I like Matt Damon. I like Science Fiction. I loved Neil Blomkamp’s first film District 9. So it was pretty inevitable that I would be excited about Elysium. As if that wasn’t enough, there was the added benefit of the film’s heavily trailed politics, as described by Gavin Mueller from the Jacobin:
Trailers for Elysium were like catnip for the left-leaning viewer: a near future where the masses, stranded in crumbling cities, outfit Matt Damon with a robot suit and send him to fight the bourgeoisie, who have Galted off the planet to Space Station Elysium, taking their shrubbery, Spanish-style mansions and cancer cures with them. It promised to be an allegory about class struggle as transparent as director Neill Blomkamp’s first movie, District 9, was about racial apartheid. The 99-vs-1 narrative would finally get the sci-fi blockbuster treatment it richly deserved.
Mueller makes a number of fair criticisms of the film. Not least of all taking issue with the film’s gender politics (with the exception of Jodie Foster’s defence secretary, it is hard to imagine how this film could have rendered women any more marginal or passive) and its oddly dichotomous treatment of race – on the one hand, the film depicts a dystopian future where “the oppressed classes stuck on polluted and undeveloped Earth are almost entirely brown and black while Elysium is full of WASPs” but on the other the weird casting of Matt Damon in the lead role transforms “pointed commentary on race, citizenship, and gentrification into a white saviour narrative”. However Mueller also picks up on what I loved so much about this film:
The space station concept nicely dramatizes the spatialization of class that geographers like David Harvey and the late Neil Smith have written about for years. Elysium collapses the gated city and the militarized border into one potent metaphor, and Blomkamp’s not afraid to show the privileged defending their picturesque suburbs against crippled children with deadly force. Perhaps the most novel idea is to collapse citizenship with health care. A ticket to Elysium grants you citizenship and access to miraculous life-preserving technologies, a powerful point as citizenship is one of the biggest holes in the Swiss cheese that is Obamacare. Blomkamp’s able to see how the overt authoritarianism of apartheid biopolitics (where blacks were denied citizenship, had their movement strictly controlled and had a life expectancy at least a decade shorter than whites) hasn’t been abolished. Instead, it’s been globalized, covered with a thin neoliberal veneer of market and meritocracy. In Elysium the struggle is not for the means of production, but the means of reproduction, as the vast majority of Earth is treated as a surplus population left to die lest they waste precious resources.
It depicts a future where the ruling class have withdrawn nearly entirely from contact with the vast majority of the world’s population. The robotic workforce securing and serving the ruling class renders the population largely surplus to requirements. The neoliberal condition diagnosed by Loic Wacquant and others finds itself generalised to the planet as a whole – the poor are rendered surplus and punished for behaviours arising from this marginalisation. But in the world depicted by Elysium the entire planet is poor. All who are not are now ensconced in the safety of Elsyium, the floating utopia (eerily identical to my mental image of the orbital platforms from the Culture books) looking down upon the earth. It’s a direct descendent of the floating cities which occupy the contemporary libertarian imagination:
Since 2003, a colossal barge called the Freedom Ship, of debatable tax status, should have been chugging with majestic aimlessness from port to port, a leviathan rover with more than 40,000 wealthy full-time residents living, working and playing on deck. That was the aim eight years ago when the project first made headlines, confidently claiming that construction would start in 2000.
A visit to the “news” section of freedomship.com reveals a more sluggish pace. The most recent messages date from more than two years ago, forlornly explaining how “scam operations” are slowing things down but that “[t]hings are happening, and they are moving fast.” Meanwhile, the ship is not yet finished. Indeed, it is not yet started. Despite this, Freedom Ship International Inc. has been startlingly successful in raising publicity for this “floating city.” Much credulous journalistic cooing over “the biggest vessel in history,” with its “hospitals, banks, sports centres, parks, theaters and nightclubs,” not to mention its airport, has ignored the vessel’s stubborn nonexistence.
Freedom Ship’s website claims that the vessel has not been conceived as a locus for tax avoidance, pointing out that as it will sail under a flag of convenience, residents may still be liable for taxes in their home countries. Nonetheless, whatever the ultimate tax status of those whom we will charitably presume might one day set sail, much of the interest in Freedom Ship has revolved precisely around its perceived status as a tax haven.
And despite the apparent corrective on the website, the project’s officials have not been shy in purveying that impression. They have pushed promotional literature that, in the words of one journalist, “paints the picture of a luminous tax haven,” and stressed that the ship will levy “[n]o income tax, no real estate tax, no sales tax, no business duties, no import duties.” Of course, as no cruise ship could ever levy income tax, to trumpet that fact is preposterous, except as a propaganda strategy.
Freedom Ship’s board of directors are canny enough to recognize tax hatred as a defining characteristic of the tradition of fantasies in which it sits. It is one of countless recent dreams of a tax-free life on the ocean wave: advocates of “seasteading” are disproportionately adherents of “libertarianism,” that peculiarly American philosophy of venal petty-bourgeois dissidence.
But their pesky reliance on a human crew has been technologically negated by the time of Elysium. No more awkward interactions with social inferiors, as the robotic workforce serve all the needs once met by the working classes. It’s a world where the problem of the mass, the inconvenience of their sheer numbers, has been overcome. The few details we are given about the onset of this dystopic world point to problems arising from overpopulation. The mass have doomed the planet so the ruling class have sensibly absconded and moved beyond what little reliance they had on a small fraction of the population.
There are certainly problems with this film’s script. It seemed as if it had been a much longer film cut down to size, with much having been lost in the process. But Mueller’s critique of its underlying politics, as resolved in the final scene of the film, seems grossly unfair. My reading was of the film grasping at accelerationism, making a much more interesting point about the role technology played in formulating this dsytopia but also the role it can play in moving beyond it:
Given the enslavement of technoscience to capitalist objectives (especially since the late 1970s) we surely do not yet know what a modern technosocial body can do. Who amongst us fully recognizes what untapped potentials await in the technology which has already been developed? Our wager is that the true transformative potentials of much of our technological and scientific research remain unexploited, filled with presently redundant features (or pre-adaptations) that, following a shift beyond the short-sighted capitalist socius, can become decisive.
We need to revive the argument that was traditionally made for post-capitalism: not only is capitalism an unjust and perverted system, but it is also a system that holds back progress. Our technological development is being suppressed by capitalism, as much as it has been unleashed. Accelerationism is the basic belief that these capacities can and should be let loose by moving beyond the limitations imposed by capitalist society. The movement towards a surpassing of our current constraints must include more than simply a struggle for a more rational global society. We believe it must also include recovering the dreams which transfixed many from the middle of the Nineteenth Century until the dawn of the neoliberal era, of the quest of Homo Sapiens towards expansion beyond the limitations of the earth and our immediate bodily forms. These visions are today viewed as relics of a more innocent moment. Yet they both diagnose the staggering lack of imagination in our own time, and offer the promise of a future that is affectively invigorating, as well as intellectually energising.