In a year-end think piece on the films of 2010, New York Times critic A. O. Scott posited that the 2008 economic crisis and ensuing near-depression incited many Hollywood productions to "suddenly bristle with something that looks like class consciousness." Boston films had pride of place in this account: not only the working-class dramas of David O. Russell's The Fighter and Ben Affleck's The Town, but also David Fincher's Harvard-located The Social Network, whose central conflict, as Scott observed, was motivated by the class ressentiment felt by its middle-class protagonist, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, toward the aristocratic Winklevoss twins. Yet Scott's brief discussion of another Boston-centered tale from 2010, one that directly thematized the economic downturn, evinced a telling misrecognition: Scott described John Wells's The Company Men as one of many recent popular culture offerings about "the fear of dropping out of the middle class," despite the fact that its three main characters are all high-level, lavishly compensated corporate executives. Scott's mistake here, though, is one that The Company Men encourages, as it envisions the economic and social insecurity that has been felt most brutally by working- and middle-class people—and which has been recently theorized by many political thinkers and activists under the banner of "precarity"—but instead visits this experience on a group of wealthy protagonists. In a distorted but nonetheless suggestive manner, then, The Company Men serves to depict "precarity" as a cross-class experience, as it seeks to relate the experience of its haut-bourgeois main characters to the other class identities made available by the film's Boston location. This attempted depiction of cross-class precarity, in turn, marks The Company Men as a telling symptom of the political possibilities and dangers of such formulations.
Granted, it may seem perverse to link the lost class prerogatives of corporate elites to the political project announced by the theorization of precarity—a project that seeks to identify and critique a world being unmade and remade by these same elites. Indeed, over the past decade critics and activists have used the term "precarity" to specify the particular kinds of social and economic vulnerability generated by the current global economy (characterized variously as late capitalism, neoliberalism, post-Fordism, liquid modernity, the risk society, and so on). 1 In these critical accounts, the fraying of the social safety net and the attenuation of other forms of worker protection following on capital's demand for a more "flexible" workforce have generated a material and affective experience of profound insecurity. That said, many of these arguments strive to articulate precarity as a cross-class experience: the stronger versions assert that contemporary conditions have generated a new "precariat" which is made up of not only the traditional working classes (as well as undocumented immigrants and other marginalized subjects not normally represented by labor movement institutions), but also many kinds of highly educated professional workers who have become newly exposed to the vicissitudes of contingent employment. Thus, these commentators invoke the concept of precarity in a way similar to the Occupy movement's rhetoric of the 1% and the 99%: they are both discursive strategies that oscillate between descriptive and prescriptive iterations, making strategic claims about shared insecurity in order to encourage wider forms of solidarity, even as these claims often obscure as much as they reveal about differently situated experiences of social vulnerability.
Still, even if one uncritically embraces these claims for the rise of a cross-class precariat, one might still balk at calling The Company Men a document of precarity, mainly because its central characters all basically belong to the 1%. The film's three male protagonists—Bobby, Phil, and Gene—are all wealthy executives of one kind or another at the fictional conglomerate GTX, a corporation that started out as a shipbuilding enterprise before expanding into other industries such as health care. The storyline, which takes place after the September 2008 economic implosion, follows the three men as they grapple with their loss of social and economic status after being fired from the company. As Sight & Sound's Michael Atkinson puckishly observed in his review of the film, The Company Men seems to presume "a broad-base sympathy for unemployed workers regardless of how large their mansions are or how many Porsches they own" (54). Atkinson was not kidding: one anguished conversation between Ben Affleck's Bobby and his wife Maggie (Rosemarie DeWitt) revolves around their horrific realization that, given the depressed housing market, they will be able to get only $850,000 for their house, while the scene in which Bobby sells his Porsche is mawkishly accompanied by sincere, minor-chord acoustic guitar strumming. But despite the film's unintentionally comic attempts to inspire pity for men like Tommy Lee Jones's Gene—whose sudden termination from the company is cushioned only by the millions of dollars in stock options he takes with him—The Company Men nonetheless operates according to what we might call the narrative structures and affective registers of precarity. These narrative and affective elements enable the film to dramatize, albeit in a displaced manner, some of the key sources of precarity in contemporary U.S. political economy, even if these dramatizations are ultimately put into the service of what Lauren Berlant has called the "cruel optimism" of post-Fordist culture.
