fifth column

Alternative Olympics

By Benedict Seymour, 21 July 2012
Image: Chelsea Ives, Counter-Olympic Ambassador, retains her poise in the face of the umpires

Should workers be organising their own counter-Olympics today? Or did they already run one back in August 2011?

The Tate is screening 'The New Great Power' (Die Neue Grossmacht), Wilhelm Prager's 1925 documentary of the First Workers’ Olympic Games in Frankfurt, 1925. It is clearly at once a recognition of London's coming Olympic sporting event and a small gesture of criticism of its corporate agenda. But should we conceive opposition in the terms proposed by the film or the blurb accompanying it? Prager's film, never shown in the UK before, is described as follows: 'an early masterpiece of social cinema. Combining modernism and realism in a dramatic narrative of the games, it sent a strong message of empowerment and engagement to the international workers’ movement.' The accompanying talk by Ulrich Lehmann 'will provide a brief history of the Workers’ Olympiads and their role in shaping an alternative understanding of sport, away from the commercialism and private entrepreneurship of the official Games.'

As the blurb goes on to mention, some of those contributing to the film and sharing the 'alternative view' of sport offered in the 1925 Workers Olympiad included Hitler's auteur of choice, Leni Riefenstahl. Her later celebration of Olympian, stadium-compatible 'alternatives' ('Olympia' and 'The Triumph of the Will') might prompt us to ask whether sport per se was not - is not - irreducibly caught up in a wider 'biopolitical' logic. I think the Marxian terms 'devalorisation' and 'real subsumption' are perhaps even more apt though: sport is not just about control and regulation of bodies but specifically their reproduction (or not) within a regime of capital accumulation increasingly driven to include the worker's material existence in all its forms. The regulation and reproduction of the collective worker and its physical embodiment (ie of actually existing workers as subsumed under this Hegelian Notion of capital's, the collective worker) becomes key in the 20th century. Key because essential to that recomposition of capital necessary for continued accumulation in the face of capital's inherent contradictions, principally the tendency for productivity to eliminate the source of value - labour - from the process of production. The whole life of the worker becomes an issue for capital, from cradle to grave.

Seen in this light not only sport but socialism more generally can be grasped as a struggle for the body and soul of the worker ('under socialism', as Wilde might say). Socialism as an ideology of worker's self-management, a negotiation over the buying and selling of labour-power, a struggle over the reproduction of the collective worker and the regulation of their existence, in which sport is a part of the demand for more. More free time, less work, shorter working days, etc. As CLR James noted, the birth of the socialist parties coincides with the birth of the football clubs and national sporting organisations. Modern sport, socialism, and modern state biopolitics kick off, all over, at around the same time. Socialism's affirmation of the worker, as Theorie Communist would say, is inextricable from its reproduction of the capital relation per se, the reproduction of labour as a class (and therefore subject) of capital. Its revolutions are its counter-revolutions. As such socialism, more perhaps than sport, which pre-exists it, helplessly reproduces the terms of capital even in opposing it.

The socialist alternative mentioned in the Tate blurb sadly was among other things a pioneer of an 'anti-capitalism' that soon became the Olympic 'mainstream' - cf the career of (national) socialists such as Hitler and Riefenstahl. The 'anti-capitalist' moralisation of workers accompanies and supports the moralisation of work; work as they used to say that would make us free - if we survived the working day. And sport did its bit in the promotion of work, helping ideas of workers' 'New Power' (their 'biopower!') segue into a new abjection via Stakhanovism of different nationally particular flavours (John Henry etc) and international Depression-era destruction of the collective worker's wage. Advocating the 'triumph of the will' over materially straitened circumstances - the very circumstances Hitler imposed on the German proletariat in the 30s - passes from a kind of opposition to capital to the formula for its persistence and growth in crisis. Be strong and submit to the cuts! It's character building.

Having said all this, perhaps sport, like art, actually was and still (more than ever?) remains a point where the complicity of labour and capital (in socialism) is put in question, a site where contradictions become pronounced, even exuberant, though generally recontained. Adornian critiques of sport might suggest that sport is inherently about domination, a rehearsal of wider social hierarchies, elitism, physical fascism, etc. But is this an adequate critique, doesn't it smack of elitism and the perspective of an alienated fraction of the larger (thoroughly hierarchical) class of intellectual and mental labour? Fortunately other perspectives on sport were possible that are neither the celebration of workers' 'New Power' through sport nor simple dismissal of sport as sheer fascism, conformism, imperialism and labour discipline continued into 'free time', etc.

