How Anime Production Rips Off Animators
Hint: It’s The Theft of Surplus Labor
Dr. Richard Wolff has an excellent lecture that he’s given numerous times that very clearly lays out several aspects of how capitalist production works, and he views it through a Marxist lens. Please find the time to listen to it at some point because it is very good and he doesn’t even use any big words of complicated theory.
I am going to take his example (about chairs) and go through the same process to explain how it works in anime production. This is going to be quick and dirty while I’ve got it on my mind right now. Like Marx and Dr. Wolff, I’m primarily concerned with the relationship between human beings whilst performing labor in a capitalist system of production. I’ll try my utmost to keep the language simple and accessible.
Here we go.
A: EMBODIED LABOR
Every act of production makes use of tools, equipment, raw material. In Dr. Wolff’s chair example, that accounts for the wood, the glue, nails, a hammer, etcetera. Anime production, taking place at a production company like SHAFT or Sunrise or Toei, makes use of paper, pencils, desks, computers, etcetera.
All those tools and materials were made by human beings, labor, that is now available to make other things. People did work in the past to make a hammer, which can now be used to make a chair, or pencils, which will now be used to draw animation frames.
These tools and raw materials are called Embodied Labor. It’s called embodied because the labor that was done to make those things is now embodied in the things themselves. They are the products of labor. The work that was done in the past can be used to do more work in the future. Embodied Labor can also be called Dead Labor, because the labor has already been performed. It’s no longer happening. The hammer or the pencil exists, no more labor is needed to be done to it.
Straightforward, right? Let’s continue. I’m going to abbreviate Embodied Labor to EL.
B: LIVING LABOR
Production involves the addition of Living Labor, the worker. It’s the people who take the EL and use it to make things. We’re looking at this labor at the moment it’s being used, so it’s alive, as opposed to Dead Labor which has already been created.
This is the woodworker making the chair, or the animator drawing frames of animation. They are using the EL tools and materials to produce anime with their own bodies.
I’ll abbreviate again to LL.
C: TOTAL LABOR
Embodied Labor + Living Labor = Total Labor.
EL + LL = TL.
Both EL and LL have value. The value of EL is what’s used up when we produce. The wood gets cut and glued together. The pencil gets shorter. The paper now has a picture of a cute girl or boy on it. These things have been used up and can no longer be used again. The value of LL is added by the worker who uses the tools to transform the raw material into a finished product. Time, in other words, which is also used up in the act of production.
The value therefore of EL + LL = TL, which is the chair, or the finished cut of animation.
D: WHAT IS CAPITALISM ABOUT?
By some process (which will be covered a bit later) the EL, which is work done by people in the past, becomes the private property of the capitalist. They didn’t make the tools and materials of EL themselves, they acquired it. EL is no longer in the hands of the workers who produced it, it’s owned by the capitalists. We can call their EL their Capital.
The capitalist brings their EL, their Capital to the production process. Let’s assign it a numerical value. Let’s say the value of the pencils and paper used to draw a frame of animation are worth 100. The units don’t matter in this exercise, we want to keep things simple.
EL = 100
The animator adds value to what they produce by transforming the pencils and paper into a drawing. Let’s say the value of what they add is also worth 100 units.
LL = 100
We now have 100 EL + 100 LL which equals 200 TL, the value of the finished drawing.
100 + 100 = 200
The capitalist brought their 100, which is used up in production. The paper now has a drawing on it. There’s no more graphite in the pencil. That 100 is now half of the value of the finished drawing. And we know that the value of the drawing is 200 because in addition to the 100 worth of stuff used up, the animator adds 100 worth of work to turn the pencil and paper into a drawing.
E: REPLENISHING WHAT WAS USED UP
The capitalist wants to get back the 100 EL that was used up in making the drawing. When the capitalist sells the drawing (as part of the selling of the finished work of animation) for 200, they will use 100 to replace the 100 EL that was used up. The capitalist has to replace what was used up or else production stops. More pencils and paper have to be acquired or else more pictures can’t be drawn.
