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The Winner-Takes-All Society

The Winner-Takes-All Society

If I asked you how many people there are in the UK, you might say sixty million, but you'd be wrong. In fact, there are only a few thousand. Nowadays, if you're not on, or almost on, The Sunday Times' Rich List, you don't count. You're part of the common herd, and you might as well be a cow standing in line waiting for your trip to the abattoir for all anyone cares. We live in the winner-takes-all society and if you're one of the legions of losers then your only function in life is to buy the products that keep the rich rich, and gawp at the celebrities to ensure they stay as shiny as ever.

Recently, an American judge sentenced Paris Hilton to a prison sentence for driving while her licence was suspended for an earlier misdemeanour of being in charge of a vehicle while intoxicated. Some people petitioned for her to be pardoned. Their petition proclaimed: 'She provides hope for young people all over the US and the world. She provides beauty and excitement to our otherwise mundane lives.' So, there we have it. Our lives are so boring that we must now look to others to live on our behalf. Celebrities and the wealthy are our proxies. They do all the things we want to do, lead the type of life we aspire to, have all the glamorous friends and lovers we've always desired, enjoy the lifestyle we've dreamt of since we were kids. And there was me thinking that Hilton was just an amateur porn star, an airhead, and a person who would be an utter nobody if she didn't have a rich daddy. But I'm wrong. She's an inspiration, a role model. I ought to be trying my best to support and emulate her, not that I could ever realistically cross the gap between them and us.

The Emperor Caligula reasoned that the gulf between ruler and ruled was so great that if the Roman people were human then he must be a god, or if he were human, they must be beasts. The same logic applies in this age of celebrity. If celebrities are human, the rest of us just don't make the grade; if we're human, celebrities must be divine.

In fact, they're more than divine, they're brands. Nowadays, brand is everything. Tony Blair, according to a prominent figure in the advertising industry, was the first modern politician to recognise that he was a brand, and from that his success followed inexorably. By knowing clearly what his brand values were, what his brand message was, he was at all times able to see what was 'on-brand' and what was off. Everyone knew where they were with Tony. As he said himself, he was a 'pretty straight kind of guy.' Er, or was that the brand speaking rather than Tony himself. It obviously wasn't the long-established Tony brand that took us into the disastrous Iraq war; that was in fact Tony himself. The mask had slipped and he was way off brand, hence the necessity of his early departure from his office. Once his brand image was contaminated, he simply didn't have a prayer.

Kate Moss was briefly off brand by being the girlfriend of a junkie and committing the serious faux pas of being pictured snorting a fat line of cocaine. Several of her lucrative contracts were cancelled, until some switched-on brand managers realised that her brand had actually been enhanced by the episode. Before, she was just a supermodel, but now she was a supermodel with a mad, bad and dangerous-to-know boyfriend, and she herself was a bit mad, bad and dangerous to know. This had become a superior brand to the old one. And, hey who cares if she takes drugs - we all do, don't we? I mean, it's not as if it's a criminal activity. Or at least that's what you'd think if you listened to some of the politicians on a recent edition of BBC's Question Time. All of them agreed that there was nothing wrong with Moss being associated with a new design range at Topshop, despite her record of drug abuse. Of course, if she'd made anti-Semitic or racist statements, Topshop wouldn't be employing her and the politicians would be condemning her until the cows come home. But illegal drugs? Not a problem. If it doesn't harm the brand then it must be OK.

I think the more serious problem is that Kate Moss isn't a designer and it's outrageous that proper designers who've sweated long and hard to develop their skills aren't getting a chance to take their place in the sun because a supermodel is hogging the limelight. She's not the only supermodel muscling into territory that has no connection with what she does, of course. Many non-actor celebrities appear in movies and TV shows. Naomi Campbell writes novels. Well, when I say write, I really mean that an agent and a publisher have a long lunch and come up with a whiz idea, employ a ghost-writer to churn out a formula novel then attach Naomi Campbell's name to it and sit back to count their dosh as they watch all the cretins rushing out to buy it. Not only did she not write a word of it, she probably didn't even read it.

