Graduate student Akua Banful, "Meritocracy is a Dystopia"
Every now and again, I throw a rhetorical grenade about class stratification into conversations with my parents. These yield mixed results. My parents have a deep understanding of inequality and, simultaneously, a deep reluctance to confront their role in perpetuating its systems. For my part, I am often amused by the irony of this double bind and saddened by their conviction that their comfortable class position is entirely deserved. For their part, they suggest that my notion of the way the world should be is too revolutionary. The arguments about inequality I have with them are quite civil, even if I consider the possible erosion of their worldview explosive. I want them to see meritocracy for the sham I think it is, but I also know that doing so would jeopardize the rubric through which they read their success not only as professionals but also as parents. All I am really doing is, selfishly, engaging in rhetorical sport.
An analogous series of rhetorical (and physical) grenades—aimed at a similarly staggeringly unequal system—explode in the dystopian near future of Netflix Brazil’s 3%. The show’s world is divided into two sides: the Inland and the Offshore. The Inland (also called the Continent) is a vision of São Paulo after a Mad Max makeover: water and food are scarce, all clothing is tattered, and everyone is covered in a layer of grime and desperation. The city’s stark opposite is the Offshore: a lush biotechnological island utopia, studded with fountains and populated by designer-clad inhabitants. The series takes its title from the rules governing the separation between these two sides: only 3 percent of the populace lives on the Offshore, while the remaining 97 percent live in hunger and destitution in the Inland. Every citizen of the Offshore was once an inhabitant of the Inland; they are the elite who are selected through a harrowing and exacting series of tests, referred to as “the Process.” Each year, 20-year-olds from the Inland can enter these logic- and arithmetic-based hunger games and compete for a shot at a better life. Only 3 percent will succeed; the rest—if they survive—will return from whence they came.
I was transfixed when I started watching this show and inhaled the first two seasons in a worryingly intense binge. The sharp resonances between this grimy near future and our cartoonishly distorted world order had me hooked. The false notion that only the deserving would be left standing—and that each person had an equal chance at a spot among the 3 percent—becomes a curdled dogma, which Offshore citizens feed to Process candidates.
This creed’s uncanny resonance with elite college admissions, for instance, was hard to miss. I found myself reading the show’s dystopian future not as sci-fi but as a metaphor for the warped meritocracy that I, and many like me, inhabit.
The first season of 3% follows the stories of five members of the 107th Process cohort, all young people from the Inland, ready to die for a chance at the Offshore (spoilers below). There is Fernando, a disabled practitioner of a variant of evangelical Christianity, whose deities are the Offshore and its Founding Couple; Joana, a hard-ass orphan with a price on her head for accidentally killing a notorious Inland thug’s son; Marco, a cocky, unusually clean youth with a family history of Process success; Rafael, a shifty 21-year-old whose registration for the Process, like Joana’s, is stolen; and, finally, Michele, a baby-faced orphan whose older brother died during Process 102.
The eve of Process 107 finds the usually unflappable Offshore test administrators in crisis; they are still processing the first Offshore murder and the fact that their screening process has failed. Ezequiel, the longtime Offshore Director, is under particular pressure; the iteration of the Process that screens for ruthlessness is his brainchild. A powerful faction of the Offshore’s ruling council considers him, and his approximate grasp on morality, responsible for the murder that has rocked its citizens’ sense of security and superiority.
The Process bills itself as truly egalitarian: it does not take the background of any candidate into account; by its perverse logic, everyone gets a fair shake. This screening tournament hardens the divide between the chosen and the undeserving and launders the consciences of those who survive the onslaught. With the exception of Offshore soldiers and Process administrators, many of the 3 percent never return to the Inland: this staggering inequality is largely imperceptible to them.
Although droves of wide-eyed young adults show up to compete each year, some among the 97 percent chafe at a system that accords dignity to the elite, bearing out the Enlightenment tendency to take “the human race to mean elite.”1 Why, they wonder, does an arbitrary set of mind games have the power to condemn them to hunger, thirst, and unrelenting strife?
These questions and resentments animate an underground organization, the Cause. Its mission is to infiltrate the Process—and, thus, the Offshore—so as to destroy the entire system from within. Outmatched technologically and numerically, the followers of the Cause live in hiding from the Offshore’s robust surveillance system and confine themselves to guerrilla tactics. Each year, they send infiltrators to the Process, and year 107 is no different.
But, this time, they succeed. The orphan Michele and the shifty Rafael are spies trained by the Cause to infiltrate the Process and the Offshore. Rafael is an ideologue who truly believes in striking a blow at the whole unjust system. Michele, in contrast, is in it for revenge. In the wake of her brother’s gruesome Process death, she was recruited and radicalized by the Cause; her sole purpose is to get close enough to Ezequiel, the Offshore Director, to kill him.
