Why is The Lego Movie pushing anti-capitalist propaganda?

The villain is named Lord Business, a man who hates “hippie-dippy stuff” and thunders over Bricktown, where the workers drink Over-Priced Coffee™. No wonder Fox News declared the film “anti-capitalist”.

This piece originally appeared at newrepublic.com

In his seminal 1964 essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” Richard Hofstadter wrote that “paranoid” was the only word adequate to describe the “the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy” possessed by the extreme actors of the American Right. I had that in mind when I went to see The Lego Movie to investigate Fox Business’s claim that the film was “anti-capitalist” and “pushing its anti-business message to our kids,” expecting to roll my eyes over yet another witch-hunt. 

But I’ll concede this for once in my life: In a sense, Fox was right.

The Lego Movie follows the adventures of Emmet Brickowski, a construction-worker Lego figurine completely devoid of original thoughts or interests. Consequently, he’s the ideal citizen of Bricktown, a Huxleyesque city governed by explicit behavioral instructions issued by corporate oligarch Lord Business – or “President Business,” as he’s known to the sheeple. Everything changes when Emmet finds a bizarre, distinctly un-Lego-like red artifact that makes him “the special,” a savior destined by prophesy to thwart Lord Business’ plans to freeze the world with Krazy Glue. The second and third acts ensue, wherein Emmet joins a cast of Lego-ised pop culture characters on a journey to fulfill that prophesy – which, spoiler alert, is ultimately revealed to be a stand-in for a dispute playing out between a live-action child and the real “President Business,” his anal-retentive father who wants to glue his “adult models” into permanent perfection. 

It’s true: The Lego Movie is pointedly critical of late capitalism consumer culture. The villain is named Lord Business, after all; he hates “hippie-dippy stuff.” The inhabitants of Bricktown drink Over-Priced Coffee™. The film’s anthem is theBrave New World-ish “Everything Is Awesome.” The archetypical proletariat protagonist, the climactic class revolt, the laughable “relics” made from middle-class waste – The Lego Movie lays it on so heavy, even a five-year-old would get the drift. I suppose that’s the point, and explains how the folks at Fox picked up on it. But this is a film which, among other things, features Lego Abraham Lincoln piloting a jet-fueled rocket chair out of a meeting with Batman, Gandalf, and a robot pirate. Subtlety isn’t quite the point. But even more cartoonish is a world where full-grown adults devote ostensibly serious news time to decrying a children’s movie. And that, more than capitalism itself, is precisely what The Lego Movie is attacking. 

Furthermore, corrosive bourgeois sentiment isn’t alone among The Lego Movie’s“targets,” if we can even use so serious a term for objects of ridicule in a children’s film. In its trim hundred minutes, the movie manages to assault an impressive array of cultural bull’s eyes, from academic think tanks (literally manifest as the best and the brightest with tubes plugged in their heads, threatened with electroshock if they fail to produce whatever new ideas are demanded of them), to film tropes in general (“it sounds like a cat poster, but it’s true”), and even Lego’s own legacy of long-forgotten trend products made embarrassing by time, like theShaquille O’Neal figurine. And the politics are hardly one-sided: “Cloud Coo-Coo Land,” an aptly named locale for perpetual-rainbow dance parties and an explicit ban on negative thoughts (which must be “pushed deep down, where you’ll never, ever find them”), makes a mockery of those all-too-familiar Facebook liberals whose politics seems best expressed by cat GIFs and conflict aversion. 

At the risk of stating the obvious, we should remember that this movie cannot possibly be anti-capitalist. Beneath the satire, after all, is a feature-length toy commercial for a ubiquitous plastic product valued at $14.6 billion. The film was produced by a major studio, banked $69 million in its opening weekend, and already has a video game tie-in available on Amazon. Even in the film itself, the profit motive isn’t seriously at risk. If it were, then perhaps The Lego Movie would end with the overthrow of President Business and the installation of a socialist utopia, or – in the “real world” where the Legos are revealed to exist – a moralising replacement of the Lego models with some environmentally friendly hemp dolls and an illustrated kids edition of Chairman Mao’s The Little Red Book.

But that isn’t what happens. Despite Fox’s claims, the function of capitalism in our society isn’t the target of The Lego Movie. Lord Business isn’t so-called or so-hated because he’s “the head of a corporation where they hire people” and “[people] feed their families” – he’s called that because he’s the projection of a young boy whose obsessive-compulsive father wears a tie and does some kind of business-y job that, being ten years old, the kid doesn’t have a more precise word for. He’s hated because he’s a boorish control freak spoiling his son’s attempt to have fun with Legos. The kid isn’t upset that his dad pays employees a wage for their labor, he’s upset that his father is so fixated on his paranoid need to make everything the way it’s “supposed to be” and so self-conscious about any questioning of his “adult” use of the toys that he’s going to literally glue them in place, preventing his child from using his imagination again. 

