The Trepalium TV series produced by Arte France creates a confronting view of a future society based on a huge divide between the 20% employed, the insiders, and the 80% unemployed, the outsiders, who live impoverished lives as outcasts on the other side of the wall in the Zone. The outsiders also include anyone with some kind of incapacity which is not tolerated in the world of the insiders. The series builds a portrait of a future society that certainly has some form in the present – which is exactly its intention as its director Vincent Lanoo says in an interview: I would say Trepalium is less a satire than a distorting mirror of our times.
By all accounts a trepalium was a device of torture in Roman times and the word is the Latin cognate of the word travail. In English, travail has distinct associations with hardship and suffering (as does the word labour) and in French of course it simply means work although also with its Latinate associations. So the TV series is pointedly concerned with the subject of work and how the way it is organised and allocated translates into a society of a dystopian future with its links back to George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World notwithstanding its originality.
As an employment researcher, the series provocatively brings into focus a number of present realities in the world of work. The starting point of course is the immense divide between the employed and the unemployed and the terminology to describe this is exactly that of much present policy discourse around active, inactive and activation. In fact current Australian response to unemployment is jobactive (in lower case for some reason). This fits perfectly with the mindset of the Trepalium society and would do George Orwell proud.
In the Trepalium universe, the actives are those 20% insiders who are there because they work hard and deserve to be there. The 80% outsiders are in the Zone because that is where they deserve to be on account of their inferiority and personal deficits. The first episode brings into focus the brutality that underlines the process of determining who is in and out with little to do with anyone’s actual attributes but rather the measures they are prepared to take to get where they want to go and to sustain their position on the inside. In his interview for a director’s job in episode 3, Ruben must show himself prepared to fire a good worker also a colleague and friend to secure the position. This friend also faced the prospect of being evicted to the Zone.
The outsiders are treated with contempt and disdain by the insiders and the political system is devised to maintain the status quo through violence and cunning. The government only opts to engage in a reconciliation process with the outsiders through the provision of 10,000 jobs on the basis of pressure from the world bank to secure the funds it needs.
The series also shows how automation has transformed work through labour replacement so robots are in every day use but also how technology affects human workers. Izia, one of the principal characters in the series, who takes over an information processing job is constantly being called to account for her pace and output.
This is a reality of much employment now. Michael Marmot in his 3rd Boyer lecture on working life describes the way that a man he interviewed, Alan, worked in a pick- and- pack warehouse with constant monitoring of output through an electronic device he had to carry with him and the loss of points if he failed to keep up the pace. Ultimately Alan was unable to sustain the momentum so lost his job.
In my own research this scenario was also played out in the work histories of a number of people I interviewed. I give several examples in a paper that I gave at the ILO last year. Of course such performance measurement means that the standard can be lifted when there is a need to get rid of workers as mentioned in my interviews. (I know a lot of teachers who say this sort of pressure is on them in the education system with ever increasing and impossible to meet demands!). Work in many fields has indeed veered increasingly towards a model of hardship and suffering – the trepalium – than a source of satisfaction and reward.
Trepalium also has an interesting insight into how gender could play out in the workforce and society of the future. There is still evidently a massive gender divide in the workforce with men and women doing quite specific tasks. But women clearly do well and assume many roles of authority with the Prime Minister, a ruthless woman who will do whatever it takes to retain and strengthen her power base.
The Trepalium series is a thought provoking sci-fi series that hits a raw nerve in the way it projects into the future possible scenarios that could emerge from current realities of work and society. Of course, it is a worst case scenario that rules out the many positive scenarios that could also be actualised in the future. Still a dystopian drama such as Trepalium is not entirely out of the realm of possibility with current levels of inequality and the potential for this to become worse in the 21st century as Thomas Piketty in Capital explains.