By Bryan Koulouris and Eljeer Hawkins, Socialist Alternative (our sister organisation in the US)
Murder-for-hire, polygamy, cultish behavior, meth-fueled gun accidents, big cats, obsessive rivalries, and country music—Tiger King delivers entertainment on many levels. With our system in deep crisis and decay, truth is stranger than any imaginable fiction. No “spoiler alerts” are necessary here because you’ve already seen it all; the Netflix docuseries has become widely popular and intensely discussed. Online debates are focused on questions like “Did Carole feed her husband to the tigers?” and “who’s the worst?”
However, this docu-series shines a distorted, exaggerated light on bigger questions about capitalist society, both during this pandemic and beyond. Commentary on the left has largely been focused on debates about animal rights, the overstated “redneck voyeurism” of the film-makers, and their repeated misgendering of arguably the only likable character on the show, Saff Saffery, who had his arm ripped off by a tiger. These are important issues, but socialists can go further in our analysis.
Tiger King shows intense exploitation of vulnerable workers who deeply value their jobs, the warping effect of businesses’ unending thirst for profit on various aspects of our lives, the cut-throat competition between business, the inherent violence and sexism in the system, and much more. The businesses in Tiger King are not some weird rural aberration; big corporations take the psychopathic antisocial behavior on display in the docuseries to a much higher level. The billionaires try to hide their bigger scale crimes rather than have their every move recorded like the “stars” of Tiger King.
Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Chris Hedges wrote that “The moral nihilism of celebrity culture is played out on reality television shows, most of which encourage a dark voyeurism into other people’s humiliation, pain, weakness, and betrayal.” There are important truths in this statement, but socialists should not adopt a condescending attitude towards working people’s need for escape in entertainment, especially during the deep pain and uncertainty of this pandemic. We all have a “lower bar” for TV and movies during quarantine, just like when you’re on a long flight.
The success of Tiger King has led the makers of the docuseries to produce a new episode that will add to its popularity. Joe Exotic was recently diagnosed with Covid-19 while in prison serving a 22-year sentence for animal cruetly and a murder plot to kill Carole Baskin. While this is often joked about, it is a prelude to a terrible spread of infection and death toll in this country’s mass incarceration system. While many workers in the marijuana industry are considered essential to help suffering patients, hundreds of thousands of people of color are warehoused in prisons for non-violent drug offenses. This tragedy is only one example of how issues brought up through people’s fascination with Tiger King deserve deeper discussion. After future material of this docu-series is released, Socialist Alternative may write a “Part 2” of this review. Watch this space.
“The only wheels which political economy sets in motion are greed, and the war amongst the greedy – competition.” Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844
Workers are treated terribly in the Tiger King zoos, and the most vulnerable ex-cons, addicts, and homeless people are hired because they have no other options. They are paid sub-poverty wages on average $100-150 a week living in deplorable conditions with rats and lack of running water. The tigers and workers alike are given expired meat to survive on. As with much of big business, the idea is peddled that the workers and their bosses are part of a family, which serves to justify ruthless exploitation. Bhagram “Doc” Antle, owner of the T.I.G.E.R.S. wildlife preserve, is quoted as saying “The only survivors here look at it that they’re getting to do something they like and that it’s not a job. It’s a lifestyle they have dove into”.
The show relies heavily on the contrast between Joe Exotic’s aggressively exploitative tourist trap and the more philanthropic nonprofit status of Carole “cool cats and kittens” Baskin’s accredited wildlife sanctuary, Big Cat Rescue. But the show also reveals that Baskin is a millionaire and that Big Cat Rescue has its own history of workplace exploitation. Big Cat Rescue uses an insidious t-shirt color code system of volunteers (free labor) who will never be paid for their work, even as they get pressured into working long hours and skipping vacations. Similar to many nonprofits and NGOs, Big Cat Rescue plays off of volunteers’ genuine feelings of love and compassion for the animals to enrich Carole’s personal wealth. It is no coincidence that the zoos featured in Tiger King are all in “right to work” states with anti-worker laws, and politicians from both parties are pushing for more anti-union legislation right now under cover of this pandemic.
