‘All that is solid melts into air’: the dialectical nature of our world

Let’s begin with Marx and Engels from The Communist Manifesto (published in 1848):

“Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man [sic] is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.

The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the entire surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere.

The bourgeoisie has through its exploitation of the world market given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country. To the great chagrin of Reactionists, it has drawn from under the feet of industry the national ground on which it stood. All old-established national industries have been destroyed or are daily being destroyed. They are dislodged by new industries, whose introduction becomes a life and death question for all civilised nations, by industries that no longer work up indigenous raw material, but raw material drawn from the remotest zones; industries whose products are consumed, not only at home, but in every quarter of the globe. In place of the old wants, satisfied by the production of the country, we find new wants, requiring for their satisfaction the products of distant lands and climes. In place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, universal interdependence of nations. And as in material, so also in intellectual production. The intellectual creations of individual nations become common property. National one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness become more and more impossible, and from the numerous national and local literatures, there arises a world literature.”

For me dialectics is a way of seeing and thinking about the world. The world around me is in perpetual flux. The world is in constant movement. What’s more, this locomotion is ridden with contradictory tensions, and it is the very friction of these tensions that fuels ongoing change. Dialectical thinking is that which is attuned to contradictory motion and imminent potentialities. All that is solid melts into air.

Remarkably, the language used by Marx and Engels in 1848 to depict and predict world developments chimes well with the contemporary discourse of ‘globalisation’. If we take this above passage from The Communist Manifesto and hold it up to the present-day, we can see a battle between, on the one hand, a desire for certainty and the satisfaction of old wants, fixed, fast-frozen relations, and local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, and, on the other hand, a desire for the best of all that is solid which melts into air: a willing acceptance of uncertainty that comes with openness to new wants and experiences, intercourse in every direction, connections everywhere, universal interdependence, and a cosmopolitan world.

Let’s end then with one aspect – from the Lord Ashcroft Polls – of how and why people voted the way that they did in the 2016 UK referendum on European Union membership.

Gurdas Maan’s incongruous bemoaning of a forsaken world

“It is as ridiculous to yearn for a return to that original fullness as it is to believe that with this complete emptiness history has come to a standstill. The bourgeois viewpoint has never advanced beyond this antithesis between itself and this romantic viewpoint, and therefore the latter will accompany it as legitimate antithesis up to its blessed end.” (Karl Marx, Grundrisse)

“More than 50 million women have been systematically exterminated from India’s population in three generations, through the gender-specific infliction of violence in various forms, such as female feticide through forced abortions, female infanticides, dowry murders, and honor killings.” (50 Million Missing Campaign)

 

MTV Coke Studio India’s production of “Ki Banu Duniya Da” (“What is to become of our world?”) in 2015 – a reworking of an original song by Pakistani singer Sarwar Gulshan that was made popular by Gurdas Maan in 1982 – has been a huge success, both in India and across its global diaspora. To date, it has had almost 10 million views on You Tube and ranks as the most popular iTunes download from the Coke Studio India and Pakistan catalogue. In this latest version, new and revised lyrics have been added by Gurdas Maan to make the song relevant to the present-day.

Gurdas Maan is the Elvis of Punjab – a longstanding and successful, traditional Punjabi folk singer. With the population of Punjab at almost 28 million, the Punjabi diaspora of approximately 10 million is significant. In one sense, Punjab is at the nexus of globalisation and, in another sense, it is embedded within globalisation through its twentieth century history of emigration around the world. Gurdas Maan’s net worth is an estimated $50 million; in other words, he is a major individual beneficiary of the globalisation of Punjab – savvily and lucratively riding its contradictory waves. It is somewhat incongruous then that, in a global-glocal capitalist MTV production of “Ki Banu Duniya Da”, Gurdas Maan romanticises a localised idyllic past and seeks to return to this past in order to save Punjabis from the perils of globalisation (whilst, I assume, keeping his profits firmly in his pocket).

In the opening verses of “Ki Banu Duniya Da”, these are the words of wisdom on gender and sexual relations that Gurdas Maan sings:

In today’s times, romance has become frivolous / Destroying the divine concept of true love / Men date women without the intention to marry them / Where is chivalry heading? / Where is the youth heading? / Where is the beauty-struck youth heading?

Traditional embroidered costumes are disappearing / Traditional earrings are disappearing / Traditional silk stoles and robes are disappearing / Traditional veils and the veiled women are disappearing / Our traditional values are disappearing!

Oh what is to become of our world? / Only the God almighty knows

[…]

Water filled vessels once sat on your head / No one could bare the radiance of your ethereal beauty / Praises were showered upon you in every direction you traveled / Anklets embraced your feet with exaltation / But now you seem to have forgotten your own true value / Your graceful elegance is dissipating / Forgetting your old folk tunes

Oh what is to become of our world? / Only the God almighty knows

A contemporary, globalising India is witnessing a violent clash between a socially and politically resurgent, patriarchal, religious and deeply conservative ‘old India’ and a socially and politically rising, urban, educated and mobile young generation ‘new India’ – who are demanding gender and sexual freedom. This is a struggle between static and motion. Noteworthy are the post-December 16th 2012 and 2013 demonstrations against female sexual violence (after the high profile case of a gang-rape of a female student on a bus in Delhi), the recriminalisation of homosexuality (through the reinstatement of the British colonial penal code Section 377) in 2013 and the protests thereafter, and the 2014 Kiss of Love movement against moral policing and for the right to kiss in public (which religious forces define as an obscene act). All the while, Gurdas Maan bemoans, “the veiled women are disappearing”. On the question of disappearance then, his myopia is telling.

The Hindu newspaper states that “nearly three million girls, one million more than boys” were “‘missing’ in 2011 compared to 2001 and there are now 48 fewer girls per 1,000 boys than there were in 1981.” Alka Gupta, in a Unicef India press release, observes: “The decline in child sex ratio in India is evident by comparing the census figures. In 1991, the figure was 947 girls to 1000 boys. Ten years later it had fallen to 927 girls for 1000 boys. Since 1991, 80% of districts in India have recorded a declining sex ratio with the state of Punjab being the worst.”

img_470

KumKum DasGupta in The Guardian newspaper notes that while “census data shows that India’s overall gender ratio is improving, its child gender ratio is on the decline: between 1991 and 2011, the country’s female-male gender ratio rose from 927:1,000 to 940:1,000, but its child gender ratio fell from 945:1,000 to 914: 1,000.”

