A Response to Conservative Misreadings of ‘Elysium’

There’s not much I can add to Ryan Parker’s review of Elysium. I probably liked the film better than he did, but also thought it came up short on story.

Some of the reactions to Elysium have been in the form of conservative backlash to its obvious liberal populist message. I’d like to address some of those reactions in responding to some comments on the film put forth by fellow Patheos blogger, Rebecca Cusey. I’m highlighting Cusey’s review not because I want to dismantle her work, but because it has been typical of other conservative reactions to the film I have read. (I’ll even link you to one of her many articles I really like, before we get started.)

Cusey says Elysium is “pretty much a warning about what will happen to Earth if socialism wins. … In this fantasy dystopian future, as in socialist Greece, Spain, and Detroit, the wealthy do fine. … So I’m assuming it was socialist policies that brought the earth to its dystopian future. The elite have done their damage and left. Fair, based on the historical evidence, right?”

I’ll leave the Fox News economics for Paul Krugman to take apart—easily.

But besides the simplistic economic analysis, Cusey’s review itself is also lacking something. Writer/director Neill Blomkamp’s vision is clearly one of dystopia caused by over-consumption by the rich and lack of concern for the poor. To read it otherwise is to reveal more about the politics of the reviewer than the film. In Cusey’s case, this is done partially in jest, but she must make all kinds of assumptions about the film that aren’t actually in the film in order for it to fit this reading.

For instance, Cusey says that “the only person with any enterprise in the entire movie” is a woman selling a cart of pigs. She continues, “The rest of the populace sits around planning minor heists and gambling in the streets. They are victims, and only victims, never taking a step toward their own futures.”

To make this assumption requires ignoring the other people selling things in what is a vast marketplace scene—not just the lady with the pigs. It is also to ignore the work that Matt Damon’s character Max and thousands of others do in the enormous factory making security droids to protect the rich on Elysium. The film tends to paint with broad strokes (one of its shortcomings) but the factory is clearly part of a vast security apparatus that must be staffed by the teaming hordes on Earth.

It is clear there is a black market and rampant crime on the dystopian Earth Blomkamp imagines. Of course, when one’s labor does not lead to economic mobility, as in the Earth of Elysium, and in the United States, where class mobility is lower than other “socialist” Western nations, crime and despair are often the result.

To assume that the “elites” that live on Elysium are “socialist” requires a viewer to completely ignore the actual characters in the film. The boss of the company Matt Damon’s character works for, played unguinously by William Fichtner, is shown meeting with his shareholders vowing to make the company profitable. We soon see that he’s even willing to do this at the expense of the lives of his employees. This is what capitalists do, not socialists.

When the Fichtner character is apprehended by Max and the guerilla band he ends up fighting for, the corporate boss is on his way to reprogram the entire Elysium space station, placing the Homeland Security Secretary (Jodie Foster) in charge so his company can receive endless no-bid contracts to run everything both in space and on earth. Private companies setting economic policy to increase their bottom line at the expense of the rest of society is what capitalists do, not socialists.

From a faith perspective, Cusey’s view, in which the poor are largely responsible for their position because of their own lack of initiative, seems to come from a pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps Protestant work ethic. The problem is that in recent years, the Protestant work ethic–what was once a conservative interpretation of Christianity that encouraged personal effort–has mutated. It has been merged with libertarian free market capitalism to the point that many conservatives believe the systemic economic situations that lead to cycles of poverty do not even have to be considered, much less addressed or overcome. To put it briefly, many conservatives, even conservatives of faith, believe that the poor should pull themselves up by their bootstraps–despite not having boots.

In defiance of Biblical admonitions, this strain of American libertarian capitalist Christianity leads people to believe that personal wealth is no impediment to one’s salvation. What matters is solely personal adherence to a set of (mainly sexual) morals and belief in “Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.” So it doesn’t matter how wealthy one gets, or if the world is stratified into an economy of a permanently rich capitalist class and a perpetual underclass, because God will sort things out according to one’s proper religious dogma in the end.

This is obviously a popular religion for many Americans, being part of both the wealthiest country in the world and one that allows staggering inequality, unmatched in the developed world, in which the upper 1 percent of the population owns more wealth than the bottom 50 percent of the population combined. (China and India have lower income inequality than the United States.)

This heretical idea of Christianity is how John Schnatter, who revolutionized the world of pizza by including butter sauce to dip the crusts in, is worth 300 million dollars, lives in a 40,000 square foot McCastle with a 22 car garage, and is a prominent member of one of the country’s largest megachurches. Yet Schnatter cannot countenance a 5-9 cent raise in pizza prices in order to provide market-based (not socialist) healthcare to his workers, who will work for the benefit, not receive it for free.

No, this isn’t a matte painting of the space station Elysium, it’s “Papa” John Schnatter’s house. Apparently he will lose everything if he offers health care to his workers.

