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Capital, Distance, and 'Sorry to Bother You'

This post contains major spoilers for the movie ‘Sorry to Bother You’ from sentence one, so please stop reading now if you don’t want the movie spoiled for you.

Sorry to Bother You’s twist reveals that WorryFree CEO Steve Lift is transforming workers into horse-human hybrids because it will make them “stronger, more obedient, more durable, and therefore, more efficient and profitable.” This quote comes from a promotional video WorryFree has put together to pitch the idea and Lift is showing it to protagonist Cassius Green in an attempt to calm him down after discovering the equisapiens and convince him to become one himself for $100 million. In this scene, the movie’s central political critique is laid bare: Capitalism breeds a worldview that believes efficiency, obedience, and profit are intrinsically moral principles.

Lift tells Cassius he wants to show him the video to prove he isn’t “doing this for no reason” and that the idea—which, to reiterate, is performing gene modification on humans to turn them into half-horses—”isn’t irrational.” When Cassius pushes back and asks in a horrified voice if he’s doing this “so you can make more money,” Lift’s response is a flippant “Yeah, basically.” To Lift, needing any more justification beyond profit is the absurd idea being presented. He couldn’t possibly conceive of any further rationale needed because profit is the ultimate moral good in his eyes.

We live in a world where Amazon warehouse workers piss in bottles instead of using a bathroom so they don’t miss their quota of boxes filled during a shift and get fired. Here, the value of efficiency and profit is placed above that of human dignity. The quota is in service of spreadsheets and charts, humans be damned. The same way Lift only needs to rationalize a policy of gene modification in the name of profit, so do the capitalists of our own world rationalize dehumanizing workplace practices to satisfy the charts and spreadsheets they’re tracking. As long as the numbers are headed in the right direction, that’s the end of the discussion.

In this way, Sorry to Bother You’s critique rings true because it doesn’t mischaracterize the motives of capitalists. It doesn’t try to pull any punches or lean on lazy interpretations of free market ideologies. Lift’s plan may be absurd, but his rationale for doing it is straight from the mouths of any businessman in America right now.

What makes this worldview a moral nightmare is that it’s dehumanizing. Abstracting humanity into data points to manipulate in the name of profit is the ultimate embrace of “the ends justify the means.” As long as the ends are seen as good in a vacuum, the means and their effects are never even considered. To obfuscate humanity behind the data creates an impersonal distance between all of us and validates the mistreatment of each other while feeling self-righteous about doing it. It creates men like Steve Lift who are confused and insulted when asked to provide more rationale for taking action than it making them more money. And it creates corporate bureaucrats who are incentivized to punish workers so a line on a graph looks better to their boss.

This particular brand of western, corporate capitalism explored in the movie has been argued as the end of our ideological evolution for almost 30 years. It can feel overwhelming to just accept the homogenous, numbing oppression of Steve Lift types that will lord over us and to just get in line, work the charts, and shut up, with the exact docile obedience Lift wants from the equisapians. But Sorry to Bother You leaves hope for us to move beyond this so-called end of history. In the movie’s climax, the equisapians are released and fight back, mirroring the idea of a proletarian revolution.

Corporate capitalism doesn’t have to be the end of history, and we don’t have to create impersonal, dehumanizing relationships between ourselves based on shallow, selfish justifications. We can create a moral vision of optimism and hope. There is a space in this world for that flower to bloom and Sorry to Bother You is one raindrop on that seed.