2012 Birth Sex Ratio World Map. Source: World DataBank, Gender Statistics, The World Bank and United Nations (Wikimedia Commons)

2012 Birth Sex Ratio World Map. Source: World DataBank, Gender Statistics, The World Bank and United Nations (Wikimedia Commons)

In a globalising India, there is disturbing evidence that the practice of female foeticide and infanticide in certain parts of the country, such as Punjab, is getting worse rather than better, and that this is in part being aided by the technology of global capitalism. As Alka Gupta comments: “Social discrimination against women, already entrenched in Indian society, has been spurred on by technological developments that today allow mobile sex selection clinics to drive into almost any village or neighbourhood unchecked.” She concludes:

“experts warn that the demographic crisis will lead to increasing sexual violence and abuse against women and female children, trafficking, increasing number of child marriages, increasing maternal deaths due to abortions and early marriages and increase in practices like polyandry.”

KumKum DasGupta also concludes:

“The skewed gender ratio has given rise to a system of bride-buying in the affected states: although girls and young women are lured into marriage by promises of a happy and secure life, once purchased they can be exploited, denied basic rights, put to work as maids and, in many cases, abandoned.”

The state of Punjab is not marginal to these trends, it is central.

Map showing the safety for women, based on the Female Safety Index (FSI) in the Well Being Index India Report 2013 by Tata Strategic Management Group (Wikimedia Commons)

Map showing safety for women, based on the Female Safety Index (FSI) in the Well Being Index India Report 2013 by Tata Strategic Management Group (Wikimedia Commons)

In December 2014, The Indian Express newspaper reported that a 17 year old victim of rape was set ablaze in Punjab. Three of the six men who set fire to her were those accused of her rape. In April 2015, also in Punjab, the same newspaper recorded that a teenager jumped from a moving bus to her death, after she and her mother were sexually assaulted by one of the bus workers.

Perhaps Gurdas Maan’s social observation and words of advice vis-à-vis Punjab’s drug addiction problem are more astute than his commentary on gender and sexual relations. He sings:

Drugs are ruining the youth of our country / Reducing their bodies to bones that sound like Shiva’s drums of death / Bad politics is killing the ambition of our youth / Cheating has become the norm / Oh Maan, there is no guarantee of what the future holds / Remember our wise ancestors said that holding grudges against your circumstances will never bring you any good. So be positive!

Oh what is to become of our world? / Only the God almighty knows

[…]

My blessed soul belongs to you my almighty / It belongs to the heavenly star / It also belongs to holy men under the banyan tree / My blessed soul belongs to you my almighty

Punjab’s drug addiction problem is an epidemic one. A study by one of the state’s universities estimates that 70% of young men in Punjab are addicted to drugs or alcohol. A report by Al Jazeera reveals that corrupt politicians in the state are pandering to this widespread addiction by supplying drugs during election time to win votes. On the social factors driving this epidemic, the report insightfully concludes that:

“Drug abuse in Punjab owes much to the state’s declining agricultural economy, growing unemployment, the travails of rural life and Punjabi machismo.”

The material reality of Punjab is crucial context to the social problems it faces, be that its drug epidemic or its high suicide incidence rate. Mallika Kaur of Foreign Policy observes:

“Stagnant prices for produce, a lack of crop insurance and loan-forgiveness policies, and an unregulated lending market have left many farmers in insurmountable debt, fueling the disturbing suicide trend. The problem is particularly acute in Punjab. The epicenter of India’s agriculture bounty, Punjab reportedly has the highest rate of farmer suicide among the country’s states.”

She proceeds to stress the gender dynamics and implications of such a reality:

“While suicide victims are overwhelmingly men, the surviving women are particularly vulnerable to problems after their husbands, fathers, or other male family members are gone. Female heads of households traditionally have little earning power or independence. In some cases, families have dealt with multiple suicides, and the dependents, unable to cope with the resulting economic burden, also resort to the ultimate step of desperation. Widows routinely face disinheritance and dislocation, or abuse at the hands of their in-laws, while children – especially girls – are affected by abrupt removal from schools, nutritional deficits, and at times even bonded labor.”

Still, Gurdas Maan sings: “Remember our wise ancestors said that holding grudges against your circumstances will never bring you any good. So be positive! […] My blessed soul belongs to you my almighty.” Here Gurdas Maan wants to replace one opium for another, rather than politically confront and challenge the full and complex realities of socio-economic upheaval. Marx’s words come to mind:

“Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.” (Karl Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right)

Perhaps the 50 million dollar Gurdas Maan is part of the illusion: a figure too uncritically idolised alongside the other gods.

Fanfare of Gurdas Maan in Punjab (Wikimedia Commons)

Fanfare of Gurdas Maan in Punjab (Wikimedia Commons)

Space, Place, and Post-Berlin Wall Techno

“You cannot really describe what happened at that time, during this cultural revolution, that’s so special about it. But I would say there was an incredible curiosity for the future.” Paul van Dyk, DJ and producer, Berlin (Sub Berlin: Story of Tresor)

“If I hadn’t had this Tresor family, I would have had much more problems to reposition in this new, reunificated Germany.” Alexandra, club booking manager, Berlin (Sub Berlin: Story of Tresor)

The documentary “Sub Berlin: Story of Tresor” is a fascinating insight into the social and cultural geography of post-Berlin Wall, Berlin and its dynamic interrelationship with urban political economy. There is a narrative here of a moment in which a youth subcultural mass came to experience and negotiate the transitioning space of a city through a radical appropriation of music and place.

i. Discovering the place of Tresor, and unravelling its space and time

In its heyday of the 1920s, the traffic intersection of Berlin’s Potsdamer Platz was a space of motion and interaction emblematic of the age of modernity. It was a thoroughfare for trade and a centre for nightlife; a place of commerce and a hub of artistic creativity. Largely destroyed during the Second World War, Potsdamer Platz went on to become the “no man’s land” of a divided Berlin: a local barren place symbolic of the bipolar national and global space of the Cold War. When the Wall came down, in those early years of 1990, 1991 and 1992, Potsdamer Platz remained an urban desert.

