Flipping the Flippers on May Day

The workers of The Flipping El Moussas.

I consider it a character flaw that my evening media viewing sessions often devolve into Lacanian jouissance, a state of mind that Mark Fisher explained as the “inextricability of pleasure and pain” that “transforms an ordinary object causing displeasure into a Thing which is both terrible and alluring.” (1)

The focus of that jouissance one recent evening was the HGTV show The Flipping El Moussas wherein real estate investor Tarek El Moussa and his new bride Heather Rae El Moussa attempt to rehab and sell a lackluster mid-century house in our expensive, hipster LA enclave.

The El Moussas inhabit a world that I imagine prioritizes skin care routines, personal trainers, luxury vehicles and relentless self empowerment propaganda. Their plastic skinned appearance means they could probably slip into that weird new Barbie movie without putting on any makeup.

This first episode of their new series focused on the affluent life of the hosts as they moved between suburban pool parties and their bland office. But what fascinated me most was what the show obscured: the immigrant workers who do the construction of their projects. You never see the worker’s faces, only their backs, arms and sometimes just the tools they hold. You never hear them speak or anything about their lives, families or backstory.

The obsession with flipping, the bidding frenzy and final price of the house at the end of the show obscures the real source of value which is the workers. The El Moussas inadvertently provide a textbook example of Marx’s labor theory of value. Without the workers their capital accumulation game wouldn’t work (2). And injustice is baked into the system since the workers don’t get their fare share of the “surplus value” generated by their labor nor can they afford the product of their skills. How strange is it that we have a housing system more interested in generating profits than, say, actually housing people. And it’s even weirder that we’ve turned this unjust system into an entertainment spectacle.

Nearly all of the decisions the Moussas make in this first episode are predicated on maximizing surplus value rather than housing people. The house they tackle didn’t have any structural problems and a minimum amount of touch up work could have made it more than livable. Instead they embark on a costly and unnecessary rehab, moving walls, adding bathrooms, painting everything white (of course) all to cater to the latest HGTV generated trends.

Construction work is hard and dangerous. A life of it can degrade the body and run you into the ground. On this May Day let those of us lucky to have a roof over our heads remember the workers who built those roofs and work towards a future where all will share in the benefit of our labor.

Leave a comment


  1. Am I missing something – weren’t the workers compensated for their labor? Why must we “work towards a future where all will share in the benefit of our labor” if we are being paid for it?

    Merits of home flippers and flipping TV shows aside, the El Moussas put their capital at risk when they flip a house. They could lose money, face bankruptcy, lose their livelihood if they fail to meet the market demand for housing. They only get paid at the end of the flip after paying salaries, vendors, other expenses.

    Their laborers take no risk. They make a living regardless of the success of the project. If the flip is too difficult, or they find a better paying job, or they have an emergency or other need then they can abandon the job. In return for these advantages and risk free earnings their upside earnings are capped.

    I generally view those who unironically quote Marx and Marxism as lacking in both a theoretical and practical understanding of history, economics, and human psychology. This blog post is no different.

    Addendum: those construction jobs can be a good entry to higher earnings. My cousin started as construction labor and now owns a home building business. He has no qualms earning a profit from his risk. No one should.

    • Yes. This. I am seeing too many starry-eyed references to Marx and Communism bandied about. To quote the late Ronald Reagan, “How do you tell a Communist? Well, it’s someone who reads Marx and Lenin. And how do you tell an anti-Communist? It’s someone who understands Marx and Lenin.”

    • In my experience the critics of Marx have neither read nor understood him. He’s not an easy read, for sure, but worthwhile once you get the hang of it. Terry Eagleton’s book Why Marx Was Right is a good starting point for dispelling so many of the preconceptions people have about his philosophy, principally the mistaken idea that Marx=Soviet Union. David Harvey’s guides to Capital and The Grundrisse are the next step after that Eagleton book.

    • Yes, the El Moussas took on risk and some amount of administrative labor but I would argue that their compensation was likely well above the effort they put into it as well as relying on the privilege of having pre-existing capital with which to pull off an attempt at expanding their capital base (I think they actually lost money on this particular project but, obviously, they have succeeded in other efforts not to mention the money they get for making a TV show).

      The laborers do, in fact, take on quite a bit of physical risk as well as the fact that they are “free” to sell their labor but completely dependent on a system that regularly produces destructive boom and bust cycles. Construction workers can and do go on to create their own companies but many more are not so lucky. To pose a counter example, the hardest working construction worker I know, and employed at my own house, had a string of bad luck recently and ended up sleeping on the street. He’s far from alone.

      I think one of the obstacles to bringing up Marx, and the main reason I’ve avoided it for so long, is the cold war propaganda that those of us of a certain age grew up on in America. Principally, that the only way his ideas could be applied is the way it was done in the Soviet Union. I would contend that if you explain Marx’s ideas to most people without mentioning his name you’d find a lot of agreement. I’ll also admit that Marx is a subtle, complicated thinker with an ambitious project and not easily summarized. But I would encourage his critics to actually make an attempt to grapple with his ideas.

  2. Great post! Another example of how privilege is maintained in the US. I just read “Poverty, of America” by Matthew Desmond, which further explores how the rich profit off of the work of the poor.

  3. Indeed. I have just started watching the free videos of Robert Reich’s final class at CAL on wealth and poverty. Fascinating. I think you might enjoy it as well.

  4. Right on, Mr. Homegrown. Your observations are on the money. Construction work is an awesome skill and the workers themselves ought to be acknowleged.

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