If death used to be a 'great career move' for rockstars - if only that were still the case - it is hard to escape the sense that being axed is now a 'great career move' for the mega-celebrities, who occupy the intermediary space between the secretive private jets of the billionaires and the spectacles of broadcast media and major sports. In the UK, Jonathan Ross and Kevin Pietersen are two examples of this. Jeremy Clarkson is clearly another.
These individuals represent a particular class of celebrity: hugely rich, 'talented' in the sense of willing to 'be themselves' in front of very large numbers of people (the opposite of how a great actor is talented), famous for going slightly too far, and constantly, maybe deliberately flirting with the possibility of being booted out. Their very identity as public icons resides in the fact that they pose a challenge to the primacy of institutions over individuals, goading institutions to assert themselves, in the sneaking suspicion that they lack the authority any longer. Behind them lurk a risible bunch of courtiers - Louise Mensch, Piers Morgan, Keith Allen-types - who are principally known as disciples of 'talent', and go around demanding that their chosen uberman be granted even more adoration. Alastair Campbell's new book sounds like an addition to this "always side with the big guy" vacuous philosophy.
In my book (now in paperback!), I suggest that our present political condition is one of 'institutionalised anti-institutionalism', manifest (for example) in the normality of elite fraud. Along with errant investment bankers, Clarkson et al are the ideological symbols of this, asking us to imagine a society in which the authority of the self were greater than that of any institution. Institutions - the BBC, the FSA, the ECB - have little choice to act in response, if only to prove that they still exist at all. However, they rarely come out of such confrontations with any greater authority, indeed the opposite is usually the case, given how much dirt is spilled in the process. Never mud-wrestle a pig, etc.
But I also wonder whether things like the Clarkson saga tap into our society's lurking fetish of exit. According to Hirschman's famous tripartite analysis, there are three types of mutually-understood power that exist within socio-economic relations. 'Exit', where a party asserts power, through the right to cancel a social relation, as manifest in the norms of the market (it is understood and accepted that I can constantly seek a better deal elsewhere). 'Voice', where a party asserts power through dialogue and participation, as manifest in industrial relations or corporate governance. And 'loyalty', which determines the extent to which individuals choose 'exit' or 'voice' (e.g. a 'loyal' customer could opt to 'voice' a complaint, rather than 'exit' in search of a better deal).
As markets become more powerful, so the ethos of 'exit' becomes more dominant. Figures who are perceived to have the latent capacity to leave - the super-rich, star footballers, productive and mobile industries, 'talent' - end up being granted greater 'voice', for fear that they may otherwise push off. They certainly end up being granted greater remuneration. So powerful has this ethic become (especially with regard to the ghostly notion of 'capital flight'), that few of these figures ever have to pull the trigger, and even if they pretend to (think of Wayne Rooney's 'move' to Manchester City, which resulted in his income going up by a few more million a year) it's usually possible to pull back from the brink. One of the great fears of the mega-celebrity is, presumably, that they will leave, and end up worse off. But for those who are given the boot, this is rarely the case.
This tedious game theoretical choreography is now a spectacle in its own right. Think of Theo Walcott's pathetic triannual 'negotiations' over his Arsenal contract. Think of how the risible disciples try to keep the drama alive, as in Piers Morgan's #bringbackKP campaign. For some reason, the news media plays along with it, powerless to understand or challenge the fact that this is simply a case of the Big Brother House, expanded to a multi-platform scale, beyond the limits of any individual show. The phrase "you're fired", uttered from the mouth of Alan Sugar, successfully converted enforced exit into something intriguing, spectacular, fun. Who's next? Who deserves to go? If even Clarkson can be axed, then presumably it could be any of us! How exciting...
Central to the drama of these individuals being axed, as opposed to leaving, is that it pushes authorities to the limits of their own market nihilism. The behaviour of Clarkson or, for that matter, investment banks, poses the question to institutions: what else is there, other than money? How else to regulate, if not in pursuit of filthy lucre? The axed celebrity typically makes more money elsewhere, and becomes more famous in the process. Hence, the whole event is really a cruder, televised playing out of Michael Sandel's philosophical debates regarding the moral limits to markets. Can the BBC really afford to lose Clarkson? What's the trade-off between punching someone and tens of millions of pounds? Maybe the Treasury Green Book can help.
For the most part, exit resides as a type of metaphysics, like the constant possibility of death. The existential facticity of our own deaths, which we either face up to or not, becomes the economic possibility of eventually cutting one's ties, or having them cut. And where religious rituals involve the playing out of death, via forms of sacrifice, so the spectacle of Clarkson, KP et al becomes a communal way of facing up to the inevitability of being dumped or doing the dumping. There is a catharsis going on. How else to explain the fascination with a borish middle-aged man being sacked for gross misconduct? Wasn't he the guy who used to drone on about how many miles-to-the-gallon you can get out of a Ford Focus?
What all of this ignores, including Hirschman's analysis, are the forms of exit which are silent, unseen and unjustified. I'm a privileged academic, but have a visceral memory of being marched off a site I once worked on as an agency worker, during an undergraduate holiday, by security staff who decided I'd stolen something (the managers all had their hands in the till, so picked off agency workers when it became too obvious). It was an exit of sorts, but it was a violent one: unjustified, unacceptable, based on lies, with no opportunity to contest the charge. One thing I remember about the experience was the silence as the security guard and I walked from the manager's office to the gate - it wasn't 'exit' in Hirschman's normative sense, but expulsion. I've no doubt that this sense of unpredictable threat is a common feature of working life for millions.
In our new condition of contingent neoliberalism, in which norms of fair competition can no longer be upheld, this is the sort of violent settlement that is being increasingly relied on. Punishment is becoming a normalised form of management and governance, and the question of 'justified' or 'unjustified' is cast aside. While the audience continues to obsess over whether the latest celebrity Christ figure should or shouldn't be axed, with the risible disciples chirping away in the background, for those elsewhere, 'exit' is turning into 'expulsion'.