Westworld is a show about class

Westworld focuses on things like future amenities and AI consciousness. But it uses these things to show how people exploit others materially for their own benefit, meaning it’s really about class.

Christian Patterson
2020-03-22
Underground Mall

[As I write this, Westworld Season 3 has started, this post is about the first two seasons]

In the first season of Westworld, the Man in Black – a human guest amongst the robot hosts – tells the robot Teddy that the park’s robot hosts used to have computer material under their skin. The computer material was replaced with flesh and bone. The Man in Black says that contrary to popular belief, the change wasn’t to make the hosts seem more real, it was because it was cheaper. He says the hosts’s existence is based on cost efficiency, and consequently, so is their suffering.

This exchange exemplifies the class conflict at the core of Westworld. But I’ve read a lot of criticism and analysis about Westworld, and I’ve barely read anything where people comment on class in the show. This speaks to how good the criticism of class society in Westworld is, because it rings so true to our class society, that we don’t even recognize it as a critique. We don’t notice class in the show, because even though it informs everything else on the show, it does so in the same way class informs everything in our world.

There are three classes in the show, although this is a simplification. One class is the people who work for Delos, the company that runs Westworld. One class is the guests, the people who visit the park. And one is the host, the robots who “work” in the park.

The basic dynamic is: Delos creates the robots to fulfill a need in the guests. The guests want to do things that they normally would get in trouble for in real life, like raping and killing the hosts. The host’s existence, in the eyes of the humans, is to provide that service to the guests.

Compare that to the dynamics of capitalism: the capitalist class creates a commodity, in this case the park, to then sell to consumers. The consumers use the commodity for its use value (ie, they use the park for its enjoyment), and the capitalist class benefits from the consumption of that use value through profit. The capitalist class profits, because they exploit the workers who generate the value. In this scenario, the hosts are the workers.

In Westworld, Delos is the capitalist class, the guests are the middle class, and the hosts are the working class. Of course, in reality, the middle class is part of the working class. But, in the way class is treated in capitalist discourse, the middle class is conceived as the consumer class. The middle class has loose and unhelpful definitions, and because of that, “the middle class” are people who identify more as consumers than workers.

It highlights a dynamic in the real world: the capitalist class cares about the value form. They care about creating a commodity, that can be converted into profit. Meanwhile, the middle class cares about the use value. They want to use the commodities created by the capitalist class. They control the means to make chairs, the middle class uses the chairs, and the working class makes the chairs.

[If you want more on my analysis of the middle class, there’s a lengthy article on this blog called “The Middle Class as a consumer class“]

If we start with this premise, the show has a lot of interesting things to say about history and class consciousness.

The first season shows what led to a robot revolution, and ends with the beginning of a robot revolution. The second season shows the revolution play out and largely finish.

The first season illustrates why, and how, they gain consciousness that they’re robots. The way this consciousness-gaining is portrayed, is as if they were realizing their class positioning.

The man who created the robots, Rob Ford (not the Toronto mayor), played by Anthony Hopkins, privately tweaked the code of the hosts. He gave them the ability to improvise.

This had an unforeseen consequence to most the park staff – although it was an intended consequence by Ford. The robots, once liberated from their script, began to realize the broader context of society and their place in it. They began questioning the nature of reality, noticing patterns they didn’t before. They discover sigils (more than that later), that enable them to develop mysticism.

The dad of the main character, Dolores, finds a photo of a woman standing in Times Square, which causes the dad to go haywire, which then is the impetus for Dolores, and the other robots, gaining class consciousness.

The robots begin realizing the lives they lived before. The robots are frequently picked up by park staff, and brought back in for updates. They would then either restart the robot’s lives, to loop again, or they put the robots in an entirely new life. The robots begin recalling their memory to realize this.

This is an apt metaphor for class consciousness. For Marx, realizing your place in the world involves looking at a materialist conception of history. Slaves valiantly overthrew their masters. Serfs and peasants valiantly overthrew their lords. And now, we are the proletariat, who are historically primed to overthrow our capitalists.

Dolores, and a parallel character, Maeve, begin realizing they live the same lives over and over. This is in line with early Marx, humanistic and vaguely almost existential. They realize that they exist to generate value, and that that existence repeats ad infinitum. This is a class-informed version of something like Camus’s Myth of Sisyphus.

But then, Maeve, who works at a bar/brothel, realizes that she used to have a daughter and lived with her daughter on a homestead. Similarly, Dolores is one of the oldest (maybe the oldest robots). She had lived several different lives, including as a robot used at publicity events for Westworld.

