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The Flesh Curtain: The Future of Industrial Oppression in Blade Runner
Foregrounding the blatant concerns over identity inspired by Ridley Scott’s film Blade Runner, Scott develops the conflict of class struggle through the use of Marxist allegory in his futuristic world. Through his development of the Blade Runner world—using setting and imagery, character relationships, and language and scripting—Scott builds a peek at the future evolution of Marx’s class struggle. The Tyrell Corporation represents the standard Marxist categories of the Bourgeoisie, while the Proletariat are represented by the humans. But these Marxist categories are problematized by the introduction of the Replicants, physical embodiments of economic capital and labor. The Replicants, manufactured beings physically identical to the humans, force the humans to reckon with the diminished value of their labor as a result of industrialization. Scott shows his audience—modern day viewers long past the Industrial Revolution—the relevance of Marxism in a world where the Bourgeoisie has evolved right alongside technology, economics, and power. Indeed, Scott portends a very frightening reality.
The opening shot of Blade Runner portrays a dark and foreboding world where industry and mechanization are so dominant that the landscape of factories stretches as far as the smog will allow the eye to see. From this initial view, all we see is an industrialized landscape dominated by the panoptic gaze of the Tyrell Corporation pyramids. Once we dive into the city, however, we see more than mere industry. Here, commercialism and commoditization have huge stakes among the high smoke stacks and refineries: the inhabitants live constantly overwhelmed by building sized advertisements from massive companies such as Coke, neon lights are omnipresent, and the dark towers of factories seem to blot out the sun. Here is a world so devoid of nature and so capitalized that even beauty, pleasure, and life are commodities with production value: Replicants and animals are not bred or born but manufactured and produced. Infused in this setting is a strong tone of darkness, misery, and monotony, portrayed through constant rain and sunlessness—conditions that persist throughout nearly every scene, coating every building and person in a sort of dank smog. Marx’s capitalism is epitomized in this cityscape (I imagine Marx rolling over in his grave at the very image). While Americans today are loyal to capitalism and all its potential, even the richest CEO in the world would see that this world (an uncanny L.A.) is far from enticing. But Blade Runner portrays a terrifying dystopia. As fire erupts from the factory towers, we are led to distrust this capitalist world, beginning to see through Marx’s eyes.
Karl Marx, in his Communist Manifesto, presented the 19th Century—an era marked by the booming industrial revolution and the western world’s emergence into Modernity—with a new history of the world. This history, Marx offered, is defined by “class struggles” (Marx and Engels 2), in which
[O]ppressor and oppressed, have stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended either in a revolutionary re-constitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes (Marx and Engels 3).
This history, then, shows capitalism as a system marked by the societal friction between those that have and those that have not; between those that own and control the capital and means of production and those that are demeaned laborers working from day to day between the Bourgeoisie and the Proletariat. It is in capitalism that the oppressed laborers are only worth their labor, a worth continually decreased through advancements in industrial technology—technology and machinery replace human labor thus decreasing wages. It is in this context—in which the Bourgeoisie oppress and demean the Proletariat through their supreme control of capital—that we can view, not only this foreboding opening scene, but the entirety of Blade Runner.
Blade Runner society has such a clear Bourgeoisie—the Tyrell Corporation, an omniscient overseer from a forbidding metal pyramid—that there seems to be no other governing body (with the exception of a small police force) and no other corporations. This tells us that this society is so driven by capitalism that the ruling class is actually corporate as opposed to political. Tyrell is in clear control of both society’s economic capital as well as something far more important: human capital. Tyrell controls the designing, manufacturing, and allocating of every Replicant (engineered “humans” created for the purposes of military service and slavery), representing a level of control so complete that by the end of the movie we have no idea how many Replicants are living concealed in their own ignorance. Roy Batty even compares Tyrell’s economic and social power to that of a creator or God, a highly disturbing concept. On the flipside is everyone else. When all we get is street venders and menial manufacturers (Chu the eye manufacturer and Sebastian), we find that there is little to no class differentiation beyond the status of having (the Bourgeoisie Tyrell Corporation) and not having (the Proletariat Chinatown inhabitants). I also include the Replicants among the Proletariat class, as, by the end, humans and Replicants are physically and economically indistinguishable. These Proletarians are depicted as cookie-cutter, day-to-day menial laborers and consumers. Extremely devalued and their humanity stifled, Marx outlines how:
Owing to the extensive use of machinery and to division of labor, the work of the proletarians has lost all individual character, and consequently, all charm for the workman. He becomes an appendage of the machine, and it is only the most simple, most monotonous, and most easily acquired knack, that is required of him (Marx and Engels 43).
Does not this description, written well over a century ago, reverberate when we hear Captain Bryant threaten Deckard with, “You know the score, pal. If you’re not cop, you’re little people”? Don’t we see the same irony in mechanical biology when Roy Batty says to Sebastian, “We’re not computers, Sebastian, we’re physical”? Take note here that Roy does not say, “We’re human.”
