I worked two “jobs” during my first summer as a graduate student in Indiana. One involved telemarketing research, convincing people to answer telephone survey questions designed to help businesses assess product marketability. The pay was minimal and the work infrequent, based entirely on the number of surveys my company had been hired to administer any given week. I’ve held down many an unappealing job in my time, including working the fry station at McDonald’s and captioning phone calls, often for people who seemed to take extra pleasure in having phone sex because they knew I was required to transcribe it. But I never loathed any job more than that telemarketing gig, begging for opinions in order to earn a non-living wage.
My second source of income that summer was “donating” plasma at the local Biolife center. For every week I donated twice, Biolife would load 50 dollars onto my new debit card for easy ATM access. “Save a life. Receive money,” as they put it. “Plasmapheresis” extracts your blood, puts it through a machine that separates out the plasma, and then pumps it back into your body so you stay healthy enough to donate a second time the same week. It takes about an hour to complete each session. At Biolife, two orderly rows of reclining leather chairs faced each other, each with an attendant machine for extracting plasma. People already hooked up to the machines scrolled through their phones or read a magazine. It was clear that many of them were regulars, accustomed to the routine. It was also clear that we all fell into one of two specific categories: working-class local or broke student.
Sitting in the chair, alone yet part of the collective experience, I felt an increasing discomfort unrelated to the needle in my arm. We were simultaneously like cattle and exploited sex workers. Herded into our individual slots, patiently waiting for the “milking” to finish up, we had so few options left to cover our bills that we accepted Biolife’s pimping of our bodily fluids as an opportunity. The company sets up centers in places where it can rely on a population eager to snatch at additional income from below the poverty line. Who else would agree to give up a minimum of two hours a week, not counting commuting time, to sit through blood extraction and reinfusion twice, all for a grand total of 50 bucks? The plasma industry that year (2009) made around $10 billion; the same liter of blood I produced for $20 or $30 was worth up to $200, even before it was treated to make medicine.1 My first graduate summer was thus the first time I understood the machinations of a capitalist economy, not because I read Marx, but because I experienced its exploitation of my own body, literally.
Plasma “donation” may be a missed satirical opportunity in Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You, but the film still nails the exploitation of working-class bodies for corporate profit, through its accurate depiction of telemarketing. It follows the working life of Cassius “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield), a Black man trying to survive in the Bay Area’s gig economy while living in his Oakland uncle’s converted garage. “You will call as many contacts as you can during your shift, you will read the script we give you, and you will show up tomorrow—HAPPY,” Cash’s boss at RegalView instructs him. Maximum efficiency, obedience, and reliability, in that order, on order. In return, Cash might earn some money on commission, though not enough to help his uncle keep the house. He takes the telemarketing job in 2018 for the same reason I took the telesurveying job in 2009: a lack of options.
Riley’s Sorry to Bother You draws on a long tradition of employing absurdist narrative techniques to expose the real-life absurdities that we take for granted as natural realities in the capitalist system. Workplace narratives from Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener” (1853) to Mike Judge’s Office Space (1999) suggest that the real life of a capitalist laborer is actually as absurd as the ostensibly extreme fictional details used to depict it; the form simply matches the content. But the true kicker in Riley’s film comes when he exposes capitalism’s intertwined injustices of class and race, by literalizing the metaphor of the “workhorse.” Cash discovers that the company WorryFree, whose contracted laborers he sells following his promotion to “Power Caller,” has implemented technology to transform humans into “equisapiens,” who are “stronger, more obedient, more durable, and therefore more efficient and profitable.”
“This isn’t irrational,” WorryFree CEO Steve Lift (Armie Hammer) tells Cash, and if you’re following the logic of capitalism, it’s not. It makes perfect sense—horse sense, if you will. The fundamental premise of capitalism is that anyone can profit, without limit, if only the individual in question tries hard enough. But in order to turn a profit on the expansive industrial scale encouraged, if not demanded, by a capitalist system, the individual requires cheap labor from the masses to staff an ever-growing kingdom of factories. One man’s unlimited economic prosperity is another’s slave labor. Nothing has ever been free, and brown bodies most often pay the price of the capitalist (American) dream.
