Skip to content

Capitalism

On Mad Men and the impossibility of transcending capitalism

Mad-men-season-6-dante-inferno-theoriesThe documentary maker Adam Curtis wrote in 2010: ‘In Mad Men we watch a group of people who live in a prosperous society that offers happiness and order like never before in history and yet are full of anxiety and unease. They feel there is something more, something beyond. And they feel stuck.’

The system in which the characters are stuck forces them to live divided lives in divided selves. Don Draper, in particular, has learned to put on a mask in order to get ahead and leave behind his background of shame and poverty. But the cost of this pact with American capitalism – I will put on a mask if you let me become successful – is a gnawing loneliness and restlessness. In the first scene of the sixth series, we see him on a beach, next to his beautiful wife, reading in the sun. He’s reading Dante’s Inferno:

Midway through the journey of our life
I found myself within a dark forest,
For the straight path had been lost.

Of course, Dante gets out of the Inferno. How about Don? Is there any transcendence? Any redemption? Any escape from the system? This is one of the great questions which shows during TV’s Golden Age has asked us – from The Wire (no escape), to The Sopranos (no escape), to Six Feet Under and Twin Peaks (some escape maybe), to Breaking Bad (definitely no escape).

Matthew Weiner, creator of Mad Men, used to write for The Sopranos, and both these shows excel at exploring some of the ways people try and escape from late capitalism through therapy or New Age spirituality, and yet somehow remain stuck in the system, just as confused and egotistical as ever.

Janice Soprano seeking escape through yoga
Janice Soprano seeking escape through yoga

In fact, as Mad Men explored, late capitalism rapidly co-opted the insights of therapy, sexual liberation, the arts and New Age spirituality, and used them to sell us things (this is the main point of Adam Curtis’ documentary, Century of the Self, which aired three years before Mad Men began).

So, on the one hand, Don Draper has a sharp artistic insight into the human condition. Some of the key moments of the show are moments during a high-stakes pitch, where he seems to have run out of ideas, and then suddenly he has a brilliant epiphany, and everyone is wowed by his creative power. He’s a Michelangelo of Madison Avenue.

And yet what are these epiphanies? Revelations from God? Glimpses of a better world? No, they’re catchphrases to sell cars or cigarettes. That’s what the idea of epiphany has been reduced to in late capitalism: the magical creation of a new product or ad slogan. That’s what all those innovation companies and creativity gurus are selling: more imaginative ways to sell us things. It’s the least innovative definition of innovation in human history.

So is there no escape?

Certainly, various characters seek various forms of escape. The most common form of escape is booze. The show is swimming in it, the male characters keep their pain and frustration sedated with the bottle.

Paul seeks escape through the Hari Krishnas
Paul seeks escape through the Hari Krishnas

Others seek more radical forms of escape as the Sixties counterculture gains momentum: Paul the copy-writer joins the Hari Krishnas, though it seems pretty phony. Roger Sterling’s daughter joins a hippy commune, again it seems phonier than the capitalism it rejects. Roger himself spends a few seasons experimenting with LSD and group sex – it doesn’t really make him any less selfish, though he is perhaps the most likable and content character in the show. Don also finds an escape of sorts through his constant affairs and one slightly weird S&M dalliance. Ken Cosgrove has the option of escape into bohemian creativity by becoming a novelist, though he doesn’t take it.  Ginsberg the eccentric copy-writer takes the escape of psychosis. And Lane Pryce takes the escape of suicide.

Don, meanwhile, often takes the escape of going on the road. That old American dream: let’s get lost. Let’s disappear. But this is not a long-term solution. By the final episode, after months of traveling, he feels truly lost, and washes up in a New Age retreat on the coast of California.

This retreat is clearly based on Esalen, which was the spiritual centre of the Human Potential Movement in the 1960s, the place where unhappy middle-class people came to learn yoga, give each other massages, and seek through endless workshops and encounter sessions for ‘the real me’, the pure me, the me stripped of all baggage. Here’s a clip on it from Adam Curtis’ Century of the Self:

As Curtis explored, the Human Potential Movement rapidly became absorbed by late capitalism. Today, there is a booming industry of business coaches who use the ideas and techniques of Human Potential in companies and weekend courses, to help people find their authentic selves within late capitalism. The system proved flexible enough to absorb all the radical experiments of the 60s counter-culture, and turn them into commodified experiences.

