“Sorry To Bother You” and the Rationality of Evil

What free market logic can turn us into…

Boots Riley’s new film Sorry to Bother You is, as critics have pointed out, bizarre and brilliant, and every freedom-loving human being owes it to themselves to see it. It teaches you more about the importance of labor unions and class solidarity (and the nature of racial hierarchy) than you could learn from years of watching the news. (Which is sad, really.) But in addition to everything important it has to say about race and workplace politics, the film illustrates a useful point about economics, rationality, and monstrous evil. [Warning: A big bad batch of spoilers immediately follows. Do not read on if you have not seen Sorry to Bother You, because you will ruin the experience of watching Sorry to Bother You.]

Here’s the plot in a sentence: Cassius “Cash” Green takes a job as a telemarketer at a dubious and exploitative company, steadily moves up the corporate ranks after discovering how to use his “white voice,” betrays his radical activist girlfriend by joining the corporate class, finds out that the company’s actual purpose is to sell slave labor, experiences moral conflict, then finds out that the company is experimenting turning people into horses in order to maximize their physical productivity, then breaks free and participates in an uprising. I am leaving a lot out. 

I want to focus here on the film’s central villain, the WorryFree company and its CEO, Steve Lift. WorryFree’s business model is as follows: It offers people “free” housing, food, and healthcare, in exchange for their signing a lifetime indentured labor contract. It promotes its “service” this way: Sign up for WorryFree and you’ll never need to think about money again. You’ll be fed, clothed, housed, and taken care of. All you need to do is agree to work. And you would have had to work anyway. WorryFree will give you guaranteed employment, comfort, and leisure time, for the rest of your life. You’ll never have another financial worry as long as you live.

If we just describe WorryFree as “indentured servitude,” it sounds implausible. Why on earth would anybody sign up for that? Riley’s dystopia seems ridiculous. But Riley’s film takes place in economically desperate times. Inequality has worsened, and many people are struggling with debt. If WorryFree promised to wipe people’s debt away, to make sure they would never again lack the necessities, its offer would sound tempting to people whose lives are defined by financial hardship. What if the company promised an 8-hour workday and a 40-hour week? What if its living standards were higher than than those you had now, or ever thought you could hope to have? The vast majority of people might still decline the offer. But the company only needs a small percentage of people to say yes. (In the film, Cash’s uncle considers signing up when he realizes he is about to lose his house to the bank.)

I actually think a weakness of Sorry to Bother You is that it portrays WorryFree as obviously horrible. In television commercials for the company, the workers feign happiness, but the conditions are clearly grim: They all wear uniforms, they sleep in bunk beds, they eat slop. If this kind of company did exist, it would be far cleverer in its lies: It would make WorryFree look like a true paradise, a “gated community” rather than a concentration camp. You would look at the commercials and think “Gee, that actually doesn’t seem so bad.” Riley is probably trying to show us the way that clearly horrific things can be treated as perfectly normal. But I think it’s also valuable to show that clearly horrific things can easily be made to seem reasonable, even by our current standards.

Slavery and indentured servitude have existed throughout human history, and still occur around the world today. Consider this report from 2013 on the conditions of migrant workers in Dubai:

Workers are hired from local recruitment agencies in their home countries working on behalf of UAE based businesses. Generally, workers are charged a fee by their prospective employer (normally over $1000 U.S.) to procure their visa and plane ticket to the UAE… When workers arrive in Dubai, they are systematically subjected to exploitation by their employers. Upon arrival passports are confiscated in an attempt to prevent employees from leaving. The workers cannot leave the country without a passport, and thus are barred from returning home… Additionally, migrant workers are denied their wages for at least the first few months, in an attempt by the employer to prevent their employees from leaving. Large amounts of employers do not pay their workers on a regular basis, creating a huge backlog of debt for the migrant workers… Laborers are forced to work long hours in the dangerous desert heat on construction projects, and are not given sufficient breaks as required by law… Workers describe the large number of deaths from heat exhaustion, overwork and suicide… Workers live in company-run shanty towns and face a life of squalor…For the vast majority of migrants these slums are their only option for housing, and neither the 14-hour workdays nor the miserable quarters they return to offer any reprieve. Workers have very few options to leave these situations.

