Great. Yet another paean to capitalism and the glorification of the boss class. Not content with blitzing us with Dragon’s Den, The Apprentice and a whole genre of TV programmes shoving you in your place (how very Confucian), C4 gives us another series naturalising the New Order, in Undercover Boss (C4 9pm, Thursdays).
Watching Alan Sugar and Donald Trump treating their employees like bad pets as they compete for the right to serve their masters like the most loyal hounds ever is pretty sickening, but at least it’s honest. The beady eyes of the Dragons’ Den panel laser-beaming the contestants, sizing them up for the kill and discarding the runts of the litter, is a fairly useful illustration of how the system works. Providing, of course, that you don’t identify with the predators, and that you maintain a healthy residual memory that social relationships can and should be better than this.
But, like that kindly-millionaires-play-at-philanthropy programme (pay more bleedin’ tax!), Undercover Boss takes that process a step further. Now the Masters Of The Universe are slipping in beneath our defences as they try to win over the hearts and minds of any remaining doubters. Described tellingly on the C4 website as “High-flying executives take extraordinary steps to ensure their companies are fighting fit by going undercover in their own businesses”, the programme presents the Boss as someone on our side, whatever their real priorities as revealed in the blurb. He or she is like one of us. Tell that to the Dyson factory workers who made the machine such a hit and then joined the Great Unemployed when their boss moved the operation to Malaysia, where labour is cheaper and conditions nowhere near as good.
The latest Undercover Boss in the photo above is perfect for the purpose. Young, good-looking in that bland English pudding kind of way, like Ben out of Big Brother or a minor royal. Could be in the armed forces, another institution which has undergone a rebranding in the last decade coinciding with the ratcheting-up of US and British military adventures abroad. This is television as social engineering: HG Wells’s Morlocks using devious methods to herd the Eloi.
“So this was the destiny of the Eloi. They were being bred by the Morlocks… … who had degenerated into the lowest form of human life: Cannibalism!” The Time Machine.
Competition trumps co-operation in the New Order. Gladiatorial combat is everywhere. Whether it’s modelling, fashion or entertainment, everything has been reduced to an elite of opinionated declassé morons judging desperate participants trying to scrabble out of the chasm opening up underneath us.
We’ve been changed from a society where the individual is of the highest value, to the hive where everything is subordinated to the accumulation of wealth in the top tier. Respect and pride have shifted on their axis and now mean something very different to when it meant taking your place in the world as an equal human being. Now it carries shades of being better than the next person through the crumbs of shiny acquisitions or superior strength for your own advantage and the business class you serve, not about co-operation and brotherly/sisterly/neighbourly love.
You can’t run a civilised society along these lines without something cracking.
Gok Wan’s Fashion Fix (C4) is one of the exceptions in the popular culture. Gok treats his make-over stars with warmth, respect and affection, even if his purpose is to make you more competitive in a society where surface is all. His high viewing figures demonstrate a need for human connection and development of potential rather than writing off the contestants as mere prolefeed fodder.
Another difference is that, unlike the majority of TV competitions where the proles are made to jump through hoops for the entertainment of the privileged few who sit enthroned like little emperors waiting to give the thumbs up or down, the competition in Gok Wan’s series is confined to the show’s drivers for the edification of the rest of us. With Gok representing our interests and Brix Smith representing the moneyed class, this is more like it should be.
Over The Rainbow: The Search For Dorothy (BBC1) was another case in point. Populist and superficially similar to Simon Cowell’s X-Factor talent dogfights, you did get to see how the young women developed throughout the competition under top tutoring that I’d give a helluva lot for. And there was genuine sadness as each one was knocked out. You were watching friendships being made for life.
Despite the competitive structure of the X-Factor programme and its kin, what’s being rewarded are obedience and malleability. But the drive to conformity is cloaked in the rhetoric of individualism, though individualism is the last thing an X-Factor contestant needs. It’s all part of the cult of managerialism that’s crept in. We even had 12 years of a Labour govermnent who saw its role as managing us rather than radically improving our lives.
On top of the rampant militarization of our fiction in movies and TV glorifying guys and gals in uniform with shooty things, the programmes mark a further departure from what I regard as one of the high points in our civilisation, when the broad mass had access to culture that empowered and illuminated. Now we’re all being trained up to fight and consume and we don’t even have the economic means to buy stuff.
When are we going to see a spate of output from the workers or trade union point of view instead of this barrage of petit-bourgeois vanity pieces?
What we need is something like Stewart Lee’s fabulous deconstruction of the hymn All Things Bright And Beautiful: an insidious bit of brainwashing claiming that God made the rich man in his castle, the poor man at the gate so all is right in the world and, hey, ain’t it wunnerful.
Anna’s food blog here: