Written by Zhang Tunan
Donald Trump’s Mexico wall, New Zealand’s mosque shooting, nationalism, extreme right-wing forces, populism… and what else? The media is throwing all these words from everywhere to us. And we might think, from these agendas, that an anti-globalization movement is rising; the irreconcilable conflicts between civilizations seems to be validating Samuel P. Huntington’s prophecy; the developed countries are constantly breaking their own words. However, before we draw any conclusions, with a little research, we will find that the anti-immigration sentiments have been there ever since immigrants appeared on the American land; nationalism never vanished and has appeared in different forms in history; developed countries have repeatedly abandoned the good vision of “the global village” and set up high walls in various forms.
In order to create political heritage, Trump has attempted to “solve” the immigration problem by building a wall on the southern US-Mexico border that stretches thousands of miles. But the reality is somehow paradoxical. On the one hand, in the eyes of those who are familiar with border affairs, no matter how high, solid, and technologically advanced the border is, it cannot fully stop illegal immigrants and drugs from entering the United States. As the real cause behind is the imbalanced economic development and the US’s demand for drugs.
On the other hand, even though the wall, as a physical barrier, seems to barely serve its ideal function. Nonetheless, the concept of an “Utopian Wall”, driven by fear of unemployment, crime, drugs and even diversity, stands solidly in the minds of Trump and his supporters. They probably think that the wall can shut off all the dangers that do not belong to the United States.
Regarding this Professor Mark Hoochee at the University of Leuven in Belgium explained that the wall reflects the complex mentality of a US that is “returning to the white”. Between the two worlds, the physical wall stands in vain compared with the outsiders’—those who want to enter the US—illusory presupposition of “human rights”, “freedom”, and NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement); yet it also stands firmly because the wall expresses the US’s eager hope to “reclaim the way of life that disappears due to globalization”, which is a claim made too simple.
So what exactly is the reason that people pay so much attention to these virtual or physical barriers? Perhaps all of these—the US-Mexico border, the wall at Christchurch mosque splashed with people’s blood, and the mental wall of nationalism—are not the fundamental factors. Instead, it is the people outside those walls, the walls that stand for “freedom” and “equality” promised by modern societies. These “outsiders” within the societies—who also represent a more prevalent and distinctive class—are kept at the bottom of American and other developed countries’ societies, ending up unable to find their place promised to them.
So how are these people chosen, placed, or excluded from the walls, and why do they build walls to settle themselves? This might help us understand why border walls are constructed and reinforced.
In Richard Sennet’s critique of modernity, the concept of the useless ghost —described as a product of modern cities—is reflected in the peasants of early modernity who come to the cities, since they have no land to cultivate at home. This is an old story now, and the story continues that the peasants become bankrupt on their lands, therefore they are forced to come to the industrialized cities and find employment in factories.
What are the realities facing these former peasants in the cities and factories? The market and industrial machinery in fact have drastically reduced the demand for labor and added to the viciousness of population growth. Meanwhile, jobs revolving the factories’ assembly lines are not supportive of the complex cognitive developments of the workers. Therefore, with the expansion of cities and the development of industrial technology, we see the inevitable creation of the phenomenon called “unskilled workers”.
Here we also have to acknowledge the achievements of modern society: more and more people have benefited from education and have been able to get out of the state of ignorance. For example, Mass education has even enabled the poor during the Great Depression in 1929 with opportunities to become doctors and lawyers. According to statistics, there was a higher percentage of children from unskilled working families to move upward into the middle and lower classes compared to that of the early industrial era.
Even so, in reality most people are left behind in The Skill Economy. The education system creates a large number of educated young people, who cannot find a job:
The Skilled Society only needs a few educated and talented people. This is particularly the case for areas such as finance, high-tech industries and complex services industriesRichard Sennet
The Culture of New Capitalism (2006)
As a result, there has been a series of phenomena of what I call “talent devaluation” facing the extremely unbalanced supply and demand of skills, and a wide scope of economic choices under globalization. Below, I will try to summarize the phenomena as:
1. Human Resource Transfer: The Devaluation of Talents in Developing Countries
We all know that multinational corporations have transferred investments on human resources to developing countries; some even employed cheap immigrant labor in their home countries. Both takes away employment opportunities from domestic citizens.
With this problem, we might say the government can introduce policies to protect local employment by regulating companies to hire immigrants or the workers in developing countries. Let us not discuss whether things are truly as simple, but try to understand the implication of words such as “local/national protectionism”. When we use these words to mean: resist cheap labor from other countries, we already imply that immigrants and developing countries have taken advantage of developed countries, and the developed countries must protect their own citizens.
Here, what we need to discuss is the facts about “taking advantage “. We can look at one example from Sennett when he writes about Indian call centers. The employees at the call centers have mastered at least two languages, and their language skills are so good that the person on the other side of the phone cannot tell if they are from the United States or India. These employees receive a variety of training and “expanding learning,” and they are indeed very capable. But they only get a terribly low paycheck.
In fact, the human resources from these developing countries, with diligent labor and talents that far exceed their positions, fail to receive payments they deserve. Multinational companies are of course willing to use these high-quality, easy-to-manage, low-cost, and trade-union-free employees. As a result, citizens from developed countries lose their employment opportunities. So, we can see that building the US-Mexico Wall to prevent immigrants from occupying US citizens’ jobs, is in fact useless.
