Bee Movie But It’s About Capitalism (Seriously.) – Wisecrack Edition
Welcome to this Wisecrack Edition on the Economics of Bee Movie!
Written by: Myles McDonough
Directed by: Robert Tiemstra
Narrated by: Jared Bauer
Edited by: Mark Potts
Motion Graphics by: Drew Levin
Produced by: Emily Dunbar
Bee Movie But It’s About Capitalism (Seriously.) – Wisecrack Edition
Hey Wisecrack, Jared here. Today, we’re talking about the internet’s favorite bee-based film, Bee Movie. While it’s mostly remembered as source material for YouTube remixes, Jerry Seinfeld’s animated debut has a lot to teach us about economic theory. Bee Movie is a bizarre analysis of both the shortcomings and the successes of capitalism, and strongly mirrors one of the foundational texts of modern economics which, bee-lieve it or not, is also about bees. Welcome to this Wisecrack Edition on the Economics of Bee Movie. As always, spoilers ahead for a 2007 computer-animated comedy about bees. First, a quick recap. Protagonist Barry B. Benson is disillusioned by the prospect of a life of menial labor in the hive. “You’ll be happy to know that bees, as a species, haven’t had a day off in twenty-seven million years.” “So you’ll just work us to death?” “We’ll sure try!”
While exploring the outside world, Barry falls in love with a florist named Vanessa and discovers that humans are exploiting millions of bees for their honey. Barry successfully sues the human race for exclusive rights to said honey. But soon after that, the world’s plant population begins to die off. With the life of the planet at stake, it’s up to Barry and Vanessa to save the day. What drives Bee Movie’s plot forward is, essentially, Barry’s aversion to manual labor. It’s what drives him out of the hive in the first place. “I’m going out.” “Out? Out where?” “Out there!” “Oh, no!” “I have to. Before I go to work for the rest of my life.” And when the court eventually decides in favor of the bees, he reveals his underlying motivation for filing the lawsuit: “Vanessa, do you know what this means? All the honey is finally going to belong to the bees! Now, we won’t have to work so hard all the time!”
Yet, this is hardly the way that Barry frames his argument for the jury. Instead, he offers a Marxist critique of industrial honey production. Specifically, Barry argues that because their honey is taken and sold to profit the honey farm owners, bees as a species are being alienated from the product of their labor, divorced from what Marx referred to as their “species being.” In a nutshell, Marx bee-lieved that one of the fundamental drives of human nature is to labor and to appreciate the objects of that labor. One of the major sins of capitalism is that it distances people from the results of their hard work, leaving them without a sense of purpose and accomplishment. Barry extends this idea from humans to bees, arguing that, in stealing their honey, the farmers are taking more from the bees than just material goods: “And what I’m hoping is that, after this is all over, you’ll see how, by taking our honey, you’re not only taking away everything we have, but everything we are!”
Barry’s argument likens the bee-human relationship to that between the exploited proletariat and the owners of capital. “They make the honey, and we make the money.” Because the capitalist mode of production alienates the domesticated bees from honey, the object of their labor, the bees are alienated from their essential “bee-ness,” that sense of themselves as a species that makes their lives meaningful. “Is this what nature intended for us? To be forcibly addicted to these smoke machines in man-made wooden slat work camps? Living out our lives as honey slaves to the white man?”
And for good measure, the film throws in a subtle reference to Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” to really drive home the capitalist nature of the hive. Barry successfully argues that the bees’ natural right to their labor has been violated, putting him in direct opposition to Layton T. Montgomery, the lawyer for the defense whose rotundity is not unlike the depiction of the bourgeoisie in Soviet propaganda. “This is an unholy perversion of the balance of nature, Benson. You’ll regret this.” And, in a surprising move for an animated family film, it turns out that the ostensible villain might actually have a point.
With the court case in the bag, Barry sets about reforming the system in the bees’ favor. But things don’t work out the way he’d hoped. With the bees’ demand for honey satisfied by an influx of more product than they could possibly use, the bees have no incentive to work. The effect is twofold. For one thing, the bees – and Barry’s best friend Adam, in particular – lose their sense of purpose, despite Barry’s claim that it was the alienation of their labor that deprived them of purpose in the first place. “I don’t understand why they’re not happy. We have so much now, I thought their lives would be better. They’re doing nothing!”
By providing the bees with a practically infinite honey supply, Barry has inadvertently replaced one crisis with another. Under these new conditions, with no need to labor, the bees are distanced in an entirely new way from their “species being.” Under the previous system, the bees were alienated from the object of their labor, but at least they had the labor itself, a set of tasks that gives their lives meaning and structure. The sudden surplus of honey eliminates the need for labor entirely, leaving them feeling bored and depressed. “I was excited to be a part of making it. This was my new desk. This was my new job. I wanted to do it really well. And now… Now I can’t.”
