Days of farming, nights of hacking

Disclaimer: This post is a review of and will therefore contain spoilers about Cory Doctorows book For the win.

The unions

There’s a new proletariat in town in Cory Doctorows excellent novel For the win – organize to survive. Many of them farm gold. Hell, quite a bunch of them. Gold farming is the process of first earning a whole bunch of gold (or whatever the money is called) in a massive multiplayer online game, and then, often, selling it to other players. This is often done by poor asians in internet cafés, and sold to rich people in the west.

But these people are not the only ones in this new proletariat. People are being hired to attack (in-game, of course) gold farmers from the farming companies’ rival companies. The games themselves hire ”Mechanical Turks” to to slave jobs in the games, and, of course, to search for farmers. Since farming is illegal. Where do these people work? At the same place as the farmers, of course. China, India, Indonesia, Singapore. Everywhere where there’s poor people and internet cafés.

We meet the poor indian girl from Dharavi in Mumbai. She is poor as a beggar, but excellent in video gaming. She’s soon recruited to kill rivaling gold farmers (without ever being told that she’s killing rivaling gold farmers). She’s no more Mala, but General Robotwallah, commanding an army of friends who are all great gamers. She is contacted by a person that explains to her that she is not attacking evil thieves, but other poor workers, just like her. This person says that she wants them all to be organized and fight for their common cause against the capitalists.

This is the first time we meet the IWWWW, the International Workers of the World Wide Web, a group inspired by the classic existing union federation IWW, the International Workers of the World. The IWWWW organizes the gaming proletariat all over the world. Just like with any production, the capitalists can move the production, the factories and the internet cafés anywhere when workers organize, and recruit new unorganized proletarians there.

But something changes with the internet. Now, the proletariat is as moveable as the production. The have never been explicitly chinese productions or indian productions. Buyers or capitalists don’t care if their coffee mugs, machines or virtual vorpal swords are produced in India or China or Chile, as long as they’re shippable. But now, it doesn’t matter if the worker is in India or China or Chile, as long as they have an internet connection.

Doctorow doesn’t fall into the same trap as a lot of internet evangelists do. He doesn’t see the internet as something new, exceptional, ground-breaking and extraordinary. The internet proletariat isn’t the new proletariat. It’s a new proletariat. The internet proletariats still need to work together with the rest of the proletariat, and that’s what they do in For the win. Together, side by side, the whole of the proletariat rises into a common conflict with their oppressors. The rest, you’ll have to read for yourselves.

What Doctorow does depict, though, is the skepticism against IWWWW that the other unions have towards the organization of the internet proletariat. When Yasmin, a Dharavi girl from the IWWWW presents the union for a group of other Indian unions, she is immediately met with the comment “And so you organize people who play games. How are they workers? They sound like players to me. In the transport trade, we work.”.

This is quite realistic. It only reflects how conservative unions once thought of the union organization of typical female trades. Or the scepticism of some conservative unions to organize immigrant workers without papers. Why would it not also happen to the organized gamers. Despite the obvious fact that the gamers work is a lot different from traditional proletarian work, the gamers are usually very young. Not the old men who often call the shots.

The media

Of course people are sending around photos of strikers being beaten up by the cops during the strikes. But after one particular strike, one of the fleeing strikers happen to run in to Jiandi. Jiandi is the hostess of her own talk show, Factory Girl Show. Jiandi is quite a hacker too – because she has to be. Her radical talk show is aired through the Falun Gong internet proxies. She instructs her listeners in how to encrypt their communication, so that they can watch the show and participate without being found by the cops.

They discuss the shows by occupying comment threads on dead blogs – through their proxies, of course – until the comment thread is found by the cops. Then they switch to a new thread. Jiandi lets her listeners phone in and ask for advices on their problems, with anything from idiot bosses and lazy boyfriends to sexual violence and ignored paychecks. Together, they plot revenge plans and spread the names of misogynist bosses. Jiandi is truly a star of the feminist and communist revolution.

