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Big Bad Machines

My wife owns a handmade apparel business, and because of her success, she is frequently contacted by companies looking for publicity.

Recently, she received a request from the IOU Project, an organization attempting to prop up handmade artisans in India through artificial economic stimulation. In a newly released ad, the group elevates handmade textiles to lofty heights, claiming that without a concerted effort to purchase such products, the enemy (i.e. the machines!) will seize the day.

After skimming through the ad and chuckling a bit to herself, my wife kindly passed it on to me, the cynical party-pooper of the family.

Watch the ad here:

Setting aside my issues with Ghandi — the dude was a cruel, sexually warped, racist crazy man— the video promotes more economic myths and exhibits more Western pomposity than I know how to deal with.

Here are some of the major pitch points, followed by some of my initial observations.

1. Over 20 million Indians depend on hand weaving.

If they depend on it, why is there such a convoluted effort to sustain it? Are such activities truly sustainable and dependable without appealing to Western do-gooder sentiments, and if not, why should we pretend they are? In today’s high-tech, globalized economy, why is such a large hand-weaving sector something we should try to “sustain” through artificial means?

As evidenced by sites like Etsy and Big Cartel, there is certainly a niche market for such goods, but that doesn’t mean that governments and Westerners should try to forcibly devote large numbers of resources to their production. Similar to the grim prospects of advancement in coffee markets, which are accompanied by similarly misplaced “stimulative” efforts, why should we encourage such activities? Do we think the humans involved are incapable of pursuing other ends?

2. Indian hand-weavers use virtually no energyThey are the world’s most environmentally friendly textile manufacturer.

On this point, it’s hard to grasp what the benefits are for the Indian people, whose own environmental situation would be greatly improved by prosperity (open-air sewage, anyone?). Are we to believe that human blood, sweat, and toil are always preferable to CO2 emissions?

The cavemen of yore were certainly more environmentally friendly than we are, but they filled their days hunting for food, trying to stay warm in the winter, and hoping they’d have time to come up with a written language. Such a life might sound like paradise to the idealist sitting in the front row of Eco-Imperialism 101, but at what point are we willing to bypass human development for the trees?

Most have probably seen the satellite photo comparing North Korea’s dismal flicker to the healthy glow of its southern neighbor, but in case the implications aren’t clear: promoting “sustainability” for the sake of poverty does not inspire me toward compassion.

3. The Indian textile industry uses natural cotton that’s grown locally.

This is fine and dandy for those who like all-natural products and find value in locally grown goods, but not all of us do. It’s also fine and dandy if the producers themselves share our popular Western sentiments about such materials, but many of them don’t. For the most part, Indians use these resources because they are limited by their impoverished situations or restricted by their tariff-loving government.

From a marketing standpoint, it may be effective to tout such features as a means for luring in college-aged hipsters, but for those who are actually impacted by such restrictions, I trust that most of the producers and consumers involved would jump at the opportunity to diversify and “globalize” their material usage.

4. The handmade weavers face an “old enemy” — machines, which lead to poverty and unemployment.

The “old” part is particularly amusing. Unfortunately, such magical concoctions have not been around since the dinosaurs.

What would happen if all major tariffs were removed, markets freed up, and such machines were eventually able to diminish India’s beloved handmade textile industry? When Britain and America began undergoing heavy industrialization in the 19th century (and when countless countries followed), did increased productivity lead to more unemployment or less? What about Japan, which provides for a near-perfect comparative analysis?

According to the theories in this video, we Westerners should be helplessly enslaved by now, forced to do the bidding of modern machinery. But perhaps we have been! Here we are, destined to work in high-rise buildings and air-conditioned offices, pining away on the internet and dabbling in ideas when we could be sewing our own clothes, hand-washing our own laundry, growing our own food, and thatching our own huts. Dang machinery!

Given the positive trajectory of human progress in the post-industrialization world, it is shocking that such Luddite fantasies still persist. It’s as if Westerners see the Indian people as inferior to the rest of us — as if they are incapable of leveraging their talents toward more productive activities than handweaving. This is especially ridiculous given the enormous contributions that Indians have made to the U.S. economy in recent years. Why do we pretend as though handmade weavers have nothing else to offer?

5. Artisans are being replaced with machines. Uniqueness is being destroyed; sameness reigns supreme.

Setting aside the already-dismissed notion that machines lead to poverty (if they do, why do we use them?), the belief that uniqueness paired with poverty is better than replicas paired with prosperity is a form of materialistic idolatry I cannot begin to fathom.

Once again, such kitschy and pretentious sentimentalism may prove to be good leverage for this particular marketing campaign, but I doubt struggling families in India are too concerned about whether their clothes satisfy some insecure Westerner’s sense of notoriety and social legitimacy. They couldn’t care less.

As already mentioned, there is indeed a significant market for uniqueness, and there always will be. But to impose such wants and wishes on an entire industry for the sake of mere uniqueness is to confuse our own petty wants with the basic needs of others.

(And by the way, it is not laissez-faire capitalism, but one-size-fits-all socialism that leads to sameness. That’s why they call it“equality of outcomes.”)

6. By using the internet (“It’s not a machine!!”), we can rally together and support a dying, impoverished industry.

Right. Let’s use the internet to keep the rest of humanity in the dark ages.

This is Western guilt at its finest: in complete, unabashed denial.

Enough said.