Some critics have categorized Riley’s film as “over-the-top-madness,” deciding that it devolves into the “preposterous” despite its strong start. What it shows us, though, is fundamentally real. The problem, as ever, is whose life gets to count as real, and whose does not. In the same way the Western literary canon defined “realism” as a tidy linear narrative about everyday middle-class white life, and dismissed the stories that didn’t fit that narrative as something else—magical realism (postcolonial literature), Afrofuturism, multiethnic literature, and so on—some have characterized this film as absurd, in the sense of “ridiculously unreasonable” or “extremely silly.” What many others have rightly noted, however, is that Sorry to Bother You should be considered in the tradition of absurdist fiction, which depicts the world as having no rational or orderly relationship to human life, often through satire. That is, though Riley’s film relies on an absurdist aesthetic, its relationship to human life is entirely rational, because it narrates the precarious reality of certain lives as a logical and very real extension of Western capitalist history.
In the end, what’s preposterous is not Riley’s call to recognize the reality of nonwhite, non-middle-class life, as it’s exploited under capitalism. It’s the lengths to which capitalism’s defenders need to go in order to claim a version of capitalism that feels ethical; to do so requires the complete elision of capitalism’s historical foundation of racial exploitation.
Paul Collier, a former World Bank economist, is just such a capitalist defender. His latest book, The Future of Capitalism: Facing the New Anxieties, suggests that with the “cool head of pragmatism” we can right the ship and sail full steam ahead, into a future saved by “ethical capitalism.” But has capitalism ever been compatible with ethics? And if so, whose ethics? Collier’s call for ethics, while earnest, reveals his own narrow—and inaccurate—conception of the term, and his dreams of an ethical capitalism saving the world would be absurd if they weren’t so dangerous. Ethics are rules of conduct established by groups or societies in order to ensure equitable and just dealings between people. Unlike morality, the personal conviction of what is right and wrong that dictates an individual’s actions regardless of the subsequent social consequences, ethics require an attention to the well-being of everyone in the group.
The Future of Capitalism does call for a return to reciprocal obligations in order to heal our fragmented social identity. Collier marches us through his plan for scaffolding renewed obligations in three areas—the ethical family (intimacy), the ethical world (duties of rescue), and the ethical state and ethical firm (those all-important reciprocal obligations of community in between the family and the world). But in the process, he proposes a capitalism that’s actually rooted in old-fashioned patriarchal morality, not ethics.
Collier argues that the divide between the well educated and the less educated causes grievous harm to children and society, and should be healed through a return to the “ethical family” model of 1945, which was grounded on “the married couple forming the middle generation,” who “accepted mutual obligations” to both children and parents. After the sexual liberations of the 1960s, most educated households replaced “gender hierarchy and mutual obligations to other generations” with new values of “self-fulfilment” and “personal achievement.” Those in less educated households, still clinging to traditional norms, found themselves adrift as men lost breadwinner status after the decline in manufacturing jobs. In contrast to the stabilizing marriages of the educated, whose university attendance and cohabitation resulted in well-matched partners, the marriages of the less educated continued to implode in divorce, virtually guaranteeing their children would “end up in low-productivity jobs,” because divorced parents were “ill-equipped to raise them.” Though the paternalist state stepped in to protect children’s rights, these did not include “the right to be reared from birth to adulthood by the two parents from whom the child was genetically descended.”
A return to 1945’s nuclear family model won’t fix capitalism, though it might well perpetuate it in its current exploitative state, through the reproduction of future laborers.
To bring the 1945 version of the ethical family back, Collier advocates what he calls “social maternalism”: public policies to provide young parents with “money, relief and non-judgmental mentoring.” The government should reward biological parents for marrying by giving them financial compensation for their contribution to society, culled from the childless, who will later reap the benefits produced by those children, society’s future earners. Because people live longer, they can be put to use helping with grandchildren. “Fit,” “savvy,” and “financially comfortable” retirees can also serve as “unthreatening helpers” to unrelated young families, thereby filling up their own empty nests.
The ideological nostalgia in this allegedly pragmatic approach to restructuring the family is, of course, obvious. It also raises a question that remains unanswered: What about gender? Presumably, many men achieved professional self-fulfillment despite 1940s gender hierarchies, so Collier’s accusation seems leveled primarily at women, whose rejection of traditional roles selfishly left the children and elderly out to dry. Collier doesn’t clarify who ultimately will be responsible for all of the care provided in these ethical families. In order to prevent female oppression, he declares, we shouldn’t give up on marriage; we should “change its norms.” The book, however, lacks a practical explanation for what changes in marriage norms should look like.