2. Automation leads to the depreciation of educated people since the rise of the service industry
Technology is a
contributing factor for capital to pursue its maximized benefits. While
admiring the rapid development of automated production machines, we often
overlook the large number of people who are squeezed out of the labor market by
machines. When I visited the production line at Master Kong (the biggest
company for instant noodles in China), I found that it requires no more than
four workers on an assembly line from kneading dough in the beginning to
packaging in the end. Machine production can flexibly respond to the expansion
and contraction of markets, thereby greatly reduce labor costs. And we often
see, from corporate advertising, images of high-tech, clean-cut production
lines where the lesser number of humans seems to equate to the advantage of
technology, and a guarantee of food safety.
Changes in food manufacturing industry may not be as significant as that in heavy industries. From 1982 to 2002, steel production in the US rose from 75 million tons to 120 million tons, while steel workers decreased from 289,000 to 74,000. What needs to be emphasized here is that these jobs have not been transferred abroad; most of them have been occupied by machines.
Then where can the “excluded” people go?
Of course, they did not just move to different positions/locations. We can also use the model of “depreciation” to analyze the problem. Corporations will still choose to employ overly talented workers at low cost, as these workers are better at solving problems. As for those who are not as educated or qualified, are truly excluded from the economic machine to a large extent.
Meanwhile, the rise of consumerism has expanded the employment opportunities in service industry. This might seem like what some sociologists envisioned: automation will liberate manual workers from physical work to the new white-collar and human service positions. It is the so called “Post-industrial” theory we often hear. However, we have to look at the reality again in the face of this vision. There is a small demand for highly educated and talented workers for the new and cutting-edge industries. So, a large number of graduated college students can only enter service industries. For example, when you travel on a train, here in China, and see the attendants passing by, the attendants are very likely to be a bachelor or masters graduate, even though you may not believe it.
Of course, you may say that we need to adapt to our times, and that the service industry needs high-quality talents too. Yet another problem once again breaks the post-industrial dream: how can we still naively believe that the automation will only happen in the industrial sectors today and in the future? Before the threat of artificial intelligence to jobs was discussed in public, the large North American American telecommunications company, Sprint Corporation, had already laid off workers in their human services department.
3. Technological development leads to the extinction of skills, and the depreciation of experienced talents
A few days ago, one of my teachers talked about the relationship between human and technology and gave an example: Underwater drones sell better abroad than they do in China, because the water quality in some places of China was too bad to use drones. Later the manufacturer discovered that the Chinese used the drones for detecting fish while fishing. So, the manufacturer transformed the drones into fishing tools. They later attracted many more buyers from China. The story ended there, but what will happen next? It is clear that the new technology can detect the fish’s location more accurately, and may even exceed experienced fishermen. A perceivable future could be that the fishermen’s experience will not be valued very much compared to the drones, and that workers who can maneuver the new technology will replace the fishermen.
You might think that this situation only happens in the most traditional industries and the above example is the simplest one. Nowadays, the corporations’ preference for ‘talented’ young people leads to a devaluation of “experience”. Why is it the case? Think about how we define “skills” today. The overwhelming articles on professional development nowadays show that today’s important skills are “the ability to learn”: the ability to accept, cope, and complete new tasks. The key element of being a rational employee in today’s economy is to give up, let go, abandon past experience, and constantly face new challenges for the future. Our skills and knowledge become expired at an ever-faster pace, as we hear too often now: “The knowledge you have learned at university will have become expired when you graduate.”
Therefore, technological development has led to the extinction of traditionally valued skills. We seem to be able to function perfectly by relying on our technical sensibility rather than ourselves. Under such technological rules, people with accumulated experience become devalued and useless, replaced by people who are skilled with new technological know-how and reliant on technological sensibility.
Because of the series of depreciation of people, the useless ghosts that always linger have caused deep anxieties and uneasiness with which we cannot cope. Because no matter what, most people are faced with the danger of being excluded and eliminated by the “gaming rules” in our societies.
Now, perhaps we can understand better why the US-Mexico border was built and is being strengthened. When the government and the media repeatedly depict the blueprint of the American Dream, those who are excluded from the Dream find themselves as “outsiders” of the Dream. The missing representation of these people in the media implies their non-existence. These “outsiders” experience instability in their own legitimacy and life conditions, which become the deep and unresolvable anxieties within themselves.
The demonization of outsiders has always been a means for people to establish group identity and self-legitimacy. When someone makes the claim that it is the fault of outsiders, that it is the immigrants who pushed them out of the “wall” of the American Dream, the image of “the other” gets amplified in various propaganda schemes. On the other hand, the legitimacy of the native and unstable “outsiders” seems to be recognized at the moment the wall gets built: “We are protected by the government!” Through the solid border wall, these people gain a false sense of legitimacy. It is no longer important whether the immigrants are truly a source of danger or unrest; it is not even important if the wall can truly stop the immigrants or not. What is important is the construction of the wall, which fills the urgent psychological needs of these “outsiders” wondering at the fringe of the American Dream. When politics has long become a performance, all the politicians have to do is to move the audience. After all, what else can these “outsiders” do besides hold onto the illusory psychological stability?
The Culture of the New Capitalism. By Richard Sennett. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2006.
This article was originally published in Chinese here. It has been translated for Critical Edges by Thea Pan and Zhang Tunan
About the author
Zhang Tunan is a first year graduate student in communication studies at Hebei University in China. Currently she is paying close attention to political economy, communication theories, and the power relations in communication activities.
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