Marxist reading of the reality show Big Brother, and Social Capital

Christian Patterson
2019-02-06
Underground Mall

Usually, the tv show Big Brother is analyzed from a psychological perspective. A lot of this analysis is focused on things like surveillance, the Stanford Prison Experiment, and Lord of the Flies. But I’ve never read a Marxist analysis of the show, and since Celebrity Big Brother is going on right now, I will do my best to describe the game of Big Brother using a Marxist grammar / system of understanding. Truthfully, there’s little direct parallels to draw between Marxist analysis and the mechanics of Big Brother. But I will go over ways one can do a Marxist analysis, and then talk about the idea of social capital, which is an idea in a lot of Marxist theory that best applies to Big Brother.

Brian Hart, houseguest from Big Brother 10, wearing a Soviet Union, hammer and sickle shirt, saying "absolutely"

Competitions as Big Brother’s means of production

A good first step in Marxist analysis is to identify the material stakes at play. In Big Brother, the tangible motivation is the winner gets $500,000. But, the game would work the same no matter what the prize was. If the Big Brother house is analogous to the world as we know it, then the $500,000 is analogous to an afterlife. Marxism doesn’t answer why people and history are materially motivated, as in “I’m motivated by God to do X”, or “I’m motivated by CBS producers to do X”. Instead, Marxism answers how people’s motivation for material things have manifested itself throughout history.

The basic gameplay loop of Big Brother goes:
One player wins a competition to become Head of Household (HoH). The HoH then nominates two houseguests for eviction. Later in the week, the houseguests compete again for the Power of Veto. The Veto winner is able to remove one player from nomination, who is replaced by the HoH. The houseguests who are neither HoH or nominated, then vote one of the nominees out.

Based on this, we can determine that the materially valuable things in the game of Big Brother is HoH and the Power of Veto. Both of these powers are earned through competition. Any other power a player may receive is a one-off twist. This means that, besides exceptions, all material value is generated through competitions. In this way, competitions are the closest thing Big Brother has to the means of production. The means of production are that which is used to generate value. For example, under capitalism if someone owns a factory, they “own” the surplus value generated by labor in the factory.

Steve Moses and Vanessa Rousso, houseguests from Big Brother 17, playing chess

The Metaphor of the Means of Production

If competitions are the means of production, then they are fundamentally different than the means of production in real world economic systems. For one, competitions aren’t “owned” by any houseguest, so no one is passively accumulating value from them. If competitions in Big Brother operated like capitalism does, then one houseguest would automatically become HoH without even competing, and the winner would get something of a lesser value from the HoH.

Ultimately, this shows we can’t glean a lot with regards to value generation (ie labor) and value distribution (ie the economic system) from Big Brother for a couple reasons. For one, value (ie power) in Big Brother is scarce and concentrated; two people a week get power. On the other hand, power is not controlled by anyone. In the real world, people of the dominant class have claimed anything that generates value as their own, especially value that is otherwise scarce (and consequently high in demand).

The more fruitful way of analyzing Big Brother from a Marxist lens is with regards to the idea of Social Capital. For Marx, economic capital is money that is circulated in the form of a commodity in order to make more money. Money spent on food is not capital, but money spent on farming equipment is capital. But, after the Critical Theory turn of Marxist analysis, the idea of Social capital became more common. The reason social capital is the most fruitful way of analyzing Big Brother is because, as we’ve seen, the elements of Big Brother as a game don’t graph cleanly onto the elements of an economy. However, the one ‘currency’ in Big Brother that is transferable to the real world is social in nature.

Social capital is a metaphorical phrase, because social elements don’t accumulate the way that money capital does. But the basic idea is that, ultimately, money signifies social relations. We must use money to relate to others in value exchange. If I helped a friend move in exchange for pizza, it would be a social exchange. However, I can’t go to a stranger on the street and offer to trade pizza for moving. I can’t go to a moving business and pay in pizza. Because of this, money is simply the commodity that facilitates a social exchange between people who have no interpersonal reason to exchange.

Bayleigh Dayton and Hailey Broucher, houseguests from Big Brother 20

Social Capital in Big Brother

Now, understanding social capital and social currencies, we must look at how these ideas work in Big Brother, and how this relates to everyday life. Let’s get into juicy examples, right?

In Big Brother 10, Bryan was in charge of the house the first week. He was allied with Dan. However, by the end of the week, everyone realized Bryan was in control, and they all decided to backdoor him. Dan, however, was the lone vote to keep Bryan to stay.

The next week, Jesse was HOH. Dan approached him and said “look, I know I voted against the house, but I promised him my vote, and I was loyal.” Consequently, Jesse didn’t target Dan.

