by Stuart Lyle
I like the feeling of a book, as opposed to a gun, in my hand. I’ve been holding a lot of books recently, all while reading to my granddaughter. She has a voracious appetite for the printed word, and an impressive collection of books, both recent and hand-me-downs that I read to her mother 30 years ago. On the outside, the old and new books look more or less the same, pictures of bears and boats, princes and princesses. The covers are often made of fairly sturdy stock to withstand the unrelenting “attention” they sometimes get.
The insides tell a different story. It is easy to tell the old from the new. And it is not the color of the paper or the dog-eared corners of the old that gives them away. It is something that is printed in black and white inside every one of them. I am not sure why I first looked and started noticing it, but once I did, it was impossible for me not to check each one my granddaughter handed me to read.
As soon as I could get a chance, I’d flip to the copyright page, usually near the front, but occasionally hidden more discreetly at the back. Down toward the bottom of that page, usually in small letters – though in more recent editions there is a clear trend toward larger, bolder type – is the printing information. Most commonly it is a simple, “Printed in…” declaration, though occasionally, in the older editions, there is more detailed information, such as which typesetting union was involved.
Without exception, all the newer books have the same statement, “Printed in China.” In contrast, not a single one of the 30 year-old editions have a similar provenance. Because they are English language, they say, “Printed in the United States,” or “Printed in the United Kingdom.” There are a few exceptions, but they are all from the English speaking world.
Although this is far from a scientific sample, I find it extraordinary how complete a transition has occurred, and so quickly. I am sure that if I had been a typesetter in the 1980, like a young communist friend of mine in that era in New York City, then I would have all the scars and know the details of how the printing business “went offshore.” But it happened silently for me and I had not even noticed it. A whole industry had been “offshored” and I never knew it.
And, of course, the printing business is only one of many that have moved to China. From looking at copyright pages, I shifted to clothing labels. Same story: China, China, China. And a million other household items, and the jobs that went with them, took the same route, in two or three short decades.
It is easy to say that “globalization” was the impulse, but globalization is just a policy and an ideology. It is a nice way for the ultracapitalist to reduce costs, eliminate the distraction of unions, and grow markets all in one go. Globalization promoters tout lower consumer costs as the high-value “benefit.” They also pretend it is a natural, even inexorable, expression of democracy, implying that democracy itself is being extended to the countries that have now become manufacturing powerhouses.
While the US has exported manufacturing capacity at a dizzying rate, China has grown into a leading world economic power, with mega-cities mushrooming out of old regional capitals seemingly overnight. Chinese citizens, however, face ever more stringent controls over their lives, including their right to live in those cities. They may now have access to iPhones – if they can afford one – but they cannot peruse the Internet at will, or chance a word critical of the supreme leadership.
By the same token, the loss of job security at home has put a gun to the head of democracy, as people grasp at false solutions to overblown threats from immigrants, Muslims, and a host of other imagined perils. As a friend put it, the US has shifted from manufacturing jobs to manufacturing threats.
Today’s childrens’ stories may be printed in China, but the real fairy tales are written in the US by an avaricious class of ideologues with a boundless appetite for profit, whatever it costs the earth or its inhabitants. I shudder at the thought of the devastation they will have wrought by the time my granddaughter is reading these same books to her daughter in 30 years…