Workers in a Brave New World:  Building Utopia/Dystopia on Slave Labor

Michael D. Amey

Welcome back to our posts on dystopian narratives.  In this post, I’m going to begin by examining the teachings of Karl Marx and Friederich Engels as expressed in The Communist Manifesto.  Once I have provided a basic overview of some of his theories, I will examine Fritz Lang’s extremely influential movie, Metropolis, paying close attention to how Marxist theory informs this film.

The Communist Manifesto:  A Defunct Ideology?

Marx and EngelsThe fall of Communism in Europe during the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, indicated to many people, particularly in the United States and Europe, that Marxism was an inherently flawed system that could not be practically applied.  The history of Soviet oppression and domination, a history which prompted President Reagan to label the Soviet Union the Evil Empire, suggested that Marxist utopianism not only did not work, it shouldn’t even be attempted.   Certainly, nothing about the Soviet Union and its Eastern-block allies suggested that the classless, stateless utopian society envisioned by Marx and Engels had been achieved.


While Marxism was never successfully implemented, Marx’s and Engels’ insights into the structuring of society, the creation of identity, and the forces that drive history are particularly useful for anyone studying the concepts of utopia and dystopia.  Indeed, both Engels and Marx clearly understood that their ideas were related to utopian projects, but they rejected utopianism as unscientific.  In fact, as you will notice when you read The Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels were careful to distinguish communism from other “impractical” utopian projects.  Several decades after publishing The Communist Manifesto, Engels developed his criticism of the utopian planners in his study, The Development of Socialism from Utopia to Science.    His argument, which was levied primarily against the French utopian socialists mentioned in The Communist Manifesto, was that their utopias were unscientific, while Marxism was based on science (Booker 1994, 33).  Marxism, according to Engels and Marx, was the product of the scientific study of history.  Through this careful, scientific study of the trajectory of history, they believed that they could predict both future social developments, and, in a sense, the end of history.  What follows is a brief description of key Marxist concepts, which will help you understand Marxist criticism, The Communist Manifesto and Fritz Lang’s movie, Metropolis.

Based on what I’ve just said, it should be evident that Marxism is heavily indebted to the study of history.  The Marxist approach to historical study is frequently termed historical materialism.  The concept underlying historical materialism is suggested by Marx’s statement in his Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy that “it is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but, on the contrary, their social existence that determines their consciousness”.  What Marx was arguing was that our society, including how our society produces and uses things, determines to a large extent how we view the world.

An Example of Consciousness Shaped by Society:  What Would You See?



Consider for a moment, which of these two images you would be least surprised to encounter on a walk in the woods.  Sighting either of them would certainly constitute a departure from ordinary life.  Most Americans, however, would discount the fairy as an imaginary creature.  Indeed, fairy tales refer specifically to stories that are clearly untrue.  By contrast, some Americans would be predisposed to accept the existence of an extra-terrestrial.  In the Middle Ages, however, people would have accepted the possibility of the fairy, but would not have been able to even conceive of the idea of the extra-terrestrial.  It’s worth noting that conceptually, fairies and extra-terrestrials are very similar.  Both “species” are alleged to have extraordinary powers and both “species” reportedly kidnap humans.  What differentiates these two “species” are the social assumptions underlying them.  Fairies are “supernatural” beings.  Extra-terrestrials, by contrast, are “scientific” beings, who supposedly travel through space in UFOs.  A medieval citizen would be unable to conceptualize an alien because his or her social framework would have lacked any reference to space age technology.  By contrast, modern Americans frequently, albeit not always, discount the supernatural.  Science and technology pervade our world, and as a consequence we look for scientific and technological explanations for the phenomenon we encounter.  As Marx says, our social existence determines our consciousness.

