15 Million Merits and Human Flourishing

By Elijah Keay

Black Mirror

When I watched the first episode of Black Mirror, I thought I’d never watch another. I was so disgusted by the gruesomeness of the plot that I missed the point of what the creators of the show were trying to convey. Now, after a few months and a few more episodes, it appears to me that the show is much like the Twilight Zone in that each episode seems related to the others only by means of an overarching theme. That theme being what we as humans could be capable of doing as technology continues to advance.

A Cog in the System

One such episode is “15 Million Merits.” The story is set entirely within a cold, futuristic building, whose walls are constructed not with windows but with television screens. The viewer quickly realizes that “15 Million Merits” is not trying to wow us with the impressive (yet oppressive) technology, but is endeavoring to show us the absurdness and perhaps wickedness of certain economic systems.

There are, in reality, only two classes of people: the gears in the machine and those who keep those gears oiled and spinning.

Within the class system of the “gears” or average citizens, there are three sub-classes: janitors, cyclists, and, well, we’ll get to that third sub-class soon enough.

Before long, it becomes obvious that the cyclists are not much more than human hamsters, spending each waking hour powering the incessant tawdry media many of them are addicted to.

And what do they get in return? Merits. Virtual money used for food, the option to skip obscene ads, and—if one is able to save up 15 million merits by being productive with their cycling and thrifty with their wages—buying one ticket to the Hot Shot talent show.

Hot Shot is an opportunity for gifted people to better themselves and escape the confines of the cycling room. Hot Shot is the chance to leave the common life, cease being a gear, and enter into the life of the elite…

At least, that’s how things seem at first.

The Good Life?

One contender, Abi Kahn, after being given a chance to demonstrate her beautiful singing for the Hot Shot judges and online peers, is informed that there are currently no openings for singers, but is told that they can offer her the opportunity of a lifetime: Becoming a porn star on the show WraithBabes. Caving to the pressure of her peers and being under the influence of the mandatory compliance drink, Abi reluctantly agrees to take the job.

Abi’s dream of a better life turns into a nightmare, and instead of entering the world of the elites, she is a cog being transferred to a different part of the same machine.

Horrified by the outcome, the main character, Bingham, works tirelessly to earn a chance to face the Hot Shot judges. He cycles hard, saves his merits, buys his ticket, and enters the talent show.

But Bingham has something up his sleeve.

In front of the Hot Shot judges and the audience of avatars, Bingham brings a glass shard to his throat, and in a brilliant emotional display of disgust, fury, and grief, he begins to protest. He attacks the well-oiled machine, criticizing the system which promotes accumulative merits and addictive media as true reality (when really these are opiates for the incarcerated lower class). He attacks the Hot Shot judges for manufacturing and distorting true reality, providing the working class with beautyless “fake fodder.” He implies that the judges are exploiting an already dehumanized people and marketing them as means of entertainment and mockery.

When Bingham finishes, the judges cleverly control the narrative by subverting the entire experience. They turn Bingham’s diatribe into a performance, commending him for his authenticity and passion. The Hot Shot judges offer Bingham an avenue to speak more often to his peers. The cheering crowd begins to chant.

The next scene shows a cyclist equipping his virtual avatar with a glass shard while watching a less-passionate, glass-wielding Bingham. After the stream ends, we see Bingham place the fragment in a fabric-lined wooden box, walk across his spacious apartment, and stand looking out on what appears to be a real forest. Or is this just another manufactured reality?

The end leaves us wondering, has Bingham really arrived at elite status, or has he just been moved from one part of the machine to another? Has his “higher status” and upgraded apartment made him content to be just another media entertainer, distracting his former peers from the hopelessness of their situation? Has he given up the fight, or has he been won over by the system?

Either way, the machine runs on. A few gears have been moved around, but they are nevertheless lubricated and spinning smoothly once more as if nothing had happened.

Religion on the Ground

Existing Alternatives

In his book Flourishing: Why We Need Religion in a Globalized World, Miroslav Volf argues that, when functioning correctly, World Religions provide alternative accounts of the good life in a world driven by materialism and consumerism. And although his conviction varies from David Bentley Hart’s in that “we should neither simply celebrate capitalist globalization nor simply denounce it,” he does agree with Hart that the system can create and has created a “disparity between the rich and poor,” and seems to fabricate wants and needs when and where it sees fit (6, 41).

Volf introduces his argument with the words of Deuteronomy echoed by Jesus in Matthew’s account of the Gospel: “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”

“[L]iving by ‘mundane’ realities and for them alone,” Volf writes, “we remain restless, and that restlessness in turn contributes to competitiveness, social injustice and the destruction of the environment as well as constitutes a major obstacle to more just, generous, and caring personal practices and social arrangements” (22).

