Friday, 29 August 2014

The Political Economy of Duckburg - Instalment 3: The Alleged Imperialist Ideology

When Scrooge, Donald and Huey, Dewey and Louie travel away from Duckburg, they encounter foreigners of different characters, some peaceful, others bellicose; some enlightened, others lazy and stupid. The book by literary critic Ariel Dorfman and sociologist Armand Mattelart, How to Read Donald Duck: Imperialist Ideology in the Disney Comic, which I mentioned in my preceding instalment on the topic of the Political Economy of Duckburg, argues that the Ducks spread a market ideology to the Third World or really anyone outside of the Bourgeois sphere, a world of witches, villains, and uncivilized foreigners.
In the action-packed classic 'The Treasure of Marco Polo' (Uncle $crooge 64), there is arguably some material for this sort of skewed reading. In this story, Scrooge is eagerly anticipating a jade elephant from the country of Unsteadystan, a somewhat unruly country, as its incredibly well-crafted name suggests, which I presume is to be found somewhere in Asia. There is a problem with the shipment and only the elephant's tail arrives, so Scrooge and nephews have to travel to Unsteadystan to retrieve the remainder of the valuable mammal made of jade. Upon reaching their destination, they are shot at and when trying to get to Duckburg's Embassy, a militant Unsteadystani throws a bomb at it which demolishes the building.

In some parts of the world, there is civil war, so although foreigners are not always shown at their best, representing their conflicts is quite accurate. In other parts of the world, people's work habits are not quite in line with the Weberian notion of the Protestant Work Ethic (perhaps due to bad institutions, or who-knows-what), which is the topic of 'Volcano Valley' (Donald Duck Four Color 147), a story in which Donald and his nephews go to the titular nation, whose inhabitants are pathologically lethargic to the point where they are normally found reclining against their low-quality buildings, and stupid to the point where they are unaware of milk.

Other stories feature witch doctors (such as 'The Great Wig Mystery' of Uncle $crooge 52, in which poor natives share but one telephone with a hotline to the World Bank!) and civilized but evil powers like Brutopia (featured, for instance, in 'A Cold Bargain' of Uncle $crooge 17 - its first appearance, I believe, whose coat of arms is a pair of hand-cuffs and a hammer). Yet, it would be in error to accept this picture of foreigners as representative of the Duck Universe created by the great Duck Man Carl Barks, who wrote and drew all of these stories. Stories such as these get a lot of publicity because the foreigners have such a long list of shortcomings, but a representative sample of comics would palpably not show the "capitalist" world centred around Scrooge with such comparable favour. (Not that it would be in error to do so, for the free market system is indeed full of great advantages.)
Scrooge McDuck is often considered the archetypal capitalist-duck and even though he is quite affable and thereby gives a fairly positive impression of wealthy men (or ducks), the moral of a tonne of stories is that he should not overreach in his quest for gold, or he will disrupt a delicate harmony that foreigners often represent. Nowhere is this better illustrated than when Scrooge goes to the land of Tralla-la (Uncle $crooge 6). He does so because he is temporarily sick of money and the natives in the idyllic Himalayan Valley of Plenty offer every piece of evidence that money - and indeed every quest for material wealth - is a cancer. This story is clearly no defence of capitalism or of the Western (Duckburg) Way; while the free market certainly tolerates beatnik types who worship at the Buddhist altar, it also tolerates people's striving to increase upon what they have, a way of life which would nevertheless not be acceptable in Tralla-la.

The Peeweegahs in 'Land of the Pygmy Indians' (Uncle $crooge 18) offer another example of foreigners having reached a better way to live than that of smoggy "capitalist" Duckburg. The tiny Arabs of 'Pipeline to Danger' (Uncle $crooge 30) provide another sympathetic view of non-Duckburgers, as do the Indian-like egg eaters of 'Island in the Sky' (Uncle $crooge 29). At other times, natives appear to be just like people in general, enjoying dance and fun and otherwise working hard, like the Indochinese people of the wonderful story 'City of Golden Roofs' (Uncle $crooge 20). This is also tolerably close to how the people of Plain Awful are depicted in the classic 'Lost in the Andes' (Donald Duck Four Color 223), with differences mainly due to the paucity of almost any natural resources barring the chickens which lay square (or actually cubic) eggs. In all of these stories but the last two, Scrooge, in one way or another, must heed values other than his selfish interest in money. And there are many, many additional examples.

If Scrooge is frequently taught lessons of "social responsibility" in this way, the stories can only teach that "capitalism" is socially most useful when greed is strictly bridled. This is hardly "capitalist imperialism". By contrast, Scrooge's main rival entrepreneur in the Barksian view, Flintheart Glomgold, appears to make his money by lies and deceit. Flintheart's greed is unbridled and is depicted as something bad since he is clearly evil. Moreover, he is not as successful as Scrooge when it comes to making money, losing to him - albeit narrowly - in 'The Second-Richest Duck (Uncle $crooge 15) and in 'The Money Champ' (Uncle $crooge 27). (On the other hand, Scrooge's other main rival, John D. Rockerduck, never does anything really bad in the one story in which Carl Barks used - and invented - him: 'Boat Buster' of Walt Disney's Comics and Stories 255.)

Thus, Scrooge's "human-faced capitalism" is frequently quite lenient on the Third World and on natives, who frequently manage to teach "lessons" of better ways to live. Foreigners are sometimes indolent and ignorant, but culturally and spiritually advanced at other times. In light of these facts, it is hard to see any justification for the "imperialist" label.

This is the last blog post of the series on the Political Economy of Duckburg, though I will certainly return to the Ducks in future. Instalment two on the political economy of Duckburg is here; the first instalment is here.

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