Marx and Engels understood that our modern consciousness is, in fact, shaped both by capitalist production and consumption.  On a very basic level, our existence as producers / consumers impacts how we see the world.  For example, few of us think twice about “marketing ideas” or “marketing people”.  Clearly, an individual who markets himself is one who successfully presents himself as a product for consumption.  This image is only possible in a society where producing, marketing and selling things is the primary means of making a living.  Likewise, the concept that we can “market” an idea indicates our belief that ideas are produced just like material objects.  Indeed, our intellectual property laws stem from the fact that we see both tangible and intangible things as objects that can be possessed and traded.  Even our concept of wage labor suggests that time is a commodity that can be sold and consumed.  Thus a lawyer will tell her client that she is on the clock, indicating that the client will be billed for the use of that time.

Along with arguing that consciousness is shaped by society, Marx and Engels believed that “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles” (The Communist Manifesto).  History, according to their theory moved forward through class struggles.  Each step led inevitably to the next step.  The final step would be when the proletariats (workers) violently overthrew the bourgeoisie (capitalists) and established a dictatorship of the workers.  With property centralized in the hands of society and used for the benefit of all, social class would eventually fade away.  From that point on, of course, class struggles would end, and history, as envisioned by Marx and Engels, would cease to exist.  It is worth noting that in many texts describing utopian societies, the success of those societies depends on the elimination of private property and class.  In these narratives, the accumulation of private property is seen as the primary cause of social injustice, warfare and unhealthy competition.  The eventual disappearance of social injustice, warfare and unhealthy competition allows society to become static and unchanging.

By contrast, dystopian narratives frequently borrow from Marx and highlight the social disruption caused by class conflict.  In 1984, George Orwell specifically identifies the proletarians as subversive (and strangely free) members of society.  More traditionally, in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis warfare between the workers (hands) and the capitalists (minds) is only barely prevented by Freder, the mediator (heart).  This conclusion is foretold in The mediator Metropolisthe opening Epigram, which states “The mediator between head and hands must be the heart”.  Marx and Engels, of course, would have dismissed the proposal that there could be a mediator between the head and hands as preposterous.  Undoubtedly, they would call in to question Freder’s motives and would argue that Freder’s actions, far from radically transforming society, simply ensures that the status quo is maintained.  Their criticism would most likely mimic their criticism of bourgeoisie sympathizers in The Communist Manifesto:

A part of the bourgeoisie is desirous of redressing social grievances in order to secure the continued existence of bourgeois society.

To this section belong economists, philanthropists, humanitarians, improvers of the condition of the working class, organizers of charity, members of societies for the prevention of cruelty to animals, temperance fanatics, hole-and-corner reformers of every imaginable kind. This form of socialism has, moreover, been worked out into complete systems.  …

They desire the existing state of society, minus its revolutionary and disintegrating elements. They wish for a bourgeoisie without a proletariat. The bourgeoisie naturally conceives the world in which it is supreme to be the best; and bourgeois socialism develops this comfortable conception into various more or less complete systems. In requiring the proletariat to carry out such a system, and thereby to march straightaway into the social New Jerusalem, it but requires in reality that the proletariat should remain within the bounds of existing society, but should cast away all its hateful ideas concerning the bourgeoisie.

The criticism that Marx and Engels offer here certainly illuminates some of the problems with Metropolis.  While Freder is able to negotiate a reconciliation between the chief-foreman of the Heart Machine, Grot, and his father, Joh Fredersen, there is nothing in the movie that suggests that the reconciliation will substantially change the roles of either the workers or the capitalists.  Indeed, one can suppose that having done his bit, Freder will retreat to the Eternal Gardens to live out his days with Marie.  Beyond the symbolic Metropolis clock 1gesture Freder makes earlier in the movie by working one shift for Worker 11811, there is no evidence suggesting that he is either willing to give up his luxuries or that he is willing to actually work.

Marx and Engels would have also undoubtedly dismissed the conditionality of Freder’s horrified question to his father, “What if one day those in the depths rise against you?”  For them, it was not a matter of “if” but “when”.  They saw the eventual revolution as a historical inevitability.  Although they saw this revolution as the unavoidable consequence of capitalist society, Marx and Engels did not see individuals as acting in predetermined ways.  They believed in a the possibility of action as is evidenced by Marx’s assertion, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it” (Theses on Feuerbach).  Thus, while conflict between the proletariats and bourgeoisie was inevitable, and eventual victory preordained, the role of individuals in that struggle depended on the exercise of freewill.

