Capitalism and physical exercise

In a recent post on her blog, regular Overland contributor Stephanie Convery argued the Left should develop a ‘pro-exercise’ position that can avoid falling into the trap of reactionary ideas around ‘issues of weight, body shaming, social expectations, beauty industries and personal choice’. I would like to suggest that while Stephanie’s provisional position raises important pointers towards the ‘materialist’ approach she’d like us to stake out, she falls short of a satisfactory solution to the problem. In particular, she fails to integrate her correct focus on the centrality of human corporeality with the totality of social relations in which bodies operate, and so inadvertently endorses a decidedly capitalist form of physicality.

Stephanie writes: ‘From a materialist perspective, a person is solely a physical entity. There is no soul, no separate spirit that exists apart from the corporeal, but only a creature composed entirely of matter.’ This is true, but when she claims that ‘a person is no more or less than their body’, Stephanie analytically tears those individual bodies (those people) from the web of social relations in which they exist and act at a particular point in time. Thus, absent from her account is a critique of today’s dominant ideologies, which suggest there is already equal opportunity for empowerment through individual action. Collective resistance to powerlessness also does not explicitly appear in Stephanie’s account, despite her correct recognition of structural barriers to personal (bodily) agency.

I’d argue that this particular kind of focus on bodies also misses some deeper processes. In his brilliant recent book, Monsters of the Market: Zombies, Vampires and Global Capitalism, David McNally follows Marx in pointing out how under capitalism workers have to sell their ‘labour power’ (their ability to work) in order to survive. It is worth quoting David at length about the implications of this for workers’ bodies:

It means that rather than their own life-force, their fundamental human creative energy, workers’ labouring power becomes a commodity, a separable and detachable thing that can be sold, handed over to someone else. As a commodity, labour is not seen as integral to human personhood but, instead, as something that can be isolated and given to a buyer for a stipulated period of time. In buying labouring power, then, capital takes possession of labour, effectively draining it of its substance as a series of unique and unrepeatable acts tied to specific human personalities. Commodified abstract labour is thus effectively disembodied, detached from the persons who perform it. This detachability of commodified labour allows capitalists to break up and dissect work-processes into their component parts, confining individuals to the repetition of a limited number of human movements. As identical and interchangeable units of homogeneous labour-power, workers’ skills and bodies are dissected, fragmented, cut up into separable pieces subjected to the direction of an alien-force, represented by a legion of supervisors, and embedded in rhythms and processes of work that are increasingly dictated by automatic programmes and systems of machinery. In analysing these processes, Marx resorts repeatedly to the language of monstrosity. Capitalist manufacture ‘mutilates the worker’, he writes, ‘turning him into a fragment of himself’. Describing capital’s appearance in the form of the modern automated workplace where machines dominate workers, he refers to it as ‘a mechanical monster whose body fills whole factories’, and he denounces its ‘demonic power’ over living labour.

The subordination of human corporeality to the law of value, to a logic that is real and yet has no body of its own, has significant consequences not just for what happens in the world of production but for social relations more widely. It helps explain why our physicality can be experienced as not under our own control; rather, we experience it as something we are constantly trying to recapture outside of work, in what might be termed the ‘personal sphere’.

But capitalist social relations are not just produced at work. Marx writes in The Grundrisse, ‘In all forms of society there is one specific kind of production which predominates over the rest, whose relations thus assign rank and influence to the others. It is a general illumination which bathes all the other colours and modifies their particularity.’ Rather than seeing production as just one aspect of a society he starts with the social totality (for our purposes, the capitalist mode of production), and is interested in how it affects all aspects of life in that society.

Participating in sport and physical activity is generally understood as being part of the personal time we guard so assiduously against capital’s voracious appetite for yet more minutes and hours of our labour. Yet even personal time is shaped, in a mediated form, by the same laws of motion that drive production. As I wrote in response to an Overland blog post on sport by Jeff Sparrow:

The problem as I see it is that all the valuable mental and physical aspects to be found within sport are distorted by the reality of sport. And this flows beyond elite teams to the increased pressure to sort through potential future champions starting from the early years of school. It leads not just to more physical damage in search of perfection, but ever more reliance on medical technology to patch that damage up so that the sport can be continued. Even when people join running or cycling or footy groups ‘just for fun’ they are still run along the same lines as more organised sport – people time themselves, score points, aim for ‘personal bests’ – as if these are necessarily the only possible ways to achieve mental and physical potentials.

