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CounterPunch readers who follow my film reviews probably are aware that I avoid superlatives. That being the case, when I tell you that “Machines”, a documentary that opens on Wednesday August 9th at the Film Forum in New York, is the most powerful Marxist treatment of labor exploitation that I have seen in 25 years of reviewing film, you’d better believe me.
This is the first film ever made by Rahul Jain, a 25-year old Delhi-born director who originally considered titling the film “Machines Don’t Go On Strike”. Filmed almost entirely in a vast dungeon of a textile mill in Gujarat, it is hard not to see the workers as being an extension of the machines they operate. Marx described such factory life in Chapter 10 of V. 1 of Capital, titled “The Working Day”:
It usurps the time for growth, development, and healthy maintenance of the body. It steals the time required for the consumption of fresh air and sunlight. It higgles over a meal-time, incorporating it where possible with the process of production itself, so that food is given to the labourer as to a mere means of production, as coal is supplied to the boiler, grease and oil to the machinery.
This is exactly what you see in “Machines”, a process in which workers are slaves to the machine. It is what Charlie Chaplin depicted comically in “Modern Times” and Fritz Lang depicted more darkly in “Metropolis”. As long as capitalism exists, this is the fate of the working class. In the USA, many workers wax nostalgic for the $20-40 jobs that prevailed in the 60s but for the Gujarat textile workers, the hope is for an 8-hour day and a wage that enables them to send a bit home to their family, some living thousands of miles away. Most of them appear to be ex-farmers who have been crushed by debt and drought. In the decades before Marx was born, it was the Enclosure Acts that accomplished the same results. Peasants were robbed of their means of self-subsistence and forced into the textile mills of Birmingham and Manchester that William Blake referred to as dark and satanic.
Dark and satanic are words that immediately come to mind when “Machines” begins. For the first 15 minutes of the film, you see nothing but men operating machinery. The plant looks fairly ancient with poor lighting and no air conditioning. Except for the modern machines, they are housed in a building not that different from late 18th century England at the dawn of the industrial revolution that Engels described in “The Conditions of the Working Class in England”: “The atmosphere of the factories is, as a rule, at once damp and warm, usually warmer than is necessary, and, when the ventilation is not very good, impure, heavy, deficient in oxygen, filled with dust and the smell of the machine oil, which almost everywhere smears the floor, sinks into it, and becomes rancid.”
The workers share their stories with Jain. One man in his forties describes his day. He works the first shift that lasts 12 hours and then goes home to make himself dinner and eat, taking no longer than an hour since he has to return to the mill for the second shift of 12 hours. To exploit the work force, the boss has them on 36 or 48 hour weeks made up of 12 hour shifts. To make it through the day, the worker relies on chewing tobacco in the same way that Bolivian tin miners relied on coca leaves. So meager are his wages that he cannot even afford cigarettes.
Although other workers do not tell Jain their age, it is obvious that they are 15 or 16 years old. One youth tending to a dyeing machine can barely keep his eyes open. Like other workers in the factory who try to put the best possible spin on their situation, another states that starting work there as a child has its benefits. By the time you are an adult, you have mastered a wide range of machines and can therefore be useful to the boss.
Like workers everywhere, the men were both slaves to the machine in this Gujarat mill as well as their masters. You see a worker using an improvised tool to help him move an enormous barrel of dye across the floor by rotating it on its axis. This mill relies on a combination of brains and muscle rather than fork-lift trucks so necessity is the mother of invention.
Despite the oppressive nature of the work being depicted in the film, you remain mesmerized by the work itself. Jain gained unprecedented access to the factory and his camera trains in on every nook and cranny. Many years ago when I was in grade school, our class was taken on a “field trip” to the Ford plant in Mahwah, New Jersey (which closed long ago) and like most of the kids I stared agape at the complex interaction between men, women and machine. You even get sense of pride from the workers in “Machine” that they are up to the task of earning a wage there, no matter how meager.
Director Rahul Jain knows such life first-hand but not as a worker. In the press notes, he states:
As a five year-old boy I used to roam around in my grandfather’s now-defunct textile mill in Surat, in India’s Gujarat state. It was easy to get lost in the labyrinthine corridors. I was overwhelmed by the machines as a three-feet tall kindergartener. It was this sensation of being minuscule in front of the gigantic processing machines that took me back to a similar factory twenty years later – this time with a camera. I remember in fragments getting lost in the long aisles of [textile] printing machines, enjoying the smell of coal in the factory’s boiler rooms maybe because it was forbidden for me to be there in the first place.
Despite his class origins, Jain’s loyalties are with the workers who are center stage through most of the film. He does spend a few minutes showing us what their bosses are about. We see them in a conference room with buyers from the Middle East as they examine fabric samples. The discussion turns to how their prices compare to Korean manufacturers, a sign that globalization has made the competitive textile industry a “race to the bottom” that forces the 12-hour day in Gujarat.
Naturally, one might ask why workers cannot organize a trade union that would fight for an 8-hour day and a living wage. One worker explains why. Whenever they have started a union, the boss always hires thugs to kill the leader. This is a society that despite its democratic façade has much in common with Latin American dictatorships.
Despite their class differences, the workers obviously saw Jain’s team as a way of turning the world’s attention to injustices inside the textile sector in India. The director stated in the press notes: “Venturing into many factories I have gotten a sense of my class, my identity among the 1.3 billion Indians I share my nationality with. A good fraction of the laborers don’t reveal their stories to me, probably due my association with the owners. But a majority of them are able to open up past our immediate and social differences, revealing the circumstances that lead them here.”
