Global Conversations Beyond Discipline

Perspectives on exploitation and the World Cup

With the World Cup receiving copious media coverage, few can now claim not to be aware of the social issues raised in Brazil in connection to it. Also, few could claim to be unaware of the violations of workers dignity ahead of the Beijing Olympics and these same concerns are now reoccurring as they are constructing stadiums in Qatar ahead of the 2022 World Cup that is scheduled to take place there. We propose that these violations on the dignity of the financially poor should be considered not just oppression, but exploitation. The question we ask ourselves is: why are people so indifferent towards it?

Even in connection to this world cup, this is hardly the first time someone asks this question. Only recently, John Oliver seemed to suggest that the indifference was due to football being seen as religion, perhaps alluding to the Roman poet Juvenal who satirised Roman society by coining the now infamous phrase: “Panem et circenses” (bread and games), suggesting that spectacle serves as distraction from ‘real world’ problems. Perhaps John Oliver would even agree with Marx, believing sport to “be 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” – accompanied by all the characteristics of addiction.

We might use the notion of sport as religion as starting point: Religion suggests a reference to an absolute truth – a truth that must not be questioned. With this in mind, indifference to exploitation might be said to lie in the refusal to acknowledge it, as it is incompatible with the religious orthodoxy. However, the role of exploitation in the functioning of capitalist ideology provides another interesting perspective.

It is commonly accepted among people of the left that capitalism necessitates exploitation – most poignantly evident in the developing world sweatshops that produce many of our basic goods. Yet, it is a regrettable fact that exploitation continues to exist. We are all aware of the horrible conditions in the gulags of the Bangladeshs of this world, yet most remain indifferent. How? One might answer: through the submersion in ideology.

Slavoj Zizek suggests that we are all engulfed in ideology, presently mostly liberal, capitalist, consumerist ideology, and that breaking out of it is particularly difficult. Even faced with violent expositions of it, we do not budge:

[i]t is as if in late capitalism ‘words do not count’, no longer oblige: They increasingly seem to lose their performative power; whatever one says is drowned in the general indifference; the emperor is naked and the media trumpet forth this fact, yet nobody seems really to mind – that is, people continue to act as if the emperor is not naked… ((Zizek, Slavoj 2012, ‘Introduction: The Spectre of Ideology’, in: S. Zizek (ed.), Mapping Ideology, Verso: London, 1-33, p. 18.))


Thus, we are faced with exploitation during the World Cup, but true to our ideological Self we  remain indifferent. Yet, our level of indifference and our submersion in ideology runs deeper still. This is what the spectacle of the World Cup shows us: an ironic reflection of exactly how willing we are to accept exploitation. For it not only provides glaring headlines of horror, but does so in connection with  an institution through which ideology runs: sport.

Althusser, in his seminal text on the Ideological  State Apparatuses – in which he counted sports, wrote that “[a]ll Ideological State Apparatuses, whatever they are, contribute to the same result: the reproduction of the relations of production, i.e. of capitalist relations of exploitation.” ((Althusser, Louis 2012, ‘Introduction: The Spectre of Ideology’, in: S. Zizek (ed.), Mapping Ideology, Verso: London, 100-140, p. 117. However, he conceptualized sport as a cultural practice, and thus only: “the tip of the iceberg… [that]… instead, must be understood in relation to its historical specificity, in relation to other technologies with which it intersects, an in relation to the reproduction of the social formation, meaning, power and subjectivity.” End text quote is from Cole, Cheryl L 2003, ‘Resisting the canon: feminist cultural studies, sport and technologies of the body’, in: E. Dunning & D. Malcolm (eds.), Sport: Approaches to the Study of Sport, Routledge: London, 347-372, p. 355.)) He ascribed to the function of capitalist ideology the construction of the meaning-giving subject that accepted the necessity of capitalist relations of production. ((For an illuminating, funny and very accessible account of Althusser’s thoughts on ideology, see here.))

It is with this in mind that the World Cup becomes interesting as a reflection on our willingness to accept exploitation. For this perspective dismisses the idea of sport as a religion which refuses to acknowledge exploitation due to perceived inherent contradictions, and instead conceptualises sport as ideology. This conceptualisation sees exploitation, rather than forcefully ignored, embraced with a wilful, almost adamant indifference. We are presented with an institution that, together with a larger matrix of other institutions, allows us to rationalise exploitation while simultaneously committing it right in front of us, yet, in the ultimate irony of our predicament, we remain gleefully indifferent. We talk about it endlessly, yet do nothing. We have been penetrated so deeply by ideology that even when every instinct in our bodies tell us that treating people this way is wrong, and that we must relate to it, our ideological Self merely consumes, adamantly creating apologies for exploitation with allusions to economic growth, national image and, ironically, unity in diversity. In other words, rather than bread and games distracting us from exploitation, exploitation becomes part and parcel to the ideological reproduction: it becomes part of that which is to be consumed and its evils rationalised by our adamant adherence to ideology.

As for us, while we are unsure as to the veracity of our alleged submersion in ideology and wilful indifference, ((See also a recent presentation by Kate Cooper in which she speaks about how the media has supported the food industry by distracting the general public from the cruelty committed to animals, and how this is only possible through our wilful ignorance.)) the fact that we can at least sympathise with these views and still insist on watching most games, does not bode well for emancipatory ideals.


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