The Lego Movie as Consumer-Capitalist Myth: The Cultural Tragedy of Production and the Expropriation of the Brickolariat

[a revised version of this paper has been published in the European Journal of Cultural Studies ]

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DSC03019Current Capitalism is in crisis. This is well known. Capitalism always is in crisis. From early on capitalism was experienced as unsettling, unbalancing and unstable. Gone was the cherished Aristotelian feudal/aristocratic ideal of moderation (σωφροσύνη) which locates virtuous behaviour in the considered middle (μεσότης) of two vices or excesses. It was replaced by an ever accelerating Faustian drive towards innovation, and self-transformation.[1] The ageing Johann Wolfgang von Goethe expressed this sense of loss of the, as he felt, healthy aristocratic middle as one of moderation and balance in favour of a bourgeois middle that constantly has to keep surpassing and transcending itself only to remain mediocre while becoming both more extreme and more common.[2]

The Myth of the Producer

This corresponds to another ancient concept of the middle – that of Aristotle’s teacher Plato. Plato’s concept had very little to do with moderation, but it does anticipate the strained situation of the middle classes in the capitalist logic of development about two and a half millennia later.

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the spirit of capitalism and fordist daydreaming

Benjamin Franklin’s advice to a young tradesman has famously been used by Max Weber to exemplify what he called the ‘spirit of capitalism’ which he (Weber) summarises thus

‘Sondern vor allem ist das “summum bonum” dieser “Ethik”: der Erwerb von Geld und immer mehr Geld, unter strengster Vermeidung alles unbefangenen Genießens, so gänzlich aller eudämonistischen oder gar hedonistischen Gesichtspunkte entkleidet, so rein als Selbstzweck dedacht, daß es als etwas gegenüber dem „Glück“ oder dem „Nutzen“ des einzelnen Individuums jedenfalls gänzlich Transzendentes und schlechthin Irrationales erscheint. Der Mensch ist auf das  Erwerben als Zweck seines Lebens, nicht mehr das Erwerben auf den Menschden als Mittel zum Zweck der Befriedigung seiner materiellen Lebensbedürfnisse bezogen.‘ (Weber 1920: 36) ‘In fact, the summum bonum of this ethic, the earning of more and more money, combined with the strict avoidance of all spontaneous enjoyment of life, is above all completely devoid of any eudæmonistic, not to say hedonistic, admixture. It is thought of so purely as an end in itself, that from the point of view of  the happiness of, or utility to, the single individual, it appears entirely transcendental and absolutely irrational. Man is dominated by the making of money, by acquisition as the ultimate purpose of his life. Economic acquisition is no longer subordinated to man as the means for the satisfaction of his material needs.’ (Weber 1930:53)

Typically, Weber qualifies that this does not ‘claim that everything which could be understood as pertaining to that spirit is contained in’ his Franklin extract thus summarised – but he is quite clear that this here is not only the essence of Franklin’s doctrine, but the capitalist spirit as such: it is the only example of an expression of that spirit he gives. The proposition that this ethos was born out of the Reformation, the suggestion of a causal relation between religion and economic development have been subject to relentless criticism and counter-criticism (in the Anglophone social sciences the debate was kicked off by Robertson’s 1933 Aspects of the Rise of Economic Individualism which was met with a refutation by Weber’s translator and future world leading sociologist Talcott Parsons). But his statement what constitutes the “spirit of capitalism” went relatively unchallenged. For example the Marxist historian and sinologist Karl August Wittfogel (1924), in what then was more or less the official Communist counter attack against Weber, does state that surely, different stages and different segments of capitalism require different mentalities, but he asserts that the one thing that runs through all of it is perfectly expressed by precisely the passages that Weber quotes. (more…)