Raw Thought

by Aaron Swartz

The Political Philosophy of Toy Story 3

[SPOILER WARNING: This is pretty much all spoilers, so please seem the movie before reading. It’s a really, really good movie — probably the best Disney film. So you should totally see it. First.]

UPDATE: I missed a bunch the first time I saw the movie; this version has been amended to include the subthemes about immigration and socialization.

The film begins with Woody trying to defend a crumbling system of communism (presumably the Soviet Union). Toys have a duty to their owners, he argues. The owner is a personified totalitarian state (Stalin?) — he decides what the toys do and the toys are not permitted to escape. For some reason (false consciousness?), the other toys instinctively agree with this but find the notion hard to sustain when their owner makes clear he doesn’t want them anymore (massive unemployment).

The last straw is when, through a comic mishap, they get the misimpression their owner is trying to throw them away. They feel this existential threat releases them from their duty of loyalty.1 The state’s one duty to its citizens is to keep them alive; if it can’t do that, the system falls apart. Note, however, that it’s only the misimpression that removes the duty. When they learn (from Mrs. Potato Head) that they were mistaken and Andy only planned to put them in the attic, they rush to return to him. The attic won’t actually kill them and so doesn’t remove the duty.

Communism having collapsed, the toys emigrate to Sunnyside (the US, that nation of immigrants), which leader Lotso depicts as a libertarian paradise. In his introductory he speech, he touts the joys of self-ownership and interacting with children through the market (new children are constantly replacing old ones, maximizing the efficiency of the toys), as well as the improved material comforts his system brings (the repair depot, the dream house). The toys are enchanted.

However, they quickly realize libertarian paradise is actually a far worse nightmare than communism. Lotso explains that immigrants have to work their way up, starting by doing the painful, backbreaking jobs that the current population (all former immigrants themselves) won’t do. There are a couple exceptions: Barbie is taken as a (Russian) mail-order bride and the entrepreneurial Buzz is chosen for promotion to the managerial class and resocialized so he won’t sympathize with his old comrades.2

Sunnside’s supposed freedom is actually slavery, complete with military discipline (via the reset Buzz) and a panopticon prison (via the monkey and symbolized by the treehouse). Their days are spent in torturous labor from which there is no real escape. Lotso has used his freedom to accumulate all the power for himself and does not allow any for anyone else.

Meanwhile, Woody is adopted by Bonnie’s benevolent dictatorship. People are given a second chance there — they can adopt new names, new identities, and spend their days doing improv. They do work under Bonnie’s direction, but they do so voluntarily, and are free to leave if she becomes a tyrant. As Andy makes clear at the end of the film, it is Bonnie who owes a duty to the toys, not vice versa.

Back at Sunnyside, the toys overthrow Lotso’s capitalist domination by working together, harnessing the collective power of the working class and using the managerial class (i.e. Ken and Bookworm) against itself (via deception and torture!). But their success eventually persuades some members of the managerial class to become their allies (e.g. Ken, despite having been tortured3, and ultimately Lotso’s right-hand toy, Big Baby) and at a key moment they together overthrow the capitalist Lotso, as Barbie gives a rousing speech nailing the key flaw with libertarianism: “authority should derive from the consent of the governed, not the threat of force.”

However, the new revolutionaries also leave, preventing them from installing themselves as a new dictatorship of the proletariat. And in a final act betraying that he is finally beginning to question communism, Woody asks Andy (surely his first request of the state in his entire life!) that his comrades be given to Bonnie. Andy agrees, and takes the extra step of giving Woody to Bonnie as well, finally dissolving his duties to the state.

Meanwhile, Ken and Barbie now lead Sunnyside, making it a “fun and groovy” socialist utopia. (Its actual day-to-day operation is, of course, left vague, but there is apparently lots of dancing in the streets.) Having risen up and overthrown Lotso, the toys can now operate on the basis of mutual equality. A happy ending for everyone.

  1. The same seems to apply to the Green Army Men who leave earlier, but only because they (pretty reasonably) believe they’re going to get thrown away even when other toys just go to the attic. 

  2. Very Street Corner Society, so another possible reading is that they’re fleeing fascist Italy. 

  3. Perhaps Ken realizes that he will get to lead a Lotso-less Sunnsyside? 

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June 20, 2010


This all very cool, except for one tiny part.

Lotso is not a capitalist. A capitalist would let everyone act in their own self interest. He’s a socialist at best, because in socialism, everyone is forced to work within the system, or the system doesn’t work.