We see the apparent impossibility of genuine transcendence in the show’s final scene. Don is meditating and chanting ‘om’ – a very unlikely scene. Eyes closed, a quiet smile curls upon his face. A bell chimes. Has he finally found the answer? Has he unlocked the mystery of his self? The scene cuts, and its a famous 70s advert for Coca Cola, ‘I’d like to teach the world to sing’. The implication is that Don’s epiphany at Esalen is merely another idea for an advert, another way to sell things. (Perhaps the ‘merely’ here is mine rather than Weiner’s – he says he thinks the Coke advert is genuinely beautiful).

video-undefined-28CE2BDD00000578-732_637x358

This might make Mad Men sound a very dark and cynical show, and it certainly has its dark edges. But for some reason it’s not a dark show. I think that’s because the characters and stories are drawn with such love, such deft words and gestures. None of them are all bad or all good. We care about them, want them to be OK, are interested in their progress. The writers respect our intelligence, and know they can tell a story through a word, a look or a gesture, and we’ll pick up a subtle reference to something earlier in the show. A point doesn’t have to be obvious: ‘subtext is pleasure’, Weiner says. Characters’ motivations are both revealed, and also mysterious – as in the Sopranos, motivation is never a simple cause-effect equation.

And, unlike every other Golden Age hit, this is a show where no one gets murdered. Think of the body-count in the Sopranos, The Wire, The Shield, Deadwood, Twin Peaks, Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead. Mad Men instead captures our attention with what Weiner calls ‘the quotidian’, with the details of office and domestic life in the maelstrom of the 60s. Office life can feel stale, flat, dull, but it never feels boring at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce (particularly when half the office is on amphetamines). Like 30 Rock, it has a rosy view of the humour, creative anarchy and occasional love to be found in the office. Whatever late capitalism is, it’s interesting.

Even if there is no great transcendence from the system, we do see better life-opportunities open up for female and coloured characters as the civil rights movement progresses. Compare the autonomy and power of Joan and Peggy at the end of the show with the simpering bimbos they were at its beginning.

So, in the words of the Peggy Lee song that begins the final season, ‘Is that all there is?’ The show seems to agree with Sigmund Freud – the only transcendence we can hope for are the consolations of work and love.

Corporate effervescence: the business seminar as ecstatic experience

As most of you know, I’m working on a book about the place of ecstatic experiences and altered states of consciousness in post-religious / secular / rationalist society.

My broad thesis is that (1) western culture pathologised and marginalized ecstatic experiences from around the 17th century on but (2) humans kept on seeking ecstatic experiences through new and non-orthodox routes – new religious movements like Methodism and Pentecostalism; Romantic poetry and music; and then, from the 1960s on, sex, psychedelic drugs, rock and roll, and Eastern and new age spirituality.

Today I want to talk briefly about perhaps the most unlikely form of ecstasy in our post-religious society – ecstasy through business.

I know, weird right? What could be less likely!

The sociologist Max Weber said that business was part of the iron cage of rationalist bureaucracy in which we’re imprisoned. Europe is disenchanted, the spirit has evaporated, and we’re stuck in our little cubicles of Protestant work ethics, trying to earn the approval of a God we no longer believe in.

I think of the financial publishing company where I began my career, and I can’t think of anywhere less ecstatic – it felt emotionally inhibited, paranoid, meaningless, atomized and amoral. This is one of the reasons I love Fight Club and its ecstatic hatred of the emotional flatness and moral emptiness of corporate – consumer culture. Burn it all down!

And yet….

At some point in the 20th century, for some people, business itself became a means to ecstatic experience.

I think it began in the US, where the line between revivalist preacher and business motivational speaker became blurred. So you find someone like Dale Carnegie preaching in YMCAs about how to be the best salesman, with a strange mixture of Protestant work-ethic and Protestant ecstasy. You get someone like Zig Ziglar, one of the most successful business coaches of the last 50 yars, whose seminars were a mixture of self-help advice and southern Baptist ecstasy – listen to the trembling cadre of his voice, and how it reminds one of the greatest Baptist preacher, Martin Luther King.

Things got weirder in the 1970s, as baby-boomers like Steve Jobs joined the work-force, and brought with them their appetite for mind-altering drugs and altered states of consciousness, for eastern and new age spirituality, for authenticity and expressive individuality.

The baby-boomer ethos blossomed in the Human Potential Movement, inspired by figures like Abraham Maslow and Aldous Huxley, who believed ecstatic experiences needed to be re-integrated into western culture. That idea got mass produced through Large Group Awareness Training programmes like erhard seminars training (est) and Landmark Education. Organizations like est would run ‘mass marathon’ coaching sessions over a weekend, where 100 people would be encouraged to share, open up, break down, and allow themselves to be remade. Watch this clip from Adam Curtis’ century of the Self, 30 minutes in, with some amazing footage from an est seminar.

These sessions were secular versions of 18th or 19th century revival meetings, where people would experience highly emotional breakdowns and breakthroughs. But where in the past converts would surrender to Jesus, at est or Landmark today they surrender to the Leader and to the group, and accept the Landmark dogma that they can do and be anything they want.