But who cares? The brand marches on relentlessly. Everywhere, celebrities are writing novels, or newspaper columns, or trying their hand at acting or singing, or treating us to their religious and philosophical beliefs, or appearing on politics shows to share their great wisdom with us. Proper novelists, proper politicians, proper experts with opinions that ought to be heard don't get a look in. Again, who cares? It's not as if we need novelists, politicians and the rest, but where would we be without our brands? Advertising would collapse, capitalism would implode, all those easy hooks we have into the meaning of the world would vanish.

Brands are shorthand; they give us an instant read on something, conjure a well-defined image, present a whole package of linked, positive, desirable associations that take all the hard work out of trying to understand the complex world around us.

What is the Kate Moss brand? I have no interest in her, and don't find her attractive, yet I know exactly what she's supposed to represent. She's beauty, coolness, style, fashionability, glamour, success, and a hint of daringness and naughtiness. She's shorthand for what a girl wants to be when she goes to a party, and what a man is looking for at that same party. In a sense, Moss isn't a person at all; she's merely a collection of signposts to desirable things. It also helps that she rarely speaks to the media. She's a blank canvas onto which her brand values can be projected without any danger of contamination by her being dumb enough to say something off-brand.

Virgin Media, a rebrand of Telewest/NTL, uses the Uma Thurman brand to convince us that Virgin Media is the cool, successful, happening company of our times. I'd much rather that it spent its money on competent staff, effective managers and provided reliable, high quality service. But in the brand economy, style always beats substance. If Uma says Virgin Media is good then it must be. Right?

Why does Jonathan Ross reputedly get an £18 million 3-year contract with the BBC? Why do Ant and Dec reputedly get £20 million each for a 3-year contract with ITV? The reason is that senior TV executives think these presenters represent the brand values of BBC1 and ITV1. Of course, most sensible people would prefer it if these extravagant salaries were spent on high-quality programmes. The brand should be defined by the channel's output, not by celebrities who may not even be employed by that channel in a few years' time. If ITV1 signs Jonathan Ross at the end of his current contract, what does that say about the BBC brand? But BBC can't permit that, so his next deal will be even more lucrative. He benefits beyond his wildest dreams, the BBC's credibility plummets, staff are fired to pay for his increased salary, money is diverted away from programming. This is the absurd world of the brand.

Surely the BBC has presenters who are every bit as good as Jonathan Ross. (Personally, I don't rate Ross at all.) Yet for some nebulous reason, these others get £100,000 a year while Ross walks off with £6 million a year. Those, like Ross, Moss, Ant and Dec, Beckham et al who become brands are the winners who take all.

But they're not alone in the winning stakes. I once saw an article estimating that a third of Russia' economy is controlled by just twenty-three people. Given that in the old Soviet Union, the state, being communist, owned everything, one has to marvel at how a tiny number of people managed to come by so much wealth and power, especially since most of them weren't even communists and ought to have been outside the corridors of power. Somehow, they were the right people in the right place at the right time. Winner takes all.

Top football players these days can command just about any salary they like. Is a footballer earning £150,000 per week truly fifteen times better than one earning £10,000 per week? In all probability, he's probably only marginally better, and only when he's playing well. If he's injured or off form, how does he justify his salary? Yet the marginal difference in skill translates into a vast gulf in the respective salaries. Winners take all.

We hear the constant refrain, 'Ah, but this is their market value.' But what market? Who sets these ludicrously inflated salaries? Would the BBC be diminished in any way if Jonathan Ross weren't employed by them? If the top football clubs in the world refused to pay any player more than £50,000 per week, what would the players do? Play less well? Refuse to play? The reality is that a tiny number of people (agents, club managers and club directors) conspire to rig the market in favour of the dominant brands (Manchester United, Real Madrid, AC Milan, Bayern Munich etc). They use the leverage of their brand to destroy competition. In each major European league, only three or four big clubs have any realistic chance of winning the league title. The same teams now appear over and over again in the latter stages of the Champions League. Salary caps would permit a more even playing field, and are accordingly bitterly opposed by the top clubs. Again, winners take all.

