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Apple Driving Workers to Threaten Mass Suicide? The Pathologies of the Modern Corporation

Better technology is not sufficient to build a better society. To really change lives, corporations must use their work force to improve democracy and equality.

Here in my household, we are swimming in Apple products. We have four iPhones, although only three of them are currently in use. We have an iPod and an iPad. We have a MacBook and a MacBook Air (on which this post is currently being composed). We have two iBooks in storage, along with my iMac, which dates to the summer of 2000. It still boots up and works just fine.

I’m not an Apple fanboy. I just prefer products that work well, rarely ever crash, and help me create value. Apple products meet those needs perfectly, whereas most PCs I’ve used simply don't.

If those were the only things I cared about in life, I wouldn’t give those products a second thought. But there’s more to life than a functional piece of consumer electronics. Those items should exist to help me do the things in life that I want to do, to help me live a better life. They’re tools, not ends.

Even that’s not sufficient. One of my main goals in life is to build a better world, to ease suffering, end oppression, and provide equality – all in order that others may have the freedom to pursue their own dreams. A well-designed product can certainly help that process along. But what if the way that product is made actually undermines those broader goals? Suddenly, there’s a problem.

In the last year or two, it’s become increasingly clear that the way Apple makes its products is deeply flawed. Working conditions at the factory which makes most of their products – Foxconn in Shenzhen, China – are so appalling that  workers engaged in a rash of suicides in 2010 to ameliorate their own suffering. Earlier this year  workers threatened mass suicide over pay and working conditions. And of course, there’s the fact that Apple makes these products overseas rather than in the United States, where unemployment remains at some of the highest levels we’ve seen since the Great Depression.

Here in the 21st century, it should be clear to us that better technology is not sufficient to build the kind of better lives and society that we want. If it were, we wouldn’t be in a position of mass unemployment, widespread suffering, and a democracy in decay. Social institutions, including workplaces and corporations, have to be full partners in building a democratic, empowered, and equal society.

Most corporations, however, don’t see themselves that way – including Apple. Today’s New York Times took a look at  Apple, America And A Squeezed Middle Class, curious to see why Apple no longer manufactures its products in the US and what the impact is on our prosperity. They found that Apple builds in China in large part because they have a narrow focus on their products and their profits, and disdain wider concerns for the good of society. When an unnamed Apple executive was asked about their role in addressing America’s economic problems, their response was revealing:

They say Apple’s success has benefited the economy by empowering entrepreneurs and creating jobs at companies like cellular providers and businesses shipping Apple products. And, ultimately, they say curing unemployment is not their job.

“We sell iPhones in over a hundred countries,” a current Apple executive said. “We don’t have an obligation to solve America’s problems. Our only obligation is making the best product possible.”

That quote is perhaps the best encapsulation of the pathologies of the modern American corporation. In fact, Apple does have an obligation to solve America’s problems. Everyone who lives in this country has that obligation. And corporations have that obligation too. If they don’t want to help make things better, then they shouldn’t exist.