Parasites: Montesquieu on the End of Civic Virtue in a Republic
Bong Joon-ho's scathing Parasite reflects Montesquieu's critique that the decline of civic virtue causes great social inequality, which then incurs greed, envy, and violence.
"What's your plan?" Chung-sook (Hye-jin Jang) asks her husband, Ki-taek (Kang-ho Song), at the beginning of Bong Joon-ho's Parasite (2019). While Chung-sook was referring to the Kim family's loss of Wi-Fi, the question captures the film's theme; namely, how individuals must survive in a commercial society run amok. Indeed, the political themes in Parasite speak directly to Montesquieu's Spirit of the Laws, as the film offers a contemporary example of a commercial republic's excesses leading to despotism. This excess, as the Kims realize too late, renders planning irrelevant. When civic virtue does not propel a republic, Bong Joon-ho reminds us, human beings become commodities, unable to see otherwise.
The thrust of Bong Joon-ho's critique, however, is not limited to South Korea. The world of Parasite is replete with signs of global influence—often sinister. The Kims use peaches to poison a woman, thereby stealing her job. That is perhaps a reference to China, the world's largest producer of peaches. The Parks indulge in their son's obsession with stereotypical Native American paraphernalia, having learned to dismiss the seriousness of what they play with from the United States. The spirit of commerce that promised peace between nations has produced something very different in the individual. Montesquieu cautioned as much (IV.20.2). The French philosopher, however, provided a blueprint both for diagnosing and curing the ills of such a corrupted society. Parasite offers viewers an opportunity to wrestle with these ideas and consider their own situations.
Civic Virtue and the Commercial Republic
Virtue, for Montesquieu, consists in a love of equality, properly understood as a love of ordered equality with one's fellow citizens (I.3.3). Equality is ordered when it does not become a lust for extreme equality— "Men cannot render [society] equal services, but they should equally render it services" (I.5.3). A love for ordered equality encourages citizens to do what they can for the community, without wanting to dominate one another. This love of equality naturally entails a love of the community; a lived appreciation of one's duty to care for others.
This ideal type, however, requires an underlying love of frugality, which limits the desire to possess more than needed for family and self. Love of frugality in this case is a disdain of luxury. If everyone only wanted what they needed to survive, extreme inequality would not be an issue. This vision of republican virtue is, of course, an ideal type for Montesquieu. Republican societies may approximate this spirit through laws designed to encourage a love of frugality and equality (I.5.6). The law, therefore, must encourage the love of equality and frugality by disincentivizing luxury to maintain the ability of citizens to sympathize with one another.
The law, however, does not and cannot work alone in this effort. A solid education, in both technical and personal skills, is essential to cultivating civic virtue. Since this political virtue is a renunciation of one's self, the ability to think abstractly and sympathize with other citizens is critical (I.4.5). These loves should be instilled by the family – the most effective means of passing on virtue or vice – and reinforced by educational institutions. These public sentiments are precariously balanced with the spirit of commerce in the republic.
The spirit of commerce is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, "the spirit of commerce is naturally attended with that of frugality, œconomy, moderation, labour, prudence, tranquility, order, and rule" (I.5.6). Working hard to improve one's condition, to provide for self and family, is, in this sense, good for character. On the other hand, if this spirit of commerce is not moderated by love of equality and frugality, it corrupts. People obtain more and more for its own sake, and not to provide for themselves or their communities. "Republics end in luxury" (I.7.4). Without proper provision, commercial greed overwhelms society by creating the kind of ridiculous wealth driving apart families like the Kims and Parks.
From this perspective, we may begin to assess the sickness in Parasite's South Korea and better understand the thrust of Bong Joon-ho's critique of the state of contemporary commercial societies. The government is never shown, or mentioned, in Parasite. Viewers are left to presume the South Korea therein is the commercial republic it is in reality. Assessing the health of a commercial republican society requires analyzing the state of civic virtue.
