Sidney Stratton: But I don't want to get paid.
Mrs. Watson, Sidney's landlady: Not want to? I don't care whether you want to get paid or not! You've got to get paid!
Bertha, Birnley Mill worker: I don't care whether you want to get paid or not! You've got to get paid!
The Man in the White Suit is a whirling mess: of sabotage and complicity, of things falling apart against the threat of never falling apart. A desperate, clinging defense - capital and labor, all together now, or we're all fucked! - in the name of decay and forced obsolescence. A coming together as a nasty collective (headed up by arch-capitalist Sir John Kierlaw, seen above with cane, seen elsewhere haunting the dreams of child labor, a Dark Crystal Skeksis of textile monopoly, his laugh a hissing poisonous exhalation that has to be declared after the fact to have been laughter ) to destroy to protect the order of things that are destroyed, run-down, and cast out "naturally."
The protagonist of the film is a kind of fabric, even as it can only take shape stitched and wrapped, literal and in narrative form, around Sidney Stratton, its inventor. In short: Sidney's a renegade in it for the science, and it's hard not to see in him the same kind of illusory, rare figure that gets imagined as a wider condition in "post-Fordist immaterial labor," with all its accompanying willful misunderstandings. He works custodial jobs at textile plants so he can "repurpose" materials (read: steal but not take out of the factory, just try to sidle in unnoticed amongst the researchers, melancholic lustful gazing at those inner sanctums of development). All to build his strange gurgling/polka band echo chamber bubble and smoke apparatus in which he can try to develop the alchemical dream and nightmare of the industry. It's a long-chain molecule polyester, slightly irradiated and hence extra snappy glowing in the dark, that doesn't rip or tear. The patterns have to be cut with an arc welder. And it cannot be stained (more than that, it repels dirt, shoves it away, the grimy hands of manual labor - yours or others - don't mark it, you could go straight from the mines to the dancefloor, a partially radioactive man about town on paycheck night).
Of course, despite Sidney's stated naive unawareness of this, capital and labor aren't having any of it, at least taken as a unified, infighting but ultimately familial body. One initial capitalist wants to corner the market on it, get it while the getting is good, but the sinister fabric trust and the Very Assertive Union Workers ("you have to take your tea break, we worked hard to get it") know damn well what this means. The creation of the object that has the whole industry hustling and drooling is the creation of its collapse. If clothing won't "wear out," then the industry will grind to a halt. (And with it, secondary informal labor: Sidney's land lady, who cobbles together an existence with extra washing on the side, attacks him: "Why can't you scientists leave things alone? What about my bit of washing when there's no washing to do?") There will be one final generation of items made, occasional upkeep for arc welder accidents and new bodies coming onto the earth, but basically, the gig is up.
This is, of course, entirely wrong,. Briefly, for all intents and purposes, for the duration of time most people (and not just the rich or middle class) in the capitalist center and still beyond wear their clothes, we already have this non-decaying fabric. The cause of clothing's replacement is so rarely the actual wearing out of it. It's the fundamental obsolescence of style itself. A single untouchable, unstainable white suit scattered horizontally into an endless series of shit quality t-shirts, acrylic leggings that indeed won't last long, but you'll beat them to the punch, swap them out, pass them on, leave them to not-rot. The man in the unsmearable white suit is the same as the man in the series of beer promotional, soon-to-be forgotten in a closet, awkwardly baggy polo shirts that you don't quite remember obtaining. (And in reverse, those who mark their style by the opposite, on a limited series of clothes getting worn and ground down, restitched back together, holes in the crotch, convenient tears: the major industry breakthrough won't be non-decay, it'll be a more realistic looking "pre weathering," so that all can look legitimately like they wear indeed on the crust circuit for a while.) Simply because Gore-Tex exists does not mean that a) we wear durable, impervious underwear made of it, and b) that style ceases to exist. As if clothing was pure functionality and as if style wasn't just the visible presence of the one who knows when to hold steady and when to cast away. Attachment to single, wearable bits of duration with memory - it belonged to my girlfriend/boyfriend/mother/father/best friend/grandmother/some stranger I didn't know, I was wearing when I lost my virginity/watched a sports team win something - or even utility, a good pair of shoes, is notable because it's the exception we want to imagine as the rule. Like sustainability ever made any sense.
Moreover, it's fundamentally off on the dynamics of capitalist competition: of course, the Brits would leap on this technology, without concern for the long-term future. (Ah yes, those capitalists, so notoriously worried about the future of the economy for their grandchildren.) And labor would equally leap on this: if it did corner the global market and was held in patent by the British textile industry, the demand would hypothetically sky-rocket, wages would leap. There are a lot of people out there, and if everyone needed a white suit or white galoshes or white panties, that would more than fill the future quota for all Brits in the textile industry. Moreover, they miss the fact, one with historical viciousness as it signals the historical direction of much industry, that what matters isn't that sturdy clothes can be made of this (given production costs and commodity culture, it's likely that most people either won't be able to afford it or won't particularly care, despite all this talk of dignity and looking clean). Rather, it's the formula that matters, the chemical process, now extending out to all industries and production: something that light and strong would find its practical home not in a suit but in bridges, cars, houses, weapons... If it is clothing, it is clothing for war: military uniforms, long-chain stormtroopers to match labor's knights in shining polymer armor.
