Steve Jobs’s Death and the Legacy of the Foxconn Factory Suicides


It was a big day for American capitalism yesterday. Nothing captured the dichotomy of how citizens were thinking about it better than the above tweet on how a captain of industry was being eulogized (after the suicides of his de-facto factory workers have largely been ignored), on the same day Wall Street was under an assault like it’s never seen at the hands of the American public*.

The tweet, written by Oakland, California based writer and videographer Channing Kennedy, raises a very interesting question. The downtown march and rally of October 5th may or may not be remembered someday as a significant turning point in the Occupy Wall Street movement. But it’s certainly the biggest battle cry “the 99 percent” has waged against the 1 percent in New York City so far.

And right in the middle of the action, while the police department commanded by one of the richest men in the country was starting to get violent, came news that Steve Jobs, one of the biggest titans of the 1 percent (whose net worth was less than the Mayor’s but whose cool factor exceded Bloomberg’s by several orders of magnitude) had died.

It was interesting, as Channing pointed out, to watch the outpouring of mourning for Jobs, whom even the White House called “among the greatest of American innovators – brave enough to think differently, bold enough to believe he could change the world, and talented enough to do it.”

The White House statement went on:

By building one of the planet’s most successful companies from his garage, he exemplified the spirit of American ingenuity. By making computers personal and putting the internet in our pockets, he made the information revolution not only accessible, but intuitive and fun. And by turning his talents to storytelling, he has brought joy to millions of children and grownups alike. Steve was fond of saying that he lived every day like it was his last. Because he did, he transformed our lives, redefined entire industries, and achieved one of the rarest feats in human history: he changed the way each of us sees the world.

The world has lost a visionary.

It was disorienting to watch twitter streams last night that were alternately reporting on the increasingly chaotic clash between the police and the protestors who were questioning how American capitalism works, and hagiographic memories of one of American capitalism’s greatest heros.

But left out from Jobs’ legacy for the most part was a dark skeleton Kennedy brought up: the Foxconn suicides. Jobs did publicly address (albeit in a somewhat ham-fisted fashion) the spate of suicides by employees of Foxconn, the company where the iPhone and iPad are actually manufactured in China, before he stepped down as CEO of Apple this summer. Foxconn, one of the largest makers of electronics in the world, makes products for Apple and many other computer companies. Some 18 employees attempted to kill themselves and 14 were successful in 2010.

And while Jobs (who pointed out that the Foxconn suicide rate was “below the China average”) will be eulogized at length today for his undeniable advancements to technology and American enterprise, his death at age 56 will be seen as tragic. But the people who committed suicide at the plants which made his products — themselves ages 18 to 25 — are all unknown by name, their deaths simply accepted as an unfortunate but acceptable by product of industrial progress.

Those members of the 99 percent are merely the collateral damage for our Apple devices.

Updated: Just a few weeks ago, Apple reportedly banned an iPhone app called “Phone Story,” which portrayed the working conditions at Foxconn through a game.

According to the website Tom’s Guide:

“Apple claims that the app was pulled because it violated four rules for iOS app creation: depictions of child abuse (code 15.2), objectionable or crude content (16.1) and promises to turn over a portion of the money to charity (21.1 and 21.2). According to the developer, 70-percent of the app revenue will pay the bills and salaries. The other 30-percent will supposedly be redirected to organizations that are fighting corporate abuses.”

*Some disclosures showing my own dichotomy: This was typed on a MacBook Pro. As the White House said, “There may be no greater tribute to Steve’s success than the fact that much of the world learned of his passing on a device he invented.” I, too, learned of it this way, also using my iPhone to read up on Foxconn and follow my colleagues covering Occupy Wall Street.

Also, as an employee of the Village Voice I am a member of UAW Local 2110, which participated in yesterday’s march.

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