Vigor and Drive
Parasite poster excerpt (Amazon)
Parasite's South Korea locks individuals into a pre-set path for life, recited by protagonist Ki-woo (Woo-sik Choi) at the end of the film: "University, a career, marriage." Those unable to follow that path, like the Kims, unable to afford college for children Ki-woo and Ki-jung, are thereby excluded from what that society props up as success—typified by the Park family, in their great wealth, but also in the honor afforded them by society.
Gross inequality defines their world. Virtue, that humanizing love of equality and community, is all but absent. If not virtue, what drives Parasite's society? In a word, offered in praise of Park Dong-ik (Park Dong-ik), whom basement dweller Geun-sae (Myeong-hoon Park) has been parasitically living off of, "respect!" Honor, the desire for esteem, drives this South Korea. Those who do not have it, the Kims, fight ruthlessly to obtain it. What is it, exactly? It is the ability to take it for granted—the elite obliviousness of the Parks—and it cannot be obtained without money. "She's rich, but still nice," Ki-taek remarks of Park Yeon-gyo (Yeo-jeong Jo) to which his wife retorts, "She's nice because she's rich. Hell, if I had all this money, I'd be nice too."
The term "nice" is relative here, because this society encourages viewing people as means, not ends. The Kims' scheme to embed themselves within the Park family by getting two existing employees fired and donning fake personas pulsates with a disdain for others. "Worry about us, okay?" Ki-jung says to her father, after Ki-taek, in a rare moment of empathy, wonders what happened to the driver he replaced. The Parks are no different in that regard. Dong-ik and Yeon-gyo are equally ready to trust employees as dismiss them, depending on what suits them at any given moment. Where the Parks do differ, of course, is the opulence in which they live.
This pursuit of honor is, in a commercial republic, a disorder (I.4.2). Monarchies, Montesquieu writes, are driven by honor—since the nature of honor is to demand preferences and distinctions, this ambition works well in the service of a king or singular ruler (I.3.6-7). This pursuit is disordered in a republic because it encourages the value of distinction over human lives. If citizens devalue one another, they cannot love equality. Instead, they will seek to become superior to one another, as we see in the actions of the Kims.
Cut off from obtaining luxury, and thereby from commanding respect—unable to follow the established "plan"—the Kims rely on vigor and cunning to reach the top. In his first lesson as a fake English tutor, Ki-woo cautions Park Da-hye that:
An exam is like slashing through a jungle. Lose that momentum and you're finished. The answer to #24? I don't care. Slashing through the exam, dominating it! That's all I care about. What you need is vigor.
Of course, the real sign of young vigor in this world is a college degree. When college student and friend of Ki-woo, Min-hyuk (Park Seo-joon), drops by, the former's mother and sister cannot help but chastise Ki-woo by reminding him that "college students have a real vigor to them," unlike him. Vigor, an inner drive, is necessary to acquire money, thereby obtaining honor and respect. Planning is a sign of vigor, where individuals prove themselves worthy of one day possessing honor. The magic talisman Min-hyuk gifts Ki-woo then, said to bring wealth to families, is extraordinary because it was gifted to them by a college student—someone capable of following the official plan.
The Scholar Rock
Upon receipt of the Scholar Rock (mounted stones collected and displayed in Korean society for centuries), Ki-woo, additionally armed with Min-hyuk's recommendation, has his sister print a fake college degree to interview for the position of Park Da-hye's English tutor. "So you've got a plan, huh?" Ki-taek asks, smiling. Ki-woo responds that he intends to go to college, and "just printed out the document a bit early," before setting off to con the Parks.
