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We Need a Shark Tank Without the Sharks 

The entrepreneurial reality show Shark Tank is saturated with the absurdity of twenty-first-century capitalism. But watching it, you can’t help but think about how its basic premise — helping ordinary people with extraordinary ideas implement them on a wide scale — could be carried out under socialism.

The hosts of ABC's Shark Tank. (Photo: ABC)

Watching reality television is usually either a guilty pleasure or a hate-watch. For socialists, ABC’s Shark Tank — now returning for its twelfth season — is a little bit of both.

Shark Tank borrows its format from Japan’s Tigers of Money, and the United States is one of more than forty countries to imitate the premise. Other than switching up the titular apex predator, the format is mostly unchanged: contestants pitch their ideas for often flagrantly unnecessary products and services to five wealthy capitalists (the “sharks”). Following the presentations, the sharks — including Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, QVC maven Lori Greiner, New York real estate wheeler-dealer/snack enthusiast Barbara Corcoran, FUBU founder and amateur beekeeper Daymond John, anti-communist man-child Robert Herjavec, and Canadian oenophile Kevin O’Leary, who nicknamed himself “Mr Wonderful” — negotiate with contestants and one another over how much of their hoarded gold to invest, bickering about landed costs and profit margins, with frantically calculated back-of-the-envelope numbers and music cues that heighten the drama by shamelessly ripping off the Jaws theme.

When Shark Tank premiered in August 2009, the world was reeling from a global economic crisis. In response to the unprecedented loss of jobs, property, and personal savings, Shark Tank touted entrepreneurship as the remedy for working people’s economic ills: recovery means taking personal responsibility, not a government bailout. Since then, the products have only gotten more absurd, the valuations have only gotten more inflated, and the sharks have only gotten more greedy.

Sitting through pitch after pitch for everything from water balloon assembly kits to a pet-friendly cake mix, the sharks continually praise contestants for working three jobs, enlisting their families and friends as free labor, and deprioritizing their own physical and mental health. The overall effect is to normalize desperation as the logical consequence of repeated boom-and-bust cycles, and austerity as a virtuous sacrifice at the altar of capitalism. All this so they can sell America badly needed products like “Dude Wipes” and light-up shoes.

To watch Shark Tank’s new season as the country spirals into yet another financial crisis is to see how poorly these entrepreneurial solutions have aged: COVID-19 and its myriad repercussions have exposed the tenuousness of small businesses, the unsustainability of side hustles, and the peril of linking health care to employment. And, in a perfect example of failing upward, the sharks aren’t even that good at picking winners. They famously passed on Ring, whose CEO then sold the product for $1 billion to Amazon and came back to the show not as a contestant but as a “guest shark.”

Shark Tank might seem an unlikely viewing choice for socialists, like vegans watching a show about barbecue. But what makes it so appalling is exactly what makes it so appealing. Shark Tank illustrates the pernicious and damaging promise of entrepreneurship while inspiring questions about why, in a world of abundance, people are forced to put everything on the line just to survive. There’s no better show on television for emphasizing capitalism’s tendency to sell you products that create a problem, then sell you products that solve the problem it created in the first place.

Sink or Swim

As in the business world, white men are featured prominently and often given more leeway to speak when conversing with the sharks. The show frequently features pitches from women whose male partners are the primary breadwinners; they pursue cottage industries to supplement their household income while also raising children (their reproductive labor, unsurprisingly, isn’t enough of a contribution). The demands of career-family balance are emphasized by practically every female shark, as if trying to “have it all” is a badge of honor. Products intended for the domestic sphere, whether for feeding children or doing laundry, are more closely scrutinized.

New York real estate wheeler-dealer and snack enthusiast Barbara Corcoran.

Products pitched by people of color, especially items like cosmetics with more inclusive color palettes or condiments based on multigenerational family recipes, are often dismissed as incompatible with the sharks’ investment portfolio. On many episodes featuring Daymond John, the only African American shark, his (all white) cohosts suggest that he is the best match for a deal with an entrepreneur of color despite the product or service in question having nothing to do with John’s business interests. The sharks make no effort to obscure their love for “model minorities,” falling all over themselves to praise immigrants who left their home countries to pursue profit, profit, and more profit.

One way for the sharks to defuse the perception that they’re heartless profiteers is the frequent appearance on the show of “green” entrepreneurs or other socially conscious business owners. Their magnanimity never survives a collision with the bottom line. Even when Mr Wonderful isn’t the voice of money über alles, one of the other panelists will always jump in to suggest overseas sourcing, regulation-dodging, or putting money over mission if doing good looks like it will cut into their share. The green mission often comes with a side order of labor exploitation, as with R. Riveter bags, which “help” military families by making wives do piecework at home.

But Shark Tank is a show primarily concerned with entrepreneurship. The very nature of the “American Dream” has always been one that ignores some very basic realities of inequality: it praises the ability of any single person to achieve fame and fortune with a good enough idea or a clever enough product, but never addresses the fact that it is impossible for every person to do this. If everyone is an owner, who is left to be a worker? Even ignoring the obvious fact that not everyone has the ability, capacity, or interest to run their own business, where does the labor force come from if everyone has their own hustle? A 2007 study from the Social Science Research Network suggests that countries that invest heavily in start-ups end up with “marginal businesses that create few jobs and have high failure rates.”

