In 2019, Fuji TV premiered The Promised Neverland, an anime series revolving around a group of kids living in an orphanage. Nothing bad happens, and they all live very happy lives. You should watch it!
Now that you’ve (probably) finished the series, everything below is going to contain spoilers. Sorry.
From what we see of the “House,” the factory’s operation clearly mirrors Marx’s model of economics, introduced in chapter 7 of Capital. In this chapter, Marx shows that “the elementary factors of the labour-process are the personal activity of man, i.e., work itself, the subject of that work, and, its instruments.” The “personal activity of man” here consists of children of the House going about their day, who “setting in motion […] the natural forces of his body, in order to appropriate Nature’s productions in a form adapted to his own wants.” The Promised Neverland takes this quite literally as well, since the “personal activity” of the children, in studying and playing, can increase the value of “the subject of that work,” which also happens to be the children, except in an unalived form.
Marx describes instruments of labour as “a thing, or a complex of things, which the labourer interposes between himself and the subject of his labour, and which serves as the conductor of his activity.” In this case, we see that the house and its surroundings are quite literally the instrument of labour, which allows the final goods (the children) to be “refined” from their raw products.
Exploitation of our workers is also very clear-cut, with their deaths being the requirement for production. We also see zero self-determinism afforded to the children, which mirrors Marx’s principle for maximizing the productivity of workers as described in chapter 14 of Capital: “In manufacture, in order to make the collective labourer, and through him capital, rich in social productive power, each labourer must be made poor in individual productive powers.”
Class in this show is very clearly defined as well, with demons being the bourgeoisie and the humans reflecting the proletariat. However, the show also broaches the concept of class traitors, in Isabella and Krone. Despite being humans, which the show portrays as members of the proletariat, they are actively working against the interests of their own species and serving the demons for self-preservation. This mirrors modern-day examples of class traitors such as “the blue-collar man who becomes a security guard employed to harass striking workers” (Ehrenreich 154).
Just one problem, though: Capital’s thesis operates on an economy where workers contribute labor to goods and services. However, in this case, the workers are the product. This seemingly major oversight highlights a central point of the show’s thesis: modern capitalism has reached a point such that everything about us has been commodified, to the point where our entire selves are also reduced to products, and every interaction is commodified or reduced to simply market logic.
We can see this commodification in many aspects of everyday life as well. Take, for example, the ecosystem of messaging apps such as Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp. Message data in these apps are aggregated and sold to advertisers (Doyle). To Doyle, this is exploitation of affective labor – work that affects people’s emotions. While traditionally affective labor has been used to refer to work done by those such as fast-food workers and flight attendants (Negri et al. 108), technology has created a whole new industry for this type of work.
An increasingly widespread form of affective labor exploitation is seen in the dating app industry. While the premium features offered by dating apps are a clear-cut example of exploitation of this type of labor, Hobbs et al. examine a similar commodification done among users: “Tim’s use […] denotes a sales technique designed to encourage other Tinder users to ‘buy’ the profile.” Indirectly, this work done by the user also encourages more users to sign up, thus providing extra value to the company through that user’s labor.
Similarly, we can see this use of affective labor as a prime method of production within the world of The Promised Neverland. The quality, and thus the value, of the goods produced in the plants (the children), is implied to be directly linked with their intelligence. Thus, it is in the plants’ interest to ensure that the maximal amount of affective labor is added to the children to increase their final value. And thus we see that the method of production described in Capital is replicated once again, but making use of affective labor rather than physical and mental labor.
Perhaps unintentionally, The Promised Neverland’s critique of capitalist modes of production hits upon some interesting points regarding modern society. While methods of production are shifting, increasingly many industries have shifted over to leveraging affective labor. However, the show displays that exploitation of affective labor is still ultimately unethical, as the final product is ultimately consumed by the system which created it.
Doyle, K., 2015. Facebook, Whatsapp and the commodification of affective labour. Communication, politics & culture, 48(1), pp.51-65.
Ehrenreich, Barbara. Fear of falling: The inner life of the middle class. Hachette UK, 2020.
Hobbs, Mitchell, Stephen Owen, and Livia Gerber. “Liquid love? Dating apps, sex, relationships and the digital transformation of intimacy.” Journal of Sociology 53, no. 2 (2017): 271-284.
Marx, Karl. Capital: volume I. Vol. 1. Penguin UK, 2004.
Negri, Antonio, Michael Hardt, and David Camfield. “Multitude: war and democracy in the age of empire.” Labour 56 (2005): 359.