Gilligan's Island text over ocean background

Socialist Song of the Month – The Ballad of Gilligan’s Isle

“The Ballad of Gilligan’s Isle” – Sherwood Schwartz and George Wyle

This stretches the concept of socialist song of the month way beyond the breaking point, but what the hell, it’s the beginning of summer, so let’s relax a little. For those of you don’t know, Gilligan’s Island was a sitcom that originally aired from 1964 to 1967. The premise of the show is pretty well described by the lyrics of the theme song. Five people board a small tour boat, run by the boat’s owner, called the Skipper, and his one man crew, Gilligan, and they take what was to be a three hour cruise around the Hawaiian islands. A storm blows the boat onto an uncharted tropical island, and its communication devices are lost in the process. The show essentially revolves around the coming together of the seven people to ensure their mutual survival and their attempts to find a way off the island. The five passengers consist of Ginger, a film actor, Mary Ann, a young woman from Kansan farming stock, a professor of the physical sciences, always called the Professor, and a businessman/investor and his wife, Thurston and Lovey Howell. Thurston Howell will be our focus here, or more precisely, his relationship to the rest of the castaways will be our focus, and the collapse of the social relationship they all lived under prior to the ship wreck.

When you think about a prison, you think about two classes of people: guards and prisoners. They only exist in relationship to each other. You can’t have prisoners without guards, and guards only exist to control prisoners. In other words, a prison is a social relationship. The relationship is forced on the prisoners by the guards because the guards control the means of imprisonment, namely, the building we call a prison, plus the control protocols, weapons, etc. In a similar way, capitalism is a social relationship between owners and workers. It’s a relationship forced on workers by owners, through the owners’ control of the means of production, i.e, the production facilities, the machinery within them, etc. The only way for workers to survive is to sell their labor power on a daily basis, and use their pay to create the conditions that allow them to reproduce that labor power the next day and the next day and the next, and to create and train the next generation of workers to prepare them to do the same (this, in simplified terms, is called social reproduction). The owners, in turn, sell the product of labor for more than they pay out. That is, they make a profit (this is also a simplification, but it will suit our purposes).

Now, let’s consider the condition the castaways find themselves in. Their first order of business is survival. Most of the castaways have skills that can help in this effort. The Skipper was a WW2 naval veteran, and has extensive knowledge of all things related to the sea, including fishing, shipping routes, weather patterns, etc. The Professor has knowledge that can help the group develop technology from the resources available on the island. Mary Ann has agricultural skills that can be put to use to create reliable food production. While Gilligan has no specific skills, he does make himself available for general labor. Ginger, at first blush, doesn’t have much of value for the group, but over the course of the series, she has the opportunity to use her acting skills a couple times, but more importantly, she has sexual charisma, an asset which was important for her line of work (this is a can of worms I won’t be dumping over here), but which she also used to help the group in a number of crises (occasionally, some outside individual would show up on the island, threaten the survival of the group, and Ginger would seduce (within the confines of family programming standards of the era) the individual to distract or manipulate them). This leaves only the Howells. In the rest of the world, Thurston Howell is one of the owners of the means of production. As such, he forced the capitalist social relationship upon others. On the island, like everyone else, he owns nothing. He cannot force the others to work for him due to his control of private property. The capitalist social relationship has collapsed. At this point, the Howells are exposed for what they are, parasites. They have no skills that are of any use in the new social relationship the group finds itself in. Years and generations of wealth have instilled an attitude of entitlement which makes them feel they should be exempted from participating in that relationship.

There is no way for the Howells to establish private property and re-create the capitalist social relationship. They would have to resort to some version of what Marx referred to as original accumulation (we covered this two months ago in the socialist song of the month, Charlie Don’t Surf). Basically, they would have to take the island by force, and, having a monopoly on the island’s resources, the foundation for survival, allow the other castaways access to it only by entering into a relationship whereby they work the resources into a commodity in exchange for a wage. The castaways would then have to use their wages to purchase the commodity, which they would immediately consume so they could survive and revitalize themselves to work the next day. The Howells would also keep some of the product for their own use, on the grounds that they deserved a return on their “investment”. Of course, the Howells by themselves have no force behind them, no legal system to establish and enforce property rights, no army or police force, no philosophical grounding to offer legitimacy for their claims to ownership, nor a theoretical or ethical support for this social relationship they’re trying to impose to induce the others to acquiesce to it. All of these things are necessary for a stable capitalist social relationship. They have to be maintained, and they have to adapt to local and global circumstances, on an ongoing basis to keep us getting up and going to work day after day, just as a prison building has to be maintained, the weapons kept cleaned and stocked, etc., to maintain prisoners’ sense of futility. The relationship is a process, not an end state.

Let’s look at the new social relationship the castaways developed with each other once they reached the island. As I stated, the castaways have two mutually agreed upon goals, survival and escape. The group is mostly interested in expending labor power on things with use value, things which are useful in achieving their goals. On occasion, individuals may swap labor for labor for help on individual projects that might make life more pleasant. For example, Mary Ann knows how to make coconut cream pie from ingredients freely available on the island. Gilligan is fond of that, so Mary Ann would sometimes ply Gilligan with a coconut cream pie in exchange for some work on his part. There is never any coercion in these exchanges. While they all have their own shelters, and everyone respects each others’ privacy, the shelters aren’t private property. They can abandon them if they want a better shelter, but they can’t sell them. They have the beginnings of a socialist democracy. It has some serious challenges and couldn’t just be “sized up” for a larger community, but the fundamentals are there. Unfortunately, it took a complete disaster, the equivalent of an apocalypse, to achieve it. 

What we are all doing here, in DSA, whether we realize it or not, is trying to end a social relationship, and replace it with a different one, hopefully before there is a complete disaster that forces a new social relationship on us. And hopefully it’s one where we don’t live in bamboo shelters. And has more than a coconut based diet. And can produce better entertainment than Gilligan’s Island.


Just sit right back and you’ll hear a tale,
A tale of a fateful trip
That started from this tropic port
Aboard this tiny ship.

The mate was a mighty sailing man,
The skipper, brave and sure.
Five passengers set sail that day
For a three hour tour, a three hour tour.

The weather started getting rough,
The tiny ship was tossed,
If not for the courage of the fearless crew
The Minnow would be lost, the Minnow would be lost.

The ship set ground on the shore of this uncharted desert isle
With Gilligan
The Skipper too,
The millionaire and his wife,
The movie star
The Professor and Mary Ann,*
Here on Gilligan’s Isle.

Now this is the tale of our castaways,
They’re here for a long, long time,
They’ll have to make the best of things,
It’s an uphill climb.

The first mate and his Skipper too,
Will do their very best,
To make the others comfortable,
In their tropic island nest.

No phone, no lights, no motor car,
Not a single luxury,
Like Robinson Crusoe,
It’s primitive as can be.

So join us here each week my friend,
You’re sure to get a smile,
From seven stranded castaways,
Here on “Gilligan’s Isle.”