Yeah, I know, continuing my proud tradition of naming the year’s best movie alongside the albums of the year countdown. ‘Under the Skin‘ was named 2014’s movie of the year, but the award went unclaimed in 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, and indeed every year before 2014. However, the (latest) masterpiece by Ken Loach, ‘Sorry We Missed You,’ was such a powerful piece that inspired such painful bolts of recognition and sheer fucking anger that I had to make space in 2019 to talk about it.
Oh, and by the way, this isn’t going to be one of those “Ooooooh, look at the camera angles! isn’t the mise en scène lovely?! Hints of Akira Kurosawa’s vagina dentata, perhaps??” reviews, as I have no interest in actually talking about the movie. Instead, these is mainly going to be a thousand words or so of me ranting about the twisted nature of capitalism in 2019. Like I said, it’s gonna be a lot of fun.
I imagine the majority of people’s reaction to watching ‘Sorry We Missed You’, no matter what side of the political divide they rest their genitalia on, will be to assume that exaggeration is used for dramatic effect and to best get the film’s point across. Much like everyone accepts that, if you go off the accepted historical accounts, Oskar Schindler almost definitely couldn’t talk to squirrels, or grow to fifty foot tall and fire lasers from his eyes when threatened, but Spielberg thought that giving him these powers in the movie would ensure the message would carry more weight. I think ‘Schindler’s List’ Oscar haul proved that he was right.
If you’re a wet, lefty, SJW with woke trigger warnings shooting out of your safe spaces, then you’ll probably agree with the general point of ‘Sorry We Missed You’- that zero hours servitude and service economy serfdom have succeeded in finally transporting any workers’ rights into the hands of the capitalist ruling class with little regard for the debilitating damage it does to working class communities- but accept that as much exaggeration as possible was used to create a worst case scenario in order to better get the point across. You’d also possibly wonder whether its depiction of working class Newcastle was in any way problematic, and worry about never knowing whether people voted leave or not means you’re unsure if these people even deserve your sympathy. If you’re a heartlessly patriotic right winger, you’d probably scoff at a film that’s so obviously using complete fiction to push a liberal agenda. And anyway, if this guy worked a little harder at his job, wouldn’t he, like, own Amazon by now? Why are we being asked to feel sorry for people being lazy? If the main character, Ricky, better invested the £2’546’000 he inherited from his father, like you did, then there’d be no problem. Anyway, if Ricky just brought a gun into work everyone would realise that he’s so fucking macho and would just stop harassing him. The only way to stop a bad job is a badass gun.
Well, sorry to be that guy*, but from my experience I saw nothing in the film that wasn’t painfully true to life. Firstly, I have experience with the ‘Amazon’ that Ricky works at- that for legal reasons actually isn’t Amazon but in actuality is absolutely fucking Amazon. One of my jobs** is a Refugee Employment Coordinator, where I mainly help people recently granted refugee status find their first job in the UK. One of the only options for people in their situation is the local Amazon warehouse, where they’ll be ‘hired’ on a zero hours contract when business gets 2.6% busier, then simply let go once they don’t feel like paying them, because Amazon runs on a tight budget and really can’t afford to give people stable jobs. In the warehouse, if they’re lucky enough to get an hours work- in a place near Manchester Airport and therefore not quickly accessible from fucking anywhere– they will run around the warehouse like alarmed chickens, following the directions of a handheld device that also measures their speed and efficiency. The items aren’t placed in any sort of comprehensible order- the cheese slicers are placed next to the new David Walliams book, but if you wanted the previous David Walliams book, you’d have to run all the way back to aisle 56, where it’s stored between the cork boards and the Refresher bars. It only makes sense to the machine telling you where to go, completely incomprehensible to the human brain and inverts the traditional authority between humans and machines. For the good of efficiency and upmost profitability, human beings are being dehumanised and forced to sacrifice every human instinct over to machines, and work in a world that only makes sense through these machines’ point of view.
“Reducing humans to meat algorithms, useful only for their ability to move and follow orders, makes them easier to hire, fire, and abuse”
(*’that guy’ being the person who injects facts and experience into abstract debates. Don’t you just fucking hate that guy??)
(**because, even though I work at Manchester Refugee Support Network all week, I actually have different jobs and different employers paying my salary. Because I work at a charity that doesn’t actually make any money, it’s difficult to find ways of making a living wage. Man, 2019 sucks!!)
