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Friday, 16 April 2004

Captalism: Now with Moxie!

I don’t watch broadcast or cable television unless I’m with someone who is bothering to do so. I don’t mean I mostly don’t watch broadcast or cable television, choosing only my favorite shows out the week’s lineup. I don’t mean I rarely turn on the television to catch the Superbowl or the World Series. I don’t even think much about the Tour de France. All television falls into that indefinite space between advertising and art, leaning more toward the former.

I’ve never seen an entire episode of any reality TV show except MTV’s Real World when  it was in London  (season 4). Oh, now I’m lying. I did see maybe half a dozen episodes of  The Osbourne’s  in the first season. I’ve seen previews for The Apprentice and must admit I was a little fascinated. The  New York Times reports  that Donald Trump (talk about names from the 80’s) has chosen Bill Rancic as his apprentice, writing

“Kwame, I think you have an amazing future,” Trump said. “You're a brilliant guy, great education, and I have no doubt you're going to be a big success. But right now: Bill, you're hired!”

Why, I’m wondering to myself, am I fascinated by the possibility of seeing this moment? Why, also, are millions of other Americans intrigued by what Trump referred to as a “3-month long interview”?

My sense is that in the United States, a republican capitalist corporate structure, sees in The Apprentice the fantasy that helps so many of us deny how the free market has failed labor, helps us deny that for most Americans free agency on the labor market is near to worthless. I am most familiar with the academic job market. The pressures that prevail in that market can be described, without exaggeration, as cause for despair. I mention the abject misery of the academic job market to give a personal dimension to a larger observation that employment in the United States is, for many, only a fantasy.

The production and airiing of The Apprentice capitalizes (literally and figuratively) on the pent-up demand for employment experienced by (according to one measure) nearly  360,000 jobless people in the last week of March 2004 . Even those who have been lucky enough to find new jobs (or keep their current ones) must recognize the radical disparity between their earning power and the cost of goods and services. As the economy “improves”, little of that benefit is seen by working Americans. Things, in fact, are so good that  companies are trying to figure out how to raise prices .

Now, I’ve not seen a single episode of The Apprentice, but I can feel my saliva glands gush as the image of working for a living icon of corporate savvy and financial accumulation materializes in my mind’s eye. In a way that even the massive geek wealth of Microsoft cannot hope to empower Bill Gates, our cultural memory of the 1980’s--a time when power was concentrated in the decision-making powers of corporate heads--lends Donald Trump a charisma that is both reassuring and deeply nostalgic.

We, employed and unemployed, dream of landing “the dream job of a lifetime,” and we do so by gazing into television's unblinking eye.

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