This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.
At the beginning of last summer’s blockbuster film Elysium, three rogue shuttles from Earth approach a space station that houses a super-rich enclave. It’s the ultimate offshore gated community, where the inhabitants possess magical machines that rid them of disease so that they can live practically forever. The shuttles, meanwhile, contain the poor, the sick, “the wretched refuse of your teeming shore.” In this science-fiction scenario, the Earth has been become little more than a Third World outpost of hovels, prisons and unregulated factories.
Two of the shuttles containing illegal border-crossers are immediately shot down. One of them, however, manages to land on Elysium. A mother and her disabled child break into a sparkling clean house and locate the magic machine. The child lies on the flat surface, the machine hums and her handicap disappears. It’s a short-lived triumph, as armed guards seize the intruders and repair the security breach.
The future, as Hollywood imagines it, rarely looks good. We’ve either bombed ourselves back into barbarism (Mad Max, The Road), trashed the environment (Soylent Green, Wall-E) or somehow eliminated our ability to procreate (The Children of Men). In Total Recall, the horrors of unregulated capitalism have been outsourced to Mars, where an autocrat runs a mining operation designed by Hieronymus Bosch.
If in the past we imagined a future of distant penal colonies for the criminal 1 percent, we now are projecting a penal Earth for the outcast 99 percent. Elysium is almost a parody of this 99-to-1 dichotomy, for the space station is home to only a tiny handful of people, while Earth looks like the crack-ravaged South Bronx of the 1980s. In this scenario, the wolves of Wall Street have siphoned up as much wealth as they can before departing, not for some exclusive Caribbean island—rising waters have presumably eliminated those tax havens—but for the insulated comforts of outer space.
Hollywood projects our dreams and fears. In the past our cinematic apocalypses have reflected our obsessions with nuclear holocaust and environmental degradation. We’re certainly still worried about those fates—along with pandemics and zombies—but gross inequality now competes for our attention. The Occupy movement no longer squats in our squares, and the indignados have faded into the European woodwork. But the analysis and demands of the 99 percent have managed to trickle up.
Consider the new book by Thomas Piketty, the French economist. In his analysis of tax records in France, the United Kingdom and the United States, Piketty shows how capitalists have run away with capitalism and left the workers behind. In more formal terms, when the rate of return on capital outstrips the growth rate of the economy, inequality rises. Moreover, Piketty shows how public policy has had a profound impact on wealth and poverty in society. The trends associated with the rise of finance capitalism and the spread of globalization have certainly encouraged the consolidation of a class of super-rich and the erosion of wages for the middle and working classes. But certain governments—France, Germany, Japan—have used tax and welfare policies to redistribute the wealth without any appreciable impact on growth.