Boots Riley's Sorry to Bother You is the most important work of American Marxist cinema since Alex Rivera's Sleep Dealer. The films have much in common. In Sleep Dealer, Mexican workers en-soul machines in the US, and this en-soulment resolves one of the GOP's defining issues: undocumented labor. The labor market needs it, but the party's white base hates any color that is not like its own. With en-soulment, brown Americans still supply their labor to the US economy but without the physical presence of their brown bodies. They enter a factory in a Mexican city, plug their bodies into the global labor network, and remotely operate machines in the US. Though the work is immaterial, it's still exhausting and extracts, digitally, surplus labor. The insight: Technological progress has not freed labor from exploitation, but intensified it.
This insight is also at the heart of Sorry to Bother You. The film's marketing has focused on the story of a black man, Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield), who rises to the top of a telemarketing company because he can, magically, speak exactly like a white person. This is a gag (SPOILER ALERT) that goes nowhere. Once you have heard about it, you have seen the beginning and end of it—which is why its importance to the story (as opposed to the plot—story and plot are not the same thing) is not even secondary, but tertiary. The primary story concerns WorryFree, a corporation that, like Uber, claims to be reinventing work (it's now worry free, for the former; you choose your own hours, with the latter), but is in fact extracting almost absolute surplus labor from workers. (Surplus labor is, simply, the time of the day when you are working not for your wage but for the profit your boss hopes to make—and so, the lower the wage, the better are the chances of the invested money making more money in the market.)
But this post is not about the primary level of Sorry to Bother You, but the secondary, which concerns the deep structure and nature of private property. What few understand is that from the very beginning, private property has not been about things you need (they have a limit) but about luxuries (things that are limitless).
Let's examine the hero of Sorry to Bother You. He is broke, he desperately needs a job, but he lives in luxury—a garage attached to a house owned by his uncle (Terry Crews). He also drives what Southern Africans onomatopoeically refer to as a skorokoro (a really, really, really beat-up car). But it is nevertheless a car, a supreme luxury. Here is the interesting thing, however, and what exposes the essence of private property: These luxuries are not functioning as such (expressions of excess), but as what the founding father of economics, Adam Smith, called the necessaries. Many might say that this indicates how wealthy the society is. In dirt-poor societies, the necessaries are met directly: a hut, a cave, a tree. But in a materially advanced ones, it is a garage or a skorokoro or camping equipment or RVs.
But here we are much mistaken because the institution of private property itself has, from its beginning, never been about the necessaries of life, but about the accumulation of more and more of what it is: property. Meaning, by the time a society has formalized private ownership, luxury—not the necessaries—is the foundation of its system, structures, and relationships.
To make my meaning clearer, I must turn to two great thinkers, Bessie Head and Noam Yuran. The ideas of the latter have been buzzing around my head lately. His reading of Thorstein Veblen in the wonderfully messy book, What Money Wants: An Economy of Desire, is the cookie. He writes that, according to the American 19th century critic of conspicuous consumption, Veblen, private property, from its inception, "is not about the needs of an individual but rather... is something directed at the gaze of others."
According to Veblen this motive of ownership is not limited to its speculative historical origin but retains its primacy in every historical stage. Emulation and invidious distinction continue to be active forces in the development of the institution of ownership. Of course, one may ask how this view can be reconciled with modern societies where sustenance and consumption seem to occupy a vast portion of economic activity. The following is one of Veblen’s most radical suggestions: “in a community where nearly all goods are private property the necessity of earning a livelihood is a powerful and ever present incentive for the poorer members of the community.”
That is a truly radical use of history... We are accustomed to thinking that the economy is fundamentally related to scarcity... In stark contrast, Veblen presents the economy of scarcity and sustenance as a result of the expansion of the economy of human competition and honor. It is not that people initially strive to have what they need and after that turn their efforts to acquire more than others. Rather, because the competition to have more than others has widened to encompass all goods, we must handle even our livelihood through the economy.
Of course, Veblen does not indulge in the fantasy that archaic societies were immune to scarcity. What he claims is that scarcity was not originally managed through private property, that is, through what today coincides with the realm of the economy. Private property had originally to do with a certain sense of affluence—it applied to the superfluous and
I would be lying to you if I said that this insight was anything but deep. And I believe it connects with one of three key components at the foundation of a capitalist society that has the wage-earning consumer at its core. Two of these key components are in the fourth lecture of Patrick Allitt's series Rise and Fall of the British Empire, "Imperial Beginnings in India." (If you are in the dark about this sudden turn in the post, please read this post; and to get up on things, read this post.) The three components are the massification of the national feeling, the commodification of luxury, and the endlessness of money. If you listen to the end of Allitt's second lecture, "The Challenge to Spain in the New World," you get the early stirrings of the first. The third lecture, "African Slavery in the New World," goes deep into the second (free black labor for the mass production of sugar, a luxury), and last, the endlessness of money, is at the end of "Imperial Beginnings in India," with the introduction of the financial institution that launches capitalism as we know it, the Bank of England.
Established in 1694, this union of the state and the market—which was itself inspired from a Dutch banking innovation—introduced the government bond, an instrument that at once offered a safe place for the storage and growth of private wealth, and the opportunity for the state to borrow not only cheaply but without end for its costly wars.
But this post is about luxury. And what Allitt makes clear in his lectures is that what gets Empire going—and Empire is, in this context, another word for capitalism—are items of luxury. And here we meet Bessie Head. Her short story "The Collector of Treasures" has a scene that should make you stop and wonder. A black African woman in Botswana, Dikeledi, is thrown into prison for killing her horrible husband. On the first full day of her life sentence, she has her first breakfast with her cellmates and is informed by one of them (also in jail for killing her husband) that the tea she is served has no sugar. Botswana at this point (the mid-'70s) is a former British colony. As a consequence, its working classes have long been addicted to this double luxury of Empire: tea and sugar. "You should take care," says Dikeledi's cellmate, "the tea has no sugar in it. What we usually do is scoop the sugar off the porridge and put it in into the tea."
At the core of the economic system of Empire is mass produced luxury. And this is not where private property ends but where it begins. This is its condition of possibility. And so this legal institution is not about protecting the rights of the individual in basic terms (the right to be free from want) but the right to pursue more and more and more luxury: sugar, tea, cars, camping equipment, RVs, and homes with garages. Cassius Green lives not in a place for the living, but for a luxurious, non-living machine.