The Platform is a 2019 Spanish film directed by Galder Gaztelu-Urrutia, serving as an allegory for present-day class struggle. The film revolves around a group of residents who are housed in pairs within an enormous vertical concrete tower referred to as the ‘Vertical Self-Management Center’ (VSCM), run by an anonymous entity called the Administration. The residents, including protagonist Goreng, have their reasons for voluntarily signing up to stay in the ‘Vertical Self-Management Center’. Goreng, for example, is promised a diploma if he survives his six-month stay in the facility. At the start of each month, each pair of residents are randomly reassigned to another level within the tower and the cycle repeats itself until their stipulated duration of stay has ended.
Life in the VSMC seems simple enough. There is no back-breaking enforced labour, no forced reeducation therapy à la A Clockwork Orange. Goreng passes the time by reading Don Quixote, which he chose as the one item each resident is allowed to bring with them. The crux of daily life in the facility revolves around eating; and this is where conflict ensues. Every day, a platform filled with food will descend down the tower through a hole in the center of each floor. The film establishes that if each resident were to ration out the food, there would be enough food for every single resident in the tower. However, this never occurs and food runs out by the time it arrives at the lower levels. This problem, known as the Tragedy of the Commons, occurs when a resource or good that is competitively consumed (in this case the food provided to residents) cannot be prevented from being consumed without regulation. According to Garrett Hardin, who coined this concept in 1968, individuals acting in their own self-interest will overconsume a scarce good if no regulation is in place.
Director Gaztelu-Urrutia chooses to highlight the random assignment of residents’ levels as the reason for the overconsumption. As one of the characters puts it, “I’m on Level 7, and I’m entitled to stuff my face. I nearly died last month on Level 114. Where were you then, you b*******?”, citing the unpredictability of the situation they are in. The inability to predict the future and the propensity for change, especially for the worse, prompts residents to adopt a short-term mentality that prioritizes their own survival over the faceless others at the bottom of the tower, especially when next month they could easily have their roles reversed. In such a society, help from others is not to be expected.
Trimagasi, one of the other residents, gives Goreng a warning, “Don’t speak to the people below…because they’re down below. The people above won’t answer you…because they’re above, obviously.” It seems almost part of collective consciousness to equate hierarchy with verticality. Take Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs”, for example. When Maslow conceptualised his theory, the different deficiency and growth needs that he identified were merely listed. However, this hierarchy was almost universally interpreted in the form of a pyramid, with the basic needs situated at the bottom. This suggests that individuals are naturally predisposed to equate hierarchy with verticality. Similarly, in the film the Administration does not explicitly introduce a hierarchy within the tower; it is the residents who do so. As the aforementioned character hinted, the residents believe that it is the ‘right’ of those at the top of the tower to take as much as they want because they have earned this right through fair and random allocation.
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, represented in the form of a pyramid. https://www.thoughtco.com/maslows-hierarchy-of-needs-4582571
Throughout the film, verticality is used by those above to assert domination over those below, exercised by the act of defecating and spitting on residents below, as well as the inability of those at the bottom to resist the hierarchy. The relationships between residents are tied to the nature of the space they inhabit, whether they like it or not. A vertical relationship often implies a power imbalance whereas a horizontal one implies equality and solidarity. The verticality of the VSMC effectively governs and shapes power relations between residents as their survival is tied to the ‘power’ they possess. The ability of residents to develop the solidarity required to overcome the tragedy of the commons is affected by the effect the VSCM has on shaping these power relations into vertical relationships within their minds.
The breakdown in solidarity ties into the overall theme of the movie as a critique of modern-day meritocracy. The VSCM acts as a microcosm of society, with upper, middle, and lower tiers. The random allocation of levels therefore represents class mobility. Residents have an equal chance of rising as they do falling. In his article ‘The myth of meritocracy’, British philosopher and writer Kwame Anthony Appiah outlines how a university education increasingly became an indication of class, as it meant that these individuals were no longer limited to blue-collar jobs by virtue of their educational qualifications. As such, the possibility of rising up the social ladder eroded the class solidarity that defined the previous era. Rather than thinking of the fellow working-class as their allies, they increasingly viewed them as competitors fighting for the same opportunity to rise up.
Photo by Brutalist Pilipinas on Unsplash. https://unsplash.com/photos/_ABBh9ffIJU
One of the characters, Imoguiri, attempts to promote a form of class consciousness and solidarity amongst the residents. She tries to put forth that every resident in the VSCM is essentially equal and therefore has a responsibility to ration the food amongst themselves so that residents on the lower levels could survive as well. However, her advice falls on deaf ears and she eventually realizes that her ideals are misplaced. In a symbolic act, the character commits suicide, representing the death of class ideals in favour of neoliberal class mobility.
What then is to be said about our predisposition to organize our relationships with others in a society into a hierarchy? It seems that the zeitgeist of the times we live in can be summarised as ‘volatile’. The unpredictable nature of today’s world and class mobility fuel an obsession with productivity and optimization to differentiate oneself against competitors, fighting tooth and nail just to gain an inch. Most of the time, people seem to do this simply out of the fear of losing out. In such a context relationships can easily be viewed as a zero-sum game where there can only be losers and winners, therefore for individuals to progress, they must step over others.
With class issues becoming more and more pertinent, The Platform serves as a timely reminder of the potential dangers of using meritocracy as a justification for inequality and power imbalances. While meritocracy does indeed help in eliminating class rigidity and promoting mobility, it is important to also examine the structure of meritocracy. Much like in the VSCM, when individuals tend to think of society in vertical terms, ascending is seen as the ideal and optimal outcome. In attempts to climb the socioeconomic ladder, individuals may end up developing a sense of superiority at having more than others, ignoring the circumstances which have placed them where they are.
No system is perfect, and sometimes in-built biases and prejudices in the system may unevenly benefit some while excluding others. Gaztelu-Urrutia’s focus on the Tragedy of the Commons is only one such issue that may arise from the desire of those who have benefitted from the system to continue to uphold it. Ultimately, this could lead to a reduction of class mobility, which may be what is happening in many societies, including Singapore. The movie “The Platform” suggests it is timely for people to reexamine the nature of their relationships with others of different classes and the circumstances which creates any false sense of superiority. The movie provokes individuals to consider why they may be more well-off than others who are suffering. Sometimes, we end up on Level 7 by pure, dumb luck.
Feature Image from Kyaw Tun from Unsplash. Header Image from Erwan Hesry from Unsplash.
About the author:
Brendan is a second-year Political Science major from FASS who aims to try every single menu item at Amaans.