There for us
“Chandler is the most interesting character imo. At the beginning of the show he is already rich and is closed off emotionally, and actually is the closest representation to what it is like to be a white collar worker who’s ‘made it’. What’s great though is that while in the show he gets better at being a mentally healthy man, in real life the actor became an alcoholic who managed to blank out an entire 3 seasons. The myth of being able to survive under capitalism and become a fully rounded human being is exposed within the construction of the show its self, through the actor who gave his own mental health to show an idealised image of the PMC”- anonymous
Radically deconstructing tv shows will always be missing a vital element unless they take into account the modes and means of production that exist to quite literally build the stages on which culture is performed. This leads to highly monopolised fields of cultural production that help to shape the dispositions that reproduce material production. This article looks at the American TV phenomenon “Friends”, first through a cultural lens, but then takes a step back to locate it within a wider political economy of both cultural and commodity production, as part of a suite of cultural commodities that represent American dominance and have helped to shape imperial monopolies on “global culture”.
The one glaring flaw in American TV show Friends that everyone seems to pick up on is “How the hell can they afford to live like that?” Even in the alleged heyday of American capitalism, that period of time post-cold war and pre-9/11, many people expressed disbelief at the sheer size of Monica’s apartment, which today would be worth around $4 million on the market, and would have probably been out of reach for a chef and a waitress, even if they lived in the cocoon of the imperial core.
A story of good looking folks living an upper-class lifestyle on lower to middle class incomes is of course aspirational, but it’s also pretty standard for American TV and while the show helped to normalise things like divorce, lesbians and pre-marital sex it could hardly be accused of breaking social taboos. There are no “very special” episodes and there is nothing in the show that comes close to the raw power of the Fresh Prince’s “How come he don’t want me?”. Still there are some attractive elements to the general premise of the show. If you grew up in a conservative society where friendship groups were very clearly gender-delineated, then men and women acting like adults to each other (as opposed to members of a different planets) showcases a libertine disposition that was and is very socially aspirational and a positive score for the show’s continued influence, not just in the US, but around the world. It is difficult to pigeonhole Friends as either conservative or liberal. The show is overwhelmingly white (subversively highlighted by Alan Yang’s brilliantly uncanny film for Jay Z’s Moonlight) and in many ways is an idealised projection of the American City seen through the eyes of the petty bourgeois. A culturalist argument runs that If the cosy domesticity of 50s and 60s sitcoms encouraged bourgeois America to flock to the suburbs, then it was shows such as Seinfeld and Friends that encouraged that same demographic to gentrify the cities.
The titular friends live in a Busytown world where everyone who has a job and even those who don’t, like Joey, can live comfortable lives. Working class Phoebe, a freelance masseuse and Rachel, a waitress, sit snugly with Ross, Monica and Chandler, a palaeontologist, a Chef and a PMC office ‘transponster’ respectively. Shows such as “Friends” help to shape the dispositions of an aspirational (and global) middle class who, though they may find themselves even more exploited the further from the core they are, will still have friends that are there for them, providing the unwaged emotional and affective labour of daily reproduction.
Would such an assemblage play out in real life? How much of our friendship groups after school are based around dispositions related to income and class? Class consumption only ever played into the show once. In The One with Five Steaks and an Eggplant, Rachel, Joey and Phoebe have to awkwardly explain to the rich Friends that they can’t afford to stuff themselves at fancy restaurants or go to concerts. It’s the sort of plot point that is in many ways an incisive look at how capitalism functions at the interpersonal level, which is probably why it was never really resolved or played into any future episodes.
However there is a one consumer item that has become ubiquitous to both rich and poor in the West. In the 1990s, coffee, or more specifically, coffeehouse culture, embodied in the rise of chains such as Starbucks and a raft of boutiques, became a consumer trend that has never ebbed since, part of the ‘long 90s’ of western culture grinding to a halt. Again, if we are to take the culturalist argument then we might argue that it was shows such as Friends and Frasier, whose Central Perk and Cafe Nervosa were the only spaces of the New York or Seattle we saw with any regularity, that propelled this trend. Yet such an argument neglects the contours of US imperialism at its apex (nadir?) and the way that Coffee is emblematic of how economic power shifted towards Empire. Cultural arguments can only take us so far.
