As good as it gets: Mad Men and neoliberalism

It’s difficult to imagine the scale of the postwar abundance compared to previous eras. The US was not only able to completely tear out its old infrastructure and build new while also providing an unprecedented degree of material wealth and security to an ever-widening number of its citizens — it was also able to essentially build the next two largest economies (Germany and Japan) on the side. Whole new groups were included in the mainstream economy (blacks, women) as the welfare state expanded, to the point where even Nixon could propose the implementation of universal health care and a universal basic income. And then, within a few short years, all those possibilities were suddenly foreclosed as the transition from Fordism to neoliberalism began. What went wrong?

I wrote yesterday that Mad Men shows us how the elites of the 1960s managed to weather the most radical critiques of that era, but it is also beginning to tell us the story of how that generation failed to reproduce itself. Viewers have consistently been frustrated by the persistence of the old white guys — as early as season 3, there were complaints that Pete and Peggy should be taking over. Instead, all of Pete’s labor of building the new agency went largely unrewarded as he was passed over for an affable fraud (Bob Benson) and subsequently marginalized, while Peggy made a series of lateral moves that left her essentially back where she started. Meanwhile Sterling and Cooper’s power has gradually increased despite the fact that neither appears to contribute anything concrete to the operation.

In a weird comical moment in season 4, we learn that Cooper had his testicles removed, and in the most recent episode, he dies after saying very explicitly that neither Roger nor Don is a genuine son to him. The more legitimate inheritor of his mantle is Jay Cutler, the advocate of soulless computer-based manipulation, though Cooper continued to fight for his own “team” out of loyalty and out of his own sense of himself as a leader. Other attempts at reproduction are similarly abortive. Megan has a miscarriage, while Don’s real children wind up being raised by another man (part of the Republican establishment that very emphatically does manage to reproduce itself in this era). Don perhaps does find his authentic daughter in Peggy, but we already know that she’s a reproductive dead end — upon receiving her promotion to copywriter in the first season, she gives birth to the child she’s been denying and gives it away.

In the end, Roger can only arrange a kind of truce with the faceless corporation — perhaps similar to Neo’s inconclusive truce at the end of the Matrix trilogy — and fails even to eject Cutler from the agency. The old regime persists, but in a diminished form. They’ve carved out a space where they can continue to do their work in order to assuage the emptiness until they die, but at the price of selling themselves into servitude. Indeed, they only manage to achieve that minimal freedom by actively misleading their benefactors (Roger sells SC&P as a radically computer-centric agency that McCann will recognize as a competitor, even as he wants to save Don’s brand of creativity; he claims that “our” account man Bob Benson has moved to Detroit without making it explicit that he’s actually left the firm).

I wonder, though, if the show is actually presenting this hand-off from Madison Avenue to Wall Street as a natural occurence — if the failure of this Fordist order to reproduce itself leads directly and necessarily to its abortive self-reproduction into the neoliberal order. What Peggy sells to Burger Chef is essentially a complete absorbtion of home economics into the consumerist economy as such: Burger Chef is the authentic home that our mere factual homes, with their televisions and squalor, can never be. For these broken characters who have never felt at home in the “real” economy of the home, there is a utopian moment in being able to find that authentic connection in work and the marketplace. And yet what is neoliberalism but the demand that we live — essentially and only live — in the marketplace? What if Peggy’s Burger Chef presentation, which is genuinely and disturbingly moving, is already neoliberalism with a human face?

Fordism thus becomes a kind of “vanishing mediator” whose ultimate role was to saturate the American ideological scene with a pro-capitalist stance, such that any opposition could only appear as the petulant acting out of the child or as a kind of nostalgic primitivism — or both. And once full saturation was reached, once all other alternatives had been completely foreclosed, the machine began destroying the material abundance and security that had originally legitimated it. Fordism was as good as it gets for America, and it was simultaneously the ineluctable transition to the very worst. In the end, all it can give us is the hope for some kind of purely personal and individual redemption — there may be hope for me, but there’s no hope for us.

8 Responses to “As good as it gets: Mad Men and neoliberalism”

  1. Philip Says:

    When the Burger Chef guy, misty-eyed, replies to peggy’s opening monologue ‘that’s beautiful’ – that was an interesting moment. It *was* beautiful in a way but in another way that pitch-perfect (hah) delivery only amplified how utterly horrific the image is: the family itself has been eaten out from the inside; only a shell remains; the simple familial intimacy of a meal now has to be outsourced.

  2. Adam Kotsko Says:

    And it’s above all the creature of advertising itself — television — that makes that outsourcing both necessary and plausible.

  3. Hill Says:

    Reading this was infinitely more enjoyable than actually watching the episodes of this season.

  4. Hill Says:

    And I should say that this piece is really brilliant. As in expand into an article or book brilliant. You are clearly a leading expert in the intersection of Mad Men and critical theory.

  5. bob mcmanus Says:

    “In the end, all it can give us is the hope for some kind of purely personal and individual redemption — there may be hope for me, but there’s no hope for us.”

    I agree with the above, this was really brilliant.

    But too pessimistic for me. Adam, what is our relationship. Shallow, casual, intermittent, meaningless whatever we do read each other and even, if rarely, interact. Under certain grave circumstances, I can imagine co-ordination or cooperation at a distance. There might be something between individualism and collectivism, between or orthogonal to Fordism and neo-liberalism, something neither organized or chaotic, something ad-hoc, contingent, spontaneous, emergent. Don’t write your book yet.

  6. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I’ll hold off for now.

  7. bob mcmanus Says:

    Oh, FWIW, just downloaded a free pdf from the Mute website, where tiqqun went when they became claire fontaine. “Organization of the Organizationless” by Rodrigo Nunes. Just finished “Swarmwise”, by Rick Falkvinge, about how he used spontaneous and emergent networks to get Pirate Party members elected to the EU Parliament.

    There are a lot of people working hard at using existing conditions for social change, enough for me not to despair or get mystical.

  8. Adam Kotsko Says:

    “Bert Cooper’s Balls: On Social Reproduction in Mad Men.”


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