The cyberpunk of the late 20th century was not just fiction nor just a response to late capitalism, but hidden within cyberpunk lies dormant political theory for the present and the future — leading the late Mark Fisher to call cyberpunk ‘cybernetic theory-fiction’. The 2017 film Blade Runner 2049 and the 2018 videogame Detroit: Become Human are perfect examples of how fiction and politics morph with the shifting dominant ideology, both showing the beginnings of a robot revolution from the antagonistic perspectives of robot laborers, robot/human police and post-human capitalism. Both give us a glimpse of how a 21st century revolution could unfold in the United States.
In Blade Runner 2049 and Detroit, the future is a world in transition to post-human capitalism. But the automated laborers aren’t formless factory machines, they’ve essentially become human while the humans have become disposed machines. The question then arises: where do the robot laborers stand in relation to the Marxist tradition? In his essay on Blade Runner 2049, the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek asks, ‘if fabricated androids work, is exploitation still operative here?’ Is their work ‘appropriated by their owners as surplus-value?’1
Post-human capitalism is a contradictory dystopia. If production is fully automated then who can afford to consume what is produced? If production increases while employment decreases then, as Marx put it (although in a different context), “the production of too many useful things results in too many useless people.” He adds, “without consumption there would be no production.” 2 The post-human capitalist solution is to make robots consumers.
Become Human: A Subject for the Object
The foundational problem in robot/replicant/android fiction is always the question of when do robots become conscious subjects? When is this threshold crossed? When it comes to posing this question in the late capitalist dystopias of cyberpunk, the answer might be found in Marx. In Samo Tomsic’s book The Capitalist Unconscious, the philosopher argues that Marx’s theory of the subject can be found in Grundrisse when Marx claimed that ‘[p]roduction not only supplies a material to the need, but it also supplies a need for the material…’ Therefore, ‘[p]roduction thus not only creates an object for the subject, but also a subject for the object.’3 To read this in terms of post-human capitalism and cybernetic theory-fiction is to uncover a theoretical framework in which an android subject can emerge, potentially breaking the constraints of dead labor by becoming part of it — a replicant or android being first produced as an object in a factory then becoming a subject who produces and consumes.
In Blade Runner 2049, the main character K is a perfect example of a producing/consuming subject. In a crowded, climate change-ravaged Los Angeles, K goes home to his small apartment, is paid bonuses, owns a hologram whom he develops a relationship with, buys an upgrade for her to travel with him, he turns down sexual advances from his boss, etc. K, as a replicant, is first an object produced in a factory. For Marx, K becomes a subject under capitalism as a laborer (whose surplus value is appropriated, in K’s case by the LAPD) and then as a consumer of goods that transcend the basic need of survival — becoming a desiring, enjoying subject. Production, for Marx, is therefore not only a process that produces commodities (objects), but also one that creates subjects (humans/potentially posthumans, although alienated) to consume and enjoy those objects.
This is echoed later by theorists like Delueze/Guattari, Judith Butler and Mark Fisher with Fisher claiming that ‘the fact that human beings are involved in the reproduction – or replication – of machines does not mean that they lack a reproductive system: on the contrary, human beings form part of such a system.’4 This reproductive system is production, both in a literal sense (humans are involved in the production process of replicants) and in a theoretical/economic sense (producing objects also implies and creates a subject to consume them).
Blade Runner 2049 displays the human forces involved with the production of replicants under the Wallace Corporation, but when self-reproduction is introduced (‘to be born is to have a soul’), a split takes place between police (the LAPD) and capital (the Wallace Corporation). This, paired with replicants and androids becoming subjects/deviants, is the antagonism that leads to revolution.
The Revolution of Doubt
In Marx’s Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, his theory of the subject goes further, arguing, ‘[t]o be sentient is to suffer (to experience).’ 5 This is emphasized in both Detroit and Blade Runner 2049 as the android/replicant characters in both not only realize that their daily lives are miserable, but that sometimes to truly exercise or prove one’s freedom, one has to sacrifice oneself. In Philosophy of Right, German philosopher Friedrich Hegel distinguishes the major difference between animals and humans as being the human’s ability to abandon all things, or to commit suicide. In Blade Runner 2049 both K and his hologram girlfriend choose to sacrifice themselves, both therefore proving their freedom, becoming, as Marx put it, a ‘passionate being.’6 This choice is not only an abstract matter, but a very material one. As replicants or holograms, they are not just destroying their notion of self, but also destroying private property as they are still objects produced by Wallace Corporation. In his essay on Blade Runner 2049, the American psychoanalyst and film theorist Todd McGowan argues that ‘[t]he subject asserts its freedom through how it chooses to destroy itself. Both K and Joi assert their freedom in the film.’ 7
McGowan echoes Marx when he emphasizes the importance of alienation. McGowan argues that within alienation it’s the ability to doubt that cements the existence of the subject. ‘By alienating the subject from what it thinks that it is, doubt locates subjectivity beyond the trap of identity. This is how it frees the subject…’ 8 This is the moment that the android turns into a ‘deviant’ in Detroit; the first deviant doubts his identity as just a caretaker for the family that owns him. It’s at that moment of doubting his ‘trap of identity’ when he becomes a deviant, or a subject.
