Trading In Desperation by Tom Jennings
[television review of It’s A Free World …, directed by Ken Loach, written by Paul Laverty, Channel 4, September 24th 2007, published in Freedom, Vol. 68, No. 21, November 2007]
Ken Loach’s new television drama (released for cinema abroad) tackles the theme of entrepreneurship as career option in New Labour’s neoliberal dystopia, focusing on the efforts of Londoners Angie and her flatmate Rose to rise above soul-destroying low-level dead-end admin work. Sick and tired of being shat on by bosses at foreign workers employment agencies, Angie resolves to start up herself and do it properly to get a better deal for everyone concerned (especially her family; though her solid old-school proletarian dad is appalled). At first the ambition to be ‘fair’ and still make a decent living seems promising, and direct interaction with the hardships and tragedies of those fleeing Eastern Europe and the Middle-East for ‘better lives’ gives them some insight and humility. However, the pair soon find themselves ducking and diving around the brutal logic of the concrete business jungle, where comprehensively sacrificing the interests of their employees is the inevitable price of staying afloat …
Contriving these Eastender (anti-)heroes as strong working-class women (one a white single mother, the other Black; both, sadly, with rather superficial personalities) allows interesting twists on treating humans as objects – whether of paper-thin sympathy, patronisation, even sexual domination. It’s a Free World … also successfully conveys the invidious positions of both ‘legal’ and ‘illegal’ immigrant workers, at the mercy of unscrupulous agencies and corrupt employers cynically squeezing every conceivable source of profit from their vulnerability – enhanced by official neglect and worsened by State persecution and the erosion of welfare and labour rights, all reinforced by mainstream media and party-political marginalisation and stigmatisation.
Their violent fightback here effectively glosses the recourse to criminality among the most oppressed – though it’s surprising that Polish workers, given their recent history, didn’t try other tactics first. Or maybe they did, but this story of the gangmistresses’ moral dilemmas couldn’t accommodate it – Loach’s intention being “to challenge the prevailing wisdom that ruthless entrepreneurship is the way that this society should develop … It seeks out exploitation. It produces monsters”. So, unable to secure legit viability, Angie and Rose embark on even shadier ventures preying on the weak. Unfortunately, without the ethical or physical nous and ‘muscle’ to back up their bravado, they’re completely unconvincing – despite the cod-Hobbesian spiv ‘realism’ about the ways of the contemporary world fitting the zeitgeist. Yet again, social-realist melodrama suffocates its narrative by ticking so many right-on boxes and exemplifying manifold ‘issues’ in its central characters – perhaps mirroring the disastrous fetish for elite leadership in the command socialism which inspires its makers.