After 100 has been used to replenish EL, there is 100 of value remaining. The remaining 100 could be given to the worker. Remember, it was the labor of the worker that added that 100 LL to the 100 EL that the capitalist supplied. That remaining 100 is entirely the value created by the worker. The capitalist gets back the 100 that they put into the production process. Shouldn’t the worker get back the 100 that they put into the production process too? The worker added the value, so they should get it, just like the capitalist, right?
Wrong, according to capitalism.
F: SURPLUS VALUE
In capitalism, the worker doesn’t get the 100 worth of value that they added. Instead, the capitalist divides the 100 LL into two parts. One is what they do pay the worker, because they have to pay the worker something, or else the worker wouldn’t work for them. We’ll make an even split for math’s sake and say that they get 50. Living Labor minus Compensation.
100 − 50 = 50
That leaves 50 left. That’s the Surplus. It’s what the capitalist has left over after they replenish the 100 EL that they put in, and the 50 in wages that goes to the worker, the animator in our example. The worker put in 100, but they only get 50. Remember in Section D when I said that capitalists came into possession of EL by ‘some process?’
Embodied Labor + Surplus = New Embodied Labor
100 + 50 = 150
By theft. The capitalist steals it from the worker. Remember, it’s the animator drawing the picture. The capitalist doesn’t draw it, they supplied the tools and materials. They already are getting back the 100 they put in, why do they get to take the additional 50? Why do they deserve to take the value that the worker produced?
Because that’s how capitalism works.
Why doesn’t the capitalist give the workers the full 100? Because capitalism won’t let them. It’s not about a personal decision, it’s literally the way the system works. If the capitalist tried to give the worker the full 100, the entire system would fall apart. That’s why not a single job under a capitalist system pays the worker the full 100 value that they put in with their Living Labor. It’s not about individual greed, it’s about operating under a system that demands it work a certain way, in the same way that a fish’s gills require water to work. The fish didn’t decide that, nature did. It’s the nature of gills to extract oxygen from water, and it’s the nature of capitalism to extract surplus value from workers.
What is another word for Surplus Value? It’s profit. That’s where profit comes from.
G: WHO IS GIVING WHAT TO WHO?
I want to quote directly from Dr. Wolff for a moment.
The best way to describe your work in a capitalist enterprise is not that the employer gives you a job, it’s that you give your employer the surplus. The giver and the getter are in reverse order from what the language suggests.
The capitalist is in possession of tools and raw materials, but unable to transform them into a finished work. They own pencils and paper, but cannot draw a picture. The worker, on the other hand, has the necessary skills to produce the drawing, but they don’t own the tools and materials.
Because the capitalist took them. The capitalist claims that they deserve what they get because they supply the 100 EL, but they came by that 100 EL by stealing it from workers.
That’s Volume One of ‘Capital’ in a nutshell. Is it straightforward? Did I explain it in a way you understand?
H: WHAT DOES THE CAPITALIST DO WITH THE SURPLUS?
What does the capitalist do with the surplus 50 that they stole from the worker? They have to use it to keep the capitalist system going. The machine needs to be fed in order to continue to operate. They can’t simply take it and blow it on personal desires (though a fraction of it frequently is used for such purposes.)
The capitalist uses the surplus 50 in numerous ways. They might give some to churches or charities, they might fund a university, They might put in into the stock market. They might use some of it to fund the police that are called when the workers wake up to the fact that they are being ripped off and go on strike, to beat them back into submission. The capitalist will use the surplus in any way that keeps the machine going and themself in the dominant position.
Most critically, the capitalist uses the surplus to grow their business. They have to. If a capitalist has their 100 EL, the worker adds their 100 LL, and they both get back the 100, the amount of EL the capitalist has to use would never increase. The rules of capitalism demand growth. That’s why the system requires the capitalist to steal the surplus. It needs EL to keep on growing.
