‘Almost we thought from nowhere but it was the silence, the future, working.’Carl Sandburg, Chicago Poems (Illinois: The University of Illinois Press, 1992), 106.
In Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland, the fictionalised 2020 film based on Jessica Bruder’s nonfiction book of the same name, Francis McDormand’s character, Fern, leaves her Nevada town left desolate by the closure of a gypsum plant and the Great Recession, moving into a white van. In an early scene in the film, Fern meets with Linda May, a new friend with a similar backstory but more experience on the road. ‘So, I was getting close to sixty-two, and I went online to look at my social security benefit. It said five hundred and fifty dollars,’ Linda confided in Fern. It’s the story of many living out of their cars and vans. Devastated by worsening economic conditions, they drift from job to job, most of which are seasonal, temporary, precarious. Companies target them with advertising and job fairs so that when the time rolls around – in the case of Amazon, it’s the lead-up to Christmas – hundreds if not thousands of vans roll into town for the temporary work. It’s a harsh but unsurprising reality for workers in today’s economy, with its uncertainty and inequality; the same generation who could afford to buy homes and retire at a reasonable age is being dragged out of their homes and into their cars, back into the labour force.
Parallels have justifiably been drawn between the film and John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Set in the Great Depression, Steinbeck’s 1939 novel follows the Joad family, one of hundreds of thousands of families whose farms were seized by banks during the Dust Bowl and who subsequently fled to the West to search for work. The Joads follow a handbill promising work in California, but the work is inconveniently seasonal and there are too many workers. Many are left stranded living in their cars, subject to regular harassment by police and business owners. Steinbeck depicts a world constantly in movement, with travellers like the Joads never having the resources to settle down. ‘Every night relationships that make a world, established; and every morning the world torn down like a circus.’ John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath (New York: Penguin, 1976), 213.
Despite all the differences between the Great Depression and the Great Recession, both the Joads and Fern are forced by the economic conditions of the time to drive around endlessly in search of temporary work. And just like in the 1930s, we are seeing today the emergence of a culture that centres these narratives, often in stories that lay bare the realities of the working class and do so with a balance of pride and anger.
The influx of working-class culture is prominent in many recent critically acclaimed films: In The Florida Project (2017), we follow the daughter of an unemployed Mother trying to make ends meet while living out of a hotel. In Minari (2020), a Korean immigrant family tries to start a farm while working at a chick hatchery and living out of a trailer in rural Arkansas. Sorry to Bother You (2018) follows a telemarketer whose workplace is unionizing. The film industry – in the US specifically – has shifted towards embracing films that centre working-class narratives. Not to mention the unprecedented critical praise from the US of foreign films with working-class (sub)texts – Parasite (2019), Roma (2018), Belfast (2021), etc. It seems we are witnessing the kindling of a Third American Renaissance in culture– the Second American Renaissance having been declared by the then-famous Communist author and critic Mike Gold during the ‘proletarian culture’Mike Gold, Mike Gold: A Literary Anthology (New York: International Publishers, 1972). of the 1930s, under the influence of figures such as Steinbeck, Lillian Hellman, John Dos Passos, Richard Wright, Clifford Odets, Langston Hughes, etc. Notably, many of the recent films that centre working-class narratives were made during Obama’s final years in office, released to great acclaim in the Trump era as the economy was ‘booming.’
These cultural and theoretical parallels nonetheless signal an important shift, one that is key to understanding the potential of our present and future. Out of this movement of proletarian culture, with its testimony of the harsh actualities of the present, is born a proletarian realism that goes a step further, not just to analyse the present, but to illuminate a grounds for struggle, to create a road map towards a new future.
It must be stressed how important it is that these films that centre working-class narratives are in the mainstream. Such films were not being made, and certainly not being critically acclaimed, ten years ago. Moreover, this culture is emerging simultaneously with a radical labour movement – and in opposition to a rising fascist threat. Whereas in the 1930s, culture seemed to lag behind politics – ‘first comes the Communist and left-wing pioneering; then this movement broadens into a national, united front period,’ Gold, Mike Gold, 251. Gold observed – today’s simultaneous movement presents new issues for culture and America’s political economy.