I’m not sure how far Cusey’s personal beliefs match American libertarian capitalist Christianity beyond her review. She seems to be concerned for the poor, but has unproven ideas about how capitalism can actually benefit them. In a follow-up post to her review of Elysium, she makes it clear that she sees the United States as a benevolent capitalist country which (thanks to George W. Bush) spreads its largesse far and wide to help the poor people of the world. One wonders if Cusey shares most Americans’ misperception that America spends a large amount of its annual budget on foreign aid. The average American thinks our country should “cut” foreign aid, and when pressed to give an estimate, thinks America spends a quarter of its budget helping out other countries.

In fact, the United States, the so-called “Christian Nation,” is the stingiest of wealthy nations, donating about 1 percent of its annual budget, or about 0.2 percent of its annual GDP , to foreign aid. Heathen atheist socialist dystopias like Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and the Netherlands lead the list in foreign aid as a percentage of GDP. Americans bragging about how much their virtuous capitalism benefits the world while countries with much smaller economies give a larger share reminds me of Jesus’ parable of the Widow’s mite.

What most reviewers didn’t seem to get about Elysium is that this is not a “future” dystopia. The world in which children die of curable ailments, where living in relative wealth or squalor depends on imaginary geographical boundaries, where one’s labor goes to benefit a greedy oligarchy of a few wealthy families, already exists. It exists on a domestic scale in the United States, and it exists on a global scale between the United States and the Two-Thirds World.

The tragedy of the United States is the loss of a prosperous nation where there was once a functioning and growing middle class, the possibility of social mobility and wage growth based on rising productivity, and a capitalist elite that had a least a modicum of noblesse oblige, in part because of establishment churches that stressed social responsibility along with personal salvation. The tragedy of the United States in comparison with the rest of the world is that we still have so much—clean water, food resources, education, very good medical care that some of us can afford, relative peace and stability—which we feel we must hoard against the grasping masses of the rest of humanity.

You and I, if we’re participating in this discussion, are already living in Elysium. Take a trip on I-10 through El Paso sometime and look across the ditch into the Third World of Ciudad Juarez, the most dangerous city in the world. On one side of the highway is poverty and misery on the scale depicted in Blomkamp’s film. On the other side is Target and Wal-Mart—capitalist Disneyland. Ask yourself what you did to deserve being born on this side of the highway. What did you do to deserve living in Elysium?

If you can’t think of an answer for that, ask yourself what you’re willing to do for the people of Earth.


I-10 in El Paso, the highway on this side of Elysium, looking across the border to Mexico.


  • Cat lover

    Thank you for writing this. Cusey’s review horrified me.

    • Agni Ashwin

      I assumed she was being sarcastic.

      The alternative possibility was too frightening to contemplate.

  • FedRev

    It’s interesting that the conservative response is to label the problems in the film as being caused by “socialism”. I’d assume they’d dislike the film because it paints capitalists in such a negative light.

  • FedRev

    Here’s my take: http://fedrev.net/?p=544 “Elysium & What Could Have Been”

  • Drew

    Great article, you beautifully summed up what I’ve been feeling about how the more-conservative denominations of Christianity have turned a blind eye to the Bible’s condemnation of wealth and greed. But hey, at least they’re protecting us from the evil gays, right…?

    • Roselind Berry

      You say the Bible condemns all wealth and greed. Ok, are you planning to turn down your next raise? The next increase of minimum wage? Are you ready to give up all the things Americans take for granted that are not available in non-capitalist countries like Somalia? Her’s a partial list — computers, cable/sattelite television, refrigeration, AC, private cars, shopping in a grocery store with thousands of products, water security (clean water on tap, 24/7) police protection, freedom to shop for lower prices, access to doctors and specialists, access to hospitals not run by missionaries, access to food assistance, electricity 24/7, private telephones, cell phones, pagers, restaurants with safe food, safety inspection, advertising, phone books, printers, radio 24/7, recorded music, bookstores and public libraries, TV guides (because you could easily waste an hour or more just surfing through stations), 911, Wi-Fi, and an assorted of colorfully named gadgets to use all the available air-wave goodies. If you are not prepared to give ul all these benefits of living in a wealthy country, you are not opposed to wealth and greed for your own benefit.
      Tell me, do you eat dessert? Do you get second helpings? Do you reject left-overs in favor of take-out? Do you own cross-trainers, a stationary bike, or need to get more exercise? Do you have food in your pantry for two days ahead? Do you have a garbage disposal? If you answered yes to even one of these food questions, you are a greedy fat-cat. How many people in Jesus time do you think even had any of these options?
      Do you think Jesus would sit home watching the superbowl/NASCAR/WorldSeries/MissAmericaPageant/TonyAwards/etc? Or would he be volunteering at the soup kitchen, visiting sick people in the hospital, driving for Meals on Wheels, helping people get voter registration cards and state ID’s, preaching on a street corner, doing sidewalk counciling in front of an abortion clinic, holding babies and tots in a shelter, walking with people in a rehab program, hugging HIV patients and changing their depends, holding hands with people in radiation and chemotherapy, donating blood, visiting prisons and jails, volunteering at a half-way house, looking under bridges for people to help, sttting up a volunteer program to transport people to medical help, teaching a nutrition and cooking class for SNAP (foodstamp) recipients?
      A lot of Americans have weird ideas about wealth and greed. They commit the sin of covetousness, and say the other guy is too rich, too greedy. They forget that the workman is worthy of his hire, and that paying more to the person who has developed higher skills is the best way to assure there will be enough carpenters, plumbers, cable guys, inventers, doctors, lawyers, and “Indian chiefs” to serve all the demand.