Salaries for directors of FTSE 100 companies are typically set by remuneration committees consisting of directors from other FTSE 100 companies. For obvious reasons, all the remuneration committees are intent on setting the salary levels as high as they can get away with. You scratch my back and I'll scratch yours is the name of the game. As usual, a small number of people are big-time winners and walk away with ridiculously over-inflated salaries. They're not so much advocates of market economics as robber barons and highwaymen. They should go to work carrying swag bags, wearing masks and shouting, 'Stand and deliver!'

Then they promote the lie that you can't buck the market. Of course you can. You just need to have the will. Most 'winners' in society are simply lucky. Their 'unique' talents are illusory. If they take their dubious talents elsewhere, so what? If Ross was run over by a bus tomorrow, would the BBC perish? You replace these people with others and get on with things. The old adage that the graveyards are full of people who thought they were indispensable is the proof that anyone can and indeed will be replaced. Only geniuses are in any sense irreplaceable and geniuses are by definition exceptionally rare. If they are one in a million then there are only sixty in the UK, and most of them will be scientists, mathematicians and philosophers. Supermodels, TV presenters, chief executives and the like are deluding themselves if they think they can stake any claim to genius. In all probability, there's not a single genius on the Rich List (I confess I've never actually bothered to read it).

A sufficiently beautiful woman, someone like Angelina Jolie, might well be desired by the entire heterosexual male population of the world while an unattractive woman may be lucky if anyone is truly attracted to her. The beautiful woman could sleep with any man of her choosing, while the ugly woman is unlikely ever to get a man she really desires. Instead, she has to settle for whatever comes her way. As usual, winner takes all.

There's a dating site called Darwin Dating that says it uses the rules of natural selection. Only beautiful people are allowed to join, their beauty being judged by the existing beautiful members. Give it a try - put your picture up for consideration and see if you can make the grade. You almost certainly won't.

I suppose you could argue that Darwin Dating isn't so different from Mensa: in the latter case you don't get to join if your IQ isn't high enough. (Presumably few would qualify for both Darwin Dating and Mensa; perhaps those rarities should form an even more exclusive club.)

More and more, our world is designed for a lucky few. As long as they can continue to successfully manipulate the rest of us to embrace their winner-takes-all society, they will continue to live as gods. They have various clever strategies to rope us in, such as the National Lottery. 'It could be you!' the posters proclaim, yet the odds are millions to one against, so realistically it's not going to be you. Yet still you buy your weekly ticket. Reality TV is another door to the Promised Land. Jade Goody, a person with no discernible talents, can become a millionaire thanks to 'being herself' on a Reality TV show. 'Chantelle' becomes an instant celebrity simply by impersonating a celebrity. If they can do it, anyone can, reason their fans. Of course, that's not the way it works. How many other Big Brother contestants have vanished without trace? As usual, the tiny number of winners takes all.

Another strategy the winners adopt is to try to make us empathise with them. We are bombarded with all the ins and outs of their private lives. We know so much about them they seem almost like personal friends. Everyone is allowed to cultivate the delusion of being the best friend of someone they've never met, sharing the most intimate moments of their lives. No wonder stalkers cross the line and imagine that they must be having an actual relationship with these stars. The only surprise is that there aren't far more stalkers.

Everything's OK as long as the dream endures, but what happens when reality kicks in, when the losers wake up and smell the coffee? It must have come as quite a shock for Louis XVI to go from having it all to literally having his neck on the chopping block. What was Nicholas II, Tsar of all the Russias, thinking when he found himself in a cellar with his family, confronted by a snarling Bolshevik firing squad? The reaction to excess always comes. Every extreme position generates its antithesis. Extreme crime might be one response to extreme wealth. Every rich person will have to live in a perpetual security nightmare. The other extreme response might be indifference. I don't watch ninety-nine percent of the output of BBC1 and ITV1. I don't read any celebrity magazines. I don't buy tabloid newspapers. I go to evening classes to study philosophy. If everyone were like me, celebrity culture wouldn't and couldn't exist. Then I think - why the hell isn't everyone like me?