In the Tank for Capitalism

When it comes to the choice between bread and circuses, anyone who has seen me knows that I’ll pick bread every time.  Bread is honest.  Bread isn’t trying to convince you that it’s anything other than bread.  Bread has no agenda.

Reality shows, on the other hand, have an agenda, whether they know it or not.  The best of them (and, despite the fact that every joker in America, myself included, likes to get off cheap shots about them, the good ones are very good indeed) are usually trying to sell something other than themselves. Whether it’s benign (little people are just like you and me), problematic (every human activity should be placed within a framework of competition), or openly malevolent (bosses are just regular folks and we should find it charming and humanizing when they pretend to work alongside the common man), they’re always about something other than what they appear to be.  This hidden agenda often manifests itself in a pretty grossly capitalistic manner, either by making the subject into a for-pay enterprise, or by normalizing this or that occupation as suitable matter for prime-time lookie-loos.

The worst of this tendency is Shark Tank.  In it, a panel of “sharks” — not megalodons, but mega-capitalists, described in the opening credits as “self-made” despite how dubious this claim is in application — are approached by small and not-so-small businessmen eager to make a deal.  The sharks, venture capitalists all with plenty of money to toss around at any knick-knack or notion that might make them a little bit richer, ask tough questions about profit and loss, supply and demand, market saturation and scarcity, and if they like the answers, they throw some of their own riches at the contestants in exchange for a hunk of their company.

As a reality competition, it doesn’t rely that much on the game itself.  The only question is who will or won’t get funded with a few hundred grand of the sharks’ money; there isn’t any real winner or loser overall (all the contestants on a single episode might get a deal, or none), unless you rightly consider all of us to be the losers.  It depends for its entertainment value partly on the presentations by the contestants — whether you like the product, whether they make a good pitch, to what degree the’ve prepared to answer the questions, how likable they are — but mostly on the personalities of the sharks.  There’s the hard-ass, judgmental one (“Mr. Wonderful” Kevin O’Leary, who only ever cares about the bottom line and how much will be added to his accounts payable at the end of the year); the maternal, friendly one (real estate magnate Barbara Corcoran); the pretty lady (QVC superstar Lori Grenier); the wild card (tech jackass Mark Cuban); the gregarious black guy (FUBU founder Daymond John), etc., as well as a circulating roster of substitutes.

Once you start watching the show, it’s easy to get hooked; it has all the rhythms and dynamics of a successful reality series, and all the pleasures that come from learning the patterns and tendencies of the ‘judges’.  (In fact, it is a successful reality series — one of the biggest on the planet, with consistently high ratings over its seven-year run and dozens of foreign editions.)  It’s almost irresistible once you learn the particular tics and tendencies of the panel:  O’Leary will always play the brutal show-me-the-money type; Corcoran is a sucker for food; Grenier likes flashy, gimmicky consumer items; John is the hard-working nose-to-the-grindstone type who emphasizes branding and synergy; Robert Herjavec is a sucker for gadgets.  They each have qualities that can be entertaining to watch; Mark Cuban, in particular, is as maladroit with language as he is brilliant with business and is in the habit of saying “For those reasons” when he has given only one reason, and Corcoran is always an easy mark for a sub story.  Taken purely as an entertainment, it’s a roaring success.

The only trouble is when you take a moment to consider what you’re being entertained by.  It is the insidious nature of capitalism that it inserts itself into every aspect of our entire lives, to the degree that we wonder why everything, from our environment to our emotions to our attention spans, shoudn’t be for sale.  Shark Tank takes this to the next level, teaching us not only that real-world business deals are appropriate subject matter for a prime-time entertainment, but that we should internalize the language and understanding — and, inevitably, the values — of the capitalists that star in it.  Certain questions always come up when the sharks are questioning an aspirant:  is your idea scalable?  That is, can it be transformed from what it is — a product or service of at least theoretic value — into a franchise which can be sold to people who have no need for the thing itself?  Can you cut costs?  That is, if you have a product rather than a service, can you export its manufacture overseas, where it can be made by Chinese prison labor?  What is the lifespan of your idea?  That is, if, as Shark Tank pitches often are, worthless junk that no one has any real need for, how much of it can we sell before everyone gets bored and moves on to the next trinket to be throw in a landfill?

Once you begin to watch the show for a while, you not only learn what these ideas mean, you learn to ask them yourself; you wonder how each supplicant will respond to questions of marketability, labor costs, disposability.  You start thinking like a capitalist.  You immediately remove yourself from questions of true value — Does anyone really need this product?  How might it benefit society?  Couldn’t it just be a business, making money for one person, instead of an investment, requiring ever greater expansion and expenditures to artificially inflate its value and satisfy its stockholders? — to questions of how much money it has the potential to make, and therefore how much it will appeal to the fun business personalities that we tune in to see.  You begin to notice patterns — the sharks are always tough on minorities, especially minority women; they needle the old and coddle the young; they are scornful of charity and beneficence, and distrustful of anyone who wants to oversee the quality of their products or keep manufacturing in the U.S.; they love a scrappy underdog story, but will often forsake them in favor of the glittering presentation of rich kids who are freely spending VC investments and their parents’ money; they are in love with worthless gimmicks and distrustful of actual innovation — and you wonder, if this is how it works on Shark Tank, how much worse must it be in the real world, where these patterns are replicated a thousand times every day on an enormous scale, further stacking the deck not only against the lower classes, but in favor of the capitalist status quo?

One of the most dreadful, and least talked-about, problems in our society is the way we have mistaken publicity for art, the way we collectively participate in marketing entertainment, and the way we have allowed ourselves to be cowed by money, sublimating our critical thinking to the power of corporate hype.  As an entertainment, Shark Tank is a rather surprising success; I wouldn’t be writing about it if I didn’t think so.  But there is a poison in its every bite, and I can’t stop thinking about how much of it I swallow every time I watch.

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