Letter 4

A cloth mask being sewn on a sewing machine
Source: Tadeáš Bednarz/Wikimedia Commons

As the population adapts itself to living with Covid-19, and the government gets ready to reopen the economy, the final piece of the puzzle looms in uncertainty— migrant workers. With the number of new cases declining every day, businesses across Delhi were given the green light to open up, but they couldn’t do so. In what I consider to be one of the finest moments of poetic justice, the migrants they neglected and booted from the city now refuse to come back and work. Fears over the virus and another lockdown, coupled with government welfare programs is making these migrants hold off from going back to the city. Businesses are expected to face massive labor shortages till the end of the year, leading to declining profits, rising costs, and eventually a rise in prices. Among all this, the first thought that came to my mind was, “good, we all deserve it.”

In my conversation with a local business owner, a man who did his MBA from Wharton, I was told that the government must stop giving ‘handouts’ to these workers so that they come back to work and ‘boost the nation’s economy’. While he was right in his own, twisted way, what this man failed to realize was that if a person chooses government welfare over a job, it doesn’t mean that the welfare is too generous, it means that the wage paid to the worker is exploitative. It shows that given a proper choice, no one would voluntarily choose to work in these conditions. And it shows the unethicality in this entire system. What I realized at that point was that the capital class cannot be trusted to institute any changes that take power away from them. So, as consumers, as the focal point of this system, we must better ourselves and stop supporting these practices unconditionally. The longer we wait, the more we risk entrenching this system even further. As the ones who hold the most power, we need to be the ones to rip off the bandaid.

A task like this requires quite the effort, and it all starts with education. We must educate ourselves and realize that despite severe alienation, our autonomy is not lost. No matter how mechanical our daily life has become, and no matter how dependent we are on this system, we are the only ones who have the ultimate control over our lives. As I have detailed in my second reflection, the conditions of consent matter as much as the actual consent. And therefore when we complain about the conditions, about how this exploitative labor is better than starvation, and support these businesses thinking that we are picking lesser of the two evils– we unknowingly keep those evils in place. For if you continue choosing a bad option, it remains there and leaves little scope for other, better options to come up. For example, if the Bangladeshi economy adapts itself to selling its labor at exploitative costs to the Western world, it won’t find other better options to develop itself. And you, the Western consumer, are the obstacle in its way. So even though boycotting these products might lead to short-term pain for the workers and their local economies, the consumer must concentrate on absolving himself from any unethical practices. This dilemma is quite like the trolley problem, except you’re not sure whether the trolley will hit the five people in its original track, but you do know that it will kill one person in the other. So, will you choose to take the life of one person over some unknown possibility? Will you actively participate in affairs that should ideally not concern you, or will you leave things up to fate. Because you didn’t really care about the Bangladeshi economy before your favorite brand started producing there, so why involve yourself now?

And this is not a call for bringing an end to capitalist systems per se, it is a call to at least improve it with actual, meaningful changes. As the consumer, you can voice your concerns with your wallet. Look through the smoke and mirrors and demand strong action. I am certain no company likes to see a decline in sales, and pinching the capitalist’s pockets is the only way we can expect them to change.

However, this requires one to have a strong moral and ethical motivation that won’t be deterred by anything. If one lacks the motivation, they would be happy to see the ‘Sustainable Fashion’ posters in H&M and accept it without questions. Only those who realize what’s at stake will find the time to educate themselves and not rest until they have the answers. Only those who see the grave moral repercussions of their actions will hold their governments accountable for fulfilling its moral duties to end exploitation. Only those who seek to live an ethical life will go on to break free and establish their autonomy in a system that was made to control them.

Letter 3

This entire project was prompted by a simple discussion in my freshman year Ethics 101 class. The professor had asked us about our views on sweatshops in the developing world that produce our favorite shoes, belts, phones etc. The class, a bunch of ‘woke’ liberal arts students, instantly went into defensive mode and started announcing how they shop only from brands that are ‘responsible, sustainable, fair-trade’ or the other buzz-words you would probably hear in your local Whole Foods. Owing to time-constraints, the professor quickly moved on to some other topic but this question refused to leave my mind for the rest of the class.

I went about with my day and quickly forgot about the discussion when all my ire shifted to the lunch lady who messed up my order. However, the thought came back when I lay in bed that night, and it occupied my brain like an annoying squatter. I was under the impression that at least some of the critical problems associated with sweatshops had been resolved after the first wave of anti-globalization protests brought them to the forefront, but a quick google search in an attempt to quell my moral dilemma revealed the complete opposite. I was struck in the face with these images and articles that detailed in length the horrors of global capitalism, and I was shook. I was even more perturbed by the fact that I had lived in the developing world all my life and was still so blissfully unaware of these issues. This series of events prompted my long inquiry into the ethicality of consumers living in ignorance of what they consume. After nearly 2 years since that lecture, I think I have the answer.

