Paradise: A Dystopian Anti-Capitalist Gem


​The 2023 German film Paradise went virtually unnoticed by commentators on the socialist left. Yet, it is amongst the best dystopian anti-capitalist films produced in the decade.

The film follows the life of Max, an employee of Aeon, a company that buys life years from the poor to give them to the rich. Yes, you read that correctly, the life of the working poor (especially the large migrant populations – a phenomenon, as Immanuel Ness shows, integral to modern imperialism) is literally sold to the rich. Max is one of these salesmen. He is exceptional at his job, which is introduced to us as he tries to convince an 18-year-old migrant kid that he should sell him 15 years of his life for 700 thousand bucks. His family has been living in dire poverty since they arrived in the country, so this loss of life is presented as a gain. Now, Max tells them they will have enough money to live better in the years to come. Following this scene, Max is awarded employee of the month (Aeonian of the Year), showing us how capable he is at sucking the life of the poor to keep the rich alive. This award celebrates the 276 years he was able to collect.[1]

Aeon (the company’s name) comes from the Greek ὁ αἰών, which originally meant a lifespan of 100 years. With time, it came to be understood also as vital force (a sort of Élan vital a la Bergson), life, or being. This is, after all, what the company is taking from the working poor to give to the elite. As Max’s working class father-in-law notes, the rich are living longer as the poor (who are unable to pay for the service even with a lifetime of saving) die younger. Because of the enormity of the company, they have their own private militia (which they will use towards the end of the film) and a tremendous power over the state’s judicature. Everything they are doing is perfectly legal, as the father-in-law tells Max. (Interestingly, socialist China is the leading international force behind the attempt to ban these life-year transfers.)

The company pitches the selling of life as an opportunity, as a ‘winning of the lottery’. Their advertisement is filled with phrases like ‘choose your dreams,’ ‘when you give time, life recompenses you,’ ‘your time, your opportunity, your choice.’ The company’s president, Sophie, tells us of how great it would have been if some of the great poets, composers, scientists, etc. could have lived decades longer. Now with Aeon’s services they can!

How can we not think here of Stephan Jay Gould’s famous quote: “I am, somehow, less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops.” In the Paradise universe, how many geniuses are never able to actualize their potential because of the material conditions of their existence? How many of these, perhaps wealthier in their potential to serve humanity than the wealthy scientists and artists, are forced to give their life years to the rich to get by?

This dystopic society terrifies us because we know that if our society ever achieved such technological development, it would be used and legitimized in exactly the same ways. It doesn’t take much imagination for us to see the homologies already present, even though we lack the technology the movie is centered around.

It is already scientifically established that the wealthier live longer than the poor. Studies which have followed the lives of twins have shown how the richer sibling consistently lives significantly longer. The rich have the capacity to access healthier foods, better medical services, and to free themselves from the life-sucking stresses and traumas of not knowing how one will pay the bills at the end of the month (for the latter point, see the work of Gabriel and Daniel Mate in The Myth of Normal). An MIT study showed that “in the U.S., the richest 1 percent of men lives 14.6 years longer on average than the poorest 1 percent of men, while among women in those wealth percentiles, the difference is 10.1 years on average.” These statistics are only intensified when we take into account the inequalities of life expectancies between the rich of imperialist countries and the poor of imperialized countries.

The wealth that the capitalist vampires suck from the working poor is life itself. “Capital is dead labour,” as Marx tells us, “that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks… The time during which the labourer works, is the time during which the capitalist consumes the labour-power he has purchased of him.” Capitalist exploitation is already, like life-year selling in Aeon, the sucking of the Aeon (vital force) of the working class to accumulate capital for the elite. The inequality of life expectancy is merely a reflection of the relations of production and the exploitation at the root of capital accumulation. Each pole is dialectically interconnected; the rich get richer and live longer because the poor are poor and live less, destroying their bodies to accumulate capital for the wealthy.

Research has shown that we have developed the productive forces to the point of only needing to work around 3 hours a day (15 hours a week). The 3-hour workday prediction of John Meynard Keynes, only an aspirational ideal decades earlier for Marx’s son-in-law Paul Lafargue, has today become materially possible. The impediment to its realization is rooted in social, not material incapacity. It is the capitalist mode of social life, with profit as its sole goal and purpose, which prevents this freeing up of humanity’s time and potential. Its relations of production are a fetter on human life and culture, not just on the forces of production. Under a different mode of life, with a modus operandi for society other than capital accumulation, we could radically reduce the socially necessary labor time and increase what Martin Hägglund has called socially available free time. As I’ve argued before, the absence of its actualization is “not rooted in the machines and technologies themselves, but in the historically constituted social relations which mediate our relationship with these developments.” But until then (that is, until socialism can freely develop without pressures from the global imperialist system), we will continue to slavishly give more than a decade worth of work hours (90000 on average) working in alienating jobs that make our bosses richer while we stay poor and triply exploited. Is this not, like in Paradise, the giving up of decades of our life to making the rich not only richer, but capable of living significantly longer than us?