Power to the toys!

posted by Conrad Walton on June 20, 2010 #

The film begins with Andy trying to defend a crumbling system of feudalism.


posted by on June 20, 2010 #

Conrad, if you prefer let’s call Lotso a fascist. That is preferable to your misunderstanding of both Capitalism and Socialism.

posted by Jay on June 20, 2010 #

MY misunderstanding? Do you know any history? But, OK….

We can meet on common ground that he’s a Fascist. I agree with that.

posted by on June 20, 2010 #

s/Molly/Bonnie. Molly is Andy’s sister and she doesn’t figure much in the movie. Bonnie is little girl that gets Andy’s toys in the end.

posted by kmeme on June 20, 2010 #

“Meanwhile, Woody is adopted by Molly’s mixed economy. People are given a second chance there — they can adopt new names, new identities and spend their days doing improv. They do work under Molly’s direction, but they do so voluntarily, and are free to leave if she becomes a tyrant. As Andy makes clear at the end of the film, it is Molly who owes a duty to her toys, not vice versa.”

This sounds libertarian.

posted by Arne on June 21, 2010 #

Your political characterization is either extremely confused or the film itself is confused.

Lotso is clearly a fascist dictator, in favor of central control—his control.

Molly is the libertarian—nothing mixxed about the value system espoused. Here societal arrangements are voluntary. Mutual equality is paramount here, not in the socialist state run by Ken & Barbie, despite what they may claim.

Any socialist state really means communist state, which means central control, which brings you directly back to Lotso, do not collect $200.

State socialism always results in an exclusive power class controlling the “working” class. That’s not equality when another citizen has coercive and arbitrary power over you, that’s dictatorship by central unipolar party.

Molly’s libertarian state is the closest to mutual equality you can get, a society based on contract between equals and mutual respect among free citizens.

The left today continually seeks central control, more state power. The right today seeks less central control, more individual power.

That makes fascism, totalitarianism, and communism a leftist phenomena, makes libertarianism and individualism a rightist phenomena. Though, using the relative terms “left” and “right” should be abandoned because they are relativistic and neither descriptive nor precise.

posted by Anen on June 21, 2010 #

This interpretation is faulty because the toys are always considered objects in the film - object who require - even desire ownership.

Lotso was promoting a socialist paradise, only to have to use force to implement his scheme (ie Obamacare).

Woody talked of how the toys wouldn’t like life without ownership. They found out that not having an owner meant neglect, and kids who didn’t really care about them.

Lotso’s socialist paradise turned out to be bondage.

Bonnie, on the other hand, provided ownership, and thus care. Mixed market? Bwa-ha! Talk about a forced analogy.

Your analysis was overly complicated because you wanted to inject your own politics into it, and thus had to insert a few of your own ideas.

Interesting read nonetheless.

posted by Ike on June 21, 2010 #

It’s not about feudalism versus capitalism or libertarianism, or left versus right. The Lotso regime is a satire of modern industry of any kind, and the desires that fuel it. There are two themes interacting:

  • unalienated labor versus alienated labor.
  • the cycle of life

For the toys, the world of Andy and Bonnie represent their own commitment to each other and to a greater purpose. Their labor is directly meaningful, in that they are helping to raise a child, each using their full personality and abilities. In Marxist terms, their labor is unalienated. However, that also means that it can come to a natural end. This threatens to dissolve the bonds between the toys, and it may force them into obsolescence and death.

Lotso’s regime begins with his traumatic experience of being discarded and replaced. Lotso’s insight is that by putting all trust in one communal project (Daisy) he incurs great risks if he is ejected from that community. Unwilling to accept this, he devises a system of modern industrial relations and alienated labor. No one relationship is as important, and in principle the toys can have a much greater quantities of gainful employment.

However, it turns out, that once intimate relationships are dissolved, the labor — which was once a joy — becomes a living hell. Children do not care for toys and the toys do not get to know any individual child. Instead of providing greater surplus, the new regime threatens to bodily destroy the toys, day by day. Lotso tries to keep the toys quiescent by holding out the promise of possibly, one day, joining the elites, whose work is not so destructive to the body. But, during the revolt, we learn that this labor may be even more corrosive to the soul, as it involves “guard labor” — keeping the others in line — and denying your true self (Ken’s latent desires for a more generally groovy lifestyle).