Not only, then, is the WorryFree business model not a fantasy, but it’s actually not nearly as bad as things that actually literally exist in the world today. The only reason WorryFree looks “dystopian” is that it’s Americans signing up to live in company towns and be permanently ruled over by employers, rather than poor migrant laborers from Bangladesh and Indonesia.

I suspect that the aspect of WorryFree that seems most implausible is the “lifetime” part of the agreement. Sure, we may concede, there is nothing in a free-market, freedom-of-contract society that prohibits people from signing up to work on a corporate campus where everything is ruled by the company and labor is exchanged for room and board rather than money. And with Facebook planning to build a private city ruled over by Mark Zuckerberg, it’s not crazy to think such a thing might actually happen. If Facebook told people they could live in a cushy Facebook apartment for free, and eat in any of Zucktown’s high-quality bistros for free, in exchange for spending 8 hours a day moderating comment sections (and, of course, surrendering all of one’s ordinary rights and being ruled over by an undemocratic private government that has no obligation to respect one’s free speech or personal privacy), would people not take the offer? It’s startling to realize just how easy it is, in a time of concentrated economic power, to get people to turn over their rights in exchange for comfort and security.

But even having conceded that cities run as corporate dictatorships are perfectly possible and legal, would “lifetime” labor happen? After all, if people didn’t like the bargain, they could just leave. We can imagine Facebook and Amazon’s spokespeople defending their company towns exactly like this: Sure, we may prohibit our residents from expressing political opinions, and sure they may not be allowed to vote on town policies (which are entirely set by the CEO), and sure we surveil them and kick them out of their housing if they criticize our company, and sure we pay them “in kind” rather than with money, BUT they could leave anytime they liked. Nobody has to live here, everyone is doing so by their own free will.

Now, I want to point out that nobody should accept justifications like this. People shouldn’t have to sacrifice their rights in exchange for material security, rights should be inalienable. “Would you prefer destitution and liberty or prosperity and dictatorship?” is a false choice, and we must demand both. Companies should be democratically-run, and it can be just as objectionable when corporations stifle their employees’ basic free speech rights as it is when governments do it.

But also: The idea of forced labor that you can’t walk away from isn’t as far-fetched as you think. First, technically we do still have it in this country, since involuntary servitude can still be imposed as a penalty for a crime, and here in Louisiana people routinely get put to work as part of their sentence. Considering how easy it is to make something into a crime, and the fact that states can farm out inmate labor to private corporations, it’s not impossible to produce involuntary corporate servitude even under our present legal regime. However, it would be quite simple to go full “WorryFree.” You just need to be committed enough to “freedom of contract.” Already, courts have a pretty expansive view of what you can “contract away”: You can sign away your right to take your employer to court if they wrong you, and your right to leave and work for a competitor. A truly committed advocate of free contracts can argue that indenture contracts should be no different: If you sign the contract, it’s a contract, period. Why shouldn’t people be allowed to create voluntary agreements with employers signing their freedom away, considering that they can sign away everything else? Why should the state interfere with that right? One of the things I find so frightening about free-market absolutists is that because they do seem to believe that contracts are “sacred,” there’s almost no limit to what can be squeezed out of people if you get them to sign on the dotted line. You might say “Well, a person should never be able to agree that the company can keep them locked inside.” But one could insist that you are simply imposing your own values on people’s freely-made choices. A person can agree to engage in BDSM activities in which they are kept bound and chained, why should employment be different? Unless you are leftist who understands how economic forces are coercive, it’s easy to see how a judge could decide that these situations aren’t different. (One libertarian answer to this is that indenture contracts are impermissible because you can’t “alienate your will” and a contract can always be broken. But even if some pathetic outer limit is placed on the range of possible contractual agreements, it’s possible to construct a contract in which the penalties for breaching the contract are so harsh that leaving isn’t realistic. Suppose the Dubai workers were told that if they left, they would have to pay their own transport back home, and would have to reimburse the company for the transport there.)

