23 April 2015

"On your Marx..." Part 1: Commodification of Sport

This week I've endured the self-imposed misfortune of re-reading the Communist Manifesto. As I read, I'm struck persistently by one thought - how disagreeable a chap Karl Marx seems to be. Equally persistent, for better or worse, are Herr Marx's theories.

Karl Marx
The bearded one never wrote about Sport. But he did write a lot about how capitalist society was (and is) structured. Here, I've attempted to collect a very few disparate thoughts on how Sport fits into a Classical Marxist understanding of society. This will be the first of a small handful of posts on this topic.

Karl Marx argues in the Communist Manifesto that Capitalism (specifically the free market liberal capitalism advocated by the economist Adam Smith) has an inbuilt polarising tendency. Under capitalism, as time goes on, society increasingly divides into two camps: those who have control over the means of production, and those who produce on the behalf of the former group. These groups Marx called the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, respectively.

Commodification of Sport

Sport, in Marxist thought, is theorised principally as a means of production of capital. This capital is created for bourgeois owners of sports clubs and their counterparts in the sports media.

Players themselves are wage labourers. They are paid to produce a performance which can be commodified and sold. A player’s value is determined by the amount of capital which his labour generates: his value is never greater than the total capital than his labour can create. Astronomical transfer fees and, more especially, wages for players of soccer, baseball and basketball are indicators of the massive capacity of those sports to generate capital in the market.

The Sports market is a vast domain. Sports competitions are perfect for live broadcast: dramatic, spontaneous and often unpredictable, so media companies dig deep for the rights to televise. TV viewers of major sports events are a captive audience for advertisers (just look at the sums of  money spent on SuperBowl commercials). Sports equipment manufacturers produce all manner of gadget designed to maximise the capacities of athletes and performers. This is before we consider merchandising and memorabilia for fans, column inches devoted to Sport, or even  ticket sales. Just this week it is being reported that tickets for the forthcoming Mayweather-Pacquiao fight may command as much as $100,000 in the resale market. 

Marxism sees the Sports-Industrial complex as an unwieldy beast, ever-growing and ever-hungry for more.

The Future of Sport

"The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the whole surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connexions everywhere" - The Communist Manifesto

Marx argued that capitalists relentlessly search out new markets for exploitation, as well as deepening existing markets. The bourgeoisie has a vested interest therefore in the increasing commodification and rationalisation of sport. These processes optimise Sport’s efficiency as a mode of production of capital.

Felix Baumgartner advertises Red Bull in Space
This analysis can be utilised as a method for understanding not only the history of sport, but also its trajectory.

Classical Marxism would suggest that in the future we should expect to see previously unaffected sports arenas being incorporated into the market. Indeed, there is no reason to think that Sport cannot establish markets even beyond, as Marx puts it, 'the whole surface of the globe'. New markets may include the pushing back of geographical boundaries: The depths of the seas and the heights of Space could well be the next domain of development in Sport.

The death-defying edge-of-Space feats of Felix Baumgartner can be interpreted in Marxist thought (though somewhat reductively) as the beginning of a search for new markets, new arenas for advertising and another way to produce capital.

While there are many valid criticisms of Marxist theory, some of the central tenets of the system remain useful tools for the analysis of society broadly, and Sport's role therein, specifically. We'll consider another aspect of this relationship in another post.

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