It’s too simple to call this a satire of capitalism or communism. It’s the 21st century and we basically have two kinds of state/crony capitalism vying for dominance. I would argue that it’s a satire of how human relationships are crushed by alienation, in both kinds of systems.

Anyway, all this came about because Lotso tried to find a way to break the cycle of life in such a way that he would never be harmed again. But this choice leads them all directly to a potential early death (the incinerator). I have never seen death so unflinchingly portrayed in a children’s story before. But even here, death is shown as a form of recycling.

The ending (with the same painted clouds as the beginning) shows that avoiding change is pointless and the best hope is to embrace new purposes, new projects, and new human relations. We’re aware now that the toys aren’t immortal, but if they stick together, they can have many fruitful adventures with Bonnie and maybe even other owners beyond her.

Are we overthinking it? I don’t think so. The people at Pixar are smart. All the great children’s stories deal with great themes.

posted by Neil Kandalgaonkar on June 22, 2010 #

However, it turns out, that once intimate relationships are dissolved, the labor — which was once a joy — becomes a living hell.

I think this misses the key point that its only the babies who make the toys’ lives hell. Life with the older kids seems genuinely quite lovely. And the toys in the latter camp are not strictly the elites; there are many beyond Lotso’s inner circle. I don’t see why the movie would cheer on the new toys being welcomed into a more fun and groovy version of Sunnyside if it thought alienated labor was trying to critique alienated labor as a whole.

posted by Aaron Swartz on June 22, 2010 #

Therefore what? You try to lay out a political philosophy but leave out the conclusion and any real analysis. Anyone can identify what they think is happening in the movie, look at your comments so far, but you really should follow this up with what you think it all means. In other words, why does your philosophy identification matter?

posted by Seth W on June 22, 2010 #

Neil nails it.

posted by on June 24, 2010 #

A nice thought exercise, indeed, but the OP seems to be confused. The various political ideologies used in this article lack definitional rigor; the terms are thrown around way too loosely and do not really adhere or follow any of the events in the movie. In any event, Toy Story 3 is more of an existential narrative than a critique of political systems. I tend to agree most with Neil’s comment:

“It’s too simple to call this a satire of capitalism or communism. It’s the 21st century and we basically have two kinds of state/crony capitalism vying for dominance. I would argue that it’s a satire of how human relationships are crushed by alienation, in both kinds of systems.”

posted by Brooklyn on June 24, 2010 #

P.S. For anyone interested in reading a great article on humanism and Toy Story (1&2 only), go here:


posted by Brooklyn on June 24, 2010 #

Neil did indeed nail it.

Nice work.

But bringing it back to politics, this take from Neil would suggest the film promotes liberal philosophy, progressive liberal philosophy in particular-

“shows that avoiding change is pointless and the best hope is to embrace new purposes, new projects, and new human relations.”

A film about accepting change? Hello? Who just ran on a theme of “change”?

embracing change in human relations? that sound like social conservatives? ( this one could easily refer to gay marriage or the changing face of America / growth of minorities )

Lotso feeling “discarded and replaced” has direct parallels to American Conservative rhetoric and sentiments- jobs being replaced overseas, illegals flooding over the border to, ultimately, “replace” all the “real Americans”…minorities ultimately “replacing” whites.

Lotso is the cruelty of Capitalism…Daisy is the maternal “nanny state”.

new collective purpose? new projects of mutual benefit and mutual ( shared ) interest? sounds like Socialism to me…or at least the WPA.

I think Aaron has it correct. Look at the personality types of the different characters.

and “Fascism” is generally classified, as well as thought of, as a “Right Wing” phenomena.

“Scholars generally consider fascism to be on the far right of the conventional left-right political spectrum.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fascism

“Fascism is a form of extreme right-wing ideology that celebrates the nation or the race as an organic community transcending all other loyalties. It emphasizes a myth of national or racial rebirth after a period of decline or destruction. To this end, fascism calls for a “spiritual revolution” against signs of moral decay such as individualism and materialism, and seeks to purge “alien” forces and groups that threaten the organic community. “


“”Fascism, which was not afraid to call itself reactionary… does not hesitate to call itself illiberal and anti-liberal.” —Benito Mussolini

posted by Dovia on July 1, 2010 #

See, I read that movie entirely differently. I saw Lotso the Bear (Russia) as Stalin, and the clown guy as Leon trotsky, with the baby probably representing the Soviet Military. Lotso “exiled” Trotsky.

posted by Matthew on March 25, 2012 #

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