On Columbus' Dystopian 60 Minutes Piece

   Author: Taylor Dorrell
   Date: March 18, 2021

    Columbus was recently the focus of a 60 Minutes piece that showed the harsh reality of the current recession: homelessness, long food lines, and a middle-class shifting downwards. But, as the Columbus activist and investigative journalist Joe Motil pointed out in a Facebook post, not a single local TV station reported on the 60 Minutes episode or its content.

    Although the 60 Minutes piece exposed what Columbus residents already see and experience in everyday life (increasing poverty and economic/political inadequacies), it did so in a form that forces a consensus that something has to change. This premise reflects a wider gradually shifting ideology in politics and culture. Whereas before we could ignore these problems or act like philanthropy will solve them, it’s clear today that the neoliberal solution of deregulation and privatization isn’t working.

    The new stimulus bill reflects this potential shift, but the narrative is still up for grabs here. While the bill establishes a potential shift in the conversation surrounding trickle-down economics (re-establishing government intervention for the sake of the working-class), Democrats nonetheless watered down the bill, rejected the $15 minimum wage amendment, and the episode of 60 Minutes, although identifying problems, doesn’t clearly identify their cause or an effective solution.

The Inadequacy of Human Kindness

    In the 60 Minutes piece titled “Inside the COVID-19 Pandemic Recession, One of the Most Unequal in Modern History”, host Scott Pelley spends the episode looking at our Columbus, Ohio and how bad things have gotten for those most impacted by the recession:

    How bad is measured in Ohio's unemployment claims, which are higher in the pandemic than the last five years combined. Nationwide, COVID took 9 million jobs. The crush of new unemployment claims has delayed benefit checks.

    Scott Pelley interviewed 23-year old Courtney Yoder who lost her service job and had been met with a lengthy delay in unemployment payments, homeless shelters at capacity, and other public places like libraries closed for the pandemic. Growing up between foster homes, she became homeless at 18. Living in a tent outside of Columbus while saving at her first service job for an apartment and pregnant with her first child, she eventually secured an apartment through the help of an organization - which was much needed after her tent was slashed (a sign was left that said her tent was on private railroad property).

    60 Minutes also looked at those trying to manage the damage through philanthropy and volunteering: the Mid-Ohio foodbank, the private hospital Mount Carmel’s homeless outreach, and the Star House homeless shelter for young people. However, as Scott Pelley found out, even volunteers ended up being impacted by the recession. Those who could formerly afford to volunteer at food banks found themselves in need of using the food banks themselves. The state had to resort to staffing Mid-Ohio Foodbank with 300 National Guard troops to operate the facility at fivefold what the pre-pandemic numbers were. Pelley points out, “Hunger is reaching into middle-income families too. More than 17 million Americans have told the census bureau they've relied on free food during the pandemic.”

    The 60 Minutes piece provided a platform to illuminate what we see in our daily lives here in Columbus in a new light. The increasing number of homeless people is visible. One can visually see the number of tents next to the railroads increasing, the number of people standing desperately off highway exits with signs, and yet the ideological response for Americans driving by is not “maybe I’m not very far from being in the same position and we should therefore make drastic changes in the economy and state apparatus”, but is instead, as the message of the 60 Minutes piece drills home, there’s nothing we can do. In his conclusion, Scott Pelley admits that all those worst affected by the recession can do is depend “on an uptick in the index of human kindness.”

Benefits Street: Moralizing Poverty

    In the late Mark Fisher’s piece titled “Classless Broadcasting: Benefits Street”, Fisher examined how the British “post-reality TV documentary” series Benefits Street presents the unemployed and underemployed who rely on welfare programs to survive. He said of the show,

    It wasn’t the most obviously exploitative of the many programmes about the unemployed and those on benefits. Yet something about this series, which followed the residents of James Turner Street in Birmingham, touched a nerve. It was immediately pressed into ideological service by the right, fitted into a pre-existing story about the “need to reform the welfare state”.1

    Fisher echoed Tracy Jensen who said of a similar show called We All Pay Your Benefits when she said the “programme’s ideological message was clear; worth comes from paid work and not from childrearing or volunteering; unemployment is a problem of will or determination and not of structural obstacles; and social security itself generates the ‘problem’ of welfare dependence.”2 Fisher also quoted Ben Walters who said Benefits Street was a Thatcherite documentary (a kind of propaganda for the free-market/anti-government of neoliberalism) and Katharine Round who said these kinds of documentaries were being used to “kick those without a voice.”

