Žižek is right to advocate a journalistic strategy of appending “Foxconn” after every mention of “Apple” (e.g. “Apple-Foxconn Announces New Products to Fanfare”)1, intending a re-affirmation of the “upstream” labour that accompanies economic processes2 in an industry that continues to stun and blind the world.
In an age of disavowal and division, we need to restate the necessity of such an affirmation in a perhaps more prosaic industry, construction. Why? The construction of urban spaces is one of the most ideologically entrenched productive processes, an intersection of labour conflicts, immigration, ecology, geography and politics, hidden under the vestments of symbolic beautification, nationalistic impulses (from the politics of infrastructure investment to nationalist grandeur), and cultural investments (think starchitects), all serving to justify a particular angle of economic analysis, all of this based on harsh material conditions. To argue this necessity, we turn to the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
“There was discussion amongst members of the jury that the existing ‘Best Tall Building of the Year’ award wasn’t really appropriate for the Burj. We are talking about a building here that has changed the landscape of what is possible in architecture – a building that became internationally recognized as an icon long before it was even completed. ‘Building of the Century’ was thought a more apt title for it.” – Gordon Gill, Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (CTBUH) Awards Chair.3
In 2010, the Burj Khalifa was opened to much acclaim in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, the tallest man-made structure in the world at 829.8 meters. Later that year, it was awarded the CTBUH “Global Icon” award, an exceptional honour bestowed on examples of significant architecture, influential not only in building design, but urban planning and engineering as well.4 It has been featured in a number of documentaries on prominent networks and has starred in the Amazing Race 15 and Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol, broke seven world records at once,5 and was launched to the heartening applause of 10,000 fireworks, 868 stroboscope lights and many other effects. On the tourism website, Trip Advisor, a rating averaged out of 2,847 reviews gives four and a half out of five, describing the experience as “fantastic”, “incredible”, gushing about the view from the observation deck, while complaints addressed ticketing problems and unfulfilled expectations.6
Just a year before its opening, the program BBC Panorama released an expose of the conditions of the largely-foreign workforce hired by Arabtec, the local contractors who executed the project. In Ben Anderson’s fantastic piece of documentary reportage, reported in text by Lilla Allen,7 we are provided a furtive glance into the conditions of the largely foreign labour force in Dubai, working on mega-projects like the Burj Khalifa. The details of exploitation, the miserable wages, the disgusting living conditions, can be found easily through this and other reports.8 What matters here is the manner in which such circumstances are hidden and the way they are rationalized away. While we must not think that bearing witness is enough, recognition is first necessary to keep the problems of labour and domination constantly at the front of our minds. We must resist the tendencies to understand social relations as purely economic exchanges and to view the world as ahistorical, constituted by its objects.
In early 2009, Emirates Airline ran an advertising campaign portraying the success story of a 24 year old Indian construction worker, promoted after four years from a labourer to a supervisor of hoisting cranes. In these advertisements, he praises the living and working conditions of labourers in Dubai, which he sees as just, and happy for the opportunities his work has given him.9 There is no need to search for a conspiracy here. While not related to Arabtec, this advertisement, following a month after the Panorama documentary, demonstrates the unfortunate fallacy that the success of a few justifies the system, by shifting its focus, the advertisement effectively silences any opposition.
This is but an extreme example of such a phenomenon. Most recently, when First Lady Michelle Obama took the stage at the Democratic National Convention,10 she relied heavily on this rhetoric, drawing out examples from her own and President Obama’s upbringing, “How hard you work matters more than how much you make.” While the ends to which this device was used may differ, the political emphasis on persons and life histories in her speech relates closely to the choice of subject matter in the above campaign. Regardless of those ends, it is this strategy that needs reconsideration. To attribute success (or, indeed, failure) to a few causes is to largely ignore the complexities of social reality, where darker forces may tug against progress, and institutional cracks may misdirect even the most earnest of workers. From the rigor of political analysis, we are stuck in endless conspiracies, in which we are left without action.11 Such a shift is indeed death for an effective Left, a shift analogous to the recalibration in strategy from radical structural change to compromise and centrist identification.
A sales representative interviewed surreptitiously by the BBC reporter argued, regarding another property development, “It’s much more difficult to earn some money in Pakistan or India, so people actually save by living for free in proper housing, eating for free in the canteen, using the transport and sending something to their families.”12 Setting aside the problem of her misinformation, we notice this argument of the lesser of two evils features prominently in debates on migrant labour and exploitation. Employers argue that in providing the workers with the opportunity to work, the latter ought to appreciate the opportunity, disregarding complications like debt, entrapment, precariousness and the other violations described by so many reports. This is obviously an impossible position. Such arguments mystify the complex relations between employer and employee, abstracting a falsely pure economic relation based on free choice. When they refer to the “free choice” the workers made to travel overseas to work, we must see only the myth of formal freedom. This freedom by itself is no freedom at all.
When we consider that these workers risk their lives to pay off their debts, to scrape together enough to send back in remittances, these arguments fall flat. In 2005, the Indian consulate counted 971 deaths of their citizens (they were told to stop counting soon after this statistic was revealed).13 The tragedy of death reveals the emptiness of false rationalizations. Here, both the use of and the conclusions arrived with this argument fail upon examination. But when the violations are not so dramatic, as in developed nations, when these arguments become slightly believable, we must be even more doubtful. Even where there are protections for workers, the conditions of construction work remain dangerous and physical, and it is clear all workers are vulnerable to maltreatment. To exacerbate the situation, recourse available may not reach migrant workers (and maybe not even local ones), and still, in the most avowedly tolerant societies, there are always traces of chauvinism.14 Of course, but the lesser of two evils! “Let us be frank about it: most of our people have never had it so good.”15 We note that the two fallacies above necessarily rely on a view of human relations as scientific objects to be rationalized and considered abstractly. The totality of life against which such arguments are made is ignored, or deprived of any significant content.
When approached with such evidence, “Arabtec said it did not accept that there were unsanitary conditions at any of its camps’ toilets. It blamed the workers, saying, despite training, their ‘standards of cleanliness and hygiene are not up to your or our standards’….”16 Such a disavowal amounts to the cunning tactic of “Yes, we’ve tried to help them, but they are incurably dirty! It is not our fault.” On this level, it is unforgivable. But fundamentally, there is something more sinister at work. Trotsky observed something when, during the October Revolution, he noticed the quality of his soldiers close up. Deutscher writes: “During the civil war, and still more after it, Trotsky in his military speeches repeatedly complained that the Russian communist and Red Army man would sacrifice his life for the sake of the revolution sooner than clean his rifle or polish his boots. This paradox reflected the lack in the Russian people of those innumerable small habits of self-disciplined and civilized life with which Bolsheviks set out to build their new state, the proletarian democracy, in which ‘every cook’ should be able to perform the business of government. And this was perhaps the gravest of all the grave contradictions with which the revolution has to contend.”17
Notice that Trotsky’s exasperation stems from the same source as the Arabtec spokesman’s finger-pointing. What, indeed, should our attitude be when faced with this problem, when the people do not live up to expectations? When the people fail to coincide with the People? In the former case, it is a matter of some “enlightened” businessman trying to civilize his workers. In the latter, it is a question of the revolutionary’s attitude towards the people: “Are they ready for revolution?” The conservative attitude would be this: we have tried our best, but something innate in these workers makes our efforts unsuccessful. They sabotage us by their barbarity, they are who they are, that is human nature. Sound familiar? This same attitude belies criticism of Communism as Utopian, pointing to the Soviet Union, to North Korea, to China, the failures of the great Communist projects of the 20th Century. They failed, of course, because human nature does not work with Communism, because human nature, innate and immovable, will never change that much!
To this we must juxtapose the even more insidious train of thought of some liberal-minded people today. Of course, they say, there is no such thing as a human nature, there is instead a whole world of different human natures, and to impose any sort of standard is imperialism, colonialism, hegemonic interference with indigenous lives that we are in no position to judge. Clearly, for example, the Chinese cannot function within a democracy, their capitalism with Asian values is more suited to their history, their temperament, their nature, and to judge them by some Western (and necessarily ethnocentric) standard is unforgivable. And if we do judge them, and they do fail, it is because of some innate trait. This conclusion is but a small step away from the original idea. In fact, we can see that the Arabtec position above is the mixture of both these attitudes. We must return to the analysis of labour relations and conflict, to the gaps between worlds where millions of workers barely survive in slums and to the masses in every city’s backyard, because we have lost sight of the nature of Capital in our hasty search for a quick-fix, ethical capitalism, left with a false, empty human subject.
If we have strayed somewhat from construction labour, it is because the issues it raises demonstrate not only the relevance of Leftist thought, but also the necessity of renewal against the dominant political doctrines of the day in the entire social field. One more note on the prevailing attitude towards the world. When we see the pyramids of Egypt, we can never shake off the feeling that there is truth to the idea that aliens had a hand in building them. When we see the statues of Easter Island, the stones of the Stonehenge, the snaking Great Wall of China, we are in awe. No number of documentaries, of monographs and studies can truly convince us that they were built entirely out of human labour.
Is that not the attitude that we have towards the world today? When the Burj Khalifa was unveiled, when tourists pay almost a $100 US to reach a balcony for a view, when we see Tom Cruise scale the side of the building, we are only aware of its monumentality. We are in awe. And except for a few professionals, the majority of us will never understand how these buildings, like those of the great past civilizations, were constructed.18 On a different level, but with the same phenomenon, we approach the latest iPhone from Apple-Foxconn, and we see only the surface, the intuitive magic so characteristic of Apple-Foxconn. Most of us will never know how such a device, so ubiquitous in richer societies, works.19 We are in an age of opacity, an ahistorical world of objects that seem to have always been there, as if by magic. On the largest to the smallest scale, the opacity of today’s technological innovation and productive processes force us into subservience. They point to the buildings, to the technology and ask, “Do you think any other form of social relations can produce these great examples of human ingenuity?” We are forced to shake our heads, mute. And when we shake our heads here, we are tempted to do the same with the financial complexities that riddle our economy. Surely, there is no other way to ensure the functioning of our global economy! We are left mute, and the Left becomes increasingly impotent, failing to notice that things as they are do not appear out of the blue, but are the result of political struggles.
Against this, we place ourselves in the position of witnesses. The world as it is must be recognized as historical and contingent. Complexity is today’s fetishism, it forces us to live in the world without grasping at it’s true reality. We live in a world of opaque objects, not because information is withheld, but because we do not know what to do with the constant stream of meaningless data. No longer. We place ourselves in a position to see objects as part of the social reality, our social reality, something that can be changed, that can be altered. The End of History is still far away, there is still work to be done; the information is there, we just need to know what to do with it.
We live in a constructed space, we will continue living in constructed spaces, spaces that will need expansion and renewal. For as long as society maintains itself, limping along, monuments and mega-projects will be raised, maintained by more and more disenfranchised workers.20 The issues here are important on a number of different levels, what we have attempted here is merely the first step in identifying the significance of certain actions which rationalize the labour conditions in Dubai.21 Burj Khalifa-Arabtec is not merely a strategy of resistance that aims at the sorry goal of “raising awareness”. It is a statement of all of the above significations and intricacies, a recognition that there is a totality when we might be tempted to see only objects, only pure processes. Burj Khalifa-Arabtec is a re-affirmation of the productive process that underlies everything in our constructed world, it is to realize that contradictions in every industry raise the necessary questions of ideology, dishonesty, disavowal and renewal. Burj Khalifa-Arabtec forces us to confront the conditions of our constructed lives, so that we may better agitate among a renewed peoples, a renewed subjectivity, a renewed project of social relations. So we can see beyond the objects, and by doing so, remake the objects for ourselves and a new world.
1 Žižek at Cafe Oto, “History is made at night: 24-hour event to launch Less than Nothing.”
