choices were stark: sack a third of our workforce or cut their wages by
a third. After a short board meeting we cut their wages, assured they
would survive and that, with a bit of cajoling, they would return to our
sweatshop in Shenzhen after their two-week break.
But that was only the start. In Zoe Svendsen’s play World Factory at
the Young Vic, the audience becomes the cast. Sixteen teams sit around
factory desks playing out a carefully constructed game that requires you
to run a clothing factory in China.
How to deal with a troublemaker? How to dupe the buyers from ethical
retail brands? What to do about the ever-present problem of clients that
do not pay? Because the choices are binary they are rarely palatable.
But what shocked me – and has surprised the theatre – is the capacity of
perfectly decent, liberal hipsters on London’s south bank to become
ruthless capitalists when seated at the boardroom table.
The classic problem presented by the game is one all managers face:
short-term issues, usually involving cashflow, versus the long-term
challenge of nurturing your workforce and your client base. Despite the
fact that a public-address system was blaring out, in English and
Chinese, that “your workforce is your vital asset” our assembled young
professionals repeatedly had to be cajoled not to treat them like dirt.
And because the theatre captures data on every choice by every team,
for every performance, I know we were not alone. The aggregated
flowchart reveals that every audience, on every night, veers towards
money and away from ethics.
Svendsen says: “Most people who were given the choice to raise wages –
having cut them – did not. There is a route in the decision-tree that
will only get played if people pursue a particularly ethical response,
but very few people end up there. What we’ve realised is that it is not
just the profit motive but also prudence, the need to survive at all
costs, that pushes people in the game to go down more capitalist
Why do so many decent people, when asked to pretend they’re CEOs, become
tyrants from central casting? Part of the answer is: capitalism
subjects us to economic rationality. It forces us to see ourselves as
cashflow generators, profit centres or interest-bearing assets. But that
idea is always in conflict with something else: the non-economic
priorities of human beings, and the need to sustain the environment.
Though World Factory, as a play, is designed to show us the parallels
between 19th-century Manchester and 21st-century China, it subtly
illustrates what has changed.