I watched ‘Sorry to Bother You’ last month, and decided to return to it because

it came up in one of my lectures this morning,
it stuck with me enough that I was still thinking about it for at least a week afterwards
and
apparently it’s coming out in cinemas in Britain in December.

The film is low-budget, high-concept, the sort of wacky setup you normally find in anime, not in a major feature film. I saw a review which compared it favourably to ‘idiocracy’ and it does fit in that groove - it’s a vision of late-capitalist dystopia.

film frame

There’s something particularly fitting about how the setup for the main character revolves around working in a call centre. See how Trainspotting brings up the figure of the estate agent as an occupation of the Thatcherite era. It’s a reflection of Thatcherite values that this job category has opened up for people who sell housing as a commodity. In that same way, Telemarketing is a symptom of the confluence between consumerism and mass media/telephone networks; it only exists in a particular society. If you want to make a film about the USA in the 21st Century, it makes perfect sense that the main character works in telemarketing.

The film is a comedy. It’s goofy, and rude, and disturbing, so to be clear, it’s not a film made for anyone over the age of about 35. However, it’s also not just cynical nihilism either, there are some important points which I want to talk about.

film frame

Towards the beginning of the film there’s a wonderful scene where a new supervisor is introduced to the call centre. She starts off talking about how she’s glad to join the team, she doesn’t think of herself as a boss as such, the call centre is like a family.

Cassius interrupts to ask ‘does that mean we’ll be getting a pay rise?’ You see, we’re all friends, we’re on the same level. This puts the supervisor off-balance, and she replies with this post-marxist argument: What is capital? We have social capital now, connections are valuable, everything’s moving to digital, it’s all online, and class is an outmoded concept.

film frame

Okay, I like this scene because it resurfaces and shines a light on the real social relations present in that situation. It also exposes this liberal post-marxist argument for a farce, a bluff. In the liberal imaginary we live in there are no grand ideologies, no mass popular movements, we’ve moved beyond hierarchies, politics is a theatre. And here the film asks us to be critical. When you observe the fundamental social relations, they haven’t changed. This is a sticking point you can’t move beyond: you can’t have a pay rise, you are not equal to your boss. Anyone who tells you different is lying, which makes sense, since they do work in marketing after all.

film frame

The second point is about the way in which market relations permeate society. You typically see this in the way shareholder value is used to judge political decisions. When major decisions or events occur, the news sometimes highlights the reaction of the stock market. This assumes ‘the market’ is capable of independent judgement, to which politicians should remain subservient.

I’ll describe the situation in vague terms, but you can take it as a plot spoiler. The film does a good job of weaving references to it right up to the revelation, so when it finally happens you’ve already been warned well in advance.

film frame

Right, so what if slavery was reintroduced to the USA? Not in a sense of physically putting workers in chains, but take the purely economic boundaries of wage-slavery and push them to their logical extreme. Workers ‘freely’ and ‘voluntarily’ agree to work in exchange for food and lodgings, but they receive no salary. The film doesn’t explain this in too much detail, it hints at workers in prison-like conditions, but emphasises that workers are forced into labour by economic, not extra-economic means. This is even a selling point - slavery is a solution to the worries of unemployment and debt, and these pressures are economic, they come from the market. There are forms of this which exist today, such as unpaid internships for example.

film frame

Let’s take it even further, to the point of absurdity. What if the company conducted genetic experiments on the workers to make them more productive. Before anyone jumps in with an ethical objection, let’s assume that in a legal sense they’ve consented, they’ve agreed to a contract, and the contract says the company can do whatever they like. Our hero Cassius discovers this, and he has evidence, so he goes on television and exposes it to the world. It hits the news headlines. Cassius thinks he’s won, he’s caught the public attention. But what happens? The stock market responds with enthusaism, and the company stock rises. It may be unethical, but it sure is profitable, and the market approves.

film frame

Cassius is confused. Where is the public outrage? Why doesn’t the government intervene? He’s met by apathy. The film could have ended there, where the hero has not only lost, but the very act of rebellion serves as a corrective lesson. The ruling class knows that the situation is unjust and people have to rise up from time to time, so they permit occasional dissent, within limits. The failure of each successive revolt only reinforces the system’s imagined invincibility. Spoiler alert: if you’ve seen Snowpiercer, this kind of unsatisfactory ending will be very familiar.

In the end, Cassius and his friends decide to take a more direct approach. It’s not exactly a happy ending, but there is some resolution. Still, the film leaves you with a feeling that the villain in this film is capitalist society as a whole. While you can hold individuals responsible, they’re only acting out a role.

film frame

To compare this to a real-world example, there’s a bakery in Glasgow which employs ‘serving and former prisoners’.

It’s very progressive, producing locally, with organic ingredients. It’s wrapped in a discourse of rehabilitating prisoners, training them as workers so they can be prepared to re-enter the economy on their release. It’s a social enterprise, the prisoners are provided with therapy. I don’t mean to completely dismiss these people, they’re well-intentioned. But let’s look at it again.

Under what conditions are prisoners compelled to work? Of course they’re not free, they’re imprisoned. So, it doesn’t matter if the bread is organic. Prison labour relies on extra-economic coercion, and it approaches what might be understood as slavery. We seem generally comfortable with that, up to a point. How far would a corporation need to push before reaching that point? Maybe it’s further than we think.

In the USA there are private, for-profit prisons, and by coincidence the US also has the highest rate of incarceration in the world (as well as the highest actual prison population). America is an image of freedom and liberty, and yet it maintains this vast gulag network, and that’s before we get onto the torture camp in Guantanamo Bay. So, the film plays on that spectrum, where the situation it presents is an exaggeration, but it’s close enough to reality to provoke the audience.

film frame

There’s also a brilliant scene when Cassius is forced to rap in front of a white audience. I won’t describe that one, but I will say that the soundtrack almost stands out on its own right. I’d heard of The Coup before, without actually listening to their music. It works well in the film.

There’s a monster under my skin…