“By introducing properly prepared mascons to the brain, one can mask any object in the outside world behind a fictitious image—superimposed—and with such dexterity, that the psychemasconated subject cannot tell which of his perceptions have been altered, and which have not. If but for a single instant you could see this world of ours the way it really is—undoctored, unadulterated, uncensored—you would drop in your tracks!”
This is a passage from an extraordinary book I read as a teenager called The Futurological Congress. I have since been haunted by the image it portrays of a world in which people have the impression that they are blissfully happy and have all the comforts of life, delicious food, comfortable homes, beautiful clothes. But the reality – which the hero is able to see after taking a dose of up’n’at’m, the antidote to mascon – is that they are dressed in rags, eating gruel from troughs and clambering up empty lift shafts (the hero always wondered why people were so out of breath when they came out of the lift…).
Tonight I saw a film called ‘Machines’ by Rahul Jain. It is the cinematic equivalent of up’n’at’m. It is not the first film to strip away the illusion of the seductive images of life that advertising constantly sleets into our consciousness, to reveal the mind-numbing drudgery, brutality and ugliness of cheap labour production. But it is one of the most powerful I have seen.
It absolutely made me drop in my tracks.
The only music is the ceaseless thrumming of the machines (the mechanical ones). Human “machines” silently tend the mechanical ones – stoking their fiery throats, oiling their antediluvian limbs, feeding endless rivers of pure white or brightly coloured fabric through their roaring rollers, heaving vats of the dark and poisonous dye or the giant bales of intricately patterned voille that it miraculously transforms into. (One of the most striking things about Jain’s film is how beautiful he makes the ugliness of industrial dirt and poverty.)
The only voice is when – very occasionally – the workers speak. Several – with quiet resignation – speak of their 12 hour shifts and their inability to educate their children on their pitiful pay. One (literally looking over his shoulder) about the fear of unionising, another of the futility of attempting to do so.
A young boy – of roughly GCSE age – describes how every day when he arrives at the factory gates his gut tells him to turn round and run away… but he has no choice but to go in to start his 12 hour shift. (Later, we see another boy his age repeatedly nodding off and almost toppling into the machine he is monotonously tending.) He has swallowed the line he’s been fed that by starting young he’ll learn valuable skills. But the adults reveal that this is no life to aspire to. It is a life that they have no choice but to accept due to their poverty.
Another worker says that all he knows is his room and the area of the factory where he works solidly from the time he wakes to the time he sleeps – he has never set eyes on the factory owner, has no idea who he is or what he looks like.
The next image is of said factory owner, predictably plump and well-to-do, who seems to know the workers a lot better than they know him. He explains the importance of keeping the workers a little hungry because if they get too comfortable they will tell the company to “fuck off”. He also explains that 50% of the workers do not care about their families and if he paid them more they would just spend it on alcohol and tobacco.
One man denies that this is exploitation, because he has chosen – even got into debt – to come from hundreds of miles away to work here. And is grateful for it. “Poverty is harassment.” he explains. And adds, with the universal fatalism of the poor the world over, “There is no cure.”
But he is wrong. There is a cure.
The cure is workers uniting and demanding their internationally agreed rights (even the suitably villainous looking contractor knows that it is the disunity of the workers – migrants from other impoverished parts of India – that makes them vulnerable).
The cure is the government enforcing its laws on child labour, health and safety, working hours and minimum pay.
The cure is us – you – the consumer making it known loud and clear that yes we are always happy to find a bargain, but not at the cost of turning men into machines.
Jain (unseen and unheard by us) is confronted by the workers at one point. Because we dont see him, they are, in effect, confronting us. They accuse him (us) of being just like all the others – like the politicians coming and hearing their tragic story and then going away and doing nothing about it. “Help us get 8 hour shifts instead of 12,” he says. “Tell us what to do and we’ll do it – won’t we, brothers?” His co-workers punch the air and shout their assent.
They are the cure.
Assuming they are not sacked for unionising (there are plenty more poor to take their place), and their fledgling leader doesn’t mysteriously disappear…
Jain does his bit to support them by showing us his film. Now what can we do to support them?