      • Drew

        Sweet mercy, what a reply. You know what? I don’t actually disagree with any of that: I think that Jesus’ words could be interpreted to mean “give up everything you own and follow me.” (Mainly because he said just that)

        But that’s not the argument I’m making, and your response takes an incredibly broad definition of “greed” and “wealth,” one that I disagree with. I don’t think it’s greedy to make an honest day’s pay and live comfortably; doing so doesn’t mean one is putting money ahead of everything else. But when we reach a point where we’re spending hundreds of thousands, or even millions, on luxury items, ones that are completely unnecessary to our lives, when that money could be used to literally save thousands of lives, then yeah, we’re being greedy. And when we start to worship Mammon–the God of money–instead of our real God, then it’s a sin. Obviously, there’s no clear line to where this is (as your comment states, in a roundabout way), so I do agree that we have to be vigilant in how we make and spend our money.

        All this wasn’t even the point of my initial comment, though. What I find frustrating is that right-leaning denominations think it’s totally acceptable to unequivocally condemn sexual practices they don’t like, while also implicitly (or explicitly) stating that it’s good to be wealthy. It seems hypocritical to claim that others need to follow the Bible’s commandments, while completely ignoring the plenty of commands to avoid greed and wealth. Do you agree with me on this?

      • DrLindsay

        Roselind, great list of all the things we take for granted in the U.S., and a partial list of things we can do to help out. I have to admit the thought of Jesus watching the Miss America pageant made me chuckle.

        Like I said in the review, there’s a two-tier problem. In the U.S., productivity has been cut off from wage growth. It used to be when productivity went up, wages went up, but that’s not the case anymore. Wages for middle class workers have been stagnant for the last 30 years, despite overall worker productivity doubling, while wages for CEO’s have increased six times. This seems to me to be a product of greed and the breakdown of social responsibility.

        As for us an the rest of the world, I’m not saying we must give up everything, although our friend Drew is right, Jesus said if we were really to *earn* the kingdom, we would have to sell everything and give it to the poor. Great Christians in history like Saint Francis of Assisi actually took this advice literally.

        What I do think we need to do is have more compassion for the poor both in our country and around the world, and should constantly be asking ourselves to do more–both in our national policies and in our individual charity. To me, compassion is not, “Well, we just can’t afford to help these people,” which seemed to be Rebecca Cusey’s position in her review.

        Thanks for participating in the conversation!

  • 5465vick

    What is destroying our country is not true capitalism. It is the crony capitalism being practiced by our government and business. True capitalism was practiced here decades ago and lifts everyone up and creates good jobs with good pay. Today government and business leaders bribe each other for contracts and donations to their election funds or possibly even to line each others pockets or bank accounts. Anyone dissing true capitalism does not understand the true meaning.

    • Grotoff

      Globalization means that American workers have to compete with workers with far lower living standards around the world. 30 minutes readings an Econ 101 textbook should teach you enough about prices to know what happens when supply massively exceeds demand. The fact that wages managed to only stagnate says a lot about the gains in productivity that we’ve made since the 80s.

      • 5465vick

        Thank you for telling me something I already know. I had econ 101 as you state it in high school decades ago. However as I stated true capitalism is not an unholy alliance between government and business. Just look at Obama’s alliance with green energy. How many companies such as Solyndra went under after the loans were guaranteed by our government. How much money was lost by the tax payers when Obama made sure that his friends that invested in these malcontent companies did not lose their investments? They walked away without losing one cent while the tax payers have been continually burned by Obama and his failed green adventures. This is just one of the many cases of corrupt cronyism practiced by our government for decades. True capitalism will lift everyone up with good jobs and out of poverty. Yes we do compete with other countries with lower standards of living with lower pay. Yes deflation will happen when supply exceeds demand. Yes wages have stagnated and productivity has risen since the 80′s. True capitalism with as little of government intervention and regulation as possible, can go a long way towards solving our problems. While we do need minimal government regulations, too much unnecessary regulation destroys business and jobs. When you have two or more government agencies basically doing the same job, business will be smothered. This happens when government officials take bribes to look the other way when a business wants to break the law. Instead of the government agency doing it’s job and not taking the bribe, and enforcing the law, a crisis begins. Now congress wants to make another law to regulate what the original agency should have enforced in the first place. Another needless government agency is born. This has been documented time and again. Crony capitalism! Some Honor and Honesty form both our business and government officials would go a long way towards healing our country and our economy!

  • Timothy Weston

    I just returned from seeing “Elysium.” What I pulled from it is how people of privilege can become so detached from the rest of humanity and the price they are willing to pay not only to maintain that level of privilege but to bar those not like them from attaining it.