The reason Elysium is so realistic is because it captures so well the economic disparities of the rich and poor; that the separation between the “haves” and “have-nots” might as well be a chasm as distal between the Earth and space, between the “first” and “third” “worlds.”
“Citizenship” remains focal throughout Elysium. It is access to health, utopia, land, power. In similar measure, in modern geopolitics, “citizenship” likewise allows bodies certain privileges which, again, mirror the privileged realities of the modern “first world.”
Similarly, both the modern “first world” and Elysium enact an “immigration Act” in respect to “Homeland Security,” heavily weaponize forms of “deportation,” and use “undocumented” to describe the ship and “illegal” to describe migrating bodies.
Both the modern “first world” and Elysium exist in a paradigm of abject poverty and overt plutocracy; it’s easy to see these disparities in both fiction and reality — whether discussing the “first” and “third” worlds,” Charles Dickens’ “it was the best of times and the worst of times,” or the hood in the city, from segregation to now, modernly, gentrification — this economic cliff has always been the problem… if you’re not of the plutocracy.
If you’re of the plutocracy, it’s always been understood that a permanent working class is necessary to sustain consumption, especially so as to maintain wealth, status, “class.” In fact, the very inception of colonization began with a plutocracy which was well aware that its deeds were imperialistic and colonial.
Elysium is in fact a critique on capitalism1. Both Elysium and the “first world” rely on capitalism. Capitalism is both Elysium’s and the “first world’s” problem.
Specifically, capitalism takes the form of the military-industrial complex. The US, “leader” of the “free” “world,” consumes more on military expenditures than any other sector by a percentile differential which directly reflects on war events worldwide.
Yet the “modern” “first world” is intricate still, and operates under a very specific, and also fluid, framework, mainframe, system, matrix. That within the “first world” could, and do, also exist “third world” conditions.
That, specifically, within the United States — the “leader of the free world” — actually endemically operates by and with its own permanent subclass that is also not historically or temporally separated from slavery. This permanent subclass, nationally in respect to the United States and internationally in specific regard to current and former colonial empires, usually a population of color, and moreso Black or Brown.
In Elysium, we see the basic division between those on Earth and those on Elysium. In a more national, local level, the effects of segregation can also be seen; and likewise, segregation was a strategic result of political and economical disenfranchisement of an emerging population of color within key territory.
In March 1968, after much large uproar of the Civil Rights Movements, then President Lyndon B. Johnson chartered The Kerner Commission to address violence and racial inequality; the Kerner Commission stated the United States was to “Make permanent the division of our country into two societies: one, largely Negro and poor, located in the central cities; the other, predominantly white and affluent, located in the suburbs” (from American Apartheid, 4); and so, one can see how political power has been consciously instrumental in created infrastructure which causes segregation, poverty, and their own subsequent problems.
Elysium makes it clear that its own politicians and leaders cater to their own agenda. Elysium President Delacourt and Homeland Security John Carlyle have a “contract secured for the next 600 years;” and the mere existence of Elysium also indicates a world in which power has been abused against the people.
We see the continuation of forced intrusion, an imposed capitalistic economic system, enforced religious beliefs, effective colonization in the neo-colonial conquest for space: Brazil’s favelas during FIFA World Cup, China’s slums during the Olympics, and Russia during the Winter Olympics.
The United States experiences something within its own borders: recently, Oakland residents rejected the building of another stadium due for a Super Bowl. Residents argued that instead of pouring public funds into an unnecessary stadium — while Oakland is struggling with its own rent rises and gentrification — that the city should instead focus on supporting public infrastructure. Again, this is neo-colonial in nature, as it pushes out native residence specifically for a new, ultra-wealthy population.
This is neo-colonization, and it is also gentrification. Gentrification has largely been responsible for white-washing urban cultural capitals, like Harlem, Brooklyn, San Francisco, the Bay, Austin, and even recently Atlanta. Within the United States and internationally, people native to their cities are being displaced by an imposing, wealthier population.
Their tremendous wealth creates a means for a newer echelon of wealth which makes former capitals of wealth outdated. A counterexample — and perhaps a predictive indicator of future wealth capitals — is Michigan, and its fundamentally doomed trajectory as a capitalistic endeavor, short sighted of the infrastructural adjustments, relying on a later, near post-Industrial Age industry.
On one hand, there are newer levels of wealth being stratified; on the other hand, older, now less efficient and economical, industries are being discarded2; together, this represents a shift, specifically a paradigm shift.
This is where discussions of neo-politics, neo-liberalism, and neo-conservatism emerge; each inlaid with their own respective lexicons, frameworks of operating, and, alas, goals, although they intersect, converge, and diverge at certain points.
