The Working Class Hero

sunday-recommendations

A few weeks back we briefly addressed the dynamism shaping the world through the politics of the far-right, and made an impassioned plea for hope and better days ahead.

This week, we look at the very demographic seemingly forcing this change – the “blue collar” worker.

Almost every country, or culture has witnessed a stereotyping of the working-class individual over the last half century. The typical profile of said individual has been as follows – educated as far as high school, migrated from poverty to some form of the middle class (and stayed there), and harbouring a deep rooted resentment of white collar professionals. The working class have been maligned as blunt and politically incorrect, and more so than anything else – perceived as the community most adversely affected by the machination of global economics.

If globalization was supposed to uplift the working class, it worked against it, and social mores moved no differently. The proletariat were made to feel like losers all across the globe, and the wage gap between the skilled and unskilled merely widened. If the reduction of the blue-collar worker to a cartoonish figure was bad, then, in many respects, the condescension of the professional classes towards them was even worse – treating the fall of the labour class as another form of poverty. It is no surprise that the politics of far-right populist movements are rapidly gaining influence. Such movements aren’t just promising their working-class voter base a world free of political correctness, immigrants, and a general return to the economics of the 1970’s. These movements are about giving the working class their basic human dignity back.

Few movies in the 21st century have been empathetic to the blue collar class’ struggle for dignity – and the Dardenne brothers’ 2014 award winning socialist drama film – “Two Days, One Night” – humanizes the working class woman.

Set in a solar panel factory in modern day Belgium, the movie revolves around a minimum wage factory worker, Sandra (played magnificently by Marion Cotillard), who tries to win her job back after a long leave of absence due to depression. While she is out, the factory management realizes it can deploy her colleagues for longer hours, as a result of which each working employee is due a bonus, and Sandra is considered dispensable. After much pleading, Sandra is given an ultimatum by her bosses (white-collar professionals). She has a weekend to convince her sixteen other colleagues to vote to forego their thousand Euro bonuses to win her job back.

Sandra faces a herculean task as she totters door-to-door to confront her colleagues, seeking their votes despite barely being able to drag herself out of bed. Cotillard’s character displays a mélange of silent suffering, anxiety, vindication, calm restraint, and in some cases, even empathy, when she is turned down very justifiably by some of her colleagues. Is it cruel for a man to refuse to eschew his bonus if it can help keep his children through school for the rest of the year? And doesn’t Sandra have a right to keep her job, regardless of the circumstances surrounding her suspension?

The movie shines in its sympathetic portrayal of all of Sandra’s factory colleagues as victims, while silently critiquing the culture of modern management, short term contracts, and non-unionised labour. Towards the end, the glaring question facing Sandra, and the viewer, is not why she should fight for her job, but what would happen if she lost. This is the ultimate victory of the movie – it painstakingly compels the viewer to totter along with her, empathise with the working class’ struggles, and support her as she gradually finds her inner strength to fight for her dignity. It is the same dignity that drives every human to have the right to earn their keep, bring food to their family’s table, and hold a steady job while doing so. Not too long back, if you could achieve these things, then you were quite simply, the working-class hero.

Catch the trailer for the Dardenne brothers’ Two Days One Night over here

An Impassioned Plea for Decency

 

Are movies an accurate reflection of our times? Big budget Hollywood fare and routine superhero movies continue to bedazzle us with special effects, while core plotlines continue to remain oblivious to the sweeping changes hitting the globe. The very same film-makers and entertainers criticizing right-wing politics on late night talk shows, suddenly lose their voices on screen when given an opportunity to offer a diatribe against modern day irrationality.

Mr. Trump’s election on the back of anti-immigration rhetoric, and the wave of populism and right wing politics that is wafting through democracies across the globe should serve as a reminder that we are living in a more intolerant, and increasingly polarized society.

Let’s face it – circa 2016, humanity is a cynical and frustrated lot. Some of us blame ourselves for our problems, others choose to find effective scapegoats, be it immigrants, people of other races, other religions, sexual orientation, or simply people with a difference in opinion.

Liberal ideals were meant to be championed as a worthy opponent to humanity’s current malaise, and are instead being blamed as the source of it all. If society inexorably changed, then why did liberalism remain static and less proactive?

The internet and social media was meant to unite us, but is now being championed (rather effectively) by the very solipsistic, inflammatory forces that wish to divide us. Where the internet fails, a slightly older form of technology – the movies – might still offer hope.

I had to dig deep and recall a seventy-six-year-old movie by arguably one of the greatest entertainers of the 20th century. Well before America had even entered the second World War, and while most nations were still undecided over whether to condemn or condone Hitler’s divisive, authoritarian, and expansionist policies; Charlie Chaplin decided he had enough of Germany in “The Great Dictator”.

He quite literally, found his voice (this was Chaplin’s first sound movie). He mocked Herr Hitler and Nazi Germany, and delivered one of the greatest speeches in cinematic history in the movie’s climax, exhorting the human race to ignore the despots who wished to control them, and simply be kinder to one another:

“Greed has poisoned men’s souls, has barricaded the world with hate, has goose-stepped us into misery and bloodshed. We have developed speed, but we have shut ourselves in. Machinery that gives abundance has left us in want. Our knowledge has made us cynical. Our cleverness, hard and unkind. We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery we need humanity. More than cleverness we need kindness and gentleness. Without these qualities, life will be violent and all will be lost….”

  • Excerpt from Chaplin’s monologue in “The Great Dictator”

A time traveler would be flustered – it is easy to find parallels between Chaplin’s world in 1940, and our own today. Perhaps the comedian’s words were a portender of what would follow: dictators, right wing Governments, and intolerance will come and go, but mankind mustn’t lose hope. It is imperative that we too, find that hope and kindness rather than choosing to silence it. If not for anyone else, then at least for our own dignity and decency.

 

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