I: HOW CAPITALISTS GROW
I’m now going to go further than Dr. Wolff did in his lecture, following the logic he used to continue the story.
Here’s the point I want readers to understand the most. The animator is paid their 50. The capitalist replenishes their 100, adds the stolen 50 to it, and has the final product, the drawing in their possession. They own it.
The capitalist takes that drawing, adds it to all the other drawings, adds the editing, the sound, the music, the vocal work; all the other work that other workers are performing, and ends up with a piece of animation.
That piece of animation is now their Private Property, the Embodied Labor they own. Now that the animation has been made, it exists, just like the pencils and paper existed when they were used to make the drawings in the first place. It’s now Dead Labor. No more work is needed to be done to it.
J: INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY IS INFINITE
What differentiates animation as private property from pencils and papers is that it can’t be used up. Pencils and paper get used up, but when an anime is watched by a viewer, it doesn’t disappear. It has infinite copies. It’s not physical, though it was made with physical materials and is accessed through physical means. It’s a story, a concept. The animation is depicted on your video screen, but it isn’t the video screen.
Does that make sense?
This makes it very different from a chair. If a woodworker makes, say, 100 chairs for a capitalist, that capitalist now owns 100 chairs. They sell each of those chairs, and once all 100 have been sold, they have to go back to the woodworker and ask them to produce more. And if someone who buys the chair sells it so someone else, they no longer have it themselves.
But when anime is watched, the amount of it doesn’t get reduced. The Embodied Labor value of the animation, say 100, does not diminish. But it’s still being sold. In order to watch it, you have to pay. How much of that goes to the workers that created it? The animators who drew the pictures?
It’s zero! Why is it zero? Because it already exists as Embodied Labor. The worker was already paid once for it with their own LL. Now the capitalist owns it. It’s their property, their Capital. But the capitalist who owns the animation can charge every single viewer to watch it despite not losing it when it is watched, unlike when a chair. When a capitalist sells a chair to somebody, it’s no longer in their possession, so in order to sell more chairs, they have to acquire more chairs and they have to pay the woodworker to produce more chairs. EL is diminished, then replenished.
But when they charge someone to watch their anime, it doesn’t reduce. EL doesn’t go down. They don’t have to ask the animator to draw it again. Therefore they don’t have to pay them to produce it again. They can sell it an infinite number of times and never have to replenish it. The surplus value is 100% because the worker receives 0 every time the animation is watched. Why would they? The capitalist owns it so there’s nothing stopping them from selling it without compensating the worker beyond the initial drawing.
The worker is no longer involved in the production process. It has already passed out of their hands and into the ownership of the capitalist. NO matter what the capitalist does with it, the worker is no longer involved and therefore receives no further compensation.
K: LICENSING IS ALSO CAPITALIST THEFT
Oversees licensing compounds the theft. The capitalist owner of an animation can sell the rights to show it to a media company, for hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars, and the actual animators that drew it will never see a single cent of that because it’s no longer Living Labor. It’s Dead Labor. It’s Capital. It’s property. The equation for selling something that already exists is no longer
EL + LL = TL
EL = TL
because no labor on the part of the animators is required. See how there’s no longer LL? That was the worker’s share, and now it’s gone. The worker has been removed from the equation entirely. The capitalist sells the work for the full 200 value it’s worth even though their contribution is only the 100 EL.
100 = 200
There is work to be done to translate the work into the target language, but again, once the translator does that, they get compensated once. Once! Just like all the other workers. The now translated work can be sold and viewed infinite times without the capitalist having to go back to any worker and ask them for more work. They are out of the equation.
When you buy something like access to viewing an anime, 100% of the money goes to the capitalist.
L: COPYRIGHT IS LEGALIZED THEFT
That is why copyright and intellectual property are a pack of lies. It gives the capitalist exclusive permission to repeatedly sell something that exists as infinite copies while denying anyone else the ability to make copies.
To make another chair requires wood, nails, hammers, and so on. But to make another copy of an anime that exists in a digital form only requires the electricity to perform Ctrl+C & Ctrl+V. Fractions of a penny. As minimal the amount of work that is possible.
