Sunday, 3 June 2012

The Cradling of Capitalism

The Horror, the Horror - apprentices at work...
Tonight, with nothing to watch but highlights of the Royal Jubilee pageant on most channels (interspersed with adverts urging people to buy food, clothes, furniture - all in celebration of Her Maj's sixty years of sponging off the taxpayers), I tuned in to the "exciting climax" of the Lord Sir Alan Sugar publicity vehicle that is The Apprentice.

I have to confess that, in spite of my socialism, I have watched this programme before. There is something minorly spellbinding about the obsequious nature of these would be Masters-of-the-Universe, privately trumpeting their sheer brilliance (one tonight even likened himself to the Norse God Thor - he works in executive recruitment, after all!) before being lined up like errant pupils before a schoolmaster and parroting "Good morning Lord Sugar" as the hirsute one clambers out what looks like a hire-car to pronounce on their task that week. "Please may I clean your shoes with my tongue," feels just a short, short step away for some of these eager entrepreneurs.

They were a rum bunch - each somehow worse, both more self-abasing and yet simultaneously fantastically arrogant, than the last. There was not a single sympathetic character among them - one wanted to set up a hedge fund to let people speculate in wine they'd never drink; another wanted to create a call centre to identify people in debt to sell on their names to debt management companies; while even the one who talked about helping cut carbon by getting people into green jobs was actually just eyeing up the chance to charge finders' fees for staff hired by alternative energy companies (he won).

It would barely matter - on one level, it is just another piece of bad unreality TV; but on the other hand, because of its popularity, it has done a lot of damage to people's view of the workplace and of what is needed to get on in life, especially among younger people. Just as other programmes like Big Brother have become more and more extreme in their thrill-seeking, so the apprentices have become more and more cut-throat and two-faced, as well as completely over the top in their claims of transforming his Lordship's £250,000 investment into £25 million in one case and £145 million in another.

It's a bit like the people in some soap dramas who are on their uppers one week before declaring they are "going into business" and, hey presto, two episodes later they own a pub or run a car lot that has made them rich. No turned-down-by-the-bank here; lots of murders but no bankrupt businesses. Everyone just needs to shout a lot and declare themselves to have a dream. Just like the apprentices. Hard graft and capitalism will deliver the rest.

Yes, of course. It's on the telly, so it must be true. Except of course, as such a driver of our culture, the mass media can and does shape its own reality, which led to an interesting moment in The Apprentice this evening. Bamboozled by the flood of pseudo-business jargon from the pseudo-business people, deafened by the strategic business plan roll-out process and the apparent belief that if you say I will bring something totally new to the world of business often enough it somehow becomes true, even Sur Alan, sorry Lord Sugar, bemoaned the emptiness of the competitors' statements. One of his sidekicks suggested this was on account of people thinking they need to use big words to big-up their dull proposals. But perhaps it is more than that.

Perhaps, watching previous series of this supposed window on the world of business, these young people actually mistook the waffle and hyperbole that issued from the lips of previous competitors and His Magnificence Himself as being...well...real and the accepted way to get ahead in business. So much so that Lord Sugar is in fact the author of his own bewilderment.

There can be only one: dog-eat-dog capitalism at is very worst.
The Apprentice is a nasty piece of work. It takes (mainly) young people and brings out the most aggressive, mean-minded, over-competitive aspects of their characters in a dog-eat-dog race where friendship and co-operation are reduced to social masks behind which lurk the fangs of a blood lust for success. One competitor thought it a good idea to boast smirking that she can stab people in the back while smiling at them: "they call me the blond assassin!" It shows a world where hierarchy is all, where anything that doesn't make money is nonsense and where you need to find ways to make cash from almost anything at all...

Well, maybe I am doing it a dis-service: on reflection, perhaps it really does show up at its most basic the commodification of anything and everything in a consumer society shaped by the ill-named free market; and the sheer aggression and relentless unpleasantness and exploitation that is capitalism, the endless drive towards eliminating rivals until just one remains - the only one who matters or counts for anything in this world. Yes, in its unreality, perhaps it in fact exposes neoliberal capitalist reality better than any documentary or speech ever would; but in the same moment, it validates all of this as normal, right and indeed unavoidable if you ever want to savour the sweet taste of success.

Even when it momentarily acknowledges its own unpleasantness, with one interviewer tonight querying the plan to make money out of people in debt, it quickly passes over any moral questions to concentrate on the contest. Indeed, not once in any of the programmes I've seen in its eight series has anyone ever mentioned ethics. But then, there's maybe not enough profit in that, and profit is all; at least, that's the apparent zeitgeist of this show.

I could change channels, but to what? Bring on the first series of The Apparatchik. Now, that would make for different viewing...

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