Cory Doctorow. For the Win

Cory Doctorow.  For the Win (Tor, 2010).

Let me start with a disclaimer: I am not a gamer, and have never seen the appeal of gaming. So the world Doctorow describes in this book is utterly foreign to me–although I think I’ve pretty well managed to use contextual cues to get a handle on the basic ideas involved in the plot.

Even though I’d have said a novel about gamers would be near the bottom of my list of interests, I found myself getting caught up in this story in the first few pages of reading. And selling me on a story about gaming makes Doctorow the storytelling equivalent of the guy who can sell a Frigidaire to an Eskimo.

For the Win, like Doctorow’s Young Reader Award winner Little Brother, is a novel aimed primarily at teenage and young adult readers, and it’s quite good from that standpoint. The characters, a collection of teens living in areas ranging from California to China, are sympathetic and engaging.  The setting, apparently, is a near future quite similar to that described in Makers:  containerships rotting in dock and Chinese factories abandoned because of Peak Oil and a collapse of Western purchasing power, the continued downhill slide of the housing market, relentlessly creeping unemployment and homelessness, and monster storms at sea from global warming.

Despite my lack of interest in gaming, the story hinges on one thing that’s been a central preoccupation of mine for a long time: labor organizing.

The story’s about an attempt, via the “Industrial Workers of the Worldwide Web,” or “Webblies” (when I saw that I thought Cory owed Ken Macleod a beer, and sure enough Ken’s mentioned in the acknowledgements), to organize gold farmers.   Gold farmers are people who get paid to play games, working in internet cafes under sweatshop conditions, to earn virtual currencies or advance their characters to higher levels–all so their employers can sell the harvested “gold” or characters to gamers in the West.  The people who buy such currencies or characters, as far as I can tell, are something like the rich businessmen who pay to “hunt” caged animals.  

The IWWWW, in addition to organizing gold farmers and other Web-based workers, is also fighting to build alliances with manufacturing and textile workers in Shenzhen, Guangdong and Mumbai.  The story’s climax is a general strike of gold farmers and factory workers around the world, which meets with uneven success (although the story ends in a hopeful tone).

The central principle involved in the organizing effort is something I’ve been harping on for years:  the potential that the network revolution offers for new models of labor struggle.  As I’ve argued repeatedly, the kinds of networked resistance described by writers like David Ronfeldt at Rand Corporation are very much like the kinds of “direct action” described in the old Wobbly pamphlet “How to Fire Your Boss“–only on steroids.  For example, just consider the implications of the “Streisand Effect” for what the Wobs traditionally called “open mouth sabotage.”

As the characters in For the Win learn, it’s now possible for workers around the world to talk to each other as easily as it used to be for their employers.  

Can’t you see itWe finally have the same tools as the bosses!  For a factory owner, all places are the same, and it’s no difference whether the shirts are sewn here or there, so longas they can be loaded onto a shipping container when it’s done.  But now, for us, all places are the same too!  We can go anywhere just by sitting down at a computer.  For forty years, things have gotten harder and harder for workers–now it’s time to change that.

Speaking of open-mouth sabotage and the Streisand effect, the Webbly campaign finds an indispensible ally in “Jiandi,” whose illegal Factory Girl radio show (podcast with the help of Falun Gong proxies) goes out to a cult following of tens of millions of sweatshop workers every night.  Listener feedback comes via comment threads on randomly chosen blogs announced at short notice on the program, with the venue changed as frequently as the police shut each one down.  Remember that old quip about the Internet treating censorship as damage and routing around it?

Here’s Jiandi’s impassioned appeal to her listeners on the eve of the general strike:

Sisters, for years now I’ve sat at this mic, talking to you about love and family and dreams and work.  So many of us came here looking to get away from poverty, looking to find a decent wage for a decent day’s work, and instead found ourselves beating off perverted bosses, being robbed by marketing schemes, losing our wages and being tossed out into the street when the market shifts.

No more.  No more.  NO MORE!

No more asking permission to go to the bathroom!  No more losing our pay because we get sick!  No more lock-ins when the big orders come in.  No more overtime without pay.  No more burns on our arms and hands from working the rubber-molding machinery–how many of you have the idiotic logo of some stupid company branded into your flesh from an accident that could have been prevented with decent safety clothes?

No more missing eyes.  No more lost fingers.  No more scalps torn away from a screaming girl’s head as her hair is sucked into some giant machine with the strength of an ox and the brains of an ant.  NO MORE!.

Tomorrow, no one works.  No one.  Sisters, it’s time.  If one of you refuses to work, they just fire you and the machines grind on.  If you all refuse to work, the machines stop.

If one factory shuts down, they send the police to open it again, soldiers with clubs and guns and gas.  If all the factories shut down, there aren’t enough police in the world to open them again.

As cops in Columbia, Missouri have already learned to their grief, we’re now watching Big Brother.  One example of this phenomenon in the story is especially priceless.  Jiandi and a handfull of IWWWW organizers abandon a safe house just ahead of the Chinese police, leaving a hidden camera to capture them tossing the house.  The footage is streamed online to many millions of viewers, with real-time annotations of the value of property destroyed added on-screen–not to mention the drawing of cartoon moustaches and eye-patches on the police.

When the Chinese men took out their dicks and began to piss on the wreckage, he leapt to his trackpad, circled the members in question, drew arrows pointing to them, and wrote “TINY!” in three languages before they’d finished.

They watched as one of the policemen answered his phone, listened in as he said, “Hello?” and “What?” and “Where?” and then “Here?” “Here?” feeling around the place where the wall met the ceiling, until he found the video camera.  The look on his face–a mixture of horror and fury–as he disconnected it was priceless.

As I said before, the strike achieves only mixed results.  And as I also said, the story ends in a note of optimism.  The strikes are defeated in China, but strikers achieve modest collective bargaining rights in India (for manufacturing, dock and transport workers as well as Web-based) and the United States.  

The mood is captured perfectly by this statement from Big Sister Nor, the founder and leader of the Webblies, at the climax of the general strike:

Comrades, comrades.  This is the moment, the one we planned for.  We’ve been hurt.  Our friends have been hurt.  More will be hurt when this is over.

But people like us get hurt every single day.  We get caught in machines, we inhale poison vapors, we are beaten or drugged or raped.  Don’t forget that.  Don’t forget what we go through, what we’ve been through.  We’re going to fight this battle with everything we have, and we will probably lose.  But then we will fight it again, and we will lose a little less, for this battle will win us many supporters.  And then we’ll lose again.  And again.  And we will fight on.  Because as hard as it is to win by fighting, it’s impossible to win by doing nothing.

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