Wall-E: A Socialist Shangri-La
Written by Sankalp Dasmohapatra
(Runner Up-School Category, Essay Writing Competition 2020)
The film Wall-E takes place aboard the ship Axiom set in a dystopia over 800 years into the future. It presents the marvel of technological achievements, pioneered by the mega-conglomerate Buy-n-Large (hereafter known as BnL) as it creates a unique fleet of deep space starliners designed to sustain human habitation for extended periods of time. The only signs of human life presented to us over the course of the movie are aboard the Axiom and so we take it as the sample for the systems present across all ships present in the fleet.
In order to classify the economic system governing the Axiom we must answer a few fundamental questions, as proposed by the Journal of Economic Literature (1): 1) What are the forces governing the market?; 2) What is the chain of command regarding production of goods and services?; 3) Who controls the means of production?; 4) How resources are allocated amongst the population?; and 5) How is labour employed and paid?
To answer the first question, we must analyse the essential assumption for supply and demand within a market: the wants of individuals are unlimited. While practically this assumption holds true, the film solves this basic problem in a manner similar to that displayed in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. The allegory illustrates the point that if you limit the worldview of individuals then their wants will always be limited to only what they know is possible within that worldview (2). BnL limits the wants of individuals as a) given their situation the goods that can be produced are limited in number; and b) that through heavy marketing by the government the choices of individuals are largely dictated by those presented to them by the government, keeping with the allegory and serving as an extreme implementation of Say’s Law (3). This hence negates the need for market forces as it creates an almost-Utopian society (4), where the wants of individuals are met exactly by the supply.
The second and third questions both have similar answers and explanations so we shall choose to answer them together. To answer these questions, we must first look at the legality of the decisions aboard the craft. Now since no governing treaty is shown or hinted at within the film, we must assume that the ship’s legal basis is established by the principles of the Outer Space Treaty. While the treaty is fairly dated, even by current terms it does discuss the operation of private enterprises, particularly private crafts in space and we assume that similar principles would remain in operation, given the applicability of the treaty to modern private enterprise. The Axiom itself and all it’s working parts are, by virtue of the Outer Space Treaty, the property of BnL (5). The treaty implies through Part 2, Declaration A, Article 5 that while BnL is allowed to take authoritative decisions governing the ship and its passengers, its authority is superseded by that of the States participating in the endeavour. There is however, no evidence of the presence of States aboard the Axiom or that of State officials. Moreover, we can see from Earth that there is no evident human presence and so it is safe to assume given the environmental conditions of Earth that there is no human habitation present on Earth. This makes BnL and its employees the primary chain of command aboard the vessel.
We can by this make the inference that BnL is synonymous with the State which would make then Global CEO Shelby Forthwright the highest authority over all ships and passing on the immediate authority of the Axiom to Captain Mcrea. Since Shelby Forthwright is deceased and no other Global CEO is known to exist, we can say that the Captains of the various ships are the respective highest authorities on the production of goods and services within the ship.
Looking at the fourth question we can see that there is an abundance of resources present on the Axiom. The ship is shown to be self-sufficient in all aspects and the passengers seem to enjoy an extremely high standard of living. While there are no outright statements regarding the socio-economic backgrounds of the passengers it is safe to assume that any discrepancies in these aspects would have been nullified by the 8 centuries of cohabitation within the same living environment. All passengers are shown to at any point have equal access to all facilities present on the ship and there is nothing that indicates a difference within the purchasing power of individuals. We can thus say that the resources are equitably distributed amongst all passengers of the Axiom.
The last question poses a complicated issue which is generally associated with the increase of automation and the development of artificial intelligence for commercial use. The entire workforce (barring the Captain) of the Axiom is composed of robots. Robots or automatons aren’t employees, rather they are tools programmed to perform functions and are maintained to ensure maximum efficiency (6). While many of these robots display high levels of sentience including cognitive reasoning abilities and the ability to display emotion, they cannot possess employment. A robot isn’t considered an employee in the same way a dog in a canine unit isn’t a police employee. He/she performs necessary tasks for the functioning of the police system yet he/she isn’t compensated for their work. Rather it is ensured that he/she is maintained through regular feeding, training, etc. to be able to perform his/her duty as well as possible. No human is shown to possess any gainful employment, making the Captain the only visible employee of BnL.
Given the administrative classifications made above we can identify the economic system of the Axiom as belonging to a Command Economy (7). While a command economy exists to satisfy the minimum needs of individuals while slowly raising the standard of living, the film goes beyond this by presenting its seemingly unlimited resources. The Utopian society pictured negates the need for money as all desires of passengers can be fulfilled without payment.
Noting the heavy, essentially complete private sector involvement in the administration we can characterise the economy as being an extreme representation of State Monopoly Capitalism. A State Monopoly Capitalism system is characterised by large monopolies fusing with government apparatus to establish a financial oligarchy (8).
From the above arguments presented we see that the economic system presented has a limited amount of wants matched by an exact supply, regulated by a strict administration which ensures the equitable distribution of resources amongst its people. It seems as if the megacorp Disney has presented for itself an idealistic future for its expansion but, in doing so has accidentally presented its capitalist shareholders and supporters with a Socialist Shangri-La.
Journal of Economic Literature, “Economic Systems: P Subcategories” American Economic Association, 1969
Plato, Rouse, W.H.D (e.d.), “The Republic Book VII” Penguin Group Inc., pp 365-401.
SOWELL, THOMAS. Say's Law: An Historical Analysis. Princeton University Press, 1972. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt13x0w9s.Accessed 4 Sept. 2020
STEINTRAGER, JAMES. PLATO AND MORE'S UTOPIA. Social Research, vol. 36, no. 3, 1969, pp. 357-372. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/40969973. Accessed 4 Sept. 2020.
United Nations office for Outer Space Affairs, “United Nations Treaties and Principles of Outer Space” UNOOSA, 1967
Smids, J., Nyholm, S. & Berkers, H. “Robots in the Workplace: a Threat to—or Opportunity for—Meaningful Work?”. Philos. Technol. 33, 503–522 (2020).
Narayanswamy, Ramnath. “Socialist Corporatism and Command Economy.” Economic and Political Weekly, vol. 22, no. 15, 1987, pp. 633-634. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/4376897. Accessed 5 Sept. 2020.
IKEGAMI, Jun. “STATE MONOPOLY CAPITALISM AND ORGANISATION OF STRUGGLES FOR SURVIVAL.” Kyoto University Economic Review, vol. 41, no. 2 (91), 1971, pp. 46-83. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/43217191. Accessed 5 Sept. 2020.
(Cover Picture Source: https://www.google.com/url?sa=i&url=https%3A%2F%2Fcommons.wikimedia.org%2Fwiki%2FFile%3AAn_Illustration_of_The_Allegory_of_the_Cave%2C_from_Plato%25E2%2580%2599s_Republic.jpg&psig=AOvVaw3m_-J6fivPsWDrIK869klT&ust=1603538510497000&source=images&cd=vfe&ved=2ahUKEwjuyNfLzMrsAhXagmMGHYFUDucQjhx6BAgAEBI)