The dreams have no dream - Adorno, Minima Moralia
This blog tends to focus on the propaganda function of contemporary news and current affairs media (that is, after all, where the biggest lies are to be found). Yet popular media formats also help to sustain capitalist hegemony. A brief consideration of some of the themes and concerns of contemporary lifestyle and reality television will help to illustrate how class-based discourses are diffused through popular culture.
Gilles Deleuze proposed that developed capitalist societies transitioned in the course of the twentieth century from ‘disciplinary societies’, in which capitalists manage workers through physical discipline and institutions, to ‘societies of control’, in which individuals voluntarily internalise the interests of their rulers. In the society of control, the media – and in particular the ‘domestic’ medium of television – play a major role in constituting us as capitalist subjects by manufacturing a social consensus based on bourgeois values. In 1962, in the wake of the Pilkington Report into the quality of British television, Raymond Williams noted in his article ‘Television in Britain’ that ‘majority television’ was ‘outstandingly an expression of the false consciousness of our particular societies’. Williams’s judgement remains eminently applicable to popular television today. In The Apprentice, contestants compete against one another for an internship with a business mogul, while in Dragon’s Den and High Street Dreams, ordinary members of the public seek to impress businesspeople and financiers with their entrepreneurial acumen. Other programmes fetishize the acquisition of houses (tellingly called ‘properties’ in lifestyle television-speak), while television programmes about obesity, exercise, cosmetic surgery and dieting encourage viewers to focus their attentions on their personal well-being and appearance. Indeed, the proliferation of ‘transformational’ reality television programmes in recent years – from home improvement shows to makeover programmes – reflect and reinforce a profound investment in disciplinary work and biopolitical self-regulation. In such programmes, as Adorno observed of contemporary capitalist society in Minima Moralia, ‘everybody must have projects all the time’, so that ‘the whole of life must look like a job’.
Such television programming also interpellates working class people as self-contained units of production and consumption, fostering what the Marxist writer Christopher Caudwell liked to call the ‘bourgeois illusion’ of individualism. Little wonder that so many people today believe that human beings are ‘naturally’ selfish – a proposition that has been refuted by scientists from Peter Kropotkin to Stephen Jay Gould – and that this supposed ‘fact’ precludes the possibility of communism. (It might be noted here that even if human nature were essentially characterised by selfishness, this would constitute an argument not against communism but in favourof it, since the fact of human selfishness would necessitate reciprocal social arrangements capable of preventing the exploitation of some human beings by others).
The entrenched individualism of these popular television programmes tends to vitiate any sense that the problems faced by working class people and communities can be overcome collectively. In each episode of Channel 4’s reality programme The Secret Millionaire, an undercover millionaire encounters several community-minded individuals, each with their own project designed to help a disadvantaged group of people. At the end of the episode, the millionaire reveals her identity, writing a cheque for one or more of the deserving causes she has encountered. Here, as in Slavoj Žižek’s ‘chocolate laxative’ paradigm, capitalism is posited as the remedy for the very problems it has caused. Channel 4’s How the Other Half Live operates on a similar premise: a wealthy family donates money to a poorer one, having first ensured that its members are deserving of support. In programmes such as these, working class people are urged to ‘better themselves’ through hard work. This in turn tends to deny agency to the working class as a class, implying that complex social problems can be rectified not by the collective action of the workers against their exploiters, but by a combination of individual effort and perhaps, for a lucky few, thedeus ex machina of benevolent philanthropic intervention – a proposition that chimes with the emphasis placed upon private charity in the Cameronian one nation fantasy of the ‘Big Society’. As for collectivity, we are left with the ersatz participation of the X Factor phone-in.
The radical critique of ‘reality’, ‘aspirational’ and lifestyle television formats should in no way involve a moralistic objection to consumerism; after all, in contrast with the gloomy ressentiment and anti-consumerism of left-liberal politics, the communist demand is nothing if not a demand for more. The criticism is rather that lifestyle television’s exhortations to social mobility and consumerism serve to occlude both the reality of exploitation and the potential for collective socio-political action. They also disregard the increasing poverty of the working class. As the ‘wealth gap’ widens and social mobility rates stagnate, average wages and living standards for workers in ‘developed’ capitalist societies have fallen in recent years, as even the capitalist news media are sometimes compelled to acknowledge.
The increasingly fragile fantasy of upward mobility finds expression in many other popular media forms today. It is a convention of hip-hop videos, for example, to be set dually ‘on the street’ and ‘at the mansion’. In the dream-like logic of the music video, celebrity rappers transition effortlessly between these two settings. Association with ‘the street’ allows even the most sybaritic celebrities to maintain a reputation as ‘authentic’, ‘real’ and ‘cool’. The mythologisation of easy social advancement, meanwhile, furnishes an aspirational ideal while eliding the economic constraints that preclude social mobility for the majority of people in the real world. As such examples suggest – and as any advertising executive knows – capitalist hegemony is maintained not only through the assertion of nationalist symbolism and state propaganda, but also through the reconfiguration of human dreams, desires, aspirations and emotions.
As well as encouraging individualism and voluntarism, many popular media forms ridicule of working class people who attain media prominence: witness the outpouring of class hatred in tabloid television’s treatment of working class – especially female – ‘chav’ or ‘white trash’ celebrities, such as Jade Goody, Kerry Katona and Britney Spears, who are often censured for their emotional instability, stupidity, vulgarity, corpulence or maternal incompetence. It is precisely such undisciplined and recalcitrant working class people that the experts and gurus of ‘rehab’ reality television aim to instruct in the virtues of self-restraint and hard work. In BBC3’s Young, Dumb and Living Off Mum, young working class people are mocked for their indolence and cajoled into taking low-paid, service sector jobs. In Channel 4’s Benefit Busters and The Fairy Jobmother, meanwhile, presenter Hayley Taylor mobilises a mixture of moral censure and therapeutic rhetoric in an attempt to wean working class families ‘off benefits’ and ‘into work’ – as though unemployment were, to use the phrase of the Conservative Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, a ‘lifestyle choice’.
But it is perhaps in the treatment of crime that the anti-working class nature of these popular media formats is most evident. The police force is all but venerated in reality television documentaries, while working class criminals, from violent gangs to ‘hoodies’ and ‘chavs’ are excoriated in the news media and in television docusoaps such as Bravo channel’s Street Crime UK and its replacement Brit Cops. And while largely juvenile, anti-social crime does constitute a genuine blight on society (one whose impact is felt most keenly in working class communities), what Marcuse termed ‘the mature delinquency’ of the ruling class – such as brutal invasions and bombings, lethal sanctions on food and medicines, health and safety violations – are either simply not classified as crimes or ignored; indeed, corporate and political crimes barely feature in crime-related television programming. The truth is that the most pernicious and chronic threats to the well-being of working class people are posed not by other workers, but by what Žižek calls the ‘objective’ or systemic violence of capitalist social relations, which finds expression in work-related ‘accidents’, poverty, ‘stress’, environmental damage, genocide and warfare. But there’s not much entertainment value in discussing any of that.