Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Politics of: Snowpiercer

The Korean-made English-language science fiction film starring Chris Evans (Captain America) has been unleashed on the rest of the world. The Omnivore caught it on at-home Pay-Per-View. The first part is a movie review (relatively non-spoilery). The second part talks politics and assumes you have seen it.


Snowpiercer is the titular super-train which, designed by train-super-genius Wilford (Ed Harris) is humanities' last ark--a rail-guided lifeboat, forever in motion, circling the globe after an attempt to fix global warming goes horribly wrong and, instead, freezes the planet. This super-train contains every stratum of humanity from the elite in the front to the wretched, huddled masses in the back.

It has been rattling along for seventeen years across an ice-covered lifeless landscape with the various indignities of a life of oppression being visited on those in the rear compartments. Now, as in the past (a few times), a new leader is emerging--Curtis (Evans) was 17 when he boarded the Snowpiercer and has lived half his life aboard it.

He is ready to rise up against the front--to lead his people (under the guidance of elder Gilliam, John Hurt) in a revolution. He is going to fight for the future of humanity.

Snowpiercer is director Bong Joon-ho's first English language film and is based on the French comicbook Le Transperceneige (from the Wikipedia entry, the movie and the comic have quite different stories beyond the basic humanity-on-a-train setting). The movie burns with star-power (Tilda Swinton plays Mason a sort of political officer for the elite and Ed Harris steals the scenes he is in as the engineer behind the miracle train).

American audiences may be familiar with Joon's former success, The Host, about a monster that grows in the wake of American and South Korean toxic waste dumping. Like The Host, Snowpiercer also has an embedded political message--in this case, about inequality and the using of the poor to maintain a society that benefits the rich (The Host was about the failure of Korean democracy and capitalism for many Koreans).

The movie's production design and feel has been compared to Terry Gilliam and that's apt. When the group moves from the gritty rear cars to the luxurious and hedonistic front-cars it adopts an entirely dream-like feel. The story itself doesn't make a whole lot of sense and wouldn't feel out of place in the 12 Monkeys universe.

Snowpiercer is interesting if, at times, slightly slow. One thing that's cool about a lot of non-American cinema is that it can be hard to pick up narrative pointers (the crush of American star-power was probably necessary to get a Korean English language movie based on a French comic book made in the first place). This results in always have a feeling that something terrible could happen to the main characters. Snowpiercer doesn't disappoint on that score: it has plenty of bloodshed and lots of main characters get killed off--not all of them at the very end or in slow-motion.

Given the accolades online, Snowpiercer could have been slightly grander--but in the end it holds together well enough on its own terms. It did eventually, answer all the questions it laid out. The movie really shines in a number of sets where we see the luxury of the train and, finally, the zen-like set design of the "miracle" engine itself.

It's a thoughtful piece of science fiction and has casting chops that, as no doubt intended, produce a draw for American audiences. If the idea of class-warefare on a post-apocalyptic super-train sounds good to you, check it out!

Let's do the politics ...

The Politics of Snowpiercer

It's fitting that The Omnivore watched Snowpiercer on Bastille Day. Surprisingly, it isn't about global warming or climate change at all. It's about economic / societal inequality.

Snowpiercer takes inequality and makes it as blunt and in-your-face as possible: the train needs the tail-ies because they produce children who are used to get down into the confined spaces of the holy-engine and, by dint of their five-year-old bodies, are able to keep it running by manual labor. This is a secret: Snowpiercer gives no idea for most of the movie why they were taking children from the tail and could not figure out why the tail-ies were kept on board anyway.

Furthermore, the engineer has determined that he must keep a level of fear and anxiety on the train in order to keep society stable. Wilford engineers revolutions every few years or so to cull the numbers of tailies and to keep the stability that fear and oppression provide (of course he's running low on bullets so it's not clear exactly how long that's gonna work).

Of course the reason why the last vestiges (what must be ... what? At best a couple thousand people--at best) of Humanity don't just band together and use their own children to maintain the engine is because the rich are busy partying on explosive drugs (which, yes, blow up like plastic explosive when you need them to). In other words: humanity is on the verge of extinction and what the ruling faction decides to do is create a society where, literally, the poor must eat babies (yes: the main character has, in his youth, eaten a baby in order to survive) so that they can party like it's 1999--forever.

