Tuesday, March 27, 2018

We Need a 'New Liberator' Magazine

“Polar Star” by Martin Cruz Smith, 2007 / “The Factory,” Granta Magazine, 2005

What does a fiction story based in Siberia and the Bering Sea have to do with a literary magazine that dedicated a 2005 issue to factories?  Well, something.  Polar Star, a sequel to the Russian novel Gorky Park, takes disgraced detective Arkady Renko onto the slime line, working on a Soviet fish-processing ship, gutting and trimming the catch each day. In other words, a floating factory.  The editors of the British literary journal Granta have gathered a group of memoirs and reportage about factories.  They note in the introduction that the only fiction book in which they can find a description of a factory is American Pastoral by Philip Roth. (reviewed below)  That book contained a loving description of a high quality glove manufacturing facility in Newark, New Jersey, where the gloves were made by hand.

No Fiction Left

Given the exotic nature of factories, which have supposedly disappeared beneath a wave of coffee shops and malls in the U.S. and Britain, this interest by Granta in the quaint lives of blue collar stiffs is illustrative.  In 2005 after all, Reagan, Clinton, Bush and the capitalist class had orchestrated a 25-year jihad to decimate factory and union work.  Thatcher and Blair had done the same job on their side of the pond.  The editors note that fiction in the U.S. is bereft of this focus, which explains why only one of the 8 stories in Granta is from a first-person account of actually working in a production facility.  That exception was a high-school summer and after-school job in a terrible plastics joint making beach-side plastic shovels and other junk.  This is a literary magazine that also contained an old interview with James Joyce, so they proved their own point.  They couldn't find one writer who worked in a blue collar environment for any length of time. They all ran off to college and never returned.

The rest is reportage – about Chinese factories around Shanghai and lamp or auto factories in Chicago, mostly gleaned from factory tours.  Or memoirs about a father working in a Welsh facility making refrigerators.  Or living in York, England as a young boy , a town where Rowntree chocolate is made.  A regular Charlie and the Chocolate Factory story, this latter.  Though Charlie was based on the Cadbury’s plant in Bourneville, England near Birmingham, where a young Roald Dahl lived and was inspired.

Regarding reportage, the first story was based on visits to China.  In 2005 the conditions in the foreign-owned plants in Guangdong were atrocious for a ‘workers state’ of course, even a deformed one.  Strikes were occurring frequently when this report was done and the police always came out to break the strikes.  Workers had silicosis or were poisoned by cadmium.  The union – the All China Federation of Trades Unions – was a ‘company union’ which did little for the workers.  Laws went unenforced, the courts uninterested.  Monitors for many famous ‘brands’ said it was impossible to actually make these factories compliant with minimal standards.  The reporting reveals that the whole ‘monitoring’ program tactic is more of a white-wash served up to Western consumers.  The Chinese CP basically sold their workforce to imperialist firms for a pittance.  Many workers last only 5-7 years, when they are replaced by new workers from the countryside.  All this is similar information in the 2011 book, China on Strike, (also reviewed below).

Other articles consist of photos of a work at a small metal fabricating plant in Minnesota, reportage about an empty but massive former textile mill in Yorkshire inhabited by homeless people and cartoons about living in an abandoned Chechen milk factory during the war there.

A Working Boat

But again, none of this is fiction writing.  On the other hand, the narrow escapes and almost ridiculous high tension in Smith’s Polar Star mark it as really fiction.  What is very real is the description of working on a fishing fleet – the cold, the weather, the smell, the dangers, the monotony, the work, the hardware, the fellow workers, the fish, the sea.  Smith understood the Soviet culture of that time and makes the Soviet workers human.   The system is depicted as workable, not some horror or fantasy.  He sets the story in an exotic factory location in the glasnost period, during a joint project with a U.S. fishing company.  Is he imbibing the working-class character of the dying Soviet state in spite of his U.S. roots? I think so.


If so, Smith is an outlier.  The great tradition of U.S. proletarian and even socialist writing in the early 20th century from 1900 to 1940, as represented by authors like Upton Sinclair, John Steinbeck, John Dos Passos, Richard Wright, Jack London, Mike Gold, Jack Conroy, Meridel LeSeur, B. Traven, Agnes Smedley, Theodore Dreiser, James T. Farrell, Tillie Olsen, Edward Dahlberg and others – has disappeared.  Yet blue-collar work remains the foundation of any economy, even if it is being done south of the U.S. border or overseas in Dickensian conditions or cheaply, as in the U.S. south.  The myth that the U.S. does not produce anything anymore is actually useful in undermining the blue-collar proletariat by making them even more invisible.  Factories have moved or gotten smaller, but they still exist in cities, suburbs and towns across the U.S.

The ‘post-industrial society’ is a fake.  Take that highly-paid corporate attorney who makes a half million or million a year.  Who empties his wastebasket?  Who makes his clothes?  Who grew his food, caught his fish or raised the poor animal that he devours?  Who processed it, transported it and put it on shelves?  Who built the car he drives in from the suburbs?  Who built his house or his skyscraper?  Who maintains that elevator that he takes to the 40th floor?  Who keeps the AC or heat working in his office?  Who cooks his lunch?  Who built his iPhone or his computer?  Who mined the metal?  Who fabricated the parts?  Who built the school he learned law in?  What teachers did he have prior to college?  What about the nurses that keep him healthy?  Who built the water treatment plant that cleans his water?  Who built the pipes that carry his shit away?  Or what about his stay-at-home wife who cooks and cleans for him, and sees his kids off to school?  Or the women who take care of his mother in the nursing home?

That lawyer would be a starving, homeless, naked, uneducated man walking by the side of the road without the working class. But if lawyers like him were missing – well, that would mean that one corporation couldn’t sue another, as most lawsuits are basically about moving cash from one company pocket to another, with the lawyer taking a cut.  Not much else.  Yet he thinks he is ‘the smartest guy in the room.’ The ‘king of the world.’  The man with the most merit.

He’s not.  In a healthy society not based on profit, he’d be useless.  There is a case to be made that even in the present U.S. he and others like him are useless still. 

Other reviews on these topics:  Enter the word ‘factory’ or the titles Is the East Still Red? and China on Strike in the blog search box, upper left.

And I bought them at May Day’s excellent used/cutout book section!
(Note:  The original "Liberator" magazine was published by Max Eastman, featuring political and working-class fiction.)

Red Frog

March 27, 2018

No comments: