The spectacle of football: A somnambulist’s reflections on a man called Neymar

As long as necessity is socially dreamed, dreaming will remain a social necessity.  The spectacle is the bad dream of a modern society in chains and ultimately expresses nothing more than its wish for sleep.  The spectacle is the guardian of that sleep. (21)

Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle

The following reflection was born of the coincidental encounter of a reading of Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle and the spectacle of the sport of football …

Each individual commodity fights for itself. (66)

On the 3rd of August, the world’s population was treated to the media circus of the most costly transfer of a footballer in the sport’s history, coupled with an equally unheard of salary: the Paris Saint-Germain Football Club paid FC Barcelona 222 million euros – the value stipulated in the release clause of his contract with the Catalan side – and will pay the new acquisition, Neymar da Silva Santos Júnior, annually, 50 million euros.  His new contract is for five years. (Le Monde 04/08/2017)

Instead of the event generating indignation at the obscenity of the sums involved (how can the kicking about of a ball merit so much?), throughout many parts of the world it was glowingly celebrated on the front pages of newspapers, overtook radio and television programs, and from where I write, was the overwhelmingly dominant topic of cafe conversations.  For many, the expressions were of awe and wonder at such prowess.  Something extraordinary was taking place, and to not revel in the news, or to claim ignorance about it, only brought disbelief.

But who or what is Neymar, to be worth so much money?  To answer that he is nothing more than a footballer, even a very good one, and to then affirm that this is what the market pays for players like him, is absurd.  His skills with the ball are there to be seen by everyone who watches him play.  But the value of his skills are merely the measure of how much money his name can move.  Neymar, like other elite footballers, and other equally valuable athletes in other sports, are nothing more than bits of merchandise, human commodities to be bought and sold, for the selling of vast arrays of other commodities.  Neymar is first traded between two companies parading under the name of sporting teams.  His arrival in france will mean the sale of television rights (national and international), publicity for any number of products-companies associated with him, his team, french football, the direct sale of promotional products (jerseys, shoes, scarfs, hats) that also serve to advertise other products, and the sale of any number of other kinds of goods every time Paris Saint-Germain plays at home, or elsewhere, and tax money for the french state (37.5 million per year – Le Monde 04/08/2017) .  If Neymar’s immediate value is measured only in terms of how many goals he scores, then he is as worthless as his goals.  He acquires value because he serves to sell so much more.  And the aim of contemporary football today, and sport in general, is to sell, to produce and sell, as much as possible on the body of the temporary and limited physical skills of athletes.

Neymar is a commodity to be circulated whenever the possibility of profit can be had.  He stands in for the movement of money.  For his owners and masters, he is simultaneously a point of passage and point of assembly of multiple economic-social relations, to be used for the extraction of profit made elsewhere.  He must of course still score; when that display exhausts itself, then he will be jettisoned as so many before him, for another youth to fill his shoes.  And the enterprise that is sport today planes over the surface of the globe untiringly, in search of fresh bodies to consume, invariably from lands formerly referred to as the “third world”, but today, just called “poor”.

There is competition in all of this of course, but it does not take place on the football pitches of the world.  Sport is instead governed by the competition between commodities, rendered in turn possible by the violence of appropriation and exploitation.  (For example, the violent dispossession of favela dwellers for the Brazilian FIFA World Cup of 2014, or the use of forced labour and other abusive labour practices for the building of infrastructure in preparation for the Qatar World Cup of 2022).

… real adults – people who are masters of their own lives – are in fact nowhere to be found.  And a youthful transformation of what exists is in no way characteristic of those who are now young; it is present solely in the economic system, in the dynamism of capitalism.  It is things that rule and that are young, vying with each other and constantly replacing each other. (62)

Neymar is a star of football.  Whatever vicarious satisfactions he offers to the audiences of the sport, he is first and foremost a spectacular representation, which is to say false representation, of living human beings.  To live, under contemporary capitalism, is not to be any particular kind of person, to have any specific types of things, but to appear to live, to appear to live as one desires.  The stars of football are heroes, not of sport though, but of consumption.  They are seemingly able to acquire whatever they desire, such that they appear to be masters of their own fate; something that for those who watch, can only be realised in the realm of fantasy.

In the parade of elite footballers, the seductions of their life off the field surpass that of their athletic skills.  The devotee of the game is offered up a spectacle of sculpted bodies, designer clothes and accessories, fast cars, luxurious vacations and life-styles, “beautiful” female companions (gay and bi men are apparently non-existent in football), in sum, the “good life”.  They are supermen of conspicuous consumption and models of human well-being.  Whatever corruption then that taints them must be kept at bay, labelled the exception rather than the rule; should it persist, then they must be condemned and excluded (to cite but one example, Paul Gascoigne).  In other words, these restless and avid souls must also strangely be morally good.  Should they fall, then it is because of negligence, ignorance, stupidity and/or the deceit of others.

