Could we read Mad Men as Marxist? If we could, why would it matter?
Of course, Mad Men does not consist of a single extended thesis about culture, let alone political economy. But through its very medium as televised fiction, and in its unprecedented investment in the ways that visual detail shapes story and character, the show offers one of the most sophisticated critiques of capitalism in America.
The show does not approach capitalism as an economic system, but rather as a system of cultural ideology. Mad Men tracks the ways that advertising becomes the central psychological engine of postwar America and its consumer society. Don Draper revolutionizes advertising by seizing on the imagination of his clients, and their customers, pointing them all toward something ineffable. Draper does not sell a physical product with a price tag (or a commodity with exchange value). He pitches a way of feeling, even a way of life. Looking at American life through the growing power of advertising, the show points to market capitalism’s inexorable ascendancy.
Don Draper’s rise is the story of America’s essential need to advertise capitalism’s bourgeois myth to ourselves. Over the course of the series, we see a baton passed from inherited money and privilege, personified by Roger Sterling and Pete Campbell in the early seasons, to the self-made man, who Don comes to represent in all his devastating contradictions. This transition requires the invention of a past to cover a humble, if not shameful, background and genesis. Pete thinks this is a problem at the end of Season One, but his eventual mastery of this dynamic enables him to maintain his own relevance after as his blue blood family loses their fortune.
Don’s arc from sordid past to singular genius reappears in multiple guises, enabling the show to explore how this larger pattern takes distinct forms under a variety of conditions. Thus we have Peggy Olson’s secret pregnancy and Bob Benson’s criminalized homosexuality. In each case, Don, Peggy, and Bob do to their past precisely what advertising does to products. They give themselves – and their clients – a new history, one set inside the imagination.
The paradox is that this requires nostalgia for something lost and irrecoverable. From the Kodak Carousel in the first season to the Burger Chef pitch last year, Don and his protégés realize that advertising is nothing less than the creation of a fiction, one that plays on the desire for a world that has ceased to exist – or can no longer exist – because of the very same social and economic conditions that make modern advertising possible. Desire, after all, is most potent when it does not achieve fulfillment.
Mad Men illustrates the fact that we cannot create desire without fiction – the advertising campaigns; the lies the characters tell each other and themselves; the fiction of the show itself. All of these fictions sell us something about the past. Mad Men’s focus on advertising explores the 1960s as the period when the manufacture of desire expanded the scope of the consumer market into the very personal realm of the imagination.
Don and Peggy are masters at conjuring up nostalgia for values, memories, relationships, and experiences that seem to be outside the circuit of capital exchange, beyond the reach of the market. Their pitches invoke the power of family, friendship, and simpler times when tradition shaped relationships and authorized choices. And yet both these characters’ lives and their advertising campaigns embody the triumph of individual choice over the past and its consequences, over tradition and its demands.
The sovereignty of the individual who can leave behind anything for something else that he or she alone deems more desirable is essential to consumer culture, and to the rationality of the market that it underpins. Yet for these characters, this is a tragic victory. And it is inescapable. Bereft of family and love, of anything outside the office, Don and Peggy are intimately aware of the pain that advertisements must soothe by redirecting our desires to a fictive replacement – not just the product or commodity, but the story its advertisement tells us about who we can become. But as the magicians who have mastered the essential trick, Don, Peggy, and the rest come to be plagued by the endless illusions they know only too well how to invent.
Mad Men has been criticized for its oblique approach to some of the most turbulent political events of the 1960’s, and for what some take to be its endorsement of racism and sexism. Indeed, the show refuses to impose signposts that would align with our own period’s political consensus. Yet in dealing with a decade so formative to that consensus, the show opts for a more personal, psychological, and ultimately more revealing excavation of the past than most works of mainstream cinema and television, where heroes, martyrs, and villains are pre-selected by the ideals that today’s viewers already share (with all due respect to “The Imitation Game” and “Selma”).
Historical fiction about the postwar era also tends to emphasize Cold War tensions with clear oppositions, where obvious Reds and McCarthyites represent Left and Right. But for the changing society we encounter out of the windows of Madison Avenue, it is the undeniable, seemingly apolitical progress of capitalism that proves to be most unsettling. With half a century of hindsight, we know that capitalism was and remains the only economic system available to Americans. This monopoly encloses even our most free and creative choices, including the self-fashioning that advertising seeks to align with what we buy.