Although Marx and Engels would have dismissed the general narrative of Metropolis, they would have valued some of the symbolism of the film.  For example, Marx predicted that workers would become alienated.  By this, he meant that through paid labor, workers would gradually lose control over their own lives.  Their time, and thus their lives, would belong to their employers.  The emphasis on the control of time is highlighted throughout the movie, first by opening shots of two clocks, and later by Freder’s operation of a machine that looks like a clock-face.  Indeed, as Freder strugglesMetroplis clock 2 to control the machine, a face of clock is superimposed over the face of the machine.  Significantly, it is never clear what that machine, or any of the other machines, produces beyond the labor of those who run the machines.

Marx explains the alienation that private property causes thus, “Presupposing private property, my work is an alienation of life, for I work in order to live, in order to obtain for myself the means of life. My work is not my life.”  The end result of such alienation is the dehumanizing of the worker.  In Metropolis, we are first introduced to the workers during a shift change.  The workers leaving the shift move at Machines metropolishalf the speed of the “fresh” workers entering the shift.  All of the workers move in lock step, suggesting that they are, in fact, automatons.  The scientist Rotwang’s decision to make a machine in to a human is merely the reverse of the process symbolized by the marching workers.

Rotwang is not merely the creator of the Machine-Man.   With his mechanical hand, he represents the hybrid of human and machine.  Rotwang justifies Rotwang Marie Metropolisthis loss of his hand noting, “Isn’t it worth the loss of a hand to have created the man of the future, the Machine-Man?”  Rotwang status as a Machine-Man that he dreams of creating  is further suggested by his plans to create a mechanical version of his lover.

The dehumanization of the workers is metaphorically extended in the scene where the M Machine is transformed into Moloch.  Just before that point, the workers appear to be no more than mere extensions of the machine.  It is unclear, in fact, whether they are operating the machine, or the machine is operating Machine god metropolisthem.  While the movie highlights the degradation of the workers in the depths, it would be wrong to assume that they are the only workers alienated from their labor.  Pay particular attention to the scene in Joh Fredersen’s office.  There, Josephat and the other clerks responsible for overseeing the operations of the city can be seen sweating over numbers.  Like the machines which are never shown to actually produce anything, the numbers also seem to be disconnected from any clear productive use, beyond simply producing labor.  Still, whatever the machines and numbers represent, they clearly have economic value, for the film tells us, “Fathers for whom every revolution of a machine wheel meant gold had created for their sons the miracle of the Eternal Gardens”.

The mechanization of people, as described above, would, according to Marx and Engels, be accompanied by a process whereby humans would increasingly be seen as commodities for consumption.  The workers in Metropolis, of course, exemplify an apparently endlessly renewable resource.  As soon as the first group of workers have died on the M Machine, a new cohort of workers arrives to replace them.  While this consumption of humans is most blatant in depictions of the workers, it also occurs in the lives of others.  The women in the Eternal Gardens are clearly meant to be “consumed” by Freder.  In the scene before Freder enters the garden, one of the young women exhibits her body for the approval of the master of ceremonies.  There is no question in her mind about her function in the Eternal Gardens.  Significantly, just as Marx and Engels fail to adequately address the question of liberation for women, so too, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis makes no commentary on the lives of these young women who appear, like exotic birds, to be trapped in a gilded cage.

Metropolis Marie dancingThe idea of the consumption of the female body extends to the erotic dance of the Marie robot.  Her dance illustrates the mechanization of the sex industry.  Just as the Marie robot is not a real woman, and has no emotional connection to the men for whom she performs, so too, in the modern porn industry, porn stars remain “fictional constructs” who fulfill male fantasies.  I hasten to note here that the women who play the porn stars are real, but that the personae that they take on are artificial.  Men, of course, are generally not interested in the women behind the porn personae, any more than the men in Metropolis are interested in the robot beneath the veneer of the exotic dancer.

