If the history of workers’ rights was an object then it would be a seesaw tipping between capital and labour. Sometimes capital has the upper hand, sometimes labour does. Well, labour is never dominant but sometimes it doesn’t entirely suck to be a worker.
The seesaw of workers’ rights occurred to me as I was watching The Devil is a Part-Timer, which is an anime about Satan being kicked out of his kingdom and exiled to modern Japan, where to survive he has to work part-time at McDonald’s.
The series is hilarious. Watching the Adversary coming home exhausted to his shithole apartment panicking about how he’s going to pay for his new refrigerator is comedy gold. A lot of the stories are in that vein: The Devil gets promoted to shift manager. The Devil goes on a date with a co-worker. The Devil gets scammed by a door to door salesman.
The series is funny, but I couldn’t help feeling put off by the implicit normalization of living on the economic precipice. Lots of people live pay cheque to pay cheque and it’s probably not funny from their point of view. There are moments recognizing that precariousness in the series, such as the utter loneliness one of the otherworldly refugees suffers from or the way something as simple as free noodles is an incredible gift to the working poor characters.
I’m reminded of Welcome to the NHK, which is about what one possible reaction to the modern world: complete and almost total withdrawal. On the one hand, what does retreat do in improving one’s lot? On the other hand, what does struggling do in improving one’s lot as well? Because The Devil sure works his butt off in The Devil is a Part-Timer but he still isn’t even a full-time worker yet. And goodness knows those poor Kentuckians trying to make a living just seem to be digging themselves in deeper. The article is a decade old, but The Onion hit the target dead-on: “Report: Poor People Pretty Much Fucked”.
Is this the new normal, then? Is this life what Thatcher meant when she said There Is No Alternative? Because it seems that in this brave new world even our fantasies participate in our own subjugation.
I don’t mean to criticize the anime for not offering a solution. Comedy can be a site of political awareness, but by its very nature it can never be a site of struggle. It’s always too easy to say that it’s all just a joke. But comedy and art in general can still be a mirror to the society it depicts, and for The Devil is a Part-Timer, that society is trying hard to laugh at its own misery.