To illustrate how these dynamics play out in The Company Men, let me first offer a provisional definition of precarity as a narrative condition: a story about characters whose previous repertoires of actions and beliefs are no longer able to find purchase within the social order. This definition, it must be noted, could apply to any number of works in the history of the novel, but this actually highlights an important point about precarity, which is that it is not a new phenomenon of our current political economic moment, but rather a historically common and persistent experience of capitalism. 2 Furthermore, as Angela Mitropoulos reminds us, "the experience of regular, full-time, long-term employment which characterized the most visible, mediated aspects of Fordism is an exception in capitalist history." (Not to mention the fact that, as Mitropoulos also points out, this experience of stability relied on "vast amounts of unpaid domestic labour by women and hyper-exploited labour in the colonies.") That said, I would argue that much of the contemporary interest in the concept of precarity stems from the attenuation and/or disappearance of this exceptional, Fordist arrangement, in which capital agreed to a set of employment protections and social insurance programs in exchange for rising productivity and a relative lack of workplace conflict. This understanding of how precarity is currently felt—as the disappearance of Fordism's quasi-reliable rhythms of secure employment and welfare state support—also helps explain why "precarity" has become a politically resonant organizing tool in Europe but not in the United States. In the first place, Europe's social democracies, with their stronger labor movements, installed more robust social mechanisms of security than those found in the U.S. Moreover, as Mika LaVaque-Manty has suggested, Europeans have in general treated social vulnerability as a "political" question, while U.S. ideology has tended to "naturalize vulnerability," thus rendering its overcoming "an individual responsibility [and] ... achievement" (2-3).
The Company Men often does just this, most pointedly through Bobby's storyline, in which the hot-shot sales exec comes to have his arrogance narratively chastened by his fall from corporate grace, while his eventual reform is guaranteed by his discovery of the honest toil of manual labor (more on this shortly). Bobby's return to white-collar work at the film's close, then, is characterized as his individual triumph over adversity, rather than a product of re-organized social conditions of work. Still, what is noteworthy about Bobby's—and Gene's, and Phil's—downward trajectories is that they are all punctuated by moments in which their fellow wealthy white men either refuse, or are unable, to help them in any meaningful way. After his termination, Bobby has lunch with his mentor Gene to see if he can get his job back (this is before Gene himself is let go), but Gene briskly explains that his firing was part of a "lesser of two evils" solution to save the company. Phil (Chris Cooper) not only begs Gene to save his division, but also finds himself pleading with an old friend at another company, hoping to procure a job after his dismissal from GTX. Gene, in turn, repeatedly tries to use his personal relationship with the company's CEO (whom Gene introduces, at a celebratory banquet, as his "oldest friend, college roommate, [and] best man") in an effort to mitigate the layoffs, only to ultimately find himself on the chopping block as well.
I want to argue that what the film is tracing here is a breakdown of the "old boy network" under the pressure of neoliberal capitalism. In each of the scenes I've just mentioned—as well as others throughout the film—one corporate white male explains to the other that there is nothing he can do to alleviate the other's suffering and despair; moreover, they all are told that the dictates of the market require that they be thrown out of a job (and then be denied access to another one like it). To put it in the narrative language of precarity, the repertoire of beliefs and actions that these upper-class white men had relied on in the past—the leveraging of personal connections and common life experiences, as well as shared race, gender, and class privilege—are no longer sufficient to guarantee them a secure place in the late capitalist social order. In this way—which is to say, not despite but because of the profound class myopia that informs the film's decision to focus on the first-world problems of unemployed one percenters—The Company Men manages to signify a peculiarly American experience of precarity. For in a country with a relatively weak labor movement and a concomitant paucity of welfare state provisions, accompanied by a dominant ideology that naturalizes vulnerability, it would make sense that a cinematic rendering of precarity would envision it as a collapse of informal and seemingly non-political institutions of social protection. In other words, the film's transcoding of contemporary experiences of economic insecurity felt largely by the working and middle classes onto a set of conspicuously wealthy characters accomplishes not simply the wish-fulfillment of imagining precarious life that is nonetheless materially comfortable (an ideological contradiction that also enables the pleasures of schadenfreude, as we watch the haut-bourgeois figures lose at least some of their class privileges). This transcoding also allows the film to approach an understanding of precarity as a failure not simply of individual will and ambition, but also of social networks of collective support in the process of being dismantled by neoliberal logics—a difficult task in a culture with relatively few ways of recognizing such networks as specifically political entities that serve to intervene in the balance of class power.
