World Factory is an extraordinary theatre project that sets out to explore the impact of globalised production (and by extension, globalised trade) by creating an experiential space for its audience. I saw it in Cambridge last week; it has dates scheduled in Brighton and Manchester between now and Christmas, and may return for another run at Cambridge Junction.
For the show, the audience is seated at tables around the space, each a team charged with running a Chinese textiles factory. Once the experiential part of the production starts, the group has to handle a series of problems and dilemma, starting with whether we should handle a cashflow crisis by cutting wages across the board or firing half the staff.
The four cast members double as ‘dealers,’ issuing the cards, keeping track of the money, and exhorting us to work faster or harder. They also delivered the ‘samples’ of the different types of clothing we were ‘making’ in our factory.
Our decisions were recorded by scanning a barcode on the cards, which also meant that the decisions of each table are recorded in real time.
As you play, at speed (my team lost a lot of money early on by failing to make a decison quickly enough) you’re faced with questions about what goods you’re willing or able to make, about your workers, about dealing with local officials, about compliance and standards, about outsourcing production to other parts of China, about demands for labour rights. And so on.
The experiential part of the game is bookended by sequences that animate the recent history of globalisation and the impact of the global trade system–for example, we were told at the end the amount of water and oil consumed in producing the goods we had ‘made’ collectively during the show.
The play is supported by as vast database of research. At the end of the show we were given a print-out, on a till-roll, of all our decisions as factory owners, with a URL linking to the research that sits behind the question that was on each card. For example, one of the decisions we had to make was whether or not to move from regular wages to piecerates. Here’s the research on this decison.
World Factory is also more than a play in that the group behind it, notably the co-directors Zoe Svendsen and Simon Daw, actually went into the business of making a shirt in a Chinese factory as part of the research. A barcode above the pocket reveals the history of its production. It might seem paradoxical that a show that is about over-consumption and over-production should, in effect, have its own merchandising, but perhaps it is a mark of the play’s effectiveness that there seemed to be no-one trying to buy one as we left the theatre.
I’ve read quite a lot about the global production system over the years, and plenty about Chinese factories, though more about the electronics sector than the textile sector. I’ve also sat on the Board of a retailing business, making business decisions in conditions of uncertainty. For me, the surprise of the game (although I shouldn’t have been surprised by this) was the way in which the pace and the relentlessness of it, together with the ambiguity about the possible consequences of many of the decisions, forced you constantly to make choices at speed that reflected the imperative to keep the factory working. Capital has its own logic, as Marx says somewhere, and once in role it is hard to refuse it.
One of the video interviews shown on the screens that surrounded the auditorium was with the owner of the factory that made the World Factory shirt. She had been in debt up to her eyes after her first business folded, to the tune of several hundred thousand RNB. She took a job in a clothes factory that paid 2,000RNB a month, described in the rules of the game as low but enough to live on, so would never have managed to repay her debts, so started another clothes business. As she said, once you have the business, you have to keep going.
The show is also good on the politics, or more accurately the political economy, of the global textile industry. Who knew, for example, that Chinese factories outsource novelty Christmas jumpers to British factories? The quality is low, the margins are thin, and making them close to the end-consumer, with minimal delivery times, allows enough flexibility to respond to fluctuations in demand. They also spelled out the impact of cheap disposal clothes on the countries unlucky enough to get our recycled hand-offs. We think we’re doing people a favour by recycling through charity shops; actually we’re killing off indigenous textiles business in poor countries.
The actor who was also our dealer said that working on the play had changed her attitude towards recycling clothing, from thinking it a good thing to finding it uncomfortable.
One tip if you’re lucky enough to be able to go to see World Factory: decide on your table before you start whether your strategy is going to be about maximising profits or looking after your workers, and then stick to it.
The images are by Andrew Curry, and are published here under a Creative Commons licence.
The idea that the globalising wave of the last quarter of a century was mostly built on cheap energy and easy money is one that we’re now getting the opportunity to test. So far, the hypothesis is holding up. In particular, according to a story in this week’s Daily Telegraph, high energy costs seem to be having a significant impact on China’s low-cost manufacturing sectors. At the same time, Paul Krugman has been niggling away at the underlying economics. After all, as the French are supposed to say: That’s all very well in practice, but how does it look in theory?
I visited the recently refurbished Royal Observatory at Greenwich last weekend, where there is, inevitably, a whole section devoted to Harrison and his clock-based solution to the ‘longitude problem’. (The story of his fight with the Astronomer Royal, Neville Maskelyne, and the astronomy establishment, which preferred the so-called ‘lunar solution’, is famously told by Dava Sobel in her book ‘Longitude’.) But the reason for posting is that the Observatory describes Harrison’s fourth clock, the H-4 pocket watch, as “one of the most important machines ever made”.
A short paper by a couple of economists (one American, one Irish) takes a long view of the preconditions for periods of globalisation – and the circumstances in which it goes into reverse. It suggests, perhaps depressingly, that war (and military power) is often a precondition, and sometimes a consequence.
I blogged at the start of the month on Martin Jacques’ observation on the extent to which China was now more significant than the US in the politics of Asia in all aspects other than military. Since then, I’ve noticed a post on the IFTF blog which argued that as China and India become the dominant trading partners across Africa and Asia that we are reverting to the trading patterns seen before European colonisation.
One of the things you learn working as a journalist is that most news is predictable – a point satirised by Michael Frayn in his outstanding novel The Tin Men in the 1960s. But sometimes headlines do still surprise you. One such was the news that British car exports had reached record levels last year.
I blogged earlier this year on the toy industry and Chinese production, and on the idea of ‘toxic consumption‘ – that the things we buy are bad for our health. Christmas seems a good time to come back to it, and Core 77 (thanks) points me in the direction of a long article by Jonathan Dee in the New York Times on Mattel and its attempts to manage reputation in low cost global markets.