Now, the exact society that they engineer is, of course, science fiction--but the messages are still very clear:
  1. Your life (assuming you are not the 1%) will not just be bad--it will be engineered to be bad (or, at least, worse than it has to be--the pain will not be remotely evenly shared).
  2. You will be kept alive--given just enough to keep going--so that the rich can use you. You're a resource.
  3. It isn't personal. The rich think badly of the poor (that they are dirty, uneducated, etc.)--but don't want to exterminate them or anything (most of the rich have no idea why things work the way they do).
This is a pretty #Occupy-centric view of inequality in general. Is it a realistic one? Let's look ...

Is 'The System' Theft Of Opportunity?

In the absolute-zero world of Snowpiercer there was absolutely no social mobility at all: the only way to get to the 'front of the train' was to be taken as a child and put to work in the engine (what happened to them when they got too big? The movie didn't say ... maybe they became security forces?). Is that in any way analogs to today's environments?

The Omnivore is not convinced that Bill Gates having "all the money" means "less money for him"--but is interested in the argument that the system is designed to funnel money upwards and therefore there is, structurally, less opportunity for him out there. This seems to be indicated by things like social mobility indexes and measures of child poverty. 

While the exact mechanics of available jobs having lower upsides and better jobs having ever-increasing entry requirements (one reason why there is an arms-race in the college degree space is that now just about any decent job will require a degree--and that's not a good job--just a decent one) may certainly feel like 'theft' to people caught in the engine.

The questions about whether this is 'fair' or not--or whether the inequality phenomena is a necessary outgrowth of western capitalism (Pickety-like) are hard to answer and, possibly, beside the point: if you feel like hard work won't get you ahead ... and the statistics show that's probably the case ... what are you going to do? Check out? Lead the resistance? Try to screw over your fellow man for a slim-chance at one of the top-spots? Settle?

The Omnivore doesn't know--but almost none of the likely answers seem especially good.

Is 'The System' Intentionally Making Things Worse?

While Snowpiercer's society wasn't literally sadistic, the engineer did personally create uprisings to keep society controlled. The last thing the real world wants is an uprising--but might there be a more subtle form of abuse going on -- in order to keep things on a more 'even keel?'

Before you sneer, keep in mind that there is a real concern on the part of some groups (Heritage, for example) that the stigma attached to taking public assistance has decreased to the point where people are willing to just take it and stay on it (never mind that (a) that's a lot harder to do than it used to be (b) most people can't get the maximal public assistance that groups like Heritage postulate, and (c) studies show that being on public assistance is, even today, hazardous to your mental health).

The idea that a ruling class might actually find some value in a less-than-optimal society at the bottom of the class ranks isn't absurd. Consider the capitalist meritocracy tournament system. This is what's known around the office as promotion/pay-for-performance. If only a small number of workers can get a raise / promotion and these will go to the best performers, there is (a) incentive to work hard in general but also (b) incentive to do better than others.

So long as employees believe that they can get ahead through hard-work they will work hard. Risk-analysis in an environment where there is reasonable expectation of advancement works against things like checking out or sabotage. On the other hand, if that changes--if there is not sufficient advancement opportunity--management is still strongly incentiveized to make it appear there is

Part of this illusion is simply asymmetric information (employees in large corporations don't usually get insight into the closed-door promotions process, for example--and would likely be horrified if they did). Part of it, though, may be to create harsher conditions so that employees are simply afraid for their jobs or are positioned for failure in some respect (vague or unrealistic goals) so that during an annual review their performance, whatever it is, can be used against them.

To a degree we could see the before-the-ACA dependence on work for health-care as a way of ensuring that loss of a job would be much more catastrophic than it would otherwise be (The Omnivore doesn't believe this is why health-care was tied to employment--that was an outgrowth of fairly reasonable decisions made in the post WWII environment--but it sure was an advantage for management).

