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Opinion

'Lord Business' and the dark side of capitalism

In a culture sold out to corporate interests, art remains the only evidence that we still live in a free society.

Last updated: 20 Mar 2014 09:40
Anna M Clark

Anna M Clark is President of EarthPeople and the author of Green, American Style: Becoming Earth-Friendly and Reaping the Benefits. She is a Public Voices fellow at The Op-Ed Project.
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Fortunately for citizens, we can still explore questions and express ourselves through art, wrote Clark [Getty image]

Everything is not awesome. The merry theme song of the LEGO movie invites us to believe that everything is. That is, until our plastic protagonists discover they are mere pawns in the game of "Lord Business".

So they decide to join forces to tap into their potential, ultimately overcoming the corporate titan's machinations to glue them down. In the end, the characters reclaim their autonomy, find new meaning in life, and manage to befriend Lord Business in the process. That was the take home message from The LEGO Movie. 

But some critics saw something subversive that I missed as I laughed over The LEGO movie with my six-year-old son and nine-year-old daughter. The suggestion that in taking my kids to this film, I exposed them to a "practically communist" agenda is no laughing matter.

As BBC Culture recently reported, the new Pixar-inspired film is sparking the old gripe that Hollywood is cramming liberalism down our kids' throats. In reality, corporations are cramming consumerism down citizens' throats. Despite its "anti-capitalist" connotations, The LEGO Movie - a product of Hollywood, itself a booming business - has grossed in excess of $360 million worldwide.

Considering how inaudible the voice of the average citizen is in Washington, we might thank Hollywood for challenging the establishment. Though we may disagree with some of their messages, these films are evidence that we still live in a free society.

Brainwashed not brainless

This is not a complaint. It was decent entertainment for a two-hour commercial. And like the dutiful consumer I am, I also purchased several books and toys based on the film.

If there is anything uncomfortable about Pixar films, it is the harsh truths they sometimes force us to confront. I still remember squirming in my seat when I took my kids to see WALL-E. Most of the parents and children seated around us were sipping a week's worth of sugar from oversized Styrofoam containers, bearing eerie resemblance to the obese characters on the screen.

In fact, 69 percent of Americans are now classified as overweight or obese.

This is not to suggest that obesity is directly attributable to overconsumption. That conclusion would suggest a gross simplification of a complex systemic problem. But to suggest that consumerism has no blame in the obesity or environmental crises - both consequences (at least in part) of overconsumption - would also be false.

Americans aren't brainless, but some of us are allowing ourselves to be brainwashed. We are programmed to consume, and companies are wired to keep it that way. Conservatively speaking, we are exposed to 5,000 branded messages per day.

The power of subliminal advertising to change behavior is still under debate. But the fact is that companies are compelled to promote consumption, often beyond the limits of our physical and financial health.

Being a citizen is supposed to mean you have a vote and a voice, but according to the non-profit watchdog organisation The Center for Media and Democracy, corporations have more pull with legislators than we do. 

What is more subversive than the left-wing leanings of movies is corporate funding of right-wing think tanks that spread fear. Politically divisive rhetoric against taxes, climate change and gun control ostensibly helps business, yet dangerously undermines the democratic process.

As Bill Moyers reported, even Google is doing it. Giving "substantial" funding for the first time over the past year, Google supported Grover Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform, the Federalist Society, the American Conservative Union, and the political arm of the Heritage Foundation, which led the charge to shut down the government over the Affordable Care Act.

In 2013, Google also funded the American Legislative Exchange Council, a corporate bill mill through which member companies hand state legislators their wish lists to benefit their bottom lines.

A free society? 

The LEGO Movie makes one important point that is lost in the debate over the liberal propaganda it supposedly promotes. In the end, the enemy was not Lord Business. It was the glue, which represents the need for control and a resistance to change. Any institution that is not forward-looking and malleable will see creativity and independent voices as threats, rather than the advantages they could become.

"Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel," Samuel Johnson once said. Groups like ALEC are crowd sourcing wealth and power to promote fear, hate and consumption as "American". The misinformation they spew prevents consumers from becoming the citizens they were meant to be.

But it's not all their fault, either. Oversimplified rhetoric is a red flag and should be a signal to us to dig deeper for answers.

Considering how inaudible the voice of the average citizen is in Washington, we might thank Hollywood for challenging the establishment. Though we may disagree with some of their messages, these films are evidence that we still live in a free society.

Fortunately for citizens, we can still explore questions and express ourselves through art, the last bastion of truth in a culture sold out to corporate interests. 

Anna M Clark is President of EarthPeople and the author of Green, American Style: Becoming Earth-Friendly and Reaping the Benefits. She is a Public Voices fellow at The Op-Ed Project. 

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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