The limits of the “Globalization” Thesis
‘for the small chunk of humanity that spends more time in airport lounges and business class seats than anywhere else, the geography of life may have changed. But for the rest of us, the fundamental patterns of human interaction in social space are not vastly different.’ Nick Bisley
In the 1960s, the signing of the International Coffee Agreement was a multilateral move, involving over 70 nations in all, towards ensuring that tropical coffee-producing countries could rely on a semi-stable price for their exports. It was by no means a perfect state of affairs, as nationalism often meant that southern exporters competed with each other while centralising logic meant that the gains were often captured by States rather than farmers. While it was still fundamentally a tool of capitalism, it was at least a step towards a more equitable commodity chain and meant that southern farmers were not at the mercy of prices on global markets far out of their control. In the context of the global political economy, the coffee agreement represented a concession to southern states that Europe and the USA hoped would help prevent communism taking root, a similar dynamic to how they had agreed to launch welfare states domestically. It should be no surprise then, that when the USSR collapsed, leaving capitalism seemingly victorious in the global polity, that the Coffee Agreement collapsed. The results, as we shall see, were devastating.
Francis Fukuyama was at the front of the line when it came to hot takes of the 1990s and the “End of History” thesis was the swaggering flag in the sand of Western cultural chauvinism. In the 1950s and 60s, Liberal economics had operated on the assumption that countries had to build their own development pathways, to ‘take-off’. The Marxist inspired dependency school denied this ontology of discrete and atomised economies, arguing instead that the world was structured into spheres of accumulation and extraction, of core and periphery. By the 1990s, it was pointless for bourgeois theorists to deny the basic premise that a global economy existed. This wasn’t to say that the 90s didn’t herald quantitative changes, with the collapse of the eastern bloc, there had been a ‘historic leap in the size of the world proletariat’ and as WTO trade regimes and World Bank developmental discourse became even more hegemonic, commodity production techniques shifted toward global value chains, as the world’s poorest countries were guided into position among the lowest rungs of variegated capitalism. However, the 90s were not a new world order, but an intensification of American Empire. This article looks at how this period was portrayed.
Consolidated Empire was recast as ‘globalization’ and while the economic analysis, where it appeared, was largely correct, it was often stripped of political content. Instead ‘globalization’ was mainly sold as a technological argument that the world was getting smaller or ’flatter’ and this was creating new subjectivities at the individual level. The ability to order McDonalds in Thailand, outsource your tech support to India, or watch Friends in Ghana, was now somehow representative of a new ‘global culture’. For the globalization thesis to work, it necessitated a reworking of history, a strategic forgetting of all the ways in which currents of activity and power had already traversed the globe. The USSR was now remembered as an inward-looking nation rather than a political project whose global outlook had been a key aspect of its, occasionally erratic, personality (it is apt that the only reference to this in Friends is Joey not knowing who Joseph Stalin is). The mass migration movements of the 19th and early 20th century when the armies of reserve labour in Europe had crossed the Atlantic to settle in the Americas was an event just as “global” in nature as anything that happened in the 1990s. But the ‘globalization’ thesis painted a picture of a post-cold war global intermingling, of singular cultures coming together to form new hybrids and tensions, but this was not unique to the 1990s, or even the twentieth century. When Stuart Hall remarked “I am the sugar at the bottom of the English cup of tea.” he alluded to networks of trade, migration and power going back centuries that had been strategically forgotten to serve new narratives.
Friends epitomised this movement of end times. It seemed to outright swerve away from engaging in history, not even mentioning the terrorist attacks in New York of 2001 for instance. So detached are our titular characters from social reality that we could reskin the sitcom as the tribulations of a pantheon of ancient gods, hanging out at Cafe Mt Olympus and it would not require too much rewriting. There is nothing wrong with escapism per se. Tolkien and LeGuin remind us that escapism is the motivating hope of the prisoner. Yet the escapism of Friends is simply Fukuyamian wish-fulfillment rather than a satire describing the walls of the prison. And escapism is only useful if it actually leads to escape.