More troubling still is Collier’s insistence that married heterosexuals are the only humans capable of successfully producing and raising children. He ignores queer families, adoptive families, and families who relied on reproductive technology. He does not acknowledge children who would be better off if their parents did not stay together—what are the social costs when a child’s parents continue in a cycle of domestic violence? What are the costs to the child of two teenagers who are forced to stay together based on the idea that the “damage done by a lack of paternal commitment is so large that it cannot be offset”?
Collier’s obstinate refusal to acknowledge any other familial configuration indicates a much larger problem with his book: morality is not the same as ethics, despite the way he uses the terms interchangeably. The capitalist society he envisions is not so much ethical as it is moral —rooted in personal values carried over from the 1940s. The cultural departure from these heterosexist, patriarchal values doesn’t explain current divergences between the well educated and the less educated, nor will a return to 1945’s nuclear family model fix capitalism, though it might well perpetuate it in its current exploitative state, through the reproduction of future laborers.
So much for the ethical family. What does Collier envision at the other end of his obligation spectrum, concerning our duties of rescue in an ethical world? He argues that our best chance at a truly “viable and inclusive identity,” and thus an ethical state and world, lies in a revised form of patriotism linked to “a sense of belonging to place.” He’s careful to distance his patriotism from the toxic forms of nationalism currently dominating politics and social media; while nationalists brag about “putting their country ‘first,’” Collier’s patriots seek “to build new reciprocal commitments” between countries in order to craft an ethical world.
He suggests “pragmatic” reciprocal commitments, contingent on place, to solve the refugee crisis. Countries that border the places people are fleeing should serve as “neighbouring havens” for refugees, because they’re “easy to reach and to return from,” as well as similar enough to the refugees’ own countries “to provide a familiar setting.” Affluent Western societies “have the international firms that can bring in jobs, and the money both to help refugee households in the transition to self-sufficiency and to compensate the host society.” Meanwhile, promising young people in the Global South should stay put, while internationally funded compensation encourages “ethical companies” to come to their societies and provide jobs.
Here again, practicality falls away, as Collier does not provide a detailed plan for international corporate ethics. What does it mean for a company to be ethical in a developing society? What might the pay scale for these created jobs look like? Without this elaboration, his strategy becomes yet another justification for the global outsourcing of labor, a practice riddled with unethical exploitations.
Throughout the book, Collier insists that the social divergences and accompanying anxieties he wants to fix are new, but the solutions he proposes explicitly return to the past: the period of 1945 to 1970, which represents simultaneously (1) the latest (only?) time when capitalism functioned properly to solidify mass prosperity, and (2) the proof he needs that capitalism works the way he claims it does. The book does not address the oxymoron at the conjunction of these two points. If capitalism only “worked” for the 25 years after the Second World War had encouraged global identification with others, does it enable mass prosperity when implemented “properly,” as Collier insists? Or was the brief period from 1945 to 1970 the real anomaly in a centuries-long history of capitalism working exactly as intended, for the benefit of an elite few?
What Collier’s book fatally ignores and Riley’s film insists on is the history of racial capitalism, and the ways in which our current economic arrangement both results from and reproduces that history. In 1983, Black radical intellectual Cedric Robinson declared that capitalist Western society and its ideology had been developed and organized along the same “racial directions” as feudalist societies. The traditional Marxist history of capitalism saw slave labor as “pre-capitalist”; Robinson, in contrast, insisted that “slavery was a critical foundation for capitalism,” and consequently, “the history of capitalism has in no way distinguished itself from earlier eras with respect to wars, material crises, and social conflicts.”2
Sorry to Bother You makes repeated references to historical records, underlining this continuity and giving the lie to Collier’s revisionist claims that the social anxieties we face at the beginning of 2019 are new. “One for the history books,” a supervisor declares when Cash makes a client “upwards of 10 million dollars” by selling human labor. Likewise, WorryFree’s marketing video promises that “equisapiens will make WorryFree the most profitable company in history,” and sure enough, when Cash announces on national television that WorryFree is “manipulating humanity for the sake of profit,” their stocks “skyrocket at a rate faster than any other company in history.” The history of capitalist profit is one of slavery, Riley reminds us, and present-day capitalism’s reliance on racial exploitation is a part of that history too.
