It is a conceit of the Left that the corporate system keeps us underfoot through the sheer weight of economic power. Power it has, but there is more to it than that. The system couldn’t work unless we worked with it; that is, unless we internalized its narratives and values and so lent a willing – or at least conditioned – hand.
This happens most obviously in our assigned role as “consumers.” But it happens on the production side as well. There is a powerful moral drama that attaches to the producer side of the economy, and leads people to detach their enterprise and effort from the impacts of these upon the world. Until critics of the corporate economy grasp this – until they grasp how people can feel virtuous even when they are doing ill — they will continue to beat against a psychological stone wall.
I got a glimpse of this a couple months ago, in a setting I never imagined myself in – an audition for child actors. Over Christmas, my wife, son and I were at a mall in San Francisco. There was a booth near the food court that appeared to be signing up kids for auditions for movie roles. Josh, who is four, has shown the instincts of a performer. (Maybe every child does; but he’s all we know.) He even has the shyness that often finds compensatory outlet on the stage.
What the heck. It would be an experience, if nothing else. We signed him up, and then didn’t think much about it. That’s not totally true. My mind tends towards stark moral dilemmas where personal decisions are concerned, and this one was teeming with them. What kind of movie could I consent for him to be in? What if he did well? Could I let him become a Hollywood brat?
Cross those bridges later, I thought. Then I pretty much forgot about it.
About a month later we got a call, a pleasant chap with a vaguely British accent. Would we be available to bring Josh to an audition that Saturday? He sounded almost solicitous, as though they really wanted Josh to come. We were to appear at 7:00 PM. The end of a long tedious casting day I thought. I told Josh this person might need some cheering up.
We drove into the parking lot at about ten minutes to seven. It was a new office building at the edge of the Canal district of San Rafael, just past the car dealerships, furniture outlets and auto body shops. And what was this? A line so long it spilled out the door? What a sucker, I thought. This wasn’t an appointment; it was a cattle call. We considered leaving. But we had come this far; what the heck?
Eventually we found ourselves in the back of a large assembly, sitting on the floor because there weren’t enough chairs. The offices seemed strangely barren, as though the occupants didn’t plan to stay long. But the place was full of life size posters of …wait, these were clothing models, not actors.
The presentations started. First up: the talent agent who would evaluate the kids. He could have could have come from Woody Allen’s casting director: open shirt, breezy L.A. manner, a roster of recent placements that he tossed off just a bit too casually, as though it happened every day. They all talked like that – Hollywood’s way of saying, I guess, “I’m big and you can be too.”
While the names dropped I flipped through a packet of materials we had gotten at the door. Whoa, what was this? We weren’t at an audition; there were no movie roles. This was a come-on for a school – the John Roberts Powers (now JRP) school — that was going to turn our kids into stars. Curiosity battled against revulsion, and curiosity won.
Finally we got to the main event, a presentation by a tall Asian woman whose name I recall as Lindy Kwan. Lindy had the arresting carriage of a runway model, and she was all business. She didn’t honey talk us. She challenged us. This business was about hard work, persistence, absolute dedication. We weren’t talking Hollywood brats. It was the Pilgrim’s Progress, toil and sacrifice seeking their just reward. It was about character.
As a parent I was drawn in, in spite of myself. (A pretty big in-spite-of by the way.) Who doesn’t want their child to work hard and persevere? It was a brilliant counterpoint to the JRP brochure in our laps, the one with full-page shots of successful child models, along with lots of graphic pop and snazz. Typical text:
SUCCESS STORY. 6 TV commercials. 5 national print campaigns. ARE YOU NEXT?
Nobody mentioned money. But the atmosphere was thick with it. The crowd was not well-heeled. It was more the kind of people you might encounter at a get-rich-in-real-estate seminar at the local Holiday Inn; or possibly at a casino in Lake Tahoe. Most were the “minorities” that in California are rapidly becoming the majority, if they aren’t there already. The brochures and posters fed the dream of a quick ride up the economic ladder.
But Lindy was assuring us it was not really about that. We weren’t the kind of people who would see our kids as financial assets. She spoke of “the industry” in reverential terms, almost like a church. In “the industry”, the virtuous succeed and the slackards fall by the wayside. “The industry” was a confirming echo of a moral order, not a commercial one. That thing most devoutly sought, a callback, was not just a career step. It was an evidence of election, a plateau on the Seven Story Mountain.
Lindy is not exactly a star, I gathered. She has done mainly catalogue work. Her film credits top off at an exercise video from what I could tell. But for this audience she had authority. She was in the industry. I began to think of her labors in the gym, her water bottle, her defoliants and toners, as the rites and disciplines of a kind of a religious order. The pandering and hedonism of the commercio-entertainment culture faded far into the background. The thing advertised became unimportant compared to the hard work required to get into the ad.
Oh, and they only considered students who were doing well in school. As a sales pitch it was brilliant, in the lineage of Tom Sawyer whitewashing the fence. Make it seem hard – make it seem an honor — and people will be salivating for it. The auditions? They were to determine who would be invited to attend the JRP school.
It would not be cheap. If you flipped to the back of the brochure, you discovered that the training, which aims at “personal and professional growth,” starts at $1,950 for a twenty-week course. That’s one workshop a week. The rate scales up to $11,900 for the three-year “Elite” program, which includes monthly internet chats with industry (!!!) celebrities.
I wondered how this group could afford that kind of money. We couldn’t, without dipping into savings. But if you were invited to become part of this select group, how could you refuse? We got into a long line for the audition. It had become a bit of a joke by now, but we were curious to see how Josh would respond to the camera.
They took him into a small room and asked him how old he was. He held up four fingers the way he always does. Through the glass door we saw the lady smile. He tried; he really did. But all he could muster during the short session that followed was something just above a whisper. He would not perform. I was more proud of him than if he had knocked them off their feet.
We were told to call back the next morning, which was Sunday, to see if he had been “accepted.” We laughed about it on the ride home; but I also felt a need to puke. There was no denying the seductive power. As they say in the churches, evil appears in the disguise of good. The disguise here was not that of Hollywood alone, but of the whole corporate economy. You work hard, you sacrifice and invest – and you deserve your rewards, dammit.
The most pampered corporate CEO is Pilgrim in his or her own mind. He or she is prevailing over lethargy and sloth; winning the battle that life has set for them.
In this inner drama the impacts upon others and upon the earth can fade off into a blur, just as they did in Lindy’s pitch for JRP. We are called to virtue. The rest is the Lord’s concern. This earth is just a staging area anyway, a setting for the trials that burn the dross off the gold. Who said it was doing to be pleasant; or even that it was going to last?
I’m not saying this is right. I’m saying only that some version of it inhabits the minds of many who run the corporate economy or enable it in the political arena. Faced with critiques of this system, or proposals to restrain it – for reasons of global warming or otherwise – such people can hear an attack on virtue itself. The “commons” can suggest people who are not willing to face the cleansing travails of the market and basically just want something for free.
This moral drama will not be overcome with disparagement or scientific evidence. A new politics of the commons is going to have to embrace Pilgrim and lead him in a new direction. It is going to have to show how the individual can inhabit the commons; how in fact the latter calls forth all the enterprise, ingenuity, frugality and thrift that the market does, and increasingly more so. It is going to have to show that our calling, as individuals, is to inhabit this realm together.