Sorry To Bother You, for TrashFuture

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On December 16, 2018, I appeared on another episode of TrashFuture (the first one was in July, on Silicon Valley). This episode, which came out December 26, was a review of Boots Riley’s incredible film Sorry To Bother You.

You can listen to the episode on whatever podcast app you use, or via this embed:

I’ve inclued a rough, abridged transcription below, mostly focused on my own quotes & with most of the intro omitted.

(our main takeaways from/reactions to the film)

Me: I first saw it in the US, and it honestly kind of changed my life. Which sounds hyperbolic. But before I’d watched the film - I’d put off watching it for a while - I’d been writing/thinking a lot about organising the tech industry, and seeing that film kind of crystallized it for me.

We’ll talk about more about this later, but a lot of what’s wrong with the world depicted in the film feels very similar to what’s going on in our world, with what the tech companies are doing. And if you look at the possibilities for resistance in our world, and the way it’s dramatized in the film, it does feel like there’s a lot of parallels that could be really useful and inspiring.

So I saw it, and then I saw a second time, and then I saw the interview with Boots Riley when he was here in London [at LFI Connects]. So I’ve been pretty inspired by the film.

Trevor: I thought the film was very good as far as being a metaphor for capitalism and organizing and race. I only wish it was a little bit longer […] I would have liked to have had a chance to kind of breathe. It’s a really good movie, but it goes at a breakneck pace, once it starts going.

Riley: I almost think its breakneck pace is sort of evocative of this life of endless movement that we’re all forced to live. And to live as we’re constantly monitored and evaluated by different algorithms. That’s kind of how I felt about about the pace.

Trevor: That’s fair, because you don’t have a lot of chance to unpack a lot of stuff you’re seeing, because, like you said, the brutal march of progress is very much depicted in that film.

Nate: I really enjoyed this movie. I very rarely felt as though I could guess what was gonna happen next. There were definitely some things where I was like, wow, he really went there, and I really appreciated it.

There are a few things where I was like, I’m really glad this was a movie made by somebody who’s a far left activist who’s been in that space for a long time. Everything from the critique in some of the plot points to literally the sound design - when they’re getting hit by batons in a protest - you can tell Boots Riley has been in that situation before, just by the way that it was done.

My big critique […]: I felt like Tessa Thompson’s character Detroit basically only exists as a barometer for whether or not you’re supposed to like what Cash is doing. I kind of wish that there was more there - just that she had a little bit more agency as a character.

But I thought it was a really unique movie, and I was really happy to see it succeed as it has.


Riley: So Sorry To Bother You is set in a kind of alternate present version of Oakland, California. It’s about Cassius or Cash Green, a black man who lives with his fiance Detroit, who accepts a job at a telemarketing agency called RegalView.

And the setting is kind of our world, but also not. The most popular show is called “I Just Got The Shit Kicked Out Of Me”; the biggest company is called WorryFree; and the whole thing feels to me kind of like magical realism. Like if Gabriel Garcia Marquez was trying to write a far-left story about a call center worker that sort of accidentally changes the world (or not accidentally).

What do you guys think about the setting?

Me: I can make some points about WorryFree. If you look at the billboards that WorryFree has scattered throughout the film - and it’s amazing because a lot of these are kind of in the background; I didn’t even notice some of them until I watched the second time - the whole world is one where WorryFree kind of just reigns supreme. It’s this one company that is obviously the wealthiest, and it’s expanding into all these different sectors and dominating the entire economy.

In that sense, you can see it as this amalgamation of a bunch of these different tech companies. Amazon, most obviously; Apple; a bunch of others. It’s really amazing, the way the film captures the banality of this huge monolithic corporation blending into the background - it just fades in the background. You see ads about it, and it feels normal.

That is very much our world today. But it goes over the top a little bit, to the point where you know that it’s satire, but there’s this really uncomfortable, uncanny feeling. Where it’s satire, but it’s also real. So that’s kind of hard to watch, but it also makes it really fun to watch.

Nate: I definitely agree with you, especially in things like the viral video from Cash getting hit in the head with a can. Without giving away too much of the plot, the idea of the viral video becoming a thing - that leads to the woman who made the video basically getting a TV show … like the idea that that dumb things have this strange power over day-to-day society, but people have no real power in their lives … That, I thought, was well done.

It was obviously over-the-top but it was also, like Wendy said, so uncannily close. There are a few things in this movie where you’re like, okay, that’s implausible, but a lot of it is absolutely plausible. And that’s the thing that makes you have this queasy feeling throughout.

Me: Yeah. I would almost call it science fiction or speculative fiction in the sense that it draws on tendencies that are ready present in everyday reality, and extrapolates them into the future. Even if it’s set in the present, it really does feel like taking tendencies - such as that of corporations to agglomerate and become more powerful - and projects them. And it envisions what things would be like in a few years.

That’s why it’s terrifying. You watch it and you’re like, yeah, this this makes sense. It feels kind of plausible, even though it’s so unrealistic.

Riley: So that’s this setting: it’s just to the side of our reality, but it really expands on those tendencies.

So the opening scenes of the movie: Cash is in a job interview. He’s trying to get hired at RegalView (the telemarketing company). He’s holding a couple of trophies and his CV. Essentially, the boss says, I know you made up your CV - I know you just commissioned yourself that trophy. We don’t care about your qualifications. Just sit down in your seat and stick to the script.

Trevor: One thing I want to say, just to back up to the last thing a little bit: the exaggeration that happened with the movie in the setting. I felt like that company, WorryFree … the one area where I thought the exaggeration didn’t work - I liked the exaggeration with everything else, like by exaggerating it you help illustrate some of the absurdity … with the WorryFree frame, I think they made it look in a way where it’s like, who on earth would ever want to work there? They kind of tip their hand that it’s a miserable deal.

But a lot of times, if you polish up that same deal and make it look like perks - like WeWork - a lot of people think, oh wow, this is a great deal that I’m getting. So I like the exaggeration in every aspect except for that WorryFree commercial. I wish they did it more like one of the real-life versions of those things, where the audience can see why it would look like kind of a Faustian bargain. Like why anybody would be enticed to go there.

But going to Cash and his workplace - that’s a good place where they could have gone a little bit more outrageous, I thought.

Riley: So what’s going on in Cash’s workplace?

Nate: The banality, the horrible decor, the lack of windows, the harsh light, the fact that all day they’re just basically getting told to fuck off when they’re having to call these people .. that was really so dead on as far as terrible job environments go.

It was strange, because you have this departure between what you just described - the absurd world where the volunteer slavery company makes you wear yellow scrubs and live on bunk beds - but then you go to this office environment that very much resembles bad office jobs. I mean, I’ve worked in jobs that had similar environments.

Trevor: Yeah, it wasn’t very exaggerated at all. It’s interesting, the things they chose to exaggerate into absurdity, and the things presented on straight on. It made the watching experience kind of jarring.

Me: I really agree with the point that WorryFree is depicted as this terrible company where you would never want to work, which isn’t really the case with a lot of these tech companies.

But I think the way that the film kind of answers that, is the way they contrast the “power caller” job and the regular, shitty, no-window office job. Even though it’s not within WorryFree, it’s still within this arm of them, because they’re making phone calls for worry for you to benefit WorryFree.

That is an illustration of how you do have this bifurcation of jobs. You have the really terrible jobs that are not glamorous, that nobody wants to work in, and then you have the “power caller” kind of job where you’re treated as talent, you’re given all these massive perks. And I think that is a really nice critique of what actually happens right now in the wider economy.

Riley: Let’s go and pull into WorryFree a little more, because we haven’t actually said what they offer. Which is basically, you go to work for them forever, for your entire life. You don’t get paid - you basically become a slave. But then you have no bills; you have no costs; you get fed; you get a bunk bed and some ridiculous clothes to wear.

Throughout the movie, interestingly, they talk a little more about WorryFree, which is “the company that saved America”. WorryFree, the company that has been able to make a car at 20 percent of the normal cost. And I was thinking, well of course they’ve been able to make a car at 20 percent of the normal cost, because they’re using slave labor.

Nate: But also, you remember in the very beginning, when Cassius is talking to his uncle - it’s kind of a gag scene, where he tries to make fun of landlords (he talks about landlords as a parasitic class) and his landlord’s like, Cash, I’m your uncle. But his uncle’s basically like, hey, that WorryFree sounds pretty good, because the bank is talking about taking his home away. And he’s like, three hots and a cot, that’s not a bad deal.

It would be one thing if it’s like, these are all just automaton people that somehow have decided to go live in this environment and work for the rest their lives for nothing. But you’re also confronted with a person in a situation that’s relatable, who’s saying the stress I’m under - under capitalism - has become so great that I’m literally considering giving up my entire life and family to go live in a bunk bed and be a slave.