 For example, this is the advice she gives to a factory worker that’s pressured into sex by her employer:

 ”Well, that’s simple. Not easy, but simple. Forfeit your last eight weeks’ wages and walk out of the factory first thing tomorrow morning. Go down to a job-broker on Xi Li street and find something — anything — that can get you started again. Then you call your boss’s wife — is he married?”

“Yes.” The voice was a little bigger now.

“Call his wife and tell her everything. Tell her what he did, what he said, what you said back. Tell her you’re sorry, and tell her you’re sorry her husband is such a sack of rotten, stinking garbage. Tell her you walked away on the pay he was holding back, and that you’ve left your job. And then you start to work again. And no matter what your new boss says or does, don’t go out with him. Do you understand?”

“Call his wife –”

“Call his wife, walk away from your pay, and start over. There’s nothing else that will work. You can’t talk to this man. He has raped you — that’s what it is, you know, when someone in power coerces you into sex, it’s rape, just rape — and he’ll do it again and again and again. He’ll do it to the other girls in the factory. You tell as many as you can why you’re leaving. In fact, you tell me what factory you work in and the name of your boss, right now, and then millions and millions of girls will know about it, too. They’ll steer clear of this dog, and maybe you’ll save a few souls with your bravery. What do you say?”

“You want me to name my boss? Now? But I thought this was confidential –”

“You don’t have to. But do you want another girl to go through what you just went through? What do you think would have happened if you had heard another girl speak his name on this show, last month, before you went out with him. What will you do? Will you save your sisters from the pain you’re in? Or will you protect your bruised ego and let the next girl suffer, and the next?” She waited a moment. The girl on the phone said nothing, though the sounds of people moving around the dorm could still be faintly heard. Lu imagined her under her blanket on her bunk, hand over the mouthpiece of her phone, whispering her secrets to millions of girls. What a strange world. “Well?”

“I’ll do it,” the girl said.

“What’s that? Say it loud!”

“I’ll do it!” the girl said, and let out a little laugh, and the laugh was echoed by the girlish voices near her, as the girls in her dorm realized that the confession they’d been listening into on their computers and phones and radios had been emanating from a bunk in their midst. There was a squeal of feedback as one of the radios got too close to the phone, and Jie’s fingers clicked at the keyboard, squelching the feedback but somehow leaving the other squeals, the girlish squeals. They were cheering her, the girls in the dorm, cheering her and chanting her name, her real name, now on the radio, but it didn’t matter, because the girl was laughing harder than ever.

“It’s Bau Peixiong,” she said, laughing. “Bau Peixiong at the HuaXia sports factory.” She laughed, a liberated sound.

“OK, OK, girls,” Jie said into her mic, in a commanding tone. The voices quieted. “Now, your sister has just made a sacrifice for all of you, so you need to help her. She needs money — your pig of a boss won’t give her the eight weeks’ pay he’s holding onto, especially not after she calls his wife. She needs help packing, help finding a job. Someone there is thinking of changing jobs, someone there knows where there’s a job for this girl. Tell her. Help her move out. Help her find the new job. This is your duty to your sister. Promise me!”

From the phone, a babble of girls saying, “I promise! I promise!”

All these millions of women that are watching the Factory Girl Show is an even more important part of the proletariat than one might think. We learn that women are the norm employee when it comes to chinese factory work. The men have completely different jobs, like security guards. Women are so valued factory labor that it’s claimed in the book that you can tell how serious a factory is by seeing how big the part of the workforce that’s constituted by young women is.

 The first time Jiandi features the IWWWW in her show, she presents the interviewee with this revolutionary rhethorics:

I was watching a little video this afternoon, and like many of you, I found myself watching something amazing: dozens of boys, lined up outside an Internet cafe, blinking and pale as newborn mice in the daylight. It seemed that they were a different kind of factory boy, the legendary gold farmers of Shenzhen, and they were demanding a better job, better pay, better conditions, and an end to their vicious, greedy bosses. Does that sound familiar, sisters?