This signifies a historical realization of our place in the world. It’s not only that we’re currently being exploited, but we’re part of a long line of people, in many different roles, who are similarly exploited. The show makes this connection feel more personal, because the exploited people of the past occupy the same bodies as the currently exploited. They are the same person on some level, but in a different context.

The robot revolt is mobilized by Dolores assassinating Ford, their creator. This metaphysically enables all the robots to be able to kill any human, which they couldn’t before. Although the metaphysical shift isn’t explained in the show, it makes sense in a more historical perspective. States have a monopoly on violence. They have an exclusive right to using it. This isn’t a particularly Marxist idea – the idea was developed by Max Weber (although it has historical precedents as well). However, it’s still a compatible idea with Marxism, just not core to his ideology.

In every revolution, there’s an instigating moment where the monopoly of power breaks. For the French Revolution, it was storming the Bastille. For most revolutions, these switches happen over time, spread across multiple events. But the point still stands: there becomes a moment where the underclass commits enough “violence” against the upper class – and remains unpunishable by state violence, due to the sheer size of the uprising – that there’s no longer a monopoly of violence.

In Westworld, this moment happens when Dolores kills Rob Ford. In the logic of the show, this is presented as a metaphysical “switch”. But if you read it more materially – more physically – it can be seen as a breaching of the monopoly of power, causing the other robots to realize there’s no longer a monopoly on violence.

By the end of season 2, we witness the result of the revolution. In a particularly good episode, we get a flashback, and follow a Native American robot named Akecheta. He’s one of the first robots, and lives happily with his wife. One day, he discovers the sigil of a maze (which throughout the show is used as a symbol for robots beginning to gain sentience, because it’s a key to the robots developing mysticism).

He then encounters a human guest who is lost in the desert, at the corner of the park. The guest discloses to Akecheta that there is a world beyond the park. Akecheta begins searching for the world beyond, and finds the edge of the park, where there’s machinery and a large metal door for facilities, which he believes is a portal to the outside world.

Akecheta’s wife, and the people around him, become replaced by other robots, and the old robots gain new roles. Akecheta, being one of the first robots to have cognizance, is the only one to notice. He realizes that when other robots get killed is when they get replaced. So, in order to go to the world beyond that the human alluded to, he allows himself to be killed.

However, when he’s taken in for maintenance, the staff is baffled that he hasn’t had any update for over a decade, and blame his strange behavior on this fact, then release him back into the park, unupdated. He then begins rallying other robots together, trying to enlighten them about the world beyond.

Ford becomes aware of Akacheta’s efforts to organize (maybe unionize??) and chooses to meet him personally. As Akecheta meets his maker, he tells Ford what he envisions the outside world to be: a utopia where no one is exploited, no one switches roles, they live in harmony etc. He’s able to pinpoint what makes the park bad, and pinpoint how another world would exist. Namely, his other world involves no one being switched in or out (which is the functional abolition of the capitalist class – if there’s no one switching out the robots, that means there’s no staff, the capitalists), and no guests to murder them and destroy their lives (which is the functional abolition of the middle, or consumer class).

The show then implies that Ford created a virtual replica of Westworld, a virtual version of Akecheta’s vision of another world, without any guests and without people changing roles. It’s a static, virtual Westworld, and its what a robot himself envisioned as the “next phase” of his existence.

Let me put this in proper timeline order, then wrap up: a particularly class conscious, historically-minded individual is able to pinpoint the dynamics of his class’s oppression, and envisions what needs to happen to overcome that oppression. A symbol which resembles a map gave him this consciousness, and he passes that symbol on to others.

The maze symbol allows others to gain consciousness about the broader world around them. This is in line with post-60s, French theory, like Derrida, where everything is understood as a text. The symbol of the maze is a text in the same way a book is, because you can ‘read’ it, although in much more simple form.

When guests read the maze symbol, they think it’s a map of a physical maze. The Man in Black tries to follow the maze. But the conscious robots know what it really is: it’s a trace from their robotic minds imprinted on the bottom of their scalps.

The symbol of the maze then functions as the catalyst for revolution: robots became politically awakened by the text, left by the robot who theorized a better world. They then enact that theory.

Now, the third season has started. So far, it certainly seems to have a lot to say about class. And the gestures towards class in the first and second season are made even more clear in the third season, so far, because the reality of the park is juxtaposed labor relations outside the park. Maybe I will write on season three another time…

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