When my husband suggested we watch Netflix’s new series “3%,” I scoffed and muttered something about socialist propaganda. The title basically gives it away, doesn’t it? It echoes the Wall Street protesters’ accusations about wealth being concentrated in the 1 percent, while the rest of us presumably suffer.
The description on Netflix Instant reads: “In a future where the elite inhabit an island paradise far from the crowded slums, you get one chance to join the 3% saved from squalor.”
So I sat back and braced myself for the inevitable onslaught of transparent pleas for wealth equality wrapped up in a heart-tugging storyline. At least it’s in Portuguese, I thought, so the propaganda will sound beautiful.
This Show Is About More Than The Struggle For Equality
But as the series progressed, I realized that wasn’t the case. One need only look beyond the set-up, a world harshly divided between the wealthy elite and the slum dwellers, to uncover the real narrative. The story isn’t at its core an exploration of the struggle for equality; rather, it demonstrates the critical role privilege plays in society. “3%” is certainly relevant to the global discourse on inequality, but not in the way viewers might expect.
For those of you unfamiliar with “3%,” the story is set in a world where 97 percent of the population live in slums, and 3 percent live in a utopia they call “the Offshore.” Each year, the 20-year-olds make the long trek from the squalid interior to enter The Process, a grueling series of interviews and tests through which a handful of youths are selected to join the utopia.
It is an extreme meritocracy with the narrowest of channels for success. Only those “with merit” join the Offshore. The rest are sent back to the slums. Scenes of distraught candidates who’ve just been eliminated are accompanied by a voice over the intercoms, repeating, among other suggestions, that, “The joy of having children is one of the best ways to overcome the trauma of the Process.”
What We Learn About The Meritocracy Of ‘3%’
The cynical progressive might frame this as capitalist hyperbole. Only those with merit succeed and gain wealth. And what about the rest of us? Start a family. How conservative.
The meritocracy is so radical that no one is allowed to have children on the Offshore, lest anyone enjoy its perfection without demonstrating they deserve to be there. All contestants who pass the Process are sterilized. The privilege of being born into wealth is eradicated.
So far as the series has shown, there are no benefits to being one color or another. We aren’t told why this is, but suffice it to say that there is no racial privilege either.
Neither is there privilege based on sex. The group of candidates the series follows is co-ed, with no indication of an advantage granted to either females or males by the Process orchestrators.
‘3%’ Displays Privilege As Something To Eradicate
Up until the final episode of the season, the absence of privilege in the forms most familiar to us is obvious, yet it is rarely discussed explicitly. In the instance of Marco (Rafael Lozano), born into a family where all members had previously passed the Process, his interviewer told him flatly that this would not benefit him. Though Marco gets far, he does not pass.
The critical role of merit is stressed over and over, and varying opinions of what may count as merit are tossed around by the orchestrators of the Process. Of course, this is the opposite of having talents, skills, and species of intelligence shaped and promoted by market forces. This is the State picking winners and losers according to their worldview—an authoritarian aspect common to the socialist experiments of history.
It would be inaccurate to describe the world of “3%” as socialist. But the series does explore the impact of privilege restriction, which has characterized socialist experiments. The appeal of socialism is equality, and privilege is seen as an obstacle to eradicate in the progression toward the equal distribution of wealth.
Privilege Ultimately Stems From The Family Unit
The perpetuation of privilege, of course, is primarily derived from the family. As Josh Sabey wrote for The Federalist:
…When we talk about privilege, we are usually talking about parents who try to help their children succeed. They provide safe homes, teach their children social skills, ingratiate them with valuable connections, and submerge them in a culture in which they will learn how to get to and through college, and into the workplace. Of course, it’s more than a one generation phenomena. Parents are enabled to privilege their children in part because of the privileges they themselves have received. Privilege moves from parent to child from generation to generation. And the web gets very thick. But at its heart, privilege is family.
This is why states progressing along the socialist track attempt to pull apart the family unit, to destroy these intimate social bonds. Family is privilege. Any pretenses of aristocracy must be stamped out for the collective good. “3%” obviously departs from the socialist model, though, in that the collective good belongs only to the Offshore population. Any changes they bring to the 97 percent are for the benefit of the merited community.
Love Can’t Be Destroyed By The State
Yet the Process leader (played by João Miguel) and his staff can’t fully prevent privilege from influencing the Process, so long as the potential for romance exists. They cut off the stem, but the root remains. As Sabey wrote,
…when a man and woman love each other, they begin to privilege each other. Not only does a man have a special affinity for one woman over and above the others, but that man will want an exclusive relationship… The same is true for the woman. That is the beginning of inequality. Privilege begins with romance: choosing one person over another. Then comes family and, if unchecked, aristocracy.
So in their budding romance, expedited by the adversity they face together during the Process, Michele (Bianca Comparato) and Fernando (Michel Gomes) “privilege” each other. It is Fernando’s love for Michelle that keeps him from revealing her identity. Yet even Joana (Veneza Oliveira) and Rafael (Rodolfo Valente) find an alliance without sincere romance, and that alliance benefits them over other candidates.
How Love Unravels The Utopian Dream Of ‘3%’
Even with the sterilization of the Offshore population, love continues to privilege those who partake of it. Process Leader Ezequiel leverages his position to shelter his wife from repercussion when her emotions cause conflict in her job. It is Ezequiel’s love for his deceased wife, Julia (Mel Fronckowiak), that motivates him to risk losing his position to help her young child.
But as Julia’s storyline illustrates, the love between a parent and child is powerfully magnetic, drawing a mother to her son and severely disrupting the tranquil sphere of the Offshore. The price to eradicate family privilege is steep, and Julia’s story demonstrates the fatal flaw in this utopian experiment. Family cords are not easily severed; when they are broken, the tension releases and the cords whip about to damage even the most carefully planned and pristine environments.
The social cost is high, but so is the economic cost. The meritocracy of “3%” defines the narrowest path to success. Not only is it challenging, but candidates have only a single opportunity to pass. Imagine if every test you failed couldn’t be retaken, or one job interview defined your entire life.
Opportunities are made available by freedom—the freedom of individuals to cooperate and compete and determine various avenues for success. Yet freedom cannot be divorced from privilege, and so it is permitted to flourish. “3%” teaches us that it is better to be born in a world where some are privileged more than others—and the channels are wide and numerous for success—than in one where everyone is herded down a narrow path as “equals,” but only a select few are determined by the state to succeed.