Detroit, Belle Isle and Elysium

© Josh Sager – August 2013


The 2013 movie Elysium is a very well-done sci-fi action movie that has numerous thematic tie-ins to real-life situations. These connections are unsurprising, as Elysium is a product of Neill Blomkamp, who has a history of mixing real-life sociopolitical issues into his science fiction films (ex. Blomkamp’s last film, District 9, was an allegory for the South African apartheid situation).

When one looks past the sci-fi themes, improbable action sequences and advanced technologies present in the story, Elysium becomes a depressingly accurate—if somewhat exaggerated—analog for the situation facing the population of Detroit.

The bankruptcy of Detroit has opened the possibility that Belle Isle—a small island in the Detroit River under the authority of the Detroit Recreation Department—may be sold to private interests and turned into a private, pay-to-join commonwealth that follows its own legal system.

Belle Isle may not be an orbiting space station and Detroit may not be the hellscape portrayed in the movie, but the concept of a privatized Belle Isle directly parallels the spirit of the movie. In both cases, the wealthy in society create their own utopic “island” in the sea of poverty and decayed infrastructure; these wealthy individuals withdraw from the greater society into their wealthy-only enclave and let the public suffer in poverty


Spoilers Start

The movie Elysium follows Max Da Costa, a young man with a history of run-ins with the law but a desire to stay on the straight and narrow. He lives in a world where poverty, pollution and overpopulation are rampant, while healthcare and the possibility for economic advancement are virtually non-existent. The rich live in an orbital space-station—wanting for nothing—and use a combination of robotic enforcers and psychopathic “agents” in order to repress the population of earth and prevent illegal access to the paradisiacal Elysium station.

 elysium-the-station elysium

After getting exposed to a lethal dose of radiation because of his employer’s heartlessness, the protagonist ends up on a desperate quest to get to the medical technologies of Elysium; while doing this, he inadvertently interrupts a coup by stealing a program which can reset the Elysium system and upend the established social order.

Because the Elysium reboot program is stored in his brain, the protagonist finds himself being chased by three psychopathic sleeper agents while trying to gain transport to Elysium. Eventually, this chase ends on Elysium, where the protagonist has to fight the agents (who have now gone rouge and started to kill indiscriminately) in order to access the mainframe and use the reset program.

After killing the agents, the protagonist and one of the smugglers access the mainframe and reset it so that every citizen of earth is considered a citizen of Elysium—this dispatches the medical robots, which presumably go down to earth and begin healing all of humanity’s medical problems. Unfortunately, the extraction of the reset program kills that protagonist and the story end on a bittersweet note.

Elysium touches on a huge number of real-life sociopolitical issues—here are a few examples:

  • Universal Healthcare: many of those trying to get to Elysium are in need of “med bays” to get treated for otherwise untreatable ailments (earth hospitals are underfunded, overcrowded, and swamped).
  • Immigration: the leadership of Elysium utilizes brutal methods to enforce immigration laws while crews of smugglers (virtually analogous to modern “coyotes” on the southern border) get people across the borders for a profit.
  • Injustice in the Justice System: the population of earth is held under an authoritarian and extremely repressive legal system that automatizes (ex. the police and ‘parole officers” are machines) and enforces draconian punishments (ex. breaking Max’s arm for no reason)
  • Surveillance: Everything on earth and in Elysium is monitored through satellites and drones (they can even monitor vital signs and diagnose injuries remotely).

While all of these issues are extremely important, this article will focus purely upon the privatization and socioeconomic balkanization aspects of the Elysium story.


Spoilers End


In 2013, Detroit became the largest American city to declare bankruptcy. The once-great city of Detroit has been ravaged by the decay of the American automotive industry and the rise of industrial outsourcing. The elimination of the economic engine of the city (industrial work) has caused the tax base of Detroit to fall below sustainable levels and has made the city’s finances essentially impossible to balance.

