The United States is eager to show the world that it is experiencing a craft revolution; a rebirth of the artisanal, the local, and hand-crafted, and the individual is flooding store shelves, backyard gardens, and Etsy. In the mythical land of opportunity, one of the latest ‘opportunities’ involves capitalising on a return to traditionalist modes of creation, earning a premium from customers who like the look, feel, and ‘authenticity’ of goods like homemade pickles and cheeses, hand-crafted dresses, urban-farmed produce, and more. All, of course, without the actual real-world experiences that underlie the history of these items and the lower-class people who have always been making them.
This revolution is nestled inside the larger US culture, occupying a larger and larger component of the American mindscape and financial landscape, as evidenced by the rise of Whole Foods. The massive growth of Whole Foods simultaneously captures the explosion of mock-artisanal culture in the US and highlights how it’s gone so very wrong, turning into a twisted, treacherous, terrible version of itself. Whole Foods isn’t about creating an equitable and functional marketplace for people to sell goods; it’s about capitalism, headed up by an extreme libertarian who’s infamous for unionbusting, poor working conditions, and other offenses in his stores.
It exemplifies the capitalist culture that underlies the craft revolution in the US, and everything that has gone wrong with it. And, in a particularly timely turn of events, the International Trade Union Confederation has just released new research showing that the United States is one of the worst places in the world for workers, rating only above nations that offer no guarantee of worker rights, or a have experienced a complete breakdown in rights due to governmental instability. The US, along with colleagues like Iran, is placed in a class of nations that exhibit ‘systemic violations’ against workers, according to a metric that used almost 100 measures of worker health, safety, and organising ability to arrive at a numerical score.
Capitalism: It’s just not that into you.
The US has a two-pronged problem when it comes to worker rights. The first is the systemic application of institutional, structural, and governmental restrictions and limitations on worker organising and coordination. Numerous states have anti-union laws, while Congress and the courts have consistently legislated and ruled against workers over the centuries that the US has been in business — and ‘in business’ is no typo, as the US hasn’t just been in existence since 1776, it’s also been, very specifically, a business entity.
This was a country founded on slavery, on the displacement of indigenous people, on the sequestration of power, wealth, and control among a very limited and narrow group of society. In its earliest days, the United States extended the right to vote and take part in society only to landed white men free of indentures or other obligations, limiting opportunities to shape society to those who had the most to gain from changing the least. This was not simply a political move to consolidate power, but also a shrewd economic one — the US was conquered, explored, founded, and grown as an economic venture, like all other colonial nations.
In discussions of the current state of the US, this often seems to be elided; the United States is and always has been a capitalist’s wet dream, shaped by concerns of economy and profits, not humanity and society. Like other former colonies, it was settled for the purpose of exploitation, no matter what myths and legends people are fed today about pilgrims fleeing persecution at home. When the United States declared independence from Britain, it was over economic disputes, not over ideological ones, and it was economics that lay at the heart of the Civil War, not the desire to free men, women, and children held in servitude.
The number of right to work laws, exemption to strike protections, and other anti-organising laws is mounting in the US, all a part of our capitalist legacy and what lawmakers see as our capitalist future. No small wonder, since those bankrolling US politics are the same landed white men who have the most interest in protecting their profits. While the US ostensibly has opened the vote to (almost) everyone, the nation is still essentially in the control of a limited number of people with the power, time, and leisure to be active in US politics.
Think something has changed since the sweatshops, factories, and piecework jobs of the early 20th century? Then why are East Asian women labouring away in Los Angeles and San Francisco in sweatshop conditions while meat packers lose limbs in the South and women in the digital economy struggle to make a living in the ‘hustler economy’?
The US is also heavily dominated by corporations that thrive on worker abuse, thus compounding the problem of anti-worker legislation. It’s not enough to enjoy protectionist legislation, court decisions, and regulations — corporations must actively work to improve their lot in US society even further, at the expense of the people who work for them. Thus, while the government may deny the legal right to unionise, it’s corporations who fire people for organising activities, intimidate and threaten workers who push for better working conditions, and continue paying low wages to people performing critical work.
US corporations argue that they are an economic necessity, and thus, that they deserve a pass on social responsibility. Meanwhile, many position themselves for consumers as examples of a progressive, forward-thinking economy that cares about the world; Whole Foods, for example, with its crunchy, granola, feel-good model of produce and grocery retail, creates a world in which consumers are supposed to feel better because they shop there. By contrast, independent grocers who pay their workers living wages, provide reasonable benefits, and offer more worker protections are penalised for not having the social cachet of Whole Foods.
The news that the US is one of the worst places should come as no surprise. Likewise with the news about the best places to work: The socialist and proto-socialist nations of Northern Europe, where protection of workers, abolishment of the class system, and the creation of a functional economy are considered more important than corporate profits. While these nations have problems of their own (such as a rise in right-wing activity and an increase in anti-immigrant sentiments), their consistent focus on maintaining good conditions for workers has paid off in the form of a more balanced, free, and functional society.
If the US wants to improve its ranking on the world stage, it’s not enough to reform legislation surrounding workers and the workplace. The country needs to do more than eliminating corporate loopholes and challenging the status quo: The US needs to ask itself if it wants to continue using capitalism as its economic model, or if its time, perhaps, to move on to something that will serve it, and its people, better.