Many of the low-paid workers at these zoos clearly care deeply for the animals, but they are forced by the ruthless motive for profit, to keep them in cages, mistreat them, and likely to secretly kill them when they’re no longer profitable. If these workplaces were democratically controlled, then this horror show would not be taking place. The same goes for our hospitals, grocery stores, and logistics supply chain facing terrible conditions during this pandemic.
The capitalist workplace and economy is a dictatorship of profit, not a sustainable democracy. This system has scientists working on weapons instead of our health, artists working on advertisements instead of cultural development, and millions of workers in unsafe conditions in polluting industries instead of reshaping a sustainable economy. Working people should be in control of our workplaces with the power to decide what is produced, how it’s distributed, and what services and entertainment would benefit society. To achieve this future, we need a struggle against billionaire hoarders, and their institutions based on heartless greed.
After Joe Exotic’s employee Saff loses his arm to a tiger in a workplace accident, Exotic said “I’m never gonna financially recover from this,” resulting in memes showing what a self-centered sociopath Joe is. This isn’t unique in the corporate world. Study after study has shown that CEOs are 3 or even 5 times more likely to be psychopaths than the average person. Capitalism rewards people who don’t care about the rest of us. While Joe’s abominable murder-for-hire scheme landed him in jail, corporate leaders get away with violence in a less overt, but more deadly way. The example of former Wells Fargo CEO, Dick Kovacevich, now an executive at Cisco and Cargill who wants to send workers back to work during this pandemic is startling, “We’ll gradually bring those people back and see what happens. Some of them will get sick, some may even die, I don’t know … Do you want to take an economic risk or a health risk? You get to choose.”
What is a war for oil, like the ones conducted in Iraq by both parties, if not mass murder for hire to destroy competition? There are eight billionaires who have more wealth than the bottom half of the country’s population. With millions starving across the world, this is a form of violence. There is no doubt that the naked competition between Joe Exotic, Carole Baskin and Bhagavan “Doc” Antle is vile, but it is a microcosm of the everyday workings of global capitalism and the ruling elite’s unbridled thirst for profits at all costs, even if it means death and destruction for humanity and the planet.
Big cats and big business
Joe and others in this terrible roadside zoo industry started with a fascination and even love for these animals. Over years, clearly the business of owning and selling exotic animals becomes merely a pathway to fame and fortune. This lustful pursuit for more led these majestic animals to becoming commodities and sacrificial lambs on the altar of capitalists greed and notoriety. At the end of the docuseries as Joe reflects on his 20 years in the roadside zoo and exotic animal business that led him to prison, he correctly states, “being in a cage breaks the spirit and did I do that to my animals, I probably did.”
People are appropriately shocked and outraged that the amazing animals in Tiger King are turned into nothing more than a means for profit and then discarded when they no longer provide a quick buck for millionaires. There are between 5,000-10,000 tigers in captivity compared to 4,000 in the wild. Everything’s a means to a profit under capitalism.
Joe Exotic, “Doc” Antle, Jeff Lowe and others feed off people’s compassion and love for these animals that should be in the wild and not encased behind cages, walls, and glass. This leads us to a bigger question than the roadside zoos, the crisis of climate change and its effects on the ecosystem, animals, land, the future of humanity and planet as the capitalist system and its policies has led us to deadly consequences like Covid-19 that has rendered us all disposable under this sick system.
The Big Cat Safety Act, introduced in 2017, would ban the private ownership of big cats, public petting or any other public activities with the animals. There are currently 14 states including Oklahoma that allow the ownership of Big Cats with a permit or official license. Thus far the act has not been voted on in the congress, and if passed it would amend the Captive Wildlife Safety Act which makes interstate and foreign trade of wild cats illegal to fully ban the private ownership of big exotic cats.
“Doc” Antle’s sexism and “Redneck” defence
While Tiger King can be praised for the window it provides into the seedy underbelly of capitalism, the show has also come under justified criticism for its voyeuristic “true crime” sensationalism and its pandering to “redneck” stereotypes.
The portrayals of “rednecks” and the broader white working class and poor are stereotypical and false, used for shock value, and banal entertainment. Working-class and poor people in rural areas aren’t all idiots or racists like Joe Exotic (his use of the N-word that was cut from the docu-series). There is a rich history of socialist ideas, labor activism and working class struggle in states like Oklahoma. On April 2, 2018, Oklahoma teachers state-wide went on strike against low wages, cuts to education, and overcrowded class sizes as part of the Red4Ed teacher strikes that challenged the unrelenting assault on public education. The documentary gives the impression that Joe Exotic got 19% of the vote state-wide for Governor of Oklahoma, feeding the impression that people there are stupid. However, Exotic received this last-place vote only in the primary of the tiny right-wing Libertarian Party.