Racism informed capitalism because racism was already a fundamental construct of the feudalist European societies from which capitalism emerged. Feudalist forms of European social organization leveraged racialism as Slavs, Jews, and other racialized subjects became the first proletariat. Robinson points out that from the beginning, European civilization was constructed on “antagonistic differences”: the bourgeoisie “were drawn from particular ethnic and cultural groups; the European proletariats and the mercenaries of the leading states from others; its peasants from still other cultures; and its slaves from entirely different worlds.”3
As early as the 16th century, Robinson observes, “the peoples of the Third World began to fill [the] expanding category” of the enslaved in a Western civilization reproduced by capitalism rather than reformed by it.4 During the Atlantic slave trade, the bodies of enslaved humans produced labor, but they also served as capital in and of themselves, and thereby as capitalism’s means of producing itself. The effects of coerced reproductive labor of enslaved African peoples on what Collier would call “ethical family” structures have been well documented by historians and sociologists. Riley’s film repeatedly exposes both the intertwined history of slavery and capitalism and capitalism’s total refusal of any ethical obligation to its laborers. Cash’s fiancé, Detroit (Tessa Thompson), chooses to represent the African continent in her art because she wants “to talk about a life shaped by exploitation,” and about how “capitalism basically started by stealing labor from Africans.”
The history of capitalist profit is one of slavery, Riley reminds us, and present-day capitalism’s reliance on racial exploitation is a part of that history too.
Collier’s narrative of an ethical world, state, and family, all made possible through a moral version of capitalism rooted in reciprocal obligations, omits this history entirely. He is not alone. Economic theorists often insist that economic coercion, which relies on workers’ need for wages in order to survive in a market economy, is very different from the extra-economic coercion of explicit force used in previous eras—slavery being part of that earlier system of force, and an anachronistic leftover when it (re)appears in our modern capitalist world.
Sorry to Bother You calls out this false dichotomy. Power Callers market WorryFree’s contract labor, in which workers themselves, like African people during capitalism’s slave-trade beginnings, serve as the only product. WorryFree guarantees workers lifelong housing, food, clothing, and employment, although they earn no wages and reside in factories modeled on the industrial prison complex. When protestors call WorryFree’s system “slave labor,” CEO Steve Lift explains, “Our workers do not sign contracts under threats of physical violence, so therefore the comparison to slavery is just ludicrous.” He serves up that old nugget of capitalist wisdom yet again: without physical force as the means of coercion, you can’t have slavery.
But WorryFree’s system of contract labor, which might at first glance look like a dystopian satire of the future of capitalism, is actually wage labor under real-life late capitalism, just defamiliarized. The working class of the West already works only for housing, food, and clothes: this is the definition of living paycheck to paycheck.
And just as real-life laborers accept exploitation because it’s the option they’ve got to support their families, the capitalist institutions depicted in the film exploit human desire for esteem and belonging to lull their workers into bovine complacency. “We’re a family now,” declares a RegalView manager. “I lean on you, you lean on me.” WorryFree even advertises contract labor as the responsible way to take care of your loved ones—the reciprocal obligations of Collier’s ethical family. One billboard depicts a Black man sitting on a couch with a cigarette in his mouth, 40-ouncer and remote in hand, advising, “Show the world that you are a responsible baby daddy. Sign your family up for WorryFree.” With this fleeting image, Riley deftly links together the history of slavery, “free market” wage labor, and the exploitation of human reproduction, all while exposing the ethical family as the ideological tool expertly wielded to bring all of these things together in service to capitalist production.
Six years after my ill-fated attempts at telesurveying and plasma donation, I moved to the Bay Area, PhD in hand, and became an academic adjunct. While the work I was doing had changed drastically, my place in the capitalist system hadn’t changed at all. I was still a generic body, used as needed by the corporatized universities keeping me in their adjunct pools to help churn a profit. They sold my labor to (student) consumers at an exorbitant markup, just as Biolife sold my plasma years before.
The real absurdity, then, resides not in Riley’s narrative of the factual exploitations that constitute capitalism’s past and present, but in any attempt to sanitize that history, pretending the words “ethical” and “capitalism” can be welded together to represent something other than an oxymoron. As Cash asks in Sorry to Bother You’s meta moment, “What the fuck isn’t slave labor?”
This article was commissioned by Destin Jenkins.