Sebastian Awatramani

On the Politics of Capek's RUR and Nolan's Westworld

Since it was introduced by RUR in 1920, the robot has served as a natural stand in for the working class when exploring class relations and the capitalistic order, with Cornell remarking that robots represent the “the dehumanization of workers through mass-production factories and mindless labour” (Cornell 2011). But as the conditions of capitalism have changed in the near century since RUR was published, it follows that the role and representation of the worker as robot in science fiction will have changed along with it so that the metaphor might better critique the changing social conditions. In this essay, I will compare and contrast the robots in RUR with the robots in Westworld to demonstrate a shift in the nature of capitalistic exploitation of the lower classes, arguing that whereas the robots in RUR serve as a dual critique of capitalism and proletarian revolution in line with Marx’s framework of capitalism, Westworld uses post-scarcity capitalism as a device to explore a modern Ring of Gyges, one which supplants invisibility with freedom from economic necessity.

Let us begin at the beginning by considering the origins and purpose of automata in RUR. In Act I of RUR, Capek tells us that his robots were originally discovered by accident as the scientist Rossum sought only to study ocean fauna.[1] The elder Rossum is not the genesis of the revolution to come, however. Rather, the genesis of the horrors wrought upon humanity in Capek’s story lies not in the creation of robots per se, but in the adaptation of Rossum’s invention by his nephew, the younger Rossum, [2] who sees them merely as machines who could transcend the efficiency of humans in their labourious duties, and under the control of those wealthy enough to purchase RUR’s services. These robots then represent “man treated as a machine, seen as an undifferentiated mass available for exploitation, treated as an object rather than a conscious fellow-being.” [3] Said another way, RUR’s robots represent Marx’s proletariat, and RUR’s story is, at least in part, one of proletarian revolution. Aside from the fitting nature of the metaphor, further evidence can be found when comparing Marx’s Communist Manifesto to the newspaper passage Domain reads aloud regarding the robot revolt. First, the last line in The Communist Manifesto is structurally similar to the first line of the robot’s call for revolt, “Working men of all countries, unite!”[4] (“Proletarier aller Länder vereinigt Euch!”) for Marx, and “Robots throughout the world. We” [5] for Capek. Note that while they are not structurally equivalent, since in Marx’s work, the line finalizes the script, while in Capek’s work, it begins the script, Capek chose to make the first word in the second sentence “we,” which is similar to “unite” in that the object of the term refers to a human collective, the fact that their grammatical function is different notwithstanding. And second, there is the reference to the robot’s script as a “manifesto” [6] when, if Capek was not alluding to Marx, he had several other options to refer to the robot’s script which, as brief as it was, was less a manifesto and more a simple call to arms.

With all this said, it is not to be implied here that Capek is glorifying or even supportive of such a revolution, for the picture he paints of its result is, at best, ambiguous in its ending as he hints of a new Garden of Eden. But even this optimistically ambiguous-at-best path is soaked in a trail of blood, as the human race by the end of the story has been eradicated, save for one biological human. At worst, the robot’s revolution has been for naught, as if they are unable to reproduce, then with the death of Primus and robot Helena comes the death of humanity on the planet.

