what i'm reading: for the win + labour book club update

Cory Doctorow's novel For the Win may have been the most unexpected title on my Labour Book Club booklist. It's kind of science fiction (but not really), kind of YA (but not), and it doesn't show up on most "books about unions" lists. But it is most definitely a book about workers, exploitation, unions, and solidarity, from a strongly sympathetic point of view.

For the Win was the only book our group read that addressed the issues of workers in the global economy, including the digital economy -- where workers are invisible to the outside world. 

Much of the action in For the Win revolves around the world of massive multiplayer online role-playing games, known as MMPORGs. Millions of people play these games, so they are -- of course -- giant businesses with correspondingly giant profits to be made. 

I'm sure some wmtc readers need some background info in order to understand this. I sure did! So here's my explanation; hopefully it's not too awkward.

In a MMPORG, a player assumes the role of a character, often in a fantasy context, and controls that character's action. Huge numbers of people play the game at the same time, and because players are all over the world, the game goes on 24/7/365. The most well-known MMPORG is probably World of Warcraft. It's estimated that 1,200,000 people are playing WOW on any given day, and that more than 10 million people play it altogether. It's estimated that the game's annual revenues are more than a billion dollars. 

And that's just one game. 

Now, within the MMPORG world, there is something called gold farming. When I read FTW, I assumed gold farming was a fictional concept, and was amazed to learn it is very much a Real Thing. I'll let Wikipedia explain.
Gold farming is the practice of playing a massively multiplayer online games (MMO) to acquire in-game currency, later selling it for real-world money.

. . . gold farming is lucrative because it takes advantage of economic inequality and the fact that much time is needed to earn in-game currency. Rich players from developed countries, wishing to save many hours of playing time, are willing to pay substantial sums to gold farmers from developing countries. Gold farming has also been linked to credit card fraud, with game accounts used for gold farming being paid for with stolen credit cards.

. . . . 2001 reports describe Korean cybercafes being converted into gold farming operations to serve domestic demand. This model, with full-time gold farmers working long hours in cybercafes, was outsourced to China and initially served demand from Korean players. Gold farming in China was experiencing swift growth c. 2004. Cheap labor from inland provinces had washed into more cosmopolitan cities, and these real-life farmers were promptly pressed into service farming gold. In 2011, The Guardian reported that prisoners in some Chinese re-education camps were forced to engage in gold farming for the benefit of prison authorities.
Many characters in FTW are working as gold farmers. These are young people with a great deal of technical skill, working under brutal conditions in internet cafes which essentially function as sweatshops. It's a very shady business, with brutal subcontractors who take advantage of the players' precarious positions to exploit and abuse them.

Other characters in FTW toil away in more traditional factories, making plastic parts for plastic toys to be shipped to the other side of the world. They also work under brutal, dangerous conditions for very little pay, and they face nearly constant sexual harassment. 

Meanwhile, in the western world, another game is being played: arbitrage. You may remember reading about arbitrage during the 2008 global financial meltdown. It involves traders moving money around in arcane, convoluted ways, taking advantage of small fluctuations in currencies. Arbitrage traders create nothing. They add no value to the world. They just make, lose, and remake their own fortunes -- while the impacts of their wins and losses are felt globally, by people who lose their jobs, their homes, and their retirement savings.

Parallel worlds

In FTW, Doctorow creates a world of parallels. 

MMPORGs are games, but they are big business. Arbitrage is also big business, and it is also a gambling game. The world of arbitrage resembles the MMORPG world -- both complicated, opaque, and hidden from public view. Both are often exploitive.

The issues faced by the gold farmers and by factory workers are nearly identical. 

As the workers organize, strategies they use in their gaming world are echoed in their organizing. In the online games, characters can virtually die in myriad ways. In union organizing, real people are beaten by thugs, shot by police, rounded up and sent to work camps. 

Employers close up shop and move to new locations. Union organizers and pirate radio broadcasters are always moving to new locations to avoid detection. 

And so on. 

Great characters and a lot of action

There are some great characters, especially great female characters. I find this heartening, given the struggles of women for visibility and recognition in both tech and gaming. 

Mala and Yasmin are both powerful leaders, strategizing amid the teeming crush of poverty in Dharavi, India. Matthew and Lu are organizing exploited tech workers in Shenzhen, China. Big Sister Nor is working out of Singapore. Jie, a pirate radio broadcaster and organizer extraordinaire, and the best character in the book, is everywhere and nowhere.

In the midst of a book full of characters and a lot of action, every so often the story stops for a didactic set-piece: on unions, arbitrage, the currency system, inflation, and other topics. I found these interludes boring and mansplainy -- but one member of our Labour Book Club enjoyed the digressions and felt they were the best part of the book. 

Solidarity must be global

At bottom, For the Win illustrates how workers everywhere face the same issues. Labour transcends borders, transcends language, transcends the specific nature of our work. Everywhere, capital exploits workers the same way. And everywhere, only solidarity can win. FTW is about the need for solidarity beyond nations, immigration status, age, ethnicity, gender. We may be many things, but when it comes to how we earn a living (or don't), we are workers first. 

A character says:
We come to Guangdong province because they say that we will be rich. But when we get here, we have bad working conditions, bad pay, and everything is stacked against us. No one can get real papers to live here, so we all buy fakes, and the police know they can stop us at any time and put us in jail or send us away because we don't have real documents. Our bosses know it, so they lock us in, or beat us, or steal our pay.
I have been here for five years now, and I see how it works: the rich get richer, the poor get used up and sent back to the village, ruined. The corrupt government runs on bribes, not justice, and any attempt by working people to organize for a better deal is met with violence. The corrupt businessmen buy corrupt policemen who work for corrupt government. I've had enough! It's time for working people to organize -- one of us is nothing. Together we can't be stopped.
China's revolutions have come and gone, and still the few are rich and the many are poor. It's time for a worldwide revolution: workers in China, India, America -- all over -- have to fight together. 
Doctorow very consciously links these current struggles to labour history: the organizing gamers call themselves International Workers of the World Wide Web (IWWWW), using the nickname “Webblies,” in tribute to the old IWW’s nickname, “the Wobblies”. So many of the books we read for Labour Book Club featured the Wobblies. The IWW will always be the movement that is closest to my heart -- so this detail really struck a deep chord for me.

For the Win is an ambitious book. Doctorow is trying to do many things at the same time, with uneven results. But at its core, this is an inspiring story of young workers organizing. In that it succeeds brilliantly. All the workers of the world can read this book and be inspired.

* * * *

Labour Book Club ends in November with Gilded Mountain by Kate Manning. After that, I'll post our reading list and reflect on the experience.

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