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Why the Olympics are anti-Capitalist in spirit

By Chris Dillow
August 11th 2012





It’s sometimes said that sport is a mirror of society. Watching the Olympics, though, makes me think the opposite is the case, as Olympians represent values which are disappearing from society.

I’m thinking of Macintyre’s distinction between external goods (such as power, wealth and fame) versus the internal good of excellence at a particular practice. Olympians pursue the latter.

Yes, money and fame can follow from gold medals, but only as a by-product. There are surely countless easier ways for Anna Watkins to get rich than by getting up at stupid o’clock to torture herself.

In this sense, though, Olympians are rare, because most other people pursue the external goods of money, power and fame. And, what’s more, capitalism  – or maybe just any market economy – prioritises external goods over internal ones. I mean this in four senses:

1. Incentives. Capitalist incentives can crowd out excellence. The excellent banker who judges risk well can be sacked in the pursuit of short-term profit.The excellent middle manager who has maximized profits will find it harder to achieve a target of raising profits further than the mediocre manager who presides over inefficiency. And promotion often depends upon managers resembling their bosses than upon them being genuinely good. It’s this incentive issue that answers Will’s question of why British managers are so good at managing (some) sports but so bad at managing business.

2. Culture. From a capitalist point of view, Anna Watkins is a disaster; it would be much better for the economy if she stopped larking around in boats and got a well-paid job and spent all her money on shoes. The truly excellent cleaner or driver gets none of the wealth or power of the most mediocre CEO. And the people who reject career paths are regarded as eccentrics if not scroungers.Capitalism wants, and promotes, consumerism and greed rather than excellence.

3. Power. Capitalists often don’t want excellent workers, as these are hard to control and have market power. For these reasons, as Richard Sennett and Harry Bravermanshowed, capitalists deskill the labour process by taking excellence out of the workplace.

4. Consumerism. The notion of excellence, said Macintyre, is (largely) objective. In a market economy, however, “the customer is king.” And the customer is often a poor judge.In music, histrionic screeching sells better than subtle good phrasing. In TV,great shows often get pathetic audiences. And writers of “no redeeming literary merit at all” can sell millions.

Macintyre, however, went on to make a distinction between the two:

External goods are…characteristically objects of competition in which there must be losers as well as winners. Internal goods are indeed the outcome of competition to excel, but it is characteristic of them that their achievement is a good for the whole community. (After Virtue p 190-1).

This is surely (often?) true: Usain Bolt’s achievements enrich us, Whereas bankers’ wealth impoverishes us. As Frances says, there’s a “broken link” between work that helps society and individual remuneration.

In an important sense, then, Olympic participants (as distinct from their organizers!) represent something that’s being squeezed out of wider society – the pursuit of internal rather than external goods. In this sense, the games are anti-capitalist.

Originally published by Liberal Conspiracy

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