Thursday, October 27, 2005

Alternate Economics and... The Apprentice?

This is a quasi-rant based on something that has been bothering me since I caught the last few episodes of The Apprentice's first season.

The Apprentice is supposedly a paen to all-American capitalist entrepreneurs (you know, the kind the French don't even have a word for). But the way the show is structured betrays every ethos it supposedly upholds.

The first thing I noticed was the lack of bosses. For those who haven't seen the show, every season starts with two teams (men vs. woman, college grads vs. high schoolers, etc.). The teams are given a task, a deadline, and a budget or the materials to pull off their goal. They compete head to head, and the losers have one team member fired by Donald Trump.

Each team has a leader, the "project manager," who is selected from within. There are no real guidelines for how to select the PM, and in the past it has usually been a process of self-nomination. Typically, each team member tries to take at least one try at it, and a few times, I believe there has been a vote on who should be PM.

The PMs tend to act like bosses, whether good or bad. But they aren't bosses, obviously. They only govern by consensus. If it was a real workplace, they would have power over their fellow workers. They could fire them (can't do that here) could theoretically cut their wages or withold future raises (no one's getting paid), could demote them or put them in the smelly cubicle (but there'll be a new leader next week, no penalty can hold). In fact, the groups undertaking the tasks could more accurately be called (gasp!) cooperatives. They tend to be deficient because everyone is trying to act like a boss, however. They only really know how to behave hierarchically, and everyone is trying to demonstrate "leadership." On some teams, there is a real problem of too many Pizarros, not enough conquistadors. In general, the teams that have the least amount of power politics and personal clashes do the best.

The only power a PM has, even theoretically, is to bench a troublesome team mate for the duration of the task. However, they seldom resort to this, usually giving their more useless/irritating colleagues the scut work, like ordering lunch or sweeping up.

The teams tend to stumble forward because all the members share two collective aims. The first is to win the task of the week. The second is to find a victim to blame if everything goes pear shaped. More often than not, the PM of the losing team gets the boot for "poor leadership," which is sometimes obviously true, and sometimes less so.

Having demolished the notion that The Apprentice is organized like a real capitalist workplace, let's look at that Horatio Alger myth that is so prominently displayed in the advertising. The word leadership has taken such a beating on this show that it could stand in for Ed Norton in Fight Club. But none of the Apprentices are actually trying to become entrepreneurs through the show. They are trying to win a position below someone else - someone they'll likely never surpass in wealth and power. They're gutting each other week after week to reach the highest peaks of middle management.

I was going to refer to this as a kind of feudal system (King Trump, with his privy council of George and Carolyn) but what it really reminds me of is the system of patrons in 18th Century France and England. It was largely expected that to advance in life, one needed a wealthy and powerful patron. And once men rose to a high enough station, they returned the favour to those below them, often their children, nephews or the sons of their friends, creating a massive old-boys network. It seems that this system has returned to the land that spawned the self-made millionaire. Now, you don't make your money with sweat and innovation. You become successful by being close to success. That kind of elitism is more disturbing than any form of capitalism, which is why it's dressed up as "leadership."

One final note: I used to like The Apprentice. It's not that I'm a big fan of the economic system it (supposedly) represents, but I like watching people work together to do something in competition. In the first two seasons, most of the tasks were based on who had the most money at the end, a nice concrete basis for a win or a loss. Who sold the most ice cream? Who got the most money out of a mobile kiosk selling anything they could think of? Now, the show has devolved into product placement hell. All the challengers are public relations or ad based, and they revolve around creating some bullshit tie-in product or marketing campaign. The contestants, who may or may not be good business people, suck at these jobs, because by and large they aren't creative at all, much less for a living. Watching them make asses of themselves shilling for Dairy Queen or Best Buy is just sad.

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