Aftermath of The Hobbit affair continues to rumble through the blogs and real-world conversations. In an almost ridiculous turn of fate, the disagreements over this film have split a seam in “the Left” in NZ, with much heat (and occasionally, light) in evidence. Right-oriented commentators are rubbing their hands with glee, or at the very least, rolling their eyes. (For the Left does love to schism, does it not?)
I’m going to characterize the dispute like this (beware of my own self-serving narrative). Those who subscribe to a more class-focused view of the left argue that the Actors Equity action deserved support, even if it was wrongheaded, because public dispute only plays into the hands of the boss classes. Those who do not acknowledge the primacy of class see opposition to Actors Equity as entirely justified by an analysis of the consequences. In general, both sides see the concessions and changes extracted by the movie studio as opportunism, but they tend to locate responsibility with the other side.
There’s more to it, but that’ll do as a starting point. And to nail my colours to the mast (and clarify my own bias), I’m firmly in the second chunk, seeing opposition to Actor’s Equity as entirely appropriate. In my view, NZ Actor’s Equity launched a mistargeted, over-reaching action without gaining a mandate from its members, without linking with other workers, without communicating effectively, and without understanding the consequences of this action.
So I’ve found it strange and depressing to read impassioned and ferocious pieces by writers I both like and respect (and, of course, many I don’t) attacking those holding my perspective, especially because we both agree on some fundamental values – the need to protect workers from exploitation, for example.
I’m not going to try and unpick all that here. Lew at Kiwipolitico I think comes more or less from the same perspective as me, and has been doing a great job of digging through the rhetoric for sense. Instead, I want to talk about the bigger picture, the frame in which these conversations are taking place.
Essentially, my point of dissent from the class-based analysis is that I am no longer convinced by the appropriateness of their metaphors. Starting with class itself – class is a metaphor, a symbolic way of talking about a large set of individuals who share certain circumstances to a greater or lesser degree. It doesn’t exist in isolation, but draws on a whole set of contingencies: capitalism of a particular kind, industry of a certain nature, normative social rules derived from these. When you talk about class, the word brings along a great deal of additional baggage.
I’m far from convinced the class metaphor makes sense in the 21st century western context of NZ. Many on the class-analysis left are disgusted that Labour Day, our day of celebrating worker’s rights and the successes of collective resistance to exploitation, saw protests nationwide supporting a multinational company’s will over that of Kiwi workers. But surely Occam’s Razor points away from this as evidence of a mass betrayal of the labour movement, or a lack of understanding of worker’s rights; surely the simplest and best explanation is that the metaphor of class no longer applies?
Consider the position of the independent contractor. Some on the class-analysis left see an employment relation as the only acceptable one, thanks to the hard-won rights to fair conditions and protections for employees in this country. I hope that most sensible analyses will see that an independent contractor relationship has a role to play as well, providing a freedom to engage that can suit both parties beautifully. The challenge, then, is where the distinction between the two is unclear and a worker under independent contract is treated poorly while deprived of the benefits and safety of employment.
None of this fits easily within the class metaphor. The vast majority of independent contractors seem to be quite happy with their status, or even feel quite privileged, all without any cost to employees. Empirical evidence makes it clear that these two separate models of worker-boss relations can run in parallel in a society quite happily. Yet the furore over The Hobbit dispute positioned independent contractors as the useful idiots, if not the outright enemy, of the workers. Isn’t this analysis ridiculous just on its face?
Consider the nature of industry and capital. The class metaphor, and all the worker-boss relationships embedded within it, evisages a certain kind of industry – archetypally, the factory worker, with a large investment in plant and every incentive to exploit workers to generate more widgets more cheaply. Yet many things have changed. The globalisation of capital is well-known; capital flight happens when those factories get moved overseas, and it has been a threat levied against striking workers for decades. And yet that isn’t enough to make sense of the hyper-mobile short-term project that is a major Hollywood production. A better metaphor, and an appropriate one given the film, is that the project is like a dragon. It is huge, and wealthy, and incredibly selfish; and also temperamental, and even the spillage from its hoard is worth a fortune. If it decides it doesn’t like the conditions wherever it sits, it can easily leap up, and fly across to a different, more favorable land. The industry of making movies is very like coaxing a dragon to stay, and the question is how much you offer it before the wealth it will give stops being worthwhile. You don’t want to go so far as sacrificing your local virgins in tribute (because the dragon’ll take that if it gets offered), but you need to offer something juicy or the dragon won’t even land in the first place. Big-movie industry is about supplicating dragons. How does this metaphor fit within the class metaphor and all the baggage it contains? Short answer: it doesn’t. The dragon flies away.
Consider the notion of critical support that has been turning up in a lot of the class-analysis left discussions. One huge source of fury in this argument is that many voices on the left criticized the actors union for their actions, without embedding that criticism in support for their goals; many writers shorthand it to something like “criticism in private, solidarity in public”. But how can this approach survive in an environment where the difference between public and private conversations is massively eroded, and where engagement with ideas is a massive free-for-all? Of course people are going to criticise every aspect of a union action, including its goal; of course support is going to be withheld if the action doesn’t hold up. To do otherwise would be to abandon one’s own ability to think critically. How can a class metaphor account for a massive multiplicity of semi-public voices, except by excluding all those that do not come to the same conclusions as itself? How is that a strategy for any kind of success?
I’m in no way stepping away from the left here. I believe that a social analysis that starts with worker-boss relations contains profound truths that call to action. However, I also believe that received knowledge has accreted around these truths as a barrier, in some cases obscuring or distorting them.
And I write this lengthy ramble not as a cogent argument – it would take me much more time and energy than I wish to spend to interrogate all of this. Rather, this is an expression of unease with the whole foundation of the current disagreement. It seems to me that the heart of the matter is sitting unexamined and unexpressed. So I hope this points at least in the direction of that heart, despite whatever flaws and misrepresentations can be found in the paragraphs above. (No doubt there are plenty.)
The film-as-dragon metaphor, though – I’m quite pleased with that one.