Ken Loach's Sorry We Missed You: the gig economy as agony, not freedom
Monday, 26 August 2019 01:30

Ken Loach's Sorry We Missed You: the gig economy as agony, not freedom

Published in Films

From Cannes, Dennis Broe reviews Ken Loach’s latest film, about the slow breakdown of a family exposed to the 'freedom' of the gig economy

The first scene of Ken Loach’s new film Sorry We Missed You, which premiered at Cannes this week, is a masterful laying out of the job requirements by a burly foreman. That terminology has changed, however, and now he is simply an ever more impersonal “manager” (which makes him even more a bully) of a down-on-his-luck worker who has, like Richard Kimble in The Fugitive, toiled at many jobs.

The worker recites a litany of part-time work – hauler, builder, even gravedigger – that he has done in trying to stay afloat and the burly company front man assures him that his troubles are over. Now his hours are his, because he is a franchise owner of a delivery van, and the sky and his own ambition are the limit on the amount of money he can make.

The rest of the film is an exposure of this lie – of the desperate condition of a husband and wife and their son and daughter, caught in the agony of this new version of “freedom” which is in some ways much closer to a form of slavery. Ricky is forced to sell his wife Abby’s car to buy the delivery van and the required to work 14 hours a day 6 days a week to meet the company’s demands.

Drivers in the Amazon Warehouse

Just as with workers in the Amazon warehouses, Ricky is given a bottle to urinate in by a fellow driver and told that this is his most precious work tool, since he does not have time to stop for a bathroom break. Abby meanwhile, a care worker for the elderly, on a “zero-hour” contract which means she is only paid for the actual time, usually not enough to do the job, that she is allotted to the “client,” itself a term which attempts to distance her from the desperate aged people she is committed to helping.

All expenses and any damages for both workers are of course theirs to repay, and Ricky is told that his most valuable possession is the black box which orders him around and tracks his every movement. He becomes the servant of these algorithms which treat him not as a human being, but as a replaceable cog who does their bidding. As Shoshana Zuboff describes this condition in Surveillance Capitalism, he is caught in a digital profit system that “has no appetite for our grief, pain, or terror, although it eagerly leeches from our anguish”; a system that is “indifferent to our meanings and motives.”

This is a film by Loach and perennial screenwriter Paul Laverty on an extremely topical subject. A British court last year laughed Uber out of the courtroom when it tried to claim that it was not a company employing workers but rather simply a clearing house. The judge called out the digital charade, and told them they behaved exactly like owners but without having to pay any benefits. In the US on the other hand, a judge recently reaffirmed the position of a gig economy company as simply a clearing house, so the matter is extremely contentious at the moment.

Like Loach’s last film, the Cannes prizewinner Daniel Blake, the film is set in Newcastle, once the heart of the British industrial revolution, and the capital of coal, as signified in the British idiom about it being pointless to “carry coals to Newcastle.” But the Newcastle of the last two films by Loach and Laverty is a devastated place, left for dead in the Thatcher revolution which drained the area of its factories. But as one of Abby’s “clients” reveals, it was also one of the sites of a magnificent last-ditch effort in 1984 by the miners to keep their jobs.

Its a Free World

A recounting of Loach’s and Laverty’s films over the last more than 15 years at the height of neoliberalism displays this downward trend for the British, and indeed the Western, working class. 2002’s Bread and Roses detailed the ultimately winning efforts of Los Angeles, heavily-female, Latino janitors to organize and unionize. But the highly underrated and more relevant everyday It’s A Free World in 2007 instead presented the opposite scenario, as two working-class female “entrepreneurs” attempted to turn their back on any class solidarity, and instead become exploiters of itinerant African labour, only to fall victim themselves to exploitation from above.

In the world of Sorry We Missed You, the title itself is not just the note the driver leaves if he cannot make a delivery, but also, in the wider sense, a sign of workers passing in the night, trying to maintain a semblance of fellow feeling but driven to distraction as they attempt to merely survive. Abby is consoled by a woman at a bus station who offers her comfort that she barely has time to accept, and Ricky engages in good-natured banter with his working-class customers, but the exchange is always short-lived, cut-off by the pressure to get onto the next delivery.

Latina Janitors on Strike in Bread and Roses

Like the Latina women of Bread and Roses who clean downtown LA business offices at night, Ricky and his ilk, the other drivers, are supposed to be invisible automatons who simply carry out the imperatives of the new digital economy, while actually being crucial to it. Shooting the film from their perspective therefore becomes a scintillating act that calls the nature of this economy into question.

The film is also clear about the other problem, besides precarity, pressure at work and low wages that plagues these workers, and that is the increasing price of housing. Ricky and Abby nearly had enough money to buy a house in 2008, but then had their loan squashed in the market crash. The hope of buying a home is what drives Ricky to the delivery job. It is this pressure and the inability to own a home that makes workers susceptible to the growing exploitation of the gig economy. Loach often uses a fade to black to end his scenes and in the latest film the black or bleak lasts longer before the next scene begins – a sign of the deepening loss of agency and even hope in his protagonists.