He asserts that we all need bread to live, but “to live by ‘bread alone’ kills both us and our neighbors” (22).

And in a globalized world not solely but primarily concerned with collecting and hoarding bread, religions offer vital alternative visions of the good life and human flourishing.

For Volf, the problem we are facing is not globalization. The problem is a world where the “goods” themselves become the ultimate good, a world where human beings become dispensable cogs in the machine of Consumerism, a market-driven world devoid of any sort of transcendent reality, a world where Creation is viewed not as a gift but as “fodder.”

He believes that the “squirrel wheel” is “what you get if striving for the higher life doesn’t tame the restless pursuit of the conveniences and pleasures of ordinary life” (53).

And it’s precisely the “higher life” intertwined with “ordinary life” which World Religions are concerned with. They believe that humanity and the rest of Creation are not dispensable resources to be used and abused. Instead, there is a transcendent Reality immanently present even within the mundane, prompting many religious adherents to see beauty in the world and to show love, compassion, justice, and mercy to its inhabitants. Consequentially, there is ultimate meaning and value in what we do in the temporal world.

World Religions believe in a surpassing beauty which cannot be manufactured that is inherent within humanity, and that prohibits human beings from being the objects of purchase or sale.

World Religions claim that “we can properly attend to and truly enjoy ordinary life only when our primary attachment is to the transcendent realm” (44).

In other words, “only when ‘life is more than food’ does the food itself acquire deeper meaning and thus can be more richly enjoyed” (51).

Becoming Prophetic

Volf believes that, since World Religions generally agree that the privatization of faith is a privation, and since the world is progressively becoming more religious, religious beliefs will inevitably enter the public sphere, beliefs that challenge a market-driven world and proclaim that “life is more than just food” (51).

Another Christian scholar, Walter Brueggemann, promotes the model of the prophets as a standard (a vocation that, according to Keith Ward’s understanding of religion and revelation, seems to exist in each tradition to a certain extent).

In The Prophetic Imagination, Brueggemann suggests that the Biblical “prophetic community is concerned both with criticizing and energizing… it is to show that the dominant consciousness… will indeed end and that it has no final claim upon us…[and] to present an alternative consciousness that can energize the community to fresh forms of faithfulness and vitality” (59).

Being prophetic in the Hebrew tradition implies “speaking truth to power,” calling upon the rulers and the elite to “atone for [their] sins with tzidka, and [their] iniquities with mercy to the oppressed, so that [their] prosperity may be prolonged” (Daniel 4:27). It means warning them of the consequences for oppressive economic systems and political policies, and urging them to opt for alternatives that lead to human flourishing before it’s too late.

Malfunctioning Religions

While the previous is an inherent trait and important task of World Religions, there are factors and influences that cause religions to malfunction, and, as a result, keep religious adherents from challenging the systems that make humans commodities and treat the physical world trivially.

Volf believes that—as a result of its adherents sometimes seeking dominance, desiring material gain, or fearing persecution—religions have failed on many occasions and have become instruments of political, economical, and tribal agendas. Sometimes, religions pledge indisputable allegiance to a political leader or ideology, advocate for economic systems which oppress their neighbors, justify violence against their enemies (or perceived enemies), and get caught up in competitive feuds (58).

In other words, because of adherents’ “base desires” and/or caving to pressure, religions can be co-opted by the powers and religious adherents converted into the kinds of appeasing and accomodating prophets read about in Jeremiah 27.

Moving Forward

Economics and technology are made for the world, and not the world for economics and technology. Governments, laws, and economics must exist to serve the good of humanity. It’s when these become reversed that we need World Religions to function properly and prophesy against unjust economical and political systems and ideals, offering instead alternative visions of the good life and human flourishing.

And so religious adherents must advocate systems molded and/or created around human flourishing and Creation care.

Yes, insatiable systems of Consumerism which seek to turn creatures into commodities and the world into something dispensable will always be with us. And that’s one reason why we need religions and their proclamation that there is a transcendent Reality immanently present even within Creation, a Reality that gives meaning and significance in our world, a Reality that allows us to truly value and enjoy life, a Reality that allows the world to flourish.

Systems will continue to crop up, wanting us to believe that “this is the way it is” and that there are no better alternative futures, just the eternal present. Religions have the tools to disturb that “totalism” (to use Brueggemann’s concept) and provide imaginative possibilities for the well-being of humanity, but they will need to utilize them. Else, the well-oiled machine will run on, some gears located higher than others, but all of them spinning smoothly, relentlessly, hopelessly until replaced or disposed of.

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