When there’s a dust-up in the anime discourse, like when a site that infringes on copyright gets taken down, or reveals themselves to be ignorant of the details of doing business, workers have nothing to do with it. It’s an argument between the capitalists that own the property and potential consumers. The animators have already been paid for the work that they did, which is now being sold at 100% surplus to the capitalist.
Paying for anime does not pay workers. It pays capitalists.
Industry people will respond to that statement by saying “yes, that’s technically true, but the money you pay goes towards funding other anime.”
As Capital. As Embodied Labor. The money you give to the capitalists is their property, not the workers. Remember, the 50 of the value that the workers get for their work comes from their own Living Labor, not the Embodied Labor the capitalists own, because they replenish that 100 every time, right? They don’t give any of that value to the workers. The workers create the value they get themselves, and some of that is taken by the capitalists. When you give money to the capitalists, you’re increasing their side of the equation, not the workers side. Consumer money exists entirely on the EL side of the equation, and never enters the LL side. In order to do that you have to give your money to the workers, not the capitalists.
It’s the same thing with novels and manga and video games. The workers already got paid to create the work. You’re paying the capitalists for the privilege of looking at something that already exists without its quantity diminishing.
Some other industry folks might say “printed manga and novels, anime and video games on discs, they have a physical form. When you buy those, the EL decreases.”
For the physical object, not the intellectual property it displays. The medium the work is delivered in is physical, not the work itself. The workers on the LL side of the equation in this case are the companies that print the books and the discs, not the ones who created the content that’s being printed. They deserve the full LL they add too, but the physical nature of their work means that the capitalist has to use them to print more objects so they at least get some LL each time that happens.
M: WHAT DO WE DO ABOUT IT?
Ask yourself this question. If copyright infringement is stealing , and stealing is wrong, then why are capitalists allowed to do it to their workers? Not just allowed, required. Capitalists are required to steal from their workers. They don’t have a choice in the matter, it’s how the system functions. That’s why their theft of the Surplus is legal and copyright infringement is not. It has nothing to do with the workers and everything to do with the capitalists.
This piece is an analysis of the basic function of capitalist appropriation, as outlined by Dr. Richard Wolff, using anime in place of his chair example. I’m not going to go through an exhaustive list of what can be done about this since I already did that in a piece from several years ago. But I will echo Dr. Wolff and say that worker-owned co-ops are one possible solution. It eliminates the capitalist from the equation by giving the Embodied Labor that the workers produce back to them in full, along with the full value of their Living Labor. They can then democratically decide for themselves how best to invest the Surplus.
I’d like to end by pointing out that all the knowledge workers who are active in anime discourse, translators and editors and programmers and artists and so on; you’re part of this too. You’re all on the LL side of the equation and the work that you produce is appropriated by the capitalists you work for. I know this. You know this. I do not criticize you in the slightest because we are all forced to participate in this system and trade our labor for whatever compensation we can get. None of us are at fault for that.
But please know that most of the time when you stand up for the industry you work for against all manner of ill-informed people — be they fans who don’t know the internal nature of the business and think entirely unfounded things, or people trying to get into the industry in a poor fashion — you usually end up supporting the very system that I’ve outlined here. In standing up for the industry you stand up for the capitalists that rob you.
You are being exploited. You are being taken advantage of. Your labor is taken from you and often times you give them free labor in the form of performing a public relations role without being paid for doing so. Whenever you frame your statements in an industry-supporting way rather than a worker-supporting way, you give more power to the capitalists to further exploit you.
Love of the work can blind you to the exploitation. You love what you do and that can make you feel like you are being compensated fairly. But not a single human being on the planet who is in the worker position in a capitalist system is being treated fairly. Not a single person receives 100% of their Living Labor. There are no exceptions.
So please try to frame your future statements in a way that stands up for the worker side of the equation and not the capitalist.
That’s all for now. Thanks for reading!