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Tragedy in Bangladesh—and What It Means for the World

The official government review of a terrible factory fire in Bangladesh that killed 112 people suggests that sabotage by some employees and gross neglect and malfeasance by the owner of the factory are responsible for the tragedy.

Via Meadia has a couple of thoughts:

In many ways industrial revolution in the developing world is retracing the steps taken during the European and U.S. industrial revolutions in 19th and early 20th centuries. Like the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in Union Square, horrific industrial accidents expose shocking degrees of exploitation across industries, leading to public calls for reform and action by the workers themselves.

We should never forget the human costs of industrialization, which should be seen as a three-step process. Population growth and the mechanization of agriculture lead to a situation in which millions of people leave traditional agricultural jobs and lives in search of new ways to live; factories capitalize on the availability of cheap labor; workers and society as a whole struggle to find a new way of organizing and managing the more complex and productive industrial society that emerges.

This process is never a smooth and happy one. It brings disruption to lives and communities, naked economic exploitation, poverty driving much of the process, generations living hand to mouth, often in vast urban slums. Horrors like the fire in Bangladesh and similar stories from U.S. and European history are dramatic, riveting illustrations of the greater forces at work.

In the West, this process culminated in the rise of what we call the blue social model: the mature industrial economies of Europe, North America, and Japan after World War II.

But now the West is moving from industrial to postindustrial society—a transition that is disruptive and painful but so far has been substantially easier to manage than the industrial revolution. Still, finding new ways for hundreds of millions of people to live as manufacturing joins agriculture in shedding millions of workers, even as productivity dramatically improves, isn’t easy and will consume our energies and attention in the West for some time to come.

The question in countries like Bangladesh and even China is how the industrial revolution will culminate if the blue social model is no longer working. If collapsing costs and rising productivity in manufacturing mean that a manufacturing, Fordist economy can no longer provide a foundation for several decades of social peace and calm after the stress of industrialization, what happens instead?

Nobody really knows the answer to this, and countries like Bangladesh, China and Vietnam may be looking at future political and social development that is profoundly different from what we have all come to think of as the “normal” trajectory for an industrializing economy.

The tragedy in Dakha is heartrending. The hard work, anxiety, poverty, and stress of literally hundreds of millions of working people around the world should never be far from our thoughts or concerns. The emergence of the human race into a post-agricultural, post-industrial economy promises great things, but the agony of the transition—and at this point the universal uncertainty about where we go next—should remind us that we aren’t playing a game.

History is serious business, and the stakes are almost inexpressibly high. In whatever country we live we are called to play our own parts in this drama with compassion, deep thought, and great care.

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