by Jack Staunton
“the problem of unbridled free markets in an unsupervised market place is that they can reduce all relationships to transactions, all motivations to self-interest, all sense of value to consumer choice and all sense of worth to a price tag.”
Gordon Brown, speech to European Union parliament, 24th March 2009
Readers of the various websites and papers calling themselves ‘communist’ may be aware of the vogue in recent years for reviews of films, novels and TV programmes. These allow the writer not only to connect with ‘the young people’/’real people’, but furthermore to offer a ‘dialectical materialist’ take on the narrative therein and use their training in the works of Lenin and Trotsky to propose what the characters or people involved ought to have done to change the ending. After all, if you think it worthwhile to write a piece on why the workers who established the Paris Commune were defeated (their failure to build a vanguard party…) from the safety of nearly 140 years of history, why not proffer a catch-all solution for how Jack might have survived in Titanic, or how Blofeld might have finished off James Bond?
The best examples of this are the film and video game reviews to be found on the websites of the American groups ‘Monkey Smashes Heaven’ and ‘Maoist Internationalist Movement’, who give timelessly useful analysis such as “The Jokers of the world will never destroy the system. Only communist revolution will destroy Batman and the system he represents once and for all.” or “Mao taught that the masses make history; the masses are the true heroes. If the oppressed act collectively, they can change the course of history and remake the world. The revolutionary outlook is diametrically opposed to the fatalistic, magical one of Slumdog Millionaire.”
Not to be outdone, The Commune is the first website to feature a properly Marxist analysis of the first episode of the latest series of The Apprentice.
For those not aware of the format, The Apprentice is a game-show, now in its fifth series, in which sixteen young ‘rising stars’ of business compete to win a job with the Labour Party activist Sir Alan Sugar, who also runs a computer company called Amstrad (one of whose models is pictured below). Through a series of challenges S’r’Alan (as he is universally addressed) tests the contestants’ business acumen, landing one of them a £100,000 a year job. Unfortunately, only fifteen of these egregious people can lose.
The series started with sweeping camera shots and dramatic music. Big Ben. Canary Wharf. St Paul’s Cathedral. My Marxist training tells me that this indicates that the show is set in London. First to vox-pop was Ben Clarke “To me making money is better than sex”. Anita Shah was the second, “I’m a winner. That’s a given”. (More on that score later…)
S’r’Alan, flanked by two long-serving advisors, welcomed the contestants into his board-room, giving them a briefing on the coming “job interview from Hell”. The silver-haired tycoon, who left school at 16 to set up a business “getting his hands dirty selling car aerials” wasn’t afraid to tell it like it is: “I know the words to Candle in the wind. That don’t make me Elton John, right?”. “I’m as hard to play as a Stradivarius. You’re as easy to play as bongo drums”. “A diamond starts off as a lump of coal”. “This time next year, Rodney, we’ll be millionaires”. S’r’Alan does not write his jokes himself, since he can employ others to do it for him (wage labour).
The voiceover said that S’r’Alan knew about the challenges of setting up a business during a recession, and indeed the first task set the contestants – broken into two teams, one all-male and the other all-female – was to do just that. The teams had to establish cleaning firms, and the first challenge facing each group/gender was to choose a name for their initiative.
The men had a bash first: “How about ‘Strike’?”… “Isn’t that a bit… Arthur Scargill?”. “How about ‘Empire’ then?”… “Yeah, sounds good, it’s very British”. This brief exchange says more about class consciousness than any Marxist textbook. The women, meanwhile, went for the more subtle ‘Ignite’, following Mao’s teaching on the vanguard’s relationship to spontaneism, noting that “a small spark lights a prairie fire”.
The long-and-short of the mechanics of the challenge was that both teams set up companies cleaning cars (although ‘Empire’ also did some shoe-shining at St. Pancras station). The voice-over also explained that the contestants had the chance to meet each other, and the BBC then helpfully displayed people shaking hands and exchanging names, “Hi, I’m James”… “Hi, I’m A. Stockbroker”…
At this point Maj, one of the ‘Empire’ team, insightfully pointed out the flaw of testing business acumen by sending a bunch of aspiring execs out to sponge soapy water on cars rather than them extracting surplus value from workers forced to sell their labour power to survive, “If I want cleaning doing, I’ve got an employee to do it. She’s called my wife.” Yet he nevertheless lacked any real understanding of the production process and possibility of transcending capital as such, commenting “Without companies buying and selling there wouldn’t be any economy”. Sexist as well as class-conscious, he later returned to his original point, “We absolutely have to win, particularly as [the other team were] girls. Not that I’m a sexist…”
After finding a sufficiently bourgeois name for their outfit, the contestants were faced with the challenge of getting one of their number to volunteer to be the project manager. This fairly prolonged argument, portrayed as a real obstacle to getting on with work, reminded me of the cut-and-thrust of the real capitalist system: in my work at a market research call centre we constantly waste time each morning trying to decide which of us should be the business owners and which of us should work on the phones for £7 an hour, with no-one willing to put themselves forward for the challenging managerial role. Perhaps, given the capitalist crisis, they could have learnt from the Argentinian workers who took over the factories in 2002, and run their enterprises along the lines of workers’ self-management. But Mona and Howard eventually gave in and volunteered to tell the others what to do.
The next twenty minutes of the programme was largely filled with cleaning cars (and some shoes). Hose down the bodywork, or vacuum the carpets and clean the seats too? Such are the difficult choices facing the élite who keep the economy ticking.
After nine hours’ work, they had made quite some headway and success to report to S’r’Alan – especially ‘Empire’. Although not questioning quite why it would take seven people this long to wash eighteen cars, he was pleased that they had made some £340 in sales with only £106 in costs, making more profit than the women. S’r’Alan emphasised that “profit is everything”, and indeed the boys’ outlay on sponges, soap, water, lengths of hose etc. had been far more than repaid. That said, the huge profit-rate of ‘Empire’, might be at least in part attributed to the fact that they paid no wages at all, ensuring a 100% rate of surplus value, somewhat in counter to the tendency for the rate of profit to fall.
If this matter is considered, clearly the other team’s’ ‘Ignite’ outfit was even less of a business model for these difficult times, yielding a mere £150 profit over the day despite again paying no wages to anyone. Were ‘Ignite’ a producers’ co-operative paying its members wages from the ‘profit’ made, then £150 divided by 8 workers over 9 hours = £2.08 per person per hour, showing the inoperability of islands of co-operativism under capitalism and the very real prospect of self-exploitation. The ‘workers’ turned on one another and exchanged jibes, and eventually it was Anita “I’m a winner – that’s a given” Shah, who had manned the calculator as the day’s work was budgeted, who was held culpable for their collapse and the first to be fired by S’r’Alan.
Amazingly, the voiceover then reported that in the coming twelve weeks we will see all but one of the other contestants fired too. This shows the depth of the crisis – more than 90% of Amstrad’s new workforce are set to lose their jobs. Faced with this common threat, an injury to one is an injury to all: we can see clearly that collective organisation to stop the jobs cull would be more useful for Anita and her colleagues than just boasting that one day she would prove S’r’Alan wrong. Or maybe she could just get some advice from TUC’s recent pamphlet on coping with redundancy (“many local papers have job adverts”).