Stephanie starts her post by mentioning that she ran a half-marathon, sustaining a minor injury. Training for and running that kind of course is no doubt experienced as personally empowering by participants, but unless we develop a critique of the social construction of this kind of activity and its connection to wider economic, political and ideological social relations of domination, then any advocacy for physical activity of this sort will leave those relations unchallenged.

Equally problematically, Stephanie argues, ‘The practice of personal physical discipline doesn’t restrict your personal power, or your physical and mental strength and ability; it increases it.’ Again this misses how for most people personal agency cannot be retrieved through individual choices precisely because the origins of lack of agency lie in irreducibly social relations. This is the same mistake made in trying to address social determinants of health through encouraging individuals to make changes in more proximal ‘lifestyle’ mediators of those determinants, which is current Australian government policy. For example, working class and poor people are more likely to drink more/smoke more/be overweight, but targeting these factors individually is often more likely to be experienced as disempowering. The reasons for this are social, not the personal failings of people to make an empowered choice for health.

Finally, Stephanie claims that ‘contemporary liberal thinking’ considers discipline to be bad. This is hard to credit; even the most libertarian liberals accept the discipline of market relations even if they reject the regulation of the state. I think it is more salient to consider the very sharp point made by Marx in Capital, that the anarchy of the market is the direct complement of despotism within the workplace.

Sport and physical activity under capitalism have always been promoted to extend the reach of capitalist logics beyond the limits of the working day and into ‘personal’ time, from company football teams and lunchtime exercises classes to state and corporate promotion of various extracurricular activities. Similarly, they can become yet another type of ‘disciplining’, part of the increasing privatisation of responsibility for health. This then creates all kinds of moral pressures that are anathema to any Left project for empowerment.

But I don’t want to present a static picture, because in fact the place of physical exercise has shifted over the years. The rise of mechanisation and office work has led to more sedentary labour predominating, yet this has happened without any let-up in demands for increasing productivity. The effect of these changes on workers’ bodies has not escaped the notice of authorities relying on an endless supply of fit workers. This problem has sharpened in the neoliberal era, which has resulted in rising socioeconomic inequality. As Wilkinson and Pickett have shown in their pioneering work on the relation between inequality and health, the most unequal societies tend to have the greatest physical (and mental) health problems. It is no wonder that authorities have been concerned to promote the pursuit of physical wellbeing, and where possible as a privatised activity so that the cost is borne by individuals and is amenable to commodification.

Social changes have also impacted on how these processes are gendered. Feminist critiques understandably focus on exercise as a function of how women’s bodies are objectified and commodified, yet the type of physical prowess expected of/by women has also shifted as they have entered the workforce in massive numbers in the post-WWII era. Not only has women’s participation in competitive sport increased, but the physical exercise industry has drawn millions of women into gyms that were once the almost exclusive preserve of men. As women have become absolutely central to the workforce so the barriers between physicality at work and outside it (in the sphere of the ‘personal’) have broken down as much as they have for men.* It is unlikely to be a coincidence that the rise of an exercise industry and women’s incorporation into it was marked by the rise of aerobics (whose origins lie in regimented military exercise) as a mass participant activity in many rich Western countries. In the US participation in aerobics increased from 6 to 19 million between 1978 and 1987 alone. This was also a period where demands for personal liberation shifted from looking to collective anti-systemic struggle and instead were increasingly incorporated by neoliberal capitalism.

None of this is to make a case against physical exercise. As a doctor I understand that people can benefit from physical activity, and I regularly go to the gym as my main form of exercise. If we lived in a world where ordinary people had real collective social control, I have no doubt that forms of physical culture would be as important as working to provide essentials and participation in the arts. Rather, my aim has been to underline how conceptions of bodily agency are bound up with existing social relations.

Stephanie starts with absolutely the right issue – how we can reclaim corporeal agency – but we need an answer that can challenge capital’s control and mutilation of our bodies, inside and outside of work. To recapture control over our individual physicality requires collective struggles, where ordinary people together put their bodies (and minds) on the line, directly confronting the rule of capital. Within that there will inevitably be conflicts over what kinds of physical activity we should be able to participate in, against the commodification of such activities, and against the demands by ruling elites for us to live up to certain physical expectations. Perhaps most important will be struggles to end capital’s continual theft of our time – and our flesh – in its ceaseless drive to accumulate immaterial value.

*Similar processes (sometimes in advance of those in the West) occurred in the Communist bloc, reflecting the state capitalist constitution of those societies and producing many faux-Marxist theories of physical culture. As they would be worth a blog post (or five!) all their own I have chosen not to say any more here.


Tad Tietze

Tad Tietze is a Sydney psychiatrist who co-runs the blog Left Flank. He’s written for Overland, Crikey and The Drum Opinion, as well as music reviews for Resident Advisor. He was co-editor (with Elizabeth Humphrys & Guy Rundle) of On Utøya: Anders Breivik, right terror, racism and Europe. He tweets as @Dr_Tad.

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  1. An excellent example of this are the requirements placed upon workers by health insurance companies. In Germany, where I live, paying for health insurance is compulsory – if you are lucky enough to have contract (as opposed to freelance) employment, your employer will pay a proportion of the fee. The insurance companies then persistently bombard members with guilt-provoking advertising for health courses, weight loss, fitness programs etc., all clearly to the primary benefit of the employer.

  2. It’s an interesting issue, the political analysis of sport. I’m hesitant to write too much here, cos we’re about to publish in the print journal a piece by Lisa Farrance, based on her Phd in the area, and I don’t want to gazump that discussion.
    But a few quick thoughts. The problem with most arguments made in the area is that they’re too one-sided, that they concentrate predominantly on either the positive or negative aspects of sport, rather than on sport as inherently contradictory, an activity in which the positive and negative are fundamentally entwined.
    I agree with the general thrust of Tad’s argument: he’s entirely right to relate physicality back to the totality and to suggest that liberation, sporting or otherwise, must involve collective struggle against these social relations. But that’s the beginning of an argument, not the end, and unless you go further the position ends up one-sided and thus wrong.
    After all, you could give exactly the same response to someone who discussed how they found dance liberating. The dancing body is shaped by capitalism just as much as the sporting body; art, just as much as sport, is entwined with commodification, etc; artistic manifestoes must equally engage with collective struggles in order to deliver real liberation. All that’s true, obviously, but it doesn’t prevent art from offering profound experiences both for artists and aficionados – and that’s got to be central to a political response to art.
    Sport is surely the same.
    Tad’s post uses the terms ‘exercise’ and ‘sport’ interchangeably, and that elision of the more obviously social activity ‘sport’ with ‘exercise’ (which seems more grimly functional) makes him, I think, less attuned to sporting contradictions. Yes, sport has been promoted to extend capitalist logic beyond the limits of the working day. But that’s not all that it’s done. Take boxing. At one level, it replicates the brutal individualism of capitalism (people earn money by punching each other in the head!). Yet there’s a myriad of examples of people finding both a personal and, more importantly for this discussion, a political empowerment in boxing. For a young man in a ghetto, an activity that demonstrates that you have value, that you can change and improve yourself, that you can strategise and win can obviously take on a progressive dynamic. Think about Jack Johnson, think about Muhammed Ali, think about Lionel Rose. Think about, for that matter, Nelson Mandela, by all accounts a very good boxer in his youth. He wrote:

    did not enjoy the violence of boxing so much as the science of it. I was intrigued by how one moved one’s body to protect oneself, how one used a strategy both to attack and retreat, how one paced onself over a match.

    . . . I never did any real fighting after I entered politics. My main interest was in training; I found the rigorous exercise to be an excellent outlet for tension and stress. After a strenuous workout, I felt both mentally and physically lighter. It was a way of losing myself in something that was not the struggle. After an evening’s workout I would wake up the next morning feeling strong and refreshed, ready to take up the fight again.

    If you read accounts by, say, the great African American boxers, what’s interesting is how it’s precisely the emphasis on discipline, competition and personal responsibility (all traits that in other contexts are reactionary) that makes the sport seem so attractive and politically empowering to them. That’s why a recognition of contradiction matters so much. CLR James, in particular, is very good on this, I think: recognising both that sport can be used to intensify and internalise capitalist relations, even as it offers a way of partially escaping or fighting against them.
    (As an aside, the contradictory effects of capitalist discipline are not exclusively to be found in sport. If you read, say, the Bolsheviks talking about their hopes for socialism in Europe, great stock is put on how the German workers have been schooled by the factory system).
    Which is another way of saying, in a discussion of sport and politics, you need to take politics seriously. Tad says he doesn’t want to make a case against physical exercise. To be honest, I’m not sure what a ‘case against exercise’ would actually mean. Physically interacting with the world is a central human trait (also a point made in Capital, actually) – it’s something people will always do, and will always take pleasure in, in some form or another.
    The question, then, is how to respond to that desire, which means an awareness of how the contradictions play out. It’s perfectly possible for, say, long-distance running to be simultaneously an oppressive piece of drudgery imposed on school kids, a locus of corporate branding and an activity in which people can become aware of their own potential in a way that’s at least implicitly political (as when, say, a woman who has always been conditioned to be dainty discovers she is actually capable of amazing endurance). That all three can take place at the same time is not a surprise: you could make exactly the same point about music, for instance. We don’t have any problem in linking enthusiasm for radical music with a potential for radical change. IMO, the task is to work out how to make the same case in respect of sport.