Me: That’s a great example of dispossession and how that functions - how it’s disguised as a contract with the bank that tells you how your mortgage works, but really it is ultimately dispossession. That’s what drives people to become serfs, essentially, for WorryFree.

Riley: So this is sort of the omnipresent company. Cash goes to work initially for RegalView, and this thing that Wendy you mentioned earlier - the “power caller” - is kind of dangled in front of him. If you do very well for us, then we’ll promote you. It’s not well-defined, but what it turns out to be is just a very luxurious office.

In the job itself, they are given a kind of leadership meeting, from their new team manager, who is essentially a business inspiration Facebook post but rendered human.

I don’t know about you guys - I really felt that sales leadership bullshit scene where the manager says, “you need to know when to tag them and when to bag them”, and when someone says, “what does that mean?”, he can’t think of any way to explain it. Because this is what happens when we have a business culture that’s run by guys who watched Glengarry Glen Ross just for the Alec Baldwin monologue at the very beginning, and then zone out for the human drama that occurs in the rest of the movie.

Then the team leader lady says, we’re a team, we’re together. But of course, we’re not gonna pay you more, because who needs money anyway? Studies have shown that people prefer social capital.

So what do we think of that scene?

Nate: it’s so close to home as far as bad jobs go. I was just squirming, watching it.

Riley: It was very close to home for me. Wendy, do you feel familiar with that as well?

Me: Yeah definitely. It feels like an amazing depiction of the prevailing ideology under neoliberalism. She actually throws around the words capital and labor - she’s like, capital, labor, like what is that anyway?

There is this prevailing idea right now that the old class divisions don’t exist anymore, and that we exist in a very liminal space where everybody owns capital, and no one is really just labour-power, and so we’re all on the same side. This is something that you really get within tech companies especially, because a lot of the time, they’ll give people stock. So you technically own capital, and you don’t feel like you’re just a worker.

I thought that was brilliant [commentary] - trying to get everybody to see themselves as a family, as if they all have the same role within the company and they all should be treated the same way. Trying to gloss over the power imbalance between managers, whereas everybody else is not even getting paid for their work.

Trevor: The family thing I found interesting - I thought of that movie Office Space, and the flair, and “we’re just one happy family”, and she’s [Jennifer Aniston’s character’s] like, “do you want me to wear the flair or not? just tell me” and they’re like, “well, do you want to wear the flair? I like to think we’re a family!”

I feel like tech has created a more respectable version of that. People wouldn’t think of a nice office tech job as what Jennifer Aniston was going through with Office Space, but I know people who have worked for tech companies, and they’ll say the same thing. There’s no cubicles, just giant tables; there’s Taco Tuesdays and this whole fake family feel.

One of my friend’s company went public, and after it went public and started having actual shareholders and quarterly reports … suddenly there were layoffs. And he was saying how it became like every other shitty job he’s ever had. All the fake coolness of the job - there’s a bike room, there’s a dog day, there’s a Star Trek day - all this stuff is just bullshit. At the end of the day, it was just the same bullshit he had at every other company.

It went public, there were terrible layoffs: whispers, people being pulled to the side to say, “don’t tell anybody but this layoff’s today; you’re safe, but this person’s not safe; now go back and interact with them for the rest of the day like I didn’t just tell you that they’re a dead man walking”…

Riley: Man. And the whole time, having a big smile plastered across your face while you do a climbing wall or whatever. It’s the same shit that’s been happening.

Nate: A similar thing sort of happens [in the movie] - not layoffs, but rather individual success at the expense of other people. You start to realize how much of this is intentional in the film, to get across the point that people are basically being hoodwinked into ignoring their own class.

That’s what happens to Cash.

Hussein: My sort of ignorant, I-haven’t-finished-watching-the-movie comment is that a lot of it this sounds like a very dark energy Wolf of Wall Street. So much of Wolf of Wall Street had these similarities in regards these weird working institutions, underlining liberalization of capital, ignoring the class conversation that occurred. In Wolf of Wall Street that was sort of non-existent - it was glossed over as being something that you could transcend.

With this movie, it has a critique of those undertones in that particular type of genre of cinema: business guy doing business things [the sort of underdog-success-story trope].