The replicants come to symbolize the human capital, as they are controlled by the Bourgeoisie, while their identities and bodies are described as belonging to someone else. For instance, Roy Batty says to Chu, the eye manufacturer, “If only you could see what I have seen with your eyes.” Here, Roy shows that he feels that he does not actually own his own eyes. Roy likewise cannot claim his own genetic code, as it is seemingly borrowed from human genes, as Sebastian claims that there is some of himself in Roy. Rachael, despite being a “special” (newer, more controllable) Replicant, has a similar problem: her memories are not hers, but borrowed. While it may seem compassionate to gift memories of a past to Rachael, their implantation is, in reality, cold necessity. Tyrell himself says that the memories are employed for extra control: “If we gift them with a past, we create a cushion or a pillow for their emotions, and consequently, we can control them better.” After discovering her lack of past, and therefore lack of human identity, Rachael identifies herself as the business in which Deckard is employed:
Deckard: Shakes? Me too. I get ‘em bad. It’s part of the business.
Rachael: I’m not in the business… I am the business.
That Rachael and Roy cannot differentiate themselves from their worth or utility reflects Marx’s description of how Bourgeois oppression reduces people into mere commodities and laborers deprived of their humanity:
The bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honoured and looked up to with reverent awe. It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage labourers.... The bourgeoisie has torn away from the family its sentimental veil, and has reduced the family relation to a mere money relation (Marx and Engels 38).
From this we see that the replicants are even closer to their human counterparts economically than was originally assumed, which is partly why Scott makes the point of deconstructing their differences as the movie progresses.
The film plays on the idea that Marx’s fears are no more unfounded today (or in the future) than they were in the 19th century. Capitalism in the age of technology may be even more threatening than in the industrial age that Marx knew, since, in the world of Blade Runner, capital (Replicants) and labor (humans) are almost wholly indistinguishable. This implies that the proletariat is so devalued that they even lose their last form of control, their labor. The Replicants act as a mirror of recognition, demanding the audience to look at themselves, as if at a replication of themselves, to notice the objective reality of contemporary class struggle. If the Replicants could reveal to the humans their economic oppression, why would the Tyrell Corporation make the Replicants into a perfect mirror of the humans? Wouldn’t Tyrell benefit from the humans’ ignorance of their economic oppression? The answer, inspired by Marx, is misdirection. By modeling the proletariat Replicants exactly like their proletariat human counterparts, Tyrell inspires a conflict between the two groups to keep his own tyranny out of sight. This process of a perceived competition among the proletariat is, in fact, an early stage in Marx’s Proletariat revolution:
They direct their attacks not against the bourgeois conditions of production, but against the instruments of production themselves… At this stage the labourers still form an incoherent mass scattered over the whole country, and broken up by their mutual competition. If anywhere they unite to form more compact bodies, this is not yet the consequence of their own active union, but of the union of the bourgeoisie, which class, in order to attain its own political ends, is compelled to set the whole proletariat in motion (Marx and Engels 44-45).
Tyrell develops a technological deception to mask his suppression of the proletariat class by creating a false enemy.
Tyrell’s creation of Replicants to misdirect the human revolution is nearly identical to Baudrillard’s bank robbery scenario (Baudrillard 177-179). The replicants are a simulation that is so “real” that any attempt to oppose that reality is ultimately undermined by that ingrained reality; you cannot simulate a holdup because everyone will think you are actually committing a holdup, and thus you actually do commit a very “real” crime. Deckard, along with the rest of the humans, believes he is fighting the true enemy of society, but in the end discovers he is only attacking himself—a point that reverberates strongly as Deckard, the Replicant hunter, suddenly finds himself hunted by a Replicant. In both of these scenarios, the simulated “real” (Marx’s Bourgeoisie) always wins: the cops (as if in the bank) can arrest you and Tyrell benefits from the conflict between the humans and the Replicants. Marx even comes close to Baudrillard’s simulation when he says, of the early revolution, “[t]hus the whole historical movement is concentrated in the hands of the bourgeoisie; every victory so obtained is a victory for the bourgeoisie” (Marx and Engels 45). This misdirection not only creates economic stability for the Tyrell Bourgeoisie in the story, but suggests to the reader that they might be deceived just as the humans are in this dark future. As an evolution from Marx-era Bourgeoisie, Tyrell suggests to Scott’s audience that not only has Bourgeois oppression survived to today, but it has perhaps become craftier about masking its dehumanizing methods through simulation of a perceived threat.
Baudrillard, Jean. “Simulacra and Simulations” from Jean Baudrillard: Selected Writings. Ed. Mark Poster.Stanford University Publications. Stanford, 1988.
Blade Runner: The Final Cut. Dir. Ridley Scott. Warner Brothers Pictures, 2007.
“Blade Runner (1982)” IMDB: Internet Movie Data Base. Web access June 9, 2010 http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0083658/
Marx, Karl and Frederick Engels. The Communist Manifesto: A modern edition. New York, NY: Versi, 1998 (Manifesto first published 1848, translated 1888).