22.7.1991 Berlin-Mitte Gebiet der ehemaligen Mauer am Potsdamer Platz

Potsdamer Platz in 1991, Berlin Mitte district (Wikimedia Commons)

“One day we were in a traffic jam at Potsdamer Platz … and we were going: every building here is empty, there must be some place to open a club. And Achim just went: what about over there? … At the front there were some barred windows to the cellar … we opened it and 40 to 50 year old air was coming out. We went downstairs with a  lighter and we came into the room. … It was unbelievable.” Johnnie, Tresor discoverer (Sub Berlin: Story of Tresor)

“It was like the walls were talking to me. And then I saw the lockers with the numbers on. I was thinking about the life stories behind them, about the joyful moments and family tragedies.” Dimitri, Tresor founder (Sub Berlin: Story of Tresor)

The Tresor underground techno club was formed in March 1991. It was situated on Leipziger Strasse in Berlin Mitte, the former centre of East Berlin, next to Potsdamer Platz. Tresor occupied the vaults of the once Wertheim department store of Leipziger Platz, which was destroyed in the Second World War. Wertheim was one of the largest and most lavish department stores in the world.

Kaufhaus_Wertheim,_Leipziger_Platz,_1920er_Jahre

Kaufhaus Wertheim in 1920s Berlin (Wikimedia Commons)

“It reached from Wilhelmstrasse to Leipziger Platz and the basement had the same size. On the historical pictures you can see big storage boxes in the room where the dancefloor is now. And in the lockers there were probably lots of documents – none left!” Dimitri, Tresor founder (Sub Berlin: Story of Tresor)

“During World War II the whole area between the Reich Air Force Ministry and the Reichstag was actually a complete underground city. Streets with four lanes, connection tunnels going from here to there. … In case of bombing attacks the staff just went four levels down and could still operate in the bunkers. And now we were next door.” Johnnie, Tresor discoverer (Sub Berlin: Story of Tresor)

ii. Early Tresor: a convergent and transcendent space of an ‘in-between’ Berlin

“You have to look at the time that Tresor was founded in and how it developed. That’s not something you could create artificially. It happened after the fall of the Wall and it was the only club that was instantly accepted by both the East and the West people.” Regina, Tresor management (Sub Berlin: Story of Tresor)

The fall of the Berlin Wall, 1989 (Wikimedia Commons)

The fall of the Berlin Wall, 1989 (Wikimedia Commons)

In the immediate aftermath of the fall of the Wall, Berlin became an extraordinary liminal space. Amidst a blurred legality / illegality and a confused urban political economy (‘who owns what?’) Tresor was born.

“In 1990 … it was wild, no laws, the police didn’t know what was legal and what wasn’t. Back then we broke into a lot of spaces and the police was just watching, because they didn’t know whom it belonged to, they thought we might have old ownership rights or whatever – nobody cared. It was just normal to open every basement and to have a glance inside.” Tannith, DJ and producer, Berlin (Sub Berlin: Story of Tresor)

“We seized the moment and also it was partly impossible to get permissions, because the authorities simply didn’t exist.” Dimitri, Tresor founder (Sub Berlin: Story of Tresor)

Tresor_-_Berlin

Tresor, 126-128 Leipziger Strasse, Berlin Mitte (Wikimedia Commons)

In its early days, Tresor became home to a pioneering youth subculture that both transcended the East and the West and converged East Berliners and West Berliners on their own terms.

“You have to keep in mind that Berlin was more affected by the fall of the Wall than any other town. The city had become twice as big overnight. It was total chaos in 1990: the states were not reunified yet, officially it was still the GDR. We could already get in, but it was still a separate state.” Dimitri, Tresor founder (Sub Berlin: Story of Tresor)

“With the fall of the Wall in 1989 you really had to have guts to discover the East for yourself. You had to be brave to go over there, because nobody knew whether the situation would stay stable or would turn and become dangerous. You just had to go in and dare something.” Tresor clubber (Sub Berlin: Story of Tresor)

“Both cultures clashed into each other and Techno seemed to be the connection. … It was equally new for both sides, for East and West, and that was the basis for a common understanding. The stereotype of the arrogant guy from the West didn’t exist anymore, because in this we were all unexperienced.” Tannith, DJ and producer, Berlin (Sub Berlin: Story of Tresor)

“Everybody was equal, there was no age difference, no dress code, everybody could do what they wanted to. And people wouldn’t directly ask whether you came from the East or West.” Mareen, early guest to Tresor from East Berlin (Sub Berlin: Story of Tresor)

iii. Tresor: born of globalisation and killed by globalisation?

“It was the time of the first Gulf War, one was irritated by many of the news and in general there was a lot of technology in the air. You heard of some ground-to-air missiles, and at the same time I read everything of William Gibson, all these things fit together. You had this technological, this technical music, the news, the lectures, then the fractal theory, the chaos theory … Around ’89 / ’90 you had Acid parties in Berlin, very much influenced from England of course, because that kind of music came from England. For example early stuff from The Prodigy. You had a lot of breakbeat, the straight four-four time came with Detroit.” Alexandra, club booking manager, Berlin (Sub Berlin: Story of Tresor)

The end of the Cold War and collapse of Stalinist totalitarianism, along with the triumph of US imperialism, led to a reordering of the world in the early 1990s. By the mid to late 1990s, access to advances in information and communications technology and the emergence of cheap air travel were changing our perceptions and experiences of space and time. Tresor and Berlin techno were a unique local product of globalisation, with a special interlocution with Detroit.

“The whole House music thing came from the States. From Disco to House. Then the guys from Detroit brought more electronic stuff in and pushed it further.” Tresor clubber (Sub Berlin: Story of Tresor)

While early 1990s Berlin was a liminal space, the relations and forces of capital had well and truly moved in by the turn of a new century. The land that Tresor was on / in was sold by the city government to a property developer in 2001 for 20 million euros, and the developer invested 70 million euros in a project that included Tresor’s demolition. Tresor held its last night in the vaults on Leipziger Strasse in April 2005.