    More foundationally, Fisher looked at these kinds of documentaries not just in their content, but their form. He cited the study “Reacting to Reality Television: Performance, Audience, and Value” by Beverley Skeggs and Helen Wood who argue that reality TV implies a “bourgeois gaze”, which, as Fisher put it, “judges working-class participants as lacking, by comparison with the middle class.”3 This judgement is soaked in moralising vocabulary so that poverty isn’t viewed as a symptom, but a personal lack of will or laziness.

    But 60 Minutes is less of a reality TV show in form. It remains one of the few “old-school” documentary-type media on US television today - aggresively surrounded by sports newscasters and live streamed police brutality (LivePD). In the 60 Minutes piece documenting the recession in Columbus, there’s an overarching emphasis on the economic impact that has led to the dire circumstances of the show’s subjects. However, the details remain abstract. It’s the virus that is held responsible for the recession, not the political or capitalist ideology and the figures who could, in a snap of finger, directly change the circumstances for those in poverty.

    It’s here where we can fall back to Fisher’s critique of Benefits Street. The strife being experienced by millions of Ohioans, like those unemployed in Britain, is reduced to a “radically depoliticized world of individuals and their intimacies.” Fisher points out that in Benefits Street, “we were told benefits were cut, but this was treated like some natural disaster, an act of God rather than the consequence of a political decision.”4

    While the degree in which COVID-19 in itself has impacted the economy is debatable, what is not “naturally” caused is the still drastic ineptitude and underfunding of Ohio’s unemployment and social services. It wasn’t COVID-19 that voted to continue utilities and electric shut-offs during Ohio’s worst winter in over a decade while COVID-19 deaths surged. Of the interviews with individuals - from those left homeless and in poverty to the CEO of Mid-Ohio foodbank and a representative from the National Guard - what is left untouched is the political figures in the state who directly make the decisions that sustain this dystopian economic landscape where the National Guard feeds thousands in Columbus and tent cities grow. As Fisher put it, “the refusal or failure to make any explicit argument allows dominant ideology - which the programme doesn’t acknowledge, still less challenge - to step in.”5

    In his introduction to Postcapitalist Desire: Mark Fisher: The Final Lectures, Matt Colquhoun adds that “Whereas Fisher may have rejected the Nineties announcement that “we are all middle class now”, our television screens continue to announce this reality silently and without fanfare nonetheless. The message, though implicit, is familiar: there is no alternative.”6

    On the one hand, the 60 Minutes piece is centered around class - it’s the “most unequal recession” - but on the other hand, through its hyperfixation on individuals and the abstraction of politics, the concept of class is, at the same time, eliminated. One of the piece’s central points is that the pandemic is dragging the middle class down too, but without addressing the political and economic measures that existed before and throughout the pandemic, the message remains the same: the only thing standing in the way of you rising out of poverty is yourself (or, in this rare case, a natural disaster). The message is that there is no alternative to the economic system that sustains these conditions. That everyone can still be middle class - that everyone is middle class, at least in their minds.

The Bourgeois Gaze

    Matt Colquhoun goes on to say that “Not only was capitalism deemed by the “realists” to be the only game in town, but the gaze of its central phantasmatic subject, the evergreen “middle class”, was now taken to be the default subject position available as well. ”7 This bourgeois gaze is implicit in 60 Minutes. The viewers and subjects of 60 Minutes are all middle class. Pelley asks Yoder, the 23 year-old living in a tent pregnant with her first child, “You’re still a believer in the American dream?”. Here, Pelley exposes the ideological message, which is that, in one's mind, one’s gaze comes from the position of the middle or upper class, even if one is technically far from it or barely in it. And then even if they’re not in the middle class, they still are, just not yet. In his final lectures, Fisher explained:
    [P]eople are encouraged to think they’re already rich, they just haven’t got money yet — a bit like Lady Gaga, when she said, “I was already famous, it’s just people didn’t know yet.” [...] That’s why, often, poorer members of society will oppose tax cuts against the rich. Why? Because they’re already rich themselves, in their minds. It’s not like this is a failure on their part, or a delusion. They’re encouraged into this identification.8

    Fisher illuminated the point of the middle-class or bourgeois gaze through Dickens’ Great Expectations. Pip, the son of a common blacksmith, becomes ashamed of himself through the gaze of a young girl from an upper-class background who makes him aware that his boots are common and he uses slang. He had no idea and instantly became ashamed. Pip then became self-conscious, but he did not become class conscious. Fisher observed that “He precisely lacks class consciousness at this point, because class consciousness is not only consciousness that you’re a member of a class, it’s consciousness of the class system as a set of structures determining how you see yourself. This is exactly what is obscured.”9 It was through the gaze of the Other, the bourgeois gaze, that he became aware of himself, but class became obscured, reduced to aesthetics and individual characteristics, not expanded to a larger understanding of the class system.

