Snowpiercer: The Problem of the Elites (Warning: Spoilers)

July 30, 2014

Joon-ho Bong‘s action film Snowpiercer is a critically acclaimed film set in the future. As a solution to global warming scientists develop a substance named CW-7, which they dispense into the atmosphere to reduce global temperatures. The plan works too well, and CW-7 lowers global temperatures until it freezes the world, causing the extinction of all life bar the few survivors on the “rattling arc”, a high tech train that continuously travels around the globe. The main plot, however, is not about the environmental cataclysm, nor is it about the technological marvel that is the “rattling arc.” Rather, Snowpiercer is a movie about revolt. Curtis (Chris Evans), the main character of the film, is planning a revolution in conjunction with his mentor Gilliam (John Hurt) and his loyal second/adopted son Edger (Jamie Bell). They intend to escape their lives of misery and wrest control of the arc from Wilford (Ed Harris), the arc’s leader. Their revolution is only partially successful, but it does reveal the rattling arc to be a form of elite-captured polity—a state that is owned by a small, fixed segment of society that is distinguished not by merit but by birth, wealth and social connections. In this sense the train is similar to some contemporary states, and like those states, is susceptible to the problem of the elites, a strange phenomenon wherein the very interests that captured a polity undermine their own control because of their greed.

While the arc is a fully self-sustainable state with its own security force, educational system, and administrative division of labor, Curtis and his confederates are rebelling against it because it is also a violently oppressive political system. The rattling arc is divided into sections (separated by sealed gates) starting at the engine and ending in the tail section of the train. Wilford, the rattling arc’s designer and leader, resides in the luxurious front of the train. Moving rearward, conditions grow steadily worse, and end in the cramped and dirty tail section in which the lowest classes, including Curtis and his friends, live. Those in the front section of the train are not meritocratic elites. The only difference between residents of the front section and those in the rear is that the former paid to ride the train (before the earth froze when it was just a passenger train) and were assigned sections in the front according to their tickets, while the latter were stowaways who boarded the arc after the earth began to freeze. The residents of the back section live in cramped squalor and eat protein bars made from crushed insects. Those in the front have entire sections dedicated to an aquarium that serves them sushi twice a year, a luxury sauna and a tailor.

The elites in the arc could cede more space to the rear section residents and accept a downgrade in their standard of living for the sake of peaceful coexistence, but they instead rely on repression. John Stuart Mill’s instrumental argument for democracy posits democratic systems to be preferable to the alternatives because they force policy makers to take the interests of large segments of society into account during decision making. But the system on the arc is no democracy. A small group of unremarkable people lord over a larger population without any checks on their influence. Without any incentive to take the interests of anyone else into account, the elites’ share of total resources onboard the arc grows larger and larger. And because selection to this class is entirely arbitrary—its membership purely a function of birth—this system can only be maintained by repression, the method by which states try to increase the cost of rebellious behavior and thus encourage passivity. And in fact, state repression works, at least when it is specific and incentives are offered to members of the populace who do not rebel. By that definition, repression is about specific punishment and reward. Elite avarice strips the polity of the resources to manage that balance and hence undermines the entire polity’s stability. This dysfunctional relationship between elite greed and the repressive apparatus needed to maintain it is the problem of the elites, and the same dynamic is currently at play in several countries around the world.

Stated simply, the problem of elites occurs when states are captured by the wealthiest segments of society in a system that gives them no incentive to take the interests of any other segments into account. In those circumstances, elites tend to hoard increasingly larger percentages of the national wealth for themselves and rely on repressive mechanisms to keep themselves in power. But since the selective enticement of segments of the population is necessary for a properly repressive system to work, and since such enticements are paid out from the same finite pool of resources that the elites are plundering, elite excessiveness actually makes regime repression less effective. Furthermore, since such repression is the only mechanism that props up elite-dominated regimes, the result of having less effective repression is instability. From an international perspective kleptocratic regimes of this sort offer the allure of stability, while in reality they are cauldrons of chaos. In the conclusion of Snowpiercer, Wilford reveals to Curtis that he orchestrated each of the revolutions that took place on the arc (including Curtis’s own) with the cooperation of Gilliam. His intentions were to scare the residents of the front section, enhance his legitimacy in their eyes, and cull the excess population of the rear section. Yet in each instance events spiraled out of his control.

The problem of the elites and the rickety polities it produces are of interest to all nations but especially to the more influential countries of the world. Kleptocratic regimes like Wilford’s offer only the illusion of stability, and relying on elite-dominated states as diplomatic and security partners is perilous at best. Both history and the contemporary world are replete with examples of such regimes those that completely run by and for the elite, and are unstable because of it. Zine El Abidine Ben Ali assumed power in Tunisia in 1988, and in the more than two decades that followed he governed over a kleptocratic state that enriched himself and those close to him to the determent of average Tunisians. While promising reform and liberalism he grew the state’s repressive apparatus in proportion to his and his inner circle’s growing wealth. But the problem of the elites ultimately overcame his regime, which collapsed in 2011 amidst popular protests calling for, among other things, greater economic mobility and equality.

A very similar process took place in Egypt during the tenure of Hosni Mubarak, when the kleptocracies/repression balance held out for 30 years, the Egyptian economy grew in tandem with poverty rates, and brutal tactics where employed to check regime opponents. Once again, growing concentration of elite power and resources was accompanied first by an increase in the size of the repressive apparatus (the ministry of the interior) and later by its ultimate collapse.

Yet despite undergoing formal regime change, neither country has solved its elite problem. Hence instability remains, and both countries are probably headed towards greater repression rather than greater freedom. I speak specifically of Egypt and Tunisia only because the Middle East is the region with which I am most familiar, but similar examples come from around the world. These examples are made apparent by a comparison of repression and corruption indices. Freedom house’s worst of the worst repressive regimes (those that receive their lowest freedom rating) have an average score of 25 on the corruption perceptions index with the highest, China, scoring 48 and ranking 80th. Most of the countries on the worst of the worst list are also incredibly unstable, with the notable exceptions of China, Uzbekistan, and Saudi Arabia—all of whom spend record breaking amounts on internal security and are still occasionally rocked by protest and rancor.

If the chief interest of states in general (but internationally influential states specifically) is stability, then the elite-run states (i.e. those where power is centralized and fixed, rule is hereditary rather than meritocratic, and authority remains in the unchecked hands of a few) make for poor partners. Even if one of these states doesn’t fall to popular protest (as several have in the recent past), the problem of the elites will always undermine its stability. To a certain extent dealing with such kleptocracies is inevitable, simply because there are so many of them. The best near-term method of dealing with kleptocracies is to fund and support organizations like Transparency International, as well as local civil society actors who might be able to check and even roll back the influence of the elites. But at a minimum, policy makers must understand that accepting a level of repression from states in the interest of maximizing stability is based on the flawed assumption that the two characteristics typically occur in positive correlation with one another. In fact, as the problem of the elites shows, repression too often conflicts with wealth-hoarding by those in power, and when it does, instability is a virtual certainty.


Yahya Gahnoog holds an M.A in Anthropology and is very interested in the middle east and political violence, as well as films on those subjects.


Photo credit: Sarah Murray