Big Brother and Neoliberalism
Big Brother - the Perfect
Neoliberal TV Programme
Phil Hearse 14 Jan 06
There are numerous reasons why the sole MP of a political organisation should not hold her/himself up to public ridicule and deliver the pro-capitalist media endless opportunities to put the boot in. Most readers will be able to think of a long list of reasons why it is not a good idea for George Galloway to do what he is doing. Among the least discussed however is the fact that it is lending credibility to the perfect neoliberal TV programme - Big Brother itself. No programme so completely captures, in just about every conceivable aspect, the economics, politics and cultural banality of neoliberal capitalism. How so?

First, as Mike Wayne points out in his brilliant book Marxism and Media Studies (Pluto Press), Big Brother in terms of the hours of viewing generated and advertising revenue brought in, is wonderfully cheap TV. Together with Big Brother's Little Brother, hour upon tedious hour is generated and it is all 'new' - no problem of repeats, because the house's inmates will do something 'different' (or at least say something different) each day. Revenue is also generated by the high cost of phone calls to vote on which housemates should be evicted - on one evening seven million people rang in to vote. Further revenue streams are created by books, magazines, caps and T-shirts.

Ideologically Big Brother involves a series of vile elements. First and foremost is a sadistic element - delight in ritual humiliation. The programme can only work if the inmates make idiots of themselves. This is enabled by a second feature: the idea that people will do anything for money. To get large amounts of money in capitalist society you will give away your dignity and grovel - which of course is what numerous service workers in hotels, shops and restaurants worldwide do on a daily basis, but they do it because they have to, not out of ambition and greed.

Third, Big Brother - in its 'normal' as well as 'celebrity' version - is part of the cultural apparatus of late capitalism celebrating 'celebrity' itself. Non-celebrity contestants have the chance of becoming celebrities, if only - like 'Nasty Nick' - because they are famous for being regarded as hateful. Celebrity in this stage of capitalism is a uniquely debased and mystifying version of the Hollywood-created 'star system', generated in the 1920s and '30s. To be a 'celebrity' is to have charisma thrust upon you, even if you are the most uncharismatic Channel 4 horse racing tipster. In a grim caricature of Andy Warhol's prediction that everyone would become famous, but only for 15 minutes, people today become famous for being famous (the classic example is Paris Hilton).

"I would love to be famous" is the accepted outlook of millions of young people, because to be a celebrity is to conquer the apparent secret of happiness - to never feel financially insecure, to never be lonely and have lots of people who want to be your 'friends' at some level, to never be ignored or shunned or made to wait in a queue, and to have instant sexual access to lots of attractive people. Celbrities are 'magical', the capitalist spectacle's ability to deliver a Midas-like blessing and turn people metaphorically into gold.

I was particularly impressed by a document that Daniel Bensaid wrote in 1969 in which he proclaimed "the privileges of the bourgeoisie are no longer worth having". After thinking about it for the last 37 years, I don't entirely agree with him. Of course celebrities have things which make life easier, even if they don't guarantee happiness. What is entirely mystifying about celebrity is that it is like winning the lottery, a magical daydream, or rather a pipe-dream. The entire cultural apparatus of celebrity - from the millions of acres of newspaper coverage, dozens of celebrity magazines, endless amounts of radio and TV 'showbiz news', encourages a vicarious obsession with people you will never meet and living lifestyles that will never experience. By vastly exaggerating the merits of the few very famous, late capitalism devalues the merits of the multi-millions of 'ordinary' people who are by definition 'unimportant'. And of course it promotes the notion that the only solutions are individual work-based solutions which will make you better off, even if you can never aspire to fame or real celebrity. Collective solutions are not so much subversive as in the red-baiting past, but merely unthinkable.

Big Brother is political by banning politics (one of many miscalculations by George Galloway). To be sure, most young people in advanced capitalism are - for the moment anyway - apolitical. To be political, in fact to get worked up about anything and have serious opinions, is viewed in popular culture are seriously suspicious (which is why a lot of the right-wing media don't like George Michael). Big Brother allows controversy only about the most trivial of things within the house itself. Compulsory apoliticism is of course highly political.

In addition, Big Brother celebrates one of the most threatening aspects of modern Britain - surveillence itself. Britain is the most monitored and watched society in the world, even if post-Patriot Act America is catching up. CCTV cameras capture nearly every moment of your journey through major cities, surveillence of the post, telephones and internet use is extensive, and the surveillence/security ' indusrty' is burgeoning (for example MI5 has just opened 9 new regional offices).

And finally Big Brother comes into its own in its symbiotic relationship with the popular press. Part of that is the witch hunt. Contestants, particulalry women, are singled out by the popular press, as being hate figures because they are variously nasty, fat (a favourite), 'slags', gay, transexual and of course - finally we have it - left wing in the shape of George Galloway.

All these things suggest that for the socialist left, indeed all those making a radical critique of modern capitalism, any association whatever with Big Brother and similar shows is to make a pact with the devil - one you can never win.