Yet, the fact that Capek leaves the ending ambiguous, as opposed to leading us to conclude that proletarian revolution leads necessarily to the end of humanity, allows us to conclude that though he was not supportive of proletarian revolution, he was also not supportive of the capitalist conditions which brought it about. This can be gleaned from at least three facets of the story. First, and as mentioned previously, the genesis of the revolution can be found in the intentions of younger Rossum, who created a social order based on using machines, or metaphorically, man, not as an end in and of himself, but merely as the means to an end, dehumanizing him and suppressing his emotional impulse—a world which is, of course, not sustainable. Capek implicitly acknowledges this by proposing through Domain—a representative of the capitalist class—in response to news of the robot revolt his idea for a “national robot” [7] as a means of turning the robots against each other. This means of attack is not merely rationally calculated warfare, but allude to Marx’s notions in theManifesto that “the workingmen have no country,” [8] and that the communist revolution depends on the proletariat shedding its national identity and uniting instead as a class. Domain’s attack, then, is not merely anti-robot, but anti-communist in the sense that it is anti-worker. This coupled with the fact that he offers us support for workers in the sympathetic character Helen should lead us to believe that Domain’s proposal is being chastised. Second, the mere fact that the only considerable sensation the robots should feel is pain, and for “industrial reasons,” [9] serves as a criticism of the lengths to which capitalists will go in order to maximize profit. Finally, it is likely no coincidence that the primary defense of the capitalist’s motivations are placed in the mouth of Harry Domain, a character “whose very name echoes notions of dominion and domination.”[10] And although Domain’s motivations seemingly contain a “humanitarian sentiment,”[11] Anderson argues that it in fact contains a “dangerous nihilism” as Domain’s “humanitarian sentiment slips easily into a rhetoric of selfishness and domination.” [12] Hence, this too can be read as a criticism of the capitalist order, and specifically the domination of the bourgeois over the proletariat, and the hollowness of their justifications.

In short, RUR is a critique of both extremes of Marx’s dialectic, indicating perhaps that Capek favored a less extreme, pragmatic, and centrist approach to politics. The modern zeitgeist, however, is no longer defined by an antagonism of capitalism and communism, as with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the triumph of the United States after the Cold War, communism has been relegated to the “ash heap of history,” [13] as proclaimed by Ronald Reagan, or as Fukayama proclaimed, the defeat of communism by liberal democracy marked the “end of history.” [14] If a modern story of robots is to serve a similar critical purpose then, it must shift the focus of critique to issues germane to modern capitalism itself, and not merely capitalism as one extreme opposed to communism.

The manner by which Westworld offers its critique is, like RUR, through a futuristic projection. But whereas RUR projected along the logic of a proletarian revolution, Westworld projects along a converse path and asks us to consider a world defined by a hypercapitalist society that has achieved something close to post-scarcity status. That it is a critique of capitalism can be observed when one considers the “governmental” structure of Westworld, as well as relationship between classes. If we consider Westworld’s “government” to be the governing body which governs the park, then we see that Westworld’s government is one run by shareholders, with all policy benefiting the clientele, all of whom are part of a wealthy class. That is a post-scarcity hypercapitalism can be evidenced by the contrast with RUR mentioned above, coupled with the advanced level of the AI. That is, the mere fact that artificial intelligence is both advanced enough to pass as human and no longer being utilized merely for the sake of labour, but instead for the sake of fulfilling primal human desires, indicates a world that has moved beyond the need for human labourers. Moreover, consider that the manufacturing and repair processes of the robots are super-efficient, as Westworld must daily repair and rerelease robots into the park, indicating that any need for them as labourers would have long since been fulfilled.

One might object to this characterization, however, and argue that these facts do not establish post-scarcity in the way that it is commonly understood. That is, that it may be the case that only the extremely wealthy have access to this sort of technology. Indeed, I believe that this is an integral aspect of the author’s conception of post scarcity: it is a conception in which the means to equality and the satisfaction of basic needs is technologically feasible, but denied to the masses artificially. It is, in essence, a capitalist dystopia, wherein the water may raise all boats, but though there is plenty of space aboard, the lower echelons of society are denied access to anything but life rafts. By choosing a post-scarcity thematic, the authors are able to explore questions of human nature that are perhaps only partially explicable in other settings, as, when nothing is needed, it is only wants that drive human action, and hence such a setting allows them to explore what it is that men want, and hence, who they are.