Riley: A lot of people watch American Psycho or Wolf of Wall Street and they’re like, damn, what a cool film about a guy with an awesome job and cool suit. They may all be trying to mount a criticism of capital, but what Sorry To Bother You does, is it does it in such a way that no moron could ever watch this movie and be like, damn, I gotta get myself hit in the head.

Hussein: I think it represents the absurdity of living in neoliberalism really well, in a way that other films that have tried to critique it have almost tried to be too clever in doing so. I think the simplicity in this story is a lot more powerful in terms of its critique of capitalism.

Me: Can I suggest a cinematic parallel. You guys might give me shit for this, but when I was watching it, I thought a lot about the Hunger Games.

Mark Fisher had this blog post where he wrote about the Hunger Games, and he describes it as this delirious experience where he keeps thinking, how can I be watching this? How can this be allowed?

Because The Hunger Games is a fairly strong critique of capitalism. But it’s not as visible, because it’s not set in our world, so you don’t necessarily see [the critique]. The whole point about the Hunger Games is that it’s this world where these people are made to compete with each other for something that is created by the system.

You can see the whole power caller thing in the same light. Management has created this system where a few people who work harder than their peers - who succeed, who sell more than their peers - get promoted to “power caller”. And it’s a hierarchy that’s completely imposed from above. The people who are in it - some of them realize that it’s something that they don’t want, but when when Cash is exposed to it, he’s just like, well here’s this hierarchy; I’m going to succeed within it.

The whole message of The Hunger Games is: you need to get to a point where you realize that this hierarchy - this competitive battle to the death between you and your peers - is not something you should just accept. It’s something you have to refuse.

I saw this film in kind of the same light. What I loved about it was how it was in a very contemporary setting, where we look around and we see things are very familiar - we see the modern office job. I thought that was kind of the brilliance of the film.

Riley: Yeah. I think the other thing is that in The Hunger Games, it’s this big epic rising up of people, that happens because they rally around a charismatic leader. Whereas here, we meet Squeeze, who was played by The Walking Dead’s Stephen Yeun. and he talks about organizing a union for the telemarketers, which is the main protagonistic force of the film, this union.

We’re talking about organizing a union at a job that doesn’t traditionally find itself unionized, as telemarketers are usually sort of casualized temp workers.

Trevor: To go to Wendy’s point about the Hunger Games: I don’t think it’s a reach at all, because at the end of the day, the Hunger Games is a game show. It’s like a game show on steroids. I think it’s an exploitative type of concept that goes back to gladiatorial times. These people are gonna fight, and they’re gonna fight for their lives in this case, in gladiator arenas.

On a regular game show, it’s their mortgage or the chance to not be evicted or the chance to finally pay off their student loans or whatever. I think it’s not a coincidence that there’s a game show conceit within Sorry to Bother You. Because we’re so inundated with that whole capitalist realism that Mark Fisher talks about, that we even start turning this horrible struggle into our entertainment.

Part of the joy of watching a game show is seeing the people overreact. When there’s poor people on the game show, and they’re really doing all these theatrics, it’s almost like this kind of class mockney, because we have to see people entertain us as they fight for their lives.

I always find it interesting how game shows lend themselves so easily to being good critiques of capitalism, or society. Whether it’s the Running Man or the Hunger Games or any other game show - there’s a Black Mirror episode called 1 million credits or something about the idea of how game shows become microcosms of our struggle, and get used to entertain us. And we don’t realize that we’re trapped in the same thing in real life, that we call jobs.

Me: I love that - I think it’s an amazing take. In a way, the workplace becomes a spectacle. It’s not just about the workplace as such; it’s about this ideological apparatus. It creates a certain reality - a very performative reality - and it makes it hard to imagine anything outside that, like what you’re saying about capitalist realism.

Riley: And you can even see that in the way the office is set up, because they have a little light that dings when they make a sale, and then whenever Cash performs well, he and the manager do all these exaggerated dances. He’s performing how much he’s winning at this job as well. So the whole thing, it’s a crazy game show.

Trevor: Isn’t there even a word they use now: gamify? Tech companies talk about how we’re gonna gamify this and gamify that.

Riley: Yeah. So initially, when we talk about the union, Cash is interested in joining it because he’s like, well, I’m not doing super well at my job; I’m not making a lot of money. But then he learns the white voice - an older co-worker is like, you can sell, you just have to use the white voice. So Trevor, what is the white voice?

Trevor: I want to remember Danny Glover’s exact description because I thought it was so good. He said, not Will Smith white; it has to be like the feeling that your problems are gonna be ok, all your bills are gonna be met.