Can sport (anymore than other activities in a capitalist society, such as art?) be disentangled from the promotion of work, and specifically the devalorisation or non-reproduction of labour-power - i.e. pushing down of wages, cuts to social reproduction in all its forms? Only insofar as it is can it be opposed to capitalist work, perhaps. One thinks of CLR James' celebration of the 'ne'er-do-well' amateur batsmen of his native Trinidad, aristocratically idle proletarian sportsmen turning the game against work, empire and productivity. Playing to play, for the artistry and sovereignty of the game alone, hard to conscript into an advertisement for (unpaid) labour, this sporting life is more like an advert for doing nothing and doing it as well as possible. Loren Goldner sees in James' description of the graceful and workless batsman a parallel to Marx's conception of all-sided production/consumption in communism, a new form of (creative) activity that overcomes the manual/mental and other divisions constitutive of capitalist social relations. The Trinidadian aristocracy of non-labour are the Paul Lafargue's of cricket.

But today, as it was already in the '30s, the olympics is no sport-for-sport's sake movement. More like work for work's sake. Conscripted into the austerity drive, integrated into the entrepreneurial pursuit of excellence in adversity, and quite simply a massive process of looting of and for capital - constant and variable, people and infrastructure - sport does all kinds of dirty work. Evidence of the current Olympic looting operation, from the theft of the Hackney Marshes football pitches to the massive number of unpaid volunteers (not including army conscripts) is overwhelming. And apart from such tangible expropriations, the Games is all about seizing the hearts and minds of people too young to know better, or with plenty of reason to invest their energies in the ignis fatuus of the Olympic flame.

For James sport could form a space of opposition or (proto-communist) alternative to capital, a zone of latency and potential that, precisely through a transversal competition, can challenge the rivalry between workers and enhance their solidarity against capital. But it can also be, certainly in the form of the 2012 Games is, an ally in capital's drive to lower the cost of reproduction of labour-power. Yet even when it is instrumentalised in this way it does continue to manifest contradictions. Jesse Owens is as irreducible a part of 1936 as Leni Reifenstahl. The fantasy frame around his sporting excellence, his slap in the face to Aryan smugness, might not ultimately have been disturbed by his victory. Indeed for the Nazis in a (no doubt sado-masochistic way) their symbolic defeat by a Negro only confirmed their conception of blacks as a more primitive and vital - bodily, and so inferior - race (another trope that endures throughout Riefenstahl's career and oeuvre). Yet it did indicate something essential about sport in capitalism, the way it functions politically to articulate and contain a challenge to capital, and can be ambivalent. The very (proletarian) desire to be part of it, and 'to be the best one can be', can explode in the face of the corporate sponsors, can go further than they might wish and in directions other than those laid down by the official Olympic channels.

While today we find the socialists literally forced to the margins of the (lammas) land that capital is grabbing for its short-termist macrospectaculars, Occupying, protesting or drifting in assertion of their much-trapled rights, we should be wary of endorsing the old dreams of a socialist alternative - to sport or anything else. A sport of and for the workers that is not a negation of work is best left to the past; let the dead bury the dead, as Marx would say. Instead it seems necessary to hold on to a sense of sport's ambivalence. It is both advertisement for austerity and entrepreneurialism and a site of symbolic contestation - a contestation that can even overflow and go beyond the purely symbolic. And ironically it precisely that 'corporate' element of sport that liberals, conservatives, and lefties all love so to denounce that is the hiding place of the Jamesian 'ne'er-do-well' individual and collective grace. The proto-communist 'be all you can be' of contemporary sport resides in the heart of the negativity that pro-sport pro-socialists wish to counter or correct. It is precisely the (collectively articulated and choreographed) desire to seize the day, and the corporate commodities it contains, that elicits the physical and aesthetic dynamism - at once for, against, and beyond the commodity - that corresponds to the redefinition of sport I am proposing. Sport as a 'real movement' that begins with the self-choreographed taking but could, with enough momentum, move onto abolishing the present (state of) things. This is the spirit of sport as construed by CLR James in its contemporary form. The sport that refuses non-reproduction and austerity, cuts and bodily discipline, the imposition of hunger, humiliation, and the denial of life-sustaining necessities which is currently killing so many people in the UK and beyond. The sport that begins with the fact the government has in any case shut down the playing fields, youthclubs, and annexed the football pitches. A sport without frontiers or institutional boundaries, then. A sport of the malls and high streets. A beyond-parcour and bungee-jumping in which everyone is a player, and no one just an audience, no space just an arena or a predetermined 'venue', in which those hot pink Olympic logos retagging London in the image of the Games ('Earls Court' as it now says at Hackney Central station) could never stick.