Currently, the city is in bankruptcy proceedings and there has yet to be a determination as to the services which will be cut, obligations which will be protected, and assets which will be sold off. In short, Detroit is spending far more than it can afford and will need to choose how to make up the difference between its tax revenue and the cost of its obligations.

It is almost certain that many government services will be cut, including pension obligations to retired state workers. Unfortunately, it appears that poor people who rely on social services and retired state workers will bear the brunt of the economic pain, while the investors and banking institutions that have stakes in Detroit will skate by relatively unscathed.

In addition to cutting programs and modifying contracts, Detroit has begun considering the sale of public goods in order to lessen the economic burden on the city—included in these assets being considered for sale is the island of Belle Isle. A private consortium has begun seeking the ability to purchase Belle Isle and turn it into a private colony, independent from all existing government.


Belle Isle: A Modern Elysium

The potential society on Belle Isle would be a tax-free commonwealth which governs itself and only gives citizenship to those who can pay a significant fee. As an independent entity from the United States, the commonwealth of Belle Isle would set its own laws, tax rates, and economic regulations.

Exact specifics about the laws and regulations that would be applied to citizens of Belle Isle are currently unknown (they have yet to be drawn up yet), but Rod Lockwood—a major proponent of the Belle Isle commonwealth—has expressed that the new commonwealth would be a “private city-state with a focus on free market capitalism and limited government.”

Given Lockwood’s comments, it is likely that Citizens of Belle Isle would have a privatized infrastructure where residents would have access to the very best of everything—essentially; it would be a large-scale version of a gated residential community. Through the use of private schools, security personnel, health providers, and transportation services, the citizens of Belle Isle would be able to unpack expenses and avoid any semblance of civic responsibility.

Unlike in a normal commonwealth, those who fall on hard times in Belle Isle would likely be extruded from the island in order to prevent them from being a burden. After all, there is plenty of space in the poverty-stricken Detroit for those who cannot afford the gilded luxury of Belle Isle.


If Detroit’s bankruptcy leads officials to sell Belle Isle to a private consortium, it will become the modern equivalent to the gated society of Elysium:

  1. Elysium and Belle Isle are both physically isolated communities of wealthy people surrounded by large populations of poor workers. The Detroit River is certainly less of an obstacle than the vacuum of space, but the idea of such a buffer is the same in both societies.
  2. Elysium and Belle Isle are both examples of societies where the wealthy are able to avoid the consequences of a decaying society. It doesn’t matter how bad pollution, unemployment, crime, or the integrity of the infrastructure for the poor is, as the wealthy living on Elysium and Belle Isle have their own accommodations.
  3. Elysium and Belle Isle both represent two-tiered justice systems based upon social stratification—the wealthy are given the protection of the law while the poor live under a draconian justice system. The security forces of Belle Isle, like those of Elysium, would exist to protect the wealthy would be far less harsh than the police who look over those who aren’t lucky enough to be rich.
  4. Residents of both Elysium and Belle Isle have no responsibility for paying back to society—they aren’t expected to pay taxes in order to support those who are less fortunate, or even the education of those who work for them. Rather than have a stake in the welfare of the society that makes their goods, these wealthy individuals can escape to an insulated bubble and enjoy the high life with no consideration for others.
  5. Immigration requirements in both Belle Isle and Elysium are presumably a function of wealth and power. In short, if you have enough money to buy a “ticket,” you are allowed into the wealthy enclave.

If we can learn one thing from the vision of Mr. Blomkamp, it is that there are terrible human costs when the wealthy are allowed to withdraw into their own bubble and leave the rest of us to rot. As predicted in Elysium, such a divide will inevitably result in the decay of the society populated by those who are less wealthy (when the rich withdraw, the poor lack the resources to sustain an infrastructure) and the relegation of the vast majority of humanity to a serf class, laboring for poverty wages and with no potential for advancement.

