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August 1998
Volume 16, Number 8

Blame It On the Boss
by Paul Cantor

How is capitalism being treated in American popular culture today? The signals are mixed, but generally the picture is bleak. Hollywood continues its unrelenting assault on the commercial society that is its own lifeblood. The latest filmmaker to criticize capitalism all the way to the bank is James Cameron, self-proclaimed "king of the world" at the recent Oscar ceremonies. His film Titanic has become the biggest money-maker of all time by providing a cheesy parable on the evils of money-making.

Greed, selfishness, invidious class distinctions. According to the film, all these characteristics of the capitalist way of life created the Titanic disaster, although if you have actually seen the film--and who hasnt?--you know that it was the beauty of Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio that proved just too distracting for the ill-fated ships lookouts and thus led to the catastrophic close encounter with the famous iceberg (winner, I believe, of this years Oscar for best floating object).

Television has recently been on an anti-capitalist tear. The May 10, 1998, episode of the X-Files was billed by TV Guide under the title: "Is Your Boss A Monster?" The X-Files is generally leftwing in its sympathies. In its most bizarre plot development, the series has managed to associate cigarette smoking with every major assassination in recent American history.

Still, the X-Files has done yeoman service in the cause of freedom by intimating that Big Government may not exactly be our best friend. One episode this season seemed to be suggesting that, as out-of-control as federal authorities like the FBI may be, rightwing militias are worse, only to reverse itself in the end, and reassert that Washington is the true source of the plague infecting the United States today--and Federal Reserve banks were specifically identified as the origin of the disease! With such acute diagnoses to its credit, it was sad to see the X-Files devote its May 10 episode to a transparent allegory showing that capitalist bosses are really monsters in disguise, who turn their workers into zombies.

One bright spot in recent television history was an episode of  Fox Networks hit cartoon series, King of the Hill, that viciously satirized the Americans With Disabilities Act --not the kind of target television usually goes after. The cartoons hero, Hank Hill, impulsively hires a young man for his propane business, only to find that he is a worthless drug addict, utterly incapable of doing his job. But under ADA regulations, the new employees job is protected, because his addiction has been classified as a disability and he is even in a rehabilitation program.

The show uncompromisingly exposed all the absurdities of the ADA legislation, above all subjecting sanctimonious bureaucrats to a withering critique. Still, in a gesture toward political correctness, the episode did suggest that if only Hank had been enlightened and willing to hire a more qualified Hispanic woman for the position, he would have avoided his painful clash with the Disability Police.

And another recent episode of King of the Hill joined the chorus of boss-bashing in the media. Hank encourages his son Bobby to take a job at a Nascar racetrack and, as a traditional American father, urges the boy to work hard and do everything his boss tells him to do. Unfortunately, the boss turns out to be an idiot and soon is asking the compliant youngster to take a shortcut across the track during a stock car race just to fetch him a soft drink.

But the most serious assault on upper-level management currently underway on American television is occurring in the world of professional wrestling, and in my expert opinion the leading cultural indicator in the U.S. is the Worldwide Wrestling Federation. I for one did not believe that the Cold War was really over until a hitherto villainous wrestler like Nikita Koloff began to speak warmly of glasnost during his television interviews.

The end of the Cold War, coupled with newly politically correct attitudes toward ethnicity, has indeed posed a problem for professional wrestling. For decades, a seemingly endless supply of evil Russians and Orientals, from Ivan Koloff to Professor Toru Tanaka, from Nikolai Volkov to Mr. Fuji, gave the American wrestling audience all the villains it needed to hate. But once such ethnic stereotyping became politically incorrect, the masterminds of wrestling had to start searching for new targets for the public to boo.

Infinitely inventive, the wrestling promoters came up with all sorts of new candidates, including a promising villain named Irwin R. Schyster, or IRS for short, who used to show up at his matches in a business suit with attaché case in hand, threatening to audit his opponents during intermission. But I guess IRS proved too frightening for the normally intrepid American public, who at least on some level sense that professional wrestling is fake, but know that the threat of taxes is all-too-real.

Who, then, is the major villain in the Worldwide Wrestling Federation today? It is someone with, for wrestling, the surprisingly unexotic name of Vince McMahon, Jr. For those of you who do not follow professional wrestling, Vince is the well-publicized owner of the WWF. He is currently engaged in a knock-down, drag-'em-out feud with the heavyweight champion of his own league, the more colorfully monickered Stone Cold Steve Austin.

Beginning as a villain himself, Austin proved to be so popular among fans with his rebellious, anti-establishment, "you can take this job and shove it" attitude that McMahon and his braintrust decided that Stone Cold Steve would be a big draw as champion. To fire up the crowds for Austin, McMahon has taken a public stand against his bad boy behavior and his unwillingness to play by the rules (of course nobody plays by the rules of wrestling itself anymore; Stone Cold Steve manifests his rebelliousness by refusing to show deference to McMahon and the rest of the wrestling establishment).

The public feud between McMahon and Austin--between boss and employee--has already taken several weird twists, with McMahon transparently rigging several contests against his own champion, placing close business associates, for example, as referees in key matches in order to stack the odds against Stone Cold. At one point, McMahon--who is himself a bodybuilder and hence just buff enough --got into the ring with Austin, though, for reasons too complicated to explain to the uninitiated, the otherwise heavily favored champion was going to have to face his boss with the proverbial one arm tied behind his back (only outside interference in the ring prevented this ultimate in labor-management conflict from actually taking place).

American wrestling matches used to begin with some washed-up strongman from the Moscow Circus standing in the middle of the ring and insisting upon his right to sing the Soviet national anthem. Today wrestling matches feature the self-proclaimed owner of the league seizing the microphone and insisting on his right to call in police goons to beat up and arrest his own champion for insubordination.

McMahon and his braintrust know what they are doing. No longer able to focus their audiences hatred on external enemies of the United States, they have turned inward, obviously concluding: "We have met the enemy and they are us." Like their brethren in Hollywood, the captains of the wrestling industry are clever and successful capitalists, and nowhere more clever and successful now than in their ability to tap into their audiences suspicion and hatred of capitalism, their envy and resentment against people with more money and more authority than they have. The working man hates his boss; wrestling is entertainment for the working man; with almost syllogistic clarity, Vince McMahon decided to make himself as boss the villain du jour in his own gladiatorial spectacles.

There is a disturbing lesson in all these developments in American popular culture, and especially in what is currently happening in the WWF. The collapse of communism was supposed to mean the triumph of capitalism, and indeed in many respects, both theoretical and practical, it has. But the loss of communism as a palpable threat has given capitalism the dubious luxury of turning in upon itself to find an enemy.

As Ludwig von Mises showed in his The Anti-Capitalistic Mentality, many people have motives for turning against the market economy, and among these groups, cultural figures feature prominently, because they feel that the market does not reward them sufficiently. We have become used to figures out of high culture inveighing against the crass commercialism of capitalism. But we also see figures in the mass media engaged in what looks distressingly like cultural suicide.

Casting the owner as the villain of his own wrestling league is only the latest episode in the strange history of capitalist self-hatred. As I watch Vince McMahon make a spectacle of himself in the ring to boost his ratings, I almost find myself siding with the Austin fans, though for my own reasons. Come to think of it, Id like to see Stone Cold Steve get in the ring and beat the crud out of McMahon. Hell, yes! And while were teaching self-hating capitalists a lesson, how about a tag-team match pitting Stone Cold Steve Austin and Linda "The Terminator" Hamilton against Vince "The Boss" McMahon and James "King of the World" Cameron?

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Paul Cantor is professor of English at the University of Virginia.

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