A Muppet of a Marxist, or a Very Marxist Muppet?

A Muppet of a Marxist, or a Very Marxist Muppet?

The new Muppet movie is about traversing alienation and owning your work. But is it Communist?

[T]he worker is related to the product of labor as to an alien object… the more the worker spends himself, the more powerful becomes the alien world of objects which he creates over and against himself, the poorer he himself – his inner world – becomes, the less belongs to him as his own.”

Karl Marx, “Estranged Labor,”
Economic and Political Manuscripts of 1844

This week, recent hit movie The Muppets faced pointed accusations of left-wing anti-corporate child brainwashing on FOX News for its villainous depiction of oil baron and antagonist Tex Richman (played by a gloriously snarling, hilarious Chris Cooper).

According to Dan Gainor of the Media Research Center (a pro-free-market media analysis organization that claims 501c(3) tax exempt status as an educational non-profit), Hollywood has been indoctrinating children for years in left-wing anti-corporatism. In his report on The Muppets, Gainor lists such child-friendly fare as Syriana, There Will be Blood, The Day After Tomorrow and The Matrix alongside Captain Planet and the Planeteers and Nickelodeon’s environmental community service initiative, The Big Green Help (his list, not mine), as examples of Hollywood’s mission to brainwash children into disregarding the social good performed by the oil industry.

This is ridiculous, of course. The Muppets are not leftists by any contemporary definition of the word. The Muppets is not about the oil industry, and There Will Be Blood should not be shown to children.

No, the Muppets are philosophical Marxists, who look past the trivial disagreements among our current ruling classes and institutions to the enduring spirit of humanity, which, left free of exploitation, might transcend the alienation it experiences in relation to its own work in modern society.

Of course, it is not so much a political message as a philosophical message, and you do not have to come to the same conclusions Marx does about the necessary action in the present day in order to recognize his insights, especially relating to how work changes people and the challenges it creates for us as human beings.

The Muppets addresses alienation in many forms: alienation of the individual from society, alienation of the subjective self from the expected and understood role of the individual, alienation of the self from the other, alienation of the self from knowledge of itself, and Gonzo, to name a few. But it is also concerned with economic alienation – the alienation of the worker from the product of his or her work, and the effect that has on the worker’s sense of self and social relationships.

Are you a man, or are you a Muppet? Who are the Muppets, and who are the Muppet masters? Rise up, you have nothing to lose but that guy’s hand up your AFTER THE JUMP —

The Pundits, the Dreamers and Me

Andrea Tanteros, who hosts The Five, the show that replaced The Glenn Beck Show on FOX News, decried in The Muppets what she sees as inappropriate and growing influence of the political left on the young, through the Jim Henson Studios and The Walt Disney Company (NYSE: DIS):

It is brainwashing in its most obvious form. I just wish liberals would leave little kids alone. Why does there have to be some sort of political message? I thought Sesame Street is supposed to be about sharing and being nice to people, but over the years, they’ve gotten more liberal.”

Andrea Tanteros

"Witch hunt! WIIIITCH HUUUNT!!!" - Animal, Communist

There are a whole bunch of reasons to take issue with this reading of the story (and I’m focusing here on the literary and philosophical interpretation of the piece, because this is not a politics site) — most obviously, the Muppets in The Muppets are entrepreneurs running a small business, and they’re hardly political leftists. Kermit lives in a mansion bought with the money he made from the Muppet shows and movies of the 70s-90s. Gonzo is the CEO of a plumbing corporation. Piggy is the plus-size editor for French Vogue. Kermit and Piggy even regret their failed marriage and wish they had taken their shot at a traditional family. Fozzie sells his skills freelance and works at a casino. The primary reason The Muppet Show is brought back to the stage and screen in the movie is to make a profit, and their goal in the film is to raise enough money to buy back the studio and the land on it in line with an existing business contract that gives them the explicit opportunity to do so. Hardly enough to write their ticket to McCarthyville.

Yes, the telethon is a charitable endeavor, but Kermit provides value to his customers, and he makes his case straight-faced to network execs, not in the grimy basement publishing rooms of Pravda. The movie shows the value of hard work, effective teams, putting the right talent in the right roles, and experienced, prudent, balanced management that knows when to take risks and when to resist reinventing what already works. You could probably make yourself a lot of cynical money writing It’s Not Easy Being Team: The Rainbow Connection in Start-Ups. In The Muppets, when the revolution shows up, it comes with a check to pay its mortgage.

