Workers Leaving the Factory (Remix)

“The worker has spun, and the product is a spinning.”

-Karl Marx, “The Labor Process and the Valorization Process,” from Capital Vol. 1

 

The frenetic whirring of axles rotating and steam engines hissing opens Fritz Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis. Schicht (shift). Workers in black uniforms await the right set of factory gates to open. They are on their way in—and not out—which their downtrodden posture gives away. The wrought-iron gate rises, accepting a fresh batch of workers who have arrived for their shift. Simultaneously, the gates set free a tired formation of men, trudging, shifting, slowly from one foot to the other as they exit the tunnel at half-speed. Elevator 219 awaits the new workers ominously; as they load into the freight dock, this narrative masterplot, which frequently ends in death, takes shape.

 

The factory dances, saucers, held up by pylons, spin vigorously, and workers pull levers and monitor dials synchronously. An elder man struggles to stay standing, his knees buckling and face the color of trepidation, as he watches the mercury thermometer rise above 30 °C. His hands cling desperately to the valves which control the temperature of the factory, as he tries to prop himself up. As Gottfried Huppertz’s score thunders, almost instantly, the entire production line is engulfed in smoke. Out of the fog, a creature appears with an open mouth, swallowing up its many workers, who are ritually sacrificed and whisked away by a monolithic set of iron teeth.

 

Freder, the factory owner’s son, witnesses this catastrophic failure, and is forever changed by the sepulchral conditions of the bleak underworld which he has been tasked to oversee. As he remorsefully confesses the day’s events to his father, the manager and overlord of this futuristic German city, the reader loads Karl Marx’s narration on “The Labor and Valorization Process”:

 

He will not be caught napping again. In [the] future he will buy the commodities in the market, instead of manufacturing them himself. But if all the brother capitalists were to do the same, where would he find his commodities on the market? And he cannot eat his money. He recites the catechism: ‘Consider my abstinence. I might have squandered the 15 shillings, but instead I consumed it productively and made yarn with it.’ Very true; and as a reward he is now in possession of good yarn instead of a bad conscience.[1]

 

Freder weighs the situation: the necessity of workers against their grim labor conditions, and the product which is manufactured (energy by steam engine) alongside the bad conscience suppressed in order to perform the function of the overseer (“Have I myself not worked? Have I not performed the labor of superintendence, of overseeing the spinner?”).[2] An inner thought from the factory owner who denies its hardships.

 

German artist and filmmaker Harun Farocki noted, “the first camera in the history of cinema was pointed at a factory, but a century later it can be said that film is seldom drawn to the factory and even repelled by it.”[3] Lumiére Brothers’ 1895 film Workers Leaving the Factory, was the first film and the first factory representation. Paths cross chaotically at the factory exit, a stray dog barks at the hordes of people, a

horse-drawn carriage emerges like a chariot from the mass of workers.

 

Farocki compiles and re-combines these scenes in his own version of Workers Leaving the Factory, asking what can be gleaned through pattern recognition of the worker motif in cinema throughout the century. Zooms into Berlin, 1934: Siemens workers march out of their campus to attend a Nazi rally; Riesa, East Germany, 1945: men and women pour out of a Publicly Owned Operation, or Volkseigener Betrieb, specializing in metal-cutting, a “nationally-owned enterprise which gives workers the right to full participation in decisions that affect their lives”; and Detroit, 1926: as shadows descend the zig-zagging staircases flanking the Ford Motor Company, an expressionless female voice: “never can one perceive better the number of workers, than when they are leaving the factory.”[4] Brute workforce and collective conscience in one moment, single-celled, liberated individuals in the other. So the first moving images of the factory entrance appeared.

 

Thanks to Fritz Lang, the Lumiére Brothers, Harun Farocki, and many other photographers and filmmakers whose gazes penetrated sites of industry, cinematic representations of the factory should never tire out.

 

Fast-forward to factory work today. The NVIDIA GTX 1080 graphics card, or the clean room environments for TSMC semiconductor manufacturing, are too delicate, dangerous, or precise for the human hand. Upload Marx’s theory of labor into today’s market by asking how labor still valorizes [verwetet in German] humans; how the start-up and entrepreneur realizes [realisert] the potential exchange value of a commodity; and how, through the formation of an entity, a company might alienate [veräussert] the value they provide from the hardware/software for which they have paid developers and drivers (in the case of Uber) to de-bug GPS errors and shoulder responsibility.