This movie isn’t revolutionary; at bottom, it’s more about empathy than politics. President Business is a villain because despite having everything, his overwrought sense of victimhood transforms him into a caricature of megalomania at even slightest hint of criticism. That sort of privilege-blind persecution complex is the real target of The Lego Movie’s scorn, and ironically, Fox’s full-scale meltdown over its “anti-capitalist” message is a pretty good case-in-point. 

Emmett Rensin is an author, essayist, and political activist in Chicago, Illinois. His previous work has appeared in USA Today, Salon, The Los Angeles Times opinion blog, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. He can be found on Twitter at@revemmettrensin.

This piece originally appeared at newrepublic.com

 

Emmet Brickowski, The Lego Movie's proletariat protagonist. Image: Warner Bros.
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High explosive, damp squibs: the history of bombing raids

Governing from the Skies by Thomas Hippler examines the changing role of aerial bombing.

Bombing from the air is about a hundred years old. As a strategic option, it eroded the distinction between combatants and non-combatants: it was, Thomas Hippler argues in his thought-provoking history of the bombing century, the quintessential weapon of total war. Civilian populations supported war efforts in myriad ways, and so, total-war theorists argued, they were a legitimate object of attack. Bombing might bring about the collapse of the enemy’s war economy, or create a sociopolitical crisis so severe that the bombed government would give up. Despite efforts to protect non-combatants under international law, civilian immunity has been and continues to be little more than an ideal.

Hippler is less concerned with the military side of bombing, and has little to say about the development of air technology, which, some would insist, has defined the nature and limits of bombing. His concern is with the political dividends that bombing was supposed to yield by undermining social cohesion and/or the general willingness to continue a war.

The model for this political conception of bombing was the colonial air policing practised principally by the British between the world wars. Hippler observes that the willingness to use air power to compel rebel “tribesmen” in Afghanistan, Iraq and Africa to cease insurgency became the paradigm for later large-scale campaigns during the Second World War, and has been reinvented in the age of asymmetric warfare against non-state insurgencies: once again in Iraq and Afghanistan – and, indeed, anywhere that a drone can reach.

The problem, as Hippler knows, is that this type of bombing does not work. A century of trying to find the right aerial platform and armament, from the German Gotha bombers of 1917 to the unmanned missile carriers of today, has not delivered the political and strategic promise that air-power theorists hoped for. Air power is at its best when it is either acting as an ancillary to surface forces or engaged in air-to-air combat. The Israeli strike against Arab air forces at the start of the 1967 war was a classic example of the efficient military use of air power. In the Second World War, the millions of bombs dropped on Europe produced no social upheaval, but the US ­decision to engage in all-out aerial counterattack in 1944 destroyed the Luftwaffe and opened the way to the destruction of Germany’s large and powerful ground forces.

The prophet of bombing as the means to a quick, decisive solution in modern war was the Italian strategist Giulio Douhet, whose intellectual biography Hippler has written. Douhet’s treatise The Command of the Air (1921) is often cited as the founding text of modern air power. He believed that a more humane way to wage war was to use overwhelming strength in the air to eliminate the enemy’s air force, and then drop bombs and chemical weapons in a devastating attack on enemy cities. The result would be immediate capitulation, avoiding another meat-grinder such as the First World War. The modern nation, he argued, was at its most fragile in the teeming industrial cities; social cohesion would collapse following a bombing campaign and any government, if it survived, would have to sue for peace.

It has to be said that these views were hardly original to Douhet. British airmen had formed similar views of aerial power’s potential in 1917-18, and although the generation that commanded the British bomber offensive of 1940-45 knew very little of his thinking, they tried to put into practice what could be described as a Douhetian strategy. But Douhet and the British strategists were wrong. Achieving rapid command of the air was extremely difficult, as the Battle of Britain showed. Bombing did not create the conditions for social collapse and political capitulation (despite colossal human losses and widespread urban destruction) either in Britain, Germany and Japan, or later in Korea and Vietnam. If Douhet’s theory were to work at all, it would be under conditions of a sudden nuclear exchange.

Hippler is on surer ground with the continuity in colonial and post-colonial low-­intensity conflicts. Modern asymmetric warfare, usually against non-state opponents, bears little relation to the total-war school of thinking, but it is, as Hippler stresses, the new strategy of choice in conflicts. Here too, evidently, there are limits to the bombing thesis. For all the air effort put into the conflict against Isis in Syria and Iraq, it is the slow advance on the ground that has proved all-important.

The most extraordinary paradox at the heart of Hippler’s analysis is the way that most bombing has been carried out by Britain and the United States, two countries that have long claimed the moral high ground. It might be expected that these states would have respected civilian immunity more than others, yet in the Second World War alone they killed roughly 900,000 civilians from the air.

The moral relativism of democratic states over the century is compounded of claims to military necessity, an emphasis on technological innovation and demonisation of the enemy. For all the anxieties being aired about militant Islam, the new Russian nationalism and the potential power of China, it is the United States and Britain that need to be watched most closely.

Richard Overy’s books include “The Bombing War: Europe (1939-1945)” (Penguin)

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times