As the trade war between the US and China escalates, American Factory arrives on Netflix and shows why this war is one that China is likely to win. The US is at a severe disadvantage in this war that it started, because the American Dream now belongs more to China than to the endangered American middle class, and because idyllic post-war America was built in large part on cheap imports from China and now the pendulum is swinging the other way.
American Factory is the first Netflix film from the Obamas’ production studio, and its release is perfectly timed. China and the US continue to threaten each other higher and higher tariffs, announcing another round of increases to take effect this fall. Of course, these threats are not really to the countries themselves; they are threats to consumers, who will inevitably bear all these increases in the form of higher priced goods.
While American Factory isn’t really about tariffs, the tariffs are still an important part of the story. That’s because the tariffs were instigated by the US in order to bring manufacturing back to the American heartland, which has been decimated by the loss of factory jobs as more and more of those jobs elsewhere to take advantage of cheaper labour and lower safety standards.
One of those shuttered factories is a former GM plant in Dayton, Ohio. Its closure in 2008 put thousands out of work, but in 2015 Fuyao Glass America, a Chinese-backed company, reopened the plant and brought hope back to Dayton. However, we quickly see that the reality is not quite as rosy as the fantasy, because the workers have taken a 30% pay cut, safety standards are not enforced, and management uses every dirty trick in the book to prevent the workers from unionizing.
Chinese workers are brought in to show the Americans how to operate the plant, and managers from the US are trained in China to help them better motivate the workers. American Factory captures the remarkable contrast between the workers’ attitudes in the two nations, and the attitudes of the nations as a whole. The Chinese are willing to work harder for less, sacrificing their bodies and family lives for the benefit of the company. The Americans, on the other hand, feel entitled to earn more money than their Chinese counterparts without making any of the same sacrifices.
Something has to give there. In both the Fuyao factory and in the larger trade war, the Americans can’t possibly get everything they want but are oblivious to that reality. Working-class Americans seem not to have realized that their consumer-centric society only exists because of other countries’ cheap labour, and that unskilled labourers will never again be “middle class”. If these American factory workers want to achieve their desired standard of living, they need to acquire marketable skills. Labour is no longer marketable on its own, and China and the rest of the world are eager to live the American Dream. China and the rest of the world also clearly want to realize that dream so much more than the Americans do, so in any head-to-head battle the Americans are going to lose out. The only question is whether the Americans will realize that before it’s too late.