Who is the real enemy of professional cycling – Lance Armstrong, or capital personified?

“As capitalist, he is only capital personified. His soul is the soul of capital. But capital has one single life impulse, the tendency to create value and surplus-value [i.e. profit]…” (Karl Marx, “The Working Day”, Capital: Volume One)

“Marx does not advance a moral ‘right’ to an unscathed existence or something similar against the impositions of capitalism. Instead, he hopes that with the growing insight into the destructive nature of the capitalist system (which can be established without recourse to morality), the working class will take up the struggle against this system – not on the basis of morality, but rather on the basis of its own interest.” (Michael Heinrich, An Introduction to the Three Volumes of Karl Marx’s Capital)

Reacting to news that Lance Armstrong will be participating in Geoff Thomas’s Le Tour: One Day Ahead 2015  – a fundraising event for Cure Leukaemia – the president of the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) stated: “I’m sure that Geoff Thomas means well, but frankly I think that’s completely inappropriate and disrespectful to the Tour, disrespectful to the current riders, and disrespectful to the UCI and the anti-doping community”. It’s incredible that the UCI, the organisation that “colluded” with Lance Armstrong “to bypass doping accusations” from 1999 to 2009, is actually able to distance itself from the doping culture of professional cycling; or is it incredible? Actually, it’s hardly surprising at all.

The endless pursuit of profit-making, at the expense of workers and nature, is not the result, as Marx depicts in Capital, of greedy, individual Moneybags; although, greedy, individual Moneybags does exist. A capitalist, regardless of their intent, good or bad, in order to survive as a capitalist, must boundlessly chase profit, or perish. The political economy of capitalism is the relentless motion of M-C-M’ (the general formula for capital): money (M) to buy commodities (C) to make more money (M’), for money to buy commodities to make more money, and on and on; the use-value of the commodity of labour-power is the most fortuitous commodity of all for any Moneybags, because its use-value is, distinctively, a source of value and surplus-value.

“…it is only in so far as the appropriation of ever more and more wealth in the abstract becomes the sole motive of his operations, that he functions as a capitalist, that is, as capital personified and endowed with consciousness and a will. … The restless never-ending process of profit-making alone is what he aims at.”  (Karl Marx, “The General Formula for Capital”, Capital: Volume One)

The world of professional cycling is inseparable from this wheel-turning motion of capital accumulation. Does the capital that drives professional cycling care for the long-term lives of its wage-labourers, or is its focus to extract the utmost from the labour-power it employs to make a profit? The history of doping in professional cycling isn’t a history of good capitalists and bad capitalists, good teams and bad teams, good riders and bad riders, it is a history of a world in which competition compels capital personified to continuously seek advantage in gaining more and more surplus-value from its wage-labourers, thus generating and fuelling a systemic culture of doping. Opt out and one expires.

I am not interested in a dissection of Lance Armstrong’s personality from a moral standpoint. I’ve read my share of books about doping in the cycling profession, including about ‘the Lance factor’. The problem with such books is their focus on bad riders and good riders, bad teams and good teams. Doping existed in professional cycling before, during, and (in probability) post the Lance Armstrong era.

The boss of Team Sky, Dave Brailsford, has said, on Lance Armstrong riding One Day Ahead 2015: “Lance has done enough damage to the Tour already. He’s done enough damage to the sport.” One might say that the rampant commercialisation of cycling has damaged the sport. One might say that the commercial dominance of Team Sky – rich in monies from the Murdoch empire – strangled the Tour de France in 2012 and 2013 of any meaningful sporting drama. It’s odd how the history of doping in professional cycling can be laid solely, individually, and moralistically at the door of Lance Armstrong. His crime was to be exceptionally good at playing the system, and embedding himself within the system – call it ‘Planet Lance’, a story of how one professional cyclist turned from a wage-labourer to an especially shrewd capitalist and philanthropist. But Lance Armstrong was not the system itself, he was one planet in its universe. Who is the real enemy of professional cycling? And, what’s its real dope? Capital, silly.

Lance Armstrong, with my socialist feminist friend and comrade Helen Russell, in training for Le Tour: One Day Ahead 2015.

8 thoughts on “Who is the real enemy of professional cycling – Lance Armstrong, or capital personified?

  1. From Colin Waugh:

    Camila

    I strongly agree with your argument here.

    But have you seen the posthumous autobiography of the Australian sprint and road cyclist (yes, both) Russell Mockridge that came out in, I would say, about 1958? (It’s called My World on Wheels.) This contains discussions of doping in cycling from a participant’s standpoint ( and a very traditional moral standpoint). It’s also interesting in that it came out before it was ‘known’ (widely, at least) that Fausto Coppi used drugs.

    It contains a description of the Ventoux stage of one of the Tours De France won by Louison Bobet (maybe the first?) which is enlightening, I think.

    Also, what do you think about the 1967 death of Tommy Simpson (arguably a person whose actions etc were of a wider significance than cycling alone, like, say, Jimi Hendrix in relation to music)? (There was also the death of Knud Enemark Jensen in the 1960 Olympic road race.)

    One point I would make is that when I was obsessed with it, cycle racing was largely a thing done by people from or close to peasant backgrounds, especially from Belgium, France and Italy, and I feel that the use of drugs within it needs to be understood in that context.

    Colin

  2. From Colin Waugh:

    Camila

    There is more I could say about the attempt by journalistic instant experts to import bogus values of fair play etc from the English-speaking world into the different culture of massed start cycle racing, while simultaneously ignoring the traditions that existed here of time trials, the best all-rounder competition etc.

    One sign of this is the ridiculous practice of referring to the Tour de France ‘champion’, ie the previous year’s winner, as ‘defending his title’, as if it was a competition similar to Wimbledon or the like.

    Mockridge’s book might also be of interest in his discussion of betting in Australian cycling and his chapter on the Paris six-day race.

    During the media focus on the Tour De France in Yorkshire, did you hear the radio interview with Brian Robinson (ie one of the first people from England to have success as a professional on the continent)? Robinson, now in his 80s, apparently still holds the record for climbing Holme Moss, and this record is around 6 minutes. He explained, in a non-patronising way, that a typical climb in the Tour de France might take about 60 minutes, and there might be four of these in one stage.

    Colin

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  4. That money ruins sport is surely a given but only the media and their unthinking consumers would lazily declare Armstrong the enemy of pro cycling as if the sport began and ended with him. That said, the broad argument against capital does not really explain the desire of some individuals for success, control and domination, of which capital is only one, albeit very important, aspect.

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