The Lego Movie and Socialism

Lego’s origins in a Danish toymaker’s workshop make it sound like the start of a particularly earnest fairy tale, but Ole Kirk Christiansen’s famous interlocking bricks are a very real part of our societal development. Denmark, like much of Scandinavia, is a country built on solid, transparent politics, a strong welfare state and bipartisan governmental agreement: all of which could be represented in those multi-coloured bricks.

The Lego Movie, released earlier this month, doesn’t, on paper, seem to fit this ethos. It’s hard to see past it being a two-hour long advert for a children’s toy, and that’s not a very ‘Danish’ idea. Capitalism aimed at minors is perhaps the most cynical of all  I’ve only to remember the 1998 release of The Pokemon Movie to start weeping at how, age 6, I bankrupted myself in order to try and score a genuine Mew card. That’s not a society I want to be part of.

The Lego Movie presents us with a society, which, superficially, appears to represent some form of utopian socialism. Emmett, our hero, is a construction worker who is overjoyed at being able to work as part of a ‘team’ and does not question his position in the societal hierarchy. There are, of course, signs that all is not well: coffee costs $37 (although Emmett seems to be able to afford this) and the country/city/Lego-thing is ruled by someone called President Business, which is a subtle but telling reference to the films anti-corporate agenda.

Lenin said ‘freedom in capitalist society always remains about the same as it was in ancient Greek republics: freedom for slave owners’, and this seems particularly true of President Business’s relationship with the residents of the Lego City/Country/Thing. The surface socialism of their social system is, in fact, a corporate ploy to tap into the innate socialised goodness of the citizens. Steven Pinker wrote that ‘the strongest argument against totalitarianism may be a recognition of a universal human nature; that all humans have innate desires for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’, but Lord Business (as he prefers to be called, when not on Presidential business) suggests that the basic ‘desires’ of people might also be an instrument towards totalitarianism.

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Which brings us to the film’s didactic message. The fact that the film’s protagonist is Emmett, an average Joe, rather than one of the Master Builders, would not be lost on a child (for whom, after all, the film is intended). Anton Pannekoek wrote on the ‘self-emancipation’ that can be achieved by working within a socialist system, and this seems to be the spirit that Emmett is channelling. Indeed, though he was working in a system that had been corrupted by President/Lord Business, the communal aspect (the workers’ mantra is ‘Everything is cool when you’re part of a team’) of his former employment influences his direction when he becomes leader of the new socialist system of Master Builders.

Here is the point where the complex politics of The Lego Movie may be lost on children under 5. The Master Builders appear to celebrate individualism, something that seems to tap into libertarian ideals. It would be fair to suggest that the Master Builders are guilty of supporting an oligarchical system of government, where those with a more creative disposition have earned the right to rule. Their attempts to push Emmett to be able to create increasingly complex structures is a form of plutocracy  the average construction worker may have personal fried chicken or bratwurst, whereas the average master builder has a spacecraft, motorcycle or pirate ship. Though they are opposing the corporate tyranny of Lord Business, they are guilty of imposing a form of creative fascism on those who do not share their skills.

Which is where Emmett comes in, and re-introduces a progressive form of socialism to the Master Builders. John Stuart Mill wrote that ‘It is the common error of Socialists to overlook the natural indolence of mankind; their tendency to be passive, to be the slaves of habit, to persist indefinitely in a course once chosen’, and it is for this reason that Emmett can become the leader of the Master Builders. The Master Builders would establish a Confucianist meritocracy in the Lego city/country/thing because they concur with Mill’s consideration of the indolence of the average Lego schmuck.

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Emmett’s role, therefore, becomes to harness the unique abilities of the Master Builders in a form of mutualist exchange with the citizens (who have been doomed by the corporate superglue). Emmett and the Master Builders are not part of the democratic process and therefore cannot establish state socialism (perhaps that will be addressed in the sequel?), but the final mutualist exchange, where the skills of the Master Builders are used alongside, and for the benefit, of the Lego society as a whole, makes Emmett’s politics very clear.

Though the anti-corporate agenda of the film has been somewhat subsumed by its radical socialist agenda, the film’s final scenes revisit that, as Emmett convinces Lord Business (he’s ‘Lord’ cos he’s wearing his fancy hat) that he too is ‘special’ and can be part of this new participatory society. The focus on everyone being special (and everything being awesome) shows the way that the film has diverged from libertarian (or even left-wing) individualism, to make way for an extraordinary socialist society, which is, essentially, the same as the society that was present in the opening scenes of the film, just with more creativity, cheaper coffee and no more corporate tyranny.

Margaret Thatcher once told the Conservative Council that socialism meant ‘power over people, power to the State’. She would not have liked The Lego Movie. The power of the state is the power of individual Lego people to self-emancipate through work, whilst being part of a participatory system of exchange which recognises that it must utilise individual skills for the benefit of the larger Lego society. Thatcher wouldn’t have liked that, or the screaming children in the audience.