    1. Agree. I’d add that the idea that one should exercise the body along with the mind predates capitalism by at least a couple of millennia. It would be quite limiting to dismiss all contemporary formulations of that thought as leading necessarily to a commodification of the body. I’d also say that there are forms of exercise – like going for a walk – that produce spaces of contemplation outside of the economic exchange and militate agains capital’s continual theft of our time. One might even find cause for rethinking social and built spaces from such a perspective, without the need for the act to be inscribed in a collective struggle.

    2. What I was trying to do above was locate the position of physical exercise in a wider web of capitalist social relations, so as to make the point that Stephanie’s post expressed well the lack of bodily agency people feel in our society but failed to go beyond advocating seeking personal agency (through exercise) in response to this powerlessness. Stephanie’s post was titled “In pursuit of a political argument for exercise” when in fact it left politics at the level of personal choice, responsibility and discipline. Just because there is no case against exercise in the abstract, I was disagreeing that the Left should be putting a case for exercise.

      The second point I wanted to make was that the personal sphere, while not the same as the world of work under capitalism, is neither a space outside capitalist social relations. In fact, there is no “outside” of capitalism, where people can pursue whatever activity (art, sport, exercise, listening to radical music, taking a contemplative stroll) free from the distortions imposed by the capital relation. I’m not suggesting there is no possibility for resistance. Just the opposite: I believe that resistance can only come from those whose personal lives are stunted by the nature of our society as a whole.

      Not just the Bolsheviks but Marx and Engels saw the potential of the working class to be the “universal class” because capital is forced to organise this class collectively and submit it to the discipline demanded by the needs of accumulation. This is a process that disrupts old social relations and even undermines old forms of oppression. Women are increasingly less likely to accept “dainty” roles and more likely to enter into various forms of physical exercise previously associated with males not because they have been individually transformed by the act of exercise (e.g. endurance running) but because social changes have thrust them into new social roles — now thoroughly integrated into the workforce, increasingly in direct competition with each other and male workers in the labour market, subject to the same pressures and bodily mutilations dictated by the needs of capital.

      I have no doubt that all kinds of personal experiences can be the catalyst for such changes in outlook and confidence, including positive experiences with exercise. But negative experiences with the same can also be factors in radicalisation. It is understanding the underlying social contradictions that helps us understand the meaning of any human activities, and in that sense to understand that the liberatory potential lies not in the activity itself but in the social processes and meanings it is associated with.

      1. “The second point I wanted to make was that the personal sphere, while not the same as the world of work under capitalism, is neither a space outside capitalist social relations. In fact, there is no “outside” of capitalism, where people can pursue whatever activity (art, sport, exercise, listening to radical music, taking a contemplative stroll) free from the distortions imposed by the capital relation.”

        I would agree that there is no personal sphere outside of social relations, unless your name is Mowgli. I actually don’t think that social relations are absolutely and exclusively determined by capital relations, however, and however heretic that position may be. Culture is a continuum, and things like religion shape how we conceive our bodies too. Which is why I pointed out that ideas about healthy bodies and healthy minds predate capitalism by a very long time. To completely subsume these ideas to capitalism in the present seems reductive, even as we acknowledge that capital relations constrain to a significant degree what we do with our bodies and how we view our bodies (including moulding a world in which the disabled body isn’t allowed to move).

        Personally, I abhor gyms. They strike me as the quintessential capitalist profit-driven solution to the distortions that capitalism itself creates. Places where you simulate being a labourer if you’re an office worker, or remake bits of the world – stairs, or roads – to make up for the fact that they are not available to you in a convenient and timely enough form. I could expand these thoughts into a political critique of the gym that would likely make people nod. But I also know that gyms, not unlike libraries, are places where people can find stuff out about themselves, and I take my disabled daughter to one, at some expense, because her right to exercise is not viewed as a priority as much as her right to general education or general health. So whilst perhaps I wouldn’t go as far as advocating a blanket “case for exercise” (I’m not sure that Stephanie does either) I don’t think that there aren’t political questions worth exploring here.

  3. The question is worth posing and thinking about, but where is the line drawn, is there a line between sport and physical exercise when it comes to individual / collective participation in controlled / uncontrolled physical activity (is it ever uncontrolled?), politics, and aesthetic pleasure?

    Aesthetic pleasure for whom, and why? I simply can’t get all those Nazi / Soviet images out of my head.

