Recently I’ve seen bits and pieces of several episodes of Keeping Up With the Kardashians, and Kourtney and Kim Take New York. (I can only watch about ten minute stretches of these shows before beginning to experience some impairment of higher cognitive function; I suspect a week-long marathon would render me illiterate). I’ve also watched parts of a few episodes of The Real Housewives series’ set in Beverly Hills, Orange County, and New Jersey.
I’m not a reality TV snob — I confess to indulging regularly in viewings of Top Chef and Pawn Stars — but the Kardashian and Real Housewives shows have a voyeuristic quality that make them too quasi-pornographic for me to really enjoy. Still, these particular programs, and others like them, are interesting cultural texts as several people are probably going to point out at the next meeting of the MLA.
What I find particularly interesting is the vision they present of a desirable life. These programs cater to the wealth fantasies of their audiences, obviously, but they do so in a way that suggests that the epitome of the contemporary American Dream is to acquire either enough independent capital, or a sufficiently unlimited access to an income stream generated by someone else’s labor, to allow one to do nothing — or more precisely, to do nothing but consume.
Indeed, despite the enormous differences in context, these shows remind me of nothing so much as Orwell’s description of the world view of many a Victorian novelist, and in particular Dickens:
And here one comes upon something which really is an enormous deficiency in Dickens, something, that really does make the nineteenth century seem remote from us — that he has no idea of work.
With the doubtful exception of David Copperfield (merely Dickens himself), one cannot point to a single one of his central characters who is primarily interested in his job. His heroes work in order to make a living and to marry the heroine, not because they feel a passionate interest in one particular subject. Martin Chuzzlewit, for instance, is not burning with zeal to be an architect; he might just as well be a doctor or a barrister. In any case, in the typical Dickens novel, the deus ex machina enters with a bag of gold in the last chapter and the hero is absolved from further struggle. The feeling ‘This is what I came into the world to do. Everything else is uninteresting. I will do this even if it means starvation’, which turns men of differing temperaments into scientists, inventors, artists, priests, explorers and revolutionaries — this motif is almost entirely absent from Dickens’s books. He himself, as is well known, worked like a slave and believed in his work as few novelists have ever done. But there seems to be no calling except novel-writing (and perhaps acting) towards which he can imagine this kind of devotion. And, after all, it is natural enough, considering his rather negative attitude towards society. In the last resort there is nothing he admires except common decency. Science is uninteresting and machinery is cruel and ugly. Business is only for ruffians like Bounderby. As for politics — leave that to the Tite Barnacles. Really there is no objective except to marry the heroine, settle down, live solvently and be kind. And you can do that much better in private life.
Here, perhaps, one gets a glimpse of Dickens’s secret imaginative background. What did he think of as the most desirable way to live? When Martin Chuzzlewit had made it up with his uncle, when Nicholas Nickleby had married money, when John Harman had been enriched by Boffin what did they do?
The answer evidently is that they did nothing. Nicholas Nickleby invested his wife’s money with the Cheerybles and ‘became a rich and prosperous merchant’, but as he immediately retired into Devonshire, we can assume that he did not work very hard. Mr. and Mrs. Snodgrass ‘purchased and cultivated a small farm, more for occupation than profit.’ That is the spirit in which most of Dickens’s books end — a sort of radiant idleness. Where he appears to disapprove of young men who do not work (Harthouse, Harry Gowan, Richard Carstone, Wrayburn before his reformation) it is because they are cynical and immoral or because they are a burden on somebody else; if you are ‘good’, and also self-supporting, there is no reason why you should not spend fifty years in simply drawing your dividends. Home life is always enough. And, after all, it was the general assumption of his age. The ‘genteel sufficiency’, the ‘competence’, the ‘gentleman of independent means’ (or ‘in easy circumstances’) — the very phrases tell one all about the strange, empty dream of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century middle bourgeoisie. It was a dream of complete idleness. Charles Reade conveys its spirit perfectly in the ending of Hard Cash. Alfred Hardie, hero of Hard Cash, is the typical nineteenth-century novel-hero (public-school style), with gifts which Reade describes as amounting to ‘genius’. He is an old Etonian and a scholar of Oxford, he knows most of the Greek and Latin classics by heart, he can box with prizefighters and win the Diamond Sculls at Henley. He goes through incredible adventures in which, of course, he behaves with faultless heroism, and then, at the age of twenty-five, he inherits a fortune, marries his Julia Dodd and settles down in the suburbs of Liverpool, in the same house as his parents-in-law:
They all lived together at Albion Villa, thanks to Alfred… Oh, you happy little villa! You were as like Paradise as any mortal dwelling can be. A day came, however, when your walls could no longer hold all the happy inmates. Julia presented Alfred with a lovely boy; enter two nurses and the villa showed symptoms of bursting. Two months more, and Alfred and his wife overflowed into the next villa. It was but twenty yards off; and there was a double reason for the migration. As often happens after a long separation, Heaven bestowed on Captain and Mrs. Dodd another infant to play about their knees, etc. etc. etc.