Trevor: It was interesting because it wasn’t just a stylistic thing. It wasn’t just the def Comedy Jam voice or in that Simpsons episode when they’re making fun of black comedians. It wasn’t that. It was a feeling.

Nate: Exactly - it was a mentality. Imagine that you don’t have any bills, and you never have to worry about whether or not you’re gonna have a job.

Had it been in the hands of a less astute writer, it would have been, you know, “ha ha talk like a white guy; white people talk like nerds”. But instead he was basically saying, imagine you’re the kind of person who has the supreme confidence that you never have to worried about whether or not you’re going to be closed out by the economy, or by society.

Me: Yeah, and ultimately, it’s a critique of power, right? Because it’s not about whiteness as this biological essentialist thing. Talking like a white person means you’re talking as if you’re someone for whom the economy is made. You’re talking as if you expect to have economic power; you expect job openings will open up for you. You can become a CEO. The world is gonna bend itself around you. And if you talk like that, then you can connect with people, you can make your customers think that that’s gonna happen for them too, if they buy your product.

Trevor: Yeah, it’s not just optics or stylistic tics; it’s an actual materialist position.

Riley: One of the reasons that Britain is in such a dire political state is that our whole system is governed by people with this sort of white voice, if you like. The entirety of the sort of the Oxford Union politics that have basically made our country shit for so long.

It’s David Cameron walking up and blithely announcing that he assumes he’ll win the Brexit referendum, so he doesn’t really have to try. Of overconfident columnists saying, well, I’m sure we’ll be in and out of Iraq very quickly, it’ll be history’s easiest war. Or David Davis saying, Oh, the brexit deal will be history’s easiest negotiation.

Just having grown up with such unimaginable privilege. The world has just handed them so much, that they then assume that all of the problems of the world are going to be very simple for them to solve. Because, from a personal point of view, Brexit’s not that much of a risk for David Cameron. But it feels like that sort of confidence of coddling has created the Jacob Rees-Moggs and so on.

Nate: When you think about Cash’s managers - they’re not the kind of people that he’s selling the stuff to. His one manager who makes all of the “bagging and tagging and putting him in the morgue” [comments] - he’s obviously someone who’s lived on the margins, but now has a job that he’s good at. He’s got that recovering addict intensity about him.

The other people - they’re kind of parodies of a kind of office worker, but they’re not the same as the character who’s played by Armie Hammer (Steve Lift). He’s having to affect a voice and a mentality that’s even of a higher class standing than his bosses.

It’s interesting because his bosses aren’t the one who told him to do that - Danny Glover’s character, who’s been suffering in this world forever, is the one who taught him to do it.

Riley: So this is the trick he learns. And so in doing this, he gets so good that when the union that we were talking about arranges a wildcat strike and puts their phones down, when he gets taken aside, he thinks he is about to get fired. But actually, they say no, we’re gonna make you a power caller.

So far, it’s been unclear to us what this means - it just seems like an arbitrary rank - but you come to realize - and this is where I’ll throw to Wendy - that it’s sort of just a nice office. And I feel, Wendy, you’d have a lot to unpack here, of the sort of environment and blithe superiority of high-ranking tech people.

Me: The point is that that’s a job that doesn’t feel like a job. It’s something that feels like a lifestyle, and it feels like something you’ve earned.

So he goes up in the elevator. I think that the motion of that is not an accident; he’s been elevated to this higher plane of existence where everybody wears nice designer suits and there’s champagne that they pour over people and you have floor-to-ceiling windows. So it doesn’t feel like he’s just a worker.

There’s something about that that is so insidious, and so dangerous. He really starts to think that this is his calling, it’s his destiny, and he’s earned it. He’s worked really hard making all these calls, and now this is just something he deserves. He thinks about all of his old colleagues and even his fiancee, and he’s like, well maybe if they worked harder they could be where I am. Instead of thinking, why do they pick me? Why is it fair that I get this world of luxury and plenty while everybody else is down there barely making rent?

There’s something incredibly real about that scene, which really made it hard to watch.

Nate: I would also throw in that he’s got pressure from his family. In that scene where he takes the job, he’s able to give his uncle money to resolve his issues with his house. He buys a car, he’s able to get a nice apartment.

But then it very deftly does this, where you can understand where he’s coming from, but then you also start to watch him become - scene by scene - more poisonous towards the people on the lower floors. Because all of a sudden this becomes his normal.