Meanwhile, Tex Richman’s opposition to the Muppets is hardly market-driven. He seeks to manipulate the legal system, defrauding senior citizens, making false promises in his business deals, and when the competitiveness and value of the Muppet Show is going to win out, he resorts to underhanded tactics, violence, and destruction of private property to maintain his hegemony. He’s hardly a model business leader, and he’s very against market competition. So it’s pretty obvious the FOX report was blustery, empty sensationalism, which is fine. If I thought TV news were ever worth watching, I would not have seen The Chronicles of Riddick nearly as many times as I have (after all, they new episodes every night, and whole channels that play news all day). I didn’t come here to diss FOX News, and I certainly didn’t come here to bash political conservatives.

But I did come to correct Andrea Tanteros on one thing, The Muppets sure aren’t becoming more liberal. While the Muppets have chased market solutions to their financial woes since a decade before I was born, at the heart of their characterizations and stories has always been the question of what this work does to who we are — to our characters and to our spirits. Like many works of philosophy and most Muppet stories that are any good, The Muppets is about alienation: specifically, the sort of alienation you endure when you work to somebody else’s profit rather than your own.

The Muppets have always addressed the tension between the American Dream and the damage it does, and how people can transcend the alienation they face as workers in a capitalist society through a combination of being true to themselves and being open and generous to others. In Marx’s writing, these ideas are deeply involved with one another.

The Species-being

It is just in his work upon the objective world, therefore, that man really proves himself to be a species-being. This production is his active species-life. Through this production, nature appears as his work and his reality. The object of labor is, therefore, the objectification of man’s species-life: for he duplicates himself not only, as in consciousness, intellectually, but also actively, in reality, and therefore he sees himself in a world that he has created. In tearing away from man the object of his production, therefore, estranged labor tears from him his species-life, his real objectivity as a member of the species and transforms his advantage over animals into the disadvantage that his inorganic body, nature, is taken from him.

Similarly, in degrading spontaneous, free activity to a means, estranged labor makes man’s species-life a means to his physical existence.”

Karl Marx, “Estranged Labor,”
Economic and Political Manuscripts of 1844

Okay, okay, okay, that’s a little tough to grasp. Let’s use a better formulation of it, from The Muppets Take Manhattan.

Peoples is Peoples


This was way back in 1984, when The Muppets, trying to pursue the American Dream by taking their musical, Manhattan Melodies to Broadway, found themselves broke and starving. Kermit asked Pete the diner owner if he could get food for his friends, despite being broke, offering to work it off. Pete responds with a poetic if incoherent statement on the species-being of humanity and the call to push past the restrictions private property and wage conventions place on our notions of ourselves and each other — to not let the things that the capitalist system makes us do to survive take away our deeper sense for the value and recognition we find in each other.

(So much for getting more liberal recently. This was almost 30 years ago. Sheesh.)

It isn’t entirely fair for me to call the Muppets Marxist — it is more that they recognize and create art from difficulties Marx proposed, while instead turning to friendship, compassion and generosity within a capitalist system to soften and attempt to transcend alienation, rather than destroying the system that puts it in place. Imagine a Muppets Take Manhattan where Pete denies Kermit’s request for food, so the Muppets riot, trashing the diner,  carrying off Jennie, and force-feeding poor Pete a Greek omelet, 86 feta, laced with cyanide, before disemboweling and shooting him and all that Rasputin nonsense.

The Muppets are not Marxist-Leninist. The point is to recognize the alienating effects of the capitalist system, to portray reflect them empathetically to connect with the audience, and to move through them through self-ownership, self-actualization and species-actualization that comes from putting on The Muppet Show and related activities.

They are more Promethean figures, looking to offer post-capitalist self-actualization to people who continue to live in a capitalist world.

Moving Right Along.

Kermit the Frog and his fellow Muppet Show performers are usually economic underdogs – scrappy post-Vaudeville journeymen throwing together shows on shoestring budgets while scrambling with shoddy equipment and inadequate staffing, always one blown fuse away from giving everyone their money back. Much of the humor of The Muppet Show and the movie The Muppets, as well as of the Muppets in general, comes from how their essential nature shows through their difficulty. They lack resources and skills that might tend to add value to commercial artistic performances, but having them would subtract (and in the case of newer, shinier post-Elmo Sesame Street, does subtract) from their authenticity and aesthetic value.