      1. But Marxists have always put forward ‘a general defence of art’: recognising art as a fundamental human activity; defending its validity against the philistines of the Right and the Left; fighting for facilities that allow ordinary people to make art; arguing for socialism in terms of its impact on art. Naturally, that’s not counterposed to intervening in particular artistic debates but Marx quite clearly views art (as a general social phenomenon) as central to a good society. I wouldn’t have thought that was controversial in the slightest, and it seems like a pretty good analogy for a Marxist position on sport.

        1. I’m sorry I didn’t make myself clearer. There is indeed a general defence of art as a human activity but that’s like a general defence of human productive labour, politically meaningless unless applied to a specific social formation in a specific historic context. So in that sense there’s a general defence of exercise in that people should be allowed to walk or run or swim (or make up some totally new form of physical activity).

          But Stephanie’s argument was a political one. Not one about intervening to subvert the current, alienated, highly problematic way that our society constructs physical exercise but to simply make a general Left case for exercise, one where self-discipline was a key factor to be prized.

          Unless one starts by locating exercise (and indeed the construction of notions of “self-discipline”) in its social specificity then, I would argue, the idea that we should be training for half-marathons or attempting Tough Mudder or whatever, is simply accepted at face value.

          Again, I have no problem with someone extolling the virtues of their favourite form of physical training and the personal benefits they get from it, but to see it as a political project the Left should embrace seems highly problematic to me.

          1. You can be such an objectivist sometimes Tad. To me it’s obvious that a general defence of all forms of creative physical activity is part of a socialist political project. Surely we’re for social relations which allow for this, free from repression, exploitation and oppression. Just as the body is not separate form social relations, our experience of social relations is not separate from a quite personal physical experience. And so experiencing our bodies against these social relations, doing things with our bodies that break, mess with or resist those social relations, that is in some sense freeing from these conditions (if limited and temporary) is political. Creative physical activity is human; and we want to abolish social relations which hamper this physical activity and are inhumane. That’s why we defend physical activity in general – because capitalism doesn’t. It is capitalism which only defends physical activity for a particular, exploitative purpose. It is a general defence which is the radical alternative.

  4. I’m not really sure where to start with this. I think you’re misrepresenting me a bit. The piece you quote was an exploration of ideas, loosely-formed and sliding in and out of the abstract, as these things often are and do, with one foot squarely in the personal, so not only is it jarring to see it up here as if it were intended to be a full concrete argument, but defending it on the grounds you’ve staked out feels like arguing in a permanent category error.

    But whatever. I think it’s bizarre to suggest, as I feel you’re doing, that the personal empowerment and agency gained through exercise is necessarily counterposed to collective struggle. I alluded to similar in the piece itself – and again, I feel it is kind of ridiculous to take such an allusive piece and talk about it like this but anyway – the simple point I was trying to make was that the struggle for bodily agency and physical freedom is linked to all kinds of [collective] political struggle.

    Rather than “analytically tear[ing] those individual bodies (those people) from the web of social relations in which they exist and act at a particular point in time” the point of the whole fifth paragraph was to highlight that the body is, in fact, central to the social, to politics itself.

    The idea that an individual in a society that commodifies physicality (or seeks to treat it on market terms) should respond by ignoring that physicality, or by treating it as though it doesn’t matter, seems to me to be a very flat response to a very complex problem. Because the individual body clearly does matter. The individual and the collective are the opposite of one another and yet simultaneously rely on each other: the latter doesn’t exist without the former.

    1. I’m not arguing that physical exercise is counterposed to the collective struggle for liberation, but I am arguing against a blanket “case for exercise” as a form of personal empowerment, including the way you frame it in terms of individual discipline. This is problematic territory which I think implies that these things will have the same effect (a positive one) for everyone in every social location within our existing social order. Your post, after all, makes absolutely clear that you are advocating exercise as a political rather than just a self-help argument.

      Neither am I arguing that physicality should be ignored. Far from it. I think a critique of how bodies are distorted by the capitalist mode of production and its various oppressive structures is central to building a collective response. But despite your wish to avoid reductionism, I think your argument about a personal response falls into the trap of a kind of methodological individualism of resistance, one limited to the personal sphere.

      I thought it was also important to argue how much social relations impact on even how we think we can find some escape or solution to their oppressive character in the world outside of work, about how illusory the “personal” is (i.e. that it is fundamentally social). It is our oppressive society that creates the appearance that the individual person stands in opposition to the social whole; we will not be able to resolve the problems this causes for individuals except at the social (collective) level.

      As Marx & Engels wrote in The Communist Manifesto, we should be thinking about how to get to a world where “the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all”.