2 That is, behind every product is a whole series of production that relies on productive labour, which due to the arrangment of said production, manages to obfuscate the origins of the final good. Although Žižek maintains that the radical role of Marxism is not just exposing the labour that goes into production, this
first step in critique is stated explicitly against those who would praise the “virtual economy” catalyzed by technology without recognizing the role of exploitation in the production of technology in the first place.
3 “Burj Khalifa honored as first recipient of CTBUH’s new Tall Building “Global Icon” Award.” Council of Tall Buildings and Urban Habitats. n.p., 25 Oct 2010. Web. 9 Sept. 2012. <http://www.ctbuh.org/ Events/Awards/2010Awards/2010AwardsDinner/tabid/1710/language/en-US/Default.aspx >
4 “Burj Khalifa honored as first recipient…”
5 “Facts & Figures.” Burj Khalifa. n.p., n.d. Web. 10 Sept. 2012. <http://www.arabianbusiness.com/ burj-dubai-ceremony-details-revealed-27446.html >
6 “Burj Khalifa.” tripadvisor.co.uk. n.p., n.d. Web. 9 Sept. 2012. <http://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/ Attraction_Review-g295424-d676922-Reviews-Burj_Khalifa-Dubai_Emirate_of_Dubai.html>
7 Allen, Lilla. “Dark side of the Dubai dream.” BBC News Magazine, 6 April 2009. Web. 9 Sept 2012. 8 “Building Towers, Cheating Workers.” Human Rights Watch, 12 Nov. 2006. Web. 10 Sept. 2012. <http://www.hrw.org/en/reports/2006/11/11/building-towers-cheating-workers >. Also, see resources linked at <http://www.migrant-rights.org/2010/01/04/behind-the-glamorous-facade-of-the-burj-khalifa/ >
9 Billing, Soren. “Emirates campaign highlights ‘lucky’ labourer.” Arabian Business, 20 May 2009. Web. 10 Sept. 2012. <http://www.arabianbusiness.com/emirates-campaign-highlights-lucky-labourer-18221. html >
10 Pace, Julie. “Michelle Obama DNC Speech Electrifies Crowd.” Huffington Post, 4 Sept. 2012. Web. 9 Sept. 2012. <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/09/04/michelle-obama-dnc-speech_n_1856347.html > 11 If, for example, we attribute the failure of people today to participate in politics proper to the manipulation of the media by capitalists, bankers and people like Murdoch, we are committing the same error. “Just as a people that exploits another cannot be free, so a class that uses an ideology is its captive too”. Althusser, Louis. For Marx. London: Verso, 2005. Print. p. 201.
12 Allen, Lilla. “Dark side of the Dubai dream.”
13 Hari, Johann. “The dark side of Dubai.” The Independent, 7 April 2009. Web. 9 Sept. 2012. <http:// http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/commentators/johann-hari/the-dark-side-of-dubai-1664368.html >
14 See the challenges to migrant construction workers as described by the British government, <http:// http://www.hse.gov.uk/migrantworkers/construction.htm >
15 Quote by Harold Macmillan.
16 Allen, Lilla. “Dark side of the Dubai dream.”
17 Deutscher, Isaac. The Prophet Armed: Trotsky 1879-1921. London: Verso, 2003. Print. p. 266
18 Either we are ignorant, or we are faced with a deluge of technical information and innovations
that, while impressive, offer us little by way of the total cost and effort of construction. So that, Ben Anderson’s documentary is closer to the truth of construction, against the sterile technological focus of other documentaries.
19 This does not suggest that it is an impossibility. Rather, it is the existing trend for a majority.
20 Fundamentally, we have to ask, in an emancipated society, what form of construction will exist? How will the economy be arranged so that necessary work will be done? Especially in an increasingly unstable world, how will we intervene in urban spaces to help us counter threats from climate change, etc., without regressing to slavery and more oppression?
21 See “Interlude 3: Architectural Parallax” in Žižek, Slavoj. Living in the End Times. London: Verso, 2010. Print.