“Anyway, here in Tresor, treasures were born. How can they alone blow up the treasure chamber? For the sake of financial concepts? There must be something wrong with the idea of property! An error in the control centre!” Tresor clubber (Sub Berlin: Story of Tresor)

iv. Techno Berlin: the sound of the city

CapitalismnotworkingSphere&GraphicPen (2)

Berlin: ‘Capitalism is not working’ (photo/picture by Camila Bassi)

The sound of Berlin techno echoes the city’s urban landscape – its post-Berlin Wall building sites, and its perennial grime and graffiti. Techno in Berlin is known for its really strong beat. It is best described as ‘bangy’, and for a reason.

“The sound was radical and unlimited and excessive just like the fall of the Wall.” Mark Reeder, MFS Records, Berlin (Sub Berlin: Story of Tresor)

“The kids had a desire to celebrate their new freedom and we just had the right soundtrack.” Dimitri, Tresor founder (Sub Berlin: Story of Tresor)

The political economy of cycling and doping as licensed fraud

“Political economy came into being as a natural result of the expansion of trade, and with its appearance elementary, unscientific huckstering was replaced by a developed system of licensed fraud, an entire science of enrichment.” (Outlines of a Critique of Political Economy, Friedrich Engels, 1844)

I. Brewer’s thesis

Screen Shot 2015-06-26 at 15.57.45

Benjamin Brewer‘s paper, Commercialization in Professional Cycling 1950-2001: Institutional Transformations and the Rationalization of “Doping”, is superb and well worth a full read. Here I want to offer a presentation of his narrative followed by a Marxist understanding of the political economy of cycling and doping as ‘licensed fraud’.

Brewer historically (and geographically) contextualises the prevalent and sophisticated social organisation of doping in contemporary professional cycling, which includes new relations between medicine and sport, within the institutional changes made by the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), which brought about a deeper commercialisation of the sport, that in turn led to new competitive pressures and changes for teams and riders, and “fertile ground” (pg 277) for innovations in training and doping. Brewer sees the relationship between commercialisation and doping as “one of unintended consequences” (pg 296) – a point on which we differ (see my post, Who is the real enemy of professional cycling – Lance Armstrong, or capital personified?, and part II here).

For professional cycling, Brewer makes plain, there was no “idyllic, pre-commercial past later sullied by the cynical demands of business and money making” (pg 277); instead, there is the question of degree and impact of commercialisation during its lifespan. Cycling has long relied on commercial sponsors, who expect returns from the money invested in advertising.

Writing on the classical period (1950-1984), Brewer notes:

“Major teams were almost always structured around a single dominant leader – occasionally two – expected to garner nearly all of the team’s results. […] Team leaders made enough money to support themselves training and racing year round, but very few cyclists attained any lasting wealth from racing. Most returned to low-prestige occupations upon retirement having saved very little money during their racing years. Pro cycling in this classical period was mainly a ‘blue-collar’ sport practiced by the sons of the lower classes for fans from the same milieu […]. Because only a small number of team leaders were expected to deliver the major results during this era, the bulk of racers cared very little about their own results. The resulting atmosphere was one of marked fraternity […].” (pg. 282-283)

On the history of cycling and doping, Brewer recognises that the two “were partners from the start” (pg 284), but, in the classical period, doping was “a loose system reliant on informed speculation combined with traditional knowledge” (pg 285). This would change.

Brewer moves on to what he defines as the transition and reform period (1984-1989). Greg LeMond’s arrival on the European scene signified a “profound shift in traditional team arrangements, principally in the area of salary negotiations and pay scales” (pg 286). Sponsorship changed in nature too, from “small-scale, ‘shoestring’ endeavours” to “more sophisticated marketing tactics of large corporations” (pg 286). Amidst this came the institutional reforms of UCI, notably, its Mondialisation campaign. In the classical period a majority of riders came from a small number of western European countries: France, Belgium, Italy, and Spain. UCI’s Mondialisation drive – for the “global expansion of cycling” (pg 288) – introduced the World Cup and a computerised rankings system for riders; moreover, Mondialisation meant deeper commercialisation of the sport. Brewer states:

“The advent of the rankings system for both teams and racers, in tandem with the new rules for admission to the major races signaled a profound change in the political economy of professional cycling. The major races are precisely the reason major sponsors enter the sport since these events attract the bulk of media attention, particularly the highly coveted television coverage. Thus, entry into the major races directly determines which sponsors will realize the return on their initial sponsorship investment.” (pg 289)

The contemporary period of professional cycling, from 1990 onwards, institutionalised these changes. Brewer cites Australian cyclist Allan Peiper from 1992:

“The points system was fun to begin with, but then came the rule of taking the five best-placed cyclists from each team, and adding their points together for a team total score. The top 20 teams could ride the World Cup classics and the Tour – the rest would miss out. So points became really important. Points really became money. The old system of team leaders and domestiques was to be undermined.” (pg 290)

Brewer underlines the effect: “From the outset of the rankings system the most frequently heard complaint from the racers and team directors was the increasingly cutthroat nature of competition and the increased speeds in races” (bold: my emphasis, pg 293).

The new competitive pressure of the contemporary period has changed the team, from its classical time, into a less hierarchical structure to reduce the risk for sponsor investment (since risk is spread out across a number of key riders), and has laid fecund ground for innovations in training and preparation: if, Brewer states, “traditional doping provided an immediate performance ‘spike’, the new epoch of performance-enhancing pharmacology would be best represented by an upward curve punctuated by periodic (and regular) plateaus” (pgs 294-295). What Brewer offers is a highly persuasive, and well researched, argument; indeed, the independent report to UCI published in March 2015 provides further evidence to back up his thesis.

Screen Shot 2015-06-14 at 10.40.34

II. Licensed fraud: Engels’ thesis

What has become of the professional cyclist, the worker, under such evolving conditions of existence? The Mondialisation campaign of UCI was a success in radically transitioning the sport hand-in-hand with global capital accumulation. While the professional cyclist and team have long been branded commodities to aid in the delivery of greater profits on related branded commodities, the commercialisation of professional cycling is much deeper and more expansive in its contemporary era. Brewer notes:

“The ‘value-added’ by sponsoring a team […] was confirmed by a vice-president for sales at the US Postal Service, sponsor of the team with which Lance Armstrong has won multiple editions of the Tour de France. Gail Sonnenberg stated: ‘Like any other sponsorship, it’s about building our brand,’ continuing, ‘This is not something we do because it feels good’ […]. Ms Sonnenberg claimed that in 1999 the team ‘brought the post office $10 million…more than offsetting the cost of being the team’s title sponsor.’ The Managing Director of Danish corporation CSC echoes this sentiment regarding his firm’s $2.5 million investment in a team: ‘We could have spent up to $50 million to have obtained the attention we’ve had so far. Cycling is perfect for branding a name’ […].” For a current example, it would be worth considering INRING//’s analysis of “The Finances of Team Sky”.