Lang’s presentation of the Marie robot has to be given particular credit for foreshadowing some of the criticism of modern feminists.  In particular, the scene in which dozens of eyes are superimposed over the dancing robot foreshadows feminist theorist Laura Mulvey’s concept of scopophilia  (the pleasure one derives from watching another individual as a sexual object).  Scopophilia strips the subject—usually a woman—of her autonomy and of her voice, and transforms her from an active subject to a passive object—a commodity for the enjoyment of the male viewers.  As Laura Mulvey explains in her essay, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, “In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female.  The determining male gaze projects its fantasy onto the female figure, which is styled accordingly” (1989, 19).  In Metropolis, the male gaze projects its fantasy on to a robot, who is transformed, according to Mulvey, into the “silent image of woman still tied to her place as bearer, not maker, of meaning” (1989, 15).  Of course, we must keep in mind that the role assigned to the Marie robot is in no way different from the roles assigned to the living women in the Eternal Gardens.  They are all commodities who have been assigned a visual value by the male gaze.  Their transformation into commodities for male consumption will be re-echoed in other texts we will be examining, including The Stepford Wives and The Handmaid’s Tale.

Other things you should pay attention to in Metropolis are the religious themes (i.e. names like Marie, references to the tower of Babel and Revelation, and the presentation of the Marie robot as the rebirth of Venus, goddess of sexuality.)Venus rising from the sea


Works Cited

Mulvey, Laura.  1989.  “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.”  In Visual and Other Pleasures.  London:  Macmillan Press, pp. 14-26.






Welcome to my second post on The Handmaid’s Tale.  In this post I will be covering the following topics:  Marx’s concept of alienated labor as exemplified by the women in the Republic of Gilead, the use of religion in manufacturing the consent of men and women, and, briefly, the meaning of the “Historical Notes on The Handmaid’s Tale”.

            Offred:  The Exploited Worker

Marx argued that, in a market economy, workers are alienated from their labor.  What does this mean?  On one level, Marx was concerned with the fact that the work a worker did was less valuable than the product being produced.  The example of a McDonald’s employee should illustrate the point.  Billy makes the cheeseburger, which sells at a dollar a burger.  Of course, for McDonalds to make a profit, the corporation has to cover the expenses of the raw materials (the bun, the cheese, the meat), the cost of transporting those products, the overhead of running the physical plant (water, sewage, taxes, electricity, rent, etc) and the cost of paying Billy’s salary.  For all of this to happen, the time it takes Billy to make one burger, deliver it to the customer and ring up the sale, has to be less valuable than the burger itself.  If Billy was hired and only worked long enough to make one burger before being fired, the amount of money he would get paid would not be enough to buy the burger he just made.

Not only is Billy’s work immediately worth less than the product it produces, as he works faster, his labor decreases in value.  Let’s assume that when Billy starts working, he makes twenty cheese burgers an hour and that he is paid an hourly wage of seven dollars.  Over the week, Billy’s productivity increases to forty cheese burgers an hour.  His pay, however, doesn’t go up simply because he is more productive, and, of course, the price of a cheese burger doesn’t go down either.  What does this mean for Billy?  In monetary terms, the value of his labor has decreased.  Who benefits from Billy’s devalued labor?  McDonalds.  As Marx explains,

The worker becomes poorer the more wealth he produces, the more his production increases in power and extent. The worker becomes an ever cheaper commodity the more commodities he produces. The devaluation of the human world grows in direct proportion to the increase in value of the world of things. Labor not only produces commodities; it also produces itself and the workers as a commodity and it does so in the same proportion in which it produces commodities in general.


