Does capitalism corrode culture? I think the answer is yes and no.
Free Markets Aren’t Everything: A Reflection on Parasite
The South Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s Oscar-nominated film Parasite begins with a moment of late capitalism levity.
The Kim family, who live in a small, run-down basement apartment, discover that the upstairs tenants have put a password-lock on their Wi-Fi. The college-age son and daughter immediately panic, and their dad instructs them to hold the phones over their heads to try and grab another signal.
This laugh-out-loud scene slowly opens into something a bit more serious: we hear the mom tell them to check WhatsApp to see if the family was contacted about a job prospect. We quickly realize that the phones have no mobile service. The living situation is precarious, to put it mildly.
There is a narrative, beloved by Enlightenment liberals and free market conservatives alike, that goes something like this. It is absolutely foolish to be angry or depressed about the current state of the global economy, or fearful about the future. Free market capitalism has unleashed more prosperity than any other system at any other point in world history. Even most poor Americans have air conditioning and microwaves. The contemporary lower class lives better than the kings of antiquity: after all, the former can buy frozen chicken at a grocery store and flush their waste down a toilet. And look, the Kims all own smartphones!
This narrative is partially right. It is basically indisputable that, in absolute terms, material conditions have risen dramatically for basically everyone in the world, and this is due in large part to the efficiencies of market economies that produce consumer goods for cheap. And while we can talk about stagnant wages and leveled-off growth in highly developed nations like the United States, it is also a solid guess that the upward trajectory of improvement will continue in strictly material terms.
But the thing that pundits and policy wonks too often forget is that relative poverty matters, too, especially because poverty is never just about material conditions.
Let me tell you what I mean by relative poverty.
I remember when my family picked up bags of groceries from a church-run food bank after my dad was laid off by a company he had worked for, faithfully, for a decade. If memory serves me right, we only needed that kind of direct assistance a few times, and the period of unemployment was short enough, all things considered. But you don’t forget the shame. The feeling that maybe we just aren’t good enough. And the sense of isolation—that everyone else in America is making ends meet because they’re good enough, but we aren’t because we aren’t, and shh, don’t breathe a word, because you don’t want to increase the shame, but also because nobody else will understand. (A lot of people voted for Trump after Bernie didn’t get the nomination. Maybe it’s because Trump and Bernie are the only people who see us, value us, campaign for us, visit our communities, and speak to us of solidarity.)
But you also don’t forget the resentment over, the rage, that a company would get rid of a hard worker because it cared more about paying lower wages to increase profit margins than it did about my dad, about my family.
And then there’s that feeling of despair: if you do all the right things and it isn’t enough, then what’s the point? My dad would have worked there until retirement if he could have, and in my grandfather’s generation that would have been enough to secure him a comfortable retirement. But now? The point here is that we didn’t starve and we weren’t homeless and we still had a family Netflix account, but like I said, relative poverty hurts, too.
Parasite is also about the caretaking industry. The Kims work for the Parks: they cook the Parks’ meals and drive the Parks’ car and tutor the Park kids. (And sometimes they’re asked to dress up as an American Indian for the birthday party. Yes, it’s a little undignified, and also you don’t really have a choice, but we’ll pay you overtime.) Most contemporary dystopian stories suggest a world where the haves live in gated communities separated from the have-nots.
I think Parasite is more perceptive: caretaking is a booming industry that will only grow, and that means that the Kims and the Parks will brush shoulders almost constantly. What does it mean for the distance in perceived and afforded dignity—the confidence of extreme wealth and the desperate shame of precarious living—to bump up against each other? Isn’t it a powder keg situation? Is anyone besides the GDP-growth-fetishizers really surprised by the howling rage of the populist masses? How can we live as neighborly citizens in this kind of context?
The People Who Ride the Subway
In one of the most wrenching scenes of the film, the Kim family accidentally overhear the Park parents discussing how good a driver Mr. Kim is, or, well, at least how generally reliable. But there’s just the one thing, that he, well, he smells, well, he stinks. And you hear the caustic laughter juxtaposed with the sight of the shamed faces and the single tear rolling down Mr. Kim’s cheek. Mr. Park says that he smells like “the people who ride the subway.” Oh, yeah, did I mention that this is also a movie about class? (And when the pundits on Fox News talk about personal responsibility like my father didn’t bust his ass every day at that company, or the CNN pundits mock MAGA voters in a faux hick accent like it’s a matter of lower intelligence, they sound a lot like Mr. Park.) But damn, at least the Kim family have smartphones and a rotisserie chicken in their freezer!
I’ll show my cards.
Whatever you think of Trump—and frankly I have a number of grave concerns about his rhetoric and political approach—you need to understand the anger of his base. I have no doubt that abject poverty is a factor here, but I don’t think that’s the common denominator. The slights against human dignity are the common strand: being told that you are dumber, less valuable, that you stink, that you smell like a second-class citizen, that you are deplorable.
My own sense of economic justice was more deeply formed the day I watched the tortured expressions on my dad’s face when he told us he was let go than by any seminar course I took as a first-generation college student. You see this in the Kim kids, too, this sense of the anger sourced in large part in an empathy toward their hard-working father—a good man, a man of worth, a man who deserves so much better. So even when you hear the ambitions, see the desire to rise to a higher position in the meritocratic game, it’s not exactly a heart-warming tale of rags to riches. You shouldn’t have to be rich to be able to live without shame. You shouldn’t have to be rich for people to see your dignity and your worth.
I still believe in the power of (mostly) free markets to unleash greater and greater prosperity for the world. And I know that helping working families thrive requires more than cheap promises about free preschool and free college.
But I also believe that both absolute and relative poverty obscure our view of human dignity (in ourselves and in others), and encourage class divides that have less to do with who has Netflix and more to do with who is thought to have worth, who is thought to have a good life, who is honored, who is valued, who is loved.
The United States has a sordid history of injustices predicated on privileging one group over another, economically, culturally, racially. And yet I still believe that we can become a nation where Lady Liberty reaches her arms out in embrace, crying, “Give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” And I still believe in the American Dream: not the one says that we can all become billionaires and should aspire to that, but rather the Dream that says that in our country, we can choose to honor each other not on the basis of race, religion, political party, or socioeconomic class, but rather on a shared recognition of our innate human dignity.
Parasite testifies to the horrors of a world in which people see themselves locked in a zero-sum game, and act accordingly, your gain always at my expense, my shame as the price for your honor. But we can do better than this, and we must, because the only alternative to the world of Parasite is a widespread commitment to solidarity with all Americans, and especially with those who are most vulnerable.
Anthony Barr is a graduate of the Templeton Honors College at Eastern University, and a recent Fellow with the Hertog Foundation in DC. He currently lives outside Philadelphia and works as an assistant teacher at Main Line Classical Academy.
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