Repo Men and the "standpoint of contract"
by Matt Stahl — University of Western Ontario
April 20, 2010 – 00:12
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 <theunioncares.com>) — 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?
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