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.
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.
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.
«Due to the fact that the problem of exploitation is inherently interwoven into the workings of capitalism itself, the system cannot exist without it.»
Again, it’s not an issue of morals. The capitalist world economy is a matter of winning and losing as the companies are not only competing with other companies on the market, but – whether they want to or not – they are also relying on their suppliers and the firms to which they sell their products. It is a game of rivalry in which only the most ruthless can survive.
Today’s capitalists need large markets, but they also need a multiplicity of states so that they can navigate between those friendly and those hostile to their interests. The «division of labour» between countries means that some are able to introduce protectionist measures to benefit their environment, as well as agriculture and workers, while others are – by virtue of «wallet voting» on a global scale – forced to sell out their labour, industries and lands cheaply in order to stay afloat. Neocolonialism is nothing like old colonialism, but then again, it is not so different either. The physical violence of power might not be as apparent, domination not so openly demonstrated but they are there all the same. They don’t seek to dehumanise the colonised on a racial basis. In fact, in order to exploit them, the colonised must be granted the status of equals, of persons de jure – how else would they have legally sold millions of hectares of their land for a meagre few dollars, use their farm fields for cotton production even when they are starving, or work long working hours, day after day, in poor conditions? Dehumanisation is just a by-product of the process. It is a grim reality – much grimmer than Invisible Hands is prepared to acknowledge. Instead it is committed to ultimately trust in the ideology of the free market – a myth that can never become the day-to-day reality.