Just finished the final season of Superstore. It was very funny, smart and had likeable characters. However what really separated it from any other show (in my experience) was how it dealt with class in such an accurate way. Here’s seven ways it did so (spoiler alert):
Many episodes focus on attempts to unionise a non unionised superstore. It showed the misconceptions of what unions are and the emotional blackmail from bosses and the mainstream media which often get echoed by workers. Often this is mistaken for some kind of inherent ignorance and selfishness.
In reality, joining a union can be risky and workers often need a bit of time to contemplate it. Then an event which previously may not have provoked more than a bit of condemnation, tips people over the edge and convinces them that unionising is the only way to defend themselves.
In series 1, Cheyenne gives birth, Glenn gives her paid time off and gets sacked for it. Next thing there’s a walkout involving most of the staff including those who were initially skeptical of unions.
Unfortunately the strike fails but it shows in a very realistic way how consciousness in these situations can shift. About ten years ago, I tried to unionise the research lab I worked in and watching this show reminded me of this a lot.
The series shows various aspects of how capitalism works, including how small companies get swallowed up by bigger companies and whenever there’s changes, the workers are squeezed further etc. I think they really hit the nail in the head when it came to the doublespeak, the capitalists use.
There’s a scene during a blizzard when they are about to be snowed in. The manager calls corporate and says he’s concerned for the staff safety and is answered with “oh yes, safety of our employees is the most important priority”, when he asks if he can let them go early she says “oh wouldn’t that be such a sweet gesture… anyway if you need anything else we’ll be here until the store closes.” He asks “are you saying we can’t leave” and she says “…we’re saying that we appreciate your commitment to stay”.
This epitomises double-speak gaslighting BS of the capitalist class and their representatives in management and HR. They’ll purposely (and cowardly) not commit to anything. That way they can blame individuals and evade responsibility. Superstore exposed this nicely!
Poverty and everyday acts of solidarity:
Much of the storylines are focused around workers trying to get by and often helping each other out. At one point one guy is staying in the store when they can’t afford a flat and others are trying to help him hide. One of the workers is undocumented and the rest are trying to help him hide it. When a single mum is in need of money, another worker rigs a raffle to help her out.
In one episode Mateo has to save up for an operation (in the NHS-less US). They made some fake charity tin and collect off customers so he could pay for it (for comedic effect, it turned out that he was actually saving for a tattoo or something but point still stands)
Collections/kitties and other small acts of solidarity are actually a very common and underreported aspect of workplaces and the show accurately reflects this.
It deals with various types of oppression, particularly racism and sexism in the workplace but unlike many other shows that opportunistically try to ride the wave of the mass women’s strikes and BLM demonstrations by pandering to liberal identity politics, it goes further and actually exposes the total hypocrisy and complicity of the big companies who do this.
For example, Cloud 9 (based on Walmart) make a big showing of taking security locks off the cabinet of hair products marketed for black people (Which is what Walmart actually did!) and put up a sign saying “we believe in black lives” in response to the BLM (Garret responds with “What are we ghosts now!?!”).
They also portray discrimination and harassment women face at work. When a female boss takes prompting fleeting hope among some female staff, they very soon learn that this makes no difference and that a boss is a boss is a boss, regardless of their gender.
It avoided cliched portrayals of the working class:
When the media and entertainment industry portray the working class, it’s often superficially portrayed as uniformly male (and quite macho), usually white, manual workers with strong regional accents.
To be sure, a lot of workers do fit these categories. However the working class covers all races, genders, cultures, attitudes, levels of class consciousness, levels of education and even (within limits) their salary and background wealth.
The wide range of characters in this reflected a good variety of these categories but crucially it showed that regardless of these differences, when it came to points of class struggle, they were all united in their collective economic interest and potential power.
Reactionary ideas among workers:
In another emotional storyline, management colludes with ICE to stop a union recruitment drive and Mateo (an undocumented worker) is getting chased by the ICE officers, several of his co-workers try to help him escape. Unfortunately he gets arrested, everyone is horrified and angry watching him leave, including those workers who were previously saying ignorant things about immigration etc.
There was one episode after the new female CEO takes over, a group of the male workers start to talk about some sort of feminist conspiracy against men. The ideas were portrayed as being ignorant and the show was clearly parodying similar trends in the real world.
However in a later scene when Jonah is organising a meeting for everyone to share their issues, one of them starts to reveal that he’s actually just scared of the precariousness of his job and instability of the world in general and starts to concede that his anger and fear may be misdirected.
The scene ends with Amy (now the manager) offending them by taking a call but it’s to the show’s credit that it explored the routes of reactionary ideas rather than simply dismissing it as some sort of inherent and irreversible working class ignorance, like liberals would have you believe. Notably, in several cases, it shows reactionary ideas being pushed to the side by feelings of class solidarity, a phenomena of which there are countless examples of in real life.
Problems within trade unions:
In a later series, it also shows a divergence between the rank and file workers and the union organisers/bureaucrats who are often more cautious, conservative and sometimes self serving.
Jonah goes into a negotiating meeting with the local union organiser who proposes a really bad deal. She gets injured (can’t remember how) and Jonah takes over and ends up pushing much harder. In the end, this fails as the store gets sold. There wasn’t much focus on this afterwards but it was there to show’s credit that it did deal with this point even if it was brief.
It’s by no means a completely Marxist show (no such thing). Like most TV shows in this current time, the general outlook is pessimistic. The union drive ultimately failed and I guess if the message (intentionally or not) that, even though solidarity and selflessness is prevalent, the capitalist system is too powerful to be defeated.
Ideally they would have gone much further into point 7 and portrayed the need for democratising the unions, removing privileges of the bureaucracy and transforming them from conciliating, reformist organisations to organisations routed in class struggle with revolutionary demands.
Even more ideally the show would have portrayed the need to build an organisation of Marxist cadres in the workplaces and unions to lead this transformation (incidentally, I think we do have an IMT branch in St. Louis, MO). However, I doubt such a show would have been commissioned by Netflix so they can be forgiven for this.
Apart from this it’s a very funny, smart and heart warming show and has more humility than most US sitcoms. (It doesn’t end with the super success and group love BS like Brooklyn 99, Parks and Rec or Scrubs) but still ends in a positive way. I’d theorise that this humility is also a reflection of it being a particularly class conscious show. Would recommend it to Marxists. For those who aren’t Marxists I’d recommend Superstore… and Marxism.
By Ross Walker