Why did the world’s leading aircraft manufacturer build a plane programmed to crash itself?
This is the question asked by Netflix’s Downfall: The Case Against Boeing, a ninety-minute investigation into two crashes of Boeing’s brand-new 737 MAX passenger airliners in 2018–19. To summarize: software was installed in the new planes designed to arbitrarily adjust the aircraft’s course in response to easily corrupted intelligence from just one sensor, without informing the pilot. The existence of this Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) was concealed from pilots so that Boeing’s customers wouldn’t have to factor additional pilot training into aircraft costs — resulting in a plane that could undercut competitors and deliver record profits for shareholders.
On October 29, 2018, Lion Air Flight 610 slammed into the Java Sea just thirteen minutes after takeoff, killing all on board. Pilot Bhavye Suneja had fought desperately to keep the plane airborne, unaware that his own systems were fighting back against his every move. Yet Boeing, backed by many in the media and politics, subsequently heaped blame on the pilot and airline in a campaign freighted with racialized stereotyping about airline standards in Global South countries. In fact, Lion Air had pleaded with Boeing for more training on the new aircraft and been mocked in Boeing correspondence for its troubles. Boeing lobbied the US Federal Aviation Administration successfully to avoid grounding the planes, promising a software fix within weeks. Five months later, Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 was brought down in the same way, killing all 157 passengers and crew.
Downfall digs decades deep into Boeing’s history to understand how a manufacturer renowned for innovation, quality, and safety turned on its head. It lands in the mid-1990s. Following the acquisition of rival McDonnell Douglas, a new management team set about financializing and transforming the company. Boeing’s job was no longer to make aircraft but to create value for shareholders above all. Quality control staff were laid off en masse. Engineers and their unions were suddenly brusquely ignored over every concern. The company’s headquarters was even moved from Seattle to Chicago, physically away from factory floor influence. Downfall alleges a culture of speeding up workloads and slashing standards while silencing whistleblowers — this, long before the fateful decisions that led to the crashes. Looking at the evidence assembled, the real surprise is that disaster didn’t strike far earlier.
What Downfall hints at but doesn’t cover in detail is that this is far from just a story about one unscrupulous aircraft manufacturer. One does not need to romanticize postwar capitalism to recognize that the Boeing tale — the subordination of all other aims to short-term shareholder value, the appointment of managers proudly ignorant about what the business produces, and the resulting fall in quality — is common across many institutions. So, too, is the devaluation of workers’ expertise, the silencing or ignoring of doubters, the declawing of regulators, and the presentation of workers’ concerns about safety issues as self-interested barriers to “innovation,” progress, and the dynamism of modern business.
Today, some attempt to draw a distinction between the predatory behavior of finance capitalism and the “real” economy of businesses that makes things. The Boeing case demonstrates how “real” activity is thoroughly financialized, and there is no easy way of going back. The forms of predation that define late capitalism and particularly the new US economic elite, from the ruthless mergers and acquisitions of the kind that preceded Boeing’s transition to the debt-loading and destruction of health care providers in the United States by private equity firms, cost jobs and lives in a huge range of ways. But Boeing is far from the only case where neoliberalism has helped to kill more directly.
As the first 737 MAX crash unfolded, half a world away in Kensington and Chelsea — the richest and perhaps most unequal corner of Britain and the place where I grew up — an inquiry into the Grenfell Tower fire, which killed at least seventy-two people, was underway. The disaster at the London tower block involved a far greater public sector element than Boeing, but the similarities are also striking. A single and very obviously dangerous piece of equipment — in this case, flammable cladding panels attached to a residential building — caused catastrophe. Corner cutting lay at the heart of the problem, from the council’s housing management organization to the cladding companies. The inquiry heard extensive evidence that the companies involved in producing the flammable cladding were, or at least should have been, fully aware of the risks. The charge sheet of negligence at every level of the complex supply chain is still being written but is already staggering.
All of this happened in a broader political context. Britain’s Conservative government had sat on fire safety recommendations following a comparable 2009 blaze and crowed repeatedly about reducing the “red tape” of safety regulations. The Conservative-run local council had routinely ignored safety concerns from poorer residents, leading a Grenfell Tower campaign group to issue the terrifyingly prophetic warning that “only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord.” Fire stations had been shut across the city. Local councils had seen their budgets cut to ribbons, forcing them to replace physical safety inspections with desktop assessments.
As with the Boeing case, if it had not been the specific failure that led to disaster, it could easily have been something else. And there was also little evidence of genuine contrition on part of authorities. The burned-out and bereaved fought desperately to be rehoused after repeated broken promises. There were attempts to deflect blame onto firefighters and even residents. Elsewhere, people with the same death-trap system in their homes were asked to pay for its removal. (A comparison can also be drawn across the Atlantic, with the role of predatory developers in setting the stage for the Champlain Towers collapse in Florida last year.)