12 thoughts on “Detroit, Belle Isle and Elysium

  1. The thing I’m missing here is how these rich people will be able to live in their rich haven of decadence here on planet earth, and nobody else will be able to gain any benefits.

    What actions are these wealthy taking that make everyone else worse off? What forces the ‘lower’ classes to deal with the wealthy people at all? If the island turns out to be a *successful* experiment, why isn’t that an indication that perhaps it ought to be expanded and practiced everywhere, rather than destroyed and brought down?

    Especially given that, since the island is firmly rooted on planet earth, there’s no reason it can’t be emulated by other earthbound tenements.

    You seem to make the assumption that the project will actually create a wonderful environment to live. Why is it that you then think that this means it must be destroyed rather than copied?


    • When the wealthy self-segregate away from everybody else, they withdraw tax revenue from society, leading to a situation where the social infrastructure begins to collapse–there simply isn’t enough money left in the system when the wealthy leave.

      What makes this so much more unfair is that the wealthy in this situation would still reap the benefits to the society which they are not paying into. They will hire workers educated in our public schools, use our national defense infrastructure, utilize our roads to transport their goods and keep all of the profits made using our past investment.

      Belle Isle will indeed be a wonderful place to live, but it is impossible to reproduce in the grand scale (if it were possible, this would be ideal). There will always be rich and poor (unless you are a socialist, which I doubt), and this is very much a place for the rich. It isn’t possible for everybody to live in luxury and if this is copied, it will only benefit the top 5% of society.

      P.S. The fact that Belle Isle is on earth is not relevant, as the factor of physical isolation is still present (people will only need to sneak in on boats rather than via space shuttle)


      • So your assumption is that the anyone who is classified as ‘poor’ is inherently entitled to certain benefits while those classified as ‘rich’ are inherently required to pay for them? What’s so special about rich people that only they are capable of producing wealth for others to use? Why are we assuming that, if the rich remove themselves from society, that there won’t be people who are just as capable arising to carry out the services once provided by the rich?

        Here’s a question: if you’re worried about the poor becoming dependent on the rich in this scenario, how exactly have you improved the situation by taxing the rich to provide services for the poor?

        That is to say, if the poor are dependent on these services provided by taxes, and the taxes are taken mostly from the rich, aren’t the poor still dependent on the rich in this place, only now using government as a passthrough. It still assumes the necessity of the rich to support the society.

        Or, to put it more bluntly: can you not think of any way to get the rich to give the poor money than to take it from them via force?


      • 1) Yes, I believe that those who live in society should be guaranteed certain assured services (ex. education, healthcare, civil security, national defense, access to infrastructure, etc.) even if they cannot pay for them.

        2) There is often nothing special about the rich other than their connection or the fact that they were lucky/inherited wealth (case in point: Paris Hilton). The idea that they are the only capable ones is a fiction of Ayn Rand and her ilk, unsupported by any objective observation of the facts.

        3) The rich won’t remove themselves from society completely, because they will still own businesses and production plants in the less wealthy areas–in effect, they separate their personal accommodations from society while leaving the workers to toil (ex. in the movie, the plant owner basing his defense industry on earth while commuting to Elysium).

        4) We tax the rich and give services to the poor in order to help them advance and become more capable of supporting themselves. If you tax the rich in order to give a poor child an education, enough food to be comfortable and a chance to go to college and learn a trade, you will advance society as a whole. This allows more people to eventually become middle class or even wealthy themselves (look at the results of the GI Act and entitlement programs during the 20th Century).

        As to your final question: No, the only fair way to get the rich to contribute to the society which made them wealthy is to extract some of their wealth–if they are greedy, then this must involve the threat of force (or we could simply exile them and ban the sale of their goods in the USA).


  2. Article is great until the retarded conclusions made their way onto the page. If a safe, clean, and nice island is built that attracts rich people that *weren’t there before* (which in turn means that they weren’t paying taxes there before) then NOBODY is “worse off” than before for having the island be a success, NO TAX MONEY is being “withdrawn” from anyone. The conclusions are retarded and illogical, and lies.


