‘There are three kinds of people – those at the top, those at the bottom and those who fall.’
The Platform, Spanish masterpiece directed by Galder Gaztelu-Urrutia and written by David Desola which is currently streaming on Netflix. But do not mistake this for a film review. You can find a plethora of those, written by people more qualified than I am, or will ever be. Es muy obvio. Here, I shall attempt to revisit the age-old debate between the West and the East, Capitalism and Socialism, the Right and the Left, the success and failure.
The Wolf of Wall Street
John Lewis, in his book Marxism and The Open Mind (1976), explains “For Marx, freedom means the ability to achieve the totality of human goods, satisfaction of aspirations, material and spiritual, fundamental to which is the mastery and rational control of the process of production of the material conditions of human life”. Marx believed exploitation of the labour force was due to the lack of ownership to the means of production and the final product. Value of a commodity according to the ‘Labour Theory of Value’ as advocated by the classical liberal economists is determined by the amount of labour put in to produce that commodity. Marx argues that the owners of the means of production are able to accumulate surplus income by paying lower wages than the value of the commodity. In other words, although profits increase the wages paid to workers remain low hence leading to exploitation by design.
But why is a profitable business such a terrible thing? To be fair, it’s not. Capitalism is the most favourable ladder for growth. But then again, it’s not fair, is it? Neo-liberal capitalists would argue that in a free market without government intervention, accumulated surplus is re-invested as the market clears, and eventually trickles-down back to the labour force. But this is where the problem lies, and The Platform does not shy away from exposing it. From this point onwards, a spoiler alert is in effect. You have been warned.
The film starts with the protagonist volunteering to spend six months in a ‘Vertical Self-Management Centre’ rightfully nicknamed ‘The Hole’, by the end of which he hopes to give up smoking, complete reading Don Quixote (1605) by Miguel de Cervantes and earn a diploma. The Hole is an underground facility with no contact to the outside world, and works as a prison. The rules of The Hole are fairly simple. Two prisoners are put together on a level, at the beginning of each month, and are free to do whatever they want. Each level is equipped with two beds, a wash basin and a single commode next to the basin. There are no doors or windows on any level. There is a square shaped open shaft in the centre of the facility that is big enough to drop a king-sized bed through it without touching any of the edges, which runs through all levels. Once a day, a platform containing food is sent down through this shaft. It stops at each level for the inmates to eat, but only for a very short period of time.
At the end of each month, inmates are assigned a new level, using random allocation. Up until this point, it would appear that the system is fair, in the sense that there is enough freedom presented to the inmates within their spaces, and at the same time, a city’s worth of delicious looking food is sent down to the levels once a day. You can’t be mad at random allocation if you are allotted a level in single digits one month and a deeper level in the next month, the former being advantageous in the sense that the inmates on that level will receive a first mover advantage on the food and can choose to eat what they want. In fact, the film consciously makes an effort to make you believe that the system works. The Hole does not differentiate between the inmates while allocating levels. The system also has fail-safes in the form of physical-punishments against inmates stealing food from the platform. This is done so that inmates don’t hoard the food for themselves.
But the system is far from perfect. The inmates in the deeper levels perish due to the lack, and even absence of any food reaching them via the platform. They have to resort to violence and cannibalism, while others just die of starvation and are simply replaced with newly-convicted inmates. Beyond a certain level, there is not enough food for the inmates to survive.
This highlights the first issue with a neo-liberal system of production. It works perfectly when implemented in a free market society, where everyone has equal access to the market. Accessibility is not the same as inclusivity.
The sheer verticality of The Hole, denies equal opportunity to the inmates. One could argue that if people collaborate, and only eat enough calories to help them survive, the food could reach the deepest levels of The Hole. Neo-Liberals assert that it is the individual’s failings rather than systematic inequality that leads to social and economic vulnerability.
Another issue that is highlighted is the unawareness of the administration staff regarding the exact number of levels present in The Hole. This ambiguity is created to reduce the accuracy with which it can be predicted exactly how any people are suffering in the deeper levels. This marks a grey area which makes it easier to spread misinformation. In the present scenario, the unsatisfactory state of collection and processing of data with respect to the number of Covid-19 cases is one of the many systemic deficiencies which have been exposed by the pandemic. This is just one instance where governing bodies have taken deliberate measures to not share public data with the public. Such inadequacy in data and information has been a major threat to the functioning of any economic system and this applies to the popular Neo Liberal system as well. A free market set up does not guarantee a free flow of information, asymmetric information undoubtedly runs a risk of hurting the fundamental bricks of a successful capitalistic market.
Dead Poets Society
For Marx, class is a social relationship rather than a position in society. He further believes that the relationship between classes is a contradictory one, there is struggle and conflict as each class is an historical actor to the extent of its own interests. For him, classes are formed by the forces that define the mode of production. These are not a direct consequence of income difference, social norms or political power, but emerge from their respective relationship to the process of production. For example, a landlord attains that position by the sole reason of being an owner of a property. Similarly a labourer in a tea estate farm has limited stake in the property and their interaction is only with the number of hours in working. Although these differences eventually form a social class with rigid structure creating bottlenecks for labourers to advance their position.