While this proletarian moment should be celebrated, with culture and politics seeming to sync up in time, this parallel movement appears out of step ideologically. We are constantly bombarded with the line that there is no real movement past neoliberalism, only the reintegration of resistance back into capitalism. Resistance has been co-opted by market forces, counterculture is extremely profitable. Is this new wave of working-class culture and radicalism just a profitable moment for neoliberalism? Or is it something more serious?
The philosopher Slavoj Zizek is not optimistic. In an article published in the right-wing publication The Spectator, he critiques Nomadland as a film that exposes the miseries of capitalism but also ‘bribes us into enjoying it with the charming details of the specific way of life.’ The relatively apolitical and aesthetically pleasing aspects of the film, he claims, strip it of any class analysis. He argues that the subtitle could’ve been ‘Enjoy being a nomadic proletarian!’ On the one hand, viewers are made aware of the poverty and inequalities of capitalism that Fern experiences; on the other hand, her struggles are presented as an alternative lifestyle or identity. Zizek makes the provocative claim that Nomadland is a fascist film in this sense, stating that ‘Such a “solution” of the “workers’ problem” is what characterizes fascism and populism.’Slavoj Zizek, ‘Hollywood’s Vacuous Moral Turn’, Spectator, 26 July 2021, https://spectatorworld.com/book-and-art/hollywood-vacuous-moral-turn-nomadland-black-widow/
Zizek’s critique of Nomadland as a film that replicates fascism’s obfuscation of the real mechanisms of capitalism echoes the critique Georg Lukács levelled against the theoretical and aesthetic dangers of expressionism in the 1930s. This was a movement, Lukács argued, that paralleled the evolving fascist ideology with its reliance on abstraction, cynicism and antagonism towards existing movements. Both fascism and expressionism stood firmly atop a base of finance capital, the most reactionary of capitalists guiding fascism and the most bourgeois financiers of the arts fuelling expressionism. Zizek’s observation would position Nomadland and other contemporary proletarian films as a manifestation of today’s fascist threat – although it should be mentioned that Zizek doesn’t go this far.
We’re told that by reducing class to an identity or aesthetic, the film reinforces the dominant economic system. Rather than resisting that system, it is incorporated into it. So, it is ‘no wonder the movie was the big winner at the last Oscars,’ as Zizek says.Zizek, ‘Hollywood’s Vacuous Moral Turn’. It appears as just another profitable story. This is what the late Mark Fisher called capitalist realism: ‘A moral critique of capitalism, emphasizing the ways in which it leads to suffering, only reinforces capitalist realism. Poverty, famine and war can be presented as an inevitable part of reality, while the hope that these forms of suffering could be eliminated easily painted as naive utopianism.’Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? (New York: Zero Books, 2009), 16. This reading can be applied to The Florida Project as well, which ends with the child, Moonee, escaping child services and running dreamily off into Disney World. Are The Florida Project, Nomadland and other proletarian films just an example of a new genre for Hollywood to absorb into capitalism? Or is there something more?
Lukács’ 1934 condemnation of expressionism sparked a massive outcry. Theorists like Ernst Bloch launched responses to Lukács, poking holes in his arguments, loosely defending expressionism and the avant-garde. Even with all the flaws in Lukács’ argument – his lack of specific expressionist references, the Nazis’ eventual rejection of the avant-garde, etc. – his main claim, that expressionism was dangerous because it shared with fascism both a penchant for abstraction and a vague aesthetic denunciation of the bourgeoisie, was never convincingly refuted by Bloch. But there was one Communist playwright by the name of Bertolt Brecht who offered a stronger argument, both against Lukács and the wider cultural cynicism that still plagues much of today’s cultural theory.
Brecht observed that Lukács’ fixation on the realistic as a style or form was rather hollow. What might have been considered a realistic style of literature in Balzac’s time wouldn’t come across as so today. Realism has always been a fluid style that defies the very boundaries many attempt to impose on it. The avant-garde poet Vladimir Mayakovsky – hardly a realistic artist –was championed in the USSR under Stalin and socialist realism – a testament to realism not always being confined to the realistic. In regard to the political question of expressionism, Lukács maintained that the anti-war politics built into expressionism all but assured its swift death after the war. But isn’t it naive to expect with any certainty that an art form created under specific conditions (WWI) should outlive that era? As Brecht observed, ‘The oppressors do not work in the same way every epoch. They cannot be defined in the same fashion at all times.’Bertolt Brecht, Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic (New York: Hill and Wang, 1977), 82. And it shouldn’t be surprising that art forms shift according to changing class struggles and realities. Expressionism came into existence under the conditions of WWI, just as today’s proletarian films are coming into existence in this late stage of capitalism.