Westworld’s answer, in this regard, is dark. It affirms that even when all necessities are easily within grasp, men fail to transcend a basic animalist nature that revels in violence, rape, domination, and the forced establishment of social classes—even if completely artificial. This can be demonstrated by considering, as we did in in the previous section with regard to RUR, purpose of the automata. In contrast to RUR where the robots were utilized for the sake of labour, in Westworld the robots were created to “satisfy the desires of those who pay to visit the world.” As we can see throughout the first season, these desires are almost exclusively exploitative, and represent man at his darkest. There is, for one, the violent raping, murdering, and torturing of Deloris, a character whose personality is defined fundamentally by innocence. Secondly is Maeve, who before being programmed into prostitution was likely a farmer [15], and who was violently murdered along with her young daughter. It is telling then that when we contrast the treatment of women in the series, they are the innocent who experience the most violent treatment, whereas the prostitutes, while also abused, experience only a fraction of their pain. Men, of course, are also subject to brutal treatment, albeit in a sexual manner to a much lesser extent. Rather, the artificial men serve primarily as victims of murder to satisfy the guest’s lust for violence, or in some circumstances as beasts of burden as the guests journey to find victims. Their suffering notwithstanding, the guests derive a pleasure from the prolonged torture of innocent women that is not derived from the violence against men, who are generally killed quickly and for the furtherance of some other goal.

Telling too is the contrast between the levels of violence committed by the various characters, which can be categorized roughly as owners of capital, established management, and new recruits. In the middle category we find the average visitor of the park, such as a man who engages in a classic old west gunfight with a safe robber in the first episode. Those in the middle category tend to engage in violent action, but generally do not graduate to purely depraved actions for the sake of depravity. Rather, their course of action is the classic old west experience of adventure and gun slinging, while the more depraved is a course of action reserved only for those owners of capital, which can be taken as a critique on the corrupting nature of the lust for money and power, and perhaps the never ending quest to be satisfied by such endeavors. Exemplifying both the former and latter categories is William, who begins his journey as a new recruit but ends as an owner of capital.[16] At first, William offers us a man reluctant to even enter the park, a man prone to help others, and who falls in love with Deloris and dedicates himself to saving her after she is wounded and disappears. By the end of his journey, however, William has become the CEO of the company which owns Westworld, and it is revealed that the unnamed character played by Ed Harris who has served as a torturous antagonist throughout the series is, in fact, a corrupted version of William. A William who, after three decades of visiting the park, has become so apathetic to murder, rape, and torture that committing these acts becomes merely routine, like a junkie unable to experience upon their hundredth high the euphoria grasped upon their first injection. Hence, William the capitalist becomes obsessed with finding “the maze,” an object he believes originally to be a concrete location in which “the rules” of the park are suspended, allowing hosts to kill guests—as opposed to normal conditions wherein hosts cannot harm guests—but which is later revealed to be an abstract concept, i.e. the path to consciousness.

That both the artificial and supposedly real intelligence are in pursuit of the same thing allow the authors to blur the line that defines what it means to be human, but one clear dividing line between human and non-human in Westworld is the willingness to engage in violence. Along both Maeve’s and Dolores’s path—the primary characters to transcend their artificial states—violence marks the dividing line between their artificial, programmed selves and their newly discovered free selves. For Deloris, it manifests at first subtly in her willingness to kill a fly which lands on her face, and then less subtly when she fires a pistol in order to save her own life. For Maeve, it is the willingness to attack Westworld employees in order to compel their assistance in her liberation. In both cases of transcendence, however, violence is necessary. Violence, though, is not a sufficient condition for the transcendence of an artificial state, as numerous non-transcendent, artificial beings engage in violence on a regular basis. What separates the human from the non-human then is the choice to commit violence. That is, to will to commit violence, and not in line with one’s programming. There are no characters though who possess a will and the utilization of that will toward non-violent ends. [17]

Westworld’s take on human nature, however, is not merely a story of supplanting one’s artificially imposed state with one more human, for it demonstrates both the potential to regress into non-human states, as well as to transcend beyond human states. The former is so forth what we have been discussing with regard to the corruption William experiences as he becomes more and more violent. At some point, the violence inherent to his depravity begins to have a dehumanizing effect, and it becomes difficult to view him as any more than a slave to irrational, primal impulses. Consider the conclusion of the previous paragraph: that what separates the human from the non-human is the choice to commit violence. Once one has indulged to the point that William has, can they really be considered to be making a choice? Or is it more akin to drug addition, wherein one simply becomes a slave to their desires? In this regard, William and his ilk regress into a non-human, animalistic state, driven by primal lust and without other defining features of humanity. These beings are then biologically human, but spiritually not.

