In a recent Late Night Woman’s Hour episode – which I caught via the BBC Sounds app – an interesting discussion was had about “modern slavery” (a term which I’d prefer not to use due to its racist, imperialist connotations as set out by Michael Dotteridge for OpenDemocracy; the matter will in this article be referred to as exploitative human labour) in the global supply chain. Barrister, Samantha Davies, shone a light on the approximately 40 million people still being exploited through their labour around the world, most of whom dwell in South East Asia and West Africa. Davies pointed out the inextricable link between exploitative human labour in these far-flung parts of the world and the U.K.
“They are working on Thai fish farms…on tea plantations…in cocoa farms…” Davies told the panel, “…there are children mining mica which gives us the glimmer and shine we get in our make-up.” The fact that products of exploitative human labour end up in our supermarkets and with approximately 10,000 to 13,000 people in the UK caught up in exploitative human labour makes it undoubtedly clear that this heinous crime is not only happening within our supply chain, but thriving because of it. However little is known about what we can do to stop that.
Few consumers, as Davies points out, know that they can do as little grabbing a template from Traidcraft and writing to a manufacturer and asking anything from who is picking their tea to who is sowing the cocoa seeds. The information is out there and it is staggering to know that through such simple action some anti-slavery charities have put forward a Cotton Pledge, urging manufacturers to cease trade with cotton suppliers, many of whom are in Uzbekistan, the 8th largest producer of cotton. According to research conducted by the International Labour Organisation, significant levels of forced labour in Uzbekistan have declined since the movement was launched. Most interestingly though was the idea that the success of the pledge was directly linked to cohesion which was pivotal in bringing about this change: “…the most impactful way to address the problem is cohesion of consumers” (Davies, 2019).
In his book, Class Struggle in Africa, the late Kwame Nkrumah – Ghana’s first president and the man because of whom Ghana is one of the first African nations to have gained independence from British rule – discusses the importance of cohesion in relation to Elitism. Nkrumah asserts that the main strength of elites is constituted by their cohesiveness, “…they are small in relation to the nation as a whole, but they are strong out of proportion to their size”. Upon reading that line, I was immediately reminded of the famous saying: “there is strength in numbers” which indicates that ‘a group of people have more influence than one person’ (Merriam-Webster, 2019). This brings me to the idea of social cohesion, which was at the heart of Davies’ point about eradicating exploitative human labour and is defined by Stanley (2003) as “…the willingness of members of a society to cooperate with each other in order to survive and prosper.”
The inference here is that members of a society must be willing to cooperate with each other. I assert that this kind of movement is unfortunately quite rare since many are often only driven to such willingness if and when their survival and prosperity depends on it. Exploitative human labour, whilst it is a fast-growing problem, it is not an in your face issue therefore society at large does not feel compelled to expel it. The necessary action, such as taking the time to write a letter “asking questions and telling manufacturers that we want them to do something about it” is rarely taken by the average person. As long as the average person who works a cushy 9-5 role, has a roof over their head, food in their fridge and enough disposable income in their current account to last till the next payday, they won’t ever see the need to support local, national or international action. Low social cohesion is what elites rely on to maintain their power, because they know that powerful cohesiveness can lead to movements such as the Cotton Pledge: a movement that will continue to rightfully hold manufacturers accountable for their complicity in exploitative human labour.
Nkrumah points out the assertions of Pluralists that, “power is not held by a single elite but is a mixture of many” and this, he states, was one of the objectives of early elitists. They aimed to show that it is not the people in society who rule but that government is controlled by a “narrow elite” (Nkrumah, 1970). And it is my belief that by and large the survival of the narrow elite is dependent on the wider society staying in a comatose state, remaining blind to the control of the hidden hand and allow injustices to continue.
Spelling out the importance of cohesiveness feels unnecessary and a bit patronising, because the benefits are incredibly obvious. However as low levels of social cohesion persist, it is important that members of society are urged to act and called to action. It should not be that the key influencer of cohesion is deprivation. If we only ever act after the fact, then quite frankly, we’re done for. A Desiderius Erasmus quote that I live by is “prevention is better than cure”. So why wait for an endemic problem to spread to its furthest extents before tackling the beast head on?
For years, great thinkers such as Naomi Klein have reported on the unethical sweatshops used by the biggest names on our high streets and yet statistics show that household expenditure has seldom dropped since 1997. Consumption fuels capitalism and elitism relies on capitalism. There is still so much work to do to move away from traditional qualities of the masses in politics such as “…apathy, submissiveness and deference” (Nkrumah, 1970) towards qualities like enthusiasm, assertiveness and defiance.
Ultimately, to really make any headway with our generations biggest threats, society needs to evolve into one such nucleus.
A lot of social change has come about online because of social media, we just need to go as hard offline. How does offline social cohesion look though? And how can society at large be more cohesive and conscious like the elites? The task is simple and can be achieved in four ways. The first being a shift of mindset, the second by holding back our coin and picking up the pen to fight against capitalism, the third by keeping our coin in local spheres and finally by being as self-aware as the elites are.
- By not aspiring to elitism
Inherent elitism is contemptuous to the masses and is the enemy of socialism and any member of the working class. We must be committed to maintain anti-capitalist and against bourgeois ideologies. We must not be sold by the perceived unique opportunities that being amongst the elite provide, of which seeking power, prestige, wealth and higher social status are emblems of.
- Using our consumer power to wield political change
Capitalism is an irrational and unfair ideology that promotes winners and losers. Moving towards a state of nature where consumers demand answers from manufacturers and retailers forcing them to reconsider their practices and change business models, is the ideal. This doesn’t have to be in the form of boycotts or organised strikes, it can be as simple as putting into writing demands for more ethical practices from business leaders thereby etching the power balance towards that of the consumer.
- Moving towards localisation
Moving towards localisation is an even better tool of social cohesiveness, in my opinion; generating and redistributing economic growth within local areas that in turn support the local community lessens the power of elites and fuels solidarity and socialist change.
- Doing as the elites do
I know this sounds strange but something can be gained from doing as the elites have done. There is a certain magic in the way they operate and if we should take anything from the elite ruling class, it is this:
“a ruling class is cohesive and conscious of itself as a class. It has objective interests, is aware of its position and the threat posed to its continued dominance…”
Kwame Nkrumah, 1970
The continued dominance of the elites is the epitome of the threat to the non-ruling class’ existence.