The Road to Smurfdom in a Corporate Culture

The election season has me thinking about Friedrich Hayek and the Smurfs.  To be clear, this is not the name of a post-punk revival band (though, come to think of it, it would look great on a grungy t-shirt). Hayek is the right-wing Austrian economist who authored The Road to Serfdom during WWII.  The Smurfs are imaginary blue people who value equality and cooperation in the common interest, and are featured in the movie The Smurfs (Columbia Pictures/Sony Pictures, 2011).

Hayek is probably on your mind too, at least indirectly.  This is because Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom is the sacred book of origins for today’s purist “free market” doctrine, which rejects equality and cooperation in favor of competition and “natural” hierarchy.  The book famously equates socialism and fascism, as if Hitler’s Germany and today’s Swedish social democracy were identical twins, and argues that government regulation of economic activity leads inevitably to totalitarian domination. (This despite the fact that a massive public sector effort on the part of the U.S. and its allies is precisely what defeated the Axis Powers.)

In a comic book version of the The Road to Serfdom, published in Look magazine in 1945 and then republished by the General Motors Corporation (recently rescued from oblivion by, ahem, government intervention), the final page depicts a worker being executed by a government firing squad, a consequence of government economic planning.  The accompanying text declares:  “If you’re fired from your job, it’s apt to be by a firing squad. What used to be an error has now become a crime against the state. Thus ends the road to serfdom!”

I’m guessing this sounds somewhat familiar. In 2010 Fox News television host Glenn Beck avidly promoted Hayek’s book as the antidote to the “socialism” of the Obama administration. The foreboding melodrama of Hayek’s argument is also the inspiration for Michele Bachmann’s militant defense of the incandescent light bulb, and for Rick Santorum’s paranoid claim that the Obama administration’s efforts to make college more affordable for more Americans is an Orwellian program of indoctrination.  You may also remember Sarah Palin’s call to arms against government “death panels” that she predicts will result from health care reforms.

In the world described by Hayek’s acolytes, government always paves the road to Hell, but the profit motive sprouts angel wings and can do no wrong.  In that world, “serfdom” is redefined as… well, as living with public sector protections against the vagaries of life in a market society: layoffs, illnesses, pollution, corruption, and unfair or economically dangerous market practices. Meanwhile, The Road to Serfdom and its disciples also propagate a one-dimensional definition of “freedom,” a word they use to name simply the absence of government.  Corporate control over the economy, society, and culture is not a threat.  But public sector efforts to limit such control?…  that, my friends, is an unnatural plot to enslave the masses.

You may be asking yourself at this point: What in God’s name do the Smurfs have to do with the categorical demonization of the public sector? The Smurfs shows where Hayek et al. ultimately lead us in terms of how our freedom is imagined for us, and how we are discouraged from imagining real solutions to the problems we collectively face in the real world.

I watched The Smurfs last summer.  I went with my two sons (four and seven years old) one hot afternoon, partly to seek air-conditioned asylum from the humidity, and partly to make good on a promise to the younger child that I would take him to see a movie after he turned four.

The boys delighted in the physical comedy built into the movie’s live action/animation hybrid premise: tiny blue cartoon people interacting with the world of real people (real actors anyway), as the blue munchkins engaged a magical battle between good and evil.  The plot, or what passed for one, had a group of Smurfs fleeing from the inexplicably evil wizard Gargamel and accidentally passing through a drainage pipe-like portal between their gnomic world and New York City.  Once in the Big Apple, the blue crew befriends an advertising executive, teaches him some life lessons about family priorities, and inadvertently helps him please his abusive boss with some profitable ad copy before leaving through the drainage pipe back to their Smurf village.

The kids were enthralled by the slapstick violence of cartoon figures subjected to the laws of the material world.  The tiny blue villagers collide with the built environment of New York City.  Smurfs careen wildly about in the urban transportation infrastructure, take up residence in the apartment of a marketing executive, and unleash pandemonium in a department store. Because New York City is home to Wall Street and everything it represents, the Smurfs inevitably come to the attention of their human counterparts as both an obstacle and an opportunity for profit.