This shows that Dan made a social investment in the form of loyalty, at the detriment of conformity. The investment metaphor is especially apt, because it functions like a capital investment: Dan invested his money (conformity) in the form of capital (loyalty). Conformity in Big Brother doesn’t gain you anything, it simply sustains you. But the loyalty investment clearly paid off (Dan ended up winning this season).

In Big Brother 14, Dan returned. A classic example of Big Brother gameplay, was Dan’s funeral. If you’re curious, Dan himself wrote a long ass post explaining the whole thing himself. But I’ll give a basic outline:

It was decided conclusively that Dan was going to be evicted. So he gathered everyone to Dan’s “Big Brother funeral”. He complimented all of them, saying what he’d miss. However, he stopped on Danielle, his only real ally in the house, and publicly called her out, saying she was dead to him. In the midst of this, Dan asked to speak to Frank, his biggest rival, alone. He claimed he had to apologize, giving him an excuse to speak to Frank alone. When meeting Frank, Dan disclosed that Ian was responsible for evicting Mike, Frank’s ally. Dan then proposed a 4-way alliance of Dan, Frank, Danielle, and Jenn. Jenn had the veto, and to everyone’s surprise, used it on Dan. Then, Frank, unable to nominate Ian, nominated Ian’s closest ally Britney, who was evicted.

This is an example of a complex exchange of social capital. On a surface level, it seems like Dan created a convoluted mess that he was able to emerge from. But if you break it down, it really is just a series of social exchanges. Dan “cashed out” his relationship with Danielle publicly to get capital with the rest, and he “cashed out” his alliance investment with Ian to form one with Frank instead.

Big Brother 17 houseguest Meg Maley acting like a grandma

Big Brother as a social stock market

Another example of social capital is the most recent season, Big Brother 20. The main story of this season is Tyler was in control of his whole alliance, as well as most people outside his alliance. His closest ally, however, was Kaycee, who was primarily, mostly allied to Tyler.

In other words, Tyler had a lot of social capital spread out, in varying levels, to everyone in the house. Kaycee had a lot of social capital mostly in Tyler. And yet, Kaycee won that season, against Tyler. How does that happen, if Tyler has more social capital?

For this, we can look to Marx. Marx makes a clear delineation between “liquid” money and money in the form of capital. Capital is money that’s tied up in corporate-property organs. The function of Capital is to generate more value – it is money that gets “processed” through labor and material, then sent to market, then converted into profit. In other words, Capital is money that’s “working”; capital is money that is being used to make more money, but in order to do so, it must be in a non-spendable, and not able to “bring to market” and exchange as a commodity. Another way of seeing it is that Capital is money made into a machine to generate more money.

What we can gather from this is that, Capital, if you imagine it in the form of stocks or land, is money that currently has no exchange value, but is generating value. When money is generating itself, it can’t be exchanged, and when money can be exchanged, it can’t be generating itself.

Let’s say you have a capital investment in a company, and then that company goes out of business. You cannot exchange that investment for liquid money anymore. You invested money into the company, so that it could become more money when you divest, but if you don’t divest then it becomes nothing. Looking through the lens of social capital, this explains why Tyler didn’t win: he didn’t divest his investments in social capital, so ultimately didn’t redeem the value of it.

Tyler had, metaphorically speaking, a much more diverse stock portfolio of social capital than Kaycee did. But he lost because he didn’t liquidate those social assets. Think about it this way: when Tyler “invested” his social capital into most of the house, those people were also investing in him. However, all of these people also “invested” something in Tyler.

Isn’t that how you “win” the game of social investment though? Get more out of your social investments than others? In a way, this is true. But, as mentioned earlier, Tyler didn’t properly ‘divest’. Scottie voted for Kaycee to win, even though he was closer to Tyler. This is an example of a “bitter juror”, although Scottie denies voting bitterly.

But another way to conceptualize a bitter juror is with social capital. Tyler and Scottie both invested into each other socially. Tyler not only invested less than Scottie, but got a lot more from his investment. By Scottie voting for Kaycee, he’s implicitly saying it wasn’t a fair exchange of social capital – it’s a non-recognition of Tyler’s investment.

In these terms, it makes Scottie’s reputation as a bitter juror justified, because his vote was the equivalent of someone losing a bet then refusing to give up their money.

Austin Matelson, houseguest from Big Brother 17 saying "Penalty if you strike again"

Anyway, this is an abrupt ending, but I wrote all I had to say on the topic. I plan on writing more about Big Brother in a more constructed way soon!

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