In these last two weeks, I spent my time talking to multiple business-owners in Delhi, along with ordinary consumers just like me. The entire country saw the migrant labor crisis unfold on national television when lockdowns were imposed and that memory was still very fresh in the minds of my subjects. The consumers shared their moments of pain and agony when they saw migrant workers walking for hundreds of miles with little kids and no food or water. They echoed the same concerns about how there was a desperate need for change in the system, how we must treat these workers better, and surprisingly most also agreed that consumers had a moral responsibility to check how their products were made. I could understand their emotions because that is exactly what I went through as well. Migrant workers are the backbone of the city– without them everything ceases to function. Everyone I talked to had a sense of helplessness in their voice, a feeling of insignificance in the face of something huge and beyond their control. Everyone felt horrible about what had happened, but even more so about the unfortunate reality that everything would go back to the way it was when the pandemic dies down. And it was in that moment of despair that I came to my conclusion. A conclusion that would only add to their woes.

In his famous New York Times article, ‘The Moral Instinct’, Steven Pinker claims that “people don’t generally engage in moral reasoning.” Instead, they engage in something he calls “moral rationalization: they begin with the conclusion, coughed up by an unconscious emotion, and then work backward to a plausible justification.” The systems of global capitalism take advantage of this tendency and act just like drug cartels. They first get you to try something great without fully disclosing the associated costs, they then flood you with the product at cheap prices to get you addicted, and once that addiction sets in, you are a repeat customer no matter what anyone says. An addict’s mind will do, say, and believe anything that could justify his addiction. This backward reasoning is what most consumers do. Without realizing it, they’re addicted to their phones, or their cheap, trendy clothes, and now when someone tells them about the costs and consequences of their actions, they look for reasons to justify their addiction. Sure, sweatshops provide valuable employment that lifts people out of poverty, but if someone gave you this reason and disclosed the conditions of their work before you bought your phone, would you still buy it? The problem is that people look at the issue with the perspective of an addict, not an informed   decision-maker.

While it is certainly not the fault of the consumer that he was lured into this grand trap, he is not completely innocent either. Even though it was not an informed decision, the agency still lied with the consumer and no amount of moral rationalization can change that fact. Because you made a conscious decision, you cannot choose to live in ignorance of the consequences of that decision. People are being exploited because of choices that you make. You can provide arguments for why that exploitation is better than the other alternatives, but you cannot choose to shut your eyes to what your choices have brought upon the world. If you act as just a consumer that pays the market rate for a product and goes back home without batting an eye, you are not living an ethical life.

Now that this part of the equation is solved, I need to examine what a consumer can do once he is aware of the consequences of his decisions. Since these systems are now already in place and we are all a part of it, can one lead an ethical life within the system? For example, the Bangladeshi economy has entirely adapted itself to this form of production, and if we stop producing there, literal lives will be at stake. This part of the dilemma still needs some more thought, but I hope to crystalize my ideas in these last two weeks.


Letter 2

“Unlike a drop of water which loses its identity when it joins the ocean,
man does not lose his being in the society in which he lives.
Man’s life is independent.
He is born not for the development of the society alone, but for the development of his self too.”

-Babasaheb Ambedkar, Father of the Indian Constitution

Combining the liberal idea of individualism with today’s highly complex and structured capitalist mode of production   is perhaps the biggest oxymoron that will characterize our time and shape our future. The loss of individual identity and autonomy in post-industrialized capitalist societies has been a hotly-debated issue in public discourse since the inception of these societies. However, we must keep in mind that the loss of individuality is not an unintended consequence of this system. It is the central feature upon which it essentially runs. The capitalist class and their political puppets  confidently assert that ‘the freer the market, the freer the people’ is a perfect manifestation of laissez-faire economics in the political sphere, even though this amalgamation is riddled with inconsistencies and contradictions. For example, I often wonder how the free-thinking individual can exist within this structure when (a) the consumer is completely detached from the processes that produce the goods he consumes and (b) the worker is dehumanized into a single unit of skilled or unskilled labor used to produce for the faceless consumer. I often wonder where the free-thinking individual sits in this intricate system that apparently revolves around him, but works only when he behaves in a uniform, predictable pattern. I often wonder whether the multitude of choices that we are offered in a capitalist society actually encapsulate our differences, or just mere preferences. I might think that I’m different and morally superior for choosing almond milk over whole milk in my morning coffee to annihilate the unsustainable dairy industry, but little do I know that both the brands of milk are owned by the same parent company. And I’m not saying that it’s bad to have choices, after all it’s the choices we make that define us- but we must be wary of the illusion of choice.

