The moment I saw the trailer for the Season 5 premiere of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, I figured I was going to have to do a post like this. A villain goes around talking about equality and everybody being the same? In the culture of the United States, with its histories of “Red Scares” and the Cold War behind it, this sort of rhetoric immediately equates to “communism” or “socialism”, whatever word you pick. But is Starlight Glimmer, the antagonist of the two-part premiere, really supposed to be a representation of actual communist thought? In this article I’ll be giving what basically amounts to a brief “Marxism 101” lesson as we investigate Starlight Glimmer’s philosophy.
Starlight Glimmer: Anti-Cutie Mark Crusader Yay!
I couldn’t resist the temptation for a pun.
Anyway, Starlight Glimmer’s philosophy presents a rather forceful challenge to a central component of the My Little Pony universe: the importance of cutie marks. Presented throughout the series as a representation of a pony’s unique talents, and argued by myself as a manifestation of the Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, they are shown as unequivocally good. Starlight Glimmer, however, makes the argument that instead of a force of harmony, cutie marks are actually a source of conflict and disagreement. It encourages competition, jealousy, arguing over differing opinions, and resentment by dividing ponies into superior/inferior roles.
That disagreement and differences in talent cause problems is, I would hope, not a particularly hard argument to agree with. Episodes like “Pinkie Pride”, where Pinkie Pie has a momentary existential crisis in the face of seeing another pony with a similar talent as hers getting all the attention, show us that. Where the whole “communism” aspect comes in is in, however, is in Starlight’s solution to the problem: removing the cutie marks, and thereby the special talents, of everypony so that everypony is equally talented. If differences in talent are the source of conflict and disarray, then removing them seems the simplest solution to make everypony get along.
From the perspective of an audience in a Western Democracy, particularly a heavy US-based audience, it’s not hard to see why Starlight’s viewpoint got labelled “communism” so quickly. Between Red Scares and the Cold War, the United States and the West in general has portrayed “communism” as the antithesis of everything that Western liberal democracies stand for: individualism and free markets vs collectivism and command economies. And the show does a beautiful job of playing into this ideological mythology by presenting the town with coarse, rugged sacks for clothes, shacks for housing, bland muffins, and a song and dance number reminiscent of the military parades held in the Soviet Union and other communist states to show off their military might. In other words, even if the staff did not mean for Starlight to be seen as “communistic”, it would not be hard at all to get that feeling from the episode.
So here comes the part where I explain why exactly this isn’t a good representation of communism as represented by the founder of the philosophy, Karl Marx. Buckle up, cause things are about to get philosophical in here.
Karl Marx and Human Emancipation
Before getting into the economic side of things that Marx is most famous for, I figured it a good idea to take a step back and look at some of the more foundational ideas that later lead into the economics. The first is Marx’s critique of what he called “political emancipation”. Political emancipation refers to the granting of liberal rights and liberties: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, the normal sort of thing that an American might think of when thinking about the Bill of Rights or something. Contrary to the public opinion, Marx was not opposed to these: in fact, he thought they were preferable to the past legal frameworks of the past that encouraged prejudice and discrimination. However, Marx believed that focusing on only these rights were too limited as they were “rights of separation” based on the idea that we needed protection from each other and therefore perceives our fellow human beings as threats to ourselves.
If freedom is not simply a “freedom from interference”, so to put it, then what is it? For Marx, real freedom and human emancipation came from our relations with other people in community. Humans are, simply put, not isolated from one other but exist in community. Our existence relies on mutual dependence through a vast network of social and economic relations. Human emancipation, then, cannot occur until we recognize this existence and have it acknowledged in our institutions.
Now, this aspect of Marxist thought might actually be enough to throw out the idea that Starlight Glimmer is a communist. For all the talk about creating harmony and equality, Starlight’s position is still grounded in the idea that individuals are a threat to one another. In her philosophy, individual differences threaten harmony, and it is only be suppressing them that harmony can be achieved. It is ironically the Mane 6 and the villagers from the town who are presenting the Marxist viewpoint, at least in some part, by stating that it was only through their friendship with each other that they were able bring out the best in them and helped to fill what was missing in their lives.
However, this aspect of Marxism is relatively uncontroversial compared to the rest of his philosophy. In fact, similar debates are present even today in the debates about “negative” vs “positive” liberties. Negative liberties being the traditional “freedom from interference” type like “freedom of religion” while positive liberties would be things like “right to healthcare” and other rights that obligates society as a whole to do something proactive. But what about some of the more controversial aspects of Marxism?
Marx and the Alienation of Labor
The concept of “alienated labor” is central to an understanding of basic Marxist philosophy, and serves as the primary foundation for Marx’s larger critiques of capitalism. Drawing upon his concept of human emancipation, Marx argues that the working class under capitalism suffers from four types of alienation:
- First, the product of their labor is taken away from them physically by the producer.
- Productive activity is experienced as a torment.