The casting adds an autobiographical and real element to the film’s texture. Kris Hitchen, the poor man’s Damian Lewis (who is squandering his talent on 1% drivel like the TV series Billions, sometimes referred to as ‘wealth porn”) described himself at the press conference after the film as a part-time electrician, part-time actor and thus himself susceptible to precarity in two professions. He comes from Manchester, not Newcastle, and the rivalry between the two cities in soccer figures in a lively debate between Ricky and a customer. Debbie Honeywood, Abby, worked in education for 20 years, itself a caregiving profession that is also being stretched to the limits.

Loach Laverty and cast at the Cannes Press Conference

Loach and Laverty were lively and engaged at the press conference for the film, which took place in what for Loach is the very friendly confines of Cannes, where he is the director with the most appearances in the competition. A Reuters reporter, echoing the neoliberal mainstream media soundbite, asked what are we to do in this time where the centre has broken down and there is only the radical right and the radical left. Loach responded by asking who in the room was part of the “radical left.” No one raised their hand and the question was a clever way of calling attention to the fact that anyone outside the new business ethos is labelled “radical.”

The term is also a way of tarring those who want progressive social change by grouping them with the immigrant-hating, actually pro-business nationalists of Nigel Farage and Marine Le Pen. Laverty pointed out that with the growing disparity in income between the wealthiest 1 percent (or fraction of a percent) and everyone else has come an overall decline in life expectancy in many of the Western countries ,and in the US for the first time in almost a century.

Loach pointed to the British Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn as a potential hope, citing the fact that the ever-growing membership made it the second largest party in Europe but also cautioning the audience that if they opposed the contemporary corporate “consensus” they will be attacked in ways that often have nothing to do with the argument, since the argument for equality is irrefutable.

To return to the film, one of the most impressive aspects of Loach and Laverty’s films is the way they avoid the standard melodramatic turn. Thus, Ricky announces in the opening interview that he has a 100 percent safe driving record and so we wait for the inevitable car crash to come. Except it doesn’t. There is instead a moment where he is so exhausted from driving that he nods off but the truck glides to the side of the road.

loach

Instead, what we witness at the end is the increasing tension in his face and sheer exhaustion from he and Abby trying to support a family which is constantly threatening to come apart, because of their inability to be around to raise their kids. It is not the melodramatic turn of the horrible and disfiguring accident that marks Ricky’s slide into oblivion. It is the slow and increasing tension and weight of the everyday struggle within this supposedly free economy that is the ultimate and most often silent tragedy that these left-behind workers face. Death, and the death of the soul, comes not suddenly and dramatically in Loach’s film but just as inevitably by a thousand cuts every day.

 

 

Let's think about bread: the internet moves from community forum to shopping mall
Monday, 26 August 2019 01:30

Let's think about bread: the internet moves from community forum to shopping mall

Dennis Broe compares the current attempts to overrule the principle of net neutrality with 18C French economists' rejection of bread price controls.

The U.S. regulatory body the Federal Communications Commission is set to overrule the principle of net neutrality where all speed on the internet is roughly equal and instead allow internet carriers and providers to themselves regulate speeds and charge more for what is now an internet right. This provision is happening at the same time as the Justice Department debates allowing a merger between one of the main content providers, Time Warner, and one of the major broadband companies providing access to the American home, AT&T. Trump's Justice Department is so far blocking the merger but this may amount to only a minor roadblock with Time Warner being forced to divest CNN as a penalty for that company’s attacks on Trump, since to attack him is a ratings booster.

DB netflix graph

Overthrowing net neutrality and a new wave of media mergers are related. If the FCC ruling passes, content producers will seek alliances with internet providers so that their own services are not overpriced by this new unregulated “freedom” to slow speeds and then charge for what is now the internet standard. This is a massive merger since AT&T already owns DirecTV which reaches over one-third of American homes. The ruling will most likely further other mergers of this kind with, in the Serial TV arena, Amazon, Netflix and Hulu then needing to find internet providers to team with. These providers then may also exert direct or indirect pressure on their content and the mergers will also most likely result in increased monthly charges as well as a narrowing and stabilizing of the field to its current heavy-hitter participants. Television watching on the internet would then move closer to the high prices of cable which drove viewers to these content providers in the first place and content may become more stabilized so that the new services start to look more like the old television networks.   

DB not broken

What will the internet itself look like if this ruling goes through? The New York Times claims it will look more like a mall and less like a community forum, though perhaps the more accurate assessment is that the internet already looks like a mall and with this ruling the last traces of the old idea of the internet as a community forum will be erased. It is possible to effectively block content by simply slowing down access to it since a Microsoft study shows that the average internet user’s attention span is 8 seconds between clicks. Longer than that and the content will often be abandoned, not to mention that the practice of training this short attention span means users are being conditioned to pay more not to have their attention interrupted. 

