CBS is on quite the roll. A few hours after running a 30-second spot encouraging women to forgo medical advice during high-risk pregnancies, because after all they might somehow survive and give birth to the future backup quarterback for the Detroit Lions, they premiered their new reality show “Undercover Boss.” A viewer of “Jersey Shore” and partisan of self-described “spicy Asian minx” Tila Tequila, I figured this would help satiate my sick fetish for noxious bilge.
The show’s introduced over theme music that would be at home in a Steven Seagal movie:
The economy is going through tough times. Many hardworking Americans blame wealthy CEOs out of touch with what’s going on in their own companies. But some bosses are willing to take extreme actions to make their businesses better. Each week we follow the boss of a major corporation as they go undercover in their own company.
We’re introduced to Larry O’Donnell, President and CEO of Waste Managements. We see a short montage of him explaining the importance of family and doing the things that rich douche bags do… hanging out on boats, jet skiing, playing golf… but then they go ahead and show him having dinner with his handicapped daughter. Manipulative bastards.
Next scene. A “surprise” board meeting filmed by multiple cameras shooting from different angles:
O’Donnell: I’m sure everyone is wondering what is going on here. What I’m going to be doing. I’m actually going to go out into the operations, into the field and I’m going to [dramatic pause] go undercover. Token black executive: Are you serious? [cut away]
Larry dawns the proletarian alias “Randy Lawrence,” an out-of-work construction worker coming on as a recruit for Waste Management. He thinks that by working at the plant he’ll be able to understand the production process better and "revolutionize” it to save the company millions.
4:45am. Time to wake up. His first job is at a recycling plant. He’s shown around by a lovely older worker, Sandy, and taught how to stand at the line and sort through a torrent of trash picking out things like cardboard before they clog up the machinery. Our Randian champion isn’t very good at the job and is amazed at the pace of the work and how difficult it is. This causes him some consternation, because he “knows how expensive that equipment is.”
Far from "revolutionizing the production process," Larry is frustrated and exhausted by lunchtime and his incompetence is the talk of some of his coworkers. In the middle of his apology to Sandy she lets out a screech and sprints to the “clock.” If she punches in a few seconds late she’s docked two minutes of pay. If it takes her 10 minutes extra to finish her lunch she loses out out on almost a half-hour of pay. Larry comments that “that doesn’t seem very fair." Sandy blames the company policy on the supervisor and remarks that they’d be better off “doing the work without him." Cut to Kevin, the foreman. He’s sitting at his desk, apparently doing nothing but looking at cameras for reasons to steal hardworking people’s paychecks. Those dastardly, vindictive petit-bourgeoisie, always trying to maximize profit to makeup for sexual inadequacy. Larry is outraged.
At the end of the day he heads back to his hotel physically and mentally exhausted. Larry’s “turn to industry” is working about as well as the Socialist Workers Party's back in the '70s. His back is hurting and he may need to take a day off. I’m personally exhausted and there’s 32 minutes of show left. Having seen enough I venture out to see what normal people do after the Superbowl. From other sufferers of mass media-induced Trichotillomania, I heard I didn’t miss much, besides for “Randy” getting fired for not being competent enough at picking up the trash, the story of a female worker forced to urinate in a can to make all her trash pickups on time and some peachiness at the end about how much he learned through the experience and how many changes he’s going to implement in company policy.
To transition awkwardly to the theoretical: one of cultural theorist Stuart Hall’s main contributions is that of the Encoding/Decoding phenomena. The postulate argues that the dominant ideology is embedded in a piece of media as the “preferred reading,” but contrary to vulgar interpretations of “false consciousness,” this is not the one automatically adopted by readers. The life experiences and social situations of the audience may lead them to interpret the media text in an alternative manner. “Dominant” readings are produced by those who accept the narrative, “negotiated” readings are produced by those who inflect the preferred reading to take account of their life experiences, while “oppositional” readings are produced by those whose social position puts them into direct conflict with the preferred reading.
I know nothing of the validity of this theory or how wildly accepted it is and since every cultural studies graduate student I meet around DC claims to be a Marxist of some type, I’ll defer to one of them. But to me, an “oppositional” viewer if there ever was one, the first 10 minutes of “Undercover Boss” was a damning indictment of not only the capitalist mode of production, but of the vapidity of a quasi-leftism that vilifies the greed or corruption of individuals. Regardless of the impression that my pedestrian commentary might have given, I genuinely took a liking to Larry O’Donnell, yet individual caprice means little when a totalizing system imposes its logic.
The cards aren’t in the hands of the capitalist class. It seems like the bourgeoisie can decide whether their factories are safe or not, whether they employ children, give their workers a decent wage, etc. To varying infuriating degrees, lots of liberal activists still work from this assumption. The Amy Goodmans of the world vilify Wal-Mart and other corporations for not providing employee health care or enough sick leave and attempt to force private corporations to “do the right thing” and serve the public good. This is petit-bourgeois moralism at its essence. The capitalists themselves are imprisoned by market forces. Can they really be altruistic and rebel against their interest to maximize the rate of exploitation without being undercut and driven out of business by less amiable competition? Is not wealth and the production of commodities within the paradigm of the current system reliant on the accumulation of profit?
Of course, capitalists, like the ruling class of every epoch, are deeply wedded to the status quo and will continue to resist even the most minor of encroachments, much less more fundamental transformations of the structures that produce social relations. If the latter is truly the long term goal then moral exhortations alone won’t cut it. It’ll take force and the building of new organizations explicitly of and for our class. Obviously, the critique of “moralism” is on the level of analysis. Amy Goodman and company being poor theoreticians could be partially overlooked if Democracy Now! wasn’t quite so dull and lifeless. Eugene Debs spoke and wrote with not only clarity, but with the fire of a preacher. The same can be said of Martin Luther King Jr.’s genuinely radical appeals that were masked in a rhetoric that implicitly drew upon “morality” and “shared human values.” After all, to assert the self-interest of the working-class majority over the tiny few running the show is essentially the moral and ethical position that forms the core of the progressive ethos.
Yes, this is a glib overview. Go read History and Class Consciousness and then some Althusser and try to formulate and condense thoughts on a century of debate revolving around class consciousness, human agency, epistemological breaks, interpellation and the like, and put it in your review of a show in the CBS primetime lineup. Done? Okay, now try it on the Monday after the Superbowl.
Next point: it’s interesting to hear how Larry thinks that just by working “on the ground” for a few days he’ll be able to see things in the production process that need to be changed. Whether he knows it or not he’s making a case for worker control of the means of production. That poor supervisor that the show producers chose to vilify? In a workplace that wasn’t despotic, but instead governed by democratic principles, these grievances could have been openly debated and discussed. The point is, even if the use/exchange-value dichotomy remained, wouldn’t workers like Sandy labor not in fear (of docked pay and firings), but rather with the confidence that naturally comes from power and a vested stake in their workplace and community?
These changes won’t come about until we “begin at the beginning”, critically appraising the regressions of the 20th century and starting the political tasks necessary to rebuild an opposition movement grounded in an alternative vision of what civilization should be like. The fact that such thoughts seem anachronistic is a measure of the abandonment of emancipatory politics on whatever remains of the self-described Left. But next to even the possibility of a reinvigorated workers’ movement: who is John Galt?