You know who really matters in all the regular controversies that Nike stirs up around its sneakers. (Its advertising and marketing division has been perfecting these tactics since the 1970s.) The Asian women who work in the factories making these shoes. They are the living laboring women often making seventy to ninety cents an hour and cranking out shoes that sell for hundreds of dollars.
Their labor and the sneakers reveal how capitalist enterprises are not about profit. Profit is not enough. Profit is not the point. Capitalist enterprises are about extracting value for the elites of the system. These elites of capitalism are transnational—meaning not only that they are global but also that they and their capital, their cash and assets, move across borders on a regular basis without much limitation.
Mark Parker is one of these transnational elites. After being promoted to CEO of Nike in 2016, Parker’s compensation tripled to over $47.6 million. $33.5 million of that compensation package came from stock rewards. His goal is to boost Nike sales from $32 billion in 2018 to $50 billion by 2020. This goal drives all of Nike’s tactics.
Colin Kaepernick is also a transnational elite. Not at the level of Parker, of course. But he, along with the capital from his endorsement deals and his investment portfolio, travel the globe as necessary, without dealing with border patrols or fences. In 2016, Newsweek estimated Kaepernick’s worth at $22 million.
The Asian women workers are not transnational elites. They cannot travel. They are rooted by their status, class, and gender—locked into coercive labor making Nike sneakers.
Parker coordinates the Nike staff of designers, marketers, and publicists to sell sneakers not for profit but for maximum extractive value. They hire Kaepernick to sell sneakers, not for any other reason.
And Kaepernick gets managers and stylists who coordinate his contract and publicity. He has a team of attorneys to sue the NFL for unfair labor practices in relation to his charge that owners blocked his potential for contracts worth tens of millions of dollars. In the mean time, he has a multi-million dollar deal with Nike publicity.
I am not saying Kaepernick does not have his own substantive political ideology regarding race and violence in the U.S., and I am aware of his philanthropy. My point is to set him and the debates about $200-500 sneakers into a larger economic context. My point is his position in the capitalist enterprise, which often gets ignored in our consumer capitalist, brand obsessed society.
The women cannot even organize as workers without severe consequences. They have no minimum wage laws. They do not have resources for stylists and attorneys. They cannot just sell houses and move to others. As these women workers get called into the factories of China and Vietnam to make more shoes for a few dollars a day while people debate sneaker design, I want to focus on the trail of capital value. Who gets the capital and the power?
Kaepernick is one of the beneficiaries, a transnational elite via his citizenship, geography, gender, and status. It does not make the critiques of his political ideology regarding race in the U.S. any more or less legitimate–but it does raise intense questions about why and how he and the rest of us use consumerism to address such serious politics and histories. Maybe overpriced sneakers made by exploited women are not the answer.