Fullmetal Class War

I am a forty year old man here to tell you all about the political economy of an animated television program primarily marketed to adolescents. But my adolescence hasn’t ended in any significant way, so I’m perfect for this.

Since I’m neither Japanese nor a good researcher, there won’t be any sweeping discussions of a genre. What I know is that anime is a super popular form of storytelling largely adopted from weekly serialized stories called manga. I’m under the impression that the labor process involved in the production of either is completely insane, which may or may not be relevant to the rest of this post.

As a casual viewer, I don’t have a ton of generalizations that I can make about the medium. In terms of unifying themes, I’ve noticed a tendency to dwell on perseverance in the face of adversity; the characteristics of ethical leadership; and, above all things, friendship.

The friendship bit is my favorite, and it takes a number of forms.

For one, it is concerned with people’s ability to change. Not infrequently, a villain will make a sharp turn after an encounter with a protagonist and will begin questioning the experiences and desires that have drawn them into conflict. A few episodes later, they’ll do something surprising and out of character and end up best buds with the good guys.

Friendship also hinges on a character’s ability to persevere in the face of defeat. Circumstances that should very well defeat them are endured not because of an iron will but out of an iron love. Intense and deeply felt platonic relationships push heroes through despair, and if that’s not relevant to people surviving on service industry wages then I don’t know what is.

It’s not often that I see overtly political critiques playing out in the art form, but maybe I’m not looking hard enough. The most notable exception is Full Metal Alchemist: Brotherhood. Here’s a neat article regarding the program’s treatment of imperialism.

It’s a great story that deserves a wicked synopsis. I don’t know if I can pull that off.

The story takes place in Amestris, an expansionist nation ruled by a military dictatorship. This has been how things roll in Amestris for a long time- there’s no notable agitation occurring against the military government by its citizens.

The primary technology in this society is alchemy, which can reorganize matter into different shapes and compositions. There is a hard limit on this technology: Equivalent exchange. A person cannot make something out of nothing. If you have a brick you can change what the brick looks like, but you can’t make two bricks of the same size out of a single brick.

Alchemy has a single, towering taboo: Attempting to bring a dead person back to life.

While this science (and the characters insist that it is science, although it is almost indisputably magical) has tremendous potential for improving human life, it is largely utilized by the military government to wage expansionist wars, with alchemists serving as proxy weapons of mass destruction.

The chief protagonists (though there is a massive ensemble cast) are Edward and Alphonse Elric who, in the wake of the death of their mother, break alchemy’s chief taboo, initiating a gnostic experience in which they encounter an entity that claims to be, among other things, God. Edward loses his right arm and left leg in this exchange, while Alphonse loses his physical body altogether, with Edward anchoring his brother’s soul to a suit of armor.

The brothers commit to retrieving their bodies and set off in search of a philosopher’s stone, an item that allows for the violation of alchemy’s fundamental principle, equivalent exchange.

As a sofa Marxist, this term grabbed my attention. Capital’s early chapters deal with the problem of the exchange of commodities as a way of interrogating value in a capitalist economy. Marx problematizes exchange, offered as a ‘get out of jail free’ card into the present. Buy low, sell high is still a thing that’s bandied about as a natural law, but Marx ripped it apart in the latter half of the 19th century. If commodities are exchanged at their value, where does profit arise from? Price increases would lead to an unending inflationary spiral, so it can’t be the case that manipulations of price (at least in the long-term) would yield profit, and in the end, no capitalist would invest a dime without a chance to profit.

In response to this problematization, Marx asserts that profit does not arise from exchange (in the last instance), but instead from the production process. If a laborer works longer than the time that is socially necessary for his/her reproduction as a living thing in their society, the excess constitutes an unpaid transference of value that is realized (again, as a general tendency) by the capitalist as profit. Commodities are laden with expended, dead labor.

