For many of our fellow citizens the pursuit of neoliberal economics has resulted in atrocious working conditions, low wages, surveillance and an impermanent job on zero hours contracts at the beck and call of employers who can dismiss them with impunity. While writing a posta few weeks ago about the talent show Let it Shine it occurred to me that this form of TV normalises the neoliberal position in the name of entertainment.
This issue was highlighted a few years ago by Nick Couldry of Goldsmiths College in the context of reality programmes such as Big Brother (you can find a copy of his article here). Couldry calls such programmes a secret theatre of Neoliberalism as the structure of such programmes obscure their links to oppressive labour conditions in the guise of playful entertainment. Couldry points to a number of characteristics of such shows including continual surveillance and subservience to an absolute external authority which are both issues of concern at JD Sports and Sports Direct warehouse workers. Another feature, team conformity in which dissent is arbitrarily punished is clearly seen in the JD Sports situation. One of the problems faced by agency workers is the way in which their situation engenders a subservient mindset. While of a different nature the nature of reality TV formats impose similar psychological conditions.
What about the other genre of reality programme, the talent show? This, by the way includes Trump’s The Apprentice. Again we can see the factors of neoliberalism in play. The projection of manufactured authenticity is a vital component. the entertainment version of the Asda personnel manager’s insistence on a ‘mile of smiles’, where as Couldry mentions, every smile must nonetheless be a ‘real smile’. Likewise, if the contestant does not live up to expectations they are discarded by viewer votes and the competition rolls relentlessly onwards.
In the context of widespread discontent about the neoliberal pursuit of globalisation, Couldrey makes some a telling comment:
There is no basis for challenging the national vote, any more than we can individually challenge a corporate decision to downsize; the consequences must in both cases be borne individually.
Finally, programmes such as Strictly Come Dancing also demonstrate a feature of neoliberalism quite separate from working conditions, namely alienation and cultural exploitation. Artefacts (in this case dance formats) are appropriated, stripped of emotional content and repackage into a standard entertainment industry format.
So when you next sit down to enjoy a reality programmes, think about how the conditions endured by the competitors are shared by minimum wage and zero hours contract workers. The difference is that the contestants are there by choice and can decide to walk away ay any time. For many workers in Britain’s warehouses and supermarkets there is no such relief, fully justifying Couldry’s claim of cruelty.
For years we have been warned that Government policy was returning us to Victorian era working conditions. While things are clearly different in many respects, such as no child labour and greatly reduced physical risks to name but two, there is evidence that in the social sphere this has now happened in some areas of Britain. But it is not in terms of the palpable outward employment conditions that this manifests itself nost starkly, but in the attitude of the various layers of worker, supervisor and owner.
JD Sports: Queuing to get in and out of ‘Prison’
Following the revelations of working conditions at retailers Amazon and Sports Direct the December 14thChannel 4 News special reporton working conditions at JD Sports confirmed what we already suspected. Oppressive working conditions in many major retailers are the norm rather than the exception with practices which are at best borderline illegal. The report contained shocking footage of low wage workers being forced to queue for hours in the cold to get in and out of the Rochdale distribution warehouse. Employee contracts state that such queueing had to be undertaken in their time thus reducing the actual wage rate per hour for the job below the statutory minimum. With the cost being borne completely by the worker there is no incentive for the company to either improve its practices or review its draconian security arrangements.
Aside from the physical hardship there were two particularly disturbing aspects of the report involving the attitudes displayed by both the agency staff (supplied by Assist Recruitment) and their supervisors. As the lowest rung of management the floor supervisors themselves can be earning only a little more than the minimum wage agency staff who comprise their charges. Yet on a number of occasions in the report, bourne out by subsequent anecdotal reports, the supervisors could be seen behaving in ways both oppressive and, at times, inhuman . The second disturbing aspect was the use of the word ‘prison’ to describe conditions at the Rochdale warehouse. I consider these two aspects are related and create a toxic environment of working conditions which are similar to those of Victorian mines and factories.
The 1971 Stanford University Experiment
In 1971 a notorious psychological experiment was carried out at Stanford University in California by Philip Zimbardo. Funded by the US Government via the Navy its aim was to study the the evolution of norms and the effects of roles and social expectations in a simulated prison (actually the basement at Stanford). The details of the setting up, running and conclusions of this highly controversial experiment are beyond the scope of this blog and I can give only the briefest of outlines. Further information is freely available including this helpful website associated with a documentary film of the experiment. and this very readable desription.