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.