The overthrow of an internet open to all is being rationalized in the usual neoliberal way by claiming regulation is bad and evil, though the government is not really regulating, it is simply keeping an open internet and it may be much more involved in regulation under the new rules which pit everyone against everyone else. Net neutrality, the design of the internet since its inception, is now being branded “government micromanaging of your personal freedom.” The Republican head of the FCC promoting the end of net neutrality, Ajit Pai, says that competition, which is claimed as the only real way to lower prices, is being stifled by the government’s heavy hand. Of course this “let a thousand flowers bloom” approach is somewhat tempered by the fact that Pai himself worked at Verizon, one of not the thousand, but the three or four flowers, along with Comcast, Charter and AT&T, which will assuredly bloom in this new climate.

What I like to point out is that these arguments were rehearsed three centuries ago in the 18th Century France of Louis the 15th and are detailed in a book by Stephen L. Kaplan called Raisonner Sur Les Bles - that is, “Let’s think about wheat.” The title comes from Voltaire who said that while it is nice to discuss and discourse about poetry, tragedy, comedy, operas, novels, morality and theological disputes, it is in the end necessary to think about wheat, the lifegiving staple of the majority of the people in Louis’s time who lived on French bread.

The book details how many of the Enlightenment thinkers, the physiocrats, who in the 1740s and 1750s turned toward economics, claimed that liberty was the prime value in the society, and for them liberty was tied to property. They said the hidden hand of the free market which encouraged unbridled competition and which was opposed to the heavy hand of the government would triumph in all areas. The liberty of property owners to engage in free market competition was a natural law that was above the law of the state and consequently the king and the state should get out of the business of acting as a safety net to keep people from starving and should instead become a king entrepreneur, or player, in promoting the free market which would lead to lower prices through competition and increased wealth and abundance for all. France, instead of keeping wheat at home, would export it, establishing its global market dominance which at that point belonged to Spain and the Netherlands, and which would add to the prosperity of the entire country.

Growth then supplants security as there is then so much abundance for all that there is no need of the state providing a safety net, just as encouraging competition on the internet will supposedly lower prices for everyone. The abbés, the managers of church landowning property, defended this policy which benefited the largest landowners and growers of wheat, and claimed that needs were not rights, that the liberty granted by the right to own property superseded the people’s need to eat. And that feeding people in times of bad harvests or regulating the price of their staple product so they could afford daily bread meant property owners' rights were subordinate to people’s needs.

In the end, they maintained, as does the current Republican tax bill, what was good for the leading classes was what was good for France. One physiocrat, Lemarcier, whose wealth came from being a slave owner on French plantations, argued that no particular class should be favoured, meaning that the small landowning class should have equal rights and consideration with the vast majority of the poor. The minister Turgot claimed the poor peasant was indifferent to life and more interested in the price of a cow then in their own wife and son, neglecting to point out that the cow might well be the only thing that stood in the way of starvation for the peasant, his wife and his son.

DB 6 bread riots

The policies were an utter disaster, as no doubt net reform will be, prompting riots both in the cities and the countryside and reducing the poorest peasants to begging, unemployment, and criminality, culminating in a slaughter of rioters in 1770 at the supposedly joyful celebration of the marriage of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, who later was in favour of letting her countrymen eat cake but here opposed them eating bread. The response of the physiocrats was that these “reforms,” - as the overthrowing of net neutrality is also being described - failed not because they resulted in hoarding to raise prices, in monopoly price fixing, and in the export of wheat which deprived locals of the crop they helped grow, but because they did not go far enough and were ill administered, that the state was to blame not the free market doctrine. And of course that will be the response when prices start skyrocketing with the net neutrality “reform.”

DB 5 marie antionette

The last word though in both debates belongs to two actually enlightened members of the Enlightenment. Denis Diderot, the publisher of the encyclopedia, was the first in this circle to recognize the people’s right to existence, the real breakthrough in the Enlightenment. Diderot repudiated the physiocrats’ idea that their economic laws substituted abstract principles for any consideration of what the results of the imposition of these principles looked like. It was the Swiss Banker Jacques Necker though who finally took the people’s own thought seriously, countering Turgot by arguing that the people see wheat as a sacred right delivered from nature, akin to the air they breathe. In the symbolic economy, free access to the internet is equally that kind of sacred right.

Finally, Necker said, these claims to the divine right of free competition organized around who controls the market and the grain supply, as the new internet pricing will be organized by those who control access to the American home, were nothing more than the momentary conquest of one class of society of the future of another. That is, under the principle of property, justice and liberty, there is nothing left for the most numerous class of citizens. Necker knew a thing or two, not only about French bread, but also about where the overthrowing of net neutrality will lead.