This is because the Muppets are not, or at least strive not to be, commodified entertainment. They are difficult, intellectual and very meta, like the similarly Marxist-influenced (but un-Muppetish in other ways) Epic Theatre of Bertolt Brecht. Their relationships and love stories are rarely strictly sentimental and are often mature and bittersweet. The Muppet Show is not a variety show, it is a backstage show about putting on a variety show — you do not get the finished product of the labor of the Muppets as your entertainment to consume — you get a chance to connect with them and move past your own alienation by connecting with them.

The Muppets tend to break up and go into the regular workforce in Muppet movies and shows (as they do in The Muppets), only to discover that living their lives on their own as part of everyday society doesn’t give them the same sort of authentic experience and senses of community that they bring out of each other when they do their own kind of work. This is the Marxist alienation and estrangement of labor that metastasizes and grows to become profound personal alienation and the reduction of the species-self as merely a means in the labor system.

We don’t enjoy the Muppets by enjoying what they perform for us, we enjoy them by sharing their experiences.

So, what does this the end of alienation look like? Well, it is both stridently individualistic and compassionate and collectivist – a lot like folksy America. A lot like a road trip:

You Have Nothing to Lose But Your Fart Shoes

Wocka Wocka Wocka.

Let’s follow this idea one step further — what is a Muppetish performative act, how is it Marxist-influenced, and how is it different from sentimental or commodified performance art? Our example will be Fozzie Bear’s signature utterance, “Wocka Wocka Wocka” (I always preferred Wakka Wakka, but this is how the Muppet Wiki spells it).

Wakka Wakka Wakka.

In speech act theory, utterances are explained in terms of three levels of meaning:

  • The “locutionary” level, which is how they are produced and their definitions, syntax and semantics by their most basic, functional interpretations.
  • The “illocutionary” level, which is what the statement ostensibly or intentionally means, or what it does.
  • The “perlocutionary” level, which is their effect, whether it is intended or not.

Let’s do a warmup:

Iceman tells Maverick “You can be my wingman any time,” and Maverick responds, “Bullshit, you can be mine.”

  • Maverick’s locutionary act is the meanings of the word bullshit, and the syntax of how Maverick identifies Iceman and the status of Iceman as his wingman rather than the other way around.
  • Maverick’s illocutionary act is the offer of wingmanship, and also an offer of friendship and mutual respect with maintained rivalry.
  • Maverick’s perlocutionary act is an acknowledgement and gratification of building homoerotic tension for the two characters and the audience — not by way of sex acts, but by way of growing and exploring themselves through each other.

Get it? Got it? Good.

In this song from The Muppets, “Pictures in my Head”:


Consider this joke from Fozzie (who in the song is appearing in a picture frame as Kermit has a montage of memories of his distant friends).

I didn’t do it, I’ve been framed! Wocka Wocka Wocka!”

Fozzie Bear

“Estranged Labor,” Economic and Political Manuscripts of 1844 (Wocka Wocka Wocka)

Okay, in the actual joke, not the citation, how does “Wocka Wocka Wocka” function in speech act theory?

  • As a locutionary act, Fozzie is uttering an onomatopoetic laugh.
  • As an ilocutionary act, Fozzie is  prompting the audience to laugh at his joke.
  • As a perlocutionary act, Fozzie is prompting the audience to share laughter with him on the merits of the shared experience of his making the joke.

The one scene in The Muppets that works the least for me is when Jack Black is tied up and Fozzie is telling jokes. The audience doesn’t laugh at Fozzie’s jokes, but they laugh at Jack Black begging them to call the police. They think he thinks the jokes are bad, but really he has been kidnapped.

I don’t like the scene because the point with Fozzie’s jokes was never just that they were bad. They aren’t funny because they are bad. Lots of people tell bad jokes, and they’re not funny.

