Working-Man’s Death and Multitudinous Struggle

by JAVIER SETHNESS CASTRO

Elysium, the newly released sci-fi film from 33-year old director Neill Blomkamp starring Matt Damon as the proletarian hero Max, is not to me an escapist artwork. Instead, I believe Elysium to lie within the contemporary genre which we might call “art of the transition”—that is, which depicts the struggles and various contradictions and negations of the ongoing historical shift away from capitalism and rampant social brutality. (Other prominent recent examples from the world of film I would include in this line would be Children of Men, Blomkamp’s very own District 9, Avatar, and the Matrix, among others.) Invoking (and inverting) a trope seen in classic sci-fi art works like Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Dispossessed and Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy, which contrast social conditions on an emancipated anarchist planetary body (Anarres/Mars) versus those seen on the capitalist-totalitarian Earth or its stand-in (Urras, in LeGuin’s world), Elysium is a revolutionary slice of life from the seemingly-apocalyptical landscape of Los Angeles in 2154—wherein generalized impoverishment and oppression are starkly present, reminiscent of “Baghdad” (says Damon)—which contrasts with the orbiting space-station Elysium, home to the affluent and capitalist overlords. While on Elysium there any many green, open spaces, with mansions adorned by pools and maintained by robot servants, Earth-dwellers inhabit a veritable hell. That the Earth scenes were filmed in a landfill in Mexico City (reportedly the second-largest in the world), with the Elysium scenes shot in Vancouver, BC, speaks clearly to the types of inequalities Blomkamp concerns himself with in his new work.

I do not wish to spoil too much of the film’s plot, so as not to degrade the experience of those others who have not yet seen it. Yet, briefly, to explain: Max, the protagonist and hero, is a presumably orphaned child raised by Mexican (or Central American?) nuns who comes to land a job working assembly-line production of robot police-units after having done time for stealing private property for a few years. As in George Lucas’s THX-1138—Lucas’s very first and his most anti-authoritarian work, which I would claim directly inspired Max’s assembly-line occupation in Elysium—disabling accidents take place at the workplace, with no accountability processes in place to check managers and upper administration. Max falls victim to such a workplace accident, due to negligence and pressure from his overseer—who flatly warns Max that, if the latter refuses to perform the risky maneuver, he will demand Max’s resignation and easily replace him with any number of other prospective workers, to be called up from the mass labor-army reserve. Following this negative turn of events, and with mere days to live, Max tries desperately to find a way aboard Elysium, where seemingly every building famously contains a highly advanced therapeutic machine which can free the body of all ailment and disease. To get Max onto Elysium is a difficult demand to fulfill—as Max’s clandestine/criminal electronics collaborator Julio knows well, various spacecraft carrying wounded and ill Earth-humans have been incinerated by the capitalist security forces as their desperate voyages approached Elysium’s perimeter.

ILRACC cover

To observe the scenes from the Elysium station—particularly those involving Secretary of Defense Delacourt (Jodie Foster)—is to confront legitimate depictions of the closely-knit ties binding the most privileged to State repression. Blomkamp is certainly presenting a left-wing account of politics here, with the wealthy minority turning ever-increasingly to fascist means to uphold their privilege—a tendency observed last century by Herbert Marcuse, as by Chris Hedges in the present one! On the other side of the dialectic, a veritable revolutionary humanism informs the struggle-from-below shown in the Earth scenes, as symbolized most centrally in Max’s journey from proletarian to disabled ex-worker and artificially augmented revolutionary militant. In positive (and realistic) terms, the Earth-based opposition we see in the film is ethnically diverse—mostly Latin@, with Max as the exception—as against the white-washed country club of Elysium. Unfortunately, a specifically feminist critique of the hegemonic oppression depicted in Elysium is largely lacking—Delacourt, at the top, coordinates the Elysium station’s “defensive measures” against incoming “undocumented” space-flights of refugees from Earth (thus depicting “liberal feminism”), while the only other female lead, Frey, is a nurse and mother who, other than for helping to heal a wound incurred by Max in his escape, is largely passive in her roles.

The film provides a great opportunity to reflect on prevailing power relations, and how it is that they might project into a future like that shown in Elysium. While the film’s course does not directly examine the historical turns and negations which led Earth into near-total oppression, with the physical separation of the ruling class into an orbiting station—the film is not Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, which dedicated two episodes to a time-warp to Earth which takes the crew to a time just before a popular uprising by the poor, which would ineluctably pave the way for the transition beyond capitalism and the founding of the Federation—it viscerally demonstrates to the audience how that likely did arise: through militarized, unchecked exploitation of the Earth and its working classes by the vampiric capitalist class. Dialectically, in its presentation of globalized (and extra-terrestrialized) solidarity and resistance to the machine—and particularly in Max’s impressive strength and combat skills, as exercised against the guardians of the system—Elysium also advances an anti-statist, internationalist message which speaks to the revocability of given oppressive power relations. In this way, the film explores an important set of principles that arguably correspond to present and future hope for the human race: mass-struggle, as through the multitude.

So then, assuming the rule of Elysium is indeed overthrown and the formerly privatized advanced medical technologies socialized (I will not say whether the terrestrial proletarians are victorious in the end), the question arises: what would the peoples of Earth decide to do? How would they respond? Would they also socialize production on Earth and fairly redistribute the concentrated wealth previously held by the overlords of Elysium? Would they collectively decide to dedicate significant resources to address the catastrophic ecological changes wrought on Earth by the capitalist system—insofar as this is possible? As a first act, they would doubtlessly abolish the gross inequalities separating Elysium from Earth.

