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Shark Tank as Image of Capitalism


The show Shark Tank offers a succinct image of the basic contradiction of forces and relations of production. Each episode contains a series of negotiations between entrepreneurs and “sharks” – billionaire capitalists – regarding investment in a business. On each side of the negotiation are distorted images of moments in the historical contradiction, capitalism.

Adam Smith articulated the division of labor as the modern form of social cooperation enabled by bourgeois right. Cooperation extended through the interdependence of human beings: humans specialized because of the freedom afforded to them by their fellow persons meeting their needs, and the fulfillment of needs through ever perfected specialization, opened avenues for new forms of cooperation. The “self-interest” of the butcher, baker and candlestick maker meant not selfishness, but rather the act of putting yourself in your fellow compatriots’ shoes. Thus, every pitch begins by identifying a need, conscious or not, that the entrepreneur promises to fulfill.

Smith had traced the logic of the potential of labor to an image that may seem utopian for us today:

In a country which had acquired its full complement of riches, where in every particular branch of business there was the greatest quantity of stock that could be employed in it, as the ordinary rate of clear profit would be very small, so the usual market rate of interest which could be afforded out of it would be so low as to render it impossible for any but the very wealthiest people to live upon the interest of their money. All people of small or middling fortunes would be obliged to superintend themselves the employment of their own stocks. It would be necessary that almost every man should be a man of business, or engage in some sort of trade. The province of Holland seems to be approaching near to this state. It is there unfashionable not to be a man of business. Necessity makes it usual for almost every man to be so, and custom everywhere regulates fashion. As it is ridiculous not to dress, so is it, in some measure, not to be employed, like other people. As a man of a civil profession seems awkward in a camp or a garrison, and is even in some danger of being despised there, so does an idle man among men of business.

Since Smith’s time, the relations of production have come into conflict with the forces they set in motion. On the other side of the negotiation, now sits the result. The “self-interest” of the butcher and baker has become twisted and inverted [2]. The entrepreneurs appeal not to the needs of their fellow people, but rather to the speculative thirst of the sharks. Kevin O’Leary – “Mr. Wonderful” – is known to warn contestants with good ideas that the “big guys will crush you like the cockroaches you are.” This is not contempt but real – the show is premised on the collapse of the market. An entrepreneur with a good idea means nothing. If one cannot meet the conditions of capitalist production, their toil and trouble is nothing but market research for one of the monopolies to incorporate. “It is not because he is a leader of industry that a man is a capitalist; on the contrary, he is a leader of industry because he is a capitalist.” “Monopoly capital” signaled the disintegration of the market into the extremes of concentration and socialization. Indeed, the loans the entrepreneurs have already received are drawn out of the pool of savings that the sharks swim in. By the time a person walks into the tank, they are merely confronting the personifications of the objective conditions.

Writing for Jacobin Magazine, DSA members Leonard Pierce and Anna Forsher have characterized the saving-point of the show in its negative image of the implementation of human creativity without the constraints of profit:

If there’s one truth that Shark Tank consistently delivers, however, it is that ordinary people are the source of many of our best ideas — and if there’s one lie that Shark Tank constantly reinforces, it is that they need the assistance of benevolent billionaires to realize those ideas.

Understood as the creation of value, there’s nothing wrong with entrepreneurship; the problem with Shark Tank is that it treats the issue like capitalists treat every good idea: as something to be ripped off, co-opted, and exploitedBut as bad as it is, Shark Tank does have value for leftists: we can consider how its basic premise — helping ordinary people with extraordinary ideas implement them on a wide scale — would be beneficial under socialism.

The image of socialism given here is one where the social support for “extraordinary ideas” is democratically provided, rather than interrupted by the parasitical capitalist. But in fact, there already is involved mass, democratic participation and the show’s success is proof of such.

The drama of the show revolves around whether the entrepreneurs will get a deal. For the show to have any tension, the investments by the sharks must be ultimately decisive. Hence, they are particularly suspicious if a business is successful. Why do you need to be here? Entrepreneurs know this and regularly claim that what they really are after are the business connections or “mentorship” of specific sharks. To win, the sharks must like you. They rationalize it by saying they are making a “bet on the person.” If it was merely an exchange of profit-sharing for liquidity, the sharks would be more like the remora fish that swim alongside sharks and the show would be off the air.

The qualities that the sharks embody are particularly telling of the significance behind them. Bad pitches are not simply rejected but used as examples for paternalistic scolding. You didn’t read the room; you should have taken the offer; you must sell yourself better. The audience at home is reminded of their own situation and heeds the lesson. We are all petty bourgeois, for we all are a racket of one. Every “oof” in response to poor profit margins or faux pas during the negotiation gives the audience a feeling of wanting to run away from the imminent trainwreck. These episodes serve as training videos for our work life. In the meantime, we have forgotten whether the product pitched was lifesaving or garbage.

