Fashion and Oppression from an Anti-capitalist perspective

What does Karl Marx have to do with Karl Lagerfeld

originally published in Socialist Action News and found at SocialistAction.org

By CHRISTINE MARIE

Tansey E. Hoskins clearly loves art, understands the impulse to body modification and sartorial statement, and can imagine a socialist society where the creativity of the vast majority will be unleashed to spectacular ends in clothing and many other spheres. She has also written the most devastating deconstruction of the fashion industry, as well as of the “ethical fashion movement,” to date. Her new book, “Stitched Up: The Anti-Capitalist Book of Fashion” (London: Pluto Press, 2014), leaves no negative impact of the fashion industry unexamined. She expertly lays out the industry record regarding class differentiation, worker exploitation, imperialist underdevelopment, racial stereotyping, female self-loathing, environmental degradation, gender oppression, and artist cooptation.

What makes Hoskin’s book more than a very radical and comprehensive look at the world of haute couture, and its impact on the rest of us, is the fact that she can be enthralled by the collection of a sophisticated designer at the same time that she shows herself to be a revolutionary socialist who has absorbed the best that Marxism and feminism have to offer on this question and can argue persuasively that nothing short of a battle for socialism can right these wrongs.

To better arm her readers for that struggle, she explains Marxist concepts like commodity fetishism, alienation, ideology, use-value, surplus value, and the reserve army of labor, and interweaves the history of garment production from the beginning of the factory system to today. In short, she effectively answers her own question, “But what does Karl Marx have to do with Karl Lagerfeld?”

The fashion industry, Hoskin’s argues, “lays out in sharp relief all the ins and outs of capitalism—the drive for profit and its resulting exploitation, the power that comes from owning society’s means of production,” and its use of ideology to assert that “there is no alternative.” Fashion, like all art forms in capitalist society, is highly contradictory. Individual artists can create work that inspires dreams of a different kind of society, while, at the same time, the art system that abides that rebellion actually hides capitalism’s inherently destructive mode of functioning and its vulnerability to overthrow by the majority. Relentlessly examining the fashion world in its material context and refusing to let the endless contradictions resolve, Hoskins argues, is the kind of practice that makes historical agency, and ultimately liberation, possible.

Liberation from our own alienation, retail therapy, credit card debt, and body image issues, Hoskins explains, can only be won collectively and in solidarity with garment workers acting in their interest worldwide. While boycotts and consumer campaigns that accompanied the civil rights movement or farm worker organizing contributed to the morale and mobilization of many, there is no “ethical” fashion purchase that will materially reduce the evils of the fashion industry under capitalism.

No company that produces garments, no matter what their public relations or green-washing campaigns assert, can stay in business in this system unless it wins the costs of production war with its competitors. And these wars are carried out in the context of powerful militarized nation states negotiating trade rules in the interests of the ruling rich.

In the 1970s, the U.S., Europe, and Canada set self-serving quotas and tariffs under the auspices of the Multi Fibre Arrangement (MFA), an agreement whose terms determined where it was viable to produce garments and where it was not. Globally, countries like Bangladesh that were too poor to diversify their industry suddenly lost $7.3 billion a year. Others, like South Korea, were set up for profit-making. Still other locations, like Saipan, part of the U.S. Commonwealth, became a giant compound housing tens of thousands of young, female, Chinese workers.

In 2005, the MFA ended, and within a few years, Saipan’s industry vanished, and the young women without the means to return to China became the base of Saipan’s sex tourism industry. This volatility is endemic to an industry that due to competition overproduces in nearly unimaginable numbers and survives on the creation of false need.

After 2008, when the ending of the MFA coincided with the global capitalist economic crisis and production slowed, 10 million workers in China, a third of the 30 million textile and garment workers, lost their jobs. The figure in India was one million, and in Cambodia 20 percent of that workforce. The overwhelming majority of these workers were women under the age of 40 years working in frequently deadly conditions like the Rana Plaza, where over a thousand women lost their lives last year in a building collapse and where sexual abuse is rampant.

To keep a penny ahead of the competition, the industry carries out “global scanning,” ready to move a room full of sewing machines in an instant, leaving chaos and women forced into further degradation or exploitation. Hoskins demonstrates, as well, that any claim by any name in the industry that they were unaware of any of these conditions is simply impossible.

Particularly effective is Hoskin’s depiction of the special environmental destruction of the cotton, textile, and garment industries. She describes the Aral Sea, once a home to 24 species of fish and families dependent on them, today a diseased salt-rock desert plagued by winds blowing carcinogenic pesticide dust into villages. The sea was drained to irrigate Uzbekistan’s 1.47 million hectares of cotton, as well as those in Turkmenistan, grown in unsustainable ways to feed the insatiable cheap for-profit garment industry.

China’s textile industry, which supplies most Western name brands, is considered the third worst polluter out of the country’s 39 spheres of production, due to the huge amount of water used for dying and finishing. Aldicarb, the pesticide that poisoned up to 15,000 people in Bhopal in 1984, is primarily used for cotton and is still being manufactured in the U.S., though pressure may force the cessation of production by 2015.

All this human suffering and violence to the planet contributes to profit making only by the creation of false needs, resulting in the production of 80 million tons of textiles and “throwaway” garments that could clothe the world many, many times over if distributed based on need. Yet, of course, they are not, since fashion is a trend-based industry that relies on selling billions of short-life units every season at maximum profit.

The United Kingdom, she tells us, deposits 4 million tons of textiles in landfills each year. According to Hoskins, annually turning 80 million tons of textiles into short use garments every year requires 1074 billion kilowatt hours of electricity, 132 million tons of coal, up to 9 trillion liters of water, and an incalculable amount of pesticide, dye, and metallic fasteners. For every kilogram of textiles produced, an average of 10 kg of chemicals are used.

Hoskins concludes, “This spells disaster for the environment and led Marx to describe capital as having a vampiric relationship with nature, ‘a living death maintained by sucking the blood from the world.’”

While not denying the impact on nature of the current setup, the green fashion book “Eco Chic,” Hoskins tells us, urges women to “buy less, spend more,” i.e., choose more expensive but better-made clothes. As comforting as this might be to those who can afford haute couture, the author, explains, high priced garments with designer labels are made in the same polluting factories as cheaper garments.

There is no buying strategy that can subvert the laws of production and profit making under capitalism. Rather, Hoskins says, the labor movement, because of the strategic place of workers in the whole rotten setup, is the critical element in the journey towards a just society where human needs, which dovetail with environmental health, come first. She may be able to convince your friends and coworkers as well.

Socialist Action photo by MARTY GOODMAN: Fashionistas pose for photographers as they enter awards gala for Bill Clinton and Haitian President Martelly, June 26 in New York City.