Also in London, shortly after the second 737 MAX crash and against the backdrop of the Grenfell inquiry, campaigners marked the twentieth anniversary of the Ladbroke Grove rail crash in 2019, where thirty-one died in a head-on collision between two trains. This crash was the apogee of a Wild West environment on Britain’s railways that reigned following the privatization process inaugurated under Margaret Thatcher’s neoliberal Conservative government and completed by New Labour. Thirty-seven rail workers had died and 852 suffered major injuries between 1999 and 2004, a dramatic increase from previous figures.
Worker deaths were not widely reported — but harder to ignore were four major passenger rail crashes at the turn of the century. Evidence quickly emerged of more corner cutting, from inadequate driver training to ignoring calls for train protection systems. Once more, rail professionals’ warnings had been regarded as irrelevant and old-fashioned. While the two-decade anniversary was marked (and, it is worth noting, at the height of the Boeing 737 MAX story), Keith Williams, former British Airways boss and chair of the government review into UK railways, lamented that “you don’t create a customer focused railway by putting engineers in charge.”
One might reasonably argue that lethal corner cutting and bald-faced coverups are not unique to neoliberalism or even to capitalist economies. But peculiar to recent decades are the signs of regression — the adoption of new market imperatives that work against taking threats to human life seriously and against remaining incentives toward long-termism and collaborative workplace cultures. Boeing was not born as the Boeing of Downfall, and it did not become that way in a vacuum.
It is even more striking that this regression has taken place in an era of intensive technological progress, particularly in relation to workplace monitoring and surveillance. We live in a system where workers are more closely watched than ever and yet where constant and violent quality control breaches like those alleged in Downfall happen regardless. We live in a system where new technology allows for incredibly complex operations such as the automated micro-maneuvering of large aircraft in flight and yet where its developers can end up using such technology to make flying more, not less, dangerous. And despite more access to information and more global networks than ever before, we live in a system where corporate lobbyists spreading pernicious and racially charged lies about black pilot error are parroted without question by huge parts of the media establishment.
This system creates the conditions for specific catastrophes but also for disasters on a much larger scale, as in the case of the COVID-19 pandemic. The UK’s Exercise Cygnus and the United States’ coronavirus war game provided ample warnings of systemic flaws in the face of pandemics but were ignored. The UK case is striking because a genuinely impressive preparedness and global public health strategy was systematically degraded in the years preceding the pandemic. Even the right-leaning Sunday Times exposed how a decade of Conservative neoliberal austerity policy left health infrastructure weakened and its stockpiles degraded, to the point where nurses had to respond to a deadly pandemic in garbage bags. This report barely scratched the surface of years when local professionals like health visitors and school nurses were axed, increasing pressure on general practitioners and accident and emergency (A&E) departments while hospitals had to downsize, cut pay, and squeeze resources. Meanwhile, a new £3 billion reorganization of financial targets, privatization, and internal markets created a system that was more complex and better for shareholders, but also less functional for people who needed health care.
Don’t Look Down
Given all this, it is no surprise that neoliberalism’s incentive structures militate against getting a grip on systemic threats such as climate change. A system in which corporate and state bodies have been effectively incentivized to crash trains and planes, strap flammable material to residential buildings, and run down health care in the name of subordinating all other concerns to market demand isn’t well-designed to manage large-scale threats to human life or restrain those bent on increasing them. One illustrative example of how contemporary capitalism manages climate disasters comes from Texas, where storm-driven power outages have doubled since 2003 and where the state’s largest electricity producer was overwhelmed by harsh winters twice in three years. After the most recent failure, the state’s Public Utility Commission ordered energy companies to identify and remedy “weather design limits.”
They refused. They also killed off a major energy diversification plan. When a freeze struck the state in 2021, it left 5 million Texans without power and dozens dead. At the time, I spoke to a volunteer organizer who breathlessly recounted a week of horror stories: a double amputee desperately trying to boil water and keep her service dog alive, whole senior citizen homes blacked out, mothers hunting for food and diapers for their babies. (She added that undocumented farm workers were coping slightly better, because their water supply rarely worked anyway.) Meanwhile, the state had allowed energy firms to price gouge as an incentive for pumping in emergency power. One army veteran faced a sudden $16,000 energy bill.
Downfall makes the case against one business and its particularly egregious behavior. But it’s also more than that: a real-life version of Netflix’s recent climate-allegory disaster drama, Don’t Look Up. It is a story about how the devaluation of expertise through assaults on workers’ rights, the creation of ever-more-stressful and dangerous working conditions, the relentless financialization of anything that will stay still long enough, the weakness of effective scrutiny, and the activation of age-old prejudices to avoid accountability have come together to create a particular type of endemic, deliberate, and dangerous incompetence that poses risks to us all. And it is a reminder of the urgency, now more than ever, of building a politics and an economy based on very different priorities.