(Wikimedia Commons)

(Wikimedia Commons)

(Wikimedia Commons)

(Wikimedia Commons)

The entertainment factor of professional cycling, and all of its apparent glamour (see my post, All laid bare: cycling, commodity fetishism, and podium girls), diverts us from something. To be sure, doping in cycling is illegal, but if we define ‘doping’ as the consumption of a drug to enhance the performance of an athlete, and we define ‘drug’ as a medicine or substance consumed with a physiological effect, and we know both of the close relationship between medicine and sport, and of the imperative of capital personified for endless self-expansion, then perhaps we can sense a truer reality. As Engels (1844) remarks:

“the first maxim in trade is secretiveness – the concealment of everything which might reduce the value of the article in question. The result is that in trade it is permitted to take the utmost advantage of the ignorance, the trust, of the opposing party, and likewise to impute qualities to one’s commodity which it does not possess. In a word, trade is legalised fraud.”

The Mondialisation pioneers may retort, “‘Have we not carried civilisation to distant parts of the world? Have we not brought about the fraternisation of the peoples […]?'”; and one might reply:

“Yes, all this you have done – but how! You have destroyed the small monopolies so that the one great basic monopoly […] may function the more freely and unrestrictedly. You have civilised the ends of the earth to win new terrain for the deployment of your vile avarice. You have brought about the fraternisation of the peoples – but the fraternity is the fraternity of thieves.” (Engels, 1844)

All laid bare: cycling, commodity fetishism, and podium girls

Marx, the Wood Theft Law, and commodity fetishism

While editor of the newspaper Rheinische Zeitung, Karl Marx wrote a series of articles (in 1842) about a proposal in the Rhenish provincial assembly, on behalf of the forest owners, to stop the traditional practice of gathering (dead) wood by the peasants. Here, in debating the Wood Theft Law, an early Marx came to recognise the role of the State in protecting the interests of private property over and against general interests, the intersection of political, social and economic relations, and the fetishism of the commodity form:

“Can the forest owner present private demands where he has no private claims? Was the forest owner the state, prior to the theft of wood? He was not, but he becomes it after the theft. The wood possesses the remarkable property that as soon as it is stolen it bestows on its owner state qualities which previously he did not possess. […] The wood thief has robbed the forest owner of wood, but the forest owner has made use of the wood thief to purloin the state itself.”

“In direct contradiction to those writers of fantasy who profess to find in the representation of private interests ideal romanticism, immeasurable depths of feeling, and the most fruitful source of individual and specific forms of morality, such representation on the contrary abolishes all natural and spiritual distinctions by enthroning in their stead the immoral, irrational and soulless abstraction of a particular material object and a particular consciousness which is slavishly subordinated to this object.”

(Wikimedia Commons)

(Wikimedia Commons)

Marx goes on to state that the Cubans identified “gold as a fetish of the Spaniards. They [the Spaniards] celebrated a feast in its honour, sang in a circle around it and then threw it into the sea.” With such insight, he reasons, had the Cubans been present in the debate in the Rhenish provincial assembly, they would surely have seen wood as the Rhinelanders’ fetish?”

In later works, Marx develops his concept of ‘commodity fetishism’. In Capital (Volume One), he concludes:

“A commodity is therefore a mysterious thing, simply because in it the social character of [human] labour appears to them as an objective character stamped upon the product of that labour; because the relation of the producers to the sum total of their own labour is presented to them as a social relation, existing not between themselves, but between the products of their labour.”

Cycling, commodity festishism, and podium girls

Commodities take various forms. In professional cycling, for example, there’s the bicycle, the attire, the paraphernalia, the rider, and the podium girls. In one sense, it’s all laid bare. This year’s Tour de France (2015) will show the bodies of cyclists littered with the advertising logos of Team Sky, Tinkoff-Saxo, Astana, Etixx-Quick Step, Giant-Alpecin, Movistar, FDJ, Ag2r La Mondiale, Orica-GreenEdge, Cannondale-Garmin, BMC, Trek Factory Racing, Lotto-Soudal, Katusha, MTN-Qhubeka, LottoNL-Jumbo, Europcar, Confidis, IAM, Lampre-Merida, Bora-Argon18, and Bretagne-Séché. Such logos will be an unavoidable, integral sight for those wishing to enjoy actual cycling and France’s spectacular landscape. The decision-making of teams and riders will be steered by the fused competition of sport and capital. An independent report to the UCI (in March 2015) noted:

“It is interesting that riders are […] aware of the general pressure to keep sponsors in the sport, not just their own team’s sponsor, but more widely. The Commission was told that sometimes riders would agree to lose stages to another rider whose sponsor might have been considering withdrawing from cycling. In this way, the sponsor would have a stage win and podium exposure, perhaps putting off the withdrawal decision. […] Since cycling’s earliest days, riders have agreed race or stage outcomes with other riders. It is often seen as part of team and individual tactics in the peloton. A good number of today’s top riders and former riders openly discussed these practices with the Commission. They were described as part of the cut and thrust of professional competitive cycling […] Bartering can take place not only between riders, but also at team level with team managers negotiating deals.”

Professional cycling seems almost desensitised to the dehumanising effects of commodity fetishism. The hiring of commodified labour-power, as seen below, makes for an absurd and an outrageous spectacle, and yet it is also a logical extension of an über-commodified world of male-dominated, professional cycling. Here sexism and capitalism blend: this is entertainment, which creams profit from its workers, whilst confounding them with the products of their labour. It’s demeaning to cyclists, and to all lovers of cycling – women and men.