Four of the five make it through the harrowing Process and are on the cusp of being welcomed into the elite when the plot thickens: Michele tries to avenge her brother by poisoning Ezequiel’s drink and accidentally kills an unsuspecting Process administrator instead. Fernando, believing Michele, who in the course of the story became his lover, has been eliminated, refuses to start a life on the Offshore without her and returns. Ezequiel’s mind games backfire when he springs a final surprise test on Joana that makes her admission to the Offshore contingent on murdering the thug who had put a price on her head. Upon learning that the final price of admission is sterilization, Rafael almost walks away.
After I had written a draft of this review, I found myself in conversation with a friend and colleague about keeping up with academic life during the COVID-19 pandemic and writing pieces, like this one, that bring us joy. She had heard me wax dystopic about 3% not long after I first binged the show, and to jog her memory I hit on an unsettling piece of analysis: the show, I ventured, is a metaphor for the academic job market.
Online message boards on Quora seem to bear me out on this score: according to one of them, only some 3 percent of PhDs make it onto the tenure track. Recurring think pieces in the Chronicle of Higher Education discuss the deep sense of failure that dogs PhDs who are unable to secure academic jobs, likening the profession to a cult.2 In this set of circumstances, I see another cohort of the Process submitting themselves to grueling tests, displaying occasional glints of shrewdness that sometimes verge on ruthlessness, reading success or failure at securing that elusive tenure-track job as the validating stamp upon one’s place among the deserving.
When I say that meritocracy is a dystopia, I am referring to how in 3%, and in the world order we inhabit, punishing tests intended to prove merit are the ligaments of what Aimé Césaire, referring to colonial Europe, has called “a stricken civilization.”3
The series’ unraveling of societal notions of merit in this dystopian landscape, of who deserves to be catapulted into a better life, and of the willingness of those who fall short to offer up their children for such grueling and fraudulent examination prompted two realizations. The first and most predictable is best voiced by Ariel’s indelible line in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, that “hell is empty, and all the devils are here.”4
The second, more poignant realization had to do with my understanding of my parents’ reticence to confront their role in an unequal, classed, and allegedly meritocratic order. The final (official) test within the Process is, for me, its most heart-wrenching: candidates are reunited with their parents in a room and must choose between leaving their families behind to start a new life among the elite, or quitting before they enter the promised land and walking away with more money than either they or their parents have ever seen. The test ultimately varies by family, and candidates are either browbeaten by their parents into accepting the money or else released so they can pursue a better life on the Offshore. When Fernando contemplates quitting and returning home with money his family sorely needs, his father disowns him; like other parents, he has been summoned to endorse the monster to which he has already sacrificed his child. As I consider this, I wonder, why would my parents bite the hand to which they have so lovingly and expensively fed me?
Metaphors aside, for each of the show’s four protagonists, there are very real, resource-based, life-and-death stakes to playing and winning this rigged game. For example, water is such a luxury for those from the Inland that during the series of candidate interviews, Joana’s response to a question about the last time she washed her hair is “Since the last time I had enough water to waste.” The staggering separation between a clean-energy island oasis and a hollowed-out continent struck me as representative of the uneven impacts of climate change, which fall disproportionately on poorer nations. This sense was deepened by the revelation of the Founding Couple’s sabotage of the nuclear power plant—a sly reference to where the causative chips of the climate crisis fall. In a reality unfolding in the wake of such apocalyptic destruction, the stakes of failure are both unimaginably high and intimately familiar.
Moreover, underneath the Offshore’s sanitized, liberal rhetoric—which extols equal opportunity and emphasizes every individual’s ability to take their fate into their own hands—there is considerable military violence. For example, the Offshore’s security forces wantonly use torture and confinement to brutally suppress the Cause’s adherents in the Inland. Equal opportunity for the talented few, then, is upheld by military might, ruthless machinations, and inventive, high-tech brutality.
For many from the Inland, the Process is the only salvation from a rotten lot, with stakes so high that many who fail succumb to suicidal despair. Candidates display a remarkable viciousness, which makes the gleaming modern structure where the Process unfolds not merely a building but, instead, a funeral pyre for bodies, dreams, and old selves.
For me, the most enduringly violent confrontation staged in the show is neither physical nor psychological; it is a question of faith, of what different sets of people hold to be true, and the struggles of imposing a Manichaean value system on a stubbornly murky world. In this secular rendition of intersecting holy wars, the characters we follow are all ready to die for competing notions of justice.
One facet of 3%’s brilliance is its steady dismantling of the Offshore world order’s warped rhetoric of merit. Such deconstruction tentatively orients us toward imagining a more perfect world order—a world order that, hopefully, chooses justice instead of merit.
This article was commissioned by Nicholas Dames.