Mourning in America. Reflections on Nomadland.

This is a film about coming to terms with loss. It is hard to imagine it being made in a time of optimism.

It opens with central character, Fern, sifting through a pile of possessions, randomly junked in storage, for a few to pack into her small camper van. The wreck of a life reflected in the wreck of a community, with the main employer, a gypsum mine, closing and creating a ghost town. The death of the mine reflected in the death of Fern’s partner Beau. She has hung on for a year in the wreckage – seemingly numb – but now feel compelled to move. Staying in a place suffused with loss and loneliness no longer bearable. 

It closes with Fern’s return, and the donation of all the remaining stuff in storage to goodwill, and her returning to her former home, an empty bungalow on an empty street, wandering through, then out the back door into a vast Mid Western emptiness, leaving it open and letting it go, then back on the road that goes ever, ever on; en route a des aventures nouvelles (in a rather downbeat way). 

In between, there is a Road Movie, Jim, but not as we know it. This is a long way from getting your kicks on Route 66 (or even the A13). This is not kicking over the traces of a comfortable life to fix a relationship or sort your head out before reaffirming its limitations by fitting right back in; even in Jack Kerouac’s sense of being “like the prophet who has walked across the land to bring back the dark word, and the only word I had was “Wow!” Its not a journey with an end, just a journey. Moments of epiphany come through nature. Reaching the ocean and walking over the rocks in a howling wind spattered by spray – utterly wild and unforgiving – floating naked in a mountain pool – a moment of exhilarating transcendence beneath a vast explosion of swallows; all symbolising the need to live before you die.

As the journey from here to there and back again unfolds, music starts up. A review in Counterpunch argues that this is to make us – the audience – feel something (or be aware that we are supposed to). I’m not so sure. I think its meant to show that Fern is beginning to feel something. The first shots of the journeying are silent. Numb. Then there’s a musical stirring that I think is meant to convey that Fern’s buried feelings are starting to wake up. If this also serves as an emotional manipulation of the audience – as film music always does – this is a kind of supportive collateral damage. The style of the music, Einaudi’s plinky plink piano noodlings with a side order of cello soul is dark side new agey, soul as commodity in a minor key.

The fleeting connections and solidarities built up between people trying to survive an mobile homes, moving down the road, making do and mending, are sometimes more profound than would be the case if settled, because it can be easier to be vulnerable with someone you may or may not see again than with a neighbour who is always there, keeping account and, sometimes score. “See you down the road” may or may not come to pass. Its serendipitous, so you might as well say what you have to say now. But, there’s a distance. Things can only go so far. The one guy that gets a bit close to Fern bails out to become a live-in Grandad and, despite an offer to stay, she moves on without too much regret.Nearly everyone is in their own van, travelling alone; though there is one unexplored echo of Ken Kesey’s magic bus that appears but is not explored. The prospect of all travelling together appears as a fantasy in an RV showroom, where a spanking new ocean liner of the road dazzles them with its swish facilities and whale like majesty. Fern sits in the driving seat and fantasises about cruising, making the brrm brrm noises that a child would in a rare moment of playfulness. 

None of the characters in this film are Hollywood glam. None of the fake plastic Stepford cosmetic finishes and faultless hairdos – Fern looks like she cuts her own hair with a knife and fork without a mirror – or vast, well furnished mansions that are passed off as average homes in romcoms. Many of the people in it are people who live on the road more or less playing themselves. Nevertheless, hard though they have it, they are people with resources. The vans for a start. The woman who is dying of cancer has visited a hospital and got diagnosed. She is not without access to medical insurance. When Fern’s van breaks down she has access to a sister who lends her the money to fix it. The van is the one settled thing she won’t and can’t give up. Its now home.

Where the Counterpunch review hits hard is that the film risks romanticising the gig economy and transient, insecure work. A couple of scenes shot inside a vast Amazon warehouse show Fern ambling slowly around, smiling at co-workers and exchanging quips and smiles; not harassed and rushing, driven by her monitor or pissing in a bottle because there’s no time to get to the toilet if she’s to fulfill her quota. Her comment about working for Amazon, when asked, is “good money”. $15 an hour. Aspirational as a minimum wage, but hardly “good money”. Other jobs always come along when needed. Hard to imagine that it always works out like that.

Yes, we have no bananas.

It may have been the decision to close schools – or it may just have been the reassuring letters from supermarket chief executives promising to keep the shelves stocked – but this morning the local Sainsbury looked like the locusts had been in.

The long standing stripped aisle appearance of the toilet roll, eggs, soap and tinned goods aisles had spread to fresh fruit and veg, biscuits, bread, milk and dairy leaving only a few embarassed looking goods exposed and advertising their unloved status. Small tins of Heinz macaroni cheese clustered alone in the middle of the devastated canned goods aisle like the sole survivors of an asteroid strike. Even at a time of panic shopping, people looked at them and thought…”Nah.”

It changes the psychology of shopping in a wealthy developed economy – in which for years you have been able to take it for granted that just about anything on your list will be in stock in abundance. From being irritated if something on the list wasn’t on the shelf, in less than a week it has become a pleasure to find anything that is.