The Other side
“..because the vast majority of knowledge about globalization is produced within the American and European universities, it is not entirely surprising that the Internet, international financial institutions, and IKEA stores become considered “global” but not, for example, the genocide in Rwanda, refugee camps in Kenya, piracy in the Gulf of Aden, shantytowns in Brasılia, or coltan mining in eastern Congo.” Isaac Kamola
Tell the people in Rwanda that history stopped in the 1990s. On searching for causes for the genocide, we can of course point to the Belgian colonial racecraft of the 19th century which created a division of labour and prestige between Hutus and Tutsis that helped integrate the society into the world economy, a hundred years before western scholars declared that globalisation was a thing. Postcolonial narratives are necessary but not wholly sufficient, we cannot simply explain the horrors of 1994 by making reference only to 1884. For western liberals, the colonial baggage argument is convenient, for it allows them to piously acknowledge the terror of colonialism, without needing to turn the lens on the present. At its worst, a postcolonial argument that does not take into account modern political economy comes dangerously close to a ‘civilizational’ narrative that sees violence in the periphery a result of stunted development and a failure to ‘catch up’, blind to the continued patterns of extraction and appropriation from South to North and how these contribute to instability.
Rwanda had been a minor signatory to the International Coffee Agreement, and when system collapsed at the end of the 1980s at the dawn of the new Washington Consensus, the country quickly became saddled with debt, and the IMF and World Bank moved in to recommend liberalisation, including freezing the price of coffee, which led to rural destitution and new army recruits. In order to maintain his grip on power in an unstable era, Hutu President Habyarimana ramped up ethnic tensions, framing the Tutsi minority as scapegoats for the economic downturn, while using the money from IMF/WB loans to stockpile military equipment. We must not infantilise Rwanda here, for the Habyarimana regime was truly corrupt and abhorrent, but so too were the International finance regimes that acted as heralds of Empire before and after the genocide, when they snatched with two fists the post-war aid money intended for reconstruction but re-circuited to pay morally questionable debts accrued from the previous regime.
As Isaac Kamola so pointedly asks, why do the scholars of “globalization” identify the cultural products of the American Hegemon as “global” but not the politics of the global south, which have likewise enmeshed with worldwide currents of surplus value extraction for hundreds of years? What is the instrumental value of culture here. Why is Friends part of global culture, but the Rwandan genocide not?
This cultural imbalance is a vital part of Empire’s ‘soft’ power. American, French and British Embassies across the world do not play host to language lessons and afternoon teas for nothing. Dominance in the production of culture is reflected in dominant culture of production. Despite the claims that “globalization” would bring us a truly global culture, this has failed to materialise in the last three decades. The Other in “global society” is not othered because it has failed to join the party through some fault of its own. It is other because it is continually remade as the Other through its absence from the dominant and arbitrary signifiers that give the “global” meaning. In other words, the production of “global” currently belongs to the Northern core who instrumentalise it in service of their imperial extraction which in turn serves the production of culture and so on.
However we need to be careful about what we mean when we advocate for a more balanced global culture. According to Hardt and Negri, diversity can just as much a tool of capitalism and empire as it can be resistance. This is not to say that the struggles for cultural diversity in the imperial core aren’t important, but they are not sufficient for the table to be upturned. Replacing a global American monoculture with a global American diversity would continue to lend soft power to empire as the cultural arbiter. We do not want to see Africa, Asia, or Latin America through an American or European filter, but only through the eyes of the South.
Don’t mistake this for an argument that says “if we only consumed different products, then we’d have a revolution”. Instead, understand that the Empire only wants you to consume products it has produced and that this keeps the core oblivious and the periphery hampered by a false aspiration. Consuming differently will not end Empire, but solidarity on a global level can only happen when the field of the ‘global’ is stripped of its ideology until it is not even a container for culture but an emergent phenomenon from its part. So, while we plot for the end of capitalism, let us enjoy the cultural fruits of world wherever they may ripen. Enjoy Friends, but also check out Rwandan Artist Kaya Byinshii’s song Ibyejo a track that lets Byinshii’s beautifully insistent vocals ride on a slow but warm groove. Or check out artist Collin Sekajugo’s vibrant political artwork, a strident critique of the world as it is.
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