The anti-capitalism capitalism of Gregg Wallace
Gregg Wallace; The Talking Egg; The Eggman; Gr-Egg Wallace; Gregg Wallace looks like an egg, and Gregg Wallace is everywhere, taking over; this cannot be a coincidence. Gregg Wallace has spawned, spreading his seed all over TV; every time you turn it on you are caught in a blinding haze of Gregg’s overwhelming enthusiasm, weirdly shaped mouth and slightly, unsettling, sinister laugh.
Gregg Wallace first came to widespread attention on Masterchef, as the round, shiny greengrocer (?) companion to John Torode’s aloof Australian bogan character. After being, thankfully, confined there for a while, he has proliferated, spreading his egg-like, boyish charm across channels and formats, spreading further and faster, invading your every waking moment. His vehicles have been myriad; but all loosely centre around food, applying his wonder eyed amazement to its production, Inside the Factory, distribution, Secrets of the Supermarket all the way through to consumption; Gregg’s Fun Weekends, Big Weekend with Gregg Wallace, and apparently also, Time Commanders (?!?!?).
His programmes may initially appear as if they are mere televisual fluff, chewing gum for the addled modern mind, but with his choice of vehicles he is signaling to us that he is an intellectually and critically engaged man, participating in an in depth, episodic analysis of the phenomena of capitalism through food, analysing its inner workings, making manifest the logic that lies behind every facet of our existence.
His most critically interesting and politically engaged project is the self-help/gameshow conception, Eat Well for Less, which he presents with his hirsute pretender, also nominally a greengrocer, Chris Bavin. The premise of the programme is simple: Chris and Gregg dissect a family’s shopping and eating habits: first stalking them around a supermarket, critiquing their choices from afar, before getting up close and personal, going through their weekly shopping list, buying everything on it and putting it on their kitchen table, berating them for every instance where it deviates from the Platonic ideal of the Weekly Shop™. They are especially harsh on every instance of the “top up shop”, their own invention, which seems to equate to the heinous crime of “going to the shop when you need something”.
They then slowly but surely insert themselves further and further into the lives of their contestants/subjects/victims, like a changeling or a poltergeist, replacing unacceptable items in their food cupboard, with more acceptable alternatives, seemingly with the sole aim of completely fucking with their minds for our entertainment. As the show progresses they become increasingly frazzled, incapable of identifying even the most basic of their regular groceries (“This is definitely my regular coffee” It’s not, you fucking idiot, you fool!), perhaps off screen they become unable to discern liquid from solid, or remember the names of their own children; which is perhaps exactly what Chris and Gregg are aiming for; complete mental disintegration, so that they can be remade as the perfect homo economicus, with not a penny or second wasted in their increasingly pointless lives.
They have two main tricks; replacing more expensive brand name items (“big brands” is basically a synonym for the devil for Chris and Gregg) with their own-brand equivalents, and showing these families some basic recipes that they can cook to replace their ready meals or takeaways. Both “hacks” are somewhat self-evident, if your only aim is to reduce cost, the “for less” part, but the first clause of the programme’s title often seems to be forgotten. It fails, or deliberately neglects, that the food people buy, whether that be “big brands”, ready meals, takeaways, or any slightly more expensive iteration of a product is never simply a univariate function of cost, but a complex calculation involving pleasure, time and availability. In reducing these choices to one simply of cost it obfuscates this, and presents food as nothing more than fuel.
As maddening as this is, it is not the most revealing aspect of the programme. They focus on one family at a time, so issues are necessarily framed through the individual, but the substance and tone of the commentary reinforces this; it lacks a systematic critique of the political or social environment these families exist in. For example, the difficulties of ill or disabled children are presented as innate and natural rather than the result of societal failures. This obfuscation, and its overt individualisation, reveal interesting contradictions in the logic of the capitalist system in the current conjuncture, and how this programme fits into an ecosystem of ideology that can be used to relieve or resolve them.
Their proposed asceticism can also be seen as a possible repudiation of capitalism, and its endless push for ever more consumption. But it may be more useful to view the core messages of the show through the lens of Keynes’ paradox of thrift; the capitalist system is dependent on aggregate demand, but there is a moral strain, particularly in sections of conservative thought which advocates the tightening of belts and reduction of demand as the appropriate response to economic slowdown or wastage. Keynes says that treating the macroeconomy like this, and encouraging people to spend less actually induces stagnation and less wealth to go round. However, this concept has long been accepted and incorporated, if not always enacted, into the mainstream of macroeconomic thinking, the actions of governments have often enforced the conservative vision of ‘belt tightening’, and this program is a further example of the enforcement of this seemingly obvious and self-evident, but irrational, response to hardship. It serves mainly to shift the blame of societal ills onto specific families in Newcastle or Birmingham; we now know that the country’s various ills can be attributed to Susan buying Heinz ketchup, and getting a takeaway on Friday — it seems so obvious once they point it out.