The limitations of entrepreneurship to alleviate poverty became clear in the 2000s, when elites in love with the idea of “microlending” found their approach crashing headlong into displacement and exit; questions of labor are usually hand-waved away with an exhortation by the sharks to move production overseas. We don’t even need to imagine what a world where everyone’s an entrepreneur looks like: It looks like Shark Tank — only nobody ever gets a deal, and the furniture is worse.

Draining the Tank

That Shark Tank is built not on the actual realities of entrepreneurial capitalism but a mythological conception of it is obvious after a few viewings. All you have to do is listen to the opening narration, which proudly champions the panel as “self-made business experts,” or listen to the contestants talk about how they started their own businesses from nothing.

But these claims elide massive class differences and the advantages they convey. Lori Greiner grew up in comfort on Chicago’s North Side, attended an elite university, and managed to secure a six-figure loan for her first company before she turned thirty; late-season replacement shark Chris Sacca (distinguished by his loud Western shirts and tendency to mention that he was an early investor in Uber every seventeen seconds) came from a well-off family, spent every other semester abroad, and used his student loans to fund his first company. Kevin O’Leary’s parents were both financially successful, and his mother had a substantial investment portfolio; his shaky financial history is more that of a Trump-style braggart than an actual “business expert.”

For every supplicant who comes from modest circumstances, there are a dozen who walked away from a big corporate job, got started off of family money or connections, or leveraged cash from property, investments, or favorable loans. It’s easy to be self-made when someone else pays for all the materials.

Canadian oenophile Kevin O’Leary, who nicknamed himself “Mr Wonderful.”

So, why does all this matter? Reality shows always juice the “reality” and downplay the “show,” after all, and mythmaking has always been a part of American capitalism. But in the case of Shark Tank, it matters because people like the sharks shape the policies under which the rest of us have to live. (The show’s “lessons” are even taught in schools and were promoted by the Obama administration.)

Barbara Corcoran’s real estate maneuverings in the 1970s and 1980s paved the way for the gentrification and absentee ownership that makes New York and other cities unaffordable today; Chris Sacca helped accelerate the precarities of the gig economy and the anti-regulatory warfare of Uber; Kevin O’Leary is a major player in conservative Canadian politics and tried to blackmail the social-democratic premier of Alberta into stepping down; and Mark Cuban’s name is frequently floated as a Democratic candidate for president by the kind of people who think the solution to Donald Trump is electing someone just like him who votes Democrat. Shark Tank’s ratings have always been strong, and with so many people stuck at home thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, they’re higher than ever. Each pair of eyes tuned in to the show lends its plutocratic stars more credibility and respectability.

The Profit Motive

If there’s one truth that Shark Tank consistently delivers, however, it is that ordinary people are the source of many of our best ideas — and if there’s one lie that Shark Tank constantly reinforces, it is that they need the assistance of benevolent billionaires to realize those ideas.

Understood as the creation of value, there’s nothing wrong with entrepreneurship; the problem with Shark Tank is that it treats the issue like capitalists treat every good idea: as something to be ripped off, co-opted, and exploited.

Every workplace in America has workers who have amazing ideas about how to improve their products, their working conditions, and their ability to positively influence their communities. If they owned the means of production, they could make those ideas a reality, without having to come, hat in hand, to a panel of rich people. Freed from the profit motive, they could help all of us achieve liberation, instead of helping the same five clueless kajillionaires help themselves.

But as bad as it is, Shark Tank does have value for leftists: we can consider how its basic premise — helping ordinary people with extraordinary ideas implement them on a wide scale — would be beneficial under socialism.

Certainly, much of what’s pitched on the show would no longer exist in an economy centered on people’s needs; with mental health care free and universally accessible, meditation apps and branded energy drinks would no longer be the first (and often last) line of defense. But every once in a while, a product is pitched that has genuine value: devices that can save lives during a fire, replace cadavers in medical research, or increase efficiency in mechanical processes. These often don’t get deals or they fall apart in negotiations, because while they have enormous practical value, they don’t have a clear path to making tons of money, which is all the investors care about. With the removal of the profit motive, the pressure to constantly produce regardless of demand could be replaced by the ability of workers who own the means of production to democratically set priorities based on their own needs.

It’s no surprise that the sharks like to talk up anything pitched as “environmentally friendly,” and, like their greenwashing peers in corporate America, these interests are strictly limited to what makes money, not what keeps the planet from melting. Concerns about pollution or labor rights never come up when they evangelize for overseas manufacturing. Putting eco-socialist principles into practice by empowering workers to make their processes more clean and less wasteful would help shift the focus of environmental responsibility from consumers to manufacturers, and employee-owners could genuinely green their industries instead of helping their bosses evade regulation and avoid accountability.

Shark Tank has a propagandistic obsession with aligning itself with “the American Dream,” premised on a hyper-capitalist, austerity-burdened vision of America where the smartest people, with the right connections, can build vast wealth from one good idea. But the brilliant scientist (and socialist) Stephen Jay Gould pointed out that, for all the praise we give to the Einsteins of the world, there is a “near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops.” For leftists, watching Shark Tank is both a close reading of the system we want to abolish and an exercise in reimagining what that dream could become in a world that places human needs over profits.