Late in the narrative arc of Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, the heroes discover a frightening fact: The science they employ to harness the energy of tectonic activity beneath their feet (again, Marx) is not as powerful as it should be. Something is drawing off a portion of this energy, and that something is the primary villain, a shadowy man who has no desires outside of realizing his own ultimate and final ambition. This figure occupies the role of the capitalist on the stage of value theory. He utilizes the exertions of others to increase his own power.

The philosopher’s stone that the protagonists seek speaks to the parallels even further. After a great deal of searching, Edward and Alphonse discover that philosopher’s stones can only be created out of living human beings, and their ability to amplify the power (and productivity) of alchemy requires that these people be condensed into a physical object.

This is roughly analogous to the role of machinery in value theory. In the Marxist paradigm, machines accrete value- they are assembled from materials that are ossified life energy of human beings, which is employed in the production process to amplify the productivity of living laborers. The philosopher’s stone is the steam engine in a steam-punk world.

There is surely more to say on these points, but it is worth redirecting to the ultimate victory of the protagonists: They beat the bad guys, which is wonderful, and they do it by banding together in a diverse and internationalist cadre of friends who have been manipulated, conquered, traumatized and disfigured by the machinations of a government that is, clandestinely, run by monster-qua-capitalist.

Ultimately this leads to a political and technical innovation in the wake of their victory: Down with equivalent exchange. Up with the friendship economy.

In the final episode Alphonse holds up his hand, showing ten human fingers, and states that they’re done with equivalent exchange. If someone gives you ten, you’re to give them back eleven, because they’re a part of you. The fundamental ethic of the training he and his brother received is finally realized: “One is all, all is one”.

So, yeah, you basically don’t have to watch the show now. I’ve explained literally every important thing, and probably ruined your ability to appreciate the sword fights and monsters. You’re welcome.


I have no idea how to credit this appropriately, but this is an apropos image, accessed at: http://www.atasite.org/2013/04/19/we-are-winning-dont-forget-short-works-by-jean-gabriel-periot/we-are-winning-a/

I don’t have many friends I get to see in person anymore. This is a post-vaccination statement. It doesn’t have anything to do with the specter of death posed by COVID.

I know a lot of people who were very afraid of contracting the virus, and for good reason. I was too, but only because it would turn me into a vector. I wouldn’t say I have a complete disregard for my own life, but more a shoulder shrugging fatalism. I’ve got ways I’d prefer to die and ways I wouldn’t and I’m aware that I really won’t get much choice in the end. It’s life that worries me. This isn’t an anti-vaccination thing. It’s just an expression of an ethos.

There are a few people who I saw consistently. I’m related to several of them. This doesn’t make them count any less. So, lucky for me, I had consistent hang-out time through a year of isolation.

One of my closer and more consistent people is a guy some years younger than me. When you come out of a subculture that doesn’t exist anymore you awaken to a social world that doesn’t make sense. It’s like a poorly fitted shirt. I wonder if people formerly in gangs or cults feel the same way.

So, this younger person and I have a similar point of origin. Same scene, years apart, same politics, years apart. We speak similarly. Our humour works, a sarcastic outrage expressing doom. So we hang around and talk about politics, ethics, and how fun it is to watch a right-winger get pulped in a UFC bout.

While our politics align, they arise in different eras. I was around for the emergence, brief ascendance and sad defeat of the anarchism of the ‘alter-globalization’ movement. That stuff was ancient history by the time he got involved.

It is my strong impression that in the present the Democratic Socialists of America serve as a net for an unending leftist diaspora. It’s a catch-all. There are other organizations, but this one is consistently present, engages in some concrete political work, and isn’t hostile to anti-capitalist or anti-authoritarian positions. I’m sure it has the same problems inherent to any political scene, this being an inability to develop a coherent strategy to force change.