A necessary struggle for gender equality in cycling should also entail a struggle to free cycling from its dope, capital. The representation of private interests, of capital, “abolishes all natural and spiritual distinctions by enthroning in their stead the immoral, irrational and soulless abstraction of a particular material object and a particular consciousness which is slavishly subordinated to this object.” Free the body from commercial-imperative so that we can dress and undress as we like, and so that we can cycle as we like; free us from social relations between things to social relations between human beings! Ride on.

Screen Shot 2015-06-19 at 16.14.50

The world of cycling, doping, and cheating exploded (in one report)

“The Commission did not hear from anyone credible in the sport who would give cycling a clean bill of health in the context of doping today.” (Cycling Independent Reform Commission: Report to the President of the Union Cycliste Internationale, March 2015)

Screen Shot 2015-06-14 at 10.40.34

“he [Brian Cookson] needs to be talking about other things because this sport is not in a good place for a variety of reasons. A lot of it has to do – perhaps some would say – with me. But he doesn’t need to worry about this. […] You guys can decide if he has done a good job, if he’s been tough on Astana, whether he’s stuck with his mission statement.” (Lance Armstrong about the President of UCI, June 2015)

(Wikimedia Commons)

Brian Cookson, current President of UCI (Wikimedia Commons)

“I’m that character in Harry Potter they can’t talk about, Voldemort? It’s as if you can’t mention him. I’m the one everybody wants to pretend never lived. But that will not be the case for ever because it can’t be the case for ever. That won’t work, people aren’t stupid. We know what happened.” (Lance Armstrong and Lord Voldemort, June 2015)

Armstrong riding to victory at L'Alpe d'Huez, during stage 10 of the 2001 Tour de France (Wikimedia Commons)

Lance Armstrong riding to victory at L’Alpe d’Huez, during stage 10 of the 2001 Tour de France (Wikimedia Commons)

Here are my extracted highlights from the damning, Cycling Independent Reform Commission: Report to the President of the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), which was press released in March 2015. Much in this report chimes with the narrative I present in my post, Who is the real enemy of professional cycling – Lance Armstrong, or capital personified? The scapegoating of individual professional cyclists, and indeed, occasional planets like Lance Armstrong’s, is a means to distract us from the holistic picture, specifically, the historical and systemic nature of doping in cycling, which is essentially driven by the relentless and restless motion of capital. Media and celebrity tycoon, Piers Morgan, states (in June 2015): “Yes, Lance Armstrong, you ARE Lord Voldemort – a lying, ruthless, scheming, self-obsessed monster who deserves to be unmentionable for eternity”. Lance Armstrong is right about one thing, “people aren’t stupid”. Capital is cycling’s real dope – of course the rich and powerful seek to mask this reality. Read on, as the independent report to the President of UCI is explosive, in the most balanced and measured of ways.

 

1. UCI and its dubious relationship to doping

“For a long time, the main focus of UCI leadership was on the growth of the sport worldwide and its priority was to protect the sport’s reputation; doping was perceived as a threat to this. The allegations and review of UCI’s anti-doping programme reveal that decisions taken by UCI leadership in the past have undermined anti-doping efforts: examples range from adopting an attitude that prioritised a clean image and sought to contain the doping problem, to disregarding the rules and giving preferential status to high profile athletes, to publicly criticising whistleblowers and engaging in personal disputes with other stakeholders.”

1280px-World_Cycling_Centre_-_Aigle_Switzerland

World Cycling Centre, Switzerland (Wikimedia Commons)

1992-2006

“The doping problem was well known to the UCI leadership and it was clear to everyone that doping was endemic in cycling. […] Doping was portrayed by UCI leadership as the faulty (and surprising) behaviour of a few individuals, but not as endemic group behaviour or as a structural problem within its sport. […] The approach to doping was one of containment, with a focus on protecting health. […] The emphasis of UCI’s anti-doping policy was, therefore, to give the impression that UCI was tough on doping rather than actually being good at anti-doping.”

UCI (Wikimedia Commons)

UCI (Wikimedia Commons)

2006/2007-today

“The original policy of containment was abandoned in favour of a policy that sought to catch the cheaters. Anti-doping is not a static matter. Once a new level is attained, the battle is still far from won. Instead, the history of anti-doping is marked by constant adaptation by those who seek to cheat and those who seek to catch them. […] Even though UCI’s anti-doping programme today is one of the best among international federations, the CIRC sees room for further improvement.”

 

2. Ambiguity in riding ‘clean’

“There is no “one size fits all” definition from within the sport of what clean means. The generally accepted understanding of being clean is that an athlete does not take products that are on the WADA Prohibited List. Some riders will take substances on the List but, having not been caught, consider themselves clean. Some will take substances that are on the List but are not yet detectable, and therefore believe that they are clean. Some riders stop doping before a big event and therefore consider themselves to be riding clean. All definitions have been described by riders and other stakeholders. The Commission heard that some riders also experiment with performance-enhancing substances and practices that are not yet on a banned list. […] The Commission notes that despite the statements from riders and teams today that they are clean, the Commission was informed that hardly any riders in the peloton today are willing to allow their samples to be used anonymously for research purposes into developing new methods of drug detection. A box on doping control forms today can be ticked to enable such testing. The Commission was told that over 95% of the time, it is not ticked.”

 

3. A history of doping and cheating in cycling

800px-Tour_de_Doping

Transparant bei der Tour de France 2006 (Wikimedia Commons)

1890s—1980s

“The earliest accounts of doping practices from the 1890s and early 1900s indicate that athletes would rely on various stimulants, or combinations thereof, such as alcohol, caffeine, strychnine, heroin, cocaine and amphetamine to alleviate fatigue and enhance their performance. […] By 1955, there was an account of the use of Performance Enhancing Drugs (“PED” or “PEDs”) in cycling, and of 25 urine samples taken from riders in a 1955 race, five were positive for stimulants. Ten years later, tests conducted on Belgian cyclists showed that 37% of professionals and 23% of amateurs were using amphetamines, while reports from Italy showed that 46% of professional cyclists tested positive for doping. Based on these statistics, widespread use of stimulants was evident during this era. […] The death of Danish cyclist Knud Jensen at the 1960 Rome Olympic Games brought national government and sporting bodies’ attention to the potential risks associated with stimulant use. […] In 1965, Belgium and France legislated against doping, and in 1966, the first drug tests were carried out at the Tour. They were opposed by riders, and five-time Tour winner, Jacques Anquetil, who admitted to taking amphetamines, stated, “We find these tests degrading.” Jacques Anquetil led a revolt by cyclists and stopped the race the next day.”

