Labour power discourse in cinema

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By 2017-09-10

By Indeewara Thilakarathne

In this continuing series on the cinema, I would like to explore further how movies enforce certain regime of values by way of depicting labour power.

In an academic article titled 'fantasy in action', Paul Willemen observes this aspect in fantasy genre as, " In Paul Verhoeven's Robo Cop (1987), the Robo-body offers an electronically redesigned version of labour power, again imbricated in fantasies about the way social relations should be enforced. Here, labour power is not conjoined with the dead labour stored in machines: the machines are fused with the body to form a single unit capable of both massive quantities of labour power and equally massive information processing speeds.

Verhoeven's film is quite explicit in this respect: the story is presented as the drama of transition from 'old Detroit' (the rustbelt version of industrial capitalism) to a 'New Detroit' which is, in fact, Los Angeles merged with Silicon Valley. The film concerns itself with the kind of social authority and organisation that would have to accompany the rule of a triumphant transnational corporate capital anxious to control the flows of credit and to ensure the 'correct' distribution of surplus capital (financial power). What appears to be at issue in the deployment of Robo-body fantasies is the fact that, once industrial capital has succeeded in imposing its transnational control, another sector of the bourgeoisie appropriates and takes over the management of the resulting flows of super-profits: the financial bourgeoisie becomes dominant—hence the emphasis on the importance of instantaneous omnivorous information processing.

The Robo-body characterizes finance capital fantasies and can be said to constitute a figure in the way finance capital addresses industrial capital: in RoboCop, finance capital tells industrial capital how it must reformat social relations and systems of governance in order to ensure maximum profit-flows.

The story told by the different modalities of the inscription of physical energy and its relations to gadgetry and, later, to information processing, is a story of the way, in different places and at different times, capital dreams of ways of increasing profitability through the intensification of
the exploitation of labor power, and of the social risks attached to such a move. The story can be presented as a chronological sequence, except, of course, that the chronology relates to the (non-linear) development of the relative dominance, at any given time, of a particular sector of the

Bourgeoisie. First, there are the fantasies of the transformation of pre modern, mainly agricultural and artisanal capacities into industrial labour power, signaled by way of fantasies of muscular bodies disposing of enormous quantities of energy. Second, the corporate phase of capital
mobilizes large quantities of dead, stored labour to enhance productivity.

Third (to date), we get fantasies of re-engineered cyber-bodies capable of serving both as sources of energy and as enforcers of global discipline by virtue of the combination of bodies with gadgetry and information processing technology. These latter labour power fantasies need only
particular, specialized bits of bodies capable of being combined with the required mechanical and electronic technologies. The much vaunted flexible accumulation system that is supposed to have displaced, at least in capital's heartlands, Fordism production, yields a further variation on the Robo-body: the infinitely adaptable shape-shifter.

Part and parcel of those fantasies of capitalist development is their diagnosis of the impediments obstructing perpetual increases in profit. Robert Brenner has convincingly argued that the postwar, relentlessly deepening crises in capitalism are due primarily to a structural-historical
feature of the development of industrial capital. The organisation and building of large-scale industrial plants with huge amounts of expensive but not easily adaptable or movable machinery, condemned to remain in fixed locations, becomes a handicap for the older heartlands of capitalism when global markets are integrated into the system. The globalisation required by
capitalism also results in increased manufacturing competition from low wage regions. As a consequence, the massive investment represented by large industrial factories or industrial parks in the historically older (advanced, higher wage) capitalist areas turn into expensive, insufficiently mobile millstones around the bourgeoisie's neck. The need to deindustrialize,

difficult in practice because of the immense social costs and risks involved, is fantasized in the form of the orgies of capital value destruction in so-called action movies (but also in disaster movies, spy films, war films, post apocalypse science fiction films and so on).

In other words, movies do indeed talk to us of capitalism's fundamental systemic aspects: they do so in the form of fantasies of labour power and stored 'value,' and these are manifested

both by way of the fantasy scenarios represented and by way of the technological means deployed in the making of the films. The place where these fantasy discourses can be heard loudest, since the mid-1980s or so, is in the films marketed under the 'action' label. "
According to Paul Willemen in fantasy movies and movies under the 'action' label depict fantasies of labour power and stored values in the form of disaster movies, spy movies and post-apocalypse science fiction films.

Willemen further observes this aspect as, "In order to read the labour power discourse in movies, it is necessary to distinguish the different sets of relations that may be condensed in a number of different signifier-streams. The basic currents concern the paradigm of body-types (bulk or defined musculature), the relations between body-types and technological gadgetry (which itself comes in at least two modalities: mechanical and electronic gadgets), the subordination (or not) of a labour power unit to a social or managerial authority, the relation between (statically expended) energy and acrobatic athleticism, as also between different types of energy-signification such as extended straining or impact efficiency, and between energy expenditure and the destruction of congealed value. The latter comes in a number of different series of significations ranging from real estate to consumer durables depending on whether the fantasies emphasize accumulation-investment or consumption-sales. All these kinds of figurations, dispersed throughout texts—in plots, actors' bodies, set decoration, locations and so forth—constitute discursive currents conveying economic-social fantasies and propositions. "

What is interesting is that market values, depending on the market needs, are being depicted in all aspects of the movies such as in plots, actor's bodies, set decoration and locations.

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