The film Parasite tells us that economic systems that create and promote inequality are bad for all, writes Arthur York.
In 1987, FORMER British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher infamously said to Woman’s Own that:
“There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families”.
That sentiment expressed by Thatcher takes a number of quite radical things for granted. It presumes that individual success and wealth should be pursued without regard to the interests of others; that people do not share common bonds, nor live in harmony with one another. Fundamentally, it proudly declares human existence as something defined by social isolation more than anything else.
The quote concisely captures Thatcher’s time in office. Her economic programme was marked by rampant privatisation, tax cuts, union-busting and a weakened local industry that haemorrhaged jobs for working-class Brits. Hindsight has not been kind to Thatcherism. Yet it – and its close relative, neoliberalism – continue to largely shape economic policy throughout the world some 40 years later.
There is little doubt that Thatcher’s peculiarly individualistic, almost Darwinist vision has proven disastrous over the long-term. The richest 26 people on the planet have as much wealth as the poorest 3.8 billion. Suicide rates in Australia are increasing, a regrettable development linked to economics. Wages move at a snail’s pace. Living standards are falling in many nations around the world. That is the very real human cost of constructing and maintaining an economic system that, at best, marginalises the value of society, and, at worst, denies its very existence.
Foremost, the repudiation of the idea of society – whether the lifeblood of a philosophy like Thatcherism, or an unintended but necessary by-product of other economic systems – allows inequality to flourish, hitting the poor most acutely. Bong Joon-ho’s Palme d’Or-winning and now Oscar-winning film, Parasite, provides an urgent depiction. It doesn’t flinch at the last second like Fritz Lang’s seminal yet naïve (in his own words) Metropolis, a 1927 silent film that pits ultra-rich industrialists against the barrenly poor underclass which it ruthlessly exploits in an industrial, dystopian future.
The Kim family are jobless, living in a decrepit, basement-like apartment at the end of an alleyway. Joon-ho sets the scene by having the son, Ki-woo, scramble through the apartment in search of a free wi-fi connection – an early sign of his family’s desperation. The family is not unemployed by choice. Far from it. Rather, they’re victims of a social order – or lack thereof – that fails to extend opportunity to all, in the process quite literally creating an underclass. This experience isn’t confined to South Korean workers: 15.8% of Australians are currently unemployed or underemployed.
When a tutoring position lands fortuitously in Ki-woo’s lap, he accepts it immediately. His student happens to be the daughter of ultra-rich parents. The Park family lives in a fortress of a mansion – no doubt worlds away from the cramped, damp apartment of the Kims. Soon enough, the entire Kim family is in the employ of the Parks, a ploy executed through quick thinking, deception, and dirty tactics, by planting evidence against the chauffeur and long-serving housekeeper that results in their dismissal by Mrs Park. The Kims, especially Ki-woo, recommend each other for the newly-vacant jobs, concealing their familial links.
So, the Kims hunger for employment is satiated, but not without adverse consequences.
In a world of increasingly insecure work, tax cuts for the wealthy, of worker atomisation, people have to scrap for a smaller piece of the economic pie. Amid this meaningfully-designed inequality, workers are pitted against each other in internecine conflicts that hurt all involved. It’s why trade union membership is plummeting, the fight over coal jobs endures and, at least, contributes to the otherising of migrants and refugees. Joon-ho refuses to cast judgement on the Kims. This authorial restraint remains even when their efforts to retain their newfound employment takes a terrifying turn towards ruthless self-preservation.
One night, the ex-housekeeper drops by the Park residence, ostensibly to retrieve some personal possessions. Shockingly, her real reason is to attend to her husband, a deeply unfortunate man that has secretly lived in the Parks basement to escape the clutches of loan sharks. She sees the Kim family holed up in the spacious lounge room, becoming wise to their dishonest efforts to have her fired.
To save their skin, the Kims force the woman into the basement compartment with her husband, in the process inflicting her with a serious head injury. Nevertheless, they bolt her in there to wither away. Joon-ho views this ravenous, self-focused mindset and behaviour as the inexorable result of untrammelled inequality. No room is left for working-class kinship and harmony. People lash out when they’re desperate and forced into a corner.
Conventional economic thought, informed by neoliberal and rationalist principles, tells us that inequality is not altogether bad. Yes, it’s far from ideal for those subjected to its "limitations" – who might have little to subsist on, lack good health care and are unremittingly anxious about how they’ll provide for their family. But it can bear beneficial impacts. It’s apparently the driving force of motivation for people to aggrandise and better themselves. And it’s also precisely why the rich get to enjoy the spoils of great wealth.
History tells us something different: nobody is shielded from its ills. In its most extreme form, inequality precipitates so much aggrievement, so much resentment and animosity among the disadvantaged that it produces revolution, the complete reworking of a political, social and economic order. Violence practiced against the rich and powerful is not an unknown ingredient in revolution, wielded to topple governments, stifle internal opposition and for revenge – as the French and Russian revolutions attest. It also has a hand facilitating the emergence of destructive movements.
Could the Trump phenomenon have taken off if America wasn’t a profoundly inequitable society? Notwithstanding the obvious racism and discrimination that some Americans harbour, the answer has to be no. Something similar might be said about Pauline Hanson’s popularity. Indeed, even the influence of Germany’s economic decline cannot be discounted as a reason for the rise of Nazism.
In nations and times of gross inequity, it is true the rich have adapted. It hasn’t been by agreeing to redistribution guided by principles of fairness. When their suburban or city enclaves have been threatened, they’ve taken to building walls, gated communities and compounds to create distance and segregation.
But this is surely a method of last resort, for it essentially requires the rich to go into hiding in places, states and nations over which they exert much control. It limits their willingness to move around, and naturally brings about adverse psychological states such as fear and anxiety. Unlike in the film Elysium, the well-off cannot yet flee to another planet unburdened by the existence of the poor and the disadvantaged.
Though, the rich do not have to be deliberately antagonistic to draw the wrath of the lower classes. The Park family aren’t apparently vicious, more so ignorant of their privilege. Nevertheless, by the mere virtue of their socioeconomic status, the Kims are consumed by an unspoken envy, rearing its head at a lavish backyard party held by the Parks – punctuated by an abrupt eruption of violence. The ex-housekeeper’s husband finally escapes, weapon in hand, seeking vengeance against the Kims for their sins against him and his wife. In the heat of the fight, Mr and Mrs Park recoil from the man’s "poor" smell, a small but symbolic detail not lost on Mr Kim, propelling him into an unmanageable rage that culminates in the stabbing of Mr Park.
Mr Kim is sick of being a parasite, and of the unavoidable, if implicit, contempt that goes with it. In its hyperreal style, Parasite tells us that mass, sustained inequality erodes any semblance of equilibrium; that it inescapably leads to resentment, anger, violence, suffering, death. Joon-ho suggests this is the ultimate consequence of a society in tatters.
Arthur York is a student, writer and journalist.
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