The Hidden Assumption Behind The Purge

The Purge is a 2013 horror film that explores the idea of an America where all crime is legal for one night a year.  Part of the appeal of the films are how they explore the effects such a festival would have on culture and economics.  A central theme is that there are positive outcomes of the Purge: there is almost no crime outside the Purge and unprecedented economic growth.  A sequel was released in 2014 (The Purge: Anarchy) and another in 2016 (The Purge: Election Year), each film exploring a different facet of the annual Purge festival.  The film series intends to serve as a blatant liberal metaphor for the drawbacks of a capitalism.  Everyone is free to participate in the purge festival but the poor and disadvantaged are less able to defend themselves, so they bear the brunt of the aggression.  For a full run-through of the symbolism (or if you don’t know anything about these movies and want to just fake your way through the article), this Wisecrack Philosophy video summarizes the various parts of the metaphor as completely as you could want:

As a criticism of capitalism and wealth disparity, the Purge seems fairly comprehensive.  The night of murder represents our free market on overdrive.  Instead of killing people slowly through poverty, the Purge kills them quickly with one night of violence.  Of course it would affect the poor disproportionately, and of course those in power would find a way to profit from it, and of course the economy would boom to the benefit the very rich, finally free of the burden of the lower classes.  What’s great about these films is how fleshed out the universe feels.  Everything that happens doesn’t violate our suspension of disbelief.  These films do a great job of reflecting our assumptions about how class and economics work.  They tell us what we think, specifically, about the poor and lower classes.

I’m sure the film-makers intended the film as a criticism of an economy of disposability and I don’t think it’s wrong for us to see it that way.  But the film actually demonstrates just how disposable we consider the lower classes (ourselves) to be.  If we did not think of ourselves this way, the economics of the film wouldn’t work.

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Eva (left) and Tanya (center) worry about The Purge

Let’s walk through one set of events.  The second film (The Purge: Anarchy) starts in a diner with waitresses Eva and Tanya discussing whether or not Eva should ask for a raise from the owner.  The diner does not look very large or very busy and the customers seem familiar with Eva.  So, Eva and Tanya are, if not the only staff, part of a very small group of employees.  Customers expect to see them.  If one of them were to call in sick, it would be a problem.  The tone of the scene suggests that Eva is apprehensive about asking for the raise because she is not a valued employee.  And this is where the metaphor of The Purge starts to fall apart.

Over the course of the film Eva’s co-worker, Tanya, gets purged.  This means that when Eva goes in to work her shift at the diner tomorrow, she will have to cover for a missing person.  That might work in the short term, but, eventually, the owner is going to have to hire another waitress.  In our world, where there’s no purge, that’s easy to do because we have a large population of unemployed and working poor to hire from.  Will it be as easy for this employer in the universe of The Purge?  Nope, because a bunch of her possible hires just got purged along with her employee.  Hiring a new waitress won’t be impossible, but she’s going to have to offer a competitive salary just to compete with all the other openings.  The Purge must raise wages.

This would be true for a lot of other places besides the diner.  Remember, Eva’s co-worker wasn’t the only person who got purged that night.  That creepy building super who got purged by the strike squad?  Superintendent needed.  Speaking of that strike squad, how many of them got killed?  Private security contractor seeks new recruits.  Throughout the film countless people die and most of them, while they might not appear to be members of the upper class, appear to be employed.  How could you possibly keep the cost of labor down when the demand jumps higher and higher every year?

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Pictured: How to contribute to high labor costs

 

The first purge film is explicit about the unemployment rate the NFFA achieves with the purge: 1%.  Eva would have, absolutely, been able to ask her boss for a raise.  And she would have gotten it because every year the Purge causes a labor shortage.  Each year, even those at the lowest rungs of the economic ladder get less and less replaceable.

You could make the case that maybe the amount of business lost as a result of the purge scales with the demand for labor.  Maybe you lose a few employees, sure, but you loose customers as well, so the demand for their services drops.  This might keep wages low, but would result in a recession or depression.  And the mythology of The Purge’s universe is clear: The Purge is great for the economy.  This means that the universe The Purge tries to sell us, one where (1) the poor are killed in a yearly festival, where (2) the economy is booming, but where (3) labor doesn’t rise in value over time, is impossible.  We can’t have all three.

If it’s impossible, why don’t we notice?  Why did it seem to make intuitive sense to us?  Because we carry around with us assumptions we may not realize we have.  Progressive as we are, we have, on some level, accepted the conservative narrative that the lower classes don’t have any value.   As such, the metaphor we try to build will carry with it this assumption.  Without realizing it, we buy into and spread a kind of fantasy economics where cheap labor is a permanent part of all possible worlds, even if that possible world goes about deliberately killing off that source of cheap labor.  Under this system of fantasy economics, it’s easy to conclude that low wages and poverty are inevitable.  Accepting this system of fantasy economics prevents any kind of debate about the why there is any economic disparity or how to fix it.  The only debate we can have is what to do about the problems caused by the supposedly inevitable reality of economic disparity.  How we criticize economic disparity shapes the way we think about economic disparity.

The overt message of The Purge criticizes the rich and powerful.  The underlying message is a criticism of us: we are a burden and the wealthy do us a favor by letting us live.  But, as our thought experiment with Eva’s situation above shows us, the rich and powerful have a simple reason not to purge us: we aren’t a burden.  The money they make is a result of our labor and our consumption.  If a large swath of us were suddenly gone, a labor shortage would result.  A replaceable employee is not an unprofitable employee, nor are they an unnecessary employee.  In order for The Purge to account for this, it would have had to put together a universe with a far more subversive message:  The Purge would have had to teach us what would really happen if the poor and lower classes were to suddenly start dwindling in number.  It would have had to teach us that the rich get richer the more numerous and replaceable we are.  It would have had to teach us about the real engine for wealth: Us.

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