The movie makes an equally important point through its depiction of Ricky’s wife, Debbie. If we’re lucky enough to have no personal experience with zero hours contracts, we’re probably at least aware of them, and probably picture them as an issue for people of Ricky’s situation and class. I mean, yeah, sure, working as a delivery driver for a multinational company’s warehouse probably does suck, but maybe he should have studied harder at school? Or been born into a richer family? It’s really his own fault, at the end of the day, isn’t it? Debbie is a contract nurse and at home carer, which is another job that we’ve happily let pass into corporate owned, zero hours nonsense.
We love nurses, don’t we? Aren’t they just amazing people? Doing all the work that 99% of people could never even think of doing? They’re the real heroes, aren’t they? In fact, they’re such nice people, I’m sure that they wouldn’t mind if we scrap the student bursaries so that they’ll be in massive debt even before they start working. Oh, and they’re such lovely people that I’m sure they wouldn’t mind if they basically worked full time for free alongside their studies. Oh, and these absolute angels are such good people that they wouldn’t mind working exhausting twelve hour shifts, working them so hard that we can put hundreds of lives at risk all at once!! And then, these wondeful angels who are the real heroes will work for next to fucking nothing! Fuck it, let them work for private companies that treat them like shit, pay them shit, and don’t even contract them to hours, what’s the worse that could happen?? Anyway, we can just save money by having people do nursing degrees in other countries so we son’t need to worry about funding their education, we can just reap the benefits of these foreign nurses, and then say that immigration is the reason for the NHS’s problems!! And, of course, these magnificent angels couldn’t possibly strike or push for more humane conditions! Because then people might die! And it would be their fault!! They’re the real heroes!!
How. Have we let. This fucking shit. Happen?
Zero hours contracts are not just the scourge of the service industry, because any idea that puts sheer profit above any human rights is always likely to catch on in capitalist society, even among jobs not run by Mike Ashley. I have friends who are dentists, chefs and plague doctors, who still have to purchase all their own equipment, have no paid vacation, and are still treated like inconsequential cogs spinning in the heartless cycle of employment. People now have no real relationships with their faceless corporate employers. Don’t get me wrong, jobs have been utterly shit for a long, long time. People have for nearly a century had miserably mundane nine-to-fives, where they would joylessly trudge to every day and spend eight hours debating what the quickest and simplest way to kill themselves was, before returning to a family that they’ve long grown to hate, look into their eldest child’s stupid face and want to smother him to death in anger at the capitalist drudgery they were forcing them through. But at least this soul destroying job came with stability, pensions and potentially for life. The gig economy is shattering any lingering sense of trust in or fidelity to corporations.
These aren’t isolated incidents that suggest capitalism’s fallibility, this is capitalism. This isn’t some market failure, it’s just the market. This is the same market that bought us slavery, climate change and a major crash every few years. Human life has been sacrificed entirely to the whims of market forces.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this! Though Marx and Engels explicitly foresaw the current problems with technology driven, workers-as-machines horror that it has been allowed to turn into. They realised early on that capitalism was insufficiently evolved to survive the technologies it spawns, that we needed to tear away at the old notion of privately owned means of production and force a metamorphosis, which must involve the social ownership of machinery, land and resources. They knew that is new technologies were unleashed onto societies bound by the primitive labour contract, wholesale misery would follow (“A society that has conjured up such gigantic means of production and of exchange, is like the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells”). But even as capitalism first started to really get its elbows dirty in the 19th century, though there were many potential dystopias warned against, we all knew that it simply had to get better soon. In 1845, Karl Marx predicted that in a communist society workers would be freed from the dreary, lifeless, soul destroying monotony that capitalism had already turned work into to. In the future, these workers would be less tied to their nonsense work and free to “hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner”. Imagine that? A whole time of the day put aside for criticising? This was even before Twitter. In 1884, William Morris proposed that in “beautiful” factories of the future, surrounded by gardens for relaxation, employees should work only “four hours a day”. John Maynard Keynes predicted in 1930 that, by the early 21st century, advances in technology would lead to an “age of leisure and abundance”, in which people might work 15 hours a week. He was absolutely right about technology rendering so much work obsolete, but about 15 hours out when it came to the hours of work people would be contracted to. In 1980, as robots began to depopulate factories, it became blindingly obvious where this was heading- “Well zut a-fucking-lors, shit be getting real now, y’nar?” the French social and economic theorist André Gorz declared, “The abolition of work is a process already underway … The manner in which [it] is to be managed … constitutes the central political issue of the coming decades.”