Lukács and Zizek made some rational connections to fascism in their critiques, but as the Communist International observed in 1928, ‘fascist tendencies and the germs of a fascist movement are to be found almost everywhere.’Georgi Dimitrov, Against Fascism and War (New York: International Publisher, 1986), 1. It’s not useful to declare anything that smells vaguely of fascist characteristics as being fascist, especially not at an artistic movement that had no material connections to the political and economic movement. The fact that a film like Nomadland subtly obscures class is a valid observation, yet ultimately a shallow one. Most popular films entirely ignore this class of people in the US, and it’s unrealistic to expect, as many cynical theorists imply, that some Soviet-style agitprop play would be able to reach the masses in the context of neoliberal Hollywood. Lukács and Zizek obfuscate fascism by confusing common features of capitalism in their respective times with the rise of fascism. They condemn ‘fascist tendencies and germs’ within a vacuum. Expressionism, like Nomadland and other modern proletarian films, was a means to an end within its specific historical moment. That these art forms didn’t single-handedly spark a revolution is less a testament to their shortcomings than to those of the broader historical context.
illustration by Kristian Stupak
The past forty years of neoliberalism have been described as a historical trap under capitalism, a record skip that keeps repeating, seemingly with no end. That capitalism reproduces itself to survive, seamlessly absorbing cultures that might be seen as a threat, is hardly shocking. But this is not a simple reproduction in the limited sense. In The Survival of Capitalism, Henri Lefebvre points out that ‘There is not and cannot be a simple reproduction of ideology and its corollary, repression. There is no re-production of social relations without a certain production of those relations; there is no purely repetitive process.’Henri Lefebvre, The Survival of Capitalism: Reproduction of the Relations of Production (London, England: 1976), 11. And so capitalism has co-opted and absorbed counterculture and politics in recent decades, yet it does not remain the same. There is no guarantee that it will win. Each fight is a new battle, and each outcome shifts the struggle and the character of capitalism anew.
The present stage of the capitalist mode of production is never static, or still, or total. It’s always shifting, sliding, evolving, breaking, fixing itself, and simultaneously producing the foundation for the system that will replace it. Capitalist realism is the study of our current predicament with its unique manifestations and struggles, but what’s needed now is the study of the traces of neoliberalism’s end, of its transition into something new. Intermediary stages are coming into view every day, the traces of which should be analysed and adapted to the political movements currently on the rise. This is what the recent surge of proletarian films shows us. Criticism should be waged just as vehemently against cynical critiques of proletarian culture as against the shortcomings of the films themselves.
There is mounting impatience with neoliberalism and its dire conditions. But it won’t be transcended overnight. Change will come gradually, with intermediary stages that are already unfolding. As Engels once said, ‘What a simple hearted childishness, which quotes impatience as a convincing argument in support of a theory!’Frederick Engels, ‘The Program of the Blanquist Fugitives from the Paris Commune’, trans. Ernest Untermann, International Socialist Review 9, no. 2, (August 1908), quoted in Marxists Internet Archive, https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1874/06/26.htm. Today’s proletarian culture, even in its opportunistic and watered-down forms, is converging with the strengthening labour movement to pave a road out of this epoch; it’s a process that will be neither fast nor clean. Proletarian culture can be used both in support of capitalism (Hollywood finance capital) and to usher in the next economic phase of history. ‘The path of history is not paved like Nevsky Prospekt; it runs across fields, either dusty or muddy, and cuts across swamps or forest thickets,’ the Russian Socialist N. G. Chernyshevsky used to say. Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, ‘Remarks on Books: G. V. Plekhanov. N. G. Chernyshevsky. Shipovnik Publishing House. St. Petersburg, 1910’, Lenin Mischellany 25 (1933), quoted in Marxists Internet Archive, https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1908/remarks/ch05a.htm#f27
For the first time in decades, we are witnessing an observable re-centring of the working class in culture. Films that address ‘proletarian ideas’, like those mentioned and many others including Moonlight (2016) and If Beale Street Could Talk (2018), could not have been said to form a part of mainstream American cinema before 2015. There has been a slow shift from a ‘spectacular’ resistance to a resistance of substance, a militant labour movement growing in tandem with a cultural movement that centralizes, as Gold put it, ‘the shape of proletarian ideas.’ Gold, Mike Gold, 251. Just as Life Magazine began publishing labour stories and photographs in the 1930s – bringing ‘working Americans into the nation’s mainstream’Carol Quirke, Eyes on Labor (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 52. – movie studios are beginning to get behind working-class culture, however opportunistically (Hillbilly Elegy  being the most egregious and genuinely fascistic example, reflecting the rise of right-wing movements in the US). Proletarian films that centre the working class and are being praised in the mainstream are setting the groundwork for more militant artists to sneak in.