In this context, a social structure exists within The Hole that defines the inmates in the cell above the protagonist to be superior, and the inmates below to be inferior. The inmate living in the cell above won’t respond to the protagonist because he or she has the power to ruin the food for them. The protagonist on the other hand is not expected to respond to the inmates living below him because he possesses the same power over those below him. This is explained beautifully by the protagonist’s first cell-mate, when asked why the people above him won’t respond – I can’t shit upwards. It is at this moment, that the protagonist is seen accepting the present environment that he is living in.
These differences are not a direct result of the different levels that the inmates reside in, but because of the relationship that the level has with the process of production. In this case, the metaphorical platform on which the food is kept. For higher levels, it is a product of their good fortune, which they believe they have the right to exploit as much as they see fit. This incentive arises directly from the fact that the inmates are randomly re-shuffled at the end of every month in different levels. For deeper levels, the relationship with the platform worsens as a consequence of their inability to exploit the food and hence are forced to rely on the mercy of those in the higher levels. Due to differences in the relationship with the platform, there exists a difference in interacting with the level above and beneath the protagonist.
In addition to the Bourgeoisie and Proletariat that exist in the capitalist framework, there also exists the Lumpenproletariat. Marx defines them as the ‘dangerous class’, whose members include ‘ruined and adventurous offshoots of the bourgeoisie, vagabonds, discharged soldiers, discharged jailbirds, pickpockets, brothel keepers, rag-pickers, beggars etc, as stated by Sociologist Thomos Bottomor in A Dictionary of Marxist Thought (1983). Marx has suggested that this particular class has no significance in the creation of socialism. In fact, the influence of this class is conservative. They are proof of how capitalism exploits and discards people.
Perhaps modern day’s representation of this class could be the economically backward section of the society. In context of the film, about twenty minutes in, the protagonist is introduced to a woman who is seen travelling down via the platform. On inquiring, his cell-mate tells him that she used to be an actress, who is now looking for her lost ward in the hole. She clearly appears to be injured, and goes on to later kill the inmates who try to take advantage of her. The film is clearly indicating the existence of a ‘dangerous class’ within the defined social structure of the hole that has emerged as a result of exploitation. The woman has been discarded by the society within the hole, and spends her time in a never-ending search for her ward. Her mental instability is a result of the atrocities committed towards her, in the form of abuse that she faces from the other inmates.
Another interesting aspect is the film’s take on ethnic minorities. The protagonist is introduced to a black cell-mate, who believes that god has spoken to him, asking him to get out of the hole. The difference in ethnicities is emphasized through a religious standpoint when he asks for the people in the cell above him, to help him climb using his rope. In this particular scene, the fact that the people in the cell above smirk off his remark about him praying to the same gods as them, who in this case are Caucasian, speaks volume about the perspective of the privileged. Privilege here, should just mean that they are in the level above. This scene however explores the bias that people in a position of privilege have, even when such privilege is merely a matter of chance. Later on, in the same scene, the black man is tricked into thinking they’ll help him, but he eventually falls and the protagonist manages to save him from falling down the hole. This highlights the failure of the people within the system to co-operate and help the minorities, even when the system has provisions. These provisions are present in the hole as a single item from the outside, that the inmate can choose to carry inside. The black man’s choice of a rope reflects his deteriorating mental health even before he was inside the hole, suggesting that things outside are just as bad, as they are inside the hole.
Sociologist Theda Skocpol in her article France, Russia, China: A Structural Analysis of Social Revolutions (1976) states that social revolution is a combination of structural reform and massive class upheavals. She further clarifies that revolutions are not just extreme forms of individual or collective behaviour, but rather distinct conjunctures of socio-historical structures and processes.
When the protagonist and his black friend decide to preserve the panna cotta, and send it back as a message of resistance, you can’t help but feel a sense of hope. However, when they reach the deepest level of the platform, they see a child hiding under the bed, who clearly should not be in a facility that does not allow anyone below the legal age. They hand over the panna cotta to the starving child, and it dawns upon them that perhaps this ‘child’ could be the new message. The film ends on an open note as the protagonist and the child ride the platform to the top. History is the only witness that has survived time. And it is no great revelation, that any change or revolution, must begin with an act of defiance, with a message. Perhaps the child who survived was the message, perhaps the child did not survive the ride back up or perhaps we’ll never know. Perhaps if you have read Don Quixote, you’ll recall that the plot of the revolutionary novel revolves around a noble, who read too many tales of chivalry and romance, lost his mind and decided to become a knight to remind people of the importance of chivalry and serve his nation in his own convoluted way. The book itself is a social commentary and satire on orthodoxy and nationalistic ideologies and has managed to inspire many.
Perhaps our protagonist managed to finish his book before eating it after all. Besides, it’s only fair that I conclude on an open note, just as the film is open to your individual interpretation.
Don’t be a sheep.