Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Dragons' Den

I have a rather sordid, guilty pleasure at the moment. I'm an avid fan of BBC 2's "Dragons' Den". I'm not proud of it.

The programme is horridly, horridly compelling. If you've not seen it, it's a show in which various 'entrepreneurs'* pitch their ideas to 5 investment financiers. Their aim is to convince one or more of the financiers ('the dragons') to hand over a large amount of dosh (up to 100k) in return for a stake in the business. This being an 'X-Factor', 'Pop-Idol' reality TV age, the panel of dragons ritually humiliate most of the 'entrepreneurs' that come their way - pulling apart their inventions, their 'business plans' and so on.

Why do I like it? I think there are several reasons. Firstly, there is, let's face it and get it out of the way, something horridly watchable about these kinds of confrontational reality TV shows. I don't go out of my way to watch programmes like X-Factor (in fact I think I've only seen about half a show - bow down to my moral purity thou wretches), but I have to admit that if it's on TV when I'm in the room, I'll end up watching it. Anyone who says they really don't like and would never enjoy 'reality TV' is a liar - a fucking liar, I tell you. I think it has something to do with our deeply social nature - we have a natural interest in human interaction, we are curious about other people and the more dramatic these interactions are and, I am tempted to say, the more curious the people involved, the more fascinated we become. I'm not saying that it's necessarily a healthy thing that people are interested in Carol Thatcher's uninhibited farting habits - only that it's understandable.**

There are, however, other attractions which I think I can more easily reconcile with my socialist conscience. The second attraction is that many of the pitched 'business ideas' are really very interesting in themselves. Most of the pitchers*** bring along models, mock-ups, mechanical prototypes and so on and these are quite often highly ingenious things. I think the attraction here, then, is that the pitchers on the show often demonstrate impressive human creativity and imagination - it's fascinating to see what the human mind can think up (even within the very limited conceptual and practical boundaries of 'business projects'). Many of the pitchers have worked away in their back garden shed for hours and hours, producing beautifully designed and intricately fashioned working prototypes of dog poo picker upper machines and so on. I find it quite a heartening testament to human abilities - and remember that these ideas and contraptions have, usually, been produced with little financial input since that is exactly what the inventors are seeking. In other words, human innovation and inventiveness is not necessarily reliant on market incentives - the discipline of the market does not itself generate inventiveness and innovation - more often than not, it simply dictates whether or not the fruits of this inventiveness are developed in to consumer goods.

The third, connected, attraction is, perhaps, that the show helps to confirm some of my lefty antipathy towards market forces and business in general. Time and again the more socially useful innovations - those that you might think in themselves would benefit large numbers of people are roughly dismissed by the dragons, while the ideas and inventions which succeed in attracting investment are usually relatively pointless ones in the bigger scheme of things. What matters, of course, is what sells, what will make a quick buck - not what might actually benefit society or improve people's lives in any significant sense. For example, in an episode 2 or 3 weeks ago an inventor came in with a cheap, easy to produce, easy to install, but ingenious device for regulating the amount of water in each flush of a toilet. This device he announced, if installed widely in homes, businesses and so on would drastically cut the amount of water we consume every day. The dragons were not interested - since most homes' water consumption is not metred there is no incentive for consumers to buy and since (for some reason I forget) most water suppliers have an interest in us using as much water as possible, they would not be interested either. One of the dragons, furthermore, remarked that the product was 'a dog' because in order to work it properly toilet users would need to watch their crap go down the toilet in order to work out how much water to use - consumers, apparently, cannot be expected to carry out such a highly unpleasant task (I watch mine go down all the time - it's just politeness isn't it - you don't want to leave a floater in the bowl for your housemates). It's not just that they turned away this invention - the dragons were cruelly contemptuous about it. 'I'm not interested in saving the world' remarked one 'I'm a businessman'. Of course, he was absolutely right - in business terms the 'product' was 'a dog'. What I am trying to say, here, is that the pattern of success and failure on the show demonstrates the peverse rationality of capitalism.

The fourth reason I like it is that the dragons are clearly, clearly a bunch of odious, self-important tossers. These are the 'success stories' of capitalism. This gang of speculators - most of whom made their fortunes out of gambling other people's money on stock markets or as widget floggers, or as 'gift experience' sellers (fuck knows), or as second hand car salesmen - these deeply unimpressive people are the 'winners' of our society. Why are these toads lauded while people who really are impressive and really do work hard to provide essential things (nurses for example) are ignored. The deluded self-regard and pomposity of these arseholes (although to be fair, the female dragon, Rachel Elnaugh, is marginally less narcissistic than the others) is really quite amazing. The nastiest of the dragons, (and yes I'm fairly sure that they are asked to ham it up for the cameras a bit, but even so) Theo something, continually refers to his wonderful abilities and 'business acumen' - he often reminds any jumped up pitcher that he is the successful one, not them, so they really ought to listen to his wise pronouncements. Another dragon, Peter Jones, frequently refers to himself in the third person. One week, he turned down a particular idea - a pole-dancing get fit business - because he felt that if he, the great Peter Jones (well, have you ever heard of him before?), was to invest in this project it would be 'all over the newspaper headlines the next day' that Peter Jones had got himself involved in pole dancing and he would be a laughing stock. I he sure about that, do you thing? Would his name really be splashed across the headlines? The conceited self-importance of the dragons is quite breathtaking.

The fact is that these people are, fundamentally, worthless. I suppose I like it that the show confirms all my prejudices about the types of people who 'succeed' in business.

Finally, I think that there is quite a subversive element to the show - it's not deliberate - it's an accidental subversiveness. The show quite explicitly demonstrates the parasitical nature of financial speculation and, perhaps, more widely, hints at the parasitical workings of the capitalist market in general. When the pitchers ascend the stairs to the dragons' lair they are faced, at the top, by dragons seated in throne like chairs (the symbolism would be so much more satisfying if the pitchers had to descend - as if into the Pit where various enthroned satanic majesties awaited them). At the side of each throne, on a small table, is a pile of banknotes - 100k - over which each dragon presides. Here we are confronted by the power of the capitalist investor. He/she has access to the dosh - the pitcher doesn't. The pitcher has the ideas, the inventiveness and so on, but without the dosh this inventiveness cannot be developed - the dragons have the capital. In order to realise his or her dreams the pitcher has to dance like a performing monkey in front of this row of tyrants in the hope that they might toss some of their money across. What does the dragon bring to the arrangement? They contribute nothing except their money - stored up, accumulated power. In return for handing over some of their capital, the dragons expect to be repaid their initial investment plus a handsome profit. What do they do, while this profit is being produced****? Nothing - they're sitting on their arses watching other hapless dancing monkeys perform for them.

* I refuse to deploy that word without scare quotes.
** A very very bad example I know.
*** Yes, I know - but I can't think of another suitable term except 'contestants' - but that makes it sound like Blankety Blank.
**** Of course this is not to suggest that the industrial (or otherwise 'productive') capitalist is a victim in this arrangement. The borrowing capitalist produces profit by pumping out surplus value from their workers - the direct producers. Many of the 'business ideas' mooted in the Dragons' Den, incidentally, are founded on the employment of Chinese or Malaysian cheap labour.

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