So, why do workers, like Billy, work at a loss?  Few workers make this unfair exchange simply because they enjoy their work (university professors being one of the notable exceptions).  Instead, workers work so that they can pay for the commodities that they need and want and so that they can fulfil their obligations as family members and citizens.  In other words, they work unwillingly. Again, Marx explains this quite clearly:

[T]he worker feels himself only when he is not working; when he is working, he does not feel himself. He is at home when he is not working, and not at home when he is working. His labor is, therefore, not voluntary but forced, it is forced labor. It is, therefore, not the satisfaction of a need but a mere means to satisfy needs outside itself. Its alien character is clearly demonstrated by the fact that as soon as no physical or other compulsion exists, it is shunned like the plague.  (

Put in other terms, if Billy could afford everything he wants without working for McDonalds, he would quit tomorrow.  On the other hand, a lucky few of us enjoy our work so much that even if we had the money to retire tomorrow, we would keep on working because our work is “the satisfaction of a need”.

Most workers, however, are alienated through labor on a number of levels.  On the one hand, they are generally not the owners of the products that they produce.  To the extent that they do enjoy the commodities produced, they do so through an uneven exchange of their time and labor for those commodities.  Furthermore, because they grudgingly have to pay through their labor, the time they spend working is no longer their own.  It belongs to someone else.  During the work day, the worker belongs to the corporation or boss that pays him or her.  While there are laws limiting the power of the boss or corporation, the worker is still disempowered.  This helps explain why waiters at some restaurants sing Happy Birthday to customers about whom they don’t know and don’t care.  Beyond that, however, the worker not only produces a commodity, he or she is a commodity.  Customers thus feel that they are not merely entitled to the services or goods for which they are paid, but also to certain form of behavior from the workers providing those services and products.  When businesses say that the customer is always right, they do not mean that the customer is always right in relation to the business but rather in relation to the worker serving the customer.  Of course, in America, every worker is also a consumer of the labor of others.  These daily experiences of consuming others unwilling labor divides workers from other workers.   From Marx’s perspective, all of these experiences create four different types of alienation:

The worker is alienated from his or her essential nature.  He or she works to live instead of living to work.  In other words, he or she begins to lose his or her essential humanity and become machinelike.

The worker is alienated from the product produced by his or her labor.  He or she does not own the product, in some cases can not afford to consume the product and frequently does not have a vested long-term interest in the product.  Usually the worker also does not have much if any personal input into the design of a product.

The worker is alienated from the means of production.  The corporation determines how the product or service will be produced, and the worker has little if any say in these decisions.  These decisions range from where one works to how long one works to even what types of clothing one may wear at work or when one can take a bathroom break.

The worker is alienated from his or her fellow workers.  The only reason why the worker spends any time with his or her coworkers is because they’re all paid to be their working.  Their encounters are artificial interactions brought about by the exchange of capital.  Furthermore, at the workplace, the social relationship that might naturally exist between these individuals is actively discouraged by the demands of production, and the workers find themselves in competition with each other.

By now you should be asking yourself, what does this have to do with Offred and the other handmaids.  You may have noted that in our last post I said that Offred could not be considered an employee of the Commander.  While this remains true—she isn’t an employee—she is very much an alienated laborer. For her and the other Handmaids, their labor consists of going into labor and thus producing the products—children.  These children, of course, are not theirs as becomes evident when the handmaid named Janine gives birth.  The child born by Janine is named by the Wives, because, “It’s the Wives who do the naming, around here” (163).  Indeed, the fact that Janine produces the child, but does not have any claim on the child is further indicated by Offred’s observation that Janine will “be transferred, to see if she can do it again, with someone else who needs a turn” (163).

