Invisible Hands: Voices from the Global Economy

Greg Poulos

Invisible Hands coverInvisible Hands: Voices from the Global Economy is the latest title from Voice of Witness, a series dedicated to depicting “human rights injustices through the stories of the men and women who experience them.” This installment presents the personal narratives of sixteen different workers from across the globe, everywhere from the vineyards of Sonoma County to garment factories in Bangladesh, copper mines in Zambia, and electronics factories in South Korea. The narratives are told in the words of the workers themselves, supplemented by extensive footnotes that give the reader the necessary context to understand the stories being told.

A mosaic text like this runs the risk of being repetitive. Heck, one could argue that repetition is the point. After all, what better way to reveal the dehumanizing monotony of globalization? Just tell a bunch of stories that all sound pretty much the same—that could indeed be duplicates of one another with just a few circumstantial details swapped out: “Bougainville” for “Bhopal,” a Sanjay for a Clive, a little more mutatis mutandis, and presto!—yet another tale documenting the horrors of globalization. On to the next. Yawn.

Let me be absolutely clear here: Invisible Hands does not fall into this trap. The voices presented here are unique; each plight is its own. And the stories are briskly told. This is a book you will want to read through to the very end, not because you feel some kind of abstract moral obligation to, but because these stories are fascinating and engaging.

There’s no question that Invisible Hands presents an argument, and the stories all broadly point in a similar direction. For instance, the importance of labor unions comes up again and again; in particular we see the lengths capital will go to suppress worker organization, sometimes using subversive tactics, other times applying a much more straightforward brutality. Other recurring themes include the fouling of the environment, the importance of education as a path out of poverty, and the inability of poor workers to get adequate health care.

The book allows these stories to speak for themselves, saving any editorializing for its four appendices. The first appendix is a somewhat erratic “Timeline of Industrial Modernization.” The second is a glossary of terms. Both are largely disposable. The third contains a trove of historical context for each chapter—material I wish I’d been given before reading the whole book rather than after the fact.

The fourth appendix contains a summarized report from the Center for American Progress, outlining declining wages in the worldwide garment industry. Riveting, I know. But it’s also important, because the report directly addresses an important question that otherwise never quite gets tackled in these pages. That question goes something like: Yes, these workers surely face a great many hardships, but these jobs are raising them out of poverty, not putting them in it. Aren’t the jobs that globalization brings better than no jobs at all? It’s the standard neoliberal response to stories like those presented in Invisible Hands, and the Center for American Progress report suggests that the situation is rather more complex than this question assumes.

Of course, there’s only so much evidence that can be effectively conveyed in a twenty-page appendix. It’s not going to sway any hardline libertarians out there. Which is fine: data-crunching is not the focus of this book. Rather, it’s a book of oral histories, of workers telling this stories.

Stories can only take one so far when it comes to determining policy. As you read this book, it is certainly useful to keep in mind the old adage about how the plural of “anecdote” isn’t “data.” Still, stories influence how we interpret data. And I don’t mean this in a touchy-feely, bullshit way. I mean it in an inevitable-consequence-of-how-our-idiot-monkey-brains-work sort of way. Stories are how we make sense of the world. We think in stories, turn ourselves into the protagonists of our lives (e.g., I worked my ass off for twenty years and now I’ve got an American-dream caliber wife and kids and dog and lawn, or I worked my ass off for twenty years and when my company downsized I got screwed, tossed aside like a soiled sanitary napkin).

This observation may seem harmless or even inane, but it’s also critically important. Because whether we like it or not, whenever we hear a statistic or theory or factoid, our intuitive selves immediately sifts said factoid through a series of stories. We test the factoid against those stories we most closely identify with—stories which I believe somehow reflect the mysterious and ill-defined “truth” of the world—and if the factoid doesn’t jibe with those stories, we are predisposed (subconsciously! irrationally!) to dismiss the factoid. It is personal bias. And because all humans have an almost heroic capacity to rationalize, we’ll more likely than not find a way to dismiss the offensive factoid.

But by listening to the experiences of others, each of us can begin to incorporate those experiences into our picture of the world. We can begin to balance out our biases. And this, finally, is why a project like Invisible Hands is so important. It’s not a book to make you or me feel bad about the state of the world. It’s not a book to somehow shame us into being better people. Rather, it’s meant to expand our capacity for compassion, and to remind us that the world is a much, much bigger place than we often give it credit for.


Invisible Hands: Voices from the Global Economy
Edited by Corinne Goria
McSweeney's, 2014
ISBN 9781938073908

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