Late 1980s—2001

(Wikimedia Commons)

Humorous writing on the street during Tour de France 2008 at Alpe d’Huez saying that EPO is available in 500 meters distance (Wikimedia Commons)

“The real revolution that emerged in the late 1980s and became prevalent in the 1990s was the introduction of EPO to the peloton. While some of the literature concludes that the 1980s, and not the 1990s, appear to be key in the rapid evolution of pro cyclists’ performances, former riders and other actors in the sport identify the late 1980s or early 1990s as the period when EPO was introduced, and when the peloton started “flying”. At this time, riders were also using anabolic steroids, primarily for faster recuperation, and human growth hormone (“HGH”) had also become very popular for the same purpose. […] Almost all whom the Commission interviewed, who were direct members of the cycling community, stated that the introduction of EPO into the peloton was a “game changer”. […] according to a 1994 report on EPO use in Italian professional cycling, between 60 to 80% of all riders were using EPO. From riders’ testimony to the CIRC, it is possible that this estimate may be modest for the peloton in that era, given that some put the percentage at 90+% across the peloton.”

“In 1997, seven years after speculation that riders were dying from EPO overdoses, UCI introduced the “No Start Rule” […]. Its stated purpose was to protect riders’ health and safety and to prevent further deaths from EPO. It was not an anti-doping rule, but a health and safety measure. […] One unintended consequence of the 50% haematocrit threshold on all riders, regardless of their natural levels, was that riders with haematocrit levels naturally in the low-mid 40s could gain an advantage by using EPO up to 50%. According to one former rider, the introduction of the 50% haematocrit value rule was perceived by riders as legalising EPO up to a certain limit. He stated that if a rider had not used EPO beforehand, he had certainly started using it after the rule was introduced in 1997.”

Francesco Conconi

“The Italian doctor Francesco Conconi was considered by some to be the father of Italian “doping physicians.” In the early 1990s, Conconi received over EUR 2million in funding from the Comitato Olimpico Nazionale Italiano (“CONI”, the Italian National Olympic Committee) to carry out doping “research”, and further funding from the IOC to develop a test for EPO. […] Francesco Conconi was a member of the IOC’s Medical Committee and President of UCI’s Medical Commission. Whilst he was receiving funding from CONI and the IOC to carry out doping research and to develop a test for EPO, Francesco Conconi was simultaneously providing EPO to athletes and a number of cycling stars, including Marco Pantani, Claudio Chiappucci and Gianni Bugno.”

Key public profile doping incidents / cases

  • PDM Intralipid Affair and alleged EPO use
  • Bologna Investigation
  • The Festina Affair
  • Doping on Team Telekom/T-Mobile
  • Doping on the USPS/Discovery Channel teams

“The above-mentioned investigations demonstrated systematic doping by multiple riders in the teams throughout the period, with the participation of team and external doctors, support staff and team managers. […] The introduction of EPO into the peloton and the absence of an EPO test were real games changers to the sport of road cycling. Doping became the norm in the peloton, not only to increase performance but also just to keep up with the rest of the peloton. Doping became organised, sophisticated, widespread and systematic. Evading anti-doping measures remained easy and gave the riders/teams a total sense of impunity. Many interviewees commented that without EPO, it would have been difficult for even the best riders to win the Grand Tours.”

2001—2007

Key public profile doping incidents / cases

  • The Hamilton and Pérez cases
  • “Oil for Drugs” Investigation
  • Leinders scandal
  • The Cofidis Scandal
  • Operation Puerto
  • Floyd Landis and Alexander Vinokourov Cases

“The involvement of law enforcement agencies in different scandals made teams very nervous. Riders no longer spoke openly about doping but referred to it in the third person or used code-names for various substances. One former rider commented that before Festina, people carried doping products around, and handed them to riders after races, but after Festina such practices vanished. Talking about doping no longer happened between the teams, only between riders of the same team and not as openly as before.”

“The 2001—2007 era has shown how quickly the peloton managed to adapt to new anti-doping measures by swiftly moving from an EPO-focused doping regime to a cocktail of EPO micro-dosing, testosterone and blood transfusions. Doping was still prevalent, very much the norm and organised around the central figure of the doping doctor. Following the Festina scandal, several team managers shifted the burden of responsibility of doping to the athletes, still expecting them to dope but outside the team and leaving them in the hands of external team doctors. Anti-doping measures and tests were still insufficient to tackle the doping problem: there was no test for autologous blood transfusion and out of competition tests were still embryonic.”

Michele Ferrari and Eufemiano Fuentes

“Dr Michele Ferrari was reported to be conservative in terms of how he recommended and administered doping programmes. In comparison, a number of riders characterised Dr Eufemiano Fuentes as the “go-to” doctor if you wanted to try new, sometimes “experimental”, ideas in doping.”

2008-today

“The Athlete Biological Passport (“ABP”) brought about another major change in doping practices. Since its introduction by the UCI in 2008, being the first IF to do so, the ABP has been the mainstay of the anti-doping framework in cycling. Many riders advised that its introduction changed the doping landscape, and riders and doctors had to adapt their practices, processes and procedures to avoid detection.”

Key public profile doping incidents / cases

  • Tour 2008
  • The Mantova Investigation
  • The Contador case
  • The Padova Investigation
  • USADA Reasoned Decision

“Today the situation in cycling is likely still changing, and, certainly, it has become more opaque as riders have now been forced to dope “underground”. A common response to the Commission, when asked about teams, was that probably 3 or 4 were clean, 3 or 4 were doping, and the rest were a “don’t know”. A number of top riders, and others in the sport, discussed other rider’s top performances, or changes in appearance due to dramatic weight loss, and were unable to explain how they were achieved. […] One respected cycling professional felt that even today, 90% of the peloton was doping, although he thought that there was little orchestrated team doping in the manner that teams had previously employed. Another put it at around 20%. Many people simply stated they “didn’t know” who was clean and who was not. A lot of these discrepancies may be caused by the definition of doping being used by individuals […].”

