In the midst of a global recession, 4.2 million people tuned into the August 9, 2009, debut of Shark Tank, ABC’s new reality TV show, to watch a panel of five megarich investors determine the fates of desperate small-business owners. Among those viewers was Charlie, a pseudonymous 60-year-old in Minnesota, who got hooked immediately and didn’t miss a single one of the next decade’s 246 episodes.
Communists like Charlie scoff at and criticize Shark Tank as capitalist brainwashing. But that’s exactly why they love it. “It’s bourgeois propaganda designed to be entertaining based on generations of television,” writes a communist Redditor who loves Shark Tank on the subreddit r/fullcommunism. “Even knowing how bullshit it is, [I] still find it entertaining.”
That is to say, Shark Tank gleefully broadcasts the meritocratic wet dream that everyday Americans can make it big so long as they have an idea and work hard. What’s more, it props up the uber-wealthy as prophetic, often selfless deities with ultimate power to change people’s lives.
But from a communist perspective, Charlie says, what actually takes place on Shark Tank is a juicy portrayal of capitalism’s failures.
“The ‘investors’ are only interested in their own profit,” he tells me. “How many times do they say, ‘Yeah, it’s a great idea, a needed product even, but I can’t extract enough profit out of it, so it’s not investable.’” In other words, capitalism creates a system where great products or worthy entrepreneurs don’t get the chance to be successful if they can’t make Mark Cuban richer. The gatekeepers help determine the success or failure of a product by what it can contribute to their personal wealth — not the world in general.
Charlie takes so much pleasure in Shark Tank’s portrayal of capitalism getting in its own way that he “sometimes [fast-forwards] past the haggling to watch the arrogance of a few people, who were either born into wealth or got lucky, dismiss and ridicule great ideas and needed or wanted products just because they don’t see ‘enough’ profit in them.” At the same time, products that are wholly unnecessary, if not borderline scams, get the green light because they’ll be profitable.
But Charlie isn’t just entertained by the sharks. Like any other Shark Tank fan, he enjoys watching the small-business owners flail like sacrificial fish upon this shrine to capitalism.
“Within capitalism, the presenters’ stated goal is maximizing profit,” he tells me. “So sometimes even they don’t know whether their product is wanted or needed, but they want the ‘investor’ to tell them how to manipulate the consumers to buy it — i.e., ‘marketing.’”
What’s more, he says, 80 percent of these small business owners fail because they fall prey to capitalism’s “self-involved obsession with ‘making it on my own,’” Charlie says. “Had they otherwise asked for help or advice, they might be successful.” To that end, Charlie explains why Shark Tank, contrary to what capitalists might have you believe, provides a “perfect template” for communism.
In his new version of Communist Shark Tank, there wouldn’t be a select few rich people arbitrarily determining the fate of goods on the basis of personal enrichment. Rather, an “optimum number of fellow workers would democratically select the group of ‘investors’ who they consider credible,” Charlie explains. “And instead of them snidely demanding, ‘How am I going to get my money back?,’ they are asking, ‘How is this serving the consumers, what resources do you need to make it work [and] is there an expressed need or desire?’”
Instead of maximizing personal profit, success in this would be defined by the small-business owners’ “contribution to society.” Because in socialist systems, “people are valued more than products,” Charlie says, “so success would be found in satisfying the needs and wants of the consumers, without oppression or harm to anyone or anything else.”
Ultimately, Charlie knows a Communist Shark Tank probably won’t happen. So for now, he’s stuck with Shark Tank’s current iteration, “a fantastical bedtime fairytale [that] only a child could believe.” Worst of all, though, he’s stuck with Kevin O’Leary, aka “Mr. Wonderful.”
“The other [sharks] are kinder and more human, if unrealistic,” he says. “But most everything about Kevin is annoying.”