Because this political body is emergent, in certain ways, it is also ambiguous at best. Elysium presents the question: Why have Elysium if not to help the people? Why the existence of citizenship? At what cost?
Although, generally, the people of Elysium are beyond skeptical in respect to believing in “their” “leaders;” being a post-apocalyptic dystopia, it gives more than enough measure and room to express doubt in political bodies.
The irony of Elysium is that its own questions of citizenship, access, and the cost of maintaining both the separation and approximation of bodies of color — near enough to serve, far enough to not disturb — could be applied to “modern” “reality.”
The distinction of the “first” and “third” world are maintained; although the “first” world also contains pockets of the “third” world, and likewise the “third” world” contains pockets of the “first” world;” these would be the differences between the colony and the empire.
Elysium is a literal metaphor of the colony and the empire.
What the Olympics, FIFA, World Cup, etc. show is that there is an emergent new class of wealth which is so large it will go beyond the simple poor, middle class, and rich conception of pre-modern wealth — a new face of the empire, if you will.
It also shows these are acts of neo-colonization, beyond the conceptual arguments of space — as there was a real, violent, military, police, political, and economic infrastructure catering to the wealthy while discarding the poor, the voiceless, the very offspring of diaspora — displaced again.
These people, in both Elysium and modern reality, are those without “citizenship,” who are not “citizens.” And while Elysium whitewashes the main character, it’s important to note the character is (supposed to be) a person of color, and, at least in theory3, is ultimately in reclaiming paradigm shift.
In terms of population, the overwhelming majority are non-citizens; likewise, a very marginal few are citizens.
It calls into question revolt by sheer and simple population, but, at least in Elysium, the military answers with sublime repression. This, again, mirrors modern reality.
The United States has its military bases in largely historically colonial countries; expends more on military than any other sector; and mal-uses its scientific and mathematical human resources on creating more sinister forms of violence and surveillance. The United States thus largely operates as a military country, a global colonial force, and the proverbial global police.
Does Elysium’s salvation have any reflection in modern reality? That is probably the question to ask.
Elysium’s salvation comes after rewriting the mainframe of its system, from the core. Specifically when every body is listed as “citizen.” This is a double edged sword.
First — it suggests a registration, which, being a futuristic sci-fi, seems to leave little room for the ancient and indigenous — that there are still pre-technological, “pre-modern,” indigenous societies. If there was a registration, it suggests these indigenous societies had to have been contacted, a bureaucratic system had been incepted and instated, and suggests a global conquest of indigeneity.
Second — insofar as the movie, it does provide some instantaneous, easy, quick-fix solution. Again, double-edged sword.
“Citizenship” in Elysium is a privilege given to wealthy, mostly white bodies; and this is also true for modern reality — but “spreading citizenship,” as in “spreading democracy” also has a colonial operative and bureaucratic imposition that allows neo-colonization, enforcing a flawed political system that only ultimately favors the exploitation of the common people in favor of a small, elite, privileged, wealthy, and politically empowered group who has always maintained the power…
6 thoughts on “Elysium and the 1%”
There is so much to consider in your post! I’m going to need to re-read and process it later. I recall being underwhelmed by Elysium. I thought it was problematic that there is a white male “savior.”
As you note, “..while Elysium whitewashes the main character, it’s important to note the character is (supposed to be) a person of color, and, at least in theory3, is ultimately in reclaiming paradigm shift.” I think it’s important also (in the context of the casting decision) that he died, symbolically leaving the future for the woman and her daughter. It would have been so much cooler if the primary protagonist had been a woman of color.
No secret that public education (particularly, urban) is in place to provide a feeder system for the permanent underclass.
I wrote a review on my blog about a film that I think captures the struggle against the 1% in a more minimalistic yet straight-forward way, and that film is John Carpenter’s “THEY LIVE.” Please check it out below since it is film that has more relevance now than it did in 1988.
I may check out Elysium given your analysis here. It seems to paint a very vibrant and violent take on the dystopian class struggle story. It has some hints of Battle Angel Alita as well.
One of my favorite themes is dystopian futures as a gamer I’m a fan of the Dead Space series. The producers wanted to envision a more realistic future instead of the clean, sterile environments that you see in these scifi genre books/tv/movies its a dirty, neo gothic thing. With the invention of faster than light travel using something akin to the warp engine we see out to the stars cracking planets to strip them of their resources to feed our civilization.
About Damon’s character being a person of color, by 2060 there will be a new demographic in America people of multiracial ancestry. Kids being born right now will grow up to marry someone of a different ethnic group.
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