FROM THE SOPRANOS TO DISNEY
The Cult of Competition in our pop-culture fairy tales
The Sopranos, a television series that offers a thug’s-eye
view of the world, has returned for a fourth season.
The mob family are caught up in a hell of deceit and
denial. Tony Soprano’s covert criminal activities are
mirrored in his wife’s attempts to deceive herself and the
family about her husband’s line of work. The rot runs
throughout the clan. In the second season, Uncle Junior
wanted his nephew Tony whacked, and his own sister made
overtures to her boyfriend that the top Soprano had got to
It’s prime-time Darwinism, and The Sopranos are the Bradys
for the new millennium.
For some critics, The series roll the rock of American
"family values," revealing the things slithering beneath.
That may be a bit of a stretch, but the series resonates
with viewers for a reason. In our slash-and-burn culture of
privatized profit and socialized losses, where civil rule
is secondary to the rule of capital, the similarity to The
Sopranos is obvious. The goomba goodfellas of the series
have loyalty, ultimately, only to Number One — just like
the suits in the US who presided over the real-life robbery
of their employees in floundering, number-fudging
Tony, in his unreflective way, would probably justify his
predatory behaviour by saying its a ’dog-eat-dog world’.
This is the hard-headed philosophy of neoconservatives and
their media offspring: the Michael Campbells, the Elizabeth
Nicksons, and the Michael Gees. They believe competitive
behaviour is hard-wired into animals and humans alike. As
for the "nanny-state" that’s now being sold off for parts,
their attitude is good riddance to bad rubbish, and a
system that runs retrograde to basic human nature.
Of course, cheerleaders for the so-called free market don’t
endorse criminality — at least not in its chump-change,
break-and-enter varieties. Legal limits need to be set on
to what human beings can get away with, since human beings
are rapacious creatures by nature.
Yet parodoxically, neoconservatives respect rapaciousness
as force for good, citing economists’ description of the
individual as a "self-interested utility maximizer."
Neocons profess to believe that wealth will accrue across
the board, as citizen-shoppers compete in the free market.
Like all religions, this one is based on faith. (if we wait
patiently, the free market will save us all.) I’m not sure
if human sacrifice comes naturally to it, but the neo-con
doctrine is certainly founded on a belief that cruelty is
the defining principle of the world.
And who’s going to argue that the world isn't a cruel
place? Back in the Seventies, Oxford biologist Richard
Dawkins penned The Selfish Gene, which argued that all
living creatures, including humans, are just Darwin’s
wind-up toys, their genes blindly set to maximize their
numbers in future generations.
In the microworld of the fertilized cell, genes have to
cooperate to produce the bodies that will bear them forth
into the world. But there are some genes that become
ruthless when the opportunity arises. Recent research
indicates battles even take place among human sperm, where
genes on one variety of sperm assassinate other sperm
lacking the gene.
Family loyalties, a la Tony Soprano.
Looking at the world of nature, you might conclude that the
"war of all against all," which philosopher Thomas Hobbes
took to be the natural state of affairs before the
introduction of civilization, is the default condition of
genes and humans alike.
"The world is a jungle," matriarch Livia Soprano tells her
grandson Anthony Junior in one episode, warning him to
never trust anyone. With the survival of the fittest as the
final arbiter of Soprano loyalties, the fictional family
are the neo-con dream turned nightmare.
Yet is it actually correct to generalize from Darwin to the
day-to-day, as neocons do? Is it right to extrapolate from
the ‘survival of the fittest’ to a corporate winnowing of
the weak? More on that next week.
In his book Fast
Food Nation, Erik Schlosser quotes MacDonald’s founder Ray
Kroc. “Look, it is ridiculous to call this an industry,” he
told a reporter in 1972, dismissing any high-minded
examination of the fast food business. “This is not. This
is rat eat rat, dog eat dog. I'll kill 'em, and I'm going
to kill 'em before they kill me. You're talking about the
American way of survival of the fittest.”
The topic here isn't
fast food per se, but the down-home Darwinism championed by
Kroc and his kind. If self-interest works in the wild, it
will work for us, say the champions of the unregulated free
Yet even the free-marketers must feel a bit uncomfortable
at the places social Darwinism has been — most
significantly, in Nazi Germany under the guise of Aryanism,
a genetic pseudoscience used to justify the Final Solution.
A less extreme version of social Darwinism was floated the
late nineties, with techno-libertarians like Wired magazine
editor Kevin Kelly citing the “out of control” systems of
nature to argue for an economy without top-down controls.
It sounded all very nice at the time, what with dot-com
stocks spirally ever upwards, but we know now where that
road leads: to the executive suites of Enron, WorldCom, and
any other place of privilege where market forces are
unrestrained by civil law or governmental oversight.
But the attitude persists. Pop-science neoDarwinism
inflects the calculating cynicism of the Fraser Institute
and other right-wing bodies. It echoes in the vernacular
expressions in the business world: ‘dog eat dog’, ‘swimming
with the sharks’, and the like. Occasionally, even the
great captains of industry, like Walt Disney, give away the
game with a priceless quote.
Walt Disney remains one of the glowing icons of American
success. Before he was cryogenically frozen (presumably
with the intent to waken one day to a world ruled by The
Mouse), he served as secret former for the FBI, and
strongly supported the Hollywood blacklist. During the
height of labour tension at his studio, Disney addressed a
group of employees, telling them why unionization was a
non-starter. “Don't forget this,”
he told them, “it's the law of the universe that the strong
shall survive and the weak must fall by the way, and I
don't give a damn what idealistic plan is cooked up,
nothing can change that.”
With sentiments like that, Is it any surprise that for a
time the American CEO displaced the Arab terrorist as evil
villain in the pop-culture imagination? Robocop, Total
Recall, the Alien series and other action films, all
featured glad-handing suits as the REDUCTIO AD ABSURDUM
“I am not a destroyer of companies,” said the lizard-like
Gordon Gecko in Oliver Stone’s 1988 film Wall Street. “I am
a liberator of them.”
“The point is, ladies and gentlemen, that greed, for lack
of a better word, is good. Greed is right. Greed works.
Greed clarifies, cuts through and captures the essence of
the evolutionary spirit.” Gecko goes on the describe how
“greed, in all of its forms... has marked the upward surge
Scripts like this makes for great entertainment, but not
the best science. Sir Julian Huxley, the great British
biologist, said the grand aim of human existence was to
“redeem evolution,” by refusing to allow culture to follow
the same predatory pattern as natural selection. A similar
sentiment was expressed by Oxford neo-Darwinian biologist
Richard Dawkins, in a recent BBC roundtable on religion and
“We largely get our immorality from our Darwinian past,”
said Dawkins. “We get our selfishness, our drive for self
interest, our ruthlessness, for cruelty perhaps....and (if
we’re) trying to come to some agreement on morality, the
first thing we should do is throw out Darwinism.”
“We should regard Darwinian natural selection as a great
evil. It’s out there, it’s true, it’s what is causing the
whole living world to be way it is, including ourselves --
and we humans uniquely have the power to gainsay it. We
uniquely have the power to say we can throw off our
Darwinian past, and using our conscious brains, we can make
a world which is anti-Darwinian -- anti-Darwinian as far as
morality is concerned....”
That being said, I don’t think the caring and sharing
should necessarily extend to defreezing Walt Disney.