What’s funny about Fozzie’s jokes is how much Fozzie enjoys telling them. Fozzie loves the jokes he tells, not necessarily on their merits, but because of his simple joy in the act of telling. We as an audience laugh at “Wocka Wocka Wocka” because he is tipping his hand to us that he is just having a blast doing what he is doing — that he loves the feeling of telling corny jokes to people and is a consummate professional at it. We have all felt and recognized the various aspects of that feeling at times — loving to do something despite being terrible at it, maybe even a little bit because we are terrible at it, but yearning more than anything not quite to be good at it, but to find in it a way to connect with others — to find recognition and mutual identification. To traverse our own alienation.

Fozzie owns his work. Oh, he performs it for Kermit, sure, and Kermit makes more money than Fozzie does, as we see in The Muppets when Kermit lives in a mansion and Fozzie lives on a back porch on a Reno alley exposed to the elements. But Fozzie does not feel estranged from the product of his labor, because it is so authentic to him, and it connects him both with himself and with other people.

Marxism may have problems with people having bosses, but Kermit is a boss who gives people opportunities to do things that are authentic to them — in that way he corrects one of the fundamental flaws in 19th century management that led Marx to deem it a lost cause. Add that, a little health insurance, some vacation, a decent night’s sleep, and suddenly the revolution isn’t looking so likely after all.

The Muppet Name

The fact of the story that ties is all up for me is how the Muppet name and intellectual property, even the Muppets’ own likenesses, are bound up in the contract with their ownership of their studio — which represents their ability to work authentically, without feeling alienated from themselves or humanity (obviously they are not human, but “peoples is peoples” as Pete would say). Whenever they go off to work somewhere else, they end up alienated, when they are back at The Muppet Show, they are themselves, and they feel better and more whole. Lose that self-ownership, and the work becomes this alien thing to them — they don’t even recognize themselves.

This is set up in the story against the existential crises of Walter and Gary, which are more personal and less economic, but rhyme somewhat with the problems the Muppets go through in the movie.

And why teach this to children? Because children feel profound alienation and need for belonging. It is part of their social and intellectual development. That is why kids respond to the Muppets, not because of politics. If the political left were so good at its job that it could create things as awesome as the Muppets for strictly political purposes, they would probably be doing quite a bit better in a whole lot of ways right now. But again, that is all beside the point.

Marx believed the only way to eventually break this cycle was for the proletariat to seize the means of production and abolish private property, which by necessity brought about this alienation. The Muppets had a different plan for how to go about it — it had something to do with playing music and lighting lights…


29 Comments on “A Muppet of a Marxist, or a Very Marxist Muppet?”

  1. Matthew Belinkie OTI Staff #

    I just started this, and I’ll definitely have more to say later. But right off the bat, I disagree that the telethon is a “charitable endeavor.” This isn’t the Blues Brothers, where they’re trying to save the orphanage. They are raising money for THEMSELVES… and that’s totally consistent with the way they’ve always been.

    Let me quote from the original Muppet Movie: “Please sir, uh, my name is Kermit the Frog, and we read your ad, and well we’ve come to be rich and famous.”

    (I don’t know if this is significant, but in The Muppet Movie Orson Welles refers to “the standard Rich and Famous contract,” while in this movie Tex Richman has Kermit’s “standard Fame and Fortune contract.” It’s clearly supposed to be a reference, but they get it slightly wrong. Did they just mess up, or is there a crucial difference? Maybe Jason Seigel and Co. wanted to make it sound a little less greedy?)


    • fenzel OTI Staff #

      Yeah, I couched that a little bit, because I didn’t want to come off as _too_ directly opposed to the Fox News report. Always a bit self-conscious about bringing politics onto the site, even when it’s relevant to film analysis.

      I had forgotten that was the same contract from the Muppet Movie! That’s awesome!

      Are you sure the contract is referred to that way by everybody throughout the movie? I thought Statler and Waldorf called it the Rich and Famous contract… will have to wait for a DVD or seeing it a third time to see if it’s consistently referred to that way. Might just be a continuity error.


      • innocent passerby #

        I’m pretty sure they got it right… I can’t believe my Muppet-Movie-saturated brain would have not jumped out of my skull if I had heard them say it wrong, and I remember being really happy at the reference. I think the phrase “fame and fortune” was used at some point, but the contract was still The Standard Rich and Famous Contract.

        This was an outstanding article.


