One thing we might learn from World Factory is that if there is such a thing as responsible capitalism then it is in its death throes or was faking it all along. That the price of profit in an authoritarian capitalist country, in this case China, will cost you the pretence of a welfare state that, in Metis and Company of Angels social protest theatre game, you’re going to destroy anyway.
Welcome then to the Young Vic’s Maria studio, stripped back to its industrial decor, its floor adorned with Chinese clothes factory work stations at which audience members sit in teams, and battle it out to make a profit. At least that’s what we presume we are meant to do, assumptions and presumptions being the name of the game here and which you’ll find yourself making all night.
Before we begin though, each ‘dealer’, acting like sophisticated versions of factory foremans (hint at how capitalism fed on our industrial revolution hierarchies) gives us an expose of how capitalism came into being. It’s not by chance we start in the mills of Yorkshire and Manchester and end up, exported and in a far more aggressive version, in communist but hierarchical undemocratic China. It’s not by chance that audience members are factory directors, feeding into our predisposition towards the aristocracy. And the game is not as straight forward as it seems.
As it progresses and we get dealt a wad of kuai, a book listing our employees, cards which present us with new crises asking us to make stark decisions- for instance choose between cutting wages and keep the same number of employees or sack half and keep pay the same- we are at the same time informed by video what life is like for real Chinese citizens and how they survive. It’s almost Brecht. Our dealers- the actors- are frighteningly good at corporate speak and projecting the emotionless inhuman facades that such roles bring. Time is short and teams are forced into making quick fire decisions to ensure the survival of their factory. One realises that no matter one’s good intentions, the parabolic nature of authoritarian/ statism capitalism will always have something to throw back at you.
But World Factory pulls the wool over our eyes. As audience members, we accept the parameters and frameworks which we are given, we play the game. But we are in China, where the very forces of capitalism, side stepping any pretence at democracy, perpetuates its existence through the auspices of a decayed welfare state, perpetuates itself through repairing the very damage it causes. Go to any remote poor village and you will see. Thus in World Factory this is reflected to us when we get to do something good- not employing child labourers for example, or improving working conditions or allowing our workers to be in a government backed union. Not only is World Factory an entertaining educative tool to inform us about the clothes we wear on our backs, it also exposes the survival tendencies that keeps capitalism in its continual cycle- these tendencies being our own efforts to assuage its devastating effects.
A video piece featuring a female factory owner sums this up perfectly – at first seeming a success, a survivor of China’s repressive socio- economics and patriarchic society, her story becomes one of martyrdom woe: ‘I’m responsible for my workers’ dreams’ she says (meaning materialistic acquisition) ‘I must keep moving forward’. We see the only way she can give her life meaning is at this pretence of moving forward on the treadmill that is capitalism, in a race that can never be won. It’s this beat of the drum to which such capitalism marches and muddies up a swirl of confusion, making the audience here, in their efforts as factory owners and in an attempt to counteract it ‘follow the law but end up in sin.’ (Paul, Romans 7)
Peel back the layers and make space on your clothes rail because there’s far more to be found in World Factory than meets the eye- this isn’t just about clothes. It pulls you in and gives you a short sharp shock. And while it may be a game for us, for others out there, it’s a reality.