Prestige Production

Image of people at a table.

Seinfeld, screengrab.

America’s views of society can be seen through television. Let’s take a look at how over just a few decades the optimism in American society has declined. I want to look at four shows. Seinfeld (1989-1998), The Sopranos (1999-2007), Mad Men (2007-2015), and Succession (2018-2023).

Where are the means of production in each of these shows? In Seinfeld the four main characters live in a utopia where work hardly matters. They can choose to be petty rather than care about what they do for a living. Our view is of characters who are navigating social norms in their personal lives rather than strictly economic contradictions. Seinfeld is the “show about nothing”. Seinfeld represents Zizek’s communist utopia where class contradiction is overcome and only jealousy remains, for society is fair and we succeed based on our own merits.

The idealism of the show is that we have overcome the contradictions inherent within capitalist relations. Everything is already taken care of. In the 1990s there was an economic boom, but not without class contradictions. This was a warning sign. The economy underwent a “jobless recovery.” Experts say such a recovery is possible when companies outsource labor or invest in technology.

The Seinfeld characters are good comic relief because they can both be jobless like the working class of the time and prosperous like the bourgeois of the 1990s. There is a brief sign that small businesses are going under in the episode titled “The Mom & Pop Store” in which a small business occupies a similar dual nature. Kramer wants to keep the small business shoe store open so he gives them all of Jerry’s shoes. When the store can’t afford a safety inspection they close down and steal Jerry’s shoes. We get a preview of petty crime as a response to the inability of small fishes to compete with the big ones.

Another passing mention of class occurs when Jerry offends a doorman who sees Jerry as looking down on him because of his job when Jerry really doesn’t care about that (or anything else). Similarly to the small business the little man grifts Jerry and frames him for a stolen couch. Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer can overcome class contradiction through their general nihilism.

Take Joe Biden’s quote on welfare reform: “We are all familiar with the stories of welfare mothers driving luxury cars and leading lifestyles that mirror the rich and famous. Whether they are exaggerated or not, these stories underlie a broad social concern that the welfare system has broken down- that it only parcels out welfare checks and does nothing to help the poor find productive jobs.” Biden’s take is that it simply does not matter if poor people are living in luxury, they must get less anyways because rich people say the poor are living in luxury.

Why then does Seinfeld mark a more optimistic time? It is because it can make the credible argument that class in American society doesn’t exist, that within one person both sides of the class war can exist and this amounts to a stalemate. Rather than this person being alienated, they are intent on doing nothing. Joe Biden wants to end this idea. Poor people driving luxury cars is something that would happen in Seinfeld as everyone is everything and there is harmony. There is no real conflict.

George says: “My dream is to become hopeless.” In a way Seinfeld represents “The Third Way” of the time coined by Bill Clinton and Tony Blair. The idea is that rebellion isn’t necessary. We can grow without the working class. The only thing that can set back the economy is to worry about those people dragging it down. This would catch up to the ruling class quickly.

By the time The Sopranos comes along we are moving from the Clinton/Biden era of prosperity where the economy grows by throwing Black and poor people out of the job market and into jail and to a time where a lack of prosperity can be accepted because we are fighting a war against the bad guys. But unlike World War II or the Cold War there really wasn’t a pitch about a different way of life. The war on terror, like the war on drugs, was not a war on another government but rather a war on the little guy.

Tony Soprano is a Bush supporter, even though his crimes are similar to the terrorists Bush is bombing and not much like the crimes of Bush himself. But such politics are necessary. Tony isn’t a globalist or an internationalist. He is part of the local economy and he is a nationalist as a result. But he too is a victim of globalization.

The mob is dying in The Sopranos because of changes in production. Tony’s gang tries to shake down a big corporation but the corporate employee informs them that everything they do is tracked and that letting Tony skim isn’t even possible. Tony’s exploitation of the small business is small potatoes compared to what big business can do. What the mob generally does is save the business, not put them out of business.

The link between authoritarian style of governance and neoliberalism is grasped by Tony’s daughter Meadow who rather humorously becomes a kind of libertarian lawyer in training, admirably defending everyone from the mobsters she grew up with, to the victims of the war on terror, to the victims of the war on drugs. But Tony isn’t that educated. He just keeps going and uses anger as the way to solve all problems.

Tony’s wife Carmela buys into her marriage by rightly pointing out constantly that there are bigger criminals than Tony out there. This is a nod to the changing times where the consolidation of power is closing in and the anti-hero of Tony Soprano has less and less agency. In contrast to a show at a similar time The Wire (2002-2008), organized crime keeps people employed through protecting a business they can steal from. Tony ends up making a real estate deal to screw over a small business, proving his complicity, but the idea is that if they aren’t corrupted the small crime can save off the big one. The Wire has the opposite premise. People are out of work and thus the crime moves from organized to unorganized. That show is about society managing crime, rather than the crime bosses managing society.

Tony Soprano represented small level corruption. Over the course of the show we saw how the mob lost control of the economy to a much more insidious and impenetrable force in global capital. Rather than have a mob boss like Tony Soprano who could shake you down, but could lose popularity, and be held accountable, local commerce had to compete with giant corporations who could and would not be touched by any regulation.

The idea of third world corruption, aimed particularly at so-called communist countries is so absurd. This is the feds going after Tony Soprano. Whatever one thinks of the small cats getting fat, the reason we even hear about them is they are small enough to get touched. The real welfare queens are soaking it up and at an accelerating rate. Fabio Vighi tells us: “The widening of the gap between insubstantial credit and real valorisation means that the retail economy itself ends up inundated with toxic liquidity. At this stage, the apparent valorisation of individual capitals already corresponds to a contraction of the total value produced with respect to the money supply put into circulation – a situation of systemic imbalance which, after a period of incubation, today manifests itself as irreversible currency debasement.”