    • Hawkmoth #

      I agree that in the movie the fundraisers are also the beneficiaries, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a charitable endeavor. Most charitable organizations raise money for their own staff…that’s just what they’re raising money for. Further more, one definition of charity (used by the IRS, in fact) is if the donor knew in advance that the interaction was an unequal exchange with the recipient. If you buy something in a Public TV auction, you can only deduct the hammer price from your taxes to the extent it exceeds the fair market value of the item you “won.” The people donating to the Muppet telethon didn’t receive anything of significant value so it is technically a donation. The next question then is does the mission of Muppet Studios further the public interest as defined by the IRS. In this case we may not have enough information to know for sure, but there’s plenty of precedent for arts and performance organizations gaining 501(c)(3) status based on a perceived public good in their work. Finally, there is an obligation for a 501(c)(3) to pay their principals no more than reasonable compensation for their field. You could probably make a strong case for most of them, though Piggy could be a problem. Of course her lavish lifestyle might be supported primarily by her work for Vogue, which as a for-profit enterprise wouldn’t be under any restriction as to her compensation.

      If you want to stick entirely with Matthew’s question about are there analogues to the Muppets’ telethon in for-profit business, and don’t buy that the Muppet Studios are tax exempt, there are still several good ways to go if you think about ways businesses typically go about raising capital. Obviously the Muppets don’t have enough ownership rights in the property to secure a commercial loan, but you could argue that what you’re seeing in the telethon is an appeal for a sort of direct investment, ala Kickstarter.com, only it’s televised, not web-based. (It wouldn’t be much of a movie if you watched Kermit leaning over the shoulder of Bunsen Honeydew while the latter programs their website.)


  2. Edward #

    Fenzel. You are my favorite OTI guy. You are like 2 standard deviations above the others. This post did not disappoint.


    • fenzel OTI Staff #

      Thanks! I always like to think of myself as a standard deviant :-)

      We should get the fan groups of the various OTI writers together for a West Side Story-esque dancefight.


      • Edward #

        Perhaps this isn’t the forum for it, but I had this thought the other day listening to the podcast. Have you guys ever tried to determine which of OTI guys is responsible for the most podcast titles? My bet is that you would be in the lead, controlling for number of appearances, of course. Just a thought.


        • Timothy J Swann #

          I thought about this when doing the appearances chart, but then I realised that as fun as it would be to listen to every episode again, I have 250 unlistened podcasts already. What you need to do is find a brand new listener really, make sure they recognise everyone by voice/can just write down the time when the titles arise.

          But intra-OTI competition isn’t really the way, right guys?


        • Pasteur #

          I’ll solve this by the new year, and Tim, I’ll send you the data afterward to add to your running charts.


  3. Tom #

    (Disclaimer: I haven’t seen the movie yet. I know, I hate fun.)

    This is a little tangential, but I think it’s pretty clear that the Muppets are, if anything, culturally conservative, at least in the Edmund Burke sense of fighting to maintain the old ways against new mores. Their chosen art form–the vaudeville show–was a little archaic even during their heyday in the 1970s. But at least then, the television variety show was a recent memory (the Smothers Brothers were fired in 1969, and Laugh-In ended in 1973). That’s an art form that essentially doesn’t exist now (what’s the closest modern analogue, Ellen? America’s Got Talent?

    But the Muppets still insist on doing what they always do; I’m guessing that none of the Muppets suggest they try making a single-camera sitcom, or an Apatovian-style highly improvised comedy about the bonds between emotionally stunted men in their 30s. Even in a world that has entirely discarded their chosen art form, they persist. One might say they “stand[] athwart [entertainment] history, yelling Stop,” if one were to put a particular phrase to it.


    • fenzel OTI Staff #

      This is an interesting point – because if you drop the smokescreen the political parties throw up as they attempt to retcon their respective coalitions into ideological coherence, there is a big intersection in American culture between Burke-style conservatism and Marxist ideas of what happens when you are forced to work for somebody else rather than in your own interest.

      Much like Burke’s ideal mythical nobility are metaphorical cows, chewing on the grass and cud of sufficient luxury to remain content and not starting any mischief, the ideal American mythical landowner is a small farmer who owns a small plot of land within which he (or she) has absolute power and freedom, but with an undestanding of mutual interest, humility and decency toward other farmers.