When an entrepreneur impresses the sharks with their sales year-to-date, the cheerful reaction seems to be less a praise of the person’s ingenuity, so much as glee that the fool has struck oil. The consequential “congrats” afforded to the entrepreneur by the sharks has the tone of a parent complimenting a child, because really, the entrepreneurs have only been playing at being capitalists.

Sharks, even if not interested in investing, will frequently comment on their fellow sharks’ offers with a “that’s a good deal” or “they’re trying to rob you!” The close-ups of the reactions of sharks serve to elicit the proper reaction of the audience at home in how to act and how to value. One becomes trained in “business acumen,” which is so thoroughly reified here that it takes the form of a dais filled with exaggerated personalities. Really, the caricatures reflect the contradictory demands put on the capitalists by capital. They must relate as equals to dominate. That a “warm-blooded shark” interested in a contestant’s story can jointly invest with a miser offering a royalty deal is no accident. The goal is not profit but the preservation of capital.

All these personal qualities are socially necessary forms of the appearance of capital. They inform the public at-large of what counts and what counts is itself. This may seem to shoot through the commodity-fetish but in fact, this is a heightened expression. The equivalent form, identity with society as such, is bluntly personified in the sharks. The “sum total of labor” confronts the producers of society as a personal relationship. The “polar” extremes of the commodity-form provide entertainment, as the pitch’s appraisal either gains reality or not. At home, the audience plays along, identifying or counter-identifying with the outcome, but ultimately naturalizing the value-form. The fetish is acknowledged by investor insiders as the “Shark Tank Effect”: the very act of appearing on the show publicizes the company as worthy of appraisal [3].

Indeed, even the pound of flesh demanded is not really the shark’s personal plunder, butwhat is required to feed the institutional whales that are steadying the undercurrent of their liquid capital. The capital stored by these institutions is ultimately connected to the entire financial system, down to the checking accounts of the audience. They, too, have an interest in the social surplus. After all, capital is a “collective product, and only by the united action of many members, nay, in the last resort, only by the united action of all members of society, can it be set in motion.” The forms of interest developed in the capitalist era are not those of medieval usury, but appropriations of socialized production. They are based on the same relation as that which went into the toil-and-trouble of the product pitched and they will persist into socialism as forms to be worked through.

All the factors – from the immense accumulation of money, open credit lines and logistical supply chains, down to the management teams and even the cufflinks on display when a shark places their hands in a triangle-shape when contemplating markups – are required for the capitalist production of commodities, for the capitalist production of bourgeois society. The stark overcompensation on display, of anachronistic social relations propped up by an entire industrial apparatus, shows that it is not only possible to transcend this problem, but that we seem to suffer from the pressure of social need.

It is only waiting for the right pitch.

Marx noted in Capital, that the historical emergence of capital out of existing commodity production – bourgeois society – happens “daily under our very eyes.” Rather than being the logic of a “system” or the “rules of a game,” we have here the repetition of a historical contradiction. Without a subject that could take up the false offer on display and redeem its true worth, Shark Tank remains but an “inconspicuous surface-level” [4] expression of the present epoch.

[1]: The self-love, the amor propre, was but the further development of the very instinct that led humans to cooperate in the first place – sympathy.

[2]: To the extent that, from the standpoint of capital and wage labour, the creation of the objective body of activity happens in antithesis to the immediate labour capacity – that this process of objectification in fact appears as a process of dispossession from the standpoint of labour or as appropriation of alien labour from the standpoint of capital – to that extent, this twisting and inversion [Verdrehung und Verkehrung] is a real [phenomenon], not a merely supposed one existing merely in the imagination of the workers and the capitalists. But obviously this process of inversion is a merely historical necessity, a necessity for the development of the forces of production solely from a specific historic point of departure, or basis, but in no way an absolute necessity of production; rather, a vanishing one, and the result and the inherent purpose of this process is to suspend this basis itself, together with this form of the process…But with the suspension of the immediate character of living labour, as merely individual, or as general merely internally or merely externally, with the positing of the activity of individuals as immediately general or social activity, the objective moments of production are stripped of this form of alienation; they are thereby posited as property, as the organic social body within which the individuals reproduce themselves as individuals, but as social individuals. The conditions which allow them to exist in this way in the reproduction of their life, in their productive life’s process, have been posited only by the historic economic process itself; both the objective and the subjective conditions, which are only the two distinct forms of the same conditions.” Karl Marx, and Robert C. Tucker. “The Grundrisse. The Marx-Engels Reader.” Ed. Robert C. Tucker 2 (1978): 292-293.

[3]: Cannice, Mark V., Ludwig B. Chincarini, and Ryan M. Leary. “Exploring Angel Investor Impact: Diving into the Shark Tank!.” The Journal of Alternative Investments 25, no. 4 (2023): 61-100.

[4]: Siegfried Kracauer, 1927, “The Mass Ornament,” in The Mass Ornament: Weimar Essays, Translated by Thomas Y. Levin (Harvard University Press: 1995): 75.