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How the Richest 1 Percent Control the 99 Percent in <i>Elysium</i>, and in America

In accepting the gross income inequality, obscene wealth gap, inexcusable corporate excesses, and blatant political corruption that we do today, we are already laying the groundwork for a real-world.
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As a movie, Elysium does not quite live up to its potential. It touches on several interesting topics, such as inequality, the wealth gap, socio-economic segregation, and the automation of warfare, but fails to explore any of these with real depth, opting instead for Hollywood cliches. But on a few points it hits home and mirrors our own society perfectly.

One of these is the real nature of class warfare, which is very different from the version peddled by the Republican Party in the United States.

In Elysium, it is not that the earth-bound humans are at war with their rich neighbors across the atmosphere, but that they are in a state of frozen servility. Warfare implies an active battle between two parties, but in the movie, the poor are so overmatched by the rich that the relationship between them is simply one of master and slave -- a passive relationship that leaves no room for negotiation, let alone battle.

And this is exactly the situation in America today.

The rich control an increasingly larger share of the nation's wealth and resources while the poor are relegated to the perpetual treadmill of financial misery, often working for far less than a living wage, struggling to cope with a rising cost of living, and lacking the educational and professional tools to climb out of their poverty trap. The middle class lies somewhere in between these two extremes but is similarly stuck in a rut, hoping to grab the brass ring but too busy living from paycheck to paycheck to actually make progress. Underpinning all this is the complete dependence of our economy and people's livelihood on the wealthiest strata of our society.

There is a token resistance movement in Elysium but it is exactly that -- a token rather than a real groundswell of opposition to exploitation by the wealthy overlords of earth. It almost seems as if the poor have given up and accepted their fate, and it is only through the agency of circumstance that they even consider revolting.

This too is similar to what we are observing here right now: while Americans may fight actively for social justice, economic justice is a different matter. The evolving culture in our nation is one of silent subservience to corporate forces, helped along by a political system bought and paid for by big donors. Even our Supreme Court has given the 'hand that feeds' the unlimited power to control our lives in exchange for the scraps that it throws out (through political influence).

And therein lies the danger in the direction that the United States is going in today. It is not a bloody war that we need to worry about but the mental enslavement of Americans which forces them into accepting an endless cycle of hand-to-mouth living and debt for a lack of any alternative. A fatalistic, and fatal, resignation to forces that they dare not challenge.

The common conservative response to this is to suggest that people improve their lives through better education or by learning new skills, but that is only possible when those opportunities are both available and affordable. Unfortunately, those who most need the educational and vocational resources to rise above their station in life are the ones who can least afford it because of their meager resources and lack of spare time.

Which brings us to the second aspect of the dystopian future in Elysium that is very telling. The world of the poor in 2159 is hopelessly in ruins, with practically no public infrastructure left except to keep people in line and working for their masters (who themselves remain insulated from the whole mess in an artificial paradise orbiting miles above the earth).

You would think that with the extreme wealth being hoarded by the wealthy denizens of Elysium, it would be fairly easy for them to make life for the 99 percent a little more livable but there is a sly message behind that. They don't want to because the lack of infrastructure greatly weakens the poor and helps the rich maintain the master-slave relationship they have established. By depriving people of the means to fight back, they are able to not only prevent an uprising but kill the very desire for revolution.

Now this may be more prediction than reality, but with the budget battles going on in Washington, it should be obvious that we are inexorably moving towards this fate.

If the Republicans, serving as the political soldiers of the wealthy, get their way, the infrastructure and public services that provide vital subsistence to millions of Americans will be severely compromised. While our roads, subways, water supply, electricity, and other staples of life are still in decent shape, it would take only a handful of large funding shocks for all of that to sink into disrepair, and eventually into meaninglessness; and if we go down the path that the GOP wants us to, this is exactly what will happen within a few decades.

It may be easy to laugh right now at such apocalyptic scenarios just as it is easy to laugh at our nocturnal fears in the sunlight, and it is certainly possible that our real future may not be as bleak as Elysium imagines, but the enslavement of our mind and spirit through financial control will destroy us in the sunlight just as surely as it does the disenfranchised citizens in the movie.

In accepting the gross income inequality, obscene wealth gap, inexcusable corporate excesses, and blatant political corruption that we do today, we are already laying the groundwork for a real-world Elysium.

Talk about life imitating art.

SANJAY SANGHOEE is a political and business commentator. He has worked at leading investment banks and hedge funds, has appeared on CNBC's 'Closing Bell' and HuffPost Live on business topics, and is the author of two thriller novels, including "Killing Wall Street". For more information, please visit

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