The way Aeon defends its practices are also reminiscent of apologists for wage slavery. It is, after all, presented as a ‘choice,’ something we ‘consent’ to. But as with wage slavery, what is the alternative? Can I expect anything other than death if, born into a working family, I decide not to commit my life to being exploited through wage slavery? How would I obtain the necessaries of life if I object to spending labor power in enriching someone else? Under capitalism this is impossible. The choice is between a slavish life of being exploited and death. As socialist thinkers (utopian and Marxists) have criticized from the start, this is really no choice at all. Perhaps there is a slight bit of choice in deciding who exploits us (for instance, Walmart or Amazon), but what does this amount to other than the capacity to pick our slave masters? Is this really what we want to herald as pillars of ‘choice’ and ‘consent’? Likewise, for those who sell their life-years to Aeon, the ‘choice’ is one between unlivable poverty and a fractioned lifespan with a better living standard. This is hardly a ‘choice’ at all.

Aeon also describes selling your life-years as akin to winning the lottery. Is this not, like we see today, a linguistic whitewashing which puts a pretty terminological veil upon a horrific practice? For instance, how we call civilian deaths ‘collateral damage,’ or US state department propped up terrorists ‘moderate rebels’. In relation to work, a similar romanticizing language is operative. Today the growing precarity of a gigifying workforce is pitched as ‘flexibility’. As I have argued before:

The last four decades of neoliberal capitalism has been a continuous disempowerment of workers through the cutting of benefits, stagnating of wages, and repression of unionization efforts. The gig economy takes this even further, through an employer’s complete removal of responsibility for workers. By categorizing workers as ‘independent contractors’, the ‘flexibility’ they continuously speak of is one that is only for them. Flexibility for the capitalist entails the removal of responsibilities for his workers, and subsequently, increasing profits for him. But for the worker – regardless of how much the capitalist’s propaganda says they are now ‘flexible’ and ‘free’ – flexibility means insecurity, less pay, and less benefits. Like in sex, flexibility for the worker here only means he can get screwed more efficiently.

Aeon’s immense resources also allow it to advance its practices, regardless of how unethical they might be, into the sphere of legality. Everything it is doing is perfectly legal. It is accepted under bourgeois ‘justice’, where justice is indistinguishable from the interests of the economically dominant class. Today readily available cancer drugs like Imbruvica are priced at 16 thousand dollars a month, something only the ultra-rich can afford. In the US, 45,000 people die a year because they do not have insurance. Any sane society (as opposed to a deeply irrational one centered on upholding the interests of capital accumulation) would consider the activities of the medico-pharmaceutical industrial complex criminal. However, because the American state is the state of their class (i.e., the big monopoly capitalists), their profit-rooted class interests are consistently upheld to the detriment of the majority of Americans.

Aeon’s capture over their society’s judicature is simply a particular form of how the state and its institutions have always functioned. The state in general doesn’t exist. What exists is particular types of states, corresponding to various modes of life holding one or another class in an economically dominant position – a dominance the state is tasked with reproducing. “The modern state,” as Marx and Engels write in 1848, “is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.” When profitable technology like Aeon’s develops, the state’s judicature adapts it to the existing framework of bourgeois legality. As Marx and Engels write in 1846,

Whenever, through the development of industry and commerce, new forms of intercourse have been evolved (e.g. assurance companies, etc.), the law has always been compelled to admit them among the modes of acquiring property.

Paradise, all in all, puts a mirror up to our capitalist societies. It shows us, through the medium of a new technological development, the barbarity of the logic operative in our mode of life. A barbarity, of course, which is historical, not eternal. It is something we can overcome when the class struggles for the conquest of political power by working people succeed.

  • First published in the Midwestern Marx Institute.
  • Note

    [1] This review will focus on the more general social critiques operative in the movie. There are no ‘spoilers’ here, so feel free to read even if you intend to watch the movie afterwards.

    Carlos L. Garrido is a Cuban American philosophy instructor at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. He is the director of the Midwestern Marx Institute and the author of The Purity Fetish and the Crisis of Western Marxism (2023), Marxism and the Dialectical Materialist Worldview (2022), and the forthcoming Hegel, Marxism, and Dialectics (2024). Read other articles by Carlos.