- Production is done blindly and not in accordance with their truly human powers.
- They are alienated from other humans, where the relation of exchange replaces the satisfaction of mutual need.
In contrast, non-alienated production is supposed to bring enjoyment and serve as a confirmation of the unique abilities of the worker as well as meeting the needs of others in a way that emphasizes the mutual dependence of society.
Some descriptive elaboration may be useful. Remember, at the time Marx is writing the Industrial Revolution is in full throw. In the past, production was often delegated to organizations such as guilds or cottage-based industries in which goods were made by craftsmen. With the rise of mass production, however, the role of the laborer became more and more specialized, turning the process of hand-crafted goods into a process of monotonously doing the same action over and over at an assembly line in conditions that were absolutely terrible. In modern times, simply think of the often-mocked monotony of working in an office in a cubicle or standing at a grill at a fast food joint, or working in retail constantly being harassed by customers to get an idea of what sort of idea we’re talking about. That, of course, is just a surface level demonstration, but I hope it gets the idea across.
Going to another level, then, for Marx, capitalism’s profit motive inevitably lead to all of human interaction being defined by exchange and money, and the worth of an individual person being restricted simply to their ability to be a quiet, productive worker that could barely be distinguished from a cog in the machine. In other words, the worker was no longer a human being working with us in a mutual beneficial interaction, they were simply an “input” to be used. More importantly, this attitude was supported and sustained by institutions that limited the ability to fight back. No matter how guilty they felt, the capitalist must exploit their worker as far as they legally can (and possibly more some) in order to stay in business, and the worker must take whatever job they can or risk being left to die on the street. The ability for mutual benefit is only superficial: at the core, the capitalist and the worker simply have completely different goals. After all, better treatment for workers cuts into profit, and the worker wants to get the most value for their labor (aka higher wage/work hour ratio). Since in a capitalist society it is the capitalist who has the power by owning the means of production, you can take a guess who is going to win if the worker is not given any power or say – remember, at the time Marx is writing voting and other political rights were often still restricted to the upper class and property owners, leaving many workers without any political rights. Of course by succumbing to and participating in capitalism, the worker and capitalist simply reinforce the already existing structure. Escape, therefore, requires collective action by the workers to stand up and take the control over their own lives that they deserve.
Now, at this point I was originally going to just move on. However, fellow blogger Storming the Ivory Tower made a passing comment about possibly analyzing the removal of cutie marks as a way to represent the alienation of labor. In some ways, that does make sense. The cutie mark is basically a metaphysical manifestation of the special talents and unique gifts of the individual pony. As we saw in “Cutie Pox”, getting one through the Heart’s Desire flower does grant the ability to do the talent represented by the mark. More importantly, by removing the cutie mark with her magic, Starlight Glimmer removed the unique abilities of the ponies affected by the spell. Twilight couldn’t do magic, Rarity lost the ability to critique fashion, and Pinkie Pie wasn’t, well, Pinkie. Starlight literally alienated them from their talents and stored them in a vault.
If this is the case, then Starlight is not only not a communist, she is arguing for the exact opposite of what communism is seeking to establish according to Marx. The ponies in her society appear “happy”, but the happiness is one inspired by fear and techniques more akin to a cult than a belief in mutually beneficial interactions. Sugar Belle’s frustrations with having to bake cruddy muffins shows that work is a torment that lacks fulfillment, the exact opposite result the Marxist wants for the worker.
Once again, the Mane 6 end up actually being the defenders of Marxism by arguing that true harmony is found through the encouragement of unique talents and in the interdependence that comes from friendship. The villagers wish to remain in the town, recognizing that their true friendships can come by recognizing their special talents and being able to finally bake a decent muffin.
I’ll admit, I haven’t even given the full surface treatment of Marxist thought here, having skipped completely aspects of Marx’s philosophy such as the labor theory of value or the idea of historical materialism. However, to at least make the broad case that Starlight Glimmer is not a communist, I didn’t need to dwell on those aspects. I’m not exactly desiring to explain Hegelian dialectical processes after all.
What little I touched on here, however, already demonstrates the difficulty in making the claim of Starlight being a “communist”. Starlight’s philosophy, in fact, does not appear to have any real-life equivalent, once one gets past the various strawmen positions attributed to various philosophies of course. Her desire to remove the unique talents of all individuals in order to create “equality” is contradictory to the Marxist desire to emancipate humans from the institutional structures that alienate them from their labor. It is, in fact, the Mane 6 whose desire to celebrate their unique talents and their belief that working together with them that is more representative of Marxist thought. Granted, we got no idea what Twilight Sparkle thinks about the motivations of history and the eventual creation of a classless stateless society, but I think at the very least she could be sympathetic to the Marxist desire to receive acknowledgement for the role of community and interdependence in our lives. After all, isn’t that what the friendship of magic is all about?
For more information on Marx, please feel free to read the following: