Nomadland, directed by Chloe Zhao, won the this years’ Oscar for Best Picture. The novelty: it acknowledges the existence of workers and the precariousness they experience. The question: why did it win?.
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The story is based on an essay/reportage: Nomadland: Surviving in 21st Century America. The book describes the real lives of elderly workers who suffered the effects of the Great Recession of 2008 and, unable to retire on the pittance they were receiving from Social Security, went on to live in trailers and to sustain themselves with precarious jobs they found while traveling.
The main character of Nomadland, Fern, was widowed and lost her job in 2011 after the closure of the Gypsum plant in Empire, Nevada. Empire was a town created in 1948 by the company. Everything in it, from the stores to the homes were owned by the Gypsum Corporation. The company’s closure in 2011 meant not only the closure of the mine but also the demise of the town.
Fern, like so many others, was left homeless. To survive, he sold most of his belongings and bought a trailer.In the following scenes of Nomadland we’ll see her working temporary jobs around the country while traveling in her van. While working at Amazon a co-worker, Linda May, invites her to a nomad gathering organized by Bob Wells in Arizona.
Linda May, who is also a nomad, explains that she adopted this lifestyle after going through suicidal thoughts upon being unable to find work during the Great Recession and discovering that, although she was going to turn 62, her Social Security benefit was no more than $550 a month.
Fern ends up attending the meeting, where she discovers how others like her survive this so-called lifestyle through shared codes and practices. Codes like raising the pirate flag to signal thatthey don’t want to be bothered. Practices such as a bartering system that allows them to avoid having too many belongings, which is necessary because the vans are not exactly mansions and nomads can’t amass too many belongings.
In the ensuing scenes from Nomadland we witness Fern as she travels and works at temporary jobs, eats canned chicken soup in solitude, relieves herself in a bucket and celebrates one New Year after another with no one to accompany her in her van.
But despite all the loneliness, some nomads become important friends of Fern. She even ends up falling in love with one of them, Dave. When he decides to leave that lifestyle and move in with his son and family, he invites Fern to live with them. But after sharing Thanksgiving dinner with them…. Fern chooses to leave the promise of a community and runs away to resume living alone as part of an imagined Nomadland.
Why are we being told this story now?
There is a long tradition of Anglo-Saxon individualism in which freedom and isolation are conflated as long as they are depicted in a more or less wild landscape. It is the tradition of Thoreau, from which products as different as Western pioneer films, deep ecology and the Unabomber all drew. The curious thing is that after every blow of the economic crisis the audiovisual industry resurrects the tradition to make us buy into the idea that freedomrequires solitude, that is, there would be no freedom without the severing of community ties. Nomadland is the latest installment, but remember Sean Penn’s Into the Wild?
Nomadland takes it one step further than that. It is no longer about isolating oneself to become part of Nature. No longer is it a moral model valid only for a few in which to draw inspiration. Now, ten years after the Great Recession, the same discourse is proposed to us as universal and with an important novelty: there is no need to merge with the wild, living precariously in a van suffices. The important things are just not to expect more than what you already have and to avoid establishing communitarian-affective ties. If we do that, we are told, we can be free and happy, like miserable precarious people.
But the truth is, you can never really be happy, because happiness is not an ultimate thing. Happiness is when your expectations are met with reality. If your expectation is constantly fed by the capitalist economy for its own survival, that you always need more, then you can never be as satisfied as the medieval farmer was satisfied with his piece of bread.
So, what these young kids and the Nomads are exploring is the idea of making their satisfaction level with their expectation of what they need to be happy at a minimal level. So that no matter what happens with the outside world, or how much gets taken from them, they will be happy with that piece of bread….And this may be a bit stoic or Buddist [sic], but that’s kind of the way it is now. The people who define their happiness based on things that aren’t really real are lost in the middle of this pandemic, as opposed to the people who are happy with what they have…
You don’t even need a big trailer for half a million dollars. You can find a small Mercedes van that’s still got everything packed inside. Tesla’s probably making them right now; self-driving vans. But what do you do when it breaks down? It really is about trying to train our minds to want less..Interview with Chloé Zhao, director of Nomadland on Deadline
We are not hobos
Nomadland is not the only film in these Oscars promoting the denial of workers as a class. In order to promote our isolation and submission some films keep telling us that we must train our minds to want less. Others tell us to surrender ourselves to a false community of women in which fraternity among the exploited is replaced by sorority with the female exploiters. Some tell us to stay away from family and friends, others tell us to stay away from male co-workers because they are all supposedly evil…
As capitalism drags out its decadent existence, as it keeps making our working and living conditions more precarious, it devotes increasing ideological and propaganda efforts to keeping workers isolated from one another. Nomadland is just one example among many. Why so much effort? To make us feel powerless in the face of an inhumane system portraying itself as immortal.
One cannot but think of the hobos who were idealized by IWW anarchists precisely because they were workers who lacked homes and family ties. If their story is sobering, it is not because of the romanticism with which anarchism clothed it, but because of the political impotence to which their own atomization and isolation condemned them.
It is precisely through the communal bonds of workers with each other, with our co-workers, our family, our friends and loved ones, that we can discover that we all have the ability and, above all, the needto create an abundant and truly humane world.
We are not hobos, nor do we want to be. We have nothing to gain by atomizing ourselves and languishing in solitude. Nor are we two separate communities of working men and women, nor do we define and divide ourselves along racial or linguistic lines. We are a single gigantic social force, the one which produces things and fights to affirm universal needs.
For us community is not synonymous with neighborhood or parish, with identity or sorority. There is no community between exploited and exploiters. The sterile solitude of their freedom denies us as much as the sacred union for war or the climate and the false community of race or sex.
Community is equality and universality of interests, decommodification and true human relations. Our struggle has nothing to do with Nomadland or The Handmaid’s Tale. Our project as a class is not about dissolving our humanity or hiding our exploitation. Our project is reuniting a society torn into classes and turning it into a true universal community.