Idiocy, entertainment and capitalism

Take a bunch of youngish men and women, divide them into groups, set them a task, and then watch them fuck it up in various implausible and hilarious ways. This is not of course a description of the seminar groups I used to teach (since all my students were brilliant), but of The Apprentice.

I am an ashamed Apprentice viewer. It does not make me proud that I enjoy the sight people who think they are clever being revealed to be the idiots they in fact are. Thankfully the show helps us along by portraying most of the participant as so obnoxious that they fully deserve their public humiliation. Unhelpfully there is also the subsequent discovery that a fired candidate turns out to be personable and clever, indeed a normal human being. Then it is my turn as a viewer to feel obnoxious, as well as an idiot for being duped by the clever editing into thinking that this perfectly likeable person was a contemptible fool. Watching light entertainment can be so complex…

I usually try to justify watching The Apprentice on two grounds. First, the programme’s format, editing and presentation are impressive. The Apprentice is simple and compelling, very funny, and superbly manages to package its narrative and story each week. It is smart, expertly structured entertainment — a model in fact of how one might organize and unfold a story over the course of an hour of television. Moreover, all the regular members of the show play their parts well, notably Alan Sugar who, as all powerful and extremely wealthy idiot-in-chief, entertainingly comes across as cringeworthily stupid, embarrassingly avuncular and mildly psychotic.

Second, The Apprentice gives us more insight into the soulless, ugly nature of modern capitalism than any other mainstream television programme. In this respect it is almost certainly a show in the image of Sugar himself. The footballer Jürgen Klinsmann, commenting on his dealings with Sugar when the latter was chairman of Tottenham Hotspur, considered Sugar to be ‘a man without honour’ who ‘only ever talks about money’. Money and the making of it are not merely the central values promoted by the show, but pretty much the only values. Qualities, such as the creation of a good and useful product or the provision of fine customer service, are regarded only with respect to their contribution to profit: if profit can be increased by reducing the quality of the product or the standard of customer service, then so much the better.

The typical philosophy of an Apprentice candidate

People are objectified as customers and consumers, as sources of profit; candidates are expected to push hard sells, with a focus solely on extracting money. This is why the token ‘nice’ candidates never get very far: it is considered a disastrous weakness politely to desist from the rapacious attempt to prize open the wallets and purses of reluctant, uncomfortable strangers. In effect, The Apprentice cheerfully endorses the irritating methods typical of telemarketers. And it celebrates the idea that money and personal riches are an end, not a means to something else. From Sugar at the top to the performing monkeys with their ludicrous egos at the bottom who try to please him each week, never is there a sign that any of them have given even a moment’s reflection to the role and function of business in its larger context, of how business may sometimes contribute to and sometimes damage wider society. Instead, the goal, often explicitly stated, is simple: personal enrichment.

Defenders of capitalism will protest, of course, that this is precisely how the economic system should work, and they will argue that we all benefit from such values. Their mantra in this regard would be the famous quotation from Adam Smith: ‘It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.’ So when a candidate readily admits to an interest exclusively in his or her own personal profits, the defender of capitalism would say that we should approve, for there are supposedly happy spin-offs for us all from this pursuit of naked self-interest.

Still, we might wonder from watching The Apprentice whether this is quite the outcome of unbridled capitalism. The most typical way of judging tasks is by size of profit: the team that makes the most money wins. That has the virtue of simplicity in fulfilling the show’s guiding philosophy of money-making, but does not obviously have much else going for it. The roadmap to success drawn by The Apprentice is to make cheap rubbish, price it high and sell it hard. Or, as we might more commonly say, to rip off customers.

For example, the task in week one of the current series involved the teams buying fish from wholesalers which they were to turn into lunch products. One approach to this might be to buy decent quality fish, create lunch items of a high standard, and then to price them as reasonably as possible to ensure that a small profit by ensuring that as many people benefit from the good product. Another approach is to buy the lowest quality fish, to turn that into inevitably horrible products, to hoodwink the consumer into thinking that these products are better quality than they in fact are, and to price them at levels that are tantamount to customer exploitation. The first approach would have the potential not only of making a viable business but also of delivering something valuable to consumers; the latter approach is the only one that would succeed on The Apprentice. And so, the creators and producers of the show hope, we are being schooled on the virtues of profit over quality — and, consequently, asked to admire the worst aspects of modern capitalism.

It is possible, of course, that The Apprentice is actually an extremely clever critique of modern capitalism. After all, the candidates are generally set up to look ridiculous and to fail, all for the sake of entertainment. Yet while we laugh at their idiocy (and, of course, it is only the idiotic bits which make it to the final edit), in reality we might be at least mildly impressed at what they manage to achieve. Take a bunch of strangers, some of whom loathe one another, and present them cold with a fairly sophisticated project in a field in which most of them have no experience and that has to be completed in 48 hours, and it’s actually a fair achievement that something even vaguely looking like a product/advertising campaign/acceptable sales emerges. ‘Desert Secret’ (one of the shampoo campaigns in episode two) may have been rubbish, but in the circumstances it was the sort of rubbish one might have expected even from a highly competent team of inexperienced strangers in a desperately short period of time.

But on the whole I’m inclined to think that The Apprentice is really a clever celebration of capitalism. For the candidates are also firmly set up to succeed. The ‘fish’ task is a good illustration of this. In a mere two days one of the teams, starting out with limited capital, made a profit of £200. We might marvel at the miracle of capitalism and the entrepreneurial spirit: even a bunch of idiots can turn over a quick, tidy profit in hardly any time at all! But consider this ‘profit’ and consider some of the awkward realities of business that are never admitted in the world of The Apprentice. Once the costs of paying for a kitchen and transport, the rental of vending spots and the price of overheads such as electricity and phone bills are factored in, most of that £200 would be wiped out. Then subtract the salaries for nine employees, as well as some money to cover marketing. Normally tax would also have to be paid, but since we’ve now discovered that what appeared to be profit-making fish business would in reality have made a huge loss, then (much like Amazon, Starbucks, etc., although for different reasons) there is no need to bother with tax.

The Apprentice presents an absurd business fantasy. It is a fantasy of a world in which hard work and an entrepreneurial spirit will always succeed, and in which business, as long as it is encouraged, will always make money. At the same time as pouring scorn on the low calibre of the contestants, many viewers are no doubt also impressed by the apparently easy way in which a new business can succeed and quick money is made. At no point does the show invite us to doubt whether it is a fair reflection of the reality of business. The Apprentice feeds the ludicrously unsound idea that private enterprise and profit-making are the supreme economic virtues, that they always work, and that somehow they deliver an unqualified benefit to society as a whole.

In numerous ways, therefore, The Apprentice is a horrible show, embodying some of the most hideous features of modern economic life. Yet I watch it with something like enjoyment — which may go to prove that I am as much of an idiot as the very people I am watching.

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