Me: Yeah, there’s an amazing montage where he transitions from apartment to apartment, and the apartments get progressively nicer - the furniture becomes more slick and more expensive -

Riley: it literally falls apart and then regrows; you actually see it that sort of replacement.

Me: Yeah, it’s amazing - it’s a cinematic masterpiece. But what that tells you is that once this process is put in motion - once he gets promoted - he’s gonna keep wanting more and more, just by virtue of the way the structure works, and all these carrots being dangled in front of him.

It’s not enough for him to just be like, okay I’ll get promoted once. I’ll pay off my mortgage, and I don’t have to live in precarity now. He’s like no, I just want. Now that he’s gone up the corporate ladder, he wants to keep climbing it.

I think that is a great critique of what these systems actually do to people. They start out thinking, oh I’m just gonna work this job just for a bit, but then - [and it’s] just the way the job works - the people within it are doing their best to get people to buy into the system in a way that really damages their self.

Riley: It’s not just a great critique of what those corporations do to their workers, but it’s a great the cheek of how those corporations actually operate themselves. Because the whole point of a corporation is just to grow. And there’s this kind of cult of growth. It doesn’t matter how good you’re doing; you’re always supposed to be doing better than last time.

Even like Facebook: they pretty much dominate everything, but then the quarterly report will happen … Facebook only grew 10% but it was supposed to grow 15%. How many people in the world are left for it to even get more people? It’s supposed to always be finding more people. Pretty soon they’re gonna sign up babies.

Nate: Something specifically related to this in the film too is that if a corporation - if for some reason they decide in self-interest or public relations, they decide they want to give their workers a raise - that’s going to affect their share price. That’s actually going to be received negatively by shareholders, and specifically by their board and it’s entirely possible that their leadership will just get replaced. Because they’re like, we’re not paying you to fucking pay your workers more; we’re paying you to make us money.

Whether or ot Facebook is helping to worsen ethnic tensions to the point where there’s a genocide happening because of disinformation shared on Facebook - that doesn’t matter. What matters is growth.

Trevor: I was gonna say, it’s not profit. People think it’s about profit but it’s still profitable - that’s the crazy thing about when the stock price drops. No one’s saying that you’re becoming unprofitable; you just didn’t grow. Which is amazing that there’s never enough money - you’re actually making more money than you’re spending, which is what you think a business is supposed to be about, there’s more than enough money to go around - but you didn’t grow. You weren’t bigger than you were yesterday, so you fail.

Me: Yeah, and that’s something you can really see in the film as well. Steve Lift, the CEO of WorryFree, has this diabolical plan that’s going to increase profits but also grow the company.

You wonder like, what is driving this guy? Like his company already has dominance over the whole world, and yet he still is thinking, how do we make this company grow? How do we dominate more and more of the planet?

There’s this line that I feel like Riley, you’d really like, because he says that everything he’s doing is rational. And there you can think about Adorno and Horkheimer’s critique of rationality, and how capitalism is this very rational system, and that this idea of what is considered rational under capitalism is actually pretty horrendous to most of us if we care about morals.

At the same time, it’s rational because it’s what this system incentivises.


Riley: So he finds out about the plan that they’re going to make workers from WorryFree take a drug that turns them into a human horse hybrid, so they can work harder. He finds out about this in a meeting with Lift at a party he gets invited to, because he performed so well [as a power caller].

Pulling us slightly back, I want to say what the power callers actually do. Because they are still just doing telemarketing, it’s just they’re telemarketing something different.

Me: What they’re doing is they’re doing this higher tier of telemarketing - so instead of selling direct to consumer, they’re selling to businesses, and they’re selling to the sort of businesses who would essentially use WorryFree’s slave labor. There’s one really amazing scene where Cash - who’s obviously done his homework - manages to get this one Japanese company to switch to using WorryFree, which means they get to have greater profits, lower labor costs. They’re also selling weapons to the military.

It’s everything you can imagine about the worst possible job - the most morally depraved things you can imagine. This is what they’re doing.

For me, there are really strong parallels to what a lot of tech companies are doing now. You see all these big tech companies with contracts with ICE (Immigrations and Customs Enforcement) or with the the US military. It’s hard to watch.

When Boots Riley wrote the script - I think he started writing in 2012 or something; I don’t know how much it’s changed since then - but in the last few years, it’s come out that a lot of these big tech companies have these contracts which are really kind of doing the same thing that WorryFree power callers are doing.

