Response to Liza Featherstone

Response to Liza Featherstone

Liza Featherstone argues that United Students Against Sweatshops activists are active in other anticapitalist efforts symbolized by “Seattle,” that their anticapitalist framework furnishes them with inspiration and vision, and that their radicalism has thus empowered them. These are good points. Each of them is made in my essay. Had Featherstone paid attention to my arguments, she would know that I do not disparage USAS, and that her own simple binary—those who laud USAS and those who dismiss it—fails.

My point is not to argue that USAS methods are in “contradiction” with their anticapitalist ideology and that therefore they should abandon their ideology in the name of some kind of Hegelian end of history. My point is that there is a serious tension between their anticapitalist ideology and the pragmatics of the Worker Rights Consortium, which is their principal achievement. This tension is a productive one, and it is not my purpose to wish it away. But I do intend to raise some hard questions about it.

Featherstone is wrong to assert that I do “not provide a single example” of the limits of the anticapitalist ideology; I provide two examples: the counterproductive fixation of many USAS activists with the evils of the Fair Labor Association and the difficulty of many USAS activists in coming to terms with the partial success achieved at Kuk Dong and the complex dynamics of that success, which required both “bad cops” and “good cops.” Featherstone’s comment that “workers at Kuk Dong went on strike because they knew that they had powerful advocates in the WRC and USAS” is both conjectural and absurd. They went on strike because they had real grievances and a history of local organizing. It’s a good thing that the WRC and USAS were around, but I see no point in exaggerating their influence. Instead of analysis of these issues, Featherstone offers polemics. The complexities of university life are reduced to her observation that what distinguishes the university is that “a small number of young people can greatly disrupt its daily operations.” She responds to my comments on Castells, Bauman, and Sennett by offering the “materialist” observations that workers have always felt unhappy and that “It’s always been tough to fight those in power.” She eagerly cites Hardt and Negri’s Empire, a book whose rhetoric in places matches her own. But she fails to note that the bulk of the book’s analysis regarding the “decentering” of power does not bode well for her encomiums to “revolution.” This is not surprising, however, for it is rhetoric, and not analysis, that concerns her.

Featherstone’s most foolish comment is her insistence that I suggest “the impossibility of fighting corporations” and evince a “breathless awe of today’s global economy.” I commend USAS activism, share its opposition to sweatshop labor, and agree with it that sweatshop labor is not the onl...

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