Much of the proletarian films of today focus on the proletariat, which is important. But as others have observed, simply exposing the realities of capitalism isn’t a political strategy for a path forward. There is, however, at least one film that does this. In a pivotal scene in Boots Riley’s film Sorry to Bother You, LaKeith Lee Stanfield’s character, Cassius Green, or Cash, sits down at a conventional Oakland restaurant to make amends with two friends he abandoned for a cushy promotion at the call centre RegalView. His exposure to the vile mechanisms behind their Amazon-like client WorryFree (and their plans to shift from human slave labour to genetically modified horse-people) cause him to become a whistle-blower and speak out against the company. After he exposes WorryFree’s plans, the public, instead of reacting with hostility, praises the revelations as a blessing to humanity. Cassius, trembling, asserts that ‘I tried to change it, I tried to stop it. But it's just right in front of their faces. They’re turning human beings into monstrosities and nobody gives a fuck!’ His two friends, Squeeze and Salvador, sit unmoved. Squeeze, the union organizer, responds soberly, ‘If you get shown a problem, but have no idea how to control it, then you just decide to get used to the problem.’ Sorry to Bother You, dir. Boots Riley (Los Angeles: Significant Productions, 2018).
The film clearly has a grasp on our contemporary moment of hypernormalisation and capitalist realism – in the face of a capitalist dystopia there is no mass outrage or protest, but cynicism, inaction, theatrics. Yet Sorry to Bother You differs from capitalist realist films – films that focus expose capitalism’s harsh realities but don’t offer a path forward – in that Boots Riley avoids cynicism and idealism, instead opting for action. ‘Yeah, and that’s why our plan for tomorrow is important,’ Cash says. ‘’Cause if we stop them from crossing the picket line this time, we win.’ His friend Salvador responds, ‘Tomorrow we show ‘em how to give fucks.’Sorry to Bother You.
While the Third American Renaissance might be underway, centring working-class stories over idealist and bourgeois ones, this proletarian culture is not homogenous. After Cash is promoted and offered millions to be a company spy for genetically modified workers, he’s snapped back into reality. Through trial and error, he realizes which side he belongs to; the film ends with him breaking into the CEO’s home for revenge. Cash’s story is not dissimilar from Miller’s in Clifford Odet’s play Waiting for Lefty (1935), who is offered a position to spy on a scientist creating poison gas, but refuses:
I’m not the civilized type, Mr. Fayette. Nothing suave or sophisticated about me. Plenty of hard feelings! Enough to want to bust you and all your kind square in the mouth! (Does exactly that.)Clifford Odets, Six Plays of Clifford Odets (New York: Grove Press, 1979), 17.
While Sorry to Bother You is considered an example of afro-surrealism – a genre that utilizes surrealist methods to communicate the feeling of the Black experience – the film also possesses many of the defining features of what Mike Gold called ‘Proletarian Realism.’ There is technical precision in describing the work as a telemarketer; the film deals with the real conflicts of average working people, making the story useful for viewers; it embodies the courage of the ‘proletarian experience,’Gold, Mike Gold, 203. the film knowing exactly what it believes and where it is going; and there is no pessimistic drabness in the daily lives of workers (they are sometimes achingly dreary, but not exclusively so) – it is life itself that is the supreme melodrama. The surrealism in the film’s dramatic turn is not so much a form of dystopian surrealism as a realistic prediction of the future of a corporation like Amazon – hence a form of realism.
