Cannibal capitalism is the performance of bodily suffering amplified by mass media.
It is cannibalistic because humans consume humans. Viewers watch human beings exchange of their well-being for our entertainment. Put another way, some people find it profitable to harm themselves in the name of their work, which happens to be televised. And some people make money on the whole exchange.
I don’t think the concept is all that new or inventive, it just happens to be useful to describe a pattern 0f commonly repeated media tropes. Consider an athlete who picks themselves up after an exceptionally hard crash. Television highlight films, complete with expert commentary will fill our lives with the painful exchange. “She really took a bruising, bone crushing hit there . . . what a soldier getting back in the game.”
Re-reading a Grantland series on the 2003 World Series of Poker I noticed a paragraph about the impact the long-hours of playing poker had on the participants. Farha is the runner-up and Harrington came in third place in 2003.
Farha: For five days, I had no sleep. None. I did not sleep. And the last day, the reason I lasted, I drank 20 Red Bulls, about 20 cups of coffee. I could not function.
Harrington: I’ve played a lot of different games, chess, backgammon, whatever, where you had to put in long, grueling hours. If you get down near the end, where victory depends on you being alert, I could dig down and get something out of myself to give that final push. Well, at that final table, I dug down, and there was nothing there. I hit the wall. Here’s how bad it was: When it got down to me, Sammy, and Chris, I wanted to bet 75,000, which was the right bet for that situation. I sat there and I couldn’t calculate how to make the bet. I had a whole bunch of 25,000 chips in front of me, and I could not figure out how to get to 75,000. It was an insurmountable problem.
Cannibal capitalism is often accompanied with mediated commentary — either praise or blame about how the person who experienced the suffering took it. In the case of Farha, the runner-up in 2003, it seemed his many hours of extra poker play became a justification for his ultimate loss.
Later Harrington gives this insight:
Harrington: After I busted in third place, ESPN asked me for a prediction, and I told them, “No one over 40 is ever going to win this tournament again.” It’s become an endurance contest. The next year, I was at the final table again. I was sitting next to a younger player. He nudged me and said: “I know you tell everyone how brutal it is on you to get down to this point in the tournament, you don’t have the energy. Well I’m 28, and it’s brutal on me, too.”