A couple of interesting things were highlighted in “Downsizing” that tells us how the Incorporated future came about. It starts with Aaron/Ben watching his father jump off a building after giving him a speech about how things were before they became “climate refugees”, how he lost his job , house and how all these things have left a world worse off for his son. Those were the circumstances that forced them to flee hostile regions and find comfort in sunny Milwaukee where there was FEMA aid waiting. The suicide that follows echoes back to the Great Depression, where an estimated 40,000 people killed themselves in that first year following the loss of their economic stability and entering a new age of employment uncertainty.
Without options to make money Ben did what a lot of orphaned kids do in these stories and put his clever mind to excel at petty crimes. His methods of getting by are nothing but magic disguised as technology, like goggles that “reverse face scan” people so he can get more rations from FEMA vending machines. It’s not as clever a method as Incorporated seems to think it is, neither is that magnetic silver ash tray that Ben drops on to things to auto-hack them, and in an age where showrunners are giving actual tech and the people who understand it some much deserved attention this feels contrived.
Theo’s circumstances are a little more bearable. There’s no shortage of stories of kids from poor backgrounds using fighting sports as a means to make something of themselves. And there’s some truth to the unconventional PEDs used in the ring as well. The fight in the ring is just as grueling as the fight for an honest dollar in the red zone, and the odds are never in the underdog’s favor. It’s a good way to showcase the disparities between zones/economic classes.
The concept of American meritocracy today seems to be in a similar state to Incorporated’s recent history–it exists in a rhetorical state. Ben is told by Elizabeth that Chad’s position won’t be handed to him just because he’s her son-in-law and he’ll be competing with every other exec looking to climb to the 40th floor. But in private she’s got her thumb on the scale to better his chances. While there is still some semblance of genuine competition within the walls of Spiga, or rumor it exists, we learn along with Laura that the ability to compete is one that is dependent upon advantage that starts from birth.
Since its inception, the red and green zones have been separated along economic lines. Poor people to one side, the rich to the other. Crossing over from red to green is seen as a privilege, one that can only be granted by some beneficent soul that has chosen to adopt one pup from the sickly litter of the poor. That could be taking on a young husband who’ll be turned into a walking sex toy thanks to plastic surgeries or a pair of children taken from their parents in order to afford them the access to a decent education. Though some benefit can be seen on the surface it comes at the expense of a person’s status as an individual. However, being sent to the red zone (the loss of economic status) is a great dishonor in its own way.
Chad goes through a great ordeal that makes his fall from grace even worse, but his wife goes through some real indignities as she tries to survive the shame that comes with losing the house and money Spiga provided. Sure she’s in a private prison and her husband is technically a criminal in the eyes of the corporation, but the loss in status is really what cuts her deepest. And that brings us to the second element in “Downsizing” that really shapes its world: the failure of governments to protect the most vulnerable.
FEMA failed to provide climate refugees with proper security, housing, and food after a poisoned the land they called home. It could have been the result of a lack of funds or the destruction of some of America’s most prized real estate throwing the government for a loop–doesn’t really matter. That a government failed to provide relief for its people in an age of crisis means many had to do without the essentials while having no means to fill the gaps themselves. And in that void corporations stepped in.
If corporations have influence in an era where they don’t provide public services to remedy emergencies, imagine a time when they pay for the infrastructure of what’s the corporate capital of the US, provide it security, and the means to feed people. That’s a set of circumstances that allow for CEOs to bully senators into silence, buy priceless art from museums, and turn corporate regulations into law. Forget lobbyists. Spiga has created the ability to use its own code of ethics and contractual stipulations with employees as a penal code applied to them and actions taken against it. We’re not there yet, but that collapsing of governments into the fold of corporations could look a lot like this.
The execution of Chad’s NDA ties those two concepts together quite neatly, and it comes a day after we learn the US President-elect, an old hand at corporate machinations, is having his prospective cabinet sign non-disclosure agreements upon receiving cabinet positions, a first for US politics.
Not only does the termination of Chad’s employment cost him the custody of his children and the loss of his life savings and house, but it leaves Spiga open to wipe his memory clean in an effort to protect company secrets by removing all he knows. It’s high-tech alienation in action. All that Spiga provided allowed for Chad to live a life of comfort and with the means to provide the same for his family, but in doing so he literally handed over the essence of his very person, right down to his thoughts and memories, to a corporation that tossed him out on to the streets of the red zone like a cracked hard drive. Without his job he is completely worthless to society and his family.
While the main plot continues to revolve around Elena, who hasn’t made an appearance as an adult yet, it feels like there’s not a whole lot here. But Laura’s still on a self-abuse kick for some yet-unrevealed experience in the red zone years ago which could conflict with Ben’s climb up to the 40th floor, and now that rival corp Inizagi on the minds of Spiga’s security we might see something like Syndicate Wars take off. How Laura’s growing conscience affects Ben’s chances to get the job he needs to find Elena is yet to be seen, but Incorporated still has some interesting ideas to put forth in this dark future they’re shaping.