A critical exercise
Published in Social Anarchism #27, Fall/Winter 2000
Sunday night football is the perfect opportunity to commune in the streets with other nonparticipants. The sounds in one's neighborhood of cheering to goals approach the pitch of the arena, freedom thrown to the lions. Popular sports relay replay images of bodies bursting with muscular perfection while the masses engorge upon pretzels, hot dogs and beer, bellies unhealthily taxed with fat and acid. Spectator sports are the media's invitationals to orgies with manufacturers of automobiles and fast food products, uniting workers who have nothing to lose but their wage slavery into a mass ritual of consumption and exposure to hypnotic sales pitches. Ghetto children dream to be whisked out of torturous life sentences of poverty by transforming into a Mighty Morphin Michael Jordan, of whom there can only be one at a time, or a few of lesser stature. The capitalist class is a limited membership.
Star athletes are paid annual salaries that could build hospitals, to redefine life's boredom as a lengthy moment in the sidelines waiting for the Game to commence. We are ragged trousered philanthropists reveling in the wealth we have bestowed upon the privileged, sitting in stoned wonder in the isles chanting our praises to the ubermensch while the team's owning class drinks champagne in the box seats, counting their dividends, each goal or hoop a testimony to the success of the Game of looting us. The Game keeps our eyes off the prize, reduces us as a dispossessed class into meaningless castes of taste, such as basketball versus tennis, Dodgers versus Red Sox, college versus national, our clothes billboards of each shade from advertising's fragmentary lens.
The boredom of life makes us really want to have a party, to open the kegs with something to celebrate, to feel alive for a few hours of a day, for a few days of a life. The Games bring out the tribe in us, as long as our excitement and ire remain relatively contained and do not spill out into the streets. While millions of children die around the world from a lack of money in the era of food gluts, we can play the northern hemisphere's Bulimia Rock to the southern hemisphere's Starvation Griot. For in the Game, history and the world sit in the bleachers, in direct proportion to television taking central stage. The infinite permutations of goals, points, and charismatic plays, rewrite a virtual history for us. It is a text file with images in our brains from which to copy and paste into gossip at work. It allows us to participate in a very personal way, to respond symbiotically to our Team's successes and failures, to each nuance of its daily performances. Our affect mirrors our sport schema. It trip-hops to the endless reediting of this virtual file without a metaconscious view of one's life in chains.
When I put on my sneakers and shorts, and racewalk up and down the streets, I am Navajo hunter, I am cougar in the jungle, I am Ecuador's Perez winning the gold in the 1996 Olympics. I am not a worker, not a father, not a lover, not a citizen. I have shed my numerous identities, I am merely alive, a being in flow. As I wiggle my butt side to side, and try to keep up a nine-minute-mile walk for twelve miles, I am in my purest state of aliveness, as much anarchist as ever. Even at work there are numerous times when I kowtow to the boss or the administration, fearful of losing the job which allows my son, my most precious relation on earth, to eat. But out on the road, sweating and panting, life is immediate, is fully present. A car that doesn't stop at a stop sign for me might get the finger, while others walking or running on the road we share receive my profoundest, genuine, oral encouragement, brothers and sisters. In the world of participatory sports, individuals offering coaching services for money are usually frowned upon, while more commonly training is free to people preparing for a race, or learning a new sport. Here we find a warm, community within a community. Capitalism is not absent, however. Many smaller races are funded mainly by competitors' entry fees, but also engage some energy bar or bottled drink company to provide free goodies in exchange for an advertising banner or a table promoting its wares.
Most of us who compete do so as a conscious choice to fill our leisure-time with quality, growth-promoting, activities. Of course this expresses the split in the capitalist system (by this I mean the world-wide system of wage slavery and commodity production, whether the boss is private or the state, calls itself capitalist or socialist) between work time and leisure time. It is time that expresses itself unconsciously, and sometimes consciously, as what social life should feel like, a feeling of community, of fair play, of fun, of people with diverse abilities but fellows, equally free.
Fellow competitors tend to be aware of the psychological, physical and dietary toxicities of the social order. They have forced a national trend toward health foods, organic produce, the building of physical health rather than only the elimination of disease, stress reduction, alternative lifestyles that focus more on quality relationships and activities than on a meaningless accumulation of things. Holistic health and participatory sports generate a multibillion dollar business, and thus their existence does not bring us closer to a stateless, moneyless, society of common ownership, or anarchism. Nonetheless, they have generated tensions within our society between active doing and passive watching, engaging in free activities and owning objects, quality and quantity, the meaningless and the meaningful, small scale and big scale.
Capitalism has had no problem absorbing and encouraging these trends. Let us not forget that the partial successes of unionism, civil rights, environmentalism, as much as of participatory sports and preventative health, are to be accounted for by the global capitalist system's stability depending on workers being paid a decent wage, not feeling discriminated against, having quality food, water, air and nature to enjoy, feeling relatively healthy psychologically, physically, spiritually. Without these, the working class, both blue and white collar, would unite to enforce changes (Haymarket, Women's Suffrage Movement, Selma, Greens, Stonewall). While the calls will be of "reasonable" demands for a system based on capital ("fair wages for a fair day's work," "the right to vote," "equal rights," "no pesticides or nuclear power," "end gay discrimination,") there have always been those in each movement with a more profound social vision that could potentially influence the mass and threaten the stability of the whole order by bringing into question its very foundations (authority, wages system, money, property) even though the majority of each movement possessed reformist, rather than revolutionary, fervor. The capitalist class have learned over the past 100 hundreds that the worst off are the workers, the more they see the system as something to replace outright, as something beyond reform.
When the Sunday race is over, we are confronted by the reality that Monday it's back to the boss. But we keep on with our training because we still must make existential choices about how to live in the world of modern slavery. Choices about what values to instill in our children, choices about what we should do about the more repressive features of the educational system our kids are in, choices about whether to recycle, choices about what food to eat, about what we can do about racism. At this point in our history, we are nowhere near having to face the choice of common ownership versus private or state ownership. We are like Roman plebeians or European peasants in the Middle Ages with limited options other than personal decisions to make about where it will be safer to live or how to structure our life to provide it with meaning (presumably all those of us reading this magazine are devoted to also somehow instilling ideas of change and freedom in others). When we have begun a large anarchist federation, perhaps we will see our choices differently, with a greater sense of risk, urgency, possibility.
In summary, our participation in so many outdoor or indoor sports is an extension and expression of those personal choices, a way to carve out little niches of freedom in the otherwise suffocating corporate world. We want to shine in a time that does not sufficiently value the social or the individual, but in which we prostitute ourselves daily to make wealth and power for others (who, of course, produce an ideology of individualism because this reflects their interests). We want to be winners. We want our accomplishments to be validated. We want our feelings of failure to be soothed. We want to pass between trees on fleet feet and feel as though this is heaven. We want to experience teamwork in which the efforts of the whole group are celebrated, and there are no losers. We want to feel at times freed of the confines of work even while working hard. We want to play (we want our childhood back). We want to laugh in a small group of strangers become family (oh where is our tribe?). Our sports often embody these wishes. That is why we are lining up now for a moneyless and stateless society of common ownership which we call anarchism, socialism, or communism. We are lining up for front-row seats. But we are also lining up to be players.
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