Karl Marx understood the power of satire, in fact Das Kapital can be read as an ironic description of “the deranged logic of capitalism”, and he’s also featured in his fair share.
One joke from East Germany has a man dying and being sent to hell. When he arrives he finds the devil offering him a choice of capitalist hell and Marxist hell. In capitalist hell, the devil’s minion Ronald Reagan tells him, “in capitalist hell we flay you alive, boil you in oil and then cut you into small pieces with sharp knives.” Then outside Marxist hell he meets Karl himself, “in Marxist hell, we flay you alive, boil you in oil and then cut you into small pieces with sharp knives.”
“That’s the same as capitalist hell,” says the man, “why are people queuing to get in?”
“Ah,” says Marx, “we’ve shortages of oil and knives.”
That joke is typical of Soviet era satire, which was aimed at the effects of the system rather than the tenets of it. So much so that the governments of Communist countries not only allowed jocular dissent in these forms but sometimes sponsored it.
John Morton’s W1A is fêted by the BBC establishment that not only features in it and produces it but pays the piper and calls the tune.
Its basis is the absurdity of bureaucracy, Hugh Bonneville’s ‘Head of Values’ Ian Fletcher is painted as the only sane man, trapped as much by his own decency as by the circular horrors around him. We see meeting after meeting — in absurd rooms that are easy shots against modernity — which deviate from reality only in the words used, not in the outputs.
That’s not to say there aren’t laughs; the narration is finely pitched, even if its deadpan schtick has diminishing returns. There is refinement here too, each character is being planed away, reduced to a system of nods, ticks and catchphrases (“what it is, right”, “no, but, yeah”, “brilliant”). By the inevitable series three it will be possible for the Demon Seed-esque IT system Sympatico to create an amusing ‘damage limitation meeting’ with a Turing-test beating script. The Turing test as we know is only about creating the illusion of intelligence.
It is a sitcom, and as such the characters are trapped in the sit. Fletcher, and to a lesser extent producer Lucy Freeman (Nina Sosanya), cannot leave, but must turn and twist as the organisational madness reforms around them. We are expected to see parallels with the heroes of Kafka novels, except that there is no jeopardy. No one is on trial. Everything will carry on as it always has: and this is one of the reasons that W1A is so dangerous.
The satire of the institutional ideals of the BBC is as pointed as one of hipster brand consultant Siobhan Sharpe’s ‘Win-bledon’ foam hands. We are offered a view of the BBC that is both self obsessed and unaware of its own absurdity; full of process and without agency. Despite the obvious faults everything will be alright in the end, no one is bad. One of the most absurd characters is named Karl Marx (Joel Fry), but producer Lucy definitely has no control of the means of production. And you can bet that not one person in this alternate reality BBC really has a grasp of any ideas of dialectics: for nothing is ever resolved.
The satire, like much of that heard in the Communist era, aims itself at the process and the unbending stupidity of the middle ranking bureaucrats. Arkady Raikin (1911-87) was one of the Soviet Union’s most famous stand-up comedians. He exploited the patronage and recognition he got (he became a ‘Hero of Socialist Labour’, the highest civilian award) to present some critical material. But most of his swipes were at the mid-ranking workers of the system, against “the man who never laughs”: the bureaucratic middle manager.
We can laugh at the form filling and the Frankie Howerd meeting room, but in doing so we’re complicit in deliberately missing the bigger target: the establishment bias of the BBC and its news output. The glass revolving door of New Broadcasting House is full not of folding bikes and interns, but of senior political journalists rotating between capitalist institutions, The Spectator, the Tory party and Newsnight. W1A’s satire is cosy rather than challenging.
In The German Ideology Marx dismissed the illusion of seeing change in history as an end. “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force.”
Mikhail Gorbachev, as described in Ben Lewis’s history of Communist humour Hammer and Tickle (where much of my research comes from), saw jokes as “a symptom of inertia in the Soviet body politic”. They were a safety valve that prevented change, or even a realisation of the real problems.
And that’s where much TV satire, and especially the cosy bumbling of W1A comes from. Soviet-era jokes have one difference from W1A, they were often funny. Here’s a great one to finish on:
Why, despite all the shortages was the toilet paper in East Germany always 2-ply?
Because they had to send a copy of everything they did to Russia.