Repo Men and the "standpoint of contract"

Curator's Note

Contract is a, if not the, central institution of liberalism, classical and neo, economic and political. Freedom in liberal society is often conceived simply as freedom of contract. The nature of contract is Repo Men’s center of gravity. The film relentlessly probes the outer limits of contractarianism: clients of the evil corporation at the center of the film -- perplexingly called “The Union” (see “their” website <>) -- consent to the on-the-spot relinquishing of their life-preserving artificial organs should they fall too far behind on their payments. (It's in the fine print.) The pretense is that the removal of the organ being repossessed is not a murder; any resulting injury or death is due to the failure of the debtor to have paid up or contracted for something else, such as emergency care.

In its jarring first act, Repo Men invites us to scrutinize the fiction that contracts are discrete, voluntary exchanges of property in which each party consensually surrenders something of value and emerges with a benefit. As has become starkly clear in ongoing discussions of “underwater” mortgages and spiralling personal bankruptcy, the reality behind the fiction is that many contracts create enduring, illiberal, political relationships in which one party is in a position to dominate another. As J. S. Mill put it, when a person enters a contract, “he abdicates his liberty; he foregoes any future use of it beyond that single act. He therefore defeats, in his own case, the very purpose which is the justification of allowing him to dispose of himself.”

At first, Jake and Remy embody what Carole Pateman calls the "standpoint of contract," which Jake expounds to Remy in the scene excerpted here. But when Remy finds himself the unwilling recipient of a new artificial heart, he begins to see the contracts on which his job is based in a different light. “The Union,” for whom Remy is an extremely efficient enforcer, has replaced his own heart with an artificial one in order to place him in a position of debt peonage, working perpetually to pay off the organ. For Remy, the distinction between "voluntarily" and "involuntarily" assumed debt now becomes meaningless. 

Repo Men poses the central liberal institution of contract as a problem; it asks (paraphrasing Mill): Is it freedom, to be allowed to alienate one’s freedom?



Wow.  The union website is a truely inspired confluence of doublespeak and maybe 'doublebody'.  I'm struck by how much 'economic education' has penetrated the body, in metaphorical and actual political speech.  We understand the contradiction of our economic beliefs-- as the character states it, "not following the rules"-- as equivalent to, and deserving of, death.  It's a strangely unliberal vision of liberalism-- kind of like "The Union" is a bizarely and extreme individualist vision of collectivism.

I'm fascinated with feature films that are somewhat explicit about economic education.   "Wall Street" is, of course, the most obvious example.  But there are less accomplished entries as well,  like "Fun with Dick and Jane" or "In Good Company," which privileges a kindler, gentler national corporate culture (vs. the rapacious global monolith, Globecom).

Puns intended, I find it interesting that across the posts so far and in the discourse around economic education, that there seems to be a whole-sale repurposing of language that  (even potentially) allows for critical examination of our assumptions about economics.   The example of "The Union" is perhaps the clearest case of this:  what once suggested labor coming together for a voice gets repurposed to not only make the term more villified than it once even as it is tied to an institutional form that unions served to check. 

Like Elizabeth, I'm increasingly fascinated with films offering this sort of vision (in fact, I'm coblling together a class on it as we speak), and this is a great example because of how the language seems to confuse one of the fundamental questions we ask when making sense of ideology:  who are we meant to identify with?   While I haven't seen the film, it seems likely that in the end, we're to identify with a character who is the middle point between the corporation which has overstepped and the foolish consumers who didn't read the fine print. 

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