This is the type of the Victorian happy ending — a vision of a huge, loving family of three or four generations, all crammed together in the same house and constantly multiplying, like a bed of oysters. What is striking about it is the utterly soft, sheltered, effortless life that it implies. It is not even a violent idleness, like Squire Western’s.
That is the significance of Dickens’s urban background and his noninterest in the blackguardly-sporting military side of life. His heroes, once they had come into money and ‘settled down’, would not only do no work; they would not even ride, hunt, shoot, fight duels, elope with actresses or lose money at the races. They would simply live at home in feather-bed respectability, and preferably next door to a blood-relation living exactly the same life:
The first act of Nicholas, when he became a rich and prosperous merchant, was to buy his father’s old house. As time crept on, and there came gradually about him a group of lovely children, it was altered and enlarged; but none of the old rooms were ever pulled down, no old tree was ever rooted up, nothing with which there was any association of bygone times was ever removed or changed.
Within a stone’s-throw was another retreat enlivened by children’s pleasant voices too; and here was Kate… the same true, gentle creature, the same fond sister, the same in the love of all about her, as in her girlish days.
It is the same incestuous atmosphere as in the passage quoted from Reade. And evidently this is Dickens’s ideal ending. It is perfectly attained in Nicholas Nickleby, Martin Chuzzlewit and Pickwick, and it is approximated to in varying degrees in almost all the others. The exceptions are Hard Times and Great Expectations — the latter actually has a ‘happy ending’, but it contradicts the general tendency of the book, and it was put in at the request of Bulwer Lytton.
The ideal to be striven after, then, appears to be something like this: a hundred thousand pounds, a quaint old house with plenty of ivy on it, a sweetly womanly wife, a horde of children, and no work. Everything is safe, soft, peaceful and, above all, domestic. In the moss-grown churchyard down the road are the graves of the loved ones who passed away before the happy ending happened. The servants are comic and feudal, the children prattle round your feet, the old friends sit at your fireside, talking of past days, there is the endless succession of enormous meals, the cold punch and sherry negus, the feather beds and warming-pans, the Christmas parties with charades and blind man’s buff; but nothing ever happens, except the yearly childbirth. The curious thing is that it is a genuinely happy picture, or so Dickens is able to make it appear. The thought of that kind of existence is satisfying to him. This alone would be enough to tell one that more than a hundred years have passed since Dickens’s first book was written. No modern man could combine such purposelessness with so much vitality.
Orwell’s essay is more than 70 years old, and it makes me wonder about the extent to which contemporary American society has returned, or regressed, to the rentier values that Dickens’s novels uncritically reflect. The key to these programs is that no one, or least none of the central characters, ever does anything resembling work. The “housewives” don’t have jobs, of course, but they are also almost never shown doing any parenting, let alone performing traditional domestic unpaid labor (all this has, as the expression goes, been outsourced). The Kardashian sisters are occasionally shown dabbling in things like launching a perfume line, but the point of their various shows is that they are 24/7 Party Girls. (For all I know turning your life into a reality TV show may be very hard work. The point here is not how much work the various Kardashians may do, but that their programs work very hard to represent them as people who do nothing).
And this isn’t merely a matter of not working for income: the most striking aspect of these shows is the extent to which they portray a class of people who have no vocation, in the broadest sense, of any sort, or indeed even any serious interests, besides spending money while being on the equivalent of a perpetual vacation.
All of this is strongly gendered of course: as J.K. Galbraith mentions somewhere, modern capitalism would be impaired significantly if the wives of the captains of industry and their lieutenants did not spend a great deal of time buying stuff. It’s no coincidence that these shows focus on idle rich women (although with the exception of a couple of NBA basketball players the men hanging around the Kardashian sisters also give off the air of being in easy circumstances). It’s probably still the case that the Protestant ethic is strong enough that it would be difficult to produce hit reality TV shows starring men who do nothing but consume leisure and buy expensive things no one actually needs.
Still, one of the consequences of America’s increasingly unabashed embrace of plutocracy over the last generation is that we now have a genuinely enormous class of social parasites, living off inherited capital, or the stupendous income stream of the one member of an extended family who has a job. (A vignette from the beginning of the previous century: The Duke of Somewhere or Another was passing through customs at Ellis Island. On the immigration form under “Occupation” he wrote “Peer of the Realm.” The Irish-American cop who took the form crossed that out and wrote “Unemployed.”).
Consider that the bottom threshold for the annual income of the richest .1% of American households is close to two million dollars (that’s per year), and that there are approximately 120,000 such households, containing around 500,000 people. This suggests that well over one million Americans live in households with annual incomes of at least one million dollars per year. Of course some of these people are children, but a lot of them are fundamentally aimless adults who have nothing to do but spend money. So perhaps it’s not surprising that, increasingly, we’re seeing the celebration of a social class full of people who, as Orwell pointed out, are “just about as useful as so many tapeworms.”