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Capitalist Propaganda in Random Television Shows

Tonight my partner and I made the mistake of turning on the television to pass an hour while we were eating a late dinner.  We don't usually watch television when we eat, or even casually watch television, preferring to choose what shows and movies to watch on our own time rather than playing the lottery of channel flipping.  Considering we only get five or six channels on a good day (yes, those of us who don't have the money to spare on cable or satellite or whatever when we are already paying for the internet and the telephone still use aerials), there's really not much to watch.  And since we don't often flip through prime time television, when we do we usually discover new shows.

This time we discovered a show called Harry's Law starring Kathy Bates, some guy who I'm pretty sure was in a bunch of shitty Adam Sandler films, and the actor who played "Norm" in Cheers.  One of the reasons we don't like watching random shows is because, as a general rule, so many of these random shows are the worst sort of mindless Yankee propaganda.  And rather than turning off the television when the show becomes ideologically offensive, we receive a rather sick pleasure watching the episode until the end, complaining aloud as we watch, experiencing jolts of pathetic self-righteousness.  Tonight's episode of Harry's Law––yet another idiot lawyer show that is mostly about how great it is to be a wealthy lawyer––provided us with just this sort of experience.

I'm less interested in analyzing the show itself (which isn't really worthy of any cultural assessment) than its ideological function.  I really know nothing about Harry's Law, after all, and don't care about knowing anything further, but this specific episode was a rather poisonous example of the current state of USAmerican propaganda.  We are living in a time where, due to the economic recession, people at the centres of imperialism are losing their faith in capitalism: although the subjective conditions may not be ripe (due to the failure of anti-capitalists to produce an organized and theoretically unified counter-hegemony), events such as the occupy movement are clearly demonstrating that the masses are waking up to the global nightmare they've been dream-walking through for the past several decades.

This particular episode of Harry's Law, then, was interesting because it demonstrated the pernicious ruling class ideology response, that masquerades as innocuous, to the widespread disillusionment with the American Dream.  And though I don't spend time (or have the necessary channels) to watch a lot of mainstream American television, I think I can safely assume that the ideology purveyed in this specific episode is anachronistic: not only is it telling that a random television watching escapade just happened (as it so often does) to force us to encounter yet another annoying example of pro-capitalist propaganda, the ideology inherent in this episode is extremely familiar––I have watched and heard it before, in multiple forms in the supposed heterogeneity of the culture industry that is mostly, with a few honourable exceptions, unified in its superstructural support of capitalist business as usual.

The episode in question focused on two plot lines.  One concerned a custody battle over a Chinese child who was "kidnapped" from China when she was two and sold into the US orphan system.  The second concerned a legal battle surrounding labour protectionist laws that were forcing a citizen (who also happened to be the titular "Harry", played by Kathy Bates) to pay a supposedly egregious fine.

The first plot line was significant in that it was yet another example of the current American mindset––a mindset that has been cultivated from the early days of orientalist imperialism, through the cold war hatred of communism, to the spite regarding non-white competing capitalism––towards China.  It is interesting how much China is mentioned in the culture industry.  Take the last Batman movie where a criminal is outed in court for using a Chinese-made [which also meets terribly made because it is not made in America and non-whites cannot produce anything worthwhile] gun, and where Batman flies into China to grab a criminal––all side points to the main plot.  Or take all the strange stories we hear about China––some half-true, others false, still others no more strange or horrendous than the stories we hear about the global actions of America or Canada or the EU––on a daily basis.  While it is true that China has been a state capitalist country since Deng and the capitalist roaders seized power at the end of the failed GPCR, and while it is true that it has aspirations to be an imperialist power on the same level of the US, the actions of China are no better or worse than the actions of its capitalist counterparts; prevalent expressions of sinophobia are intended to make us think that China is more barbaric, more violent, more alien, and more repressive than the regimes that we are supposed to celebrate.

In any case, in tonight's episode of Harry's Law we are presented with the story of a child from China who was stolen from her parents when she was two and raised until she was six by an American family. China, after all, is a nation of child traffickers.  And though the Chinese parents have searched for this child all their lives, they lose her to the American family in the custody battle because: a) they didn't raise her; b) her life is better in America.  Since I care little for biological notions of the family, I don't care very much about point (a) aside from the point that it is contingent on the supposition that China is den of child-stealing criminals (who apparently do not exist elsewhere).  The point is that the conclusion of the custody battle seemed intended to demonstrate that America had the right to decide the destiny of a child.  America, after all, has the right to make decisions for the world's population!

The second plot line, however, was a much more relevant piece of propaganda.  Due to the recession a mayor (played by "Norm") decides to implement a protectionist policy for auto-workers by making it illegal for people in his city to drive foreign-made cars so as to protect the jobs of his fellow citizens.  Harry was driving a mercedes and so she was fined.  A rather stupid story-line in general, but terribly informative when it comes to the function of the ruling ideas of the ruling class: Harry's argument is that the mayor's protectionism (which is little more than mildly left populism) is a form of "marxism" and that America is not "the Soviet Union"; she claims that being American is synonymous with "freedom" and that "freedom" is synonymous with the right of any individual to buy whatever she wants (as long as it doesn't violate the liberal harm principle); she argues fiercely that outsourcing is an essential part of the capitalist market and will ultimately create more jobs and well-being for Americans (in a word, she argues for the export of capital, for imperialism); she thinks that her right to drive expensive cars trumps the possible starvation of workers; she equivocates (falsely, fallaciously) an attempt to protect the domestic market (however limited this attempt would be) with xenophobia ("you don't like German cars, you don't want German cars to compete, the best commodity wins"), even going so far as to offensively compare her experience of being fined for being rich to the experience of anti-semitism.

Essentially, the arguments made on the part of the show's hero are part of the arguments that are being assembled to produce the propaganda necessary for combatting the complaints of these mass movements that are feebly attempting to challenge capitalism.  Following the emergence of the occupy movement, television shows are arguing that the ideology of these types of movements, however limited and confused, is contrary to "freedom", that targeting the wealthy is akin to being a xenophobe [here we must remember how the late Vaclav Havel, when he was a politician, passed a law that claimed it was "hate speech" to criticize corporations], and that it is better to live in a world where market choice is equivalent to freedom.

The judge eventually decides in favour of Kathy Bates and argues that, yes, the right to useless individual liberty, the right for the capitalist market to persist, trumps the needs of the jobless in his city.  Because, hey, this is what America is all about!  Get out of the streets #occupiers, go hide in universities anti-capitalists, starve on the streets or play along with your collaborating union workers!  Stay in the ghettoes, in the projects, on the street, in the kitchens.  Joblessness and starvation and oppression are small prices to pay for the individual freedom protected by the Founding Fathers and the Constitution: this is what makes America and capitalism great.

In an old and somewhat asinine post (which was intended to be blithe and humorous and that succeeded in pissing off at least one local Randroid) I complained about how "liberty" was often confused with "freedom" and this was a core dogma of capitalist ideology.  Even worse is the fact that the language of "freedom" that is espoused by libertarians, conservatives, and the ideologues responsible for tonight's episode of Harry's Law is now a pale shade of even the liberal equivocation of liberty with freedom.  While the liberal shell still remains, the conceptual kernel is almost absent.  The concept of freedom, bandied about by pundits of every type of capitalist, is coming to mean nothing more than "capitalism" in general and (in the case of Harry's Law) the USAmerica in particular.  Capitalism is the greatest system because it promotes the most individual liberty and it promotes the most individual liberty because that is what capitalism does.  America is great because it is the land of freedom and it is the land of freedom because it is America.

What we're looking at, then, is degeneration of even the concept of liberty––a degeneration that might shock J.S. Mill, though he should have realized it was the historical and logical upshot of his way of seeing the world––where an already falsely defined "freedom" is now defined by the logic of market efficiency.  Milton Friedman, uncritical marionette of capitalist ideology, was honest enough to recognize that capitalism was, indeed, about efficiency: hence his argument that the foster system and orphanages should be replaced by slave auctions where the richest members of society would bid for abandoned children.  The efficiency of pure self-interest is now somehow suddenly the definition of freedom.  With such a definition presupposed, it is easy to argue that any politics that rejects pure self-interest and market efficiency is a politics of unfreedom.  In a word, and a flattening word that critical thinkers have come to despise: totalitarianism.

Hell, this vague and secretly nihilistic definition of freedom can even explain the concept of "equality" (a concept that is often used by critical theorists to define freedom as a counter-balance to liberty).  Everyone individual is equal under capitalist law, after all.  As Anatole France wrote in The Red Lily: "The law, in its majestic quality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread."  A meaningless equality, as meaningless as the larger definition of freedom.

In the end, the propaganda of a show like Harry's Law is just a tiny part of the larger system of propaganda that is rearing its head in a time when an economic crisis at the centres of capitalism is finally laying bare the contradictions that were always known and felt in the peripheries.  Unfortunately, since there is no real unified counter-movement, this propaganda will probably be more successful than it might have been otherwise.


  1. My mother really likes this show, but mainly because she likes Kathy Bates character.I noticed the American dream capitalist propaganda on the show as well today. I respect my mom way too much to bore her with my political thoughts and observations so I just kept it to my self lol. I think 'Norm' had a good idea and at least he was trying to do something to help. Had any American city or state in real life done something similar before?


  2. Not that I know of... there were some movements in some industries (some call centres, for example, but not auto industries), and there is a lot of furor around doing this sort of thing, but nothing currently like what the show depicted. I'd love to know, however, if there are some towns that are doing precisely this.

  3. Personally, I prefer to watch E-Talk while I eat my dinner (I also only have an antenna).

    But the real comment I wanted to make pertains to what you said about China and sinophobia. It seems that since the collapse of the Soviet Union, there has been several shifts in terms of finding a common enemy against which to build a national (U.S.A.) identity - particularly via mainstream culture. I wonder whether this seemingly recent shift to anti-China propaganda is precisely because China is vying to be an imperialist power akin to the U.S. or other comparable nations.

    Anyways, thanks for these two great posts that have given me an excuse to delay my work a little longer this morning.

  4. Nice post thanks. And "buy American" increasingly means prison/slave labour.


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