Eating the Poor

Early in their careers, the Wachowski brothers (or rather sisters) wrote a movie script about eating the rich. “The script was too disturbing,” Andy (now Lilly) Wachowski said, as quoted in a 1999 New York Times piece. “We showed it to some people in Hollywood who said: ‘This is a bad idea. I can’t make this. I’m rich.’ ” They never could find anyone to fund it and so it was never made.

What immediately occurred to me simply reversing the roles in the script make it perfectly acceptable to the moneyed interests in Hollywood. A quarter century earlier in 1973 the novel Soylent Green was made into a major movie with a well known lead actor, Charlton Heston. It received multiple awards and honors and, remaining popular, has had repeated releases in every format. At this point, it has made immense profit.

So, why is it that Hollywood is fine with portraying poor people being eaten but not rich people? Well, as one Hollywood figure explained, “I can’t make this. I’m rich.”

Hollywood is a business, but not everything is about profit. Even if a movie about eating the rich could make more money than hundreds of other movies that get made every year, the profit motive can only go so far. The rich are as or more concerned with maintaining their position in society, which means maintaining the image that the dirty masses can’t touch them, literally and metaphorically. The Wachowskis didn’t only make a movie about the rich being eaten but specifically eaten by the poor and homeless. That is a step too far in a capitalist plutocracy.

Fantasies are fine, except when they hit too close to home. Class war isn’t something we are supposed to talk about. Or rather we are only supposed to talk about it when it portrays the rich winning. Hollywood companies are fine with rich people being portrayed as evil, as long as they are also portrayed as dominant and powerful. But even making portraying the reality of plutocratic rule too starkly can be considered unacceptable.

When Jonathan Swift wrote “A Modest Proposal”, many criticized the eating of babies. In his defense, he pointed out that the killing of babies was what was already happening to the poor, specifically in Ireland, and he simply made it explicit. The sensitive souls in respectable society were fine with mass torture and murder. They simply didn’t want to be forced to acknowledge it. Even so, he was able to get his writing published and widely read. But if he had written a similar piece about eating the rich, he would have been censored, his career destroyed, and probably imprisonment following. Although considered in bad taste, it was acceptable for him to write about eating the poor. As true then, still true today.

In a talk, William McDonough spoke of a visit to Birkenau in Auschwitz:¬†“I stood in the center Birkenau camp¬†which is a mile in diameter three, miles in circumference. And I realized that engineers and architects had come together to design a giant killing machine. If design is the worst, the first signal of human intention, this was the signal of the worst of human intention. And I thought to myself at what point is a designer standing there say wait a minute you’re asking me to do this.”

He describes how every aspect of the camp and all that supported its functioning was carefully designed by architects, engineers, and scientists. This included how humans would be processed and used, including the bodies. From slave labor in the factories to stacking the bodies, it all had to be carefully calculated and planned out. Efficiency was key. It was a modern project embodying scientific principles. Many of the chemicals still in use today were first experimented on humans in these camps.

McDonough came to the realization that this mentality applied to the modern world in general. The way we design buildings and infrastructure is toxic and self-destructive. Our society is a highly efficient killing machine that results in illness, suffering, and early death. He wasn’t being merely dramatic for effect. We see this in the increasing use of carcinogenic chemicals and the rise of cancer. The modern world is designed to be efficient and profitable, not to be sustaining of life and well being.

One might note that the greatest victims, as always, are the poor. The rich can escape the pollution of old industrial centers, distance themselves from toxic dumps, and hide away from environmental destruction. The poor, on the other hand, are trapped. In the Swiftian sense, the poor are being eaten by this system that processes and uses their life and labor to build the beautiful world of the rich. According to the Social Darwininan aspirations and capitalist realism dreams of plutocrats, that is how it should be. But you won’t find a well-funded blockbuster Hollywood movie portraying this real world dystopia in all of its gory details, much less such a movie that radically imagines an inversion of power and a reversal of victimization.

To understand how this society operates, you have to notice not only what is present but also what is missing, what is allowable and what is not.