What is a Boss?
16 November, 2022
Fernando León de Aranoa’s 2021 comedy The Good Boss is just being shown in the US and UK. The film is a critical presentation of work and workplaces that cuts against both liberal and conservative trends in conceptions of work, family and community. It tells the story of the recent history of capitalism in microcosm through a week in the life of a factory boss played by Javier Bardem. Bardem’s character begins the week revered as a traditional conservative boss, a figure of pure patriarchal order. By midweek he has become the failed figure of the master that serves contemporary liberal order, a boss whose castration ushers in a new era and allows others into power. Ultimately, the film shows us that this change from uncastrated to castrated master – from conservative to liberal capitalism – has left class politics tragically intact. While a certain form of conservative capitalism celebrated the uncastrated master, liberal capitalism fetishizes a castrated one – but both miss the point of what is needed to build an anti-capitalist social structure.
The Uncastrated Master
At a weighing scales factory, a boss locally famed for keeping his workers happy now faces a disgruntled employee protesting outside the building after his dismissal. To make the problem go away, he offers to double the worker’s severance package. Back at the factory, a senior member of management is distracted and working at half-speed because his wife wants to leave him. The good boss takes the wife for coffee to convince her to stay with the husband and restore order so he can work effectively once more. Later he makes a deal with some young thugs to keep violence in the community down. We know a little about balance in our business, the boss repeatedly insists, and his role is to ensure the micro society around his business maintains its equilibrium.
He does so in the role of economic and familial patriarch. With no children himself, he refers to his workers as his offspring. With senior members of staff, he insists he is a friend or a brother, rather than a boss. Flirting with a new girl taking an internship in marketing at the factory, the boss tells her that the interns are like his daughters before starting an affair with her. Taking his manager to a strip club, he offers to pay for a lap dance to give some distraction from his divorce. While he has sex with his mistress, we see that she has a scale tattoo at the back of her neck. In this sense he is what we might think of as a traditional conservative idea of a master – a healthy balance between virility, libido and transgression on one side of the scale and responsibility, patriarchy and economic power on the other. We might say he represents the figure of the master from a recently bygone era of capitalism, where men could be men and community structure had a degree of hierarchical security. While women and younger men might lack authority, real men enjoyed an imaginary feeling of uncastrated power.
The Castrated Master
By the middle of the week, things have taken a turn. The protesting employee is getting newspaper attention in the liberal press and puts the balance of the business in jeopardy. At home his sexual affair threatens to come out and ruin the stability of family life. The mistress turns out to be a young girl he cared for as a child. An Arabic employee refuses to play ball with the boss’s attempt to balance the scales. Race activism and the MeToo movement lurk in the background of his pending demise. The times are changing, and the white wealthy patriarchal master’s function in society has changed. A pair of scales breaks.
By Friday he is totally castrated. He hides from his mistress at work and reneges on his stubbornness to offer the protesting worker whatever he wants to stop protesting, only to be rejected. His role is to be a master still, but a failed one. The mistress has better sex with the rebellious Arabic employee and publicly insults the boss, who nevertheless is now so castrated that he gives the employee sleeping with his mistress a promotion. Soon, the mistress will also manage to get into a position of power in the company by blackmailing him. Suddenly, a broken scales that stands outside the factory gates has miraculously fixed itself and balance has been restored. He becomes the embodiment of the master for a new kind of society – a society based on the decapitation of the father figure of the past in favour of upward mobility for a more diverse group of individuals. Contemporary liberal culture has taken over from traditional social and economic conservatism.
But this is not celebrated by the film, nor is it presented as a preferable situation for the community at large. The former employee decides he prefers protesting to work and commits to a life of protest and poverty for himself and his children. Protesting at night because he is so happy doing so, he is beaten up by local thugs who - back on Tuesday in traditional society – the boss had previously kept in check. The protester tragically kills one in self-defence and the community mourns. Workers carry on with much the same inequality as before, with a powerful final scene mirroring the film’s opening as workers are forced to clap and applaud their new team of bosses, now including a young woman and an Arabic man. Class politics – and the form of the factory and its management system - remain the same, even if race and gender roles – the content of those systems - change.
On top of this, the immoral sexual transgressions that are leveraged to usher in this social revolution do not lead into a more ethical future. The capitalist boss immediately works out how to turn the new cultural situation to his advantage. To fire the manager and make way for the Arabic employee’s promotion, the boss uses a MeToo story from one of their nights in the strip club against him to blackmail him out of complaining to the union. The mistress simultaneously blackmails the boss into a job for herself, but the boss immediately turns this to his advantage by winning a long-coveted award for best boss after saying to a committee that he appointed her so that his company would reflect a strong female point of view. Job security is completely out of the window and the community is just as corrupt and unfulfilling – and with just as many victims – as the traditional community from the week before. Each castration cuts a master from a position of power in order to facilitate the transfer of power to another apparently uncastrated master who steps into the phallic position – even (of course) if they might no longer be male.
Castration for Everyone!
We could say that the film offers a mini comic history of what has happened to capitalism and its class politics in recent years. For all the positive gains made at the level of representation, the comic sadness of the film comes in that the scales of capitalism themselves remain balanced even despite the best efforts of the culture wars. The outdated conservative model of a master might be of a virile uncastrated masculinity that secures community structure, but the liberal model of a decapitated master replaced by the younger, more diverse but just as phallic newcomer leaves nothing but raw capitalism and self-interest. The film leaves us with a sense of the need to resurrect community, structure, family and perhaps even the figure of the master without the two inadequate versions of social life presented to us today presented by liberals and conservatives.
It has become a trope of liberal discourse, including among unionists and activists, to criticise the increasingly grey area between work and social life. We should be suspicious, we’re told, of any member of the managerial class who appears to cultivate friendly and personal relationships lest we become dependent on, manipulated by or even ultimately abused as a result of these relationships. The Good Boss also documents this trend. In the film, on Monday (in the era of conservative capitalism) the boss tells his employees to treat him ‘not like a boss’ but as a friend, brother or father, but by Thursday (in the era of contemporary liberal capitalism) he says that ‘you don’t get to know your employees at all.’ The MeToo narrative has fed into this movement too, pressing out the personal in favour of the professional. The Good Boss places this in its context of a shift in the way capitalism relates to its masters.
Both Freud and Lacan pointed out that we are all castrated – men, women, those in positions of power and those subjected to it. It is, in fact, one of the few universalising things we might say of all subjects – no matter their race, class or gender. This universalist feature ought to be at the heart of creating any kind of leftist community – a community that accepts the other in its castrated being and is able to show its own lacking subjectivity as well. Its this that would resists the capitalistic drive to turn us all into commodities who can compete with and usurp each other, and that capitalistic drive lives strongly in a contemporary liberal culture that heralds itself as progressive and transformative while it leaves class structures firmly in place.