1 May 2015

"On your Marx..." Part 2: Sport as an Opiate

Karl Marx had plenty to say about the way in which the relentless pursuit of capital constrains society into ever more polarised classes. 

He notes how the numerous class divisions of medieval/feudal society (lords, knights, burghers, barons, serfs and peasants) have been steadily eroded by capitalism, until only two classes remain: the bourgeoisie and the proletariat.

That book
In this system - where bourgeois accumulation of capital is the end that justifies the means - the Marxist identifies commodification as a key process. My previous post considers the future of Sport in the light of capitalism's in-built demand for ever-deepening and ever-widening markets

This is just one facet of Marxist analysis. Marxism can provide a deeper analysis of the role of Sport in society. 

The Opiate of the Masses

In speaking of religion, Marx coined the phrase, 'the opiate of the masses'. His contention was that religion is like an opiate, a stultifying drug which keeps the proletariat from recognizing the reality and extent of their oppression under the capitalist system.

Marx was patently no friend to religion, and indeed, in those states which have administered the Communist philosophy, religion of all kinds has typically been subdued, subjugated or smashed.

So, in the (post)modern era where more people are moving away from religion, particularly in its organised form, classical Marxism might expect to observe a greater level of social and political understanding and engagement among the proletariat. Without religion, Marx might say, the collective mind of the proletariat would be unclouded and thereby better able to understand the forms and sources of oppression which keep it bound.

Then, the uprising of the working class to throw off the shackles of bourgeois control - judged by Marx and Engels to be absolutely inevitable - should follow the abolition of religion. (I will deal in another post about why the Marxist view of religion is false).

But this uprising is not what we see. Was Marx wrong or could Sport have replaced religion as the 'opiate of the masses'?

Sport as an Opiate

What would we expect an opiate to do? An opiate will...
  1. Cloud judgement
  2. Cost time and money
  3. Relieve pain
  4. Be addictive 
It could be argued that Sport possesses all of the above features.

Crowd violence is a regular occurrence in many sports
Each week in the UK hundreds of thousands of fans pour into sports stadiums to hurl abusive chants at one another, mock the fortunes of the opposing team, and sometimes engage in violence and vandalism. The opportunity to take part in this peculiar behaviour is provided for both sets of supporters by businesses, who demand (and receive) vast sums of money for the privilege. To the Marxist this is evidence of deeply clouded judgement on the part of the supporter. The target for the fans' ire ought to be the businesses who are (ostensibly) exploiting them.

In just the same way, Karl Marx lamented that the workers often pitted themselves against each other rather than against their exploitative bosses.

Pain relief, or at least diversion from the troubles of life, is provided by both playing and watching Sport. An escape is available, both at the stadium and through the carefully packaged Media/Sport peddled by broadcasters. Sport on TV is over-hyped and deliberately imbued with more significance than it truly possesses. This mind-altering escapist experience can easily become addictive.

A Critical View

While the argument can be made that Sport inhabits the social space religion once occupied and while numerous sociologists have presented this view (or at least that sport shows an element of civil religion), this understanding of Sport's role in society is not without its problems. Some of these problems I have highlighted briefly in a previous post.

The 'opiate' view of Sport also glosses over the substantial positive impact Sport can have politically, economically and socially. Numerous organisations across the world, such as Kick4Life and FUDELA, use sport as a means to achieve significant social change, mobilising and impacting many who otherwise might not come together. This is precisely the opposite of what Marx believed was the purpose of the 'opiate of the masses'. 

The next part of this 'On your Marx...' thread will investigate the Marxist concept of 'False Consciousness'.

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