BOOK ROUND UP #16: The Disposable American & Kabul In Winter


Here is another of our previews (reviews of reviews) of new books of interest to the progressive community. If any of our readers would like to submit a full review of any of these books (800 words) please contact me at The previous 15 Book Round Ups are archived on our website.

THE DISPOSABLE AMERICAN: LAYOFFS AND THEIR CONSEQUENCES by Louis Uchitelle, Alfred A. Knopf, 283 pp., reviewed by Thomas Geoghegan in The New York Times 3/29/2006. According to this book, layoffs are 'hollowing' out companies, wiping out middle-class jobs [only middle-class?] thus making the country suffer, and driving the middle-class, as the reviewer [TG] puts it, to 'often drop permanently to a demeaning, low-wage way of life.' So layoffs have three strikes against them-- but that doesn't mean they are going to be out. There is some class bias going on here. Low-wage jobs are 'demeaning' and the middle-class has to be protected from them! The author [LU] gets credit for the following, according to TG, he 'effectively wrecks the claim that all this downsizing makes the country more productive, more competitive, more flexible.' Both TG and LU seem to miss the point that downsizing isn't done for the sake of 'the country' its done for the sake of Capital. The 'middle-class' appears to be composed of both white collar salaried workers and skilled blue collar workers. No Marxist understanding of class appears in this review. There also appears to be an unresolved contradiction at work here. LU writes, 'Rather than try to outstrip foreign competitors in innovation, a costly and risky process, we gave up in product after product.' But this is not a failure of nerve! Capital is adverse to risk and takes the path of profit maximization. Capital is international now and can engage in innovation using Chinese and Indian scientists overseas without exposing itself to 'a costly and risky process.' Thus, while bemoaning the layoffs consequent upon downsizing, LU also recognizes that 'The global economy is not to be denied.' You can't have it both ways. Most of the book is taken up with reporting all the bad consequences of layoffs that put the entire 'middle-class at risk.' LU demands that we put an end to layoffs, but TG doesn't even give a hint as to what the plan might be to accomplish this. This is no doubt because of the undeniability of the global economy. TG even says 'that it is unclear whether Mr. Uchitelle sees any good solutions now....' The fact of the matter is that the values of commodities are basically set by their production costs and this includes the cost of the production of labor power. Overseas labor power can be reproduced at lower production costs than domestic labor power so downsizing and layoffs will continue until that imbalance is rectified either by domestic living conditions falling to third world levels, or third world conditions rising (other factors remaining equal). For the second alternative to take place will require a furious class-struggle by working people all over the world working in concert with one another. We are experiencing globally what working people experienced on a localized national level in the nineteenth century. These words from the Communist Manifesto (slightly modified for stylistic reasons) are still relevant: 'with the development of industry [ globalization] the working people not only increase in number but become concentrated in greater masses, their strength grows, and they feel that strength more. The various interests and conditions of life within their ranks are more and more equalized, in proportion as machinery [global production today--TR] obliterates all distinctions of labor, and nearly everywhere reduces wages to the same low level.' The counterpoise to this tendency is for national unions and labor movements to become truly international in outlook and action. LU and TG don't realize it but the solution to the problem that so exercises them is to be found within Marxism.

KABUL IN WINTER: LIFE WITHOUT PEACE IN AFGHANISTAN by Ann Jones, Illustrated Metropolitan Books, 321 pp., reviewed by William Grimes in The New York Times April 5, 2006. Grimes [WG] tells us this book is 'three things at once'. A 'travel book', 'a work of im- passioned reportage' and 'a diatribe, a barely coherent rant directed at President Bush' and everyone else she thinks responsible for all the destruction and death in Afghanistan. Most alarming are the author's [AJ] observations on the status of women in the country. They seem to be considered as subhuman by the men! WG tells us that 'Wife-beating is universal' and that women are forced into arranged marriages with men 'they fear or loathe' and many of them kill themselves (by self-immolation) out of despair. He also reports that 'When a woman brings shame on her family for any reason--- the reasons can be many and, by Western standards, trivial-- suicide is the only option.' AJ tells the story of a woman whose first child was a girl and when her second child was also a girl her husband said to her (he wanted a boy): 'if you do this to me again, I will kill you.' Somebody should tell these people where the y chromosome comes from! WG informs us that 'Afghans created [he should say 'male Afghans'-tr] created this social structure all by themselves.' And AJ writes that, WG reports, 'Nostalgia for the days of Soviet occupation is growing.' I can believe that. The social structure WG credits the Afghans with making all by themselves was on the way out under the pro-Soviet and pro-socialist Afghan government the US helped bin Laden and the fundamentalists overthrow in the 1980s. That government was training teachers and building schools for coeducational classes, stressed equality for women, and was in general bringing the Afghan people into the 20th Century based on the ideals of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights that every UN member is supposed to follow and is completely in the ashcan now in Afghanistan due to US policies. I forgot to mention what AJ's 'barely coherent rant' was all about. WG is upset by the fact that she 'views the United States as an imperialist power [gasp!] bent on shaping the world to its narrow interests and, with malice aforethought, imposing free-market economics on the oppressed people's of the world.' Where did she ever get such a crazy idea?

Thomas Riggins is the Book Review Editor of Political Affairs and can be reached at