What Janine’s experience illustrates is that Handmaids are neither lovers, nor mothers.  They are wombs charged with reproducing as many children as they can have.  As Offred explains, “We are for breeding purposes […].  We are two-legged wombs, that’s all:  sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices” (176).  Significantly, the language Offred uses suggests her role not as a laborer, but as a product.  She has become alienated from her essential humanity.  This transformation from person to product is predicted rather ruthlessly by Aunt Lydia, who is responsible for the indoctrination of the Handmaids.  She tells them, “A think is valued […]only if it is rare and hard to get.  We want you to valued, girls.  […] Think of yourselves as pearls” (145).  While Offred presumably does not see herself as a pearl, she has begun to see herself in utilitarian terms of purpose, instead of seeing herself as individual.  She rationalizes the removal of her identity, “My name isn’t Offred, I have another name which nobody uses now it’s forbidden.  I tell myself it doesn’t matter, your name is like your telephone number, useful only to others; but what I tell myself is wrong, it does matter” (108).  Unfortunately for her, the process of becoming a product is not far enough advanced for her quite to believe what she tells us, and she withdraws her assertion as soon as she makes it.

Given the division of labor, and the fact that the Handmaids come to see themselves not simply as producers, but rather products, it is logical that the care of the children produced by these wombs belongs to somebody else.  Products cannot care, after all, for other products.  Someone else must consume the products.  This explains, in part, why Offred’s daughter from her marriage to Luke is taken away from her to be raised by somebody else.  Offred is estranged from the child she has produced.

Through this whole process, it should be noted that while the Handmaids suffer a deterioration from being humans to being product-machines, the infants they produce experience an amelioration from being products to being humans.  Offred’s daughter, placed with a new family, is perhaps viewed as a person in a way that Offred is not.  That said, because Offred’s daughter is a woman, she too will be consumed, either as a Wife, an Econowife, a Martha, or a Handmaid, or she will be disposed of as an Unwoman.

Like Marx’s envisioned workers, Offred is also alienated from the means of production.  Sex occurs when she is most fertile.  Because sex is work, it is not meant to be pleasurable.  Offred notes, “This is not recreation, even for the Commander.  This is serious business.  The Commander, too, is doing his duty” (122).  Indeed, in spite of the apparently “intimate” nature of the relationship between Offred, Serena Joy and the Commander, from very early on Serena Joy informs Offred, “As far as I’m concerned, this is like a business transaction”(21).  The fact that the Commander also sees these sexual encounters as business, not pleasure, is indicated by the fact that he prays for “a blessing, and for success in all our ventures” (117).  Sex is a venture, and from Offred’s description, one that both the Commander and she would prefer to successfully complete as quickly as possible.  For Offred, the possibility of impregnation signifies a brief respite from her work.  She will be well treated during the pregnancy and not be required to perform her duties during the few months following the birth before she is transferred.

Although Offred only benefits in limited terms from any pregnancy, like most workers she has partially consented to the ideology under which she suffers.  She notes to the reader that she is not being raped because “nothing is going on here that I haven’t signed-up for.  There wasn’t a lot of choice, but there was some, and this is what I chose” (121).  She has also bought into the ideology of the Republic of Gilead in as much as she has come to see herself as others see her.  Offred informs us that, “Every month I watch for blood, fearfully, for when it comes it means failure.  I have failed once again to fulfill the expectations of others, which have become my own”  (95).  The sense of failure she expresses, of course, has nothing to do with her own goals and desires.  There is nothing to suggest that she wishes to have a child at this time in her life.  Her life has become not an end of its own, but rather a means to an end, which is precisely how Marx defined the alienating effect of labor.

There is, however, an ironic twist in Offred’s role as “an ambulatory womb”.  Offred’s mother earlier made use of her father in much the same way that Offred is used by the Commander.  Offred remembers her mother saying, “A man is just a woman’s strategy for making other women.  Not that your father wasn’t a nice guy and all, but he wasn’t up to fatherhood.  Not that I expected it of him.  Just do the job, then you can bugger off, I said […]”  (155).  The difference between the position of Offred’s unnamed father and herself is perhaps only that he has more options that she does, and agrees to do “the job” because it is something he wants to do.  Like Offred though, he is not expected to be invested in the baby-product that is born as a consequence of his “work”.  If Offred is an ambulatory womb, then her father was, at least from her mother’s point of view, merely an ambulatory penis.  In both cases, the “worker” is alienated on several levels from the process of (re)production.