Great Expectations (1998)

    What’s taking place with the bourgeois gaze in the media is the embodiment of the ideology that “we’re all middle-class now”, what Fisher calls “the invention of the middle”. It’s part of what encourages us into this identification. But how is this possible? As Fisher put it, “if everyone’s middle class now then what are they in the middle of?”. He adds, “it seems to make sense — this pitch — as a form of direct suppression of class consciousness.”10 It doesn’t practically make any sense. This is the limit and part of the success of the “pitch”. If the middle exists between two poles, not everyone can be in the middle. And yet, this is the perspective ingrained within the ideology of neoliberal capitalism. A utopian picture in which everyone exists in the middle. But the reality this picture sustains is just the opposite.

    The bourgeois gaze is engrained in 60 Minutes and Benefits Street. Both imply a “common sense” which is that of the middle class position. The same happens at the opposite pole with interviews of famous or rich people who come from working class, or contrived working class, backgrounds. They speak of sleeping in their cars or having no money in the bank, but even after they become rich, they’re still somehow identified as being a part of the middle class. This is how Trump can get away with appealing to the working class. He didn’t have the working class background, but was able to use the bourgeois gaze to reinforce the notion that everyone is already rich, just in the future.

    The result is the ideological negation of class altogether. Fisher points out, “the idea of being in a class position which sets you up outside class altogether — “there is a class system but you don’t really belong to it”.”11

The End of Trickle-Down Economics?

    The American Dream is today little more than the name of the new supermall built in East Rutherford, New Jersey. It’s where the bourgeois gaze is fixated on while the world crumbles around it. But with Biden’s stimulus bill coming into effect along with a renewed vocabulary of “abolishing poverty”, the neoliberal order could be facing a reckoning. This is important, because it directly challenges the narrative that “we’re all middle class now” and the bourgeois gaze. While many on the left, including myself, remain skeptical (this could be a false dawn, or a false hope similar to Obama), just the prospect of an era past neoliberalism is refreshing. Biden and Congress are directly addressing the source of the symptoms documented in the 60 Minutes piece through direct financial investments, even while Ohio’s government continues to fumble. The political shift would match the momentum of so many leftist projects growing out of the learned failures of post-2008 movements and cultural shifts like the popularity of movies like Parasite and Sorry to Bother You. It feels like there’s a thirst for new futures growing in the US.

    Of course it’s tainted by Biden’s other policies and the watering down of the stimulus bill, but nonetheless, hopefully these slivers of potential post-neoliberalism will grow and “trickle-down” to states like Ohio in the coming years. The overall narrative is still up in the air here. In a recent episode of DemocracyNow, host Amy Goodman asked the economist Joseph Steiglitz, “Is this the end of trickle-down economics?” He answered, “I hope so.”

1. Mark Fisher, K-Punk (London, UK: Repeater, 2018), 235.
2. Mark Fisher, K-Punk (London, UK: Repeater, 2018), 236.
3. Mark Fisher, K-Punk (London, UK: Repeater, 2018), 237.
4. Mark Fisher, K-Punk (London, UK: Repeater, 2018), 237.
5. Mark Fisher, K-Punk (London, UK: Repeater, 2018), 238.
6. Mark Fisher, Postcapitalist Desire: Mark Fisher: The Final Lectures (London, UK: Repeater, 2020), 18.
7. Mark Fisher, Postcapitalist Desire: Mark Fisher: The Final Lectures (London, UK: Repeater, 2020), 18.
8. Mark Fisher, Postcapitalist Desire: Mark Fisher: The Final Lectures (London, UK: Repeater, 2020), 158.
9. Mark Fisher, Postcapitalist Desire: Mark Fisher: The Final Lectures (London, UK: Repeater, 2020), 128.
10. Mark Fisher, Postcapitalist Desire: Mark Fisher: The Final Lectures (London, UK: Repeater, 2020).
11. Mark Fisher, Postcapitalist Desire: Mark Fisher: The Final Lectures (London, UK: Repeater, 2020).