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.

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