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.