As a sympathetic portrayal of the conditions suffered by workers within the so called ‘gig economy’, the latest piece of cinema from veteran chronicler of working-class life Ken Loach can be appreciated as recording a raw, utilitarian snapshot of proletarian existence in contemporary Britain.
The action focuses on a family whose aspiration to financial stability has been dashed by the 2008 financial crash, and chronicles the traumatic situations they attempt to deal with throughout the film as various hammer-blows are dealt to their struggle to claw themselves back to a position of moderate comfort – a position they had been on the cusp of consolidating when their mortgage savings were wiped out by the Northern Rock building society’s collapse.
While father Ricky signs himself up as a ‘self-employed’ delivery driver for a large corporate logistics company, mother Abbie hauls herself on and off buses to administer home care to the elderly and vulnerable ‘clients’ of a private healthcare company.
Abbie’s reliance on crumbling public transport infrastructure follows the forced sell-off of her car to enable Ricky to put a down payment on a delivery vehicle – the only way he can avoid paying the extortionate day-rate charged for using one of his employer’s own white vans.
The narrative, informed by the many off-the-record interviews conducted by Loach and screen-writer Paul Laverty, brings to life the convoluted, jargon-filled horror of Britain’s sham ‘self-employment’ workers, exposing a bureaucratic labyrinth of buzzwords and get-out clauses designed to leave the employer with no responsibility for the worker, who, with a requirement to perform ever-intensifying labour (in this case whilst being monitored by a microchipped GPS device to track movement), is pushed ever closer to the brink of psychological breakdown.
The depiction of intensified labour is perhaps the most effective aspect of the film, with Ricky’s desperate attempts to deliver his parcels within the allotted timeframe mirrored by Abbie’s despair at the gulf between the care required by the vulnerable elderly and disabled people she visits on her rounds and the tightly limited slots within which she has to administer to them before leaving to visit the next person.
On this point, Loach has made a valiant effort to illustrate the maddeningly impossible expectations forced onto workers engaged in these types of work, highlighting the ludicrousness of such terms as ‘self-employed’ or even ‘business owner’ that workers in these sectors are often forced to adopt.
Still, given the conditions facing these heavily-exploited sections of the British working class, one is struck, as one is with almost all of the director’s output, by the almost total lack of creativity in suggesting solutions to the problems of crisis-ridden capitalism.
As with Loach and Laverty’s 2016 film, I, Daniel Blake, the tone feels more like an appeal directed at the more privileged sections of society to please spare a thought for those who deliver their eBay purchases or bathe and wash their elderly relatives – and possibly to consider helping them out by voting Labour at the next general election – than it does a call to the downtrodden workers themselves to organise on the basis of their shared class interest and fight back.
The abject despair of the film’s characters creates a sense of hopelessness, overriding all other routes the mind may take whilst processing the dramatic events on screen. While these are reasonably authentic from the characters’ point of view, this disarms them of any individual agency by setting them in a depressing spiral of calamity – isolated from the society around them, from their wider class, and from each other.
This is not to say this is a bad film. Anyone who has ever been enraged by a delivery driver’s failure to wait long enough for the front door to be unlocked, or by the seeming inability of a careworker to provide the care one thinks has been paid for, would benefit from seeing the world through the eyes of those struggling to provide these services via a privatised and fragmented system. It is not difficult to imagine that the dramatic narrative of the film could very well spur some percentage of viewers to engage themselves in political activity in defence of the working class, and if so that should be celebrated.
The flaws of Sorry We Missed You are not a result of over-dramatisation of the subject, or of the director’s use of mostly first-time actors in casting (the actors, mostly untrained, as with other output from Loach, achieve an admirably authentic atmosphere in their interactions with one another), but stem from the total lack of hope or inspiration for workers faced with such injustices and degradations as are depicted in the film, and to which the dictatorship of capital is increasingly subjecting us.
Ultimately, such pessimism reflects a fundamental lack of faith in the working class’s ability to organise, to fight back, to make a socialist revolution and to build a new society. The director has seen what is bad in capitalist society but seems incapable of seeing the put-upon proletarians he depicts as anything other than pitiable victims; as weak individuals rather than as part of a mass that, once organised and properly directed, will be capable of achieving miracles.
Having attended the CPGB-ML celebration to mark the Great October Socialist Revolution the evening before seeing the film, this author noted the stark contrast between the powerful speeches of our party’s young working-class cadres and the hopeless, depressing predicament of the working-class characters depicted in the film. Whilst the latter evoked guilt, despair and hand-wringing from its audience, the former evoked pride in the historical achievements of the revolutionary working class under the banner of scientific socialism, bringing with it clarity, commitment and a determination to continue the struggle against capital to its final victory.
With this in mind, it is a great pity that Loach, poisoned long ago by Trotskyite despondency, remains blind to the inspiring achievements of Soviet socialism during the Stalin era, reasserting at every opportunity his belief in the anticommunist propaganda peddled by Trotsky himself in exile and gleefully disseminated by the imperialist bourgeoisie ever since.
During an interview with RT Going Underground presenter Afshin Rattansi, Loach declared that the British working class’s lack of interest in socialism was a result of the ‘purges and gulags’ associated with Josef Stalin’s leadership, rather than being the natural consequence of the collapse of Soviet socialism following decades of Khrushchevite revisionism, which was reflected here in Britain by the communist movement’s abdication of the class struggle for socialism in favour of cheer-leading for a few ‘worker-friendly reforms’ from an imperialist Labour government.
Only when broad masses of our working class understand that they are capable of replacing the dictatorship of capital with working-class rule, and of running society on a socialist rather than a profit-driven basis will they be able to lead purposeful, fulfilling lives, organising production to meet people’s needs and ensuring a secure, cultured and rising standard of living for all.
Workers themselves have the ability to use the tools of Marxism Leninism to this end; it is the duty of communists to put these tools in their hands. When Marxism is successfully grasped by the masses, there is nothing they will not be able to achieve.