“The police arrived, the dirty jingcha [the chinese slang for cops], with their helmets and clubs and gas, cowards with their faces hidden and their brutal weapons in hand to fight these boys who only wanted justice. But did the boys flee? No! Did they go back to their jobs and apologize to their bosses? No! The mouse army stood its ground, claimed their workplace as their rightful home, the place their work paid for. And what did the jingcha do? Tell me, Tank, what did they do?”

Lu looked at her like she was crazy. She made urgent hand-gestures at him as the silence stretched. “I, that is, they beat us up!”

“They certainly did! Sisters, download this video now, please! Watch as the jingcha charge the boys of Shenzhen, breaking their heads, gassing them, clubbing them. And now, focus on one brave lad off to the left, right at the 14:22 mark. Strong chin, wide eyes, a little freckles over his nose, hair in disarray. See him stand his ground through the charge with his comrades by his side? See the jingcha with his club who comes upon the boy from behind and hits him in the shoulder, knocking him down? See the club come up again and land on the poor boy’s head, the blood that flies from the wound?

“That, sisters, is Tank, the boy sitting across from me, bloodied but unbowed, brave and strong, standing up for the rights of workers –” She dissolved into giggles. Lu giggled too, he couldn’t help it. “Oh, sorry, sorry. Look, he’s a very nice boy, and not bad to look at, and the jingcha laid into his head and shoulder like they were tenderizing a steak, and all he was doing was insisting that he had the right to work like a person and not an animal. And he’s not alone. They call it ‘The People’s Republic of China,’ but the people don’t get any say in the way it’s run. It’s all corruption and exploitation.

“I thought the video was amazing, a real inspiration. And then I saw him, our Tank, wandering dazed and bloody through –” she broke off. “Through a location I will not disclose, so that the jingcha won’t know which video footage they need to review. I saw him and I told him I wanted to introduce him to you, my friends, and then he told me the most amazing story I’ve heard, and you know I hear a lot of amazing stories here every night. A story about a global movement to improve the lot of workers everywhere, and I hope that’s the story he’ll tell us tonight.”

The feature ends with this comment:

“We’re back. What a story! Sisters, didn’t I tell you I had something special tonight? Alas, it’s nearly time to go — we all need some sleep before we go back to work in the morning, don’t we? Just one more thing: what are we going to do about this?

Suddenly, she wasn’t sleepy and soothing. Her eyes were wide, and she was gripping the edge of her desk tightly. “We come here from our villages looking to do an honest job for decent pay so that we can help our families, so that we can live and survive. What do we get? Slimy perverts who screw us on the job and off! Bastard criminals who destroy anyone who challenges their rackets! Cops who beat us and put us in jail if we dare to challenge the status quo!”

“Sisters, it can’t go on! Tank here said there’s no such thing as a Chinese worker anymore, just a worker. I hadn’t heard of these Webblies of his before tonight, and I don’t know if they’re any better than your boss or the thief running the network sales rip-off next door, and I don’t care. If there are workers around the world organizing for a better deal, I want to be a part of it, and so do you!

“I’ll tell you what’s going to happen next. Tank and I are going to find the Webblies [slang for the members of the IWWWW] and we’re going to plan something big. Something huge! I don’t know what it will be, but it’s going to change things. There’s millions of us! Anything we do is big.

These parts of the book really show how important an own channel of media is for a revolutionary struggle. Factory Girl Show really unites IWWWW with millions of workers, and give these workers moral support and indignation regularly. It’s an important part of the struggle.

These parts are also the ones that lift and portray the female heroes the most, even though strong female characters are central throughout the book and the struggle.

The economy

In the union meeting between IWWWW and other Indian unions mentioned earlier, the following dialogue took place (Where Ashtok is the union activist that arranged the meeting between the IWWWW and the other unions):

Mr Honnenahalli twisted his face up into a sour lemon expression. “People in life make things that matter. They don’t just –” He flapped a hand, miming some kind of pointless labor. “They don’t just press buttons and play make believe.”

