With communism long dismissed as “the God that failed,” capitalism is now under fire. Leftist writers and scholars argue that capitalism, albeit better than communism, has serious side effects like the polarization of the rich and the poor, mammonism and dehumanization. Indeed, capitalism is certainly not impeccable and must be applied judiciously to reduce its many problems.
In 2011, a Hollywood movie entitled “In Time” poignantly criticized the inherent problems of capitalism using intriguing metaphors. The dystopian, futuristic film is set in the year 2169, when people no longer age beyond 25 and must extend their lives by purchasing time. Each person has a digital time clock embedded in his forearm that displays how much time he has left.
When the clock reaches zero, the person dies. The poor must toil all day just to extend their lives till the next day. Clearly, their plight serves as a metaphor for those who live from hand to mouth. The rich, however, do not need to work and live like immortals since they can afford time.
The only thing they are afraid of is accidental death. So they hire bodyguards and stay away from risky activities such as swimming. As a result, the rich are bored with life.
In the film, the United States is divided into 12 time zones. The poorest zone is called Dayton, and the most affluent zone is called New Greenwich. Theoretically, you can cross the zones and move up to the richest zone. In reality, however, it is impossible to reach the upper zones because you have to pay a large amount of time as a toll at each gate.
Clearly, this is a parody of a capitalist society where climbing up the ladder of economic ascension is virtually impossible, because you inherit poverty. In Korean society, for example, a legendary person who succeeds in escaping from the lowest rung to the highest is called “a dragon out of a ditch.” It indicates how difficult it is to accomplish such a success.
The protagonist of “In Time” is 28-year-old Will Salas who is a factory worker in Dayton. He becomes resentful when his mother dies after she runs out of time. One day, a bored, suicidal time-rich man from New Greenwich gives Will 116 years as a gift. Will then travels to New Greenwich and befriends a bored, but defiant millionaire’s daughter named Sylvia Weis.
Like Bonnie and Clyde, Will and Sylvia rob time banks and donate the time capsules they steal to time charity agencies. Ironically, however, such redistribution of time, like redistribution of wealth, disrupts society and creates chaos. At the end of the movie, mobs from the lower zones march to New Greenwich to take over the town. Interestingly, they resemble staggering zombies, following others instinctively for one purpose: to satisfy their hunger for life.
Another Hollywood movie, “2012,” evolves around a similar theme and uses Noah’s Ark as a motif. In 2012 the earth collapses and only a handful of people are allowed to board specially designed ships that can endure the super storm annihilating the earth. Just like in a capitalist society, only those who have enough money can board one of the ships and survive.
A newly released Korean science fiction action movie entitled “Snowpiercer” also takes a critical look at capitalism. Based on a French graphic novel by Jacques Lob and Jean-Marc Rochette, “Snowpiercer,” or “Snow Train” in Korean, sharply criticizes class discrimination in a capitalist system that confines the poor to the rear compartments and lets the rich and powerful occupy the front compartments.
“Snowpiercer” is set in a future when a failed experiment to stop global warming accidentally brings a second Ice Age and wipes out nearly everyone on Earth. The only survivors are the passengers in a train running on a perpetual-motion engine.
Once again, the train strongly evokes the image of Noah’s Ark. At first, all of the passengers are happy and feel privileged, as they are saved from the catastrophic annihilation of human civilization. As time goes on, however, class-consciousness begins to form among the passengers, spurring hatred, antagonism and clashes. The poor and underprivileged fight their way to the front compartments, demanding equal distribution of everything.
In a sense, South Korea resembles Noah’s Ark, protected from the perfect storm of disastrous North Korean communism.
We are lucky to live in the South, where we can be safe and sound. Unfortunately, however, we are resentful and hostile to our fellow dwellers in the South, and fight with each other every day, hopelessly divided into antagonizing factions such as the rich vs. the poor, and the privileged vs. the underprivileged, while North Korea is on the lurk to strike us at any time.
What will happen if we hate, antagonize, and fight our fellow citizens in our small sanctuary, instead of dealing with the storm outside together? Our Noah’s Ark will inevitably capsize, and we will go down together. Surely, that is the last thing we would want to happen to us.
By Kim Seong-kon
Kim Seong-kon is a professor of English at Seoul National University and president of the Literature Translation Institute of Korea. He can be reached at email@example.com. ― Ed.