“Gradually, 10-15% gains have become a thing of the past. It has been reported that increases in performance by micro-dosing EPO (as one form of continued doping) are now perhaps between 3-5%. This has had a significant impact on the doping landscape today because by reducing the performance gains, riders will start to believe that they can have a career riding clean. This is a key development in the fight against doping. However, the Astana case in 2014 is an example that shows the problem has not been eradicated at the higher levels. The Astana world tour and pro-continental teams collectively incurred five doping violations in 2014, two by the world tour team (EPO) and three by the pro-continental team (steroids).”

“[…] despite improvements to the science underlying the ABP, it is still possible for riders to micro-dose using EPO without getting caught. The Commission also heard that riders are confident that they can take a micro-dose of EPO in the evening because it will not show up by the time the doping control officers (“DCO” or “DCOs”) could arrive to test at 6am. […] The Commission also heard that riders are using ozone therapy, which involves extracting blood, treating it with ozone and injecting it back into the blood. One rider informed the Commission that by way of using ozone therapy he felt stronger, and that the muscles recovered, but that it had however not been as efficient as EPO. Several interviewees mentioned that AICAR, which supposedly has similar effects to EPO, has become popular in the peloton. […] In order to avoid detection, riders have for some time been using testosterone patches and gels because they release smaller quantities and the detection time is therefore shorter. These are sometimes used in combination with the HGH products mentioned above to increase their effectiveness. However, HGH is generally expensive and, certainly at lower levels of competition, it appears that riders therefore continue to use steroids. The Commission also heard that the same muscle enhancing effect can be gained by taking a combination of very small quantities of a variety of steroids. Again, by taking such products in such small quantities, it makes detection significantly more difficult. […] Corticoids are widely used today both to reduce pain and therefore improve endurance capability and to achieve weight loss to improve power/weight ratio. On the WADA Prohibited List all corticoids are prohibited when administered by oral, intravenous, intramuscular or rectal routes, but Therapeutic Use Exemptions (“TUEs”) can be requested for such administration. […] TUEs is a complicated and delicate area. Interviewees reported that TUEs are systematically exploited by some teams and even used as part of performance enhancement programmes.”

 

4. What creates a culture of doping? The rules and nature of competition, and big money sponsorship

“The Commission was told on a number of occasions that the points system caused riders to be more likely to risk doping towards the end of the season. This was done to achieve better placing in order to acquire extra points to help with contract negotiations, particularly if they were out of contract or in cases where the team might not obtain a licence the following year. […] The Commission was told by some interviewees that the race calendar is too busy. Some raised the fact that the three Grand Tours, the Giro, the Tour and the Vuelta were too close together in the calendar, and recovery time was not sufficient to enable a top rider to attempt seriously all three. One doctor explained that by the end of a 3-week tour, some riders would find it difficult to sleep due to the toxins in their body and the extreme effects on the body. The fact that riders have used products to get through races since the early 1900s, at a time when financial gain would not have been a determining factor, demonstrates that the degree of suffering is part of what pushes people to dope, which is still the case today according to a number of interviewees; […]”

“The Commission was frequently told that cycling has always been too dependent on income from sponsorship. This has had an effect at two levels: firstly, it put pressure on teams to encourage doping to ensure that the team obtained results to keep the sponsor happy, and, secondly, in some cases the short-term nature of a sponsorship deal might result in short-term contracts for riders (even some elite road riders only had short-term contracts) which put them under a separate pressure to dope. […] in 2012, one sports brand invested approximately USD1.5m in a successful World Team and the assessed return for the brand was USD 100m. Another major sponsor explained that its brand recognition over time grew from 2% in 1996, to 25% in 1999 to 45% today.”

“Prior to the high profile scandals and investigations in the 2000s, it appears that some sponsors either had knowledge of the doping practices or took a “turn a blind eye” approach. However, by the mid/late 2000s sponsors viewed the risk differently and started to look at alternative sports as a safer and more reliable investment, despite the significant potential returns on investment in cycling.”

“It is interesting that riders are also aware of the general pressure to keep sponsors in the sport, not just their own team’s sponsor, but more widely. The Commission was told that sometimes riders would agree to lose stages to another rider whose sponsor might have been considering withdrawing from cycling. In this way, the sponsor would have a stage win and podium exposure, perhaps putting off the withdrawal decision.”

“Today, sponsors protect themselves through contractual provisions that enable them to terminate the contract for damage to reputation. […] Ultimately, it is clear that sponsors take a more discerning approach to sponsoring cycling today. In large part this is because doping has become culturally unacceptable and therefore association with a “tainted” sport is now considered damaging to a brand. However, the rewards for sponsors in cycling are still significant, because it is a sport with broad appeal across society and geographically. A change in attitude from sponsors is necessary, but whilst teams are entirely reliant on a single sponsor to survive, the lack of financial stability will continue to foster an environment that pushes teams and riders to do all they can to achieve results.”

“The Commission was told of varying efforts to cheat the technical rules, including using motors in frames. This particular issue was taken seriously, especially by top riders, and was not dismissed as being isolated. Other forms of cheating were explained, relating to frames construction, saddle specifications, and the wearing of illegal clothing and apparel. One interviewee alleged that another had heated a cycling track to elicit an advantage to the home team, by enabling them to use more advantageous tyres.”

“Since cycling’s earliest days, riders have agreed race or stage outcomes with other riders. It is often seen as part of team and individual tactics in the peloton. A good number of today’s top riders and former riders openly discussed these practices with the Commission. They were described as part of the cut and thrust of professional competitive cycling and were not seen by riders as in any way wrong. […] The motives for agreeing outcomes are many and varied. For example: for assistance in accumulating points in a season, to maintain a time lead, to enable a sponsor to be a stage winner, to prevent a rival from succeeding or simply because they were paid to lose. In some cases, it might be linked to doping, for example riders have deliberately lost stages to avoid doping scrutiny or to appear less dominant when doping. Bartering can take place not only between riders, but also at team level with team managers negotiating deals.”

“Factors that originally encouraged riders to start doping, as far back as the late 1800s, still exist today. Cycling is a tough sport and the suffering that riders experience, together with a lack of financial stability create an environment that today still could encourage riders to turn to doping. The ease of access to doctors who can facilitate doping programmes, potentially under the influence of, or through, people who were involved in doping when they were riding, is another contributing factor.”

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.