Apart from the danger of nostalgia, it is simply impossible for the mass (or rather non-mass) of workers today to dream of organising for an 'alternative' (socialist) capitalism. This is reflected in the foreclosure of the majority from participation in or watching of sport. For the same reasons the young are not proposing an 'alternative' socialist sport, they do not propose to take over and run an alternative version of capitalism. Most of them can't even get a job and can't or (hopefully) wont submit to Workfare. The sporting complement of the old socialist programme is obsolete, it dies along with that 'sporting' aspects of the State that purported to give workers the chance to survive without uninterrupted work (one real if transitory and always partial achievement of socialism, of course).

No more sporting State, no more sporting workers willing to play the game? 'It's not winning or losing but taking part!' Yeah, right. That ideology was stamped out thoroughly in recent years. Similarly, the idea of workers' strength as a class has been replaced by the individuated ideal of entrepreneurs of labour-power seeking to become capitalists proper, to eliminate themselves AS workers before capital does it for them. As a result, it should not be a surprise that rather than constituting a class of and against capital (the 'anti-capitalism' of the 1925 Workers' Olympiad), today's true proletarian athletes are thoroughly ANTI-social. Indeed, when they run, jump, shoot (loot) and score, they are indicted by all sides of society, right and left, denounced as lacking in humanity, in the spirit of community, in the streetswabbing solidarity-in-sacrifice prescribed by the armies of gentrifiers and small business owners who wish only to run the scum off the streets. The pre-emptive Olympiad of last August is the real anithesis of the current sporting social-entrepreneurialism. An unsporting display where being the best you can be is all about taking, and taking back, what you would otherwise never have. This point has not been lost on a number of those detourning riot vids and images into images of (un)sporting behaviour.

If our hegemonic sport ideology is entrepreneurial-communitarian there seems little risk of a new era of self-consciously Socialist sport. The capitalist is already proprietor and social entrepreneur. Today the putative 'alternative' is no more radical than Plan B (the socially conscious, caring capitalist rapper, that is, and his programme for getting detached youth hooked up with those lovely, creative small local businesses that are mushrooming all over their 'hoods). Plan B is just the obverse of Plan A, however, and A is for Austerity. Notwithstanding Paul Mason's dream of a capitalism where the graduates without a future survive in the cracks of the economy, this programme is a crooked, down-winding road to nowhere, and most people wont even be able afford the price of the toll. The true alternative Olympians of today, those that Plan B seeks to empathise with and rehabilitate, already ran their counter-Olympics back in August 2011, and Chelsea Ives was their Ambassador.

So, if the Tate want to offer an adequate response to the Games today, as well as screening a film that consecrates the socialist past, they should show the banned BBC film in which the rioters of August speak out about how and why they (dis)organised their 'best day ever'. This is the real anti-Olympiad of our times, and, even better, they didn't wait till July 2012 to get started.*


The New Great Power, Tate Modern, Starr Auditorium, Monday 30 July 2012, 18.3020.00

More about the banned BBC riot drama (clearly someone's still scared the repression doled out to rioters hasn't driven home the Govt's lesson to the poor):



* To echo Ballard's reconception of JFK's killing as a downhill motor race - we could say that the starter pistol for this collective sporting event was fired, as ever, by the police who killed Mark Duggan (and as ever walked away scott free). But for once, in the aftermath of the popular reaction to this casual act of State murder, it was capital that had to run to catch up. Sport as real movement abolishing the present state of things means sport that is organised by proletarians against State and capital. Some mocked the riots as merely carnivalesque, to which we reply, who said revolution would not be a festival, an aesthetic and indeed sport-like activity, albeit one in which all the categorial delimitations of sport, art, festivity are redefined. As a 'state of exception' the riots showed the transformation of quantity into quality that transpires when thousands of people all try to get hold of a pair of corporate trainers (the pursuit of the inedible by the unspeakable, as the Tories assured us) at once. What starts as the desire for fungible bling or status symbols goes beyond individuated intention to become a collective attack on the commodity and its basis in the defence and reprodcution of property. The dialectics of escalation here are truly poetic and should blow the minds of anyone paying attention. This is the principle of all-sided becoming that Marx is talking abou in the Grundrisse and that James discerned in the asbo batsmen of Trinidad.