I recently revisited a clip from a show I used to watch as a small child: Sesame Street. No, not a clip featuring the eminently adorable Yip Yips, It’s the scene showing senior citizens engaging in sweatshop labor in the United States–well, maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration. At the very least it shows manual labor in a crayon factory, and it aired when I was a small Sesame-Street-viewing child in the late 1980s and early 1990s. As I saw the clip during one of my recent journeys down a Youtube K-hole, I realized how, well, Marxist the whole thing was.
At the beginning of the scene, a young girl is using a crayon to fill in a coloring book alongside her friend. She stops coloring, holds up the crayon and looks inquisitively at it. How did this object end up in her possession? Who made it? Under what conditions? A shot of her left eye carefully examining the crayon dissolves into a scene inside a crayon factory. The place is buzzing with activity, but tellingly, the first shot shows no humans, only orange crayon wax spinning in a vat. It is not until we see a mature man, apparently in his 50s, filling buckets of the wax and pouring it into crayon molds that we see humans intervening in the production process. Viewers are then treated to a step-by-step tour of how the wax becomes a fully wrapped and boxed set of crayons. In a testament to the over-ripeness of capitalism, the factory workers do not fit the stereotype of blue-collar, overall-wearing young men with large muscles and toolbelts. In this factory, the equipment does most of the heavy lifting. The workers, nearing retirement age, all smile and, in traditional Sesame Street fashion, represent a variety of ethnic backgrounds and genders.
As the crayon boxes, stuffed with an assortment of different colored crayons, roll off the assembly line, the music slows and the shot once again dissolves. We’re back with the young girl looking at the crayon. We as viewers have been treated to the social labor required to make the crayon, but the girl has to imagine it in what is her attempt to pierce the mystery of the commodity. Technology has made the mass production of commodities possible; it has allowed people to mass produce those commodities without being particularly fit or agile; and it has allowed us to get a sneak peak as to how that process occurs without even leaving the comfort of our sofas. But the girl is the captive of her imagination. The vignette seems to suggest that technology exists capable of defetishizing the production process, of making it open to all of society democratically. Yet in this video, it’s not open–not to the girl and her friend. She is only able to take a peek behind the shroud through the power of her imagination. The question of eliminating the fetishism of commodities is thus depicted not as an issue of insufficient objective prerequisites, but rather of subjectivity.
For my five year old self, the music and pretty colors were enough to captivate me. Now, as an adult Marxist, the most captivating revelation of all is how the Children’s Television Workshop stumbled almost intuitively or accidentally upon a conclusion with which any Trotskyist would agree. How social production takes place at the present hinges on the issue of subjectivity. In Sesame Street, that subjectivity is a girl’s vivid imagination, upon which she must rely because of antiquated social relationships. In the world of Marxism, that subjectivity is the necessity of revolutionary leadership to guide growing layers of class-conscious workers to victory against the capitalists. Once that happens, we can hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, and make crayons after dinner, just as we have a mind.