Vighi’s analysis is that the crisis in capitalist production comes from the lack of surplus value created by labor. As monopolies form companies choose to reinvest in themselves rather than labor because labor doesn’t produce as much profit. But there is no real value (which comes from labor) in this process and this only works out for the big corporations because they can get away with it. As a result there is not even real gains in technological development.

Mad Men takes place in the 1960s but it is still a show of its time. While The Sopranos presents a problem, Mad Men is like Seinfeld in that it provides a solution. Seinfeld’s solution was to eliminate class by making class contradiction internal to the individual subject. Mad Men sees a solution to capitalism. This solution is to accept the act of capital as meaning. Seinfeld argues that there is no need for meaning, we live in prosperity. Sopranos shows how we are losing meaning, there is no prosperity. Succession argues not that there is no need for meaning, but in fact, there is no meaning. Mad Men makes a sort of argument that meaning is gained through the process of the creation of capitalist desire.

Don Draper finds liberation through advertising because it is what we might call an honest lie. Rather than pretending his life as an advertising executive has meaning and purpose he uses advertising to prove that under capitalism there is no meaning and this can put us at peace. He is the anti-hero of the show. The rest of the advertisers see themselves as important and better than everyone, particularly the poor, women and minorities. Don’s working class upbringing helps him to see all people are equal.

Don’s redemption is not complete because he is all alone. He accomplishes a revolution of one. What he fails to see is that all of us are alienated and it is only our alienation that unites us. Each of us are not only alienated from each other, but also from our conscious self and our limited capacity to perceive reality.

Don sees that people, under the conditions of capitalism, basically just want pleasure, and that this pleasure isn’t satisfying. But that’s as far as he gets. Don himself is a product of commodity exchange because his mother was a prostitute. This helps him to see that he is not above capitalism and allows him to work hard. He resents hippies because they see themselves as too good for capitalism. He knows that his mother had no choice but to comply with capitalism so he rightly sees this anti-capitalist attitude as a product of upper class privilege. However he fails to see that while anti-capitalist sentiment may come from the middle class, it nonetheless is the correct sentiment.

Don is a Christ-like figure. We can be redeemed through him but he will always be an accessory to the story because he knows too much. The revolution must come from the ordinary masses and those with vision must eventually get out of the way. Most people are not aware of their alienation and even fewer accept it. The key to life is not the typical advice of finding peace with where you’re at or who you are. The key to life is to find peace within change because life is always changing. The only place we are is in transit. The only time is now.

Succession is a modern take on Shakespeare. Unlike Shakespeare, the characters are unable to experience tragedy. What they get instead is even worse. Logan Roy’s children are in many ways defined by an older familial relation that isn’t capitalism. They all claim to be traumatized by their father’s harsh upbringing and they all claim they want to uphold his legacy and win his approval, etc.

But it is clear that all of Logan’s children are simply too cynical to ever become truly invested in something other than capitalism. They claim they want the king’s throne, succession to the giant media company based on the Murdoch family. But all of them sabotage themselves and each other and in the end the winner of the succession to Logan’s company is an empty suit who promises budget cuts. While this is an acute modern critique of neoliberal economics, it is not a strict tragedy. The main character is capitalism and we left with a void.

What we learn by the final episode is that the personal lives of the characters that we focused on throughout the series was just a distraction from the broader economic trends which tells everyone, from the CEO to the janitor that on a personal level you don’t matter. Logan built something people cared about and his children cannot care about anything. Nor can society at large.

The working class is entirely absent from the show besides a time when a server dies in a Chappaquiddick style car crash. They aren’t people and neither are the characters we grow to know. At first glance this may appear similar to the ideology of Seinfeld in which nothing rules the day. But we may be wise to look at a Shakespeare pun about nothing as in Much Ado About Nothing. In Seinfeld, nothing represents the concept of overhearing, in which the characters are only nothing in that they don’t act, but they do listen. Society exists, just not for them. However in Succession nothing truly is nothing. Such a double meaning is employed in Much Ado About Nothing (and that’s not even including nothing as female anatomy or music).

In conclusion it seems like the United States has gotten far less optimistic in a very short time. While there clearly are reasons for this the solution still is hope. Hope cannot come from capitalism.

We have reached the point where companies find it more profitable to invest in money rather than goods. From Arthur Allen, KFF Health News: “Cisplatin and carboplatin are among scores of drugs in shortage, including 12 other cancer drugs, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder pills, blood thinners, and antibiotics. Covid-hangover supply chain issues and limited FDA oversight are part of the problem, but the main cause, experts agree, is the underlying weakness of the generic drug industry. Made mostly overseas, these old but crucial drugs are often sold at a loss or for little profit. Domestic manufacturers have little interest in making them, setting their sights instead on high-priced drugs with plump profit margins.”

Under the Biden administration new records have been set for stock buybacks. Ralph Nader notes: “Stunning figure. The White House’s National Economic Council reports that major corporations are spending roughly 90% of their earnings on stock buybacks and dividends. What’s left for investment? Not much, unless these corporations are taking on debt.”

Money is now used to make more money. As people we are being told to be like money. We should create our own reality. We cannot accept this. We should choose instead to opt for authentic tragedy. We must fail on our own terms. Capitalism is not a creative force. It is a dulling brute that creates a diversity in products and a sameness in people.

Nick Pemberton writes and works from Saint Paul, Minnesota. He loves to receive feedback at