Alright, but what about the horse-people? WorryFree CEO Steve Lift, a prototypical Silicon Valley tech bro, is secretly trying to turn workers into horse-human hybrids (“equestri-sapiens”) so that they will increase their productivity. Even “freedom of contract” types might recoil at this plan, though I might ask: If the workers agreed that part of joining WorryFree meant being subjected to human experiments, and signed a waiver saying they consented to whatever the company decided to do to them, I can already picture Justice Kavanaugh’s 5-4 opinion explaining that the risk of being transformed into a horse-person was implicitly assumed by the worker who signed the contract.

But I want to dwell here on Steve Lift himself. When Cash meets Lift, and uncovers the horse-person scheme, he goes apoplectic. He realizes Lift is a maniac. (In addition to being a massive racist.) But Lift’s response is interesting: “I’m not evil,” he says. “I don’t want you to think I’m irrational. I’m helping the economy.” (I am paraphrasing.) Lift says he is increasing worker productivity. He’s innovating new technology, and using it to increase output. Everybody is benefiting from the economic growth he brings. (And sure enough, when Cash exposes the scheme, the news media hails Lift as a brilliant entrepreneur.) The worst aspect of this is: Lift isn’t wrong, and this should show us why “economic rationality” is a terrible substitute for moral judgment.

WorryFree CEO Steve Lift, played by Armie Hammer.

Economically, WorryFree is extremely efficient: Workers get their material needs taken care of, and the company gets guaranteed labor, which it can farm out to other corporations around the globe who need work done cheaply. Turning people into horses, “voluntarily,” might be an excellent way to improve their output. I bet GDP is going through the roof! Lift truly doesn’t think he’s evil, though. Because he substitutes an economic value system for a moral one, he thinks that anything that increases efficiency is desirable and probably honestly thinks he’s serving humanity.

An important lesson here is this: It’s very easy to come up with a justification for anything if you aren’t committed to humane values. “I’m creating jobs for desperate people, increasing production, raising the standard of living, and innovating new technologies” could mean something humane, or it could mean something horrific. Anyone who uses it as a justification han’t actually justified anything, because the important questions are: Jobs doing what? Technologies for what?

What struck me about the “Steve Lift” character was just how real he seemed. His reasoning was virtually indistinguishable from that of CEOs who actually exist already. Now you might think I’m being hyperbolic or paranoid. He’s making horse-people, after all. But let me give you a quote from Bryan Goldberg, an actually-existing media company CEO who just bought Gawker. Goldberg is talking about homelessness:

Goldberg is talking about literally setting up concentration camps for poor people, rounding them up (“mandatory relocation”) and placing them in government facilities in far-flung rural areas. And not only does he think this is reasonable, he thinks that it’s the “only” way to address homelessness, a fact which will become more obvious as inequality worsens (“the problem gets more serious”) and the “solutions” become more radical. (Until, one supposes, someone comes up with a kind of “final” solution.)

Here you have the owner of Gawker openly saying that concentration camps are necessary, and that literally nothing else makes sense. It’s the most horrifying imaginable position. And yet note: Goldberg believes it’s the product of a “rational” approach to the problem. This shows just how catastrophic the results of mere “rationality” can be. If you see yourself making logical inferences based on certain premises, you can come to utterly inhumane conclusions and think they’re the product of “reason.” Rationality is useful, but it must be coupled with humane values. Otherwise, you can accept premises that lead to terrible conclusions, and when people tell you you’re a monster, you will just conclude that they must prefer “feelings” over “facts.” Economic efficiency is good, and we should deploy our resources efficiently in addressing homelessness. It is more cost-effective to house homeless people in rural areas rather than in cities, where land and labor is expensive. Therefore we should house homeless people in rural areas. But the homeless people will not want to go to the rural areas, even though it is in their best interest. Therefore we must relocate them by force, in order to serve both their best interest and economic efficiency. Everyone wins from this arrangement, even if the “optics” are bad.

A perfect chain of “rational” inference. A perfect recipe for misery and evil. And this is the sort of world we will get if we allow power to concentrate in the hands of the “rational” free market CEOs. (Goldberg also thinks, of course, that anyone who criticizes capitalism must not have heard of a little place called Venezuela.Sorry to Bother You is brilliant and spooky, in part because the world it depicts is far, far more possible than we’d like to think.

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