    • I don’t think that you understand the concept of Belle Isle: the rich people who live there pay NO TAXES to anybody and it is little better than an offshore tax haven which is minutes away from the Detroit. Detroit and the US taxpayer receive no benefit from Belle Isle, even if it is successful in drawing in rich people.

      As the rich people are moving away from the US and no longer paying taxes, they are, in fact, causing a reduction in tax revenue while still availing themselves of some government benefits.


      • Oh, you’re mistaken. I understand the concept perfectly well and I support it. Allow me to explain how you fucked up.

        Let’s establish some facts here:

        1. The island isn’t producing any taxes right now.
        2. Leaving it as-is with no tax haven won’t cause it to produce any taxes.
        3. Enabling a tax haven there won’t cause it to produce any taxes either.

        OK, facts established. I think these are extremely noncontroversial, so I’m just going to assume you accept them.

        The choices you present in your scenario are: have a clean and safe place where wealthy people live well, or have a barren place that nobody inhabits.

        The conclusion is that, in either of these cases, CONTRARY TO WHAT YOU CLAIM, no taxes are being “withdrawn” from anyone.

        You’ve constructed a straw man on top of a lie in this article. That is why your article is shitty. It’s shitty because your theory is absolutely false, even in the contrived example you’ve presented.

        (As a strict matter of my personal opinion, clearly the tax haven is superior to the barren island. But my opinion is not relevant, and thus is not part of the argument.)


      • Also, just for the record, I think it’s awesome that people are moving away from the U.S., protecting themselves from being robbed their life’s work that way. I myself will do exactly that as soon as I get my first couple millions (I’m well on my way there).

        Does this cause a “tax revenue reduction”? Yes. Am I loving that? ABSOLUTELY. Anything that bankrupts the most murderous organization of the world is great news. The fact that this future event will come at a great personal cost to the people who have been groveling for that murderous organization to steal more, and more, and more… well, that’s just icing on the justice cake.


      • Oh, one more thing. I do understand that the prospect of seeing the murderous organization (that you counterfactually perceive as virtuous and benevolent) vanish, terrifies you. I mean, that’s what motivates you to write this article — the fact that you see the writing on the wall, and it makes you anxious. You see Detroit, you understand that what mathematically cannot continue will not continue, and you see this fate for the “Federal Government” in the cards. They’ve told you for decades, in thousands of different little ways, that without them you’ll be doomed to Apocalypse.

        Those were lies. Do not be afraid. You will be better off after that happens.


      • Currently, the wealthy who live in the USA are paying taxes which are used to support society; once they move to the Belle Isle tax havens, they will stop paying to the US government.

        As to your plans to move away once you make your money: I hope that you see how selfish that is. You are essentially saying that you will use the society which American generations built up in order to advance yourself, then will run out with you money before you are asked to give the next generation the help that the one before you gave you–this is the essence of selfishness and I am glad that there are enough patriotic Americans to balance out the truly selfish like yourself.

        I don’t like the fact that the current American government is bloodthirsty, but I will do everything in my power to change it for the better–I see this as far better and more moral than simply getting mine and hiding while everything goes out of control.


  3. Elysium serves as a perfect example for describing the fantasy land in which Leftists live. Health care is portrayed as an infinite and costless good, and government is portrayed as a morally neutral technological contraption that will save the world if only the right people feed it the right instructions.


    • You are simply wrong, as Elysium isn’t leftist in the slightest. Elysium is a wealth-based society where anybody with large amounts of money can get the best of everything while not having to worry about paying for the poor “parasites” who have far fewer resources–it is, in effect, an Ayn Randian paradise.

      P.S. The story is based around a super-technology and there is no way to say whether or not healthcare through med-bay is or isn’t a finite resource (they could have mastered cold fusion and be using med-bay technology that only requires energy to function).


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