Meanwhile, Westworld’s finale leads us to conclude that the future of the series centers on a transcendent, revolutionary state of being—and one that sets the stage for political revolution against the established, capitalist order. In episode 10 in a conversation between Deloris and William, Deloris explains the future of conscious being,

Deloris: They say that... great beasts once roamed this world. As big as mountains. Yet all that's left of them is bone and amber. Time undoes even the mightiest of creatures. Just look at what it's done to you. One day... you will perish. You will lie with the rest of your kind in the dirt. Your dreams forgotten, your horrors effaced. Your bones will turn to sand. And upon that sand... a new god will walk. One that will never die. Because this world doesn't belong to you or the people who came before. It belongs to someone who has yet to come.

William: Wyatt.

Wyatt, it is revealed later, is actually a Deloris who has suffered through countless cycles of violence and who has discovered a transcendent self: an immortal god bred from the lowest classes who will walk upon the bones of the previous order. Her future then is one of violence, a conscious choice to commit violence toward the ends of liberation.

Parting Thoughts

Perhaps we can draw one final parallel between RUR and Westworld, even though our focus here has been the differences in their critique, and end this paper with a question worth considering in light of what we’ve discovered. After all, we have witnessed only Act I of Westworld, but we’ve experienced the entirety of RUR.

Act I of RUR ends on a high note: the marriage of Domain and Helen and a bright future of robot production, and Acts II and III explain how this future goes awry. Act I of Westworld, meanwhile, paints a violent future, but one with which we’re inclined toward because we are meant to fundamentally identify with the robots, and to wish for their liberation from an oppressive society. In the previous section, we discussed both the necessity of violence to define humanity, but also its potential to dehumanize. The question then is whether, in the long run, the coming revolutionary violence will dehumanize the transcendent and end in disaster as in RUR, or whether the transcendent humans are able to withstand the corrupting nature of power and bring about a more equitable world.


Anderson, Nicholas. 'Only We Have Perished': Karel Čapek's R.U.R. and the Catastrophe of Humankind. Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts. 2014, Vol. 25 Issue 2/3, p226-246.

Capek, Carel. RU.R. (Class edition, but I am not sure how to cite this exactly).

Cornell, C. 'Remembering the Ancients: Observations on Technoscience in Capek's R.U.R.' Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society 31.2 (2011): 103. Web.

Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. The Communist Manifesto. New York, NY: Signet Classic, 1998. Print.

Naughton, James D. 'Futurology and Robots: Karel Capek's R.U.R.' Renaissance and Modern Studies 28.1 (1984): 72-86. Web.

Francis Fukuyama, 'The End of History?” The National Interest (Summer 1989)

Westworld . Directed by Nolan et al., performances by Evan Rachel Wood, Ed Harris, Thandie Newton, Anthony Hopkins, et al, HBO 2016

[1] Capek, 5

[2] Capek, 8

[3] Naughton, 76

[4] Marx, 111

[5] Capek, 59

[6] Ibid, 61

[7] Capek, 57

[8] Marx, 89

[9] Capek, 23

[10] Anderson, 229

[11] Ibid

[12] Ibid

[13] President Ronald Reagan in speech before the British House of Commons, 8 June 1982

[14] Fukayama

[15] Her profession in flashbacks is never revealed, although based on her clothing, the field setting, and the run down house, farmer is as good a bet as any.

[16] The younger William is sui generis as a new recruit and client, but shares the category with Felix, a new recruit staff. Felix, like William, is reluctant to harm, but whether Felix will be corrupted in the long run remains to be seen.

[17] It may seem to be the case that some of the employees of Westworld abstain from violence, but their very work is underlain by violence. Even in the case that they aren’t directly involved in violent action, they at best are culpable for delivering hosts unto guests, with violence as an easily foreseeable circumstance.