Succession and the hidden injuries of the neoliberal subject

After the third season began yesterday, I’ve been trying to put into words why I find Succession such a gripping tv show. It occurred to me that acrimony is one of the defining features of the show and features heavily in the fan videos which have been produced for YouTube, as can be seen below:

However I don’t think it’s the ‘coldest insults’ which define the show as much as the coldness which defines the Roy family (and their extended family of senior executives) even when they’re collaborating. Everyone has an agenda, with alliances being fleeting at best. The depictions of their conflicts can be gripping but I don’t think the conflict is what’s most significant about their depiction:

This is a group of what Margaret Archer would describe as extreme practitioners of autonomous reflexivity, constantly calculating to improve their standing in competition with others. They take their lead from Logan Roy, a powerful man with a (seemingly) proto-Nietzschean theory of how to wield that power which is all the more unnerving for the fundamental opacity which Brian Cox brings to the role. The show gives us insights into the schemes and dreams of the other characters but Logan remains on some level a mystery, with hints dropped which leave us with a sense of how he became capable of his extremes of behaviour without ever fully explicating it:

At no point does Succession suggest these characters are sociopathic, as unlikable as they are. What makes it so powerful is how vividly we see the emotional damage which this over-saturation of strategic conduct does to them. The points at which they want to reach out, to find comfort through closeness, only to realise they’re imprisoned by the logic of a situation in which they’re in a zero-sum competition for succession with those closest to them. These characters are as close to the ideally rational neoliberal subject as it’s possible for us to get while remaining within the realms of psychological realism. In this sense I think the reason I find Succession so gripping is that it presents the brutal reality of a life lived in accordance with the socio-economic imperatives of recent decades, as the gaudy trappings of extreme wealth provide no solace for those whose emotional lives have been hollowed out by the relentless pursuit of money and power. This is something which I think is captured quite powerfully by this adaptation of the theme song:

When the love’s gone, and the hate’s there
Better watch out, ’cause it’s Cape Fear
When your family ain’t your family
And your legacy is just a name there
In your mother’s eyes is a blank stare
But your father’s pickin’ who remains here
It’s a power struggle, it’s a tug-of-war
That’s amongst the kids, and it ain’t fair
Yeugh, who gon’ stop the pain?
Who gon’ block the dream?
Who gon’ stop the shame?
We are not the same
Walkin’ a tightrope, ain’t a life boat (Nope)
It’s a free fall when I leave y’all (Whoa)
(If you love me, please don’t judge me
Got my hands tied, the power’s above me)
My bloodline was not chosen (Ooh)
This bank account is not frozen
This thing of ours is not broken
What’s understood is not spoken
If you love me, please don’t judge me
Don’t judge me

2 responses to “Succession and the hidden injuries of the neoliberal subject”

  1. What a helpful reflection that says something important about the workings of a neoliberal common sense that has a more general relevance – I’m less sure of whether it helps to think this through in terms of a category of reflexivity – for at some level it seems to reflect a lack of self knowledge.

    Just a chance to appreciate the ongoing helpfulness and insights you offer in your blog and my appreciation for them – good luck on your move to Manchester – and hopefully our paths will cross one day in safer times,

  2. Thanks Vic that’s a really nice comment to receive 😊 I think it’s a particular kind of reflexivity, one orientated towards extracting from the world and agree it reflects a lack of self-knowledge and lack of capacity to act on what knowledge they do have.

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