Monday, 1 October 2012

Bread and Circuses

It’s been a difficult year for Socialists in Olde England. Hopefully the last of the little Union flags will flutter into obscurity after the ‘Paralympic Games’. This icon of patriotism can then return to business as usual as a symbol of the exploitation of the majority and the persecution of the poor. By coincidence in an attempt to escape the ubiquity of sport on TV I stumbled upon the movie ‘Spartacus’. In its depiction of one of history’s earliest class struggles ( the slave revolt in ancient Rome) it struck me as ironic that I had just been watching the raising of the Jamaican flag in victory at another gladiatorial arena - the London Olympics. Ironic, of course, because ethnically and culturally Jamaica was a product of the British slave trade. Africans were taken to the Caribbean to slave on the sugar plantations. Despite their ‘emancipation’ in the 19th century and Jamaican ‘Independence ‘ in the 20th (celebrated in parallel with the Olympics) here we still had the spectacle of gladiatorial competition in a vast arena - but are they still just slaves performing for their masters?
  Amid the euphoria of the heroic performances of ‘team GB’ many would be incredulous at the depiction of the Olympic Games as a continuation of the Ancient Roman policy of ‘Bread and Circuses’. If the Emperor could provide entertainment for the Roman mob in the gladiatorial arena they could be distracted and controlled. Similarly the original ethos of the Modern Olympiad (individual excellence and international brotherhood) has been perverted into a grubby orgy of nationalism and profiteering that through marketing has become just another agent of consumer distraction. The athletes have to prostitute themselves to nationalism and advertising to be allowed to partake. They are, like most of us, slaves to consumerism. Even the mighty Husain Bolt has to confine himself to meaningless macho poses rather than articulating anything of significance - such is the power of the authoritarian sports officialdom. What a contrast to the truly heroic activities of the likes of Jesse Owens and the black power salutes of the sixties (happy days!). Wouldn’t it be magnificent to see an athlete reject the geographical accident of his birth place and the commercial imperative as defining him or her. International sport has become entirely politicised as is clearly demonstrated by the insistence of the establishment that sport and politics don’t mix (whenever this kind of platitude is used you can be sure of its complete political integration with bourgeois values). And now we come to the ’legacy’ of the London Olympiad - the moral propaganda attempt to justify the vast cost.
  The reintroduction of the competitive sporting ethos to schools is one of the promised legacies of the games. This is to replace the perceived ‘prizes for everyone’ liberal ethos. To the surprise of some Socialists are not opposed to competition in sports. The infantile ego can be indulged as long as sport is seen purely as fun and entertainment. Any attempt to introduce such a relationship into adult life should be treated as ridiculous. Capitalist propagandists continue to infantilise human relationships in this way trying to convince us that we are all competitors rather than interdependent. Ever since mankind looked back at the ‘Earthrise’ from the moon in 1969 we see our shared home as hanging precariously alone in the awful emptiness of space. We had the chance to ‘grow up’ as a species and leave the our brutal childhood of international competition (war) behind us. That this has not been achieved is testament to the power of the propaganda machinery of capitalism. Every time a parent induces their child to identify with the flag and to see others as competitors they betray human potential. Because the ego of the young is so easy to manipulate in this way many of us never mature emotionally and are easy prey to consumerism and its sick competitive values so essential for the survival of capitalism. Unfortunately sport has become one of the most important elements in this perversion of human values. Spartacus may well recognize the slave mentality of many international sportsmen and women. We still await the arrival of a famous socialist sporting hero - but perhaps this is just a particular fantasy of mine that is in reality an oxymoron!


  1. Hi Wez!

    Regarding the Olympics, perhaps a return to the old idea of an amateur competition open to all, perhaps held near Mount Olympus, might be for the best?

    I have read Aristotle mention of the Olympic games - a contest performed in the nude, open to all Greeks, but the city that the contestant was from was clearly of secondary concern. The point was to celebrate excellence.

    In his Apology, Socrates considers that as 'punishment' for his 'crimes', he should be perhaps granted a pension, as was afforded to top Olympic athletes. The jury were not impressed by this, and instead sentenced him to death.

  2. You think there ever was a connection between the modern Olympiad and it's ancient namesake? Perhaps once, but I don't believe the powers that own and control the franchise would allow a return to the amateur ethos - way too much money involved.The role of sports after the revolution? - now there's a thought.

  3. My friend, what a joy to amble along with your thoughts here, but for the testy bit where infantilization cuts a bit too close to the bone. No wonder! I'm driven to tears that my colleagues aren't more willing to share... even the co-operatives are in competition (and another Owen will be rolling in the dirt if he hears of it). To catch the context, see mine at Be well, Wez.

  4. I think there is still scope to recognise the modern Olympiad as between people rather than countries. Capitalism has also found a way for people to compete despite accidents of birth. I can't subscribe to defining these athletes as slaves - I do think that is a bridge too far. Similarly, your assertion that sport is for kids only strikes me as absurd.

    Here's a more challenging thought: racism still seems to be rife in football. Other sports, although not perfect, seemed to have been able to grow up enough to see a man as a man...

    1. Most of us are 'wage slaves'- just because the top athletes get rather more than the rest of us doesn't change this. They have 'golden chains' and have to do their master's bidding like the rest of us. I love sports myself and no where do I say 'it's just for kids'.My contention is that competition should be restricted to sports - in business and politics it is far too dangerous a principal for activity. Unfortunately sports are used to indoctrinate the young that competition is natural in all human activity.