She felt her cheeks coloring and was glad again of the veil. Ashok held up a hand. “If a humble chai-wallah may intervene here.” Mr Honnenahalli gave him a hostile look, but he nodded. “‘Pressing buttons and playing make believe’ describes several important sectors of the economy, not least the entire financial industry. What is banking, if not pressing buttons and asking everyone to make believe that the outcomes have value?”

These kinds of explanation of how the capitalist economy works are quite common in the book. One of my favorites is the one about speculation and confidence:

He clapped. “Top pupil! Correct. There’s a saying from physics, ‘It’s turtles all the way down.’ Do you know it? It comes from a story about a British physicist, Bertrand Russell, who gave a lecture about the universe, how the Earth goes around the Sun and so on. And a little old granny in the audience says, ‘It’s all rubbish! The world is flat and rests on the back of a turtle!’ And Russell says, ‘If that’s so, what does the turtle stand on?’ And the granny says, ‘You can’t fool me, sonny, it’s turtles all the way down!’ In other words, what lives under the illusion is yet another illusion, and under that one is another illusion again. Supposedly good currency is backed by gold, but the gold itself doesn’t exist. Bad currency isn’t backed by gold, it’s backed by other currencies, and they don’t exist. At the end of the day, all that any of this is based on is, what, can you tell me?”

“Belief,” Yasmin said. “Or fear, yes? Fear that if you stop believing in the money, you won’t be able to buy anything. It is just like game-gold! I remember one time when Zombie Mecha started charging for buffs that used to be free and overnight, all the players left. The people who were left behind were so desperate, walking around, trying to hawk their gold and weapons, offering prices that were tiny compared to just a few days before. It was like everyone had stopped believing in Zombie Mecha and then it stopped existing! And then the game dropped its prices and people came back and the prices shot back up again.”

“We call it ‘confidence’,” Ashok said. “If you have ‘confidence’ in the economy, you can use its money. If you don’t have confidence in the economy, you want to get away from it and get it away from you. And it’s turtles all the way down. There’s almost nothing that’s worth anything, except for confidence. Go to a steel foundry here in Mumbai and you’ll find men risking their lives, working in the fires of hell in their bare feet without helmets or gloves, casting steel to make huge round metal plates to cover the sewer entrances in America. Why do they do it? Because they are given rupees — which are worth nothing unless you have confidence in them. And why are they given rupees? Because someone — the boss — thinks that he’ll get dollars for his steel discs. What are dollars worth?”

“Nothing?”

Nothing! Unless you believe in them. And what about the discs — what good are they? They’re the wrong size for the sewer openings in Mumbai. You could melt them down and do something else with them, but apart from that, they’re just bloody heavy biscuits that serve no useful purpose. So why does any of this happen?”

Yasmin said, “Oh, that’s simple. You really don’t know?”

“It’s easy? Please, tell me. It’s not easy for me and I’ve been studying it all my life.”

“It all happens because it’s a game!”

It’s something very special with gamers explaining how the economy works to other gamers by explaining how the economy of gaming works. Because gaming economies show how virtual economies are. It doesn’t in any way mean that the economy is unreal, it just means that the economy is real in a way that stuff like potatoes and iron isn’t. It shows what a man-made cultural machine the economy is. Being cultural is just as much of an existance as as being natural, but it’s modable in different ways. The reasoning about confidence and gaming economies show how culturally vulnerable capitalist economy can be. Heck, gaming economies per se show how vulnerable they can be.

The book

The book is a story abour communism, about class struggle, about the history and the future of unions, about the internet and about the physical world, about capitalism, about gaming, about striking and about wars, about the corporativism that binds capitalism and cops together into a passionate love affair in China as well as in Europe, about how the world is and how the world could be. It’s a must read for all proletarians, anarchists and communists as well as for of all friends of the internet and gaming.

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