Not the Feelies
Monday, 06 April 2020 20:14

Not the Feelies

Published in Films

Jenny Farrell explains how Leviathan reveals the nature of capitalism.

The dystopias of the mid-20th century, Brave New World (1932) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), described with astonishing accuracy the world we live in today: thought police, news speak, genetic engineering, escapist drugs and a cinema that conditions people not to think about the kind of society they inhabit. Their films, in Brave New World, are aptly called ‘The Feelies’.

Anybody with a passing awareness of our own mainstream cinema realises that this is exactly what we have today. The ‘movies’, as opposed to ‘thinkies’, which dominate all our screens present us largely with private, relationship issues, mainly either set in or seen from the middle class perspective, and most definitely resolvable within existing society. Where issues of race or gender are addressed, from the safe distance of historical perspective, we the audience are reassured that we would have acted in an ethical, in fact radical way, if only we had lived at that distant time. And of course all is well now, we are assured and can leave the cinema affirmed in our self-righteousness.

Not so with some recent Russian films – rarely screened in Western cinemas. One of these is Leviathan, by Andrey Zvyagintsev. Its title brings to mind two things. First, the Bible’s Book of Job, where Leviathan is described as an enormous, all-consuming sea monster. Secondly, the title evokes Thomas Hobbes’s 17th c treatise on the State, ‘Leviathan’, advocating the need for a strong State at the time of the English Revolution, including the alliance between State and Church as the best and most reasonable form of government for the people.

Zvyagintsev adds to this equation the story of US Marvin John Heemeyer, who in 2004, frustrated over a failed zoning dispute, ploughed his bulldozer into the town hall, a former mayor's home and other buildings in small-town Granby, Colorado. Zvyagintsev, however, sets the film in the culture he knows best – Russia. He changes details of the plot, while revealing the nature of a Leviathan society.

This film was gleefully hailed in the West as a film about corrupt Russia. It was even awarded the Golden Globe. It was condemned in Russia as anti-Russian. Both angles miss the point. The film exposes the mechanisms of capitalist society and its destruction of ordinary people, their lives, and their happiness. It exposes how little power, what scant hope for justice working people have when faced with the combined power of politicians, the judiciary and the Church. It is difficult to think of a recent Western film, outside of Ken Loach’s work, that presents the very nature of capitalism with such radical honesty and incredible cinematography. In that sense, the film is not only about Russia but at the same time about the inhuman system that is capitalism – anywhere.

Of course, its detail is Russian, no film can or should be made in abstractions. Films, like all artwork, deal in individual lives. Zvyagintsev’s film associates the greater context through its title. He also uses the landscape on the edge of the world: the Barents Sea bordering on the Arctic Ocean, frozen landscapes, wrecked boats and the skeleton of a blue whale to emphasise this more encompassing scope. Yet, the story is rooted deeply in the everyday minutiae of ordinary, working people’s lives. The film shows how the monster devastates this. There seems to be little hope for humanity. Perhaps some slight courage may be taken from the fact that a friend of the protagonist has the potential to challenge the beast. In Leviathan, this path is thwarted and seems unlikely, yet it is there. The fact that the film itself makes a statement about the Leviathan, too, is important.

Leviathan struck close to the bone in Russia, where despite everything, art is clearly still understood as a serious comment on society. The cultural ministry was outraged and indeed censored its ‘profanities’, amputating the film. It also questioned the right of such a film to taxpayers’ financial support. (Films clearly still receive state subventions!) Zvyagintsev himself called on people to watch the illegally copied film online in places where it was not shown in cinemas. The film’s impact was such that civic leaders and Orthodox priests and bishops of Samara called on the Minister of Culture to sack Valery Grishko, the actor who plays the bishop in the film, from his position in the state-sponsored theatre. The “image created by this actor is a cynical and dirty parody on Russian orthodox bishops, it offends the believers and in its essence is nothing else other than blatant mockery of Russian State and the principal religious confession of our country — The Holy Orthodoxy.”

To turn to ‘real life’: at the time of writing, there is an ongoing, growing truck drivers’ strike in Russia (since 27 March 2017). It demonstrates an awareness and readiness to fight against the insatiable appetite of the Leviathan. Leviathan and other recent Russian films help their viewers identify those who would rather send them to ‘The Feelies’ and remain hidden. By describing present day Russia, however, they reveal the nature of capitalism. Understanding this, is a prerequisite to change. As Rosa Luxemburg said, “the first revolutionary act is to call things by their true names.” We need films like this.

Monument in Pariser Platz, Berlin, 1936
Monday, 06 April 2020 20:14

What's Happened to Sport?

Published in Sport

Professor Tony Collins starts a series of articles about the relationship between sport and capitalism with an introduction to the history of sport.

It’s been a rough year for sport. In the last few months we’ve seen match-fixing allegations in tennis, Russia banned from international athletics for alleged doping, and the implosion of FIFA over endemic corruption. That’s not to mention the billionaire takeover of football and the grip of satellite TV on the game.

So where did it all go wrong?

In reality, nothing has gone wrong – modern sport has always been about money. It emerged in the 1700s as part of the growing commercial leisure industry of Britain’s emerging capitalist economy. The first rules of boxing, horse-racing and cricket were drawn up in the eighteenth century explicitly to make gambling easier and more transparent. Even the MCC, that bastion of the gentleman amateur, included rules for gambling in its early rulebooks. Teams and athletes were effectively owned by their aristocratic ‘patrons’, many of whom owed their wealth to the slave trade.

Sport was an entertainment – and like every other aspect of life under capitalism, it was organised to facilitate profit.

The Peoples’ Game?

When football was transformed into a mass spectator sport in the late 1800s, it quickly became commercialised. Soccer may have been ‘the People’s Game’ in terms of popularity, but it was as much a plaything of businessmen as it is today.

There’s no better example than Manchester United. When Newton Heath F.C. went into liquidation in 1902, they were bought by J.H. Davies, owner of Manchester Breweries. Renamed Manchester United, the club became an appendage of Davies’ business. United’s seven-strong board consisted of Davies and six other employees of the brewery. In 1909 Davies provided the cash that allowed the club to move to Old Trafford. And just as the Glazer family today has leveraged the club for their own financial interests, so did Davies: an FA enquiry in 1910 discovered that he received £740 rent from the club for land it did not use.

The same story was repeated across football. Chelsea was created by the owners of Stamford Bridge as an attraction to bring crowds into what was becoming a white elephant stadium. Most clubs that weren’t created as openly commercial ventures were formed by churches as a way of bringing Christian morality to working-class youths, such as Aston Villa, or by employers seeking to foster corporate unity in opposition to trade unionism, such as West Ham. Football made for great entertainment – but it was a never a people’s game.

Amateurism, Class and Race

The idea that sport was originally free of money and played only for love is a myth that was invented by the Victorian middle classes. Books like ‘Tom Brown’s Schooldays’ spread the gospel of Muscular Christianity across the British Empire, promoting the idea that sport was a moral force for good. This was how the idea of amateurism was invented, based on the belief that sport should be played without financial award.

But behind this lay naked class hatred. The first rules of the Amateur Athletic Club, the forerunner of the Amateur Athletic Association, explicitly stated that anyone who was ‘a mechanic, artisan or labourer’ could not be an amateur. In 1895 rugby split into two distinct sports – league and union – when rugby’s middle-class administrators refused to allow working-class players to be paid compensation when they had to take time off work to play. Until 1963, cricket even divided its players into middle-class amateur ‘Gentlemen’ and working-class professional ‘Players’.

As was made clear in militaristic poems like Henry Newbolt’s ‘Vitae Lampada’ - with its refrain ‘Play up and play the game’ – this was the ideology of the British Empire. Sport, proclaimed the Yorkshire Post, the organ of the northern English industrial bourgeoisie, had ‘done so much to make the Anglo-Saxon race the best soldiers, sailors and colonists in the world’.

In 1911 the then Home Secretary Winston Churchill banned ‘Bombardier’ Billy Wells from boxing against Jack Johnson, the first black world heavyweight champion. Between 1907 and 1948 no black boxer could fight for a British boxing title, thanks to a ‘colour bar’ introduced in response to Johnson’s success and the perceived threat he posed to white racial superiority.

The ‘level playing field’ that sport was supposed to provide for everyone regardless of background was never level – and some could not even play on it.

Sex and Drugs

This was doubly true for women. The famous sporting motto ‘Mens sana in corpore sana’ (a healthy mind in a healthy body) referred not to the creation of intellectual minds in healthy bodies, but of morally pure minds, free from effeminacy and the temptations of adolescent sexuality.

Modern sport was above all male, and founded on a strictly policed gender division. Women were discouraged and sometimes actively excluded from taking part in sport. In 1921 the Football Association officially banned women soccer players from using its football pitches. Even when women were allowed to take part, ideas about supposed female ‘weakness’ meant the Olympics barred them from events like the marathon until 1984.

It was the belief that successful women athletes were less than feminine that led to so-called ‘sex testing’ in the 1960s. The tremendous success of Soviet bloc women athletes led to Western paranoia that they were not ‘real women’ and in 1966 sex-testing was introduced in athletics. But this had no basis in science and was merely a more brutal way of enforcing traditional gender norms. Today, sport’s governing bodies assign themselves the right to define an athlete’s gender, an act as arrogant as it is reactionary.

It was also the Cold War that brought hysteria over drugs into sport. Drugs of varying forms had long been used in sport – even Frank Buckley’s Wolverhampton Wanderers were taking monkey gland extracts in the 1940s – but the rise of Soviet and East European athletes from the 1950s saw the West take the offensive and accuse the Soviets of ‘cheating’ by using drugs. As the ethical force of amateurism declined in sport in the 1960s and 1970s, the moral arguments previously used against professionalism were re-focused on medical stimulants.

Paranoia about drugs now replaced fear of professionalism as the raison d’être for tight control over athletes. Thanks to anti-drug legislation in sport, professional athletes today live in a totalitarian world where their every move is monitored and their civil liberties stripped away. And where sport goes, so too does government.

The Future of Sport

Nothing has gone ‘wrong’ with sport. For almost 300 years it has been an essential part of the capitalist leisure industry. There was never a golden age when it was pure; and the attempts to purify it by introducing amateurism led to the systematic exclusion and persecution of all those who fell outside its middle-class norms. Today it is a plaything of the rich and an instrument of control – just as it has always been.

Yet it remains a uniquely compelling form of entertainment. It is unscripted melodrama that allows the participant and the spectator to experience great emotional peaks that are rare in everyday life. It offers opportunities for physical artistry and collective endeavour that can sometimes touch the essence of what it means to be human.

Its liberation lies not in appeals to a mythical past or a morality invented by apostles of the British Empire but in the creation of a society where capitalism no longer exists and in which the full range of sporting experience can be had by all members of society. Only under socialism, in a society free of economic necessity and shorn of stifling bourgeois morality, will sport truly become a level playing field.