“F**K the System,” the ad for the hit USA Network show Mr. Robot edgily pronounced. “F**k Wall Street.” “F**k Society.” The series is about an earnest young cyber-security engineer who doubles as a vigilante hacker (a la Ed Snowden).
“There’s a powerful group of people out there who are secretly running the world,” says the voiceover in the show’s trailer. “I’m talking about the people nobody knows about, the guys that are invisible…the top 1% of the top 1%. The guys who play God without permission.” This is all standard “conspiracy script,” cribbed from even the most cursory research into the counter-cultural movement—dressed up with a handsome young man in a fashionable hoodie. But it gets better.
The original “WhoisMrRobot.com” site, when the show first launched, greeted visitors with a mockup of an actual hacking operation—giving them three options: question, wakeup, and join.
In response to typing in “question,”one got a barrage of anti-capitalist slogans and imagery:
And that was all very interesting to me, seeing as there is no project more infused with capitalist interests than making a television show.
It’s part of what I call the “anti-capitalist” capitalist trope in contemporary pop-culture. It’s when a for-profit form of entertainment (and I’ll include advertisements in this) creates an explicitly anti-capitalist narrative. This narrative could include messages like “damn those heartless corporate fat-cats” or “something made from the heart is worth more than a mass-produced item” or, if you want to give it that tangy whiff of conspiracy fervor, “the 1% are oppressing us.”
The irony, of course, is that the form of entertainment (or advertising) itself depends on that same capitalist structure run by these same 1%ers for its existence. To be clear: this is different than when an artist “hides” a subversive idea within a movie or TV show or whatnot. In the late 1960s into the 1970s, for instance, there were a lot of anti-capitalist narratives in Hollywood movies.
Many of these directors and screenwriters worked in a considerably more decentralized Hollywood structure, with some distance from the core studios proper. Hence, they could get away with much more counter-cultural material (though many of these same directors found themselves without work in the Eighties for exactly the same reason).
No, what I’m referring to here is something consciously planned by the various producers of said material…the conscious and purposeful co-opting of anti-capitalist narratives in order to sell more tickets and gain more viewership. The absolute most brilliant and successful example of this is the highly popular 2014 film The Lego Movie.
The core message of The Lego Movie is “something made from the heart is worth more than a mass-produced item”—in this case, the imagination and creativity that goes into building something (out of Lego brand bricks) is better than a pre-packaged item (in this case, Lego brand bricks which are immovably glued together by an evil “Fat Cat,” President Business).
Lego Movie proudly declares: Individuality is better than Conformity! And, in part because the movie itself is very well written, animated, and voice-acted, we are stirred with the inspiration generated by the sentiment. “How ground-breaking and daring,” we tell ourselves, “Lego is a corporate brand, but extra points on them for being so progressive!”
And that’s the absolute beauty of the “anti-capitalist”capitalist approach, when it works. Lego Movie—one long advertisement for Lego toys—is hailed as an anti-capitalist/anti-corporate masterpiece. The entire machine that drives such a movie is one of explicit capitalist interests, and yet the public—including many so-called savvy progressive types—just don’t see it. Or just won’t.
Well. At any rate…
All hail “President Business,” huh?