Dan Erickson’s first TV series, Severance, which debuted in February, has garnered plaudits from critics and audiences alike. The show is a crossover masterclass, where dystopian sci-fi thriller meets workplace dramedy.
In the first episode, we discover that Mark (Adam Scott) and his fellow workers on a special floor at Lumon Industries have had their minds “severed” via a brain implant. The result of this procedure is that the workers on the severed floor have no memory of what happens at work while at home, and vice versa. Managers and security are exempt from the procedure, of course.
To be severed means to have two people — with different experiences, relationships, ideas and personalities — in the same body, entirely inaccessible to one another. The worker is split in two: an “innie,” who exists solely to work at Lumon, and an “outie,” who continues to live their life normally. Or, as normally as one can when they don’t know what they’re doing for 40 hours a week. Occasionally, an outie may get a glimpse into what their innie is doing, such as when Helly’s innie (Britt Lower) submits a request to her outie to quit, or when Mark receives a note explaining how he acquired a gash on his forehead while at work.
On the surface, Severance’s premise and the engrossing storytelling of Erickson and directors Ben Stiller and Aoife McArdle touch on a host of important political and moral questions. The most obvious, of course, is the potential for brain-altering, corporate-controlled microchips, such as the ones Elon Musk’s company Neuralink is developing, the testing of which has led to the deaths of at least 15 monkeys. But, if we look just beyond the top layer, we see that Severance is really a show about work under capitalism, exploring issues such as the role of uncompensated reproductive labour, the right (or lack thereof) to refuse work, the concept of work-life balance and employee surveillance.
What sets Severance apart, and is likely why audiences have so resonated with the show, is that it unearths what’s at the heart of capitalism and how it shapes our lives — what Karl Marx called “alienation.” Marx argued the worker is alienated from the things they make (the product of their labour), how they make them (their productive activities), their fellow workers and their potential as creative, thinking humans.
For Marx, who was always concerned with being as concrete as possible, alienation is part of what distinguishes capitalism as a mode of production. To put it another way, understanding alienation can help us get at what’s unique about how we produce the world around us under capitalism compared to other existing or potential ways of doing so.
For instance, as Mark and his colleagues help to train Helly, the newest employee in Lumon’s Macrodata Refinement department, we learn that none of the workers fully understand the purpose or mechanics of what they’re doing. What they do know is how to perform their assigned function, which is to “clean” bizarre spreadsheets by searching for numbers that evoke certain feelings when they see them, and then deleting them.
Dylan (Zach Cherry), one of the four refiners, believes they’re clearing the ocean of scary eels as humans move underwater in a post-apocalyptic world. Meanwhile, Irving (John Turturro) is convinced they’re cutting curse words from movies. Regardless of whether either of these theories is proven true in future seasons, it’s clear their work is entirely alien to them — their labour doesn’t satisfy their needs, and they don’t have any control in determining what they produce. Further still, the severed workers have no sense of how the spreadsheets they comb through daily are generated. In sum, they’re estranged from the product of their labour.
Like all workers under capitalism, they’re also alienated from each other. This may be in the form of strategic physical separation, which, in the show, translates into the various departments on the severed floor being nearly impossible to find without illicit maps, with scary tales spread to create antagonism between them. Or, it may come in the form of anti-strike laws and a lack of protection for workers engaged in solidarity actions such as sympathy strikes, which are almost always deemed unlawful in Canada.
Yet our estrangement from fellow workers runs much deeper than this in Marx’s theory of alienation. As necessities such as housing and food are commodified under capitalism, so too are workers. And as commodities in a market, workers are forced to compete. This competition isn’t simply to obtain a reward, like the trinkets and waffle parties dangled in front of severed employees at Lumon. Instead, it’s largely to acquire a wage that can be converted into things needed to survive and to roughly reproduce the life one leads today, tomorrow. Under such conditions, it’s no wonder individualism is so pervasive despite its ruinous effects.
Still, for some, a certain amount of alienation from their labour may not sound all that bad. Perhaps forgetting what one does at work all day is an enticing thought. But, here, we’d do well to heed what Mark’s eccentric brother-in-law, Ricken Hale (Michael Chernus), wrote in his spiritual biography, The You You Are: “Should you find yourself contorting to fit a system, dear reader, stop and ask if it’s truly you that must change or the system.”
As Marx would argue, it’s not labour per se that induces feelings of dread on a Sunday evening or the desire to escape, cognitively or otherwise, at the end of a week: it’s the alienated form of labour under capitalism. For Marx, labour is part of being human. The drive to fulfil a need through creative labour is as natural a human compulsion as we have.
In the capitalist epoch, however, our labour as workers isn’t meant for us. Nor is it really for those who consume or use whatever we produce. Instead, capital’s drive for profit determines what is produced along with how, where and when. Meanwhile, labour for workers becomes “merely a means to satisfy needs external to it.” To paraphrase a line from Bertell Ollman’s book Alienation (1977), this all leaves the worker with the feeling that they’re only themselves outside of their work, and in their work feel outside themselves.
To overcome this and deal with the multiple crises we face, from climate change to housing, it will take workers acting collectively, like those on Lumon’s severed floor eventually do, to democratize production. In part, as Erickson told the Seattle Times in February, this will take “people remember[ing] that they’re a lot more important as human beings than they are as cogs in a company. Because we’re all cooler, weirder and more interesting than the value we have to someone’s bottom line.”
It will also take workers recognizing, as Ricken writes in the most unlikely of Marxist texts, “Your job needs you, not the other way around.”