    2. Yes a bit strange that we get sledge hammer of ideology critique on mediative post on exercise. Surely there must be room for discussion like this on the force and presence (materiality) of our bodies, without suspiciously perceiving in it an replacement for a “proper” discussion of force and presence of capitalist social relations? I take an understanding of those relations as read, but, as is implicit here in the comments, what kind of materialist understanding do we have without some sense of agency and contradiction?

  5. How about people should just exercise and eat right because it is good for them. It is pretty simple. How far down the rabbit hole do you want to go with this argument?

  6. I find it quiet interesting that responses to Stephanie’s piece overwhelmingly – and somewhat surprisingly – ignore the gendered element of her musings on exercise. (For the record, even though I took note of the title, I did not expect from her blog entry a detailed, full-blown, scholarly exploration of the politics of exercise. And, I do take much heed from the dictum that the ‘personal is political. So I agree that her piece was misrepresented, and having said that, many valid points are made by both Tad and Jeff.) Cultural politics is not often found in Left writings with their focus on the economic order, and perhaps this omission is an explanation for a gender-blind focus of most criticisms. For a lot of women, myself included, strong bodies – collective as well as individual (the dichotomy between the two is most unhelpful) – are a way of saying ‘up yours’ to the patriarchal constructions of ideal womanhood: waifish, thin, emaciated, WEAK, bodies that serve men and dominant constructions of masculinity.

    There is more to the glaring conflation of sport and exercise: while both can be big business, exercise and sport can be subversive of dominant gendered norms, and not only for individuals who participate. Both are domains riven with contradictions to be exploited for progressive political purposes. To expect one blog entry to do all that is most unfair.

    1. I was very careful not to conflate sport and exercise. When I quoted my previous discussion with Jeff it was to draw out how similar processes operate in both. But neither am I saying that you can draw a line that proves a complete disconnection between the two. The social development of organised sport and types of physical exercise not only influence each other but are driven by similar dynamics.

      Those dynamics are not just commodification, which is why I specifically talked about the shifts in how exercise has been gendered. My point is to agree that personal experience is innately political (because social) but that a personal response of the sort Stephanie outlines accepts a particularly individualised framework for empowerment and resistance to that experience. In that sense, I’m arguing that such an approach is the wrong kind of political response (even if some may find it personally fulfilling).

      Think about it this way: Are women with “waifish, thin, emaciated, WEAK, bodies” innately more in the service of women’s oppression? Cannot some of them be the most able political fighters against sexism? Surely their participation in collective political projects is the key here?

  7. I find the lack of recognition by both Stephanie’s original post, but also in some of these comments, that not all bodies are able to engage in all activities somewhat concerning. My body, a disabled body, will never be able to say ‘up yours’ in the way Jasmina suggests. It will never be able to run marathons or go to Tough Mudder, both activities that themselves blur the boundaries between ‘sport’ and ‘exercise’ — where the ‘discipline’ required includes a completely able body that trains to levels approaching those of professional sport. This is not just a question of personal discipline, but a question of what a ‘normal’ body is and can be expected to do. In a neoliberal world with increasing focus on people doing everything right (not being overweight, not smoking, not drinking excessively, exercising regularly) the blame when bodies do not obey and exist as imperfect ones falls almost exclusively on the individual. To be honest I was pretty floored by Stephanie’s original post, and angry at the opening vignette that tells the story of the physical breakdown of her body in relation to how busy she is at work, her lack of holiday since the end of her PhD and her decision not to exercise recently since getting injured. Some of us have bodies that breakdown because of exercise and despite engaging in it, and one of the biggest issues with my body and going to the gym is not causing more damage by pushing it too far and too fast. Yet in a world where there is a growing acceptance that we exercise in extreme ways (no one ever talked of the ‘discipline’ of going for an evening walk but I see many on the left talk almost narcissistically of their ‘discipline’ displayed in training for a marathon or similar) I wonder what this says about the state of exercise in this period of capitalism.

    I also thought Stephanie failed to recognise that the mind-body nexus works in different ways than simply the ‘positive’ trajectory she notes. I have chronic pain related to my disability, and there are zero days when I am pain free. All exercise I do, whether it is the 20 minutes I walk to the bus in the morning or the bench presses I do at the gym, causes me pain (and not the ‘good’ sort). While there are indeed still physiological benefits of that exercise for cognition and reducing stress, etc., the fact that every time I exercise my pain increases means there is a complicated process between my mind and body that is not even contemplated in Stephanie’s post. Moreover, I consider myself a wholly political person whether I exercise that month or not. Wholly political.