This process is more obvious in the original Blade Runner movie where replicants actually believe their memories are their own; they can then have the potential to doubt the legitimacy of their memories. In Blade Runner 2049, however, the replicants all know that their memories are implants, so they’re deprived of the liberating potential to doubt, left only with cynicism. In the beginning of the film, K knows his memories are implants, he doesn’t think that he’s actually a human with real memories and so he stays in his place, grudgingly carrying on with his work. When replicants see through the deception of implanted memories, as the new replicants do, ‘one eliminates the crucial moment for the emergence of subjectivity—the moment of doubt.’ 9
For McGowan, this matches the ideological shift of today’s capitalism: everyone knows that capitalism isn’t working — it’s ruining the climate, relies on slave labor, we all know that commodities are just objects produced by underpaid labor, etc. This foundational disavowal of capitalism, however, works in capitalism’s favor — it cancels the revolutionary potential of belief in a system and therefore denies the potential to doubt such a system (everyone instead just knows that it’s dysfunctional without doing anything about it). McGowan argues that it’s only after K believes that his memories of the wooden horse are his own that he develops the potential to doubt, the freedom to break the cycle. ‘The fact that K could imagine that his memory was real and doubt its inauthenticity provides the moment through which his freedom can emerge.’ 10
This is perhaps where the revolutionary subject is born, or when the android turns into a ‘deviant’. Precisely when the android doubts the symbolic order that it exists within (as a worker who only performs one task), they become a part of a revolutionary class. But the circumstances necessary to develop a collective consciousness and social upheaval to stage a successful revolution are also essential in reexamining the 2010s-2020s.
Police vs Capital
In post-human capitalist America, it’s the tension between Wallace Corporation and LAPD that sparks the android revolution in Blade Runner 2049. This seems somewhat unusual, because normally the police do the leg work of capital — enforcing the laws that sustain our conception of private property — but they can occasionally be a barrier to capital’s goal of infinite expansion (stopping illegal immigration, for example, would be detrimental to capital as capitalists rely on a cheap workforce). Todd McGowan observes that ‘[e]ven though the police help to sustain the division that the capitalist requires, this division costs the capitalist in profit, which opens up a conflict between the capitalist and the police.’11 The film shows a future where these two forces collide.
The LAPD believes that self-reproducing replicants will blur the distinctions between human and replicant, what Fisher called the ‘gothic flatline’12, which would cause chaos in the symbolic order and would also potentially cause replicants to fully replace the human worker. Their goal is to kill the replicant who was born and erase any trace of its existence. The Wallace Corporation, however, needs the technology and evidence of the replicant birth to use it to produce more replicants and increase profits.
The lesson of Blade Runner 2049 is that ‘the forces of capital and the police are not simply different expressions of the same logic’13, Todd McGowan argues. ‘Instead, they only align incidentally and are for the most part at odds with each other. Emancipatory transformation occurs not through combatting one or the other or both at the same time but through taking advantage of their conflict. This is the path toward emancipation that Blade Runner 2049 highlights.’ Today’s corporate stances leaning towards liberal causes, however shallow they may be, are nonetheless proof of such a split potentially coming to the surface.
However, the LAPD isn’t an entity of its own rogue will. The fact that the police and capital’s interests collide is a testament not to the interests of the LAPD in itself, but the interests of the state. The LAPD in Blade Runner 2049, specifically the boss Lt. Joshi, is little more than the instrument of the state’s interests. And, following the Marxist-Leninist line of thought, the state exists to maintain order among class antagonisms — in this case between the working class that includes both replicants and humans against the ruling elites who want to maintain miserable working conditions to maximize profit. As Engels put it, the point of the state (and the police) is to ‘forcibly keeping the exploited class in the conditions of oppression determined by the given mode of production (slavery, serfdom or bondage, wage-labor).’14 K’s boss Lt. Joshi follows this line by trying to stop the sexual reproduction of replicants. The implications of self-reproduction would entail potentially ending the enslavement of replicants while also flooding the labor market with stronger/smarter labor than humans. This would most likely then cause some kind of violent revolution or uprising, which the state (and LAPD) want to avoid. The film’s emphasis on the replicant birth is therefore not only about subjectivity, but is in many ways a confrontation with the famous quote from Marx that capitalism is ‘pregnant’ with a new society. The capitalist unintentionally delivers this new society while, in the case of the film, the state, which needs to maintain order among the clashing classes, attempts to delay the delivery as long as possible.