Physical danger without physical consequence, violence without injury, is favored by small children’s aesthetic taste. Kids also love to root for the good guys.  The Smurfs caters to the little people’s taste via two intersecting contrasts.  The first contrast is the one between the high realism of live action cinema, which depicts the world precisely as it is (albeit staged and scripted), and the obvious fantasy of animation depicting the unnaturally pigmented elfish species created by the artistry of Peyo.  The second contrast is the one between the American society of profit, ambition, and zero-sum competition and the lovingly egalitarian and collectively minded Smurfs – the clash between the elfish and the selfish, you might say.

These contrasts make the movie feel good.  But the same contrasts are managed in such a way as to limit our ability to recognize that the goodness we see in the Smurfs is precisely what is lacking in our world. Because the ethos of love and equality is presented as a fantasy alien to our status quo, we are discouraged from thinking critically about the tragic gap between the two, from using our imagination to criticize our social reality. Evil was defeated in the movie, to be sure.  Naturally, my children and I celebrated this.  But the defeated evil wasn’t real in the first place – it was a crazy, obsessive wizard, who is viewed by unsuspecting New Yorkers as a deranged homeless person. Meanwhile, the real world problems are untouched – the abusive and arbitrary boss is catered to, and the personal vanity she peddles is aggrandized through the deceptive magic of the ad campaign. (One must make an effort to imagine the working conditions of those who produce her merchandise.) The homelessness that Gargamel’s character evokes for comic effect is never acknowledged as a problem to be addressed.

In fact, at the end of the story the Smurfs – who represent love and equality above self-interest – are carefully banished from the reality we inhabit, and replaced with corporation-defined consumerism. The only residue left by the Smurfs in the real world is, in fact, commercial advertizing. The ad copy they inspire in their advertizing executive friend finds a perfect home in a movie already awash in product placement adverts – for M&Ms, Blu-Ray, The Blue Man Group, FAO Schwarz, and Sony (the parent company of the companies that made and distributed the film), to name the most obvious ones.  And the movie itself is a promotional vehicle for the Smurfs as a toy product.  Ah, the magic of market synergy:  McDonald’s Smurf Happy Meal anyone? Talk about feeling blue.

In other words, the Smurfs are celebrated on the screen as little more than a cartoonish ghost in the machinery of the status quo, the spirit of a world without spirit (in the words of Karl Marx).   Welcome to Smurfdom.   A place where “free market” purists reject all possibility of policy making in the public interest, and corporate-controlled culture industries reduce our hopes and dreams to profitable pixie dust.

If you’re fired from your job, you’re apt to be on your own.  What used to be called solidarity and social cooperation, or the common good, or community, is now considered a crime against the free market.  Any imaginable alternative to this state of affairs, while pleasant to consume and even profitable to transmit, in the end is diminished to childish fantasy.  Thus ends the road to Smurfdom!

My kids seemed to understand that the Smurfs had been sent into exile.  And they wanted to resist it.  “What if there were really Smurfs?” they asked as we left the theater.  What if? asked the two members of the family whose social imagination has not yet been stunted by status quo propaganda.

What if, indeed, I thought.  What if we recognized Occupy Wall Street in that what if? What if we took loving egalitarianism and mutual aid seriously and refused to allow such values to be driven out of the public sphere or relegated to ad copy?  By some estimates, 99% of us hold these values dear.  What if we demanded public policy that reflected the non-commercial values we celebrate? I suspect our kids expect no less from us. Smurfs of the world unite.

Bruce Campbell teaches Latino/Latin American Studies, among other things, at St. John's University in Collegeville, MN. His most recent book is ¡Viva la historieta!: Mexican Comics, NAFTA, and the Politics of Globalization. Read other articles by Bruce.