06 October 2010

The Apprentice: Unionize!

I'm looking forward to the return of The Apprentice for its sixth series tonight, as I'm confident that this will be the year everything changes.

2010: the year a Tory-led government declared its intentions to lay off thousands of public sector workers, made war on the welfare state, and committed itself to cuts in spending that will hardly boost private sector employment. The year Boris Johnson proposed amending union legislation in such a way that, as he crowed to Jeremy Paxman, 'would stop nearly all strikes' from happening. Yes, 2010 will be the year in which the sixteen contestants smarten up and realize there is only one way to beat the system: unionize.

Picture the scene: the two teams are in the boardroom, and Sir Alan is beginning his inquest, inviting the team-leaders to point fingers and pin blame. But no! 'We believe in collective responsibility, Sir Alan,' comes the reply. And also collective bargaining. The contestants reveal their demands: the weekly redundancy round is to be scrapped, or everyone walks in Week 1 and there's no show. The full complement will progress through each week's task, and the prize at the end re-adjusted, so that instead of one uber-Apprentice earning £100,000 a year, instead four roles paying £25,000 a year will be created, each filled by four job-sharing Red Apprentices. That's not a proper job some might grumble, but the job-share leaves all the contestants with ample free time to pursue their real dream: turning their TV appearances into a full-time media career, with the prospect of a job on Channel 5 hovering luminescently before their eyes.

It'll never happen of course. Partly because by its very nature, The Apprentice attracts (and the producers select) not genuine entrepreneurial talent but a particular kind of sociopath and narcissist who, if they're not after that Channel 5 job, aspires instead to the safety-roped glamour of a massive corporate cocoon. Rather than embark on a genuine project of wealth-creating capitalism, they're after nothing more than a comfy perch in a huge managerial nexus.

But also because to take The Apprentice at face value, as the self-styled 'toughest job interview in the world' is mistaken. Sure, it looks like it's packed with all kinds of didactic tips not just for would-be Sugars but any feckless job-seeker. It looks like it's aimed at the upwardly-mobile aspirational go-getter.

But it's not. It's a series of object lessons for the modern neo-liberal employer. For a start, the contestants are not out of work: they're on The Apprentice. They're given food, lodging, and jobs to do, for weeks on end. They don't get told their application was unsuccessful: they get Fired.

They exist instead in that strange precarious purgatory which will be familiar to millions for whom the concept of job security has become a joke. They are the temps, aware that they can be referred back to their agency at any time on the slightest whim, personal or professional. They are the contract workers, constantly aware that a clock is ticking down towards joblessness. They are the young graduates told they have to undertake, and be grateful for, a three-month unpaid internship to even dream of a career in journalism or TV. They are - even - the architects told that yes they should spend most of their time working towards competitions which only one practice can win, because 'Have you ever taken a run to prepare for a race? Was that also not fun? Thought can atrophy if you’re not careful.'

Instead The Apprentice is an extended lecture course for employers in keeping overheads down by maintaining a minimal, quiescent workforce. Lesson 1: divide and rule. The teams compete ferociously against each other. They are encouraged to turn on each other in the boardroom autopsy. They are repeatedly broken up and re-organized to prevent bonds of friendship and understanding developing. Lesson 2: outsource supervision. The effect of the constant division and competition means the apprentices regard each other as the enemy at all times, they become a weirdly self-policing cult of mutual hatred, a kind of private-sector Stasi, desperate to note, recall and regurgitate each others' petty errors and fibs. Lesson 3: prizes are the opium of the apprentice. Days at the races, massages, cocktail-mixing classes for winning a task? Yes, you too can distract your workforce easily by throwing them treats. They look generous: company outings! Christmas meals! Drinks on Friday! But they cost a pittance relative to little HR issues like pay-rises in line with inflation. Or proper benefits. Or not telling two people in the same job they will both have to re-interview as one role is being scrapped.

Because that is what you see in The Apprentice. Not the world's longest or toughest job interview, but a long, slow, horribly diverting process by which a department of sixteen is hoodwinked by redundancy rounds into becoming a department of one.


Charles Holland said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
saving_throw said...

This is so well put, and makes an awesome thought experiment. The way 'contestants' are selected to avoid a 'unionised' scenario goes on behind a curtain somewhere, so Sugar and co. can keep broadcasting their capitalist realist fantasies that there is no alternative.

Except you just wrote it.

I'd love to see the briefs on how these things are cast/edited. There have to be documents, disgruntled production assistants, something...wikileaks? Sure, capitalist realist entertainment (Reality tv in general? That insistence on 'reality' to name the genre is protesting too much and telling) keeps going by presenting its own versions of behind-the-scenes, how-your-entertainment-is-made shows...classic incorporate- critique-and-market-it, rebel consumer moves...it's not reveal, as much as preempting the reveal...

Let's just say this onion has a few more layers.

At any rate, all this ain't nothing, compared to Top Model. If everybody in that house shaved their heads in solidarity pre-makeovers, it would be a glorious day indeed.

Anonymous said...

This is perfect. Temps indeed they are. Or on probational contracts, as everyone is when they start a new job these days. It's not like they have to give reasons in the first year to get rid and replace you.

Charles Holland said...

it reminds me too of something i used to wonder about when watching big brother which was the incredible subservience of the competitors. as fantastically and objectionably rude as they are to each other they will do ANYTHING asked of them by the programme makers. it never occurs to them that they could just refuse en masse to behave according to plan and then see what happens. their loyalty to the underlying and utterly ridiculous premise of the show is total.

Zone Styx Travelcard said...

@saving_throw, thanks! yeah in the days when I used to watch Big Brother I was always struck by what a good job the producers did of controlling group chemistry, ie they didn't just pick the 12 weirdest contestants, it was obviously obsessed over by the productions team in minute detail - if we pick applicant A, we should pick B to offset them... but then C can't go in because they're too similar - that kind of rationale.

The trick you mention re 'revealing' all the backstage stuff is so important to the X Factor in particular. It creates public empathy with the winner. The interesting thing for me is what happens next: Cowell et al don't seem to understand that once that relationship is set up you can't simply undo it. They try to present the winners as traditional pop stars suddenly: all unattainable mystique, the joins and cracks papered over into an unreal perfection, pop charisma as immanent, not painstakingly created. I think eventually they'll realize they need to extend that X-Factor empathy through into a follow-up series in which the winner's toils in the 'real world' are followed fly-in-the-wall.

@golauglau Yeah forgot probation periods

@Charles Very true... I think it's a psychological phenomenon found beyond BB. I mean didn't Bazalgette admit once that he'd basically ripped off the idea from the Stanford Prison Experiment? Although in that the guards became sadistic drones for Authority and the prisoners rebelled... Maybe I'm thinking of the study where people happily give invisible subjects increasing electric shocks just because someone in an official-looking white coat tells them it's ok...

Anonymous said...

A greedy scab would go along with it..then turn when the rest had shown their hand. I’m drooling just thinking about it.