What’s worse, due to the lack of pollination, the world’s plant population begins to die out, putting the entire planet and, in particular, Vanessa’s flower shop at risk. So, how is Barry going to save himself and the rest of the world from this mess? Oddly enough, he gets out the same way he got in – by being a bee-gotistal jerk. Barry decides to take action, not because his fellow bees are down in the dumps, or because the ecosystem is collapsing , but because Vanessa gets mad at him. “I ruined the planet, and I wanted to help you with your flower shop. Instead, I made it worse.” “Actually, it’s completely closed down!”
The threat of losing Vanessa is what finally gives Barry the kick in the no-pants he needs to do something about the problems he’s created. His scheme to re-pollinate the plants of Central Park is borne not out of a sense of altruism, but out of a Barry’s selfish desire to engage in cross-species pollination. In Bee Movie, self-centered actions can and do promote the greater good of society. Barry’s initial desire to escape work saves the bees from exploitative labor practices. When his initial solution to that problem turns out to be an overcorrection, Barry saves the day not by making personal sacrifices, but by trying even harder to fulfill his own wishes. While it’s probably a coincidence, it’s worth noting that the idea that individual acts of selfishness could lead to collective benefits was proposed more than three hundred years ago in another bee thing: “The Fable of the Bees: or, Private Vices, Public Benefits” written by economist Bernard Mandeville.
In the similar but distinct story, a prosperous beehive lives in comfort and ease until someone decides to rid it of vice. At this point, believing even comfort to be a sin, thousands of bees die as the prosperity of the hive collapses. Mandeville thus argued that societal progress is not the result of people putting aside their wants and needs for the good of all. Instead, collectively useful things like laws, government institutions, and cultural practices come about when individuals selfishly pursue their own wants, needs, and even straight-up vices. According to Mandeville, the idea of a purely virtuous society is “a vain utopia,” because, to him, all public efforts at societal improvement are rooted in the selfish desire to be liked and supported by one’s fellow citizens.
Now, while some scholars believe that Mandeville wrote the Fable as a satire or criticism of contemporary mercantilists who believed in the inherent morality of making money, this model influenced many economic thinkers, notably Scottish economist and ‘invisible hand’ dude Adam Smith. Barry B. Benson is a textbook case of what Mandeville refers to as the “skillful politician,” an individual who channels the private vices of individuals into large-scale social change. Barry wants to get Central Park re-pollinated in no small part because it will make his ladyfriend happy. He gets the bees to undertake this massive task, not by appealing to their better nature and asking them to save the planet, but by asking them to advance their own interests. “If we’re going to survive as a species this is our moment! So what do you all say? Are we going to be bees? Or just Museum of Natural History keychains?”
He promises the chance to ensure their own survival and reclaim the the sense of purpose they lost in the wake of the lawsuit. Humanity doesn’t even get a passing mention. Yet, in spite of the bees’ selfish motivations, the whole planet benefits from their actions. Private vice has created a public benefit. And let’s not miss the fact that Barry re-pollinates Vanessa’s flowers first. Bee Movie paints private vice as a kind of accelerating force, the kick-start needed to push society out of practices that are unjust or unworkable and toward a more sustainable model. While there may be bumps along the way, the selfish pursuit of one’s own desires will ultimately lead to changes which benefit the system as a whole. Which is why a movie that started off with a Marxist critique of capitalism ultimately doubles back on that argument to reaffirm the usefulness of the capitalist system – with a few caveats. Barry, having successfully avoided menial labor by becoming a lawyer, shares an office space with Vanessa, from which they sell “bee-approved honey.” “Would you like some honey with that? It is bee-approved!”
This might seem like a throwaway line, but it actually indicates a significant change to the prevailing capitalist system. Whereas the bees working on industrial honey farms were once completely exploited, they have now been more fully integrated into the capitalist machine, such that they have a degree of regulatory power over the sale and distribution of honey. This is the film’s way of rejecting the laissez-faire capitalism of the honey farmers in favor of a more benign market economy. The movie doesn’t specify how honey becomes ‘bee-approved’ . But it seems safe to say that bees now have a seat at the table, an ability to influence honey production, if not to control it directly. In any event, both humans and bees still pursue the fulfillment of their own private vices, but minor checks and balances prevent massive exploitation of the “little guys.” So, is Barry a failed Leon Trotskbee, or a successful Jordan Beelfort? Is the economic system shown in Bee Movie as robust as the way they portray the science of bees?