The path of the Scholar Rock is in some sense the path of the film itself. After Ki-woo receives the stone, he immediately idolizes it and emulates the scholars he knows—by fronting as an English tutor and vigorously scheming to get his family members work. When the flood comes—metaphorically as the scheme comes crashing down and physically during a rainstorm—Ki-woo saves the stone and nothing else from the Kim's flooded basement home. His desperation eventually drives him to attempt murder, when he takes the stone with him to confront Geun-sae, locked in the Park's basement, who turns the tables on him and nearly kills Ki-woo with it instead. Finally, Ki-woo lays the stone to rest in a riverbed, seemingly haven given up his belief in sudden magical wealth.
In this context, the stone represents faith in a disordered system and, by extension, envy and greed. It is portrayed as motivation for the Kim family's planning and that which propagates the belief that their plans will ultimately succeed. On another level, the presence of the stone also permits the characters to further dehumanize other people. If faith in a stone may aid in obtaining money, other people have no use apart from means to that end. For most of the film, as long as the stone is present, Ki-woo feels safe, given the way he clings to it in the gym where he and others seek shelter on the night of the flood, instead of his family.
A catalyst for vigor, able to grant wealth—and thereby honor—the Scholar Rock also symbolizes a college degree. Indeed, Parasite is highly critical of the college degree barrier to a so-called meaningful life. In an ironic turn, the members of the Kim family are all actually qualified for the jobs they con their way into—Ki-jung is talented graphic designer, Ki-woo can tutor English, Ki-taek can drive, and Chung-sook can housekeep. A college degree, in the film, does not confer talent, or even necessarily signify talent. It is rather a distinguishing tool—a prerequisite for high society—that conveys little else.
Parasite poster excerpt (Amazon)
Disorder in Modernity
Society in Parasite has succumbed to the dehumanizing disinterest that emanates from extreme inequality in a republic. It is unclear how the society got to that point, although Bong Joon-ho hints at those answers: Families like the Parks amassed great wealth—it is implied that they inherited it—and in their current state do not appear to work at all; College education is restricted to wealthy people and those excluded have little hope of working their way out of poverty; the laws are unenforced and, perhaps, unenforceable, resulting in rampant lawlessness that ends in murder. The film forces viewers to ask, both for the sake of the Kims and themselves, is there any way to avoid these situations? Montesquieu provides some suggestions.
In a republic that has totally lost its sense of civic virtue, there is no magic fix or Scholar Rock to bring it back in. There are, however, changes that could be made to ameliorate the problem. First, society with excessive amounts of wealth need to do more to regulate that extreme disparity, especially "gifts, inheritances, testaments," and all other transfers of wealth (I.5.5). Likewise increased luxury taxes could keep citizens from accumulating more than they need (I.5.5-6).
A second suggestion, one made prominent in the film, is educational reform (I.4.4-5). If education is not uniformly accessible, especially if society places a premium on certain degrees, equality will be difficult to obtain. Of course, Montesquieu encouraged family education, parents instilling in their children civic virtue—something neither Kims nor Parks do. A policy such as free college would not quickly fix that problem, but reform geared toward reducing class distance could help.
Finally, the most pertinent suggestion for Parasite's South Korea is to enforce their laws, and if they cannot, restructure them so that they can (I.5.8). The Kim family commits a host of crimes, beginning with taking little things that are not theirs and ending with murder—only the last receives notice, after which the remaining two Kims are put on trial and placed on probation. This license to do as they please is not liberty, but despotism. Liberty, after all, is the right to do everything the law permits (II.11.3). If one citizen can do what the law forbids, they can only live in fear because others can do the same.
So, as President Trump put it, in reference to Parasite, "What the hell was that all about?" One obvious political message in Parasite is that our modern commercial republics have become warped by extreme inequality. One less obvious message is that this inequality is brought on by a lack of civic virtue—the result of which is that human beings become objects. Societies are, of course, more complex than any film can depict. Unlike Parasite, where no one seems to love each other, there are forces at work other than the marketplace, greed, and envy. The threat remains, however, that if we lose sight of civic virtue and no longer care for our communities, we risk devolving into a violent pursuit of honor.
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