Holiday Diversion: Rocko’s Ideology Critique

The Girlfriend’s favorite episode of the mid-90s Nickelodeon cartoon Rocko’s Modern Life is the enigmatically titled “Zanzibar.” The video is embedded below; I will provide a summary “beneath the fold” as well. This episode is interesting to me for the way in which it comes close to a critique of the individualist moralism behind many recycling campaigns, but then (merely apparently?) pulls back.

The episode begins with Rocko and his fellow townspeople preparing for spring cleaning. Rocko’s efforts, however, are stymied by the fact that the town’s garbage dump is completely full. Behind him in line to dump his garbage is Mr. Bighead, who is carrying barrels of toxic waste and claims to be able to dump it anywhere with no regard for the consequences. Rocko rejects Mr. Bighead’s philosophy, and the townspeople join him in a massive recycling effort in order to make room in the garbage dump. However, they soon find that there is a limit to their effectiveness — no matter how much they clean up, the Conglom-O factory makes even more of a mess. When Rocko asks why no one does anything about the situation, the townspeople reply with an immortal chorus:

You can’t fight City Hall
You can’t fight corporate America
They are big and we are small
You can’t fight City Hall

This is a brilliant moment of ideological critique, exposing the ways that individual efforts at harm mitigation (such as recycling) are more than counteracted by corporations. Why not focus on changing the corporate behavior, then? It’d be hopeless — they’re simply too strong! (One also thinks of further questions: if recycling is so necessary, why not mandate that companies only use easily recyclable packaging, etc., rather than trying to recycle whatever companies happen to make? Since corporations are producing this waste, why don’t they have to take responsibility for it? Etc., etc.)

Rocko is, however, able to get the townspeople together to storm Conglom-O’s headquarters and preach the message of environmental responsibility to the company’s board of directors. The head of the board is shocked to hear about the damage they’re doing and asks who is in charge of waste disposal — and it turns out to be Mr. Bighead, who violates the norms of environmentalism essentially out of heartfelt conviction. He is fired from his job, and indeed a hole in the ozone layer (remember when people talked about that?) opens up directly above him, exposing him to intense sunrays that fry him to a crisp.

Here the writers back away from their dangerous insight, collapsing the critique to individualism: the reason the corporation was polluting so much is that the person in charge of waste management unaccountably loved to pollute. In other words, the problem is that a person in a crucial role happened to be a “bad person” — yet once the situation became known, he received a personal punishment, both from the social system and from the environment itself.

Yet is everything as it seems? Is this a simple regression back to individualist moralism, or is an even more penetrating ideological critique at work? The absurdity of Mr. Bighead’s individual punishment is a clue here — surely the reason to focus on environmental activism is precisely that environmental “punishment” will not be visited on individuals on a one by one basis. The notion that this kind of individual moralism is the solution to the problem is clearly a fantasy. Yet it’s a fantasy rooted in the very approach Rocko and his comrades take, which is to unite individuals on a one by one basis until their power reaches a certain level. Even though it’s a “group effort,” the approach is still individualistic rather than structural, such that the solutions it can deliver remain merely individualistic rather than structural (convincing the chairman of the board to take action against an employee who turns out to be an evil person).

The only organized, coordinated efforts they can take are reflected in the songs (which, notably, they had gotten together to rehearse before the episode). The contents of the songs deal with taking care of one’s own home, with individual environmental piety, and — here is the crucial moment — with fatalistic submission to existing power structures. “You can’t fight City Hall”: notice how the very possibility of a democratic government as a counterweight to corporate power is radically foreclosed here, making sense of the otherwise enigmatic opening and closing references to government in a song responding to corporate wrongdoing.

Even when they get together into an “unruly mob” that Rocko tries to pass off as a concerned citizens’ group, all they can do is repeat the pious lines about recycling and conservation in the setting of the corporate board room — and their continued submission to the power structure is reflected in the very fact that they’re entreating the corporate power to do the right thing rather than trying to come up with ways to require it or force it to. The absurdity of the individualist approach to such structural problems is evident in this scene, and the fact that the “solution” is pure fantasy only reinforces the point.

The message of this episode of Rocko’s Modern Life is clear: there can be no direct transition from individualist good deeds to structural change. You can’t fight City Hall — but the question this episode leaves with us is whether we can become City Hall.

4 thoughts on “Holiday Diversion: Rocko’s Ideology Critique

  1. I’m stunned my parents let me watch that. I suspect it was partly because it was part of a programming block that started with that sketch comedy show featuring the Christian singer Crystal Lewis.

  2. Sketch comedy show featuring Crystal Lewis? How did I miss that, and who can I thank? Ren and Stimpy, on the other hand, was great. At least in 92, 93.

    We had a maxim in the corporate world around “process improvement” that went like this: It’s the process, not the person. In other words, when something goes wrong, it’s not time to fire a person but to fix the structural problem.

    How many companies implement within their organization Six Sigma, or 7 Habits for Highly Effective People, or whatever, yet advocate a strict individualism within the marketplace?

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