    Again, like others, I’m not saying that I don’t feel stronger or have no personal benefit from exercise. I can bench press up to 42.5kg, more than most women and some men at my gym. I love that I have achieved this, and the effort it takes me to do some of the exercise I do (even walking some days given the pain I’m in) I imagine is similar to the sort of discipline it takes ‘normal’ people to train for marathons. But one thing I do not accept is that this feeling can be separated from the fact I generally feel disempowered in the world, nor that the discipline it takes me to work through this pain is not a wholly positive experience. Bodies under capitalism are disempowered and physically weak for all the reasons Tad detailed – but even personal exercise can be less than a ‘positive’ only experience. Also I live in a world where not only awful ‘other’ people look at my fat disabled body with derision and as being outside ‘normal’, but one where increasing numbers of people on the left I know very well do the same.

    I acknowledge that Stephanie was posting ‘an exploration of ideas, loosely-formed and sliding in and out of the abstract’. But it was also a post that had, in my view, some significant shortcomings – only one of which I’ve discussed here. I think Tad was right to raise the question of whether Stephanie sees personal time outside capitalism, and in reading Jeff’s response here I wonder the same about his approach (and at times I think he wants to argue that art/creativity is also outside capitalism). I think we need to question what Stephanie says is a materialist explanation of the body (a definition many materialists would disagree with, as it says nothing of the fact a person exists only through their interaction with the world external to them). These are all productive debates to have, but only where an author’s approach to a critique of their writing is productive. The most disappointing thing so far is Stephanie’s response to Tad in this thread, which basically says a) none of his criticisms are valid, b) she has been misrepresented, and c) really she was making some of the same points he was i.e. in the fifth paragraph). We can do better than that: although sharp but comradely criticism is confronting – I’ve experienced it myself – it gets us nowhere to paper over where the lines of disagreement are.

    1. Ah, Elizabeth, I’m so pleased that you raised the issue of the gym! And instantly, I find myself comparing my performance with yours, but slyly, as one watches in the gym, not with vulgar, open curiosity!

      Many years ago, I could (just) bench 50 kgs. Now I only do 25, although I can leg press 130kg in weight (plus the apparatus itself). I deliberately chose a gym where most of the trainers are young men, who push me far beyond my comfort zone, and who know very little of weakness (in physical terms).

      The highlight at my gym is seeing a woman who does her boxing training there. (She is a real boxer, not just playing around.) When I saw this lovely being in the ring, my mind read her as male. When I realised she was female, it was a moment of real joy, to see how strong and quick a woman can be.

      This is just raving, I know. I just posted a poem on my blog which envisions the gym as a lover, if you’re at all interested. It is called ‘My lover Jim’ (duh!).

      Of course, the main capitalist element at the gym is how much it costs! I must admit I don’t want to think too much about the gym; I have spent too much of my life in thinking mode. Sometimes it’s just good to work on one’s triceps (or whatever), and leave the brain alone. The body has its own economy, I think, or at least its own language. Or perhaps I just value this time where I can pretend to be a jock, and it’s all very painful method acting.

      I do find some of the writing in this thread too heavy to

    2. Thanks for raising your comments and experiences Liz. It really is an endictment on society that pretty much the only people visible doing exercise and playing sport and ‘keeping fit’ in our media etc are of a particular physical type. Thankfully some of the work of the disability rights momvement(s) has changed some of this, but there’s so much more work to do. A good friend floored me once. I was talking about how accessible roller derby was to women from different backgrounds. She, who sometimes still struggles to walk and is in pain almost daily after permanent injury from a car crash, just stared at me and asked ‘what do you mean by accessible?’. Yep. I, and the left, should know better, especially those of us arguing that physical activity matters.

  8. To be honest, I’m finding it hard to follow the arguments here on either side. (Sides? Seems to be a conflation of concepts and tangents in this post and the comment thread that follows.) And I don’t really understand why we’re all isolating physicality from other aspects of our human selves, but I’m willing to comment anyway.

    I think we can all agree that physical activity can be positive, it can make people feel empowered – even as capitalism distorts our relations with society.

    Similarly, I suspect we can agree that while sport and exercise (or art or music or blogging) can’t truly liberate people, some form of physical activity is beneficial for people/the body.

    A left critique of sport in capitalism is, really, deserving of a thesis: it’s a critique worth having, but one that would have much ground to cover – Marx and the body, class, wheelchair rugby (which empowers bodies broken by capitalism), corporatised sport, grassroots sport, the Olympics (a nationalist hypocrisy, yes, but also empowering to many individuals). A good beginning might be Lisa Farrance’s essay in the next issue of Overland.