      You see this intersection most clearly where folk music becomes protest music — the corporations and the military/industrial complex are a _radical_ element, coming in to disrupt a conservative way of life that relies on decency and generosity as well as individual freedoms.

      You also see it in the late 19th century Populist movement, which was agrarian and sectionally aligned with what are traditionally very conservative elements, but which advocated very left-wing reforms, especially around public debt forgiveness and the apportionment of government commitment to the agricultural infrastructure and the railroads.

      You also see in the Ron Paul movement a bit — insofar as much as a lot of Ron Paul supporters hate war, centralized power and large corporations as well as the current monetary system — there is a nexus between Burkean conservatism, which is primarily aesthetic, and more radical political ideas of struggling as a class against an oppressor and the damaging affects that has on your dignity.


      • Shana Mlawski OTI Staff #

        That’s a very interesting point, Tom, and it depends on whether you use the word “Muppets” to refer to the actual characters, such as Kermit, Fozzie, and so on, or to the gestalt (meaning the characters, their vaudeville show, and all the stuff we see behind the scenes of the vaudeville show). While the muppets (the individuals) are artistically conservative, Fenzel was right that The Muppets (the brand, the idea, the totality of their art) is “difficult, intellectual and very meta.”

        That’s why it seems to me that The Muppet brand has always been for an artistically liberal audience. It basically forces its audience to take a postmodern perspective, because, if you didn’t, you wouldn’t laugh. As Fenzel said, no one in the audience enjoys Fozzie’s jokes unironically. Fozzie is only funny when his laugh highlights how unfunny he is. To enjoy The Muppets, one MUST watch them from an ironic distance. That’s why The Muppets perform in a vaudeville show. What better way to achieve that distance than to put on a piece of artwork that clearly and constantly draws attention to itself as constructed? It seems different from the “hippies singing folk songs” phenomenon, because, as far as I’m aware, folk songs are usually pretty sincere.


        • Shana Mlawski OTI Staff #

          And now that I published that comment, I’m going to completely demolish it. How can The Muppets both be a piece of ironic, po-mo, Brechtian theater of alienation and at the same time produce things like this?


          (It’s The Rainbow Connection, in case you don’t want to click the link.)


          • fenzel OTI Staff #

            I know it isn’t a popular opinion among the editors of the site, but irony and sincerity are not opposed. You can be really ironic and really sincere easily (like O. Henry).

          • hanncommander #

            I can’t respond to Pete’s comment because of the nesting, but didn’t sheely coin the phrase earony to denote the intersection of earnestness and irony?

          • fenzel #

            Yes, Carlos and I still disagree with its use, because it implies that the two qualities can’t be expressed in full in parallel — I don’t tend to think they exist on a continuum with a portmanteauable “middle-space.”

          • Matthew Belinkie OTI Staff #

            Actually, “earony” was mine. I mention it not because I have to viciously stake a claim to every scrap of intellectual property I can, but because it was coined on the old 40 Inspirational Speeches comment thread. I literally could not decide whether the montage was meant to mock inspirational speeches, or celebrate them. It’s earonic.

            The best example I can think of is still the South Park movie. It is an absolutely brutal parody of musicals. But it is also a glorious love letter to musicals.

            Another good example is any performance of “Proud to Be An American” above the Mason-Dixon line. It’s corny, but it’s also a thrilling crowdpleaser.

            I guess the concept is close to what we mean when we talk about “camp.”
            We love these things not in spite of their cheesiness, but BECAUSE of them. We drink the kool-aid, knowing full well it’s kool-aid.

    • Diana Barnes-Brown #

      Yes, I agree – they are not interested in genre-busting artistic innovation, but rather a traditionalist model from a past era. But while cultural and political conservatism often go hand in hand, they also turn up in surprising, often paradoxical relationships to one another. Think of the embedded conservatism of 30 Rock (covered nicely here: http://www.overthinkingit.com/2009/11/16/tv-tina-fey-30-rock-liberal/), or, for a more serious and less media-related example, the cultural conservatism of revolutionary clergypeople in El Salvador coupled with their leftist politics during the war. A really interesting point, though!


  4. fenzel OTI Staff #

    By the way, let’s all make a deal not to tell FOX News about The Dark Crystal, okay? It would just upset them.


