By Ben Hynes
“So neoliberal ideology does not produce its subjects by interpellating them into symbolically anchored identities … Instead, it enjoins subjects to develop our creative potential and cultivate our individuality … Neoliberal subjects are expected to, enjoined to, have a good time, have it all, be happy, fit, and fulfilled.”
Everything is awesome, indeed. Colourful, playful, clever, funny in moments, and creatively animated, The LEGO Movie nonetheless functions, intentionally or not, as a nearly devious piece of propaganda for neoliberal capitalism.
The film’s plot is structured around an overt rejection of business culture and homogeneity. The film quickly establishes its not-incorrect critical parameters: life under corporate regimentation stifles individual creativity, blunts interpersonal affective relationships, and opiates dissent with mindless entertainment. The pleasantly numbing effects of routine and familiarity are everywhere apparent. This could be ground for a surprisingly critical — if not entirely sophisticated — subversion of the premise of the film as product placement adfo-tainment (is that even a word?).
The turn that The LEGO Movie takes toward a radical individualism, however, reveals that its superficial rejection of homogenised business culture works toward a deeper entrenchment of the atomised subject necessitated for exploitation by neoliberal capitalism. The rejection of Lord Business and his hegemonic culture actually divests the populace of the symbolically anchored identities provided by their highly thematised (and adorably outfitted) occupations; similarly, the life experience of the people in Bricksburg seems to be solidly middle class, each person being employed or taken care of in some manner by the corporate apparatus. While one certainly doesn’t expect what is ostensibly a kid’s movie to sympathetically portray the indigent people of Bricksburg, the rejection of this sort of stability in favour of a social arrangement predicated on the more volatile base of self-expression is worth thinking about.
“The consumer figures the possibility of enjoyment promised by neoliberalism. Consumption provides the terrain within which my identity, my lifestyle, can be constructed, purchased, and made over. Yet consumption is more than a terrain — the consumer is commanded to enjoy, compelled by the impossible demand to do more, be more, have more, change more … She is imagined, in other words, as a composite of the neoliberal market itself.”
This turn away from a secure, if restrictive, corporate culture toward an embracing of the creative capacity of the individual is framed, in part, as being more fun. Here one can see the ideology of the film and its deployment as both an object to be enjoyed and an object that simultaneously enjoins its audience to consume. Functioning as a kind of large scale commercial for the Lego brand, The LEGO Movie is as explicitly as possible an appeal to its audience’s desire to purchase, to consume. The film appeals to this desire by promising a means for self-expression that is infinitely mutable, a medium of expression that is able to be destroyed and re-purposed, built anew, to the creative whims of its user. In this way, LEGO blocks themselves embody a material expression of the neoliberal market and capitalism’s co-dependent destruction and creation. The LEGO Movie, then, must be seen as a two-fronted exertion of the neoliberal market on its viewer, intended to materially and ideologically inculcate its structures into the viewer.
“[Criminals] stand in for the inexplicable, the unpredictable. As sites of loss, they embody and occlude neoliberal ideology’s inability to account for, to allow for, loss and losers. Free-trade fantasy necessarily recuperates loss in a narrative of gain — everybody wins. Losses in the Real, Real losses, don’t fit. They are overwhelming, excessive. The criminal is the imaginary figure covering over and sustaining this excess of loss. His monstrosity marks the horror of losing, our inability to account for inevitable contingencies.“
Having articulated the neoliberal market’s ideology of consumerism and enjoyment, the film further reveals its inextricable entanglement with neoliberalism in its deployment of Lord Business. The villain of the film further reinforces the position that homogeneity and stability are to be feared and resisted. Neoliberalism demands an ever-increasing mobility of its constituents such that the subject becomes as freely moved as capital: the subject and its labour reduced to a commodity. Not incidentally, Lord Business’ plans involve a permanent restriction of the movement of the people of Bricksburg. Beyond the immediate horror of being glued in place, the stasis created by this act is anathema to neoliberalism. This privation of movement also stands in for the actuality of real, permanent, loss. Rather than admit that it’s possible for loss to occur, the worst potential outcome in the film is for folks to be frozen, persisting but immobile. This impossibility of loss is seen also in the Emmet’s fall into the real world. It is inconceivable that there is any loss, any actual outside to the film. The transition to the “actual” merely reaffirms the conflicts within the LEGO world, positing its neoliberal composition less as imaginary fantasy than as a direct and, importantly, pleasurable allegory.
Crucial here also is the film’s revelation that “The Special” is a universal category. The assertion that there’s a radical value to the individual, and that each participating individual is a “winner”, is crucial to the development of neoliberalism. Were The Special to actually be a single individual above the illusion of equality among all others, it would rupture the fantasy of everyone participating in neoliberalism. This fantasy of universal equality functions to placate dissidents and diffuse resistance. In asserting that each of its young (and old) viewers possesses some special potential, the film obfuscates the very real systemic inequalities that exert pressure on everyday life. Everything may be awesome, but this is only guaranteed to those already favoured by an uneven system. Quotations from Jodi Dean’s “Free Trade: The Neoliberal Fantasy” in Democracy and other Neoliberal Fantasies (Duke University Press 2009)
Ben Hynes is a film critic for the magazine.