There's a lot to be said about the androids of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. Like, a lot a lot. Each android character brings new concepts of what it means to be an artificially created human, and the meaning the androids can change depending on what theme you're focusing on. As such, if you want a full picture of what the androids represent in the novel, you'll want to check out our "Characters" and "Themes" sections as well.
In this section, we're going to be focusing androids as a group and how they symbolize the dehumanizing aspects of capitalism. Yep, things are about to get Marxist up in here. Libertarians, avert your eyes.
The Mark of Marx
Let's get the Karl Marx part out of the way first. According to Marx's social theories, the workers of industrial capitalism struggle to create the goods needed to sustain the system, but they're always working for someone else's gain. This distance between their work and the fruits of their labor leads to an extremely negative effect Marx called "alienation," which means a little something like this:
In a nutshell Marx's Theory of Alienation is the contention that in modern industrial production under capitalist conditions workers will inevitably lose control of their lives by losing control over their work. Workers thus cease to be autonomous beings in any significant sense. (Source)
Workers become estranged: estranged from their work, estranged from each other, estranged from their lives. This ultimately leads to dehumanization, where the workers and their employers begin to see people as a means of production and not human.
And the word of dehumanization is a perfect segue into discussing androids if we ever saw one.
Means of Production
"Alien" and "dehumanized": Two words that perfectly express how the androids are viewed in the future society. First, they're illegal aliens, having fled a life of unequal hardship and unending work. (Also literal aliens, since they come from Mars.) Second, they aren't considered human by the standards of the society they live in.
Instead, they are considered property, a product created to make life easier for the space colonist in the same way a dishwasher or washing machine makes our lives easier today. We can see this when Isidore watches a commercial extolling the awesomeness that is space migration:
The TV set shouted, "—duplicates the halcyon days of the pre-Civil War Southern states! Either as body servants or tireless field hands, the custom-tailored humanoid robot—designed specifically for YOUR UNIQUE NEEDS, FOR YOU AND YOU ALONE—given to you on your arrival absolutely free, equipped fully, as specified by you before your departure from Earth; this loyal trouble-free companion in the greatest, boldest adventure contrived by man in modern history will provide—" It continued on and on. (2.8)
From the commercial's point of view, the android might as well be a Shamwow that can walk and talk but has lost none of its absorbency. In this language, the android becomes a thing, "the mobile donkey engine of the colonization program" (2.4).
And that thing is designed to do your work for you without any gain of its own. Sound familiar?
A Sad Tradition Continues
Notice the phrase "pre-Civil War Southern states"? Dick is spelling it out for us in case we got distracted by the exciting possibility of having a fully-equipped manservant to do our bidding: he's drawing a direct analogy between the androids and the slaves of American history.
Like the slaves sold in Brazil, the Caribbean, and the Southern States, the androids fall under what is often termed chattel slavery. Also, like the slaves in American history, the androids were created—for historical slaves the term enslaved would be more appropriate—for the sake of profit.
Get yourself a tasty beverage, because it's time for a History Snack:
Plantation owners used the slaves to farm their fields and turned a tidy profit since they didn't have to pay wages. British slavers would use the profits from selling the slaves to purchase goods such as textiles, sugar, and guns. Finally, African slave dealers would exchange slaves for the goods the British ships brought, and these ships would in turn bring the slaves to the Americas and sell them for money (source).
At the center of this trade, called the Triangular Trade, is capitalist commercialism and profit. Of course, we're simplifying here because this aspect of world history could fill several books. (Or several bookshelves.)
For a more thorough take on the subject, check out our discussion on the Antebellum Period. For our purposes, the take-away message is that Do Androids Dream? taps into this sordid part of history, combines it with 1960s Marxism, and adds a dash of science fiction tropes to represent some of the darker aspects of the free market.
But the novel takes things in a step Marx doesn't. It argues that capitalism doesn't just dehumanize the workers at the bottom of society. The guys at the top of class pyramid also devolve into something less than human.
The profiteers in this future society are mega-corporations. In the case of the Nexus-6 androids, it is the Rosen Association. After Rick gives Rachael Rosen the Voigt-Kampff test, he realizes something about the two heads of the company:
Experts, he realized. Mammoth corporation like this—it embodies too much experience. It possesses in fact a sort of group mind. And Eldon and Rachael Rosen consisted as spokesmen for that corporate entity. His mistake, evidently, had been in viewing them as individuals. It was a mistake he would not make again. (5.51)
As part of the Rosen Association, Rachael and Eldon can't afford the luxury of being individuals. (Ironically, it's probably the only thing they can't afford.) Everything they do is for the good of the corporation, much like ants don't care as much for their own safety as much as they do for the safety of the colony. Even Rachael's sexual relationships are calculated by what is good for the company.
But unlike ants, who at least have a physical queen running things, the members of the Rosen Association have sacrificed their individuality (read: been dehumanized) for the sake of a nebulous creature that only exists in the form of contracts and bank accounts. Like Marx's workers, they too have dehumanized themselves for its benefit and estranged themselves from the rest of humanity doing so.