0ea590148e19feb31e7d0c10024d93d8The cannier coaches – like Anthony Robbins – soon realized that their customers were seeking a sort of religious substitute, and they thought about how to bring in music, dancing, and rites of passage to symbolize the death of the old self and the birth of the new liberated and authentic Power-Self. Robbins’ seminars, for example, became famous for incorporating fire-walking, which originated as a religious ritual in the Meditarranean. Testimonials are also a powerful ritual for people to share their storis with the group and affirm their incredible breakthroughs – both in church, and in the business coaching seminar.

Then, in the 90s, with the rise of Silicon Valley, things got really weird. Start-up culture embraced the baby-boomer ethos of authenticity and expressive individualism (and a willingness to do ayahuasca every now and then to improve executive insight), and combined it with a techno-evangelical faith that we can change the world. Our app / social network / software design is going to liberate humanity and perhaps help us transcend to the next level of consciousness. Woo hoo!

The long hours, intense corporate loyalty and cult of the leader at tech firms like Microsoft or Google led to weird scenes like the famous clip of Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer going ape at a Microsoft employee conference: ‘Give it up for meeeeeee!’ Check out that corporate ego unleashed.

Even the CEO of a shoe company, Zappos, started to get something of a Messiah complex – Tony Hsieh wrote his own comic book to tell the story of his journey and how he helped all his employees find meaning, happiness and transcendence working for his online shoe company. Yeah! You’re amazing Tony! You’re some kind of SUPERMAN!

No he didn’t. He was hired to be CEO at someone else’s company.

Today it’s very common to use the language of spiritual ecstasy when talking about your career – people speak of ‘vocation’, ‘mission’, ‘revolution’, ‘business heretics’, ‘free spirits’, ‘passion projects’, ‘epiphanies’, ‘breakthroughs’ and so on.

Maybe this seems weird to you. I find it a bit weird too. But here’s the thing: people want it. People crave it. People yearn for authenticity, emotional expressiveness, deep sharing and bonding, meaning, and – yes – ecstasy and altered states of consciousness. And most people these days aren’t religious, so some end up getting these things through business and personal development courses both within their companies and outside of them.

And people might be surprised by themselves – they may go in to these sorts of sessions with all their Enlightenment skepticism and emotional inhbition intact, and suddenly find themselves letting go and letting it all hang out…

Some people find real breakthroughs via business coaching or personal development courses. But there are risks too.

Any ecstatic experience can be dangerous, because it involves a move beyond one’s usual ego-constructions to a new form of being. This can involve some form of temporary regression to a childhood state, and it can involve trauma coming up from one’s past – abuse, rape, or just parents who didn’t love us enough. If people already have unstable egos, a challenge to one’s ego might lead to temporary psychosis, like a bad trip. At the least, it involves people suspending their critical faculties and their emotional reserve and moving into a hypnotic state where they’re highly suggestible (and exploitable).

Corporate culture or business-coaching culture is not always a safe vessel for this type of intense experience. Within businesses, it can lead to a cultish absorption in The Company and devotion to the Leader. People within the Company lose critical distance, lose the ability to say ‘this isn’t right’. Look at The Wolf of Wall Street, for example – the charismatic leader inspired his employees, but also led them (and their customers) off an ethical cliff.

Within business coaching seminars, the organization – Landmark or whoever – might not have the training or the willingness to cope with the emotional trauma that might come up in participants. I wrote about this in Philosophy for Life, telling the story of a friend, Adam, who had a psychotic episode during a Landmark course, and didn’t feel he was given any sort of proper care.

People can also get caught up in the emotional contagion of the group dynamic. Within a church context, that might mean they suddenly find themselves converting to Christianity. Wthin a business-coaching context, it might mean they suddenly find themselves quitting their job. Both might not be fully conscious decisions (Christians might say ‘so what, any route to Jesus is good’).

I think the biggest risk is that, in the words of the Vatican, places like Landmark ‘marry counter-cultural values with the mainstream need to succeed’. I would like to believe that God doesn’t need me to be a material success, and the proof of His love for me is not in my earnings. I would like to believe He lets me be broken and lost, while business ecstasy sometimes requires me to be superpowered and superoptimistic. I’d like to believe I can part of His family for free – I don’t need to pay for membership like I would at Landmark.

And can you imagine having an ecstatic experience – a movement beyond your ego – and all you end up reaching is Microsoft? That’s not transcending very far.

Then again, organized religion is not always the safest vessel for ecstatic experience either, and it can be just as corporate and money-grubbing. Think of the massive global popularity of Pentecostalism, with its Gospel of Prosperity and its tele-evangelists with their pay-per-prayer business model. Organized religion can be just as exploitative, just as damaging, just as unregulated, just as willing to promise Incredible Benefits to the faithful. And God doesn’t always seem to be there, while career achievement is more…er….tangible.