  5. Matthew Belinkie OTI Staff #

    To build off of what Fenzel and Tom are saying, conservatism at its core is about respect for EXISTING INSTITUTIONS. Conservatives are wary of change, and they certainly are wary about tearing something down and building something new in its place.

    Now consider the Muppets. In The Muppet Movie, they have a dream of becoming rich and famous. Do they pursue it by trying something bold and creative? Nope – they walk into the office of a big Hollywood producer and ASK for fame. Politely. Note how the Muppets make no attempt to do anything on their own. There is an unspoken assumption that if they want to accomplish anything, it’s going to be with the help of the establishment.

    Then in The Muppets Take Manhattan, we get another origin story. Kermit and the gang have a musical they want to perform on Broadway. So how do they make it happen? They visit every producer and talent agent in town. When all this fails, it doesn’t seem to occur to them that there are lots of smaller theaters where they could perform their show on a smaller scale and build some buzz, working their way up the food chain until Broadway NEEDED to notice them. In the Muppetverse, there is NO SUCH THING as off-Broadway. There is just the theater establishment, and you advance only with their blessing.

    And now take this newer movie. The Muppets never think about challenging or defying Tex Richman’s contract. They don’t attempt to rally their fans through any populist, grassroots campaign. Their approach to the crisis is to go to the TV stations and beg for air time. Once again, they depend on existing institutions.

    So basically, the Muppets always start at the TOP, not building a fan base from the ground up:
    They approach Hollywood through the lens of the studio system, which was long gone by the late 70s.
    They approach Broadway as if the five largest theaters are the only ones that exist.
    They approach television as if the internet didn’t exist. (NOTE: I’m betting that one of the things that got this new Muppets movie greenlit was the internet success of the Jim Henson Company’s YouTube channel.)

    So I’d say the Muppets are VERY conservative.


    • Tom #

      I think Shana makes a very good point in differentiating between “the Muppets” as a set of (in-world) characters and “the Muppets” as an entertainment to the outside world. There’s definitely a tragicomic aspect to all the Muppets. Take Fozzie, for example (please!). Yes, part of the joke is simply that Fozzie loves selling bad jokes. But he desperately wants to tell good jokes, and he’s working in a format in which that is simply impossible. To tell good jokes would require him to become something he is not; namely, modern.

      So perhaps we’re all right: the Muppets (the characters) are deeply conservative, but The Muppets (the entertainment) is in fact a rebuke of its own characters.

      (Or, to counter my own point again, maybe the Muppets are really avatars of a J.S. Mill utilitarianism; they want to be free to be happy in their own way, and their only “enemies” are those who intentionally interfere with their right to do so. And even then, they won’t fight their enemies in a way that harms their enemies’ well-being.)


  6. JeremyT #

    Interestingly, Kyle “Oancitizen” Kallgren has also made a video on YouTube comparing Muppet s to Brecht.


  7. Johann #

    I work in the management science department at a university and I once told my colleague I would pay him a cup of coffee if he manages to bring in Marx into a discussion at a seminar on management theory. So, Fenzel, I guess I owe you a whole bag of coffee beans for bringing together Marx and the Muppets! Best article in a long time!


    • fenzel OTI Staff #

      Marx actually has a lot to say to managers. If you ask me, the biggest flaw in Marx’s thinking is he sees the material circumstances of workers as the necessary and sufficient condition for their subjective experience of exploitation — whereas it turns out in practice, whether you *think* you are being exploited as a worker isn’t all that connected with whether you *are* being exploited.

      It is a big part of the role of managers to encourage employees to have a subjective experience of both personal and collective ownership of their work even when the economics of the situation only allow for them to have a partial material ownership of their work, if that (as is always the case when labor is purchased).

      In his wind-up to advocating revolution, Marx cites all sorts of ills people suffer from private property and working for wages — what a modern-day manager needs to realize when reading Marx (as every modern manager should), is which of these ills are actually caused by capitalism in the necessary way Marx says they are, and which are just consequences of poor management that undervalues human capital.

      And then the manager has to figure out which of these effects he or she can personally mitigate, which must be left to other managers, and what can be done about it.


      • fenzel OTI Staff #

        I will add of course that it is useful to consider the gap between the macro and micro landscape vis a vis corporate earnings when determining the actual expected value of degrees of material exploitation – as well as the collective action problems those gaps represent.