Meanwhile a rumour that Amazon was introducing a gift wrap option for orders of toilet rolls has – sadly – been denied. The wrap might have come in handy.

Mooning Jeff Bezos

“With great power comes great responsibility.” Possibly Voltaire, definitely Spider Man, but not, it seems, Jeff Bezos.

Jeff Bezos, in an interview with Business Insider last year (when he was “worth” $132 billion) said, “The only way that I can see to deploy this much financial resource is by converting my Amazon winnings into space travel. I am going to use my financial lottery winnings from Amazon to fund that.”

There is a current among the uber wealthy to project space as their future – as though they can avoid the problems involved in destroying the conditions for human survival on Earth by getting “off world”.  As though they were exposed to too many plays of “The Final Countdown” at an impressionable age. The fantasy in that song, that – having trashed the Earth – everyone could head off to live on Venus (not an enticing prospect with an surface temperature hot enough to melt lead, air pressure at ground level 92 times greater than Earth’s – and enough to crush anyone unfortunate enough to be standing on it – and an atmosphere largely comprised of dense clouds of sulphuric acid) and that the Venusians would be welcoming to a species that had just destroyed their own habitat and wanted to have another go in theirs; is only marginally less absurd than the idea that life on Mars (with virtually no oxygen, no water cycle, no vegetation, an average temperature of -67C and dust storms thousands of kilometres wide that last for months) would be remotely desirable compared to living – say – in an upscale part of Seattle.

In an interview with CBS News in July this year Bezos said “Human beings are in the process of destroying this planet” and – in a leap of imagination that treats planetary destruction as a given premise instead of an avoidable problem – produces a wild fantasy of off world manufacturing, with factories on the Moon within a few hundred years.

What he seems to be missing here is that the Amazon – the other one – is on fire NOW; and we don’t have a few hundred years to deal with keeping our planet habitable. We have a decade to make a serious dent in greenhouse gas emissions if we are to have half a chance of getting through to the end of the century with a civilisation intact. Recognising that business as usual – including his business as usual – is “destroying this planet” would probably make most people think that anyone with a spare $132 billion might want to put most or all of it into stopping the destruction. This does not seem to have occurred to him.

Its the phrasesmy financial lottery winnings from Amazon” and  the only way that I can see to deploy this much financial resource” that stick out from his original quote (my emphasis).

His “winnings” from Amazon are not a lottery but the result of profoundly ruthless and dehumanising management systems that are part of the reason our planet is being destroyed in the first place. Mr Bezos’s “winnings” are the flip side of the following.

  • Amazon pays 15% below average wage rates for warehouse workers.
  • Workers employed at the Amazon depot in Dunfermline were found sleeping in tents near the factory because the cost of transport took such a huge chunk out of their meagre wages that they couldn’t afford to commute.
  • In Ohio, 700 of their workers are on food stamps.
  • Workers are often employed as “permatemps” to minimise their legal rights at work.
  • Delivery workers are paid by the package, putting them under huge pressure to zip round as quickly as possible – the implications of this for safe driving should concern everyone.
  • In 2013, they had the second highest turnover of workers of any company in the Fortune 500 Index. According to a Study by Pay Scales, the average Amazon worker can’t stick it out beyond a year.
  • Warehouse workers are tied to electronic monitors that keep them to targets that are set just beyond what they can do if they work flat out without a breather. Some workers have taken to peeing in bottles so they don’t lose the time taken in going to the loo.
  • As a result, in the UK, there have been 600 ambulance calls to Amazon Warehouses in the last 3 years. Just over one every other day. The Rugely depot in particular looks like a place to avoid getting a job if you possibly can – with 115 call outs.

The “logic” of this is – while the company is waiting for robots to take over, they will treat their workers as much like robots as possible. Seen this way, people are robots with needs that present as flaws.

Treating workers as throw away resources is of a piece with treating the Earth’s resources in the same way.

Amazon made $3 billion profits on $180 billion in sales in 2017. It paid no Federal taxes in the United States in 2017 and 2018. In the UK between 2016 and 2017, even though business increased by a third, the tax paid was halved – to a tiny £4 million (about the same as the annual budget for one medium sized secondary school).

So we have a company that treats its workers like robots, burns them up and spits them out, does not contribute to the social costs of creating its labour force or the infrastructure that sustains them, or the transport infrastructure along which the company’s goods are delivered, or anything else. An essentially parasitic relationship.

And we have an owner who thinks he, personally, has the right not only to keep his “lottery winnings” but to blow them on space exploration rather than the million and one tasks that face us in keeping this planet habitable for the next generation.

The sheer entitled self indulgence of people like this shows them up as unfit to control such concentrations of wealth; and any society that sets them up as “aspirational” role models – because what else should you aspire to if not to become filthily, selfishly, rich – is dooming itself to self destruction. A future future determined by people like this is not  good enough for humanity, nor is it viable. Saving ourselves means becoming more human, more social, less robotic, less exploited and exploiting.

We can do better than them.