After the Fall
For the latest episode of the Spaghetti For Brains podcast, Norm and I watched Joel Schumacher’s 1993 film Falling Down, starring Michael Douglas as a guy who loses his shit because the world is bad. It's a good film on its own terms, but it really takes on an added dimension when viewed with the benefit of hindsight.
Norm and I talk about how the character's struggle against what he perceives as attacks on the American way of life really amount to a totally misdirected anger stemming from the twilight of a global empire collapsing into itself. The film has a lot to tell us about the AIDS crisis and the sliding scale of value applied to American lives—all the more timely when we’re living through a pandemic that is anything but the great equaliser some people claim it is. Falling Down captures the explosive mood of the time and place it was made, and should be viewed against its historical backdrop: the savage police beating of Rodney King and the cops’ subsequent acquittal that led to the LA riots; Joe Biden’s ‘94 Crime Bill that exploited a racialised perception (and an incorrect one) that crime in America was at an all-time high; and the emotional fallout from the insupportable belief that American capitalism could provide a generalised prosperity.
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One aspect of the film I wanted to talk about on the pod but couldn't because of time restraints was—work. Being a worker. What jobs are and what they mean. The world that Falling Down depicts was a transitional moment in labour history: with the election of Bill Clinton and his cabal of “New Democrats” who openly embraced the interests of capital, the party moved away from what they described as “special interests” (labour, minorities, women, LGBTQ) and began focussing on winning over white middle class so-called swing voters. Since then, there has been no party in US politics that even notionally represents the interests of workers.
The result of this realignment has been a revaluation and redefinition of what work is—and what a worker is. After three decades of eroding rights and protections in the workplace, jobs are just some terrible shit that you have to do for most of your week in order to survive, often on your own steam, maybe through an app, without even the thinnest, most basic statutory employment rights. For the working class, ever was it thus (minus the app); but when capital’s conquest of organised labour washed away the hopes of rebuilding an economy in the image of actual human life (think of 2008, or the looming recession fomenting before Covid hit), a whole generation who expected to enter the middle class have twirled down the plughole too.
Getting a job has almost nothing to do with your skill set, seeing as so many jobs (and workers) are totally de-skilled anyway. Every ad for a minimum wage zero hours retail job has 200 applicants, half of whom have masters degrees. What you do often has nothing to do with who you are or what you’re good at. In fact, being good at something and having a job doing it, for decades even, is no safeguard against the downward trajectory of work and workers everywhere. The antihero of Falling Down captures the rage of this kind of worker who once genuinely believed in the promise of prosperity, the merit of work for its own sake and the civic virtue of a job well done.
No one gives a fuck about their job anymore. You're not even expected to, despite the customary charade of your “passion” for service. (There’s no “passion” in customer service, unless we're talking about the variety of “passion” one might associate with the crucifixion.) In a labour market glutted with workers all desperate to balance the urgent need for subsistence with activity that actually gives life meaning, your employer cares about you only inasmuch as you fill the role. If you can’t or won’t, there are a thousand desperate schmucks ready to take your place.
So you learn to contort yourself into the shape of that role for so many hours a week. Even if your job is important, it probably isn’t important to you. Take it from a “key worker”. If your boss is happy for things to run like shit and then deploy half-witted HR or PR to patch it over, what can you actually hope to achieve by caring, besides heartbreak and frustration at your own powerlessness? There’s little incentive to actually give a shit—on the contrary, there's every reason to shrug and say NMFP. It’s evident everywhere.
Last week, the inquiry into the Grenfell tragedy unearthed text messages between employees at Kingspan, the company responsible for fabricating some of the combustible material that led to the fire, chatting about how claims that the product was safe were ‘all lies’. They joked that the material was ‘a shit product’ and needed to be scrapped. Regarding the smooth bullshit that got the product past safety tests (probably conducted by another group of people who don't really give a shit about their jobs), one employee literally said: ‘LOL’.
Of course it’s monstrous in retrospect because Grenfell burned and people died and they died because they were poor and nobody gives a shit about poor people. But that’s just my point. What Marx described as the alienation of the workers from the products of their labour leads to a fatal disconnect between work and society at large. It’s a rare privilege to like your job. It’s even rarer to see the social impact of your work unless you have an unusually good job that actually means something to you, where you get paid properly and feel valued, where what you say or do is evidently consequential. Who has a job like that? No one I know. Another report emerged last week of workers at the UK's largest phone operator EE being made to do squats and bark like dogs when their performance was under target. Neither bit of news surprises me.
The epoch depicted in Falling Down produced our own epoch. Michael Douglas’s character finds himself at the end of the film facing down the barrel of a policeman’s gun. The world that moulded him in its image passed away before he did, so his life was living death anyway. Rather than accept arrest for his spree of “principled” violence, he chooses real death. There are currently an estimated 1.7 million people unemployed in the UK, with a record high number of redundancies in the period since October this year. Hospitality has been the hardest hit, an industry employing some of the lowest paid and most precarious workers in the country. Ask yourself—Who has something to lose? If it’s not you, then where does this dispossession lead to?
It doesn’t have to be this way. There's work to be done if we’re going to survive what follows Covid, what follows Brexit, and what follows decades of attacks on workers if we’re going to build a world that doesn’t create climate havoc, endangering our very existence on the planet. This kind of work requires more from us than uniform hours of meaningless drudgery. We need every bit of brain and muscle and heart that we can muster if we’re going to survive. We need to make a choice between this living death, this fatal indifference—or getting organised, starting with the workplace. Can we do it?