Boots Riley’s work as an example of proletarian realism sets him apart from other listed examples of proletarian culture; his film contributes to possible solutions and makes room for confrontation, not just observation. It’s a departure from a kind of ‘anti-capitalist’ cinema that solely criticises the current state of things, offering no direct form of struggle or solution. The films that Mark Fisher cited in his pivotal work Capitalist Realism simply expose neoliberalism’s inadequacies. Films like Wall-E (2008) and Children of Men (2006) show us capitalist dystopias that give us no way out. At the same time, so much of the theory that has analysed this seemingly paralyzing trend has ended up reinforcing it, offering little else besides idealism and abstractions that are out of tune with real struggles of the working class. Today, with a film like Sorry to Bother You, we are witnessing the beginning of the end of capitalist realism.
In an interview with the Claudia Jones School for Political Education, Riley tells the story of how union organizers were using his movie to help the labour movement, showing the movie to co-workers and making references during struggles, like repeating the quote from the movie ‘ecosapiens, let’s be out.’ ‘Anti-capitalism in These Times: A Conversation with Boots Riley and Charisse Burden-Stelly’, Claudia Jones School for Political Education, 28 October 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QvM_nGKBieo&t=4342s. Riley, a self-described communist, says that during the wave of strikes in 2020, he received messages from workers all over saying they showed Sorry to Bother You to mobilize workers. ‘I kept getting messages from people saying look, the way we were able to make this strike happen and convince everybody to go on strike was we showed your movie and then people were down,’ Riley said.‘Anti-capitalism in These Times’. The film broke through the paralyzing cynicism of capitalist realism both in its content, which showed an active labour struggle against a corporation, and in its form, as a popular movie existing in the context of the new labour movement. The film is about the material conditions of workers but also about helping to change those conditions.
Proletarian realism is manifesting itself in other mediums today too. At a contemporary art gallery in Columbus, Ohio, a photography exhibit was able to spark the unionization of the art gallery workers. The Last Cruze, a 2020 exhibit by photographer LaToya Ruby Frazier at the Wexner Center for the Arts, showed union workers at the soon-to-be-closed Lordstown, Ohio plant that manufactured the Chevy Cruze. ‘We had this cool labour show, and we had these people from Lordstown in the building, actual union members in the building,’ Matt Reber, manager of store operations at the Wexner Center, told Columbus Alive. ‘And then you’re seeing these things play out in your workplace in real time, where, oh, you’re being forced to go back to work [in a pandemic], and your concerns aren’t being addressed.’ The workers are currently undertaking their union drive and they credit the photo exhibit as a driving force in the decision to do so.
This echoes the proletarian realism of the 1930s, when Gold’s best-selling semi-autobiographical novel Jews Without Money was used to counter a factory’s anti-Semitic justification for not negotiating with the union – in a negotiating session the company said they had little money because ‘The Jews have the money.’ Copies of the book were ‘read to pieces’ among rural Maryland workers,Art Shields, On the Battle Lines (New York: International Publishers, 1986), 195. enabling them to recognize the anti-Semitic propaganda and ultimately end the seven-day work week.
Yet unlike in the 1930s, when a radical political movement paved the way for a cultural movement, today’s political resistance has seemingly grown in tandem with the cultural movement. This shows that both cultural and political movements can grow simultaneously, feeding off one another. According to Gold, it’s class conflicts that spark these cultural movements. Technology and the spread of information could also play a role, shortening the delay between political struggle and culture. These two steps, politics and culture, then reflect back onto each other and shift the field of struggle altogether, morphing into something new: ‘It is the development of class conflicts in society that produces a proletarian literature during the various crises, just as in turn such literature plays a large part in hastening, crystalizing and shaping the outcome of these crises.’Gold, Mike Gold, 250. Perhaps in the future, critics will study the specific circumstances under which capitalist realism and neoliberalism created the very conditions for their own downfall. The early phase of this process is already visible today.