Zoë Williams’s Guardian piece is a nice analysis of the connexion between desire, self-belief, and consumerism. She wonders why Stella English won the Apprentice simply by insisting that she desired it more than her rival.
OK, maybe at a stretch business is different from other jobs. Business, politics, alternative medicine: there are fields in which self-belief is indivisible from talent, in which there’s no such thing as a gift, there’s only a will. But even on MasterChef and Come Dine With Me, even on Strictly Come Dancing, passion is the mantra. What happened to just being good at something?
We should turn this question round and ask instead ‘what is the mode of being that capitalism inculcates in its participants?’ The most evident pressure in our society is to respond to the superego injunction to enjoy — which means to consume. We must, as Williams goes on to note, respond to adverts that achieve the double whammy of first making us feel ugly and unlovely and then reassuring us that we deserve the makeover their products are offering us, so long as we buy them. That’s the logic of our personal engagement with capital: we must buy in order to make ourselves desirable enough to be consumed by another good citizen of capital (this is, coincidentally, the logic behind bans on the burkha: women who hide their faces aren’t playing the game properly — they should be advertising their goods, their bodies, for consumers to purchase). Our global interactions too are subject to the same injunction: the best way to alleviate the suffering of the world’s poor is to buy fair-trade products (consume), not to eradicate the structural economic systems that bring about the suffering in the first place (thinking). The principal organ of the capitalist human subject is the stomach, not the brain.
The reason why Stella English is a model capitalist subject, and the natural winner of the Apprentice (adjudged by Alan Sugar, one of the country’s leading capitalists) is precisely because she desires so much. Williams again:
There’s an American study that asked teenagers to agree or disagree with the statement ‘I am a very important person’. In the fifties, 12% agreed. In the nineties, it was 80%. This doesn’t equate to actual self-esteem, however, it just flips the domino for a cascade of meaningless statements: I am important, I believe in myself, I can get anything I want so long as I want it badly enough, the sincerity and force of my passion can know no equal, and therefore I deserve it. Whatever it is. Because I want it.
Desiring is the same as being good at something, when what is required of us is to be subjects of capital. It’s not surprising that the equation desiring–deserving–self-valuing septupled between the Fifties, when there was a global competitor to the capitalist model (and therefore an alternative model for human existence), and the Nineties, by which time the fall of communism had sounded the death knell for social democracy (as it seemed that the Left — all of it, from communism to the gentlest and most capital-friendly social democracy — had failed forever: the Fukuyaman ‘end of history’).
We’re still witnessing the decomposition of social democracy’s twenty-year-old corpse, of which the eradication of the welfare state and free education (and, if the tories are given sufficient time, free public healthcare) are just the latest examples. And presiding over the apocalypse are figures like Alan Sugar’s apprentices. As epitomes of desire, they are the model human.