Unlike its Soviet and Fascist rivals, which relied on totalitarian domination, capitalism perpetuates itself precisely through the exercise of ostensibly free choice. This individual autonomy is inscribed in the “informed consumer,” the model citizen of American politics. In an authoritarian system, the methods of resistance are clear (if not always possible). They require a society to organize opposition collectively – in other words, to politicize itself against the regime. But since capitalism’s sphere of operation is the individual will, its frustrations take shape through the internal conflicts individuals face between the ever-expanding choices the system makes available, and the alternatives it leaves behind.
As a critique of capitalism, Mad Men’s power derives from its dramatic sense of these personal contradictions, rather than from endorsing identifiable political positions, including those of the 1960s Left. From the start, in fact, the show mercilessly mocks the hypocrisies of the counter-culture, where hippiedom (Danny Siegel) or Hare Krishna (Paul Kinsey) thinly veil desperate narcissism and self-seeking. Characters representing the Left are often painted as gross stereotypes: from Megan Calvert’s lecherous father, a useless Marxist academic (no offense taken), to Peggy’s radical and ineffectual boyfriend Abe, who she emasculates – well, stabs with a makeshift spear – when she mistakes him for an intruder. Mad Men endlessly, and humorously, insists that one’s moral character is not always consonant with one’s social or political views. Manipulative, smarmy Pete is the show’s most progressive when it comes to issues of race, while the lovable Roger Sterling wears black face at a party in the Hamptons.
Don Draper offers the most telling example of this mess of contradictions between values and choices, which often come out in the pursuit of forbidden sexual relationships. Don knows better than anyone what it means to desire something one can only imagine, but never possess – which in his case is the memory of a childhood where the sale of sex took the place of love and family. This is why the connection between advertising and prostitution, which evolves from metaphor to implication to reality, may be Mad Men’s most richly mined thematic vein. The personal relationships the show dramatizes repeatedly boil down to that essential transaction: using sex to find some power that we imagine we had in the past; turning our loved ones into clients. This behavior rarely translates into a recognizable political allegiance.
In his personal life, Don is the worst kind of libertine. He rarely refrains when sex, drugs, or alcohol are on offer, regardless of the consequences for the people around him. In business, he has no patience for the Middle American Puritanism of his more prudish clients. Yet these tendencies coexist with a pronounced conservative streak. Out of a fear of the potent social changes his own lifestyle has unleashed, Don holds tightly to certain vanishing forms of decorum. In an early episode, Don shares an elevator trip with two young men who are laughing at something irreverent. When a woman gets on the lift and the men fail to react, Don growls at them: “take off your hat.” When the prostitution implicit in advertising bursts to the surface in season five, Don is SCDP’s most vocally opposed partner – the parallel to his own life hits too close to home. (It’s further telling that Joan Harris’ body, rather than Don’s words, wins the Jaguar account.) At times, Don even resists the commercialization of emotion he has flirted with all along. Last season, he excoriated his subordinates not to bandy about the word “love” meaninglessly … lest advertising cheapen language?
None of this coheres into what we might label liberalism or conservatism; Don is thoroughly apolitical. Though interpolated to political sensibilities from the Right (Cooper) and Left (Megan), he rarely offers more than mild assent or resistance to their viewpoints. In this, Don becomes representative of his generation, and this is also why he succeeds at his job. Like Pete, he understands racial progress less as an issue of justice, and more as a feature of the egalitarianism of the market, the same force that propels upstarts like himself from humble origins to money and respect. Don’s is an amoral politics. This is essential for one who seeks to guide “the invisible hand” of capital into the pockets of “the silent majority.” This evasiveness foreshadows the consensus regarding race, sex, and class that our own era has inherited largely undisturbed from Don’s time. That such a consensus can hide beneath our allegedly sharp partisan differences is also a lesson we can learn from Mad Men, which beautifully illustrates the triumph of appearance over substance.
The show earned a burst of attention in its first years for its arresting visual style. It even led to a revival of midcentury modern fashion and design, with couches now named “Draper” or “Peggy.” But while it may have changed American consumer culture, the conversation about the show’s importance moved on. Other shows like Masters of Sex and Boardwalk Empire incorporated its historical verisimilitude, while network mate Breaking Bad earned a more devoted following. Mad Men, like Don over the course of the sixties, has lost its novelty. Yet if viewers mistake the show’s look for its relevance, it is only because we have learned to watch television in exactly the way Don and Peggy imagined we would: as an advertisement for itself, full of fantasy and forgetfulness.
Ethan Pack: Awake too late