Of course, there is another kind of social network of collective support that is often aligned cinematically with white men—that is, the working-class community—and The Company Men eventually turns to this community as an answer to the failed solidarity of Bobby, Phil, and Gene's old boy networks. When Bobby starts to feel financially desperate (relatively speaking, of course—he realizes he can't buy his kid an Xbox) he agrees to accept a construction job from his contractor brother-in-law, Jack (Kevin Costner). Bobby had earlier disdained this job as beneath him, but now Jack not only hires Bobby but also puts a little extra money in his paychecks despite his inept work performance. Jack has also, we learn, underbid and subsequently been losing money on a job in order keep Bobby and his fellow manual laborers employed throughout the winter. This lesson in non-market-based social ethics is part of what helps Bobby reform his previous corporate selfishness. What marks Jack's gesture of solidarity as specifically working-class in nature is, of course, his South Boston accent; therefore, even though Jack is, technically speaking, Bobby's boss, his gestures of support toward him are marked as derived from a shared laboring position, in which one blue-collar worker helps another out. The class-specificity of these acts of solidarity is underlined by their marked contrast to the lack of empathy and support Bobby receives from his fellow executives. Moreover, one of the signs that Bobby has been changed by his experience as a blue-collar worker is that his own previously suppressed working-class Boston accent—he is revealed to be the son of a plumber—starts to creep back into his voice, and remains present even as he gets a new white-collar job, at the film's close, working for Gene's new shipbuilding company.
It is important to acknowledge, though, that despite these endorsements of working-class solidarity, the film's representations of classed experience are risibly out-of-whack. The Company Men depicts a world in which executive class life is one of relentlessly anxiety and vulnerability, while working-class labor is imagined as an unproblematic site of stability and security: Jack explains to Bobby that he can afford to lose a bit of money on this job because "Sometimes I'm up, sometimes I'm down. It all comes out in the end." Similarly misguided is the idea that, during an economic crisis catalyzed by the collapse of the housing bubble, one can always fall back on construction work as a reliable Plan B. More important to recognize, though, is that the alternative, working-class social network of collective support the film presents is once again an informal, non-political one. Indeed, Jack and Bobby are related (by marriage); The Company Men's answer to the problem of late capitalism's destruction of previous forms of social insurance (embodied, as in a funhouse mirror, by the failed old boy's club) is a localized and familial bond, as if these kinds of bonds are not precisely what are being ravaged in the churn of ruthlessly restructured globalized labor markets.
This film's misrecognition of the political value of Bobby's cross-class experience is most profoundly dramatized in Gene's speech to Bobby after they meet at Phil's funeral. Walking through an abandoned shipyard, Gene evokes the lost world of Fordist manufacturing, which he describes as one in which workers made "an honest wage" and "fed their kids, bought homes ... [and] sent their kids to college." But Gene ultimately locates the value of this arrangement in what that laboring regime produced: things, physical entities that you can "see, smell, touch," as opposed to the "paperwork" and "figures on a balance sheet" of executive, immaterial labor. This emphasis on sensory tactility is visually highlighted by the scene's artful shots of decaying infrastructure,From The Company Men, dir. John Wells, The Weinstein Company, 2010.From The Company Men, dir. John Wells, The Weinstein Company, 2010.From The Company Men, dir. John Wells, The Weinstein Company, 2010.From The Company Men, dir. John Wells, The Weinstein Company, 2010.
which draw our attention to the now-exotic textures of rusting metals as well as the cavernous emptiness of this former site of productive work. This constellation of word and image serves to reinforce Bobby's newly acquired understanding of the "honest" work of manual labor, and of the ethic of hard work itself. But this of course makes the crucial error of locating the success of Fordism in what it produced, as opposed to how it organized work and compensated workers. Rather than praise the social contract that enabled manual laborers to afford homes and college educations for their children—a social contract won by the political interventions of the labor movement—The Company Men makes a fetish of manual labor itself. Gene may be right that the shipbuilders of GTX "knew their worth; knew who they were," but only the social and political institutions of Fordism recognized this worth (however imperfectly) and afforded them a (temporarily) secure place in its social order.