Perhaps the director managed to get the owner of the plant to drop his defenses by emphasizing his social ties to one of “his own”. That’s the trick that Charles Ferguson, a one-time consultant to the Department of Defense, used to line up interviews with economists such as Martin Feldstein and Glenn Hubbard in “Inside Job”, his exposé of the sordid ties between academics and Wall Street. When Hubbard finally figured out that Ferguson had his number, he threw him out of his office at Columbia University.
The big boss is a ghastly figure but no more ghastly than the bosses Karl Marx refers to in chapter 10 on the Working Day. He complains to Jain about how the workers are not as hungry as they used to be when he started the company. When you have a full belly, you lack ambition. Meanwhile as the conversation continues, Jain’s camera trains on the Sony closed-circuit TV on the wall next to the boss that he uses to spy on workers as if they were in prison.
As it happens, just by coincidence, I was half-way through a 701-page book titled India, Modernity and the Great Divergence by Kaveh Yazdani that looks closely at the lives of both rich and poor in 18th century India, including Gujarat, when I saw “Machines”. In an email to Yazdani, I mentioned that I was curious to see what he had to say about textile workers in the Gujarat of yore as a way of gauging how much progress there has been over the past 250 years or so. He replied that the forces of production have been revolutionized, just as Marx said they would by capitalism, and also referred to “a higher degree of equality before the law than in previous times”. Clearly, bourgeois democracy is an advance over feudal conditions but one has to wonder if Indian is drifting toward a horrific blend of capitalist modernization and medieval cruelty under Modi’s neoliberal regime.
Yazdani does mention the conditions of the largely self-employed weavers in Gujarat but obviously not in the level of detail found in Jain’s film:
In contrast to Bengal and South-Eastern India, the earnings and living standards of weavers in Gujarat still remain unknown. The European records only give information about the salaries of suppliers. In Surat [where Jain’s grandfather owned a mill], the wage of a spinner amounted to about Rs 8.5 for spinning a man of yarn, which took a woman working full-time approximately 80 days. This was a sum of about Rs 3.18 a month. According to Subramanian, the ‘Muslim weavers lived in poverty and were deep in debt to the Bania contractors and moneylenders.’ This has been corroborated by 17th century contemporaries like Mandelslo, Pelsaert and Fryer who reported that artisans were poor and possessed negligible spending capacities. Although Nadri agrees that merchants and intermediaries (contractors, brokers) gained the lion’s share of profits, he contradicts the negative picture concerning the position of weavers. Similar to the findings of Chaudhuri and Parthasarathi for other regions of India, he refers to the firm economic stance of Gujarati weavers, marked by high competition among buyers (e.g. British, Dutch and Portuguese companies and private traders), the contracted supply of cloth at market price and the weaver’s option to sell to the highest bidder. As a result, he opines that weavers and other laborers held firm negotiations.
Of course, the ability of 18th century weavers to combine as a bloc against the contractors and merchants was key to whatever economic gains they made. This would be as true today if the factory worker could only gain the same kind of leverage.
Undoubtedly Prime Minister Narendra Modi would identify closely with the boss that Jain interviewed since he is the embodiment of the new regime that runs counter to the traditional welfare state values of the Congress Party that in its waning years veered to the right just like the Democrats in the USA. Modi’s triumph, after all, is cut from the same cloth as Donald Trump’s. Modi was the Chief Minister of Gujarat in 2002 when Hindus launched pogroms against Muslims, costing the lives of 790 Muslims and 254 Hindus. Given the Islamophobia that is sweeping the planet, no wonder Trump and Modi have bonded so well.
While it is easy to cast Modi as a villain, the plight of Gujarat workers has as much to do with neglect by the Congress Party in the same way that the Democratic Party wrote off blue-collar workers.
In an article titled “Ahmedabad’s Alienated Textile Workers” that appeared in the Fall 2002 India International Center Quarterly, Darryl D’Monte provides a useful historical overview of the textile industry in Gujarat’s largest city and former capital that was called “the Manchester of India”.
Ahmedabad was a hotbed of worker unrest in the early 20th century. In 1918, workers went out on strike demanding a 50 percent raise from the owners who presided over sixty mills. Gandhi intervened to prevent a strike, even going on a hunger strike to pressure the bosses and workers to agree to only a 35 percent raise. Despite Gandhi, the bosses declared a lock-out and only took workers back if they accepted the original 20 percent.
In 1920, the Textile Labour Association (TLA) was founded with the blessing of Gandhi who had persuaded the bosses that a union based on class peace was in their interest as well as the workers. In 1923, when the bosses demanded a 20 percent cut in wages, the workers organized a 90 day strike that fizzled out. The bosses also eliminated the yearly bonus, a decision that the TLA accepted without protest.
Gandhian paternalism permeated the textile industry with the TLA assigning its representatives to resolve disputes over the heads of workers. Because of the authority of the Congress Party, the TLA became the dominant trade union in Gujarat. In 1981, its rolls included 135,000 out of the 150,000 textile workers in Gujarat. Like the AFL-CIO, the union was based on class collaboration.
Because of global competition and a failure by either the state or capitalist class to invest in upgrading the textile mills in Gujarat, the industry has fallen on hard times just as the American textile industry declined around the same time. Plant closings became an epidemic.
We can be assured that Modi will have little interest in providing support for a once thriving industry. The conditions faced by workers in Rahul Jain’s powerful documentary will likely continue to worsen until they find a way to confront the bosses whose Modi’s rivals in the Congress Party also sought common interest with. That is the state of the class struggle everywhere in the world today and destined for a reversal of fortune if and when the workers have had enough. The fact that the workers in “Machines” had the courage to be filmed despite the risks to themselves and their family is a sign that those days are approaching nigh.