6 May 2015

"On your Marx..." Part 3: Whose World Cup?

In the book Barbaric Sport Marc Perelman presents a wholehearted yet heavy handed assessment of what he sees as the rampant evils of the modern sport industry. 

The book beats mercilessly on the anvil of modern sport with a Classical Marxist hammer (and sickle?), and while I think Perelman's arguments ought to be less polemical, nevertheless he raises some important and often overlooked points.

How can Marxism, despite its inconsistencies, be used as a tool to re-imagine some of the taken-for-granted realities of modern sport? In this post I will be discussing the concept of false consciousness and its bearing on the quadrennial FIFA World Cup.

What is False Consciousness?

'False consciousness', in Marxist terminology, is when an individual or group assumes society is ordered thus because of invisible and inviolable natural laws. Prima facie or commonsense explanations about 'the way things are' are accepted as incontestable facts of life.

For example, Capitalism tells you that you get paid what your labour is worth, and this is equitably determined by the economic market, which of course is unbiased and dispassionateIn reality, however, your labour may be worth a great deal more in the market than what is represented by your pay packet. But it is your surplus production which creates the capital that lines the pockets and funds the lifestyles of bourgeois owners. Capitalism demands it should be thus, and the consequence is the economic polarisation of the haves and the have-nots.

If only you could see it, Marx thought, you would rise up and throw off the capitalist's chains. He believed this revolution was inevitable, that false consciousness could not last.

Whose World Cup?

We could suggest the existence of a whole raft of false consciousnesses linked to Sport. Marc Perelman has certainly ascertained his fair share. We'll consider just two in the context of the FIFA World Cup.

The first false consciousness is that Sport exists, or at least ought to exist, outside of the economic sphere. What is ignored is the reality that every conceivable aspect of modern Sport is commoditized and that viewers and fans are being exploited as consumers. We're well aware of the adverts, billboards and sponsorship deals that attach themselves to teams and players at the World Cup, but the Marxist goes one step further in contending that the tournament itself (and Sport more broadly) is the servant of capitalism. 

Put simply, the Sport is what happens in between the adverts, not the other way around.


Dilma Rousseff and Sepp Blatter. All for the good of Brazil.
A second false consciousness is that Sport does not promote an ideology, but is a pure and organic outflow of a spontaneous human desire for movement and recreation. The Marxist would argue to the contrary, that Sport is a key ideological vehicle for Capitalist philosophy and for the perpetuating of the economic, political and social status quoThe capitalist philosophy which is embedded in Sport includes notions that success comes when one plays by the rules, accepts authority, that effort is a key determinant of success, and so on.

The World Cup tournament is a knock-out format, the overall winner of which is the team or squad capable of producing the most effective performances. Efficiency of production, rather than enjoyment or artistic merit (for example), is therefore presented as the dominant ideology of the World Cup.

As long as Sport is perceived by the masses as an ideology-free organic meritocracy it will continue to be used by the 'power elites' as a pernicious and insidious form of ideological control.

It goes without saying, or at least it ought to, that Marxism is not without its limitations as a political philosophy. My final post in this series on Marxism will address some of my personal objections to the uncritical overuse of Marxism as a sociological tool. Hang in there...

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