Tina Poglajen
Poglajen is a freelance film critic who lives and works in Berlin.

Invisible Hands is committed to the ideology of the free market, but can this myth ever become reality?

Invisible Hands

Shraysi Tandon

USA, China, Ghana, Hong Kong

Invisible Hands (2017) is an investigative documentary on the global pervasiveness of child labour, drawing an uncomfortable picture of the global economy’s role in the endless cycle of poverty of third-world countries. It is an agitating film as it illustrates the lived realities of exploited individuals subjected to the demands of the global economy.

With its portrayal of responsible companies and their subtractors, as well as a «call-to-action» in terms of ethical consumerism, Invisible Hands is clearly intended as a piece of activist cinema. To get its message across it delivers shocking footage of confronting interviews with PR representatives of responsible companies and public officials ­– sometimes using a hidden camera. It also features well-placed emotional testimonies of young people that have been or are child workers themselves, accompanied by suitable music that functions as a propaganda piece for populist activism.

Everyday this 8 yr old is exposed to nicotine poisoning as she harvests tobacco leaves for the world’s biggest tobacco firms

The documentary might make sense as a radical activist documentary or as political cinema that diverges in form as well as contents, but the film was never really accessible to a wider audience. As a consequence, it was not really effective in terms of the masses. Nonetheless, the most burning issue with Invisible Hand is that it is not radical enough in its search for solutions either.

The film stresses that corporations can make decisions «much more quickly and more effectively» than governments can. It thus argues that the responsibility in terms of terminating child labour should be relying on the corporations. We, as consumers, can influence the process by «voting with our wallets», and in theory hurt the profits of the offending companies. Unfortunately, this view is as naive as it is short-sighted. Aside from the fact that «voting with our wallets» insinuates that the strongest vote is the one with the biggest wallet, hurting the business of individual companies is no more than a virtual victory – a ‘feel-good cosmetic repair’ for something that essentially stays the same. Due to the fact that the problem of exploitation is inherently interwoven into the workings of capitalism itself, the system cannot exist without it.

«Voting with our wallets» insinuates that the strongest vote is the one with the biggest wallet.

This is also why modern slavery cannot just «go away the way that 19th century slavery did», as the film urges. Slavery never did go away. The southern slave-owner capitalists simply lost the ideological war to the northern New England mill owners and the battle for influencing the state. They were replaced, and it was not a question of morals but rather of differing interests. Slavery is not only compatible with modern capitalism: it is a necessary part of it. Together with other forms of socially and economically coerced labour, it must exist in order to create value greater than the costs of production and labour. The exploited have been black slaves, 19th century western child workers and the ones not organised in labour unions, as well as women, the today’s self-employed precariat, and finally: the third-world workers. All of them are a yielding part of the surplus value that they have created to others and in which they cannot take part.

A Bangladeshi Child break bricks at Postogola brick breaking yard in Dhaka, Bangladesh, on June 3, 2017. With over half of the population living below the poverty line, women and children are often forced into hard manual labour such as brick breaking. Working barefoot and with rough untensils, each child worker earns less than 2$ US Dollars per day. (Photo by Mehedi Hasan/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

How futile corporate social responsibility as a measure actually is becomes clear especially in the case of the tobacco industry. The industry, featured so prominently in Invisible Hands, is the industry that creates the most dangerous working conditions for labouring children. The measure can’t work when social goals would only be achieved at the expense of profits—because ultimately, the decision with the biggest positive impact on the society would be for these companies to stop selling tobacco, which no company so far seems to have offered to do.

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