This week, PhD student Morris Brodie takes a light-hearted look at the Marxist messages we’ve all missed in Disney Pixar’s a bug’s life.

 

Yuri Ant-ropov?

Yuri Ant-ropov?

Reading far too much into cultural products (particularly film) is a long-established academic practice. Children’s films have generally escaped such unnecessary scrutiny, but I think a compelling argument can be made for recognising a bug’s life (it’s supposed to be all lower case) as an important piece of post-Cold War Marxist propaganda. While playing the a bug’s life game on my N64, I realised I had totally forgotten the plot of the film, so I made an effort to rewatch it – and it blew my mind.

For those unfamiliar with the film, the plot is an apparently simple one. A colony of ants works hard during the summer to collect food for an unsavoury gang of grasshoppers led by Hopper (ably voiced by Kevin Spacey) who appear at the end of the season. However, one ant (Flik – Dave Foley) accidentally knocks over the ceremonial leaf which contains the season’s takings – prompting fury from Hopper and his gang. Flik then sets out to find help in the ‘big city’ (a la Seven Samurai) and – under the mistaken impression that they were ‘warriors’  – enlists a troupe of travelling circus bugs to fight the grasshoppers off. After the usual Disney ‘soul-searching’ and some humorous misunderstandings, Hopper is killed by a bird and the grasshoppers leave the ants in peace. So far, so un-Marxist.

The story is loosely based on Aesop’s fable The Ant and the Grasshopper. But whereas this is a morality tale on the need to prepare (for a harsh winter) and the inadvisability of wasting time (the grasshopper spends the summer months singing; not finding food), a fairly conservative lesson, a bug’s life changes the plot and instead makes the case for the necessity of uniting against a common enemy. Whilst many Disney films put a high emphasis on teamwork (indeed, it would be quite unusual for a Disney film not to privilege teamwork to some extent), a bug’s life takes this banal observation a step further. This can be seen from Flik’s rallying cry when he leaves the colony looking for help: “For the colony, and for oppressed ants everywhere!” This was when it hit me; a bug’s life is about more than teamwork – it’s about class war.

The more I thought about it, the more the film made use of explicit (yes, explicit!) Marxist tropes. Take the scene in (presumably) Mexico, when Hopper makes the case for going back to the ant colony, something his brother, the dim-witted Molt (a terrific voice performance by Richard Kind) was advising against. Hopper speculates that one ant (Flik) stood up to him the last time the grasshopper gang was there. He remembers that Flik had told Hopper to stop harassing Dot – one of the colony’s princesses, played by Hayden Panettiere – but in true Marxist style Flik as an individual ant found it difficult to make a real impact, prompting him to bow his head and slink back into the mass of other ants. In his rousing speech Hopper then makes the case that if “you let one ant stand up to us then they all might stand up”. He says, revealingly, that “those puny little ants outnumber us a hundred to one, and if they ever figure that out, there goes our way of life!” The parallels with Marx’s conception of capitalist society as being ruled by an elite (the bourgeoisie) at the expense of a much more numerous, and ultimately much more powerful class (the proletariat) are striking.[1] I mean, to me they’re striking.

The grasshoppers only survive by living off the surplus value created by the ants. When the first food offering is lost, Hopper tells the ants that they will give them some time to collect more. When the queen (Phyllis Diller) says that this is when the ants collect food for themselves, Hopper’s response is curt: he doubles the quota. This squeezing of the ants’ food supply can be seen as the squeezing of capital. The response when profits fall for the bourgeoisie is to cut wages, lay people off, etc. but not to reign in their own extravagance. Similarly, instead of the grasshoppers eating less, they increase their ‘bonus’, despite not having actually done anything (they claim to protect the ants from other insects but the only other thing bothering the colony is a bird of which Hopper is terrified).

This system of repression would go on unabated if it wasn’t for the intervention of Flik and the circus bugs. They hatch a pretty convoluted plan to scare away the grasshoppers by building a bird out of leaves and sticks, which the entire colony helps in making. When the grasshoppers return, the bird gets set on fire and Hopper is furious at the ants’ audacity. He attacks Flik and tells him that “ideas are very dangerous things”. The most dangerous idea, though, is not directed at the ants, but at the grasshoppers – the idea of class consciousness. The troupe (and Flik) in this sense acts as a vanguard for the ants in that through them they realise the potential they have to change the system they live under. When it looks like Hopper is about to kill Flik, the formidable formicidae makes this prescient observation:

Ants are not meant to serve grasshoppers. I’ve seen these ants do great things, and year after year, they somehow manage to pick enough food for themselves and you. So-so who’s the weaker species? Ants don’t serve grasshoppers! It’s you who need us! We’re a lot stronger than you say we are. And you know it, don’t you?

When Hopper looks back at the colony, the scene he surveys is truly revolutionary – the ants and the troupe link arms, symbolising their new-found solidarity, and charge. You can actually see the moment when they achieve class consciousness in their faces as the camera pans. I thought I was watching The Battleship Potemkin! Flik eventually lures Hopper to the bird’s nest where he is swiftly eaten – this quite graphic death (by Disney standards) shows the violence of the revolution. What colour is the bird? Red. Of course it is.

I could write more about the circus troupe symbolising the Bolsheviks returning from exile during the Russian Revolution, and how the grasshoppers achieve Gramscian hegemony over the ants at the start of the film, but I think I’ll leave it at that. Hopefully I’ve convinced you that a bug’s life is basically just really Marxist. So what can we take from the film? Can a bug’s life provide lessons for revolutionaries in the post-Cold War world? Indubitably. For those who wish to see a blueprint for the revolutionary society, look no further. I may have gotten a bit carried away with this, but at the very least it might convince you to give the film another watch (or might have scarred you forever, who knows).

The fall of the grasshoppers and the victory of the ants are equally inevitable.

For the colony, and for oppressed ants everywhere! [2]

 


[1] In Capital, Marx uses the term ‘parasites’ to describe certain members of the bourgeoisie; the grasshoppers in the film play the role of kleptoparasites, namely, organisms which take food which has been gathered by another organism. Karl Marx, ‘The Medium of Circulation in the Credit System’, Capital, iii (https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1894-c3/ch33.htm) (30 June 2015).

[2] For further reading on the historical and cultural representations of ants, see Charlotte Sleigh, Six Legs Better: A Cultural History of Myrmecology (Baltimore, MD, 2007)