Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Capitalism and le Tour

Over the past week or so, I’ve been enjoying the Tour de France, filled with many unexpected obstacles and peloton crashes this year. It’s entertaining for anyone who enjoys the sport or the beautiful countryside scenery. But, while watching this machismo race to yellow, green, white, and polka-dot jersey glory, I realized how strangely intertwined and representative of capitalism the race is. Here’s why (and here’s thoughts from another blogger):

Consumerism- As far as I know, the bicycle is one of the first consumer geared products of industrial capitalism and the first to use assembly line manufacturing (Albert Pope produced both bicycles and electric cars this way in the Connecticut Valley), taking us from penny-farthing to S-Works in just a few centuries. This puts cycling into the context of capitalism and gives the analysis some wit. The sponsorships, logos (anyone else notice the Skoda, Skoda, Skoda finish line?), and advertisements for the Tour are overwhelming, as is the diverse range of products and prices being peddled by manufacturers. The consumer products part isn't necessarily a "bad" thing, but the profit motive that drives the over-saturation of advertising, discrimination, and cheating in the sport is somewhat abhorrent.

(White) Boys Only- The history of capitalist development and le Tour also have eerily similar participants. Strong, white men from Western Europe and the United States (and Australia too, Cadel Evans) make up the homogeneous group of entrants. Women are only featured as podium babes, despite often having higher levels of endurance when it comes to road racing (here’s a bit on sexism in cycling). Tough luck finding someone of non-white color from a non-OECD country on the racing roster (here’s some info on racism in the sport). Pro Cycling is not exactly an equal opportunity sport, and the exorbitant monetary barriers to entry into the expensive world of pro cycling enforce the white-boy culture of the peloton.

Winner Take All- As in a capitalist economy, there are only a few winners of the coveted jerseys (sort of inter capitalist rivalry for super profits). But winning the jerseys relies on a uniquely strategic mix of competition and cooperation between teams and individual racers.

Cooperation- This is the feature that I think makes the Tour a good parable for how capitalist competition works, since other sports rarely require as much cooperation within and between teams. Like different firms, the teams compete for total points, yet the individuals (like managers or investors) also compete over points and the jerseys for individual overall stage winner, sprinter, king of the mountain, and young rider awards. The peloton breakaway often cooperates between rival teams and individuals, to make sure the top riders make it to the finish line, not unlike how capitalist clusters work to “draft” off of each others’ means of production, technological innovations, etc. Sort of a weird dynamic.

Crashes- One wrong move, chain slip, or flat can potentially bring the whole peloton to a halt. Looking back on previous Tours, it does seem like crashes are a central tendency in cycling, just as they are in capitalism.

Cheating- The really obvious one, even if it may be less rampant these days. Blood transfusions, doping, and who knows what else. Cheating is usually how capitalists win, while adopting a code of silence about how they are ripping off workers and consumers. For many years, this is how many cyclists in the Tour won stages, broke records, and kept silent about the lack of integrity in the sport.

The final parallel is that like today’s economy, the tour is also not completely capitalist and other modes of production, like cooperatives, coexist. One of my favorite teams, Euskaltel Euskadi from the Basque Country, rides cooperatively produced Orbea bicycles. The team has sponsors from Basque public companies and Mondragon coops (I believe some of the coops make/sell parts for Skoda), while supporting some very competitive riders like Gorka Izagirre and others. [Note: this blog accepts donations in the form of Orbea Dama Onix road bikes.]

So what would a post-capitalist Tour de France look like? Less sponsors, more sports(wo)manship? Less economic barriers to entry, allowing women and people from all countries around the world to race? Maybe it’s time to start an alternative Tour, where anyone can enter and the goal is to make sure everyone cooperates, has fun, and finishes the route.