It might also be a reason to keep minimum wages down: if getting to a liveable wage (at the low end of the scale) takes years, job-mobility for low-end workers is curtailed. This is also an advantage to a system that innately lacks sufficient upwards mobility.

Is It Personal?

The big reveal at the end of Snowpiercer is supposed to be that rather than being evil, Wilford is just doing what he has to in order to keep the train running ... it's humanities last hope, no? (Well, no--temperatures have warmed enough so that people could survive outside, it turns out). In other words: stealing children? Not personal. Running doomed revolutions periodically? Not personal.

Of course not discussed is that a given constraint seems to be that the first-class passengers won't pay anything for their ride--the misery is all on the backs of the lower class (there's not, for example, a take-the-child lottery even though one would make sense--if there were no tail-ies, that's what they'd do rather than all die when the engine quit).

Politics makes everything personal to some degree once 'it' happens to 'you.' On the other hand, The Omnivore knows plenty of 1%-ers and none of them are invested in the system itself per se. No one The Omnivore knows is interested in creating employee strife or holding down minimum wages just to keep people unhappy or purely for their own advancement. Everyone The Omnivore knows would vote for a system that had a lot of head-room for advancement for everyone if it were put to a vote in the first place (and possible).

The vision of fat-cat criminal bankers trying to destroy the world economy is simply false. On the other hand, we certainly did have the 2008 melt-down and, certainly, very few people (or corporations, which are people too, my friends) paid the price for it (Bear Stearns, Lehman Bros, that's about it). 

Can Anything Be Done?

Almost everyone agrees that economic inequality is increasing--and fairly dramatically in some cases.  Is there a solution to it? Well, what they did in Snowpiercer was blow up the train and maybe kill almost everyone on it (save for two non-main characters who exit the train and see a polar bear which (a) proves life can exist again and then (b) probably ate them because they were helpless kids and it was a polar bear).

Could something be done that's less destructive than that?

Sure--it's just that no one agrees on what. Raising the minimum wage to $15/hr is being tried with Seattle. Whether it works or not, we don't need to be economic geniuses to realize that not all cities are Seattle. North Dakota has great job creation--on the backs of oil deposits which are hard to engineer in other localities.

Thomas Pickety suggests taxing accumulated wealth over income--who knows? That could work.  The Republican party thinks lowering taxes dramatically--especially on corporations--would spur the creation of good jobs.

The question is this: Are we going to try any of these things?


  1. My view on the subject is the capitalist system is something which runs on "the fear of something worse." While you may argue the idea of engineered regular revolutions being absurd, it's not so much with the idea of the Military-Industrial Complex as an essential part of the capitalist system. The West propels itself forward out of the belief capitalism is always THREATENED. Be it by communists, racial radicals, Muslim extremists, Daleks, demons, or orcs. That fear helps justify the extremist measures taken and the complete lack of reform. Could the train have been run by people who shared their resources equally? Probably, however, the LEVEL of luxury for the super-rich would have gone down. It would have probably been comfortably middle-class for everyone and that would just not do.

    1. Arguably, capitalism runs on history of "everything else *has* been worse"--but that depends on how you define capitalism (level of purity required--see, also, the 1-drop-of-socialism makes any policy 'communist' argument).

      I also think that the idea you put forth that The West is sort of dominated / defined by a climate of fear is taking an ideologically-driven hyper-narrow view of history. Yes, there have always been scares of some sort--but that has been the case at least as strongly under communism and tyranny than more open, democratic, and more capitalist societies (perhaps you get tired of North Korea being described as Communist?).

      In Snowpiercer it's really unclear what "capitalism" was doing anyway. The wealthy in the front didn't seem to control any means of production (the food generator was an essential part of the train itself). It was essentially a really long, narrow welfare state with a hyperactive class-system.

      On the other hand, yes: a lot of people (and, importantly, in the case of the director, a lot of South Koreans) feel failed by the Korean capitalist expansion (recent news: they apparently have islands with literal slaves on them!). Illustrating this and raising it up for discussion by a science-fiction metaphor is a time-honored tradition.

      -The Omnivore