 

Work structures managed virtually are synchronized; by a geolocation algorithm which compiles and aggregates the labor of its bots and subcontractors, tallying up fares and unlocking micro-payouts. But there is no concept of a work force without a factory. One only finds distributed clues: tech loyalists with black, geometricized “U” shapes on their t-shirts; and the occasional swarm of taxi drivers which converges in a physical #UberProtest. Follow the piped lines, the channels grooved onto circuit boards, or the ones which send signals out to the digital proletariat searching for work, and a vehicle with the worker’s portrait might illuminate.

 

The subcontracted employees of Uber remain cut off from the idea of the factory, more a disconnected database of image profiles than a body of united workers that might rally together. Their union leader is the passenger, who might convey to his or her comrades to divest, go left, toward the pink mustache, the logo of its competitor.

 

Desires for unionization are fraught. A Tesla employee in February 2017 publishes his concerns about unrealistic production goals and ergonomic incompatibility with machinery in an op-ed: it contradicts, “Working 60-70 hours per week for 4 years for a company will make you tired, it will also make you loyal.”[5] Tesla is no longer a start-up company, but a thriving auto brand which accelerates the self-driving and electric car industry. Good luck purchasing a Model S, X, or 3—wait years, and then something shinier and cheaper comes along. The only panacea or remedy to this far-overreached delivery vow is longer work days; lower-than-average wages; mandatory overtime; and harsh actions against free speech. The factory as governance. High turnover, poor morale, trust, liability, injury responsibility, loss of individual voice and exploitation all relegated to the past, as workers in today’s smart economy vie for recognition. In the new millennium, the question remains: how to represent those physical hands that make the car which claims to drive itself?

Fake artificial intelligence is outsourcing work to Turks, but turns out none of them are Ottoman sultans, Bosphorous sailors, Beyoglu gallerists, or even from Istanbul. He once participated in one of those neural studies, got a contract job doing groupings and associations, image-collating, they call it. They needed an Arabic speaker, a real-life Turk, not one of these Amazon spin-offs. Qatari culture-tracking, or something like that. “That one looks like family, those are brands, falcon sports here, others over there are lost idioms,” he said. “Perfect,” they replied, as they plugged his sorting sequence into the neural network. Won’t be long before software can tell us how to represent personality in image profiles. “That’s our work in Doha,” the Turkish scientist finally slipped. Gulf countries were always big on simulation, private, air-conditioned worlds, seemingly conservative on the outside but within its networks deep and illicit online forums for sex, Western clothing, alcohol, intellectual samizdat, and other contraband. A single highway, driven by automated car could get you to Bahrain, the other island where the dirty business was exported.

 

The factory owners and workers are distributed; the Turkish computer scientist, punching keys in the cold business lounge of Ataturk, is different from the Mechanical Turk, not an actual Turk but close enough. Factory work today occurs without the hand; it’s a service that is transmitted like liquid through geographic channels, often initiated by the client through his server, and involves some computer copying every exchange, as evidence of the interaction and as a blueprint of loopholes for the corporation to shed responsibility, should an accident arise.

 

An anecdote about work to conclude: an artist from the Uzbek-Chinese border, newly ascendant member of the technical ruling class, commissions South Asian men and women to complete some HITS, to cry, as work, through Mechanical Turk. They comply, for $1.00 per tear. Through the advertisement, she rises to the status of factory owner, Baroness of Sadness, as her on-demand, scalable workforce of weepers mourns the loss of physical work, which had its downsides but could be tracked, enforced, and remunerated more handsomely.

Yusef Audeh

 

[1] Marx, Karl, Friedrich Engels, Ernest Mandel, David Fernbach, and Karl Marx. Capital: a critique of political economy. London: Penguin Books in association with New Left Review, 1991.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Elsaesser, Thomas. Harun Farocki: working on the sightlines. Amsterdam: Amsterdam Univ. Press, 2004.

[4]Workers Leaving the Factory. Directed by Harun Farocki. Germany: Video Data Bank, 1995. DVD.

[5] Moran, José. "Time for Tesla to Listen." Medium, February 09, 2017. https://medium.com/@moran2017j/time-for-tesla-to-listen-ab5c6259fc88#.arkvvs349.