That’s like a case of [Boots Riley] being really prescient, but also the fact that the military-industrial complex has been around for a while. It may have changed form, but it hasn’t really gone away, and these new tech companies are just taking part in it.

[a conversation about identity politics and Cash having to use his white voice at all times in the power caller suite, which is this weird raceless place]

Trevor: I feel like a lot of neoliberal identity politics is based on that. Where you’re supposed to not let these things stop you from - what’s that famous thing, like more female wardens … Hire more women guards …

Me: You see something like the exact analog with this with Lean In - Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In feminism - where it’s like, okay, you recognize that the structures are oppressive and they’re not suited for you and they’re deliberately designed to exclude you, but fuck that. Just lean into the structure, and find your way up to the top, even if it means stepping over other people of your class on the way. It’s really depressing to watch that.


Riley: So Lift’s plan is, as we sort of alluded to before, to improve the profitability and drive growth endlessly of his company by transforming the workers themselves into half-horse hybrids who are much stronger and more able to lift and carry stuff.

The weird thing is, this is not sort of super far from the way that Marx wrote. This weird sort of deformation body horror thing with the horse transformation - like when Marx was writing Capital, he was immersed in gothic fiction and literature. That’s why he sort of talks about specters of communism and capital as a vampire that sucks the life from living labor and so on. Critiques of capitalism have used these methods of horror and deformation for as long as they’ve been around, which I thought was very interesting.

Trevor: I think an interesting thing with capitalism is that it works off of machines a lot. Like literal machines, but also the idea of turning people into machines or extensions of machines. Like people become beasts of burden, like the oxen that pulls the plough. Where does the apparatus or the machine begin, and where does the living being begin? The oxen is just an extension of this - it’s a part of the machine; the total machine is the horse and carriage or the total machine is like the oxen and cart.

I feel like assembly lines do that to people. […] You kind of become part of a machine. I think the horses were great - they made literal the whole beast of burden.

Me: Definitely. It’s so dehumanizing, but what it really does is it completely turns someone into just a worker. Like their whole identity is to produce some some goods. And all they really get from that is just the conditions for being able to sustain themselves - they’re able to reproduce themselves, and that’s all they become. They become a worker.

What’s really scary about this is the fact that Steve Lift is someone who has the power to do that. He can look at a human being and say, this is someone who’s going to give me this much profit. And then he has the ability - he has the power - he has the resources - to actually turn this person into the literal manifestation of a beast of burden, like you were saying.

And the thing about power - which might actually speed up the plot summary - is the fact that when when cash is like, I’m gonna expose you, this is so fucked up, and tries to stop that … nothing happens.

At one point, Cash goes on TV and is like, you guys need to call your Congressman and tell them that this is happening. And then the next scene is a shot of Democratic and Republican senators shaking hands with Steve Lift and being like, congratulations, what a great plan.

That scene was such a political statement, and I thought it was just brilliant.

Nate: I was so happy that he did that. I was really glad this movie was written by a Communist, because Cash does the thing where he’s like, the authorities have to stop this. And what immediately happens right after: the stock price goes up. Because it’s like, no, this is this is how the system is supposed to work. It’s very, very subversive and I’m really enjoying it, because it’s not an appeal to authority. The idea is that the only authority that you can respect is the workers organizing.

Trevor: It also made me think about slavery - like literal slavery. There was this thing where people - because it was fueling the progress of their country and capitalism and by the dehumanization of these horses it was adding an actual level of comfort to people’s lives … people got okay with this dehumanization pretty quick. He exposed it, and society just got numb to it really fast. The exposing didn’t do anything.

It made me think, that’s probably what slavery was like. You can expose all the horrors of African slavery and the transatlantic slave trade … the first abolitionists probably ran up against that: “look at these horrors”, and people were like, oh, we know. We can live with it.

I saw this article that the whole professional managerial system that came up under industrialization was actually created under slavery. Basically slavery was the first professional managerial quota-driven like all things they’d be taking granted in the modern workforce and industrialization was actually a case of people just taking techniques that were created and perfected under slavery.

Because in slave times, that was the only real thing that had that type of professional managerial structure. […] It was just literally slavery but just transferred over to white people.

Me: The analogy to slavery is really useful, because what it does illustrate is that an appeal to authority won’t help. The people who are oppressed under the system need to be the ones to rise up and change things. Otherwise, the people who have attained power in the current system - why would they buck the system? It works for them, and they’re basically happy with it. So you need people to collectively organize, kind of like what they’re trying to do with the union, to put a stop to it.

The last scene - the climactic final battle - I cried several times. Basically the telemarketers have been on on strike (they’re still on strike, even when Cash is becoming a power caller) - and the police have been cracking down on them really hard, like every day they send people to break the strike …

When Cash has this big realization and he realizes that whatever WorryFree is doing, it’s not gonna be stopped by calling your congressperson. So then he says, I’m gonna join my colleagues on the picket line, and he also comes up with this brilliant plan where he enlists the help of the horse people who he’s managed to free. And after some of the protesters have been roughed up by the cops, he blows open a door and some half-human half-horse people come out, and they end up on the side of the workers, as they should.

And there’s a scene where squeeze is standing next to one of these horse people, and they look at each other and there’s this growing recognition that they’re on the same side. And Squeeze takes his hand, and he makes a fist, and he says, “Same struggle”.

That just killed me because what it reminded me of is migrant workers, and how there’s often this idea that migrant workers are brought in by by the boss to try to lower wages, and that there’s no way to you know bridge the gap, and that migrant workers should be seen as the enemy. But that’s not necessarily true; sometimes migrant workers can be even more militant, and can be the ones to really force some sort of change in workplace conditions.

Watching that scene reminded me of this - the fact that workers are often divided by capital, but they don’t have to be, and if they find a way to bridge the divide, and they can resist so much more effectively.

Trevor: There’s this scene at the end where he’s talking to the horse like horses are stupid and and the horse has to remind him, I’m from the Bay. Like I was once a human. And I think that’s kinda like what capitalism can do - it can dehumanize workers to the point where you forget the person’s a human even when you’re advocating for them.

There were abolitionists who were fighting for slaves but still thought of them as dumb animals and forget that this person was a human being at one point - they had a home country, they weren’t created to be slaves … or where there’s the migrant worker who people see as this fruit picking machine. Even the ones who ostensibly are on their side and fighting for them.

I thought that was a nice touch about how sometimes even the people who can be so-called “fighting the good fight” still fall into the trap of forgetting the humanity. Because that’s what it trains us to do- capitalism - is just accept the dehumanization.

Me: My concluding thoughts on the film: I think it came out at this brilliant moment. This is a time when people are talking about unionizing and class politics, especially in the tech industry where in the last few months we’ve seen the rise of pretty militant actions by workers against their companies. Most recently in the games industry, game workers unite, which is a union that recently affiliated with IWGB in the UK - and the games industry is another one of these industries where for a long time there hasn’t really been any unionization because people are thought of as not workers, but as part of a team, part of a family, they do it because they love it and therefore they’re not workers …

But then the people in the industry know they’re being exploited. They’re not happy about their conditions. They’re starting to resist and fight back as a collective, and that’s just so inspirational.

We’re starting to see the beginnings of this in Silicon Valley - the big tech companies - and I really hope that people who are working at these companies watch this film. Because if you can relate to the kind of workplace conditions that are depicted, then it is quite a compelling vision: this idea that we don’t have to just sit back and let the authorities take care of us. There’s room for agency, and there’s room for us to act and take control of our lives and to make this better world ourselves. I think that’s such an important message.


Riley: My final impression: there was this relentless underlying critique of capitalist rationality that was sort of flowing throughout the whole thing, where it was like all of these decisions that are rational to a calculating actor are patently irrational if you take a longer view of the world.

You can see it when Cash elects to not join the Union and instead chooses a personal promotion to fulfill his short-term material needs -well actually, this is just going against your long term needs. Or the idea that Lift is going to transform everyone into a horse eventually, because the idea is that this one company will employ almost everyone in the world and then they’ll all be horses. And then it will be Steve Lift and he’ll be living on a planet with a bunch of horses.

Capital always will try to pay its workers nothing over something, and if there was a way that they could create a sort of dumber, stronger class of laborer, we have to remember they will do it. They’ll find a way to do it. And then they’ll do it. They’re not bound by the same compunctions that you and I are; it is essentially a form of psychopathy, where they’re like, it’s growth at all costs. Growth at any cost.

And so that’s why I always think it helps to be skeptical of the motives of capital. To know that your employer would turn you into a stupid horse if they could and if they could make it legal to. There are very few things stopping them from doing that.