We are socialized daily under a racist capitalist system that uses institutional racism to divide and conquer the broad layers of the working class, enacting policies that oppress workers of color daily, injecting ideas of inferiority and self-hate among people of color, women and LGBTQIA communities through their institutions like education and entertainment. The “rednexploitation” elements of Tiger King play into this, allowing viewers to gawk at, not only Joe Exotic, but the workers he exploits.
This approach also serves to undermine the better aspects of Tiger King. It often ends up coming off like the ruthless exploitation depicted is caused by a group of eccentric individuals doing bad things, but it is the system of capitalism that is the real vessel of hate and daily exploitation.
This problem came to light after the series aired, when Bhagram “Doc” Antle tried to rehabilitate his image in an interview on Oxygen. Antle’s zoo is similarly exploitative to both its workers and animals but, unlike Exotic’s zoo, it’s much more upscale. In the interview, Antle tried to hide behind the fact that the docu-series feeds on “redneck” stereotypes that don’t apply to him. He dismissed Exotic as a “drug person” and Baskin as an “animal extremist” while portraying himself as a simple animal conservationist who got sucked into a conflict between two individuals. But we can’t let this mask Antle’s crimes and how they’re related to capitalism’s exploitation and oppression.
Joe Exotic uses his power, resources and money to manipulate young men, just as Antle does to young women. Antle ran a cult-like harem that used the same methods of social and economic control as Joe Exotic but on a more sophisticated level. Teenage girls would be taken aboard as interns, where they would live on the wildlife preserve with him and work 16-hour days with no breaks. Antle would hand-pick sexualized outfits for his “associates” to wear and instruct them to get implants. According to the former employee interviewed in the series, they would have to sleep with him for advancements in the zoo. Even as Antle tries to downplay the cult-like portrayal of his preserve as misrepresentation on the part of the filmmakers, his own words don’t offer that different a picture: “It has to supersede all of our other hopes, wants, dreams and desires . . . Weddings, funerals, and relationships at Christmas fade away because the 80 tigers will still be standing there waiting for you to deliver their next meal.”
Doc is a disgusting sexist, and it’s shocking. But this isn’t unique to him. The ruling class is deeply sexist, shown by Brett Kavanaugh, Jeffrey Epstein, Harvey Weinstein, R. Kelly, Donald Trump and Joe Biden! Capitalism breeds sexism and the pandemic is leading to spikes in domestic violence.
Socialist solution to exploitation
“Thus at every step we are reminded that we by no means rule over nature like a conqueror over a foreign people, like someone standing outside nature — but that we, with flesh, blood and brain, belong to nature, and exist in its midst, and that all our mastery of it consists in the fact that we have the advantage over all other creatures of being able to learn its laws and apply them correctly.”– Friedrich Engels, The Transition from Ape to Man
Tiger King highlights the ruthlessness of capitalism on humanity and nature. Its massive success is due to a number of factors, but its explosive global viewership is based on the unconscionable results of the global Covid-19 pandemic as millions of the global working class are sheltered from the virus. First because the pandemic and the accompanying lockdown has given people more time to binge on Netflix. And second, because the exploitation and corruption depicted in the show has disturbing parallels with the handling of the pandemic.
The business owners in Tiger King are not the only millionaire and billionaire criminals who hold power over the lives of people, animals, the planet. Capitalism is a sick system and the only force with the potential power to end its reign of terror is the global working class and poor. During this pandemic, the global working class has shown ingenuity, solidarity and love for humanity through mutual aid, appreciation of frontline workers, and united struggle.
The challenges that we face with the pandemic and climate crisis should be met with united working class action to win concrete demands that improve our lives. This movement can lay the basis for stopping the profit motive from dominating our work, our minds, and our relationship with nature. We need a socialist alternative to capitalism so that the horrors of Tiger King end up as a discarded artifact of history along with all poverty, war, exploitation, oppression, sexism, racism, and lack of access to healthcare.