly, sounding more like a wizened old-timer than the lad of 25 he was, as I read out from the phalanx of Schwinn’s and Trek’s, American icons of old, in what sounded to me like a requiem for the US bicycle industry: “Made in China”…”Made in China”…”Made in China”… As he continued to indulge my curiosity in the best traditions of American salesmanship, we discovered shortly that there was not one American-made bicycle in the whole store! (In the spirit of full disclosure, I should add that we did finally buy a Trek from him — made in China.)

“Men go on saving labor”, wrote Mahatma Gandhi long ago, “until millions are out of work”. Change “saving labor” in Gandhi’s statement to “cutting costs”, and you have a fairly good picture of today.

As I watch the pageant of jobs board a remorseless flotilla bound eastward, nothing surprises me more than the good humored sense of inevitability with which this is accepted. Fatalism is usually regarded as a facet of the Orient. The word “Kismet”, of Kipling fame, captures the supposed mindset. In a seeming reversal of roles, it is the east today which disdains notions of predestination (witness the surprise rout of the favored globalists in India’s recent elections) while the unlikely denizens of Main Street, USA appear mired in an uncomprehending funk. If you think that is an exaggeration, consider the following: with all the ongoing discussion of unscrupulous business leaders shipping jobs abroad, the United States Congress just passed a bill giving businesses further incentives for doing more of the same! The passage of the bill made a little splash on that day, mainly on Lou Dobbs’ program, but disappeared quietly into the night thereafter. The phrase ‘taking the people for granted’ could not have found a more fitting explication.

Writing in the Guardian some months ago, columnist George Monbiot predicted that if you live in the Western Hemisphere and if your job depends on a phone or a computer, it will, within the next decade, to have fled abroad. What a shining example of abjectness! Nor is Monbiot alone — every major politician in America tiptoes around the issue of job loss with the mandatory incantation, “of course some jobs will go abroad, that’s inevitable”. No one seems to ask, Why? What is so ‘inevitable’ about the loss of millions of jobs?

In his time, Gandhi did. He looked the biggest engine of economic pilferage the world had seen, the British Empire, in the eye, and raised the call of Swadeshi. Swadeshi, which means “of the nation”, was a campaign to push for the boycott of British cloth and other foreign made artifacts, promoting the use of Indian-made (village made) goods. It served not only to resuscitate India’s cottage industries and reduce unemployment in the villages, but also gave Indians a renewed spirit of nationalism. Hand-woven cloth (khadi), in Nehru’s picturesque language, was the livery of India’s freedom.

The time is now ripe for an American Swadeshi movement.

During Gandhi’s movement in India, huge bonfires were made of British cloth and fineries, and people felt honored to use homespun cloth. Imagine the glory of an American politician who started a movement to “Buy American”. Such a politician would first of all perform a great public service, by establishing the connection between our economic behavior and its consequences — a social lesson whose very loss is one cause of such abject defeatism. This would be people’s power at its finest, wielded in their own interest and for the country as a whole. Let no one doubt, the same profiteers who suddenly discovered the virtues in “helping the third world” by sending American jobs abroad, would switch just as quickly to the slogan of “standing by your country” as soon as they discovered that “Made in America” was the surest way to profit.

A giant mantle awaits the leader who takes up such a campaign. The issue touches every nook and cranny of America, and in the end, involves nothing less than the country’s sovereignty. Cast and led properly, it has the potential to sweep everything before it — Presidency, Congress, Senate — all.

Does Kerry dare?

 

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/>Niranjan Ramakrishnan is a writer living on the West Coast.  His book, “Reading Gandhi In the Twenty-First Century” was published last year by Palgrave.  He may be reached at njn_2003@yahoo.com.

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