“Every crab’s goal in life is to earn a million dollars,” says Bikini Bottom’s restaurateur, Mr. Krabs. So begins SpongeBob SquarePants season three, episode 13: “Clams.” In gratitude, this blowhard of a boss thanks his reliable workers, SpongeBob and Squidward by taking them on vacation. What unravels in the next eight minutes of Jaws parody is perhaps the most conceptual economic joke in SpongeBob history.
For a show that begins with hornpipes and a singing pirate, it’s not unreasonable to consider how SpongeBob SquarePants shares a lineage with sea literature. It might seem strange to pair the goofy invertebrates, with the works of James Fenimore Cooper or Joseph Conrad, but these ocean-faring tales all share the common plight of living in deep tension with capital.
There was nothing more magical than the sea once 17th century merchants realized they could chart a profit by sending sailors out over the empty horizon. What first seems like nautical nonsense is the basis of our economic system: a commodity — basically anything you can buy or sell — always carries within it two values. Exchange value (what we think something is worth) and use value (what something is actually worth in practical terms). These exist simultaneously; invisible yet present in whatever thing you find at the store. People in a position to take advantage of the difference between those two values can extract profit and call the shots.
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Consider how many old and bland adults in your young life threatened you with a future “flipping burgers at McDonald’s” if you didn’t follow their instructions. It’s a pejorative fate of implicit powerless. Yet who does Nickelodeon unveil on May 1, 1999 but a lowly sea sponge dreaming to be a fry cook. SpongeBob has always been a radical project. His life is one dedicated to joy, not in spite of his employment, but because he sees a value in food beyond a price on the menu. Which brings us back to “Clams.”
SpongeBob, Squidward, and Mr. Krabs sail into a lagoon aboard the S.S. Cheapskate, a dinghy that shares a vague silhouette with the Orca of Jaws fame. As SpongeBob casts his reel he accidentally snags Mr. Krabs’ millionth dollar, which he had taped to his pants, and sends it into the water. It’s promptly eaten by a giant clam. The loss sends Mr. Krabs into histrionic tears until he finally guilts his two employees into retrieving the bill from the gargantuan bivalve. And here, the episode switches gears to homage Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.
Like Mr. Krabs, Moby Dick’s Captain Ahab seeks vengeance on the leviathan that stole something precious. In this search, both bosses ply and beg their crews to join them. When doubt and mutiny begin to spread through their ranks, both figures eventually resort to bribery. After instructing his crew to keep a lookout for the white whale, Ahab nails a Spanish doubloon to the mast and promises it as a reward to any sailor who spots the beast.
The Real Beast
In this case, Ahab is willing to exchange his own wealth for a chance at vengeance. His desire has a price. As he arrives in the market, with the doubloon as his entry fee, a capitalist spell imbues the white whale with an exchange value. In the words of Marxist economist, David Harvey, “value cannot exist in its capitalist form without money but at the same time money cannot exist without that which it represents, value.”
At one point, the book’s narrator describes Ahab gazing upon the coin and ruminating on the way markets organize and assign value. He pontificates that “some certain significance lurks in all things, else all things are little worth, and the round world itself but an empty cipher,” and worries that eventually everything in our galaxy will be commodified. Like any “good” capitalist, Mr. Krabs understands this. And also like most capitalists, he backs up that understanding with violence.
He flies into a rage when SpongeBob and Squidward try to trick him with a substitute dollar. He nails a sandwich to the mast, like Ahab’s doubloon. Squidward responds “You expect me to break my back over a sandwich?” Sinister music then plays as Mr. Krabs throws all other food off the ship. No one can eat until his task is complete. That gives him control over value — in this case the value of a cartoon sandwich.
One Becomes All
The Marxist pun delivers. Ahab’s doubloon turned the whale into a commodity by assigning it an exchange value, much like whale oil gave it value in Melville’s day. In contrast, Mr. Krabs is not just willing to starve his crew for a single dollar. He asserts the value of his dollar by controlling the use value of a simple sandwich. It’s not a sandwich, he explains; it’s the sandwich. It’s value skyrockets as the thin, lettuce-y line between them and starvation.
The episode concludes in a cascading collapse of value. SpongeBob and Squidward would rather escape than risk their lives. In response, Krabs captures them and dangles the duo as bait. With cartoon logic, Mr. Krabs seizes the dollar before being dragged down into the depths of the lagoon. When he resurfaces his workers ask how he survived. “What did you give him?” In a move that would stun the one-legged Ahab, Mr. Krabs responds “Nothing important” before revealing he traded all but his head and arm for the precious dollar.
It serves as a visual reminder from late showrunner Stephen Hillenburg and company. Through Mr. Krabs, himself an edible animal in the world of we humans, we must remember to eat the rich.