So why hasn’t this happened yet??
Unfortunately, something horrible happened in Victorian times around the age of capitalism’s first joyful steps into child labour and working class genocide- people were convinced that they should be proud to work.
This was an astonishingly successful brand shift. Previously, people may have been proud to work because the results of their labour were immediately obvious and gratifying. A cobbler could feel proud and satisfied after a day’s work because- well fuck me- there’s a decent little pair of boots there. A cook would look at the meal they prepared in a glorious second of satisfaction before some fat nobleman would chuck it down his face messily because cutlery and napkins hadn’t been invented yet. A candle stick maker could… candle stick maker?? That seems like a very specific job. How many candle sticks could on candle stick maker maker make in a day of candle stick making? One? A hundred? How much did they cost? How much would he need to work to turn any sort of decent profit? These are good philosophical questions, jump in any time.
After the worker began getting more and more divorced from the actual results of his or her labour, there was really no chance of them feeling pride in the fact they affixed one screw to a Ford’s chassis, or for stoking the coal that… made the steam that… made the factory… go… OK, this article could have been better researched, I’ll admit, the fact is all their work often seemed pointless. They could find pride in the money they earned, the ruling class supposed, but if that’s the case soon we’ll have whole nursery classes full of ungrateful brats demanding we put more than a farthing a week into their dirty, snotty pockets. No, let’s spread the idea that they should just be happy to work mindless jobs just to fill our pockets, in fact, let’s make it something that they’re proud of!!
This mindless and nihilistic desire to please our bosses- any boss- doing mindless work- any work- still permeates today. Now, on either side of the political spectrum, you are constantly reminded that you are worthless and your life meaningless unless you work. Politicians are always careful to point out that they aim to help hard working families, or the working man. Never just ‘families’ or ‘men’ (or indeed ‘people’). People in the audience on Question Time will preface a question by saying that they’ve ‘worked for 20 years’, because they know just saying that lends them so much credibility, because we don’t actually care what the work is, so long as it’s work. People often ask you what your ‘dream job’ is, to which the only sane answer is ‘No fucking job at all’, because why even in your wildest dreams would you still fantasise about doing labour?? People will happily state that they ‘Have to work!’ as if they’re sharks and to not go to a depressing office five days a week and stare at people’s car insurance applications would somehow stop oxygen slowing through their gills and they would drop dead. Buuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuullshit! You have to get money to live, and to get money you have to work. If the state provided you with £23’754 a year, would you still turn up to EDF Energy every Monday at 9:00? More depressingly, people say that they ‘Wouldn’t know what to do’ if they stopped working. Really? Really?! So if you weren’t the deputy manager at Home Bargains you would just have absolutely no idea what to do with your time? That’s… so sad… There’s roughly a million things that I want to do but don’t have time for because of my fucking job. By far the happiest I’ve been recently was when I was on disability benefits and received £110 a week to just write. Honestly, getting in a serious accident is close to a utopia and I seriously recommend it.
This only intensified over the course of the 20th century, as the gradual diminishing importance of religion gave many people great worry about their actual value in a world where death simply means death. One feature of religious belief is that your value is intrinsic rather than based upon performance or image, and as that drifted away more people started looking towards their careers to validate their sense of self. Who needs God! Here’s Reed’s Recruitment and another update to your LinkedIn page! You are the faceless company that pays your wage but otherwise doesn’t care if you live or die! This leads into the situation we find in ‘Sorry We Missed You*’ (remember that movie I mentioned?)- we have convinced ourselves as a society that having a job- any job. Any fucking shitty job in the fucking world!- is the most important thing. Companies now have free reign to treat their employees like absolute shit because they should be happy they’ve got a job. Unemployment isn’t a problem, shitty employment is.
(*and, y’know, actual real fucking life)
Worst of all, I still subscribe to Amazon Prime and buy dumb shit nearly every day that some some poor worker has to leg it around a confusing warehouse for. It’s just so easy, y’know?? Capitalism may be broken in 2019, but it’s also working perfectly.