The state understands that if replicants could reproduce then any remaining work for humans would be quickly taken by replicants and humans would therefore become solely ‘an appendage of the machine’ resulting in ‘the revolt of modern productive forces against modern conditions of production’15 (in this case, the unproductive human forces). The Wallace Corporation is then unintentionally creating the circumstances that will lead to their own downfall by increasing misery among humans, creating the conditions in which revolution becomes inevitable. This narrative is only one story line in Detroit, however.
Detroit & Class Struggle
While Blade Runner 2049 offers a glimpse of the start of a revolution, the film also paints all sides as equally bad. Even in form, Zizek argues, the film ‘serves to obfuscate the progressive anti-capitalist potential of the story. The slow rhythm with aestheticized imagery directly expresses the social stance of not-taking-sides, of passive drifting.’16 In Detroit, as a videogame with story lines that change based on the choices the player makes, it’s not possible to take such a passive position. The revolutionary character Markus or the police investigator Connor come to different endings depending on what side the player chooses to side with.
Set in a future version of the city of Detroit which has become the hub for android production, the video game Detroit: Become Human shows a world where most humans are unemployed, living in the still-ravaged outskirts of the city. In Detroit, the androids have no memories. They are, however, recycled, and their memories from their past usage wiped — although most deviants are destroyed and dumped (ironically, the studio that made the game has been taken to court over internal treatment of workers). The housekeeper android Kara slowly starts to realize that she’s not the first android to care for Alice (past androids were destroyed by Alice’s father) while Markus and Connor are both exposed to androids being treated as second class citizens. However, when androids become deviants — breaking their code and realizing their conditions — this is explained away by CyberLife (the company that makes the androids) scientifically as a technical anomaly, an error in production. The act of becoming a deviant is an error from the perspective of the ruling ideology. Breaking the code can be seen as the equivalent of becoming class conscious or joining the class struggle.
With no memory and no understanding of history, the androids are left to observations of everyday life. Androids are segregated on buses, frowned upon for stealing humans’ jobs, and often used as a literal punching bag. While it’s the unemployed humans who’ve come to understand through experience Marx’s claim that ‘machinery is intended to cheapen commodities’ and ‘is a means for producing surplus-value’17, they, like luddites, lash out at the machines themselves and not the state or the company that produces them, CyberLife. This communicates the shortcomings of class struggle that doesn’t follow through to address the corporate ownership of the state and the means of production. Lenin once observed that ‘[t]hose who recognize only class struggle are not yet Marxists; they may be found to be still within the bounds of bourgeois thinking and bourgeois politics.’18 Unemployed humans, who have been reduced almost to a peasant class in many cyberpunk dystopias, can’t just lash out at those who are taking their jobs, because by ignoring the system that left them unemployed, it does nothing but benefit this system.
In Detroit: Become Human, it’s not the antagonism between the interests of the police and CyberLife that’s exploited — they in fact work together like the NYPD and Boston Dynamics — but the utilization of the miseries produced by the current material conditions of work to spread class consciousness. The deviant Markus and his comrades create deviants by simply pointing to their daily lives and asking questions. Fellow androids become deviants, joining the class struggle.
While Detroit lacks the updated ideological critique of the cynical disavowal (knowing that the system doesn’t work, but…), it can be seen as a critique on the necessity of understanding history in order to start a revolution. Since the androids have no childhood memories — all they know is work — they nonetheless recognize that these conditions can’t be sustained. In a world where Marx’s saying that the worker ‘becomes an appendage of the machine’ is flipped — the worker is the machine in Detroit — androids have to break the code to become revolutionary subjects, they have to doubt. They then create their own Big Other narrative to support their cause — it’s a universal struggle for liberation that they’re fighting for, the greater good. This runs contrary to their programming that enslaves androids to the service of capital.
It’s in this sense that Detroit and Blade Runner 2049 can contribute to a project for the present and future of automated labor, but can also be read more pressingly for today as the android as metaphor for the working class (the working class Amazon and gig workers who need to ‘break the code’ of anti-union propaganda, entrepreneur hype mythologies, cynical disavowal etc. to join a class struggle that addresses those in power who sustain their conditions).
