Society wages a kind of vital warfare to appropriate, to acclimatize, to institutionalize the risk of thought, and it is language, that model institution, which affords the means to do so… – Roland Barthes
There was much faux outrage by American conservatives when the Lego Movie was released due to its apparently stringent and clear anti-business message. Certainly a plot line consisting of a totalitarian corporation, led by a dictator named President Business, forcing its denizens into bland conformity is not a narrative “business” would prefer to be associated with. However, such a superficial analysis entirely misses the underlying ideological message of the movie. While seemingly anti-big business, it fully encourages a new form of corporate culture beginning to be dominant in the first world capitalism. The message of the Lego Movie is a manifesto of sorts for the liberal corporate culture of Silicon Valley rebelling against the more entrenched “old-style” business model. The film is a product of a neoliberal culture attempting to embrace individualism and capitalism with a human face. Rather than Orwellian monopolies, it sees the need for hundreds of “Master Builders,” people with the creativity to usher in a new and exciting variety of products and services. There’s another word for these people currently in vogue: “entrepreneurs.”
The idea of the entrepreneur is the new neoliberal spin on the old Ragged Dick story, although in this case the rags are esteemed business schools and the riches consist in the possibility of stock options. The logic of this appeals to the young and privileged who flock to cities such as San Francisco to pursue their start-up dreams. Resisting the stodgy old guard, the “President Business’” among us, they form new tech companies and when they fail, they fail proudly, just more experience to add to a resume and eventually jump ship to an established company. And like legos, cities themselves become playground for the wealth and excess capital of the new class of entrepreneurs, much to the chagrin and detriment of the original population as the cost of living rises.
Now that high-tech companies must source their young employees from a pool that is increasingly educated and literate, it must contend with the sort of postmodern cynicism of institutions that is fostered in such a demographic. The old bureaucratic and military style of business organization is intolerable if a company wishes to actually inspire loyalty and diligence in those in their employ. Instead, the methods of the modern corporate office attempt to inspire feelings of uniqueness, fun, and productive relaxing. The office fridge is stocked with beer and the ping-pong table is open all hours. Ask an Apple store employee to sum up their work life in one word and you are likely to hear “family.” Corporations have become extremely skilled at hiding the fact that the profit motive trump any loyalty to their employees should it come to the bottom line.
Slavoj Zizek is fond of the phrase he calls “cultural capitalism.” Corporations heed liberal concerns for human rights and environmental disaster not by addressing the systemic root causes of the problem, but by finding market solutions that ameliorate the negative perception of the consumerist act. Buying a coffee in Starbucks also becomes a charitable act that funds a slightly greater percentage of profit for the bean farmers and healthcare for its employees. Buying shoes for a little more money also clothes Africa. Investing your money also becomes an opportunity to give a micro-loan to an impoverished third-world farmer. Whether such acts actually end up doing more good than harm, especially when the corporation’s financial livelihood is contingent on the existing structural oppression in place, is irrelevant as long as the consumer feels they made the world a better place with their purchase. This logic is a sophisticated form of what Roland Barthes called an inoculation, which “…consists in admitting the accidental evil of a class-bound institution the better to conceal its principal evil. One immunizes the contents of the collective imagination by means of a small inoculation of acknowledged evil; one thus protects it against the risk of generalized subversion.” Now in contemporary culture we have begun to address these “accidental evils,” proving the overall benevolence and good that these institutions do and obfuscating the principal evils even more.
A main focus in neoliberal thought is to dismantle old radical narratives and refocus the pieces into one emphasizing individual empowerment while maintaining the systems of oppression that gave rise to the original radical resistance in the first place. Corporations now allow room to “have a conscience” while also leaving plenty of space to make profit. Its ideology is focused on making sure the two don’t seem anathema to each other. Indeed, even originally well-meaning efforts succumb to this logic, a fate identity politics has lately been suffering. An important concept such as privilege is relegated to an obsession with individual states of being and the status of the messenger being more important than the message. Rather than the author being dead, her very material background becomes a noise that drowns out the content of her text.
On an even broader scale, movements such as feminism or gay rights find themselves with corporate sponsorship and earnestly promote those individuals who have found success as business entrepreneurs. Neoliberals embrace the conservative canard of upholding the success of an individual as evidence against the systemic institutional discrimination of the group. And certainly capitalism would rather appropriate the market of oppressed groups and turn them into consumers. And in doing so the formerly radical impetus of social justice groups become dedicated to merely integrating their communities into the wider capitalist system rather than overthrowing it. In the mean time, the plight of the poor or those outside the first-world continue to suffer from this newly invigorated capitalist system.
Those supporting the narrative shifts towards neoliberalism occurring in these identity groups hide behind the admittedly important idea of agency. If an individual finds female empowerment within the context of violent pornography, who are others to speak down her choice? Epistemologically there’s no way to know another’s individual motivations and life story. Creating moral prohibitions on the basis of the good of society, or to protect others’ bad choices, reeks of paternalism at best and a wholly conservative or fascist project at worst.
The compelling anti-authoritarianism of this logic appeals to many on the left, who quite rightly feel uncomfortable at someone from outside a group telling them how they should choose to live. And yet this argument is being used to support the choice not to threaten institutions of oppression, but to wholly embrace them as areas of supposed empowerment. Beneficial reforms to areas of cruel oppression, like the strip club or brothel, end up reinforcing a kind of “benevolent” oppression, making it stronger, more accepted, more pervasive, and, importantly, more profitable. It is always better if the exploited learn to embrace their exploitation as a function of their individual identity and freedom. Such a perverse dialectical compromise allows for patriarchal and exploitative institutions to exist as long as those being exploited consent to their bondage. The media and neoliberal culture in general work well to promote the views that give such consent – from both the left and the right. Neoliberalism appears as a nexus in which different arguments are provided to both political arms to arrive at the same consensual action. The left supports NATO intervention for humanitarian reasons while the right supports it for defense, both of which lead into the neoliberal objective to pry open markets from anti-imperialist nations.
Into the effort at the inoculation of radical ideas come mass cultural products like the Lego Movie. Not only does it offer the usual profitable and kid-friendly entertainment fare, but also serves to redirect the passions of leftist narratives into a friendlier capitalist paradigm. The apparent absurdity of a film for a branded toy line owned by a billion-dollar a year company being “anti-business” is explained by the underlying neoliberalism contained in its individualistic and anti-conformity messaging. Those of us who wish to preserve radical narratives must recognize it when our signs are being appropriated for a message glorifying individualism over society. There is a war of ideas being waged to coopt the energy of well-intentioned and well-meaning people for the betterment of the capitalist system. Acknowledging and understanding the process being used is a first step in resisting it.