In A Brave Little World, Max Friedlaender breaks down your favorite childhood film (if your favorite childhood film was The Brave Little Toaster) as a critique of capitalist labor.
A BRAVE LITTLE WORLD
- Upton Sinclair
We live on the cusp of an automated age. With the exponential rise of technology and the constant cheapening of computers, it seems we’re racing towards dystopia faster than you can say “Skynet.” Predictions from an Oxford University study puts 47% of American jobs at risk of being hijacked by computers within the next two decades. And if you think it’s just coal-miners and auto-workers at risk, you can think again. Most jobs lost will be middle-class maintenance and transportation jobs. They’re gunning for you, Joe Plumber.
This would be less of a problem if our economic system of choice wasn’t almost entirely labor-based. Your children likely will grow up in a country where employment is not the standard. So let’s flirt with the oft-argued idea of Socialism - the political ideology your parents love to hate. But for our children’s sake, let’s keep it light, keep it accessible. To best prepare our progeny to bow beneath the heel of a metal overlord, let us examine the 1986 movie, The Brave Little Toaster as a Marxist critique of capitalist labor philosophy.
On the surface, Jerry Rees’ movie is the story of a gaudy little Toaster and a ragtag team of appliances - the Radio, the Vacuum, the Lamp and the Blanket - on a quest to the big city to find the boy that once owned them. They start the movie, alone in the family cabin, biding time, keeping house and awaiting the return of said owner, their beloved “Master.” There is a lot to say about that kind of devotion (and we will get to it) but to start it suffices to say that the language of the film itself, early on, presents a power dynamic from human to object.
This dynamic determines the worth of the appliances, much in the same way employers determine the worth of labor. They both constitute examples of what Marx defines as a “commodity,” or an object with commercial value. A man can be useful, an object too can be useful, but they are only commodities once their value is realized and utilized by another party. The appliances therefore are defined by their accessibility to human beings yet, at the same time, are incapable of influencing their use.
Not merely the vehicle for a lazy Jack Nicholson impression, Air Conditioner acts as a voice of concern to the appliances, offering the reasonable, albeit jerky, opinion that he, and the others, have been abandoned. “It’s scrap metal time,” in his own words. The hopeful “low-watts” however cannot accept this version of events and attack the Air Conditioner, chiding him for his jealousy and for being “stuck in the wall.” That’s when things get heated for the air conditioner.
The unit, enraged, glows red. He sputters like an old sea captain, erupts in a shower of sparks then explodes. And not in the way that cartoons often do - appearing through the smoke covered in soot or stretched like an accordion. He dies in that wall. We’re ten minutes in now. This is just some world-building shit. What we learn - what Jerry Rees wants us to know - is that in this world, machines are capable of free will and their desires are independent of their designated functions.
Yet dissidence among machines is the exception, not the norm. What keeps the objects going, what pushes them to journey into the unknown in search of the Master, is faith - a belief in the Master’s compassion. Which is not unintentionally cultish. The Toaster and his pals are indoctrinated into a system of belief that affirms their existence. It’s a facsimile of what Marx called, “the opiate of the people.” Religion. And “Blanky” is a goddam zealot, literally floating on air at the thought of his Master’s presence.
Take this lyric:
“Let us see the Master/ We don’t wanna make him late/ You just keep a-knockin’/ He will open up the gate/ To the City of Light.”
It reads like a hymn. In their minds, human beings are infallible, powerful and infallible because they are powerful. Like the modern corporation, “too big to fail.” A concept that we now know as flawed.
So when the appliances find themselves in a repair shop in the beginning of their journey, they are at first excited by the prospect of a tune-up but quickly learn the truth from a singing group of mish-mashed electronics in the Rocky-Horror style “It’s a B-Movie.” Toaster and pals realize that they are being sold for their parts. And as the sun sets, their prayers for safety go unheeded:
“There goes the sun/ Here comes the night/ Somebody turn on the light/ Somebody tell me that fate has been kind./ You can’t go out, you are out of your mind.”
A city of light turned to dark as the illusion of corporate compassion crumbles around them.
Having witnessed for themselves the disheartening length of human brutality, the Toaster and friends, nevertheless, press on to the Master’s apartment where they are stopped by a chorus of brand new appliances: a computer, a microwave and a lot of other things that passed for innovation in 1986. A fancy lamp, I guess?
The distinction isn’t clear, but the new appliances brag nonetheless about their technical superiority in “Cutting Edge,” an ode to high-speed, computer-chip technology. What these appliances can’t seem to realize, what their illusions prevent them from seeing, is that as they chant, “more, more, more,” touting the luxury of capitalist excess, they are in the process of being replaced. Human demand maintains the pace of technical innovation. And as soon as they reached the market, so soon will they be pushed off the shelves by something more attractive. They’ve yet to learn what Marx, the Toaster and his friends have already learned, that: “Capital is reckless of the health or length of life of the laborer.”
Which brings us to the dump, the final scene of the movie in which Toaster and friends listen to a procession of doomed and dreary cars on their way to being crushed. The song “Worthless” recounts the lives of a each vehicle as they take their final ride down the conveyor belt to a percussive mechanical death. The life the cars live, the people they carried and the impacts they made are meaningless, their worth stripped from them over time like the threads of their bolts.
“I was the top of the line, out of sight, out of mind/ So much for fortune and fame/ You’re worthless.”
It is only in their final moments that these cars realize that they were never worth anymore than the sum of their functions. As the working class here in the real world ages, they too learn that the economy which provides for them only does so to perpetuate itself, not out of the interest of it’s parts. Retired coal miners today face such a crisis as they encounter the challenge of reforming their underfunded health care plans in an industry with deteriorating wealth. For current coal miners in a disintegrating job market, their challenge lies in adapting their skills to an employable profession. In either case, the value of the laborer is determined, solely, by the demand of the market.
To the bureaucrat, the worker is merely an integral yet replaceable part in an ever-churning political machine. The economy, education - these are manufacturing institutions, shaping minds like smoldering metal, crafting the next generation of cogs and wheels. Even now, educational institutions are preparing to populate an entirely new workforce. The broadening of science and technological education is one effort to upgrade ourselves in the face of obsolescence. But fact remains that it takes 9 months to make a person and mere minutes to assemble an iPhone. And only one of the two comes with a GPS and Solitaire. So, children are the future, sure. They’re just not very user friendly.