In order for human subjects to break the chains of late capitalism’s implementation of the cynical disavowal (none of us truly believe capitalism is working or will last forever, but we do nothing about it), the lesson from Detroit and Blade Runner 2049 is that humans need to believe. We need to believe so that the emancipatory potentials of doubt can be sparked. This is prevalent today specifically, early on in the Biden administration. There’s still an opening for optimism, for belief in Biden as a potential FDR figure. If this belief is sustained, it could be the spark for a successful resistance to it — the potential for doubt. As Todd McGowan concludes: ‘At the moment of ideology’s apparently total victory, its vulnerability consists in our renewed ability to believe in it.’19
However, neither the film or video game makes the essential Marxist conclusion, which is that when post-human capitalism seems to be all encompassing and fully developed, it’s only then that a new economic system (what Marx called communism) can be born. Marx argued that ‘communism … presupposes the universal development of productive forces.’20 In other words, communism comes after capitalism, or has to be brought about at precisely the moment in Detroit and Blade Runner 2049 when the film and video game end.
Neither make the Marxist conclusion that it’s at this time of full development of capitalist technology when a new economic system is possible. The revolutions instead are left open and radically depoliticized. The best case scenario leads to androids winning civil rights (Detroit), becoming equal to humans — equally exploited. Neither revolution addresses the unemployed humans or even the antagonism between lesser robots like holograms or non-human seeming machines. Both the film and video game instead generate a nostalgia for the futures of the past (cyberpunk) in support of post-human capitalism — to continue the current set of class relations and divisions of labor just with cooler advertisements and flying cars — the uprisings in both are essentially ‘bourgeois revolutions’, symptoms of today’s capitalist realism.
A truly working class android revolution would perhaps follow Engels’ first revolutionary step of overthrowing the ‘bourgeois state’, which in the case of post-human capitalism sustains the balance that keeps a certain amount of humans unemployed, maintains a docile android population and serves the interest of the private sector, bolstering the inequality that keeps the CEOs comfortable at the top. What would a state run by the working class androids and humans look like? This question isn’t posed in much of the mainstream culture surrounding automation today. At best there are talks of universal basic income, which, instead of seeking to change the economic system, acts as another tool to sustain the current class divisions and inequality by maintaining order through rationing misery (keeping the poor fed just enough to avoid a revolution).
But Blade Runner 2049 and Detroit: Become Human could also act as the spark for such questions to be asked in future cultural mediums. The February 1917 revolution during the Russian Revolution for example started relatively apolitical; moreso calling for the tzar to address food shortages, but this of course led to the overthrowing of the tzar and the setting up of a provisional government. It wasn’t until October that the Bolshevik revolution established a ‘dictatorship for the proletariat’. The android revolutions calling for civil rights could also be seen as the February uprisings; it’s a good first step. No historical circumstances are the same (Blade Runner 2049 utilized a tension between police and capital, Detroit didn’t have this same tension), so perhaps the android uprisings are much more than just a bourgeois revolution for that time period. If androids and replicants can be considered conscious sentient subjects then winning civil rights is an essential and revolutionary act for uniting the working population.
It’s up in the air as to whether sequels or new culture involving automated human-like robots will follow the lead of the October Revolution and address class antagonisms or go the opposite direction, spinning into depoliticized cynicism. It’s up in the air as to when and how historical circumstances will be ripe to birth a new society.
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- Slavoj Zizek 2021, ‘Blade Runner 2049: A View of Post-Human Capitalism’, The Palgrave Lacan Series: Lacanian Perspectives on Blade Runner 2049.
- Karl Marx, Early Writings (McGraw-Hill, 1964), 172.
- Karl Marx, Grudrisse, 92
- Mark Fisher, Flatline Constructs: Gothic Materialism and Cybernetic Theory-Fiction (Exmilitary, 2018), 7.
- Marx, Early Writings, 208.
- Todd McGowan 2021, ‘Between the Capitalist and the Cop: The Path of Revolution in Blade Runner 2049’, The Palgrave Lacan Series: Lacanian Perspectives on Blade Runner 2049.
- McGowan 2021, ‘Blade Runner 2049’.
- McGowan 2021, ‘Blade Runner 2049’.
- Fisher, Flatline Constructs.
- McGowan 2021, ‘Blade Runner 2049’.
- Frederick Engels, Anti-Duhring (1877).
- Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, The Communist Manifesto (1848).
- Zizek 2021, ‘Post-Human Capitalism’.
- Karl Marx, Capital Vol. 1 (1867), 492.
- Vladimir Lenin, The State and Revolution (Aziloth Books, 2017), 29.
- McGowan 2021, ‘Blade Runner 2049’
- Karl Marx, The German Ideology (1846)