I was not expecting this when I watched The LEGO Movie recently. Don’t worry though, it gets reclaimed by the end.
It reminded me of Slavoj Zizek’s analysis of “Ode to Joy.” According to Zizek, the song represents a sort of generic appeal to the greatness and brotherhood of humanity. Beloved by Nazis, Maoist China, and Peruvian Leftists alike, Ode to Joy functions as an empty container in which an Ideology can be packaged and delivered.
When we meet Emmett, the generic LEGO construction worker protagonist, he rises at 7 AM, and heads to work where he will assemble everything according to The Instructions. He and his society are supported by and under the constant surveillance of a monolithic corporate conglomerate: Octan. On the way to the construction site, he and his fellow commuters sing in unison:
Everything is awesome
Everything is cool when you’re part of a team
Everything is awesome when we’re living our dream
Everything is better when we stick together
Side by side, you and I gonna win forever, let’s party forever
We’re the same, I’m like you, you’re like me, we’re all working in harmony
This is a perfect vision of fascist utopia. Not only does everyone work together according to The Instructions, they do it happily. They know their place in the social order and they accept it without question. This universal acceptance of a single dominant culture is the end goal of all conservative ideologies (including progressive ideology).
So if we start in utopia where does the conflict arise? The ultimate source of the conflict comes from the mutable nature of the LEGO world. Even though everyone follows the instructions happily, there is still the possibility that the social order could be dismantled and rebuilt in a new way at any moment. This terrifies Lord Business (President Business in the modern LEGO realm of Bricksburg) who has a plan: to use the KRA GL E (a worn tube of KRAzy GLuE) to freeze everything as it is forever. And here we see fascism taken to its logical conclusion: not content with merely controlling the social order, true fascists want to preclude any possibility of another world.
Along the way, we visit the many LEGO realms kept separate by Lord Business, eventually arriving in Cloud Cuckoo Land, a rainbow-spattered realm with no rules, government, bushy moustaches, or consistency. Here a thriving population of unique and interesting creations builds freely and buries their negative feelings deep inside. We also meet Princess UniKitty, who always thinks positive and who will later go on to trick Lord Business’s robots with her skills at BSing:
Cloud Cuckoo Land represents the simplest possible outline of anarchist utopia. It’s there we meet the Master Builders (who can build whatever they or their communities need without instructions). Sadly, they are not impressed by Emmett’s ordinariness and are outraged that he is stuck to the Piece of Resistance (the cap to the KRA GL E). Before they can rally the decidedly not-unified Master Builders, the Super Secret Police (lead by Good Cop/Bad Cop – a single character with two faces and personalities) arrives to break up the meeting and destroy the anarchists’ realm.
In this case, sadly, art imitates life.
At some point Emmett, following his capture, falls through a magical portal (a decorated cardboard tube) and into the real world. Here we learn that the conflict between Lord Business and the resistance is actually a conflict between an obsessive suit-wearing father and his creative son. In the end, realizing that he is the bad guy in the story, the father (Will Farrell) puts the cap on the KRA GL E and agrees to break down the walls between the realms. There’s even a nod to feminism / women in engineering in Will Farrell’s final line: “Now that you’re allowed down here, we’ll have to let your sister play too.”
So as far as mainstream films go, this seems like a decent narrative that presents anti-fascist ideas to children. Of course, it’s also 100 minutes of advertising for a popular toy brand. What other shortcomings are there in the story? Here are a few that leap out at me:
1. There is no tube of KRA GL E in the real world. Both our world and The LEGO Movie worlds feature mass surveillance, industry PR, and corporate overlords. The major difference is that we cannot identify a single external threat that must be stopped. We have creeping police states, mass extinctions, massive wealth transfer to the rich, ecocide, racism and other oppressions – a dense tapestry we need to unwind. In addition to the complexity comes a deeper challenge: that much of our society and economy depends on the causes of these problems. We cannot stop burning fossil fuels even if we know we are dooming future generations to a much less habitable world. This brings me to my next point:
2. In real life, Lord Business is not really in control. In the movie, Will Farrell, motivated by fatherly love, gives up his plan to freeze the world in place and even goes so far as to allow his children to play with and rebuild his domain with no rules or pre-approved plan. First of all, I have no expectation that the boomers, the state, or the 1% will cede their power to the next generation, the anarchists, or the workers. That just doesn’t happen, historically speaking. Second, even if a major CEO DID have a change of heart, he would instantly be replaced by his board or shareholders with someone who is following The Instructions. In the real world, Lord Business isn’t just surrounded by robots, his position demands that he must be a robot himself. Perhaps the 1% as a class could defect from the Dominant Culture and make radical change but that seems unlikely.
3. Patriarchy does not recognize itself easily. The notions that women should (must) behave a certain way and that men should (mostly) behave a certain way is deeply seeded across history, culture, and in our own minds. Good strides are being made toward getting women into tech but the fields are still very much male-dominated. I’ve heard cringe-worthy stories about an old white dude patting my friend on her thigh as he delivered weird condescending praise. I’ve heard about confident young dudes mansplaining basic and blatantly untrue statements about a programming language to a woman who actually works in that very language day-to-day. These are blatant examples but for each of these there are a hundred less obvious ways that patriarchy infiltrates culture and spaces.
4. The real-world Dominant Culture is much more subtle than in the movie. Sure, we know the NSA is spying on all of us all of the time but we still have opportunities to be individuals. We have our subcultures and our parties and our temporary autonomous spaces. The kids shopping at Hot Topic think they’re rebelling but really they’re just following a slightly edgier pre-approved path.
Herein lies my primary fear for The LEGO Movie and other radical-seeming media. The success of global capitalism as the ideological vessel for the Dominant Culture hinges on its ability to reinvent itself. Want to rebel? Here’s some black nail polish. Want to be an artsy techie hippie hedonist? Tickets to Burning Man are only $400. Want to vicariously experience radical anti-fascism? Watch The LEGO Movie.
This ties into a critique of Maker culture. That engineering, building, or making somehow make you a special snowflake or a revolutionary. In reality, it probably makes you an upper-working-class hobbyist. Probably you’re an educated white guy (The LEGO Movie makes an attempt to include women but the main character and the only actual humans to appear on screen are all dudes). Wyld Style is certainly a badass character but I still don’t know what I think about the romance parts of the story.
The inclusion of the baby sister’s voice at the end may be an attempt to acknowledge this gap and show that a goal of the movie was to narrow it in the future. Technology literacy is only getting more important and I believe there is a critical place for DIY building in the 21st century but unless our hardware is open source, the government and corporate fascists will continue to own everything – including our most necessary ideas.
I personally liked the film. Even if it is ultimately a way for capitalism to absorb and tame radical ideas, I think it’s better that it exists. Community-scale open source engineering is not a solution by itself (not outside a LEGO world anyhow) but it is a critical piece of salvaging the ongoing slow motion trainwreck that is global capitalism. If we can get community-scale ecological industries up and running, we just have to deal with race, class, patriarchy, the nonhuman world as property, ecological disaster, climate change, toxic industrial practices, runaway technology, oppressive institutions and massive wealth inequality.
You up for it?
It’s gonna be awesome.