To contemplate the prospect of overthrowing the neo-feudal powers-that-be, as Elysium helps us to do, is an exciting prospect. Regardless of what Blomkamp feels he must say so as not to alienate potential investors in his future films (“It’s just human nature” that “the gap between rich and poor on Earth will simply get worse and worse, no matter how hard we try to change it”), to watch Elysium might perhaps serve to strengthen one’s hopes for and commitment to the successful future anti-capitalist revolution.

Hopefully it will not take until 2154 to achieve.

Javier Sethness Castro is author of Imperiled Life: Revolution against Climate Catastrophe and For a Free Nature: Critical Theory, Social Ecology, and Post-Developmentalism. His essays and articles have appeared in Truthout, Climate and Capitalism, Dissident Voice, MRZine, Countercurrents, and Perspectives on Anarchist Theory. He is currently working on writing a political and intellectual biography of Herbert Marcuse.

Javier Sethness Castro, author of two books, has had essays and articles published in Truthout, Dissident Voice, Countercurrents, Climate and Capitalism, MRZine, Dysophia, The Journal of Critical Globalisation Studies, and Perspectives on Anarchist Theory. He worked as a human-rights observer in the Mexican states of Chiapas and Oaxaca during 2010, and has just completed a draft manuscript of his political and intellectual biography of Herbert Marcuse.

Like What You’ve Read? Support CounterPunch
September 01, 2015
Mike Whitney
Return to Crisis: Things Keep Getting Worse
Michael Schwalbe
The Moral Hazards of Capitalism
Eric Mann
Inside the Civil Rights Movement: a Conversation With Julian Bond
Pam Martens
How Wall Street Parasites Have Devoured Their Hosts, Your Retirement Plan and the U.S. Economy
Jonathan Latham
Growing Doubt: a Scientist’s Experience of GMOs
Fran Shor
Occupy Wall Street and the Sanders Campaign: a Case of Historical Amnesia?
Joe Paff
The Big Trees: Cockburn, Marx and Shostakovich
Randy Blazak
University Administrators Allow Fraternities to Turn Colleges Into Rape Factories
Robert Hunziker
The IPCC Caught in a Pressure Cooker
George Wuerthner
Myths of the Anthropocene Boosters: Truthout’s Misguided Attack on Wilderness and National Park Ideals
Robert Koehler
Sending Your Children Off to Safe Spaces in College
Jesse Jackson
Season of the Insurgents: From Trump to Sanders
August 31, 2015
Michael Hudson
Whitewashing the IMF’s Destructive Role in Greece
Conn Hallinan
Europe’s New Barbarians
Lawrence Ware
George Bush (Still) Doesn’t Care About Black People
Joseph Natoli
Plutocracy, Gentrification and Racial Violence
Franklin Spinney
One Presidential Debate You Won’t Hear: Why It is Time to Adopt a Sensible Grand Strategy
Dave Lindorff
What’s Wrong with Police in America
Louis Proyect
Jacobin and “The War on Syria”
Lawrence Wittner
Militarism Run Amok: How Russians and Americans are Preparing Their Children for War
Binoy Kampmark
Tales of Darkness: Europe’s Refugee Woes
Ralph Nader
Lo, the Poor Enlightened Billionaire!
Peter Koenig
Greece: a New Beginning? A New Hope?
Dean Baker
America Needs an “Idiot-Proof” Retirement System
Vijay Prashad
Why the Iran Deal is Essential
Tom Clifford
The Marco Polo Bridge Incident: a History That Continues to Resonate
Peter Belmont
The Salaita Affair: a Scandal That Never Should Have Happened
Weekend Edition
August 28-30, 2015
Randy Blazak
Donald Trump is the New Face of White Supremacy
Jeffrey St. Clair
Long Time Coming, Long Time Gone
Mike Whitney
Looting Made Easy: the $2 Trillion Buyback Binge
Alan Nasser
The Myth of the Middle Class: Have Most Americans Always Been Poor?
Rob Urie
Wall Street and the Cycle of Crises
Andrew Levine
Viva Trump?
Ismael Hossein-Zadeh
Behind the Congressional Disagreements Over the Iran Nuclear Deal
Lawrence Ware – Marcus T. McCullough
I Won’t Say Amen: Three Black Christian Clichés That Must Go
Evan Jones
Zionism in Britain: a Neglected Chronicle
John Wight
Learning About the Migration Crisis From Ancient Rome
Andre Vltchek
Lebanon – What if it Fell?
Charles Pierson
How the US and the WTO Crushed India’s Subsidies for Solar Energy
Robert Fantina
Hillary Clinton, Palestine and the Long View
Ben Burgis
Gore Vidal Was Right: What Best of Enemies Leaves Out
Suzanne Gordon
How Vets May Suffer From McCain’s Latest Captivity
Robert Sandels - Nelson P. Valdés
The Cuban Adjustment Act: the Other Immigration Mess
Uri Avnery
The Molten Three: Israel’s Aborted Strike on Iran
John Stanton
Israel’s JINSA Earns Return on Investment: 190 Americans Admirals and Generals Oppose Iran Deal