This attitude is emblematic of the contradictory pressures faced by individuals in neoliberal late capitalism; the system is set up to make us spend more, buy more — things we do not need; the system cannot survive without it. But real incomes have been continuously declining; borrowing the only way to bridge this gap. The vision of the perfect, ascetic, self-sufficient family is basically impossible in this current moment, but also if replicated across everyone would lead to the immediate collapse of capitalism as we know it.
This concept, and the ideological message behind it, has proved influential, and has spawned many imitators, which intensify the deliberately contradictory messaging. Perhaps they might say that only 10 people watched Eat Well for Less, but everyone that did approached a production company and pitched a similar concept? Channel 4 have launched two competitors; Cook Clever and Waste Less with Prue and Rupy and the even more egregious and barely comprehensible How to Save a Grand in 24 Hours.
These shows have tried to replicate the success of Eat Well for Less by copying its basic premise, getting families to eat well, for less, but seem to miss out on the key features that make it compelling viewing. They are more mean spirited and have taken the moralising, individualising strain of Eat Well for Less and turbocharged it. The former doubles down on the moralising about waste by taking families to recycling plants, and making them peer in bins, inviting them to gaze upon the full extent of what they, Gary and Karen, have personally unleashed upon us all. The latter confusingly manages to tack on segments about cleaning and home improvement onto its program whose main aim seems to be to descend into extremely pious moralising about food, featuring Gary Usher, probably one of the most unpleasant chefs to ever appear on TV, who appears custom built for the sole purpose of stripping any enjoyment one could get from food or cooking.
The solution to all of this waste, overspending and unhealthy food is the same in all of these programmes; a turn into ascetism and self-sufficiency, buying only the basics, making do and mending and cutting out anything that can be seen as superfluous. There is a strong moral dimension to this; if you feel like you don’t have enough time or money, then the only option is to look inside yourself and cut out anything that could be seen as immoral; this is only way to reduce your own suffering, but also the suffering of society. There is one particularly egregious example of this in an episode of How to Save a Grand in 24 Hours where a family have lost half of their income due to the COVID-19 pandemic, causing their outgoings to exceed the money coming in. The solutions to this is, of course, to be found internally; examining their own lifestyle as if somehow the turpitude of it brought on a global pandemic and the loss of their livelihood.
There is a particular emphasis in these programmes on waste: it continually bombards us with facts and figures about how much produce is thrown away in the UK on a daily basis; “a billion loaves of bread, a hundred million bananas — just thrown away!” — the implication behind it being that it is feckless, wasteful consumers, for which the show’s participants act as a synecdoche, addled by bounty, do not appreciate what they have and fritter away the hard won fruits of the earth. The unspoken truth behind this emphasis is that one of the core logics of capitalism is waste and the ever-expanding definition of need, continually encouraging consumers to purchase more and more. This is even before one considers that the majority of food waste comes not from consumption, but in production and distribution; supermarkets and factories.
Gregg Wallace is the same man who expresses inhuman, but childish wonder, at the big machines that pump out billion loaves of bread a minute on Inside the Factory, but sees no link when these loaves are being flogged in 241 deals at the ends of supermarket isles, and when people, who are bombarded with messages every day of their waking lives about buying things, buy things. No amount of breadcrumbing, crouton making or freezing can, or could ever, counteract this waste; it is an integral function of the capitalist machine. The only way that the overt inefficiencies of the capitalist system can be compensated for is through the ideological messaging found in programmes like this, which shift the blame from those who are responsible onto those individuals who benefit the least, and suffer the most, inculcating guilt into the consumption that capitalism demands from us to cover for the logic of destruction that lies at its heart.
So, while Gregg and his acolyte’s attitude to these families may seem on the surface to be ‘anti-capitalist’, in their inducements to self-sufficiency, and encouraging families to buy low-value added products and save more, it is actually part of the core functioning of capitalism to shift the blame for its contradictions onto the underclasses that it creates.
Because, although these programmes and the principles and messages they espouse are clearly contradictory, this contradiction may actually be their purpose. It reflects the contradictions that exist at the heart of modern capitalism in the neoliberal age, not fatal flaws in its inner workings, but features that help it to function. Buy more, but be frugal has been the motto drilled into workers and consumers over the past 30 years, helping to drive the explosion in consumer credit and indebtedness, the ultimate “cope” that helps to sustain modern consumer economies, without which they would soon collapse in on themselves, as stagnating wages cannot keep pace with the ever need of the capitalist economy for ever increasing demand for its endless overproduction. These programmes, like the capitalist system want you to buy more, but they want to make you feel bad about it; the waste they create is one of its functions, but they want the blame to lie at the feet of those with the least control over it.