Another footballing giant, Cristiano Ronaldo, during his first day in court for tax evasion in spain, was humbled to say “I only finished the 6th grade of school and the only thing that I know how to do well is play football.  If my advisers tell me that there is no problem, I believe them.” (Diário de Notícias 04/08/2017)  The culpable must pay, as Leonil Messi did before him, and as we all must, or so we are told, and as the stars themselves must exemplify.  Ronaldo swears that he always pays his taxes: “I always payed them.  In England and in Spain.  And I always payed them.  I can hide nothing, it would be ridiculous.  One has only to go on Google, Forbes for example tells everyone how much I earn.”  Should they fail, then they fail not as athletes, but as the commodities that they are.  Their possible moral turpitude undermines their ability to serve the circulation of money, and thus reveals their function in the commodification of the sport.  (We are far from the days when a George Best could say publicly, “I spent a lot of money on booze, birds, and fast cars.  The rest I just squandered.”)  To then speak of them as free, as examples of liberated individuality, is pure fiction.  Their life, or life style, in fact depends entirely on their total submission to the uniform flow of consumable objects.  And as specialists of apparent life, they serve both as superficial objects that others can identify with to compensate for their fragmented, passive non-lives and to celebrate and elevate above all else, the movement of commodities that structures social life under capitalism.

The agent of the spectacle who is put on stage as a star is the opposite of an individual; he is as clearly the enemy of his own individuality as of the individuality of others.  Entering the spectacle as a model to be identified with, he renounces all autonomous qualities in order to identify himself with the general law of obedience to the succession of things.  The stars of consumption, though outwardly representing different personality types, actually show each of these types enjoying equal access to, and deriving equal happiness from, the entire realm of consumption. … The admirable people who personify the system are well known for not being what they seem; they attain greatness by stooping below the reality of the most insignificant individual life, and everyone knows it. (61)

… all individual reality has become social, in the sense that it is shaped by social forces and is directly dependent on them.  Individual reality is allowed to appear only if it is not actually real. (17)

Life under contemporary capitalism is an accumulation of spectacles: fragmented images detached from active live, images that emerge from the flow of commodities whose abstract exchange value (the labour time necessary for their production) seems to exist independently of the creativity-become-labour that produces them, a stream of images that gives rise to a falsely unified pseudo-world that we can but passively contemplate and react to.  The spectacle is the inversion of creative life; a life appropriated through our separation, isolation and alienation from our potentialities and desires.  As commodities formerly structured social relations in early capitalism, their constituting role is now assumed by spectacular images.  We are as we appear to be in the mirror of circulating spectacles.  We are as we appear in the consumption of images: branded clothing, food, automobiles, and so forth; the multitude of gestures and ways of doing things that are made “real” through their integration in the spectacle.  Outside it, there is no reality.  Our fractured, dislocated, yielding existences acquire a semblance of reality only when touched by images.  God-like, Neymar brings us to life through his own life.  The power of the fetish has become total.

The spectacle is the stage at which the commodity has succeeded in totally colonizing social life.  Commodification is not only visible, we no longer see anything else; the world we see is the world of the commodity. (42)

In the spread of the commodity form, and its intensification as spectacle, all social life is colonised by its power.  Real needs, the true usefulness of things, of activities, is supplanted by their “market” value.  And what is without such value is useless.  As exchange value and the spectacular images that it generates become the universal measure of reality, a measure made possible the “good governance” of States and “free” labour, our subjectivities are moulded accordingly.

There is no longer an outside to capitalism and we exist only in the ephemeral, flickering images of an eternal present.  History is erased and the future as horizon vanishes.  Pseudo-events (e.g., football matches) replace the events through which people actually lived.

If capitalist social relations are born ultimately of the domination and exploitation of labour for the production of commodities-spectacular images, their surpassing can only be found in their inversion, that is, in the overcoming-overthrowing of wage labour, money, commodities.  This is not to be attained through a “reform” in the conditions of labour or market exchange, nor through an appropriation of the means of production by the working class to produce “differently” and “better”, nor by a “correct representation” of the oppressed by a revolutionary party or movement (in different ways, the failure of both marxists and anarchists).  Liberation can only be self-emancipation, an emancipation from the material bases of spectacle; it can only be born from a consciousness of desire and a desire for consciousness that is life re-possessed.

(All quotations are from Ken Knabb’s translation of Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle, as published with the Anarchist Library).

The working class and activist football side, Club Esportiu Júpiter, of the neighbourhood of Poblenou, in Barcelona.  (For its history, in spanish, click here).

(For a list of links to articles on football and anarchism, as well as the politics and economics of football, in spanish, click here)  

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