    Capitalism is contradictory. On the one hand, it wants perfect workers, on the other, as seen through neoliberalism, these choices are what define us as an individual. Neoliberalism wants individuals to consume a mountain of french fries, ten cigarettes and a bottle of vodka for breakfast, while simultaneously selling Jenny Craig, 6am boot camp and stomach stapling. It is yet another of those inherent contradictions within capitalism – neoliberalism will defend our right to these choices and will sell them to us, despite the fact that it’s a system that needs to consume able workers.

    That’s another thing we can all agree on: capitalism ruins us. But the disempowerment we feel comes not merely from walking down the street – it’s a result of alienation. People who feel empowered – whether Muhammad Ali or Baiada employees – are the ones who resist. The ones who are most alienated, who don’t find any other hope in the world, are unlikely to start a collective struggle. (In ref to: ‘I believe that resistance can only come from those whose personal lives are stunted by the nature of our society as a whole.’)

  9. There is no way I’m going to be able to comment on everything here, but I do want to address some of the more serious charges I feel are being (unfairly) thrown my way.

    Liz writes:

    “To be honest I was pretty floored by Stephanie’s original post, and angry at the opening vignette that tells the story of the physical breakdown of her body in relation to how busy she is at work, her lack of holiday since the end of her PhD and her decision not to exercise recently since getting injured. Some of us have bodies that breakdown because of exercise and despite engaging in it, and one of the biggest issues with my body and going to the gym is not causing more damage by pushing it too far and too fast. Yet in a world where there is a growing acceptance that we exercise in extreme ways (no one ever talked of the ‘discipline’ of going for an evening walk but I see many on the left talk almost narcissistically of their ‘discipline’ displayed in training for a marathon or similar) I wonder what this says about the state of exercise in this period of capitalism.”

    I think this is quite unfair. I don’t believe I should have to defend the validity of my experiences in this situation but I feel like this is what I’m being called to do. So: I have a chronic knee injury due to exercise and a problem with depression, both of which I spoke about in the piece itself. No, they are not the same as Liz’s conditions but they exist and (God forbid I should focus on the personal on a personal blog) were by way of an example, and an entry point into a meditation on the topic. They were not presented as on an exclusively “positive trajectory” (running helps my depression, screws up my knees; I often hate it at the time but feel amazing later). And for some people – for me, in fact, some days – getting up and going outside for a walk in the evening *is* a matter of discipline. I don’t think it’s any more narcissistic to be proud of the goals one sets for oneself when it comes to running a half marathon than it is to be proud of fighting the blues enough to get out of bed for work in the morning.

    Furthermore, Liz writes “Moreover, I consider myself a wholly political person whether I exercise that month or not. Wholly political.” I am not suggesting that she is not, and nor do I think that is a necessary follow-on from a general pro-exercise position. I am, however, finding it difficult to engage in this discussion as it stands because I really do feel words are being put into my mouth.

    Nowhere am I trying to suggest that every body is capable of the same things. Nowhere am I advocating everyone go out and train for marathons. I’m simply suggesting – and if we are going to talk about my position, this is it – that we advocate working with our bodies to make them the most capable they can be. As with, say, education: there will be drawbacks and contradictions and difficulties that are different for every individual. We’re for education, we’re for people having access to schools and universities, libraries and being taught to read, and we’re for making it as obstacle-free and anti-discriminatory as possible, while allowing people to reach their various goals within that sphere. (We’re also for holidays.) What is beneficial – and possible – for each individual is different, as is capacity, and interest level. But we wouldn’t say that we would be neither for nor against it. As with the mind, so with the body.

    1. Given Jeff feels discussion should cease, I’ll just clarify two things where I may have created confusion or offence.

      I think we agree when you say: ‘And for some people – for me, in fact, some days – getting up and going outside for a walk in the evening *is* a matter of discipline.’ That is what I was saying – people don’t talk about the discipline of a walk in the evening but for some people, and I use myself as the example, this is exactly what it is.

      When I used the term ‘narcissistic’ I was not meaning you. I did not feel I was pulling punches in my comment, so if I had menat you or anyone else commenting I would have said so. I was in fact referring to certain people in my Facebook stream that detail their training improvements and efforts in a really awful way that is conceited and vain. Apologies for this, my error and I should have been clearer.

  10. I wonder if now might be a good time to end this discussion. As I mentioned, we’re publishing a piece by Lisa Farance that will provide another opportunity for discussion of these issues. Also, the subscriberthon starts tomorrow, and that’s gonna be a bit of a site priority.

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