I’m pretty sure we’re past the idea that we’ll get a revolutionary movement that defines a future utopia. I would, very sincerely, welcome such a thing, but after 25 years of utter and embarrassing failure I am of the opinion that organizations can only provide a framework to allow the insurrectionary impulses of the present to explode from. Razing a city accomplishes at least as much as getting a socialist elected to a city council seat. If anyone reading feels the need to argue this point, I’m more than happy to. In fact, I’ll be excited to be wrong.

This friend engaged in organizing with a DSA chapter for a time. It sounded worthwhile. They attempted tenant organizing, food distribution, the organization of a mutual aid network. All good things to do, whether they work or not. The downside of this is that organizations don’t have a sharp learning curve. Everybody bails. They get discouraged or have to pick up a second job or they have children, or… on and on. So the people who could troubleshoot or refine a strategy or tactic bail, leaving the more energetic and naive to figure things out.

So this was the conversation. There’s this sweet, enthusiastic and cluelessly optimistic guy who is embedded in the local chapter of DSA. I immediately feel the need to knock him down, if only in my own mind. I saw that I am embarrassed for him. He posts cringeworthy, hopeful stuff on the internet. He doesn’t have the experience to assess futility. He’s not been broken.

We shit-talked the shit out of this guy, and it was so satisfying. It was like a cigarette after a day of swearing off. But, like the simile in the preceding sentence, I felt bad at the end. It was like discursive political binge drinking and I felt hungover.

I looked at myself, measured against this guy. I’m a firm believer that if a person wants to be consistently right they should opt for pessimism. Hope feels dangerous. I’ve seen hope, and it gets people destroyed.

A person I know spent a fairly long time in prison for militant political action. When they summarized the thinking behind their activities, they said that they sincerely believed a slogan thrown about in the movements that spun around the 1999-2001 anti-ministerial protests: “We are winning.”

We weren’t.

So for a long time I’ve felt that optimism is embarrassing and that it can be catastrophically harmful. This has been born out in my own life.

If I measure the young man against myself I see some things. This person doesn’t know these lessons in failure and it frees him up to try and to act.

Not trying doesn’t present virtue. Trying does. Hopelessness does nothing to encourage effort, and the efforts of the hopeless are generally sad and occasionally horrible. For myself I’ve become exhausted by embarrassment. I would rather appear smart by abstaining than look foolish by pouring effort into a lost cause.

I remember feeling hopeful. It felt good until it didn’t and I looked back on the hard work and pepper spray of the past to realize that I might truly be a dumbass.

It is not the case that I think resignation is useless. You can do a lot with it. As I said, if you want to be wrong, be an optimist. Resignation provides a scalpel to cut away hope not born out by reality, but I think I stop there. I look at the tumors and decide that the patient is fucked. Send them home with some painkillers and access to prestige television.

The naivete of hope doesn’t even bother hunting for those tumors. They just summon more energy, energy that is ultimately finite, and keep trying.

I want there to be a place in the middle where my cynicism is balanced by refusal to give up. Perhaps we have this in the present.

More and more I believe in two political facts: That people are constantly resisting immiseration through strategies that look like dysfunction. People’s drug use, absenteeism, theft, slacking surly demeanors and abstention from the nuclear family- these are all forms of political struggle. Probably not consciously so, but they don’t need to be. Or maybe they do. When all the technologies of surveillance and bureaucratic measurement are focused on these problems it is obvious that they are categories of struggle. Perhaps it would be beneficial to frame them this way.

The second of these is a belief in the power of what I imagine the British would call ‘the mob’. Our most recent periods of struggle have been defined by massive protests that become unapologetically militant in their confrontations with the police, who, if done away with, would allow people to address their problems rather expediently, by way of appropriation. The redistribution of wealth only looks like stealing on the surface.

The threat of this form of struggle was apparent as I read the news this morning. People are rising up against the administrators of their misery in Colombia, and the state is bringing all of its capacity for cooptation and violence to bear on this movement. American diplomats are decrying ‘vandalism’ as desperate people are torn apart by bullets.

How do we balance cynicism and hope in this context? We need both, but the fulcrum requires a balance of millimeters.