        A truly starving worker cannot work, and an impoverished worker cannot buy anything. So while raising the degree of material exploitation of your workforce (in terms of where the value-add of labor accrues), can be a good move for one company, if done systematically across private industry that operates in a particulr market, clamps down on money velocity, is deflationary and bad for pricing and margins.

        It’s a bit of a prisoner’s dilemma.


        • fenzel #

          T-T-T-T-TRIPLE POST!

          Why should a manager read Marx? Because at one point he inspired a political movement that overthrew the governments of half the world, destroying innumerable companies and incalculable wealth, all driven by how much employees hated their managers.

          One would think it odd for a manager to not at least be curious why everybody was so upset.

          It seems arrogance in the extreme to claim that managers were doing everything perfectly and Bolshevism was entirely the fault of philosophers, politicians and the poor.

          And this idea that Marx’s ideas themselves are toxic and will turn you Communist seems absurd on its face. In developed nations today I would wager knowing dialectical materialism is even a thing has a sharp negative correlation with actual Communists – the people who have the readiest access to philosophy classes are the bourgeoise, Marx is required reading in those classes, and despite what people might say over a cup of coffee, nobody is flipping over tables at the brunch places demanding that the workers reap the full rewards of their delicious eggs benedict.

          So, there’s no harm in exposing yourself to these ideas as a manager, and there’s potential benefit in learning the lessons of the past.


          • Johann #

            Interesting thoughts! Much in line with what I have come to think about the usefulness of Marxism today. Unfortunately, only some part of this thinking made its way into management science. Homus Economicus thinking (i.e., the idea that everyone is primarily driven by maximizing his/her own personal gains) is still mainstream in most business schools. Actually, quite a few have argued that this kind of teaching was in part responsible for the financial crisis of 2008.

  8. Diana Barnes-Brown #

    Pete, this post was amazing. Seriously, it blew me away and, I won’t lie, I got a little misty-eyed re: the alienation of children and the ability of art and collective belonging to transcend alienation from one’s species.

    Too, your conclusion (nice touch to use the Star Wars episode, btw), is obliquely reminiscent of – of all things – the underlying worldview of the documentary Man on Wire, which makes the argument that, far from a mere diversion, art and creative expression can be at the very heart of what enables a person to eschew the paths of violence and othering (equally present in the violent Marxist revolution you allude to here and, say, the views of jihadists, the unspoken dark inverse of the tightrope walker in Man on Wire, whose dream is to tightrope walk between the Twin Towers) in favor of creating something beautiful, unlikely, or amazing. I think for those of us who appreciate comedy as a true art form, it serves this artistic purpose in spite of, or perhaps even because of, its presentation of flawed characters with really complex, contradictory human (or Muppet-y, as the case may be) psychological concerns and habits. Yet these characters are striving for meaning and belonging while obviously limited by the very absurdities of body and mind that make irony, gross bodily functions, and cringe-inducing misunderstandings – in other words, stock comedy tropes – not only possible, but likely. In the best comedy, the limitations get laughs, but also speak quite meaningfully of the crushing alienation and shame/embarrassment inherent to sentience, corporeality, and free will.

    I am henceforth petitioning for you to change the name of this Web endeavor to Thinking about It Exactly The Right Amount, Because Analytical Rigor is Profoundly Meaningful.


  9. Hawkmoth #

    I came back to OTI this afternoon because it seemed like a good place to discuss the Marxist/socialist aspects I thought I saw in The Muppet Movie. And lo!…you’re already discussing it! Terrific.

    But I wasn’t thinking the meat of the matter lay in the fight for the theater as a means of production (or identity/validation), I was thinking about the Occupy moment at the end. [SPOILER ALERT] So after the muppets fail to gather enough money to buy back the theater in the currency of evil bankers, they go out into the street where a populist movement rejects the relevance of old systems of exchange in favor of new, socialist/collectivist medium of value and essentially TAKES the theater from Richman by force. Isn’t this precisely the plot of the Occupy movement?

    Now you might think this theory is undermined by the scene in which Richman, after being hit on the head in the mob, agrees to give back the rights the Muppets previous failed to buy…but I say that scene is just the Disney mega-corp behind the movie attempting to obviate the victory of new value paradigms in the script through an aside in which the return of the property by Richman is seen to be voluntary.


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