This belief in the restorative powers of physical labor, in the idea that hard work itself will somehow provide a bulwark against social and economic vulnerability, partakes in the "cruel optimism" that Lauren Berlant defines as "a relation of attachment to compromised conditions of possibility whose realization is discovered either to be impossible, sheer fantasy, or too possible, and toxic." Berlant continues that what makes this optimism cruel is that those who live in it "might not well endure the loss of their object/scene of desire, even though its presence threatens their well-being, because ... the continuity of the form of it provides something of the continuity of the subject's sense of what it means to keep on living on and to look forward to being in the world" (24; emphasis in the original). I would submit that The Company Men, almost despite itself, registers this understanding of the cruel optimism of post-Fordist nostalgia for manual labor in the character of Phil. As Gene explains to Bobby in the aforementioned scene, Phil started as a particularly motivated manual laborer in the shipyards of GTX, and through his hard work moved up the company ladder until he became one of the firm's high-ranking executives. In other words, his career testifies to the fantasy that hard work will be rewarded by late capitalism with a secure place in its social order. The loss of this fantasy, of this scenario of desire, is articulated by Phil in his complaint that "the worst part" of losing his job was that "the world didn't stop. The newspaper still came every morning ... My life ended, and you know, nobody noticed." Unable to abide in the now-lost scenario of his cruel optimism, unable to locate himself in a world that continues without the enabling conditions of his vision of the good life, Phil commits suicide in the film's final reel.
Ironically, the film itself also loses its ability to abide in this fantasy, despite its determinedly upbeat ending in which Gene decides to use his millions to start his own shipbuilding company. In the final scene, Bobby begins his first day at the new company animatedly calling out, in his recovered working-class Boston accent, various tasks for his fellow newly hired colleagues to undertake. But while Bobby pointedly asks for union labor to staff their shipyards, which signals the film's residual acknowledgement of Fordism's political institutions, the thematic note sounded here is a faith in the restorative power of hard work, whether or not it is recognized and compensated by the economic system in which it is performed. The optimism of the film's final lines of dialogue—"We work as hard in here every day as we did tryin' to get a job, we'll be alright. What's the worst thing they could do? Fire us?"—sounds particularly cruel after we've just seen how the hard-working Phil was destroyed by just such an eventuality. But perhaps more telling is the film's failure to give visual form to its own fantasy: that a return to Fordist heavy manufacturing (and its implied social contract) in the U.S. relies simply on the good faith of the bosses and the hard work of everyone else. The Company Men closes with surging, hopeful music over its final panning shot, yet what this shot surveys is empty, barren, decaying dockyards:From The Company Men, dir. John Wells, The Weinstein Company, 2010.From The Company Men, dir. John Wells, The Weinstein Company, 2010.From The Company Men, dir. John Wells, The Weinstein Company, 2010.
The surreal dissonance between sound and image indicates the film's inability to imagine what a return to the Fordist regime would even look like. That these look to be the same abandoned shipyards that served as the backdrop for Gene's lament at the disappearance of the U.S.'s industrial past only underscores this telling absence of vision.
True, this long take, after offering a protracted contemplation of no workers, who are involved in no productive activity, making nothing, finally alights on an actual ship. We might say that this ship is the one that has come in for the narrative's white-collar workers, if not for the largely unseen working class whose absent labor has been thoroughly fetishized by The Company Men. But the formation of a cross-class precariat, a possibility that informs the assumption that mainstream fictions like The Company Men might speak to the 99%, is a ship that will remain on the horizon until we let go of the political fantasies that yearn for a return to Fordism's long-gone securities.
Derek Nystrom teaches film and cultural studies at McGill University, where he is an associate professor of English. He is the author of Hard Hats, Rednecks, and Macho Men: Class in 1970s American Cinema (Oxford UP, 2009). His work has also appeared in Cinema Journal, Postmodern Culture, and the Iowa Journal of Cultural Studies, among other places.
Amin, Ash, ed. Post-Fordism: A Reader. Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1994. Print.
Atkinson, Michael. Rev. of The Company Men, dir. John Wells. Sight & Sound April 2011: 54. Print.
Bauman, Zygmunt. Liquid Modernity. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2000. Print.
Beck, Ulrich. The Brave New World of Work. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2000. Print.
Berlant, Lauren. Cruel Optimism. Durham, NC: Duke UP 2011. Print.
The Company Men. Dir. John Wells. The Weinstein Company, 2010. DVD.
Hardt, Michael and Antonio Negri. Commonwealth. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2009.
Harvey, David. A Brief History of Neoliberalism. New York: Oxford UP, 2007.
LaVaque-Lanty, Mika. "American Exceptionalism, Part 42: The Case of the Missing Precariat." 2007 American Political Science Association conference. Chicago, IL.Sept. 2007. 1-27. Conference presentation. Web.
Neilson, Brett and Ned Rossiter. "Precarity as Political Concept, or, Fordism as Exception." Theory, Culture & Society 25.7-8 (2008): 51-72. Web.
Ross, Andrew. Nice Work If You Can Get It: Life and Labor in Precarious Times. New York: NYU Press, 2009. Print.