(An unmistakable absence is the Soviet Union, especially given the film's from '51: if the problem is that capitalism is threatened from within by this fabric, if it will wreck the very circuits of the reproduction of capitalism, Sidney knows damn well there are some fellows in the East who have been looking for such a fabric and aren't too worried about the effects it might have on the delicate balance of capitalists and the workers they exploit. I'd like to see an Eastern Bloc reload of this film, a Red Son of labor comedies, in which much might be the same, especially if made in the GDR: it's a quick step from hero of labor to traitor to your fellow worker, especially if you keep insisting on working too fast, making yourself too much of the overachiever, and forcing everyone to adapt because you want to be that guy, even as that guy is the ideological lynchpin of the whole enterprise.)
Bertha - the voice of the working class, a tough mill broad with doe eyes for Sidney and a very well-rehearsed bag of Trot rhetoric - refers to Sidney as, "flotsam floating on the floodtide of profit." That's not quite it, even as the film urges toward that neutrality. Indeed, there's a vision of a permeability of capitalism. It clamps down on those who don't play by the rules, it seems unbreachable, but like Sidney's fabric, which can't be cut but through which a needle can pass with ease, it's full of holes, side passages, hidden interior spaces, outsides you find at the very center, ways around and through. In such a mode, Sidney would be a minor rebel, who prefers not to but who remains that neutral detritus, a threat because of what he knows but who can be shamed, expunged, and put to use, if only they could harness the dreamer or just give him the illusion of mattering. The textile kingpins don't even care if he cares about money, as long as he is usable. So too with organized labor, which makes no attempts to convince him of why he should want a tea break or to get paid, only that he has to. For a film in which the specter of the abolition of work hangs (a utopian promise of emancipation through technological innovation), there are no Left figures remotely committed to it. No one capable of saying, indeed, you won't have your bit of washing to do, and that would be a damn good thing. Instead, a porous but rigid structure, with enough turning a blind eye to let the thinkers play.
However, there may be ways through, but there's no way out other than through destruction. (Secession remains a lingering impossibility here: Sidney would rather drag the bastards with him, even if it means alternately making them rich and getting them exploded.) Particularly, it's sabotage. An explicit, senseless, frivolous wasting of time and material that was only ever waste from the start, clothes to be worn and worn out in the process of reproducing the cycle of making more and going on. After Sidney is officially incorporated as a researcher, he systematically - regardless of his "intentions - starts wrecking the productivity and profitability of the factory. The fact that it's in the name of this great leap forward doesn't change the storm of waste he inaugurates. His experiments swallowing up the priciest radioactive materials, clearing out all the other researchers to tiny, nearly unusable closets, and then routinely destroying the research lab and all within it through massive explosions. Turning the factory into a war zone, coming a slippery contingency away from blowing up the owner himself. (On watching, I started to envision a different trajectory and a very different kind of film, in which it turns out that what Sidney's chasing isn't the purity of fabric that lasts forever, but weapons, that the explosions aren't the consequence of the experiment going wrong, but going very right, conning the industry to develop a technology that could extinguish the nation as a whole.) Even at the end, as he walks away, a nominal failure, his face lights up, Enlightenment roaring through the circuits again, thinking how to "do it right this time," which means once more infiltrating the industry, blowing holes in the industry, and potentially annihilating a swath of work and capital. The fabric may come to be indestructible, but only because of the store of annihilation and unneeded expenditure woven into its genesis.
And its degeneration. For unlike Sidney, the center of the film, the fabric itself, has a less happy ending: to the cathartic relief of capital and labor alike, it turns out to be auto-destructive. Far from eternal, it begins falling apart, its tight bonds uncurling, just handfuls of useless, fragile white fluff. The suit, with Sidney inside it, is cornered, capitalists and workers alike circling him, ready to tear the genius to bits to prevent him from letting the secret loose. And as they grab the suit, it comes apart in their hands. They laugh and mock and strip him down, handfuls of the idiotic material, downy particles drifting.
Yet the suit's failure is a triumph of pointless expenditure, the very thing it threatened, long chain molecules coming apart, valueless chaff. What was accused of non-obsolescence turns out to be its manifest undoing, all the more vicious and perfect because its only reason for existing in the first place was the promise of it existing indefinitely. Instead, a sucker punch. You wear your dangerously irradiated suit, you secede from the world of dirt and decay and circulation. And it will leave you in your underwear in the end, fabric pulled from you like cotton candy. Where else is there to go but back to the prospect of doing it again, not because you think only of science or stand outside the labor process, but because that is what production is for capital. The bringing of something into form only on the condition that it will be unformed, destroyed, outmoded, chewed and shat out, hated in its form and left to not rot away, but come apart, millenially slow, in the ceaseless near wind of the garbage dump, its plastic threads lifting, curling, and going nowhere.