And it is precisely these choices that I investigated in these last two weeks. Entering into the 4thweek of this remote research effort, I finally got to bridge the gap between the consumer and the producer by putting a voice and a story to the mysterious and inconspicuous faces of the migrant workers of New Delhi. Although I would have preferred a face-to-face conversation over a steaming hot cup of masala chai, the insights I gained from these telephonic conversations were truly eye-opening. I often found myself on the receiving end of these waves of aporia, situations where I simply could not fathom the difficulties that these workers go through without questioning certain fundamental beliefs that shape my outlook on the world. While I sat in my comfortable air-conditioned room clasping a glass of American imported lemon seltzer to tolerate the infamous Delhi summer, on the other end of the phone call sat a man not much older than me. A man who was recently laid off from a daily-wage job with virtually zero labor protection or benefits. He had to walk over two hundred miles with a gunny bag strung over his shoulders in the same scorching heat to reach his native village because he did not have any money left to sustain himself in the city. He hitched multiple rides in truck containers to hide from police officers looking for lockdown offenders— a literal manifestation of the reduction of human beings to nothing but objects, mere units of labor being transported across the country. He worked as a construction worker in the city, and the thought that this man could have built the roof above my head did not leave my mind throughout the duration of the call. And it was at this point I realized the depth and consequences of the choices I make as a consumer in a capitalist system. Moreover, I also realized that apart from giving people illusionary choices, this system also hides certain very real choices that it forces you to make. For example, it ingrains you to accept that since the supply of unskilled labor is more than its demand, it is natural for them to get poverty wages. It consciously hides the fact that you have a choice. You have a choice to refute these ‘universal economic principles’ as some sort of scientific basis to justify the status quo. Hiding these choices is how this system gets away with its exploitative nature. Despite these moments of cognitive dissonance (something I guess a researcher should get used to), I also had moments of laughter and bonding over our mutual hatred of politicians, humbling moments of respect, and profound moments of learning about the indomitable nature of the human spirit.

These conversations have thrown a very different perspective into the mix and have certainly made the moral calculus more difficult. However, it has also made my inquiry more nuanced. I am now very well-equipped to converse with consumers and find out the answer to my original question.

Letter 1 – What my iPhone costs

photo of a rainbow cresting over a dilapidated billboardThe globalized consumer of the 21st century is perhaps the hallmark of our times—a reality that truly sets us apart. The average Joe trots around wearing shoes made in Vietnam, using a phone made in China, driving a car assembled in Germany (running on oil from Saudi Arabia), all while eating fruit from Mexico and drinking tea from India. While this consumer may take pride in the fact that he serves as the focal point of an unprecedented system of global cooperation that makes Pax Orbis look like a very achievable goal, to me it seemed too good to be true. Globalization has long been credited as a force that brings the world together. However, not only an oversimplification of geopolitical processes, but also quite honestly a misleading argument offered to hide and disguise the dark side of globalization.

I came upon this realization when I looked at my phone. I spend hours on that thing every single day, and yet have absolutely no idea how it’s made, how it works, or who makes it. The processing power of the latest iPhone is at least 100,000 times that of the computer that sent Neil Armstrong to the moon. It is a marvel how the economic systems of our time can mass produce this complex piece of technology and put it in everyone’s pockets. Intrigued by this, I looked into how these systems do what they do, and sure enough I found the catch. Today, if you own an iPhone, iPad, Kindle, or Xbox, chances are that your device was made in a Foxconn factory in China, by a worker who is made to work 15-16 hours a day with no overtime pay, given no sick leaves, lives inside the factory premises in a cramped room, and is allowed to leave the factory only once a week. Foxconn has seen a spate of worker suicides in the last ten years and have admitted to hiring 14 year olds. That is the human cost of an iPhone. This is the moment I realized that what we call ‘Globalization’ is nothing more than a marketing gimmick used by Western Capitalists to positively brand this form of global capitalism that thrives on exploitation in the developing world. A globalized world is a detached world. It runs on a system that dehumanizes people and treats them as nothing more than cogs in a machine. And at the heart of this system lies the consumer. A consumer who cannot possibly fathom the life of the Bangladeshi worker who made his leather jacket. And it is this consumer that I wish to study.

So, is the consumer of the iPhone to blame for these exploitative practices? Can one claim that they live an ethical life if they unknowingly perpetuate these systems of injustice? If not, what would the alternative be? Most of these jobs in the developing world pay far better than any other work and contribute to the growth of their economies. Boycotting these products would simply make matters worse for them. In my project, I seek to find out what the ethical path in this dilemma entails, and how an ordinary consumer can discern right from wrong in a system that was imposed onto him without full disclosure. I will study the ethics of the migrant labor market of my hometown of New Delhi where millions of migrant workers flock from their native villages in the countryside for low-wage contract work. These workers form the backbone of India’s cities, building the base for almost every industry. However, these workers live not only paycheck to paycheck, but also at times on daily wages— imposing massive financial insecurity on them. Amid coronavirus lockdowns imposed by the government, hundreds of thousands of workers have been rendered jobless, homeless, and hungry. Many American and European companies that manufacture in India also use contract labor, and have now left these workers to fend for themselves— something they could not even imagine doing in their own countries. Moreover, a ban on railway travel to prevent the spread of the disease has forced these impoverished migrants, sometimes with their families, to walk hundreds of miles to their villages. I plan on spending my summer engaging in conversations with these workers and the forces that keep them in these situations— the business owners, landlords, moneylenders, government officials, and finally the consumer. Growing up privileged in a poor country like India, I find myself deeply committed to these issues and desperately in search of the ethical path. I look forward to a very fruitful summer.