Sociology, Sport and Change: 2 – Financial Capitalism

The early or mid-1970 have commonly been regarded as transitional. The period since has been variously described as the era of high or late modernity, second modernity, postmodernity or dis- or re-organized capitalism; more graphic choices include predatory, casino and crony capitalism. The label of preference here is the less prejudicial and more evidence-based financial capitalism. How might this novel phase of capitalism most precisely be characterized in relation to sport? A number of characteristics stand out.


‘Globalisation’ is a term notoriously lacking in precision. Historians have shown that tribal-cum-national boundaries have always been dynamic and permeable. The chronology of human sociability is characterised by the imaginative and sometimes combative and exploitative excavation of space. Yet there are features of financial capitalism that set it apart. The most obvious of these is the scope and sheer speed of connectivity. Nor is it just financial capital flows that circulate the globe in milliseconds. News, sporting and otherwise, is transmitted almost instantaneously through satellite television, the internet, you tube, facebook and twitter. No sooner is a goal scored, a record set or a scandal sensed than publics are alerted. Globalisation in this sense extends a universality or commonality that must be acknowledged, notwithstanding the risk of hyperbole and loss of sociological perspective.

Privileging of finance

As anyone observing the manic activity on the more influential stock market floors would have to accept, financial capital travels as fast as most phenomena short of light or sound. This has transformed Occidental modes of money-making, penetrating and co-opting the sphere of manufacturing. It has infected sporting activity too: witness for example the high profile and controversial take-overs of Chelsea by Abromovitch and Manchester United by the Glazers in English Premiership soccer. Many sporting and other phenomena are now to be located in the slipstream of financial capital transactions.


Novel aspects of globalisation, ubiquitous high-speed connectivity and the potential of financial capital to trump production are all evidence of an acceleration of what Weber defined as ‘rationalisation’. For Habermas, indebted as much to Marx as to Weber, processes of ‘system rationalisation’ in the complex and highly differentiated societies of modern, industrial western Europe and beyond involved enhanced: (a) ‘bureaucratisation’, via the increasingly strong arm of the (welfare) state, or what will here be called relations of command; and (b) commodification, via the extension of capitalist markets and marketability, or what will here be termed relations of class. Habermas argued that in the modern or postwar era, relations of command (through the medium of power) and class (through the medium of money) had come progressively to insinuate themselves into or ‘colonize’ the mundane everyday lives and decision-making of citizens. The system was colonizing the lifeworld. The decades since the 1970s have witnessed a speeding up of system rationalisation, warranting use of the term ‘hyper-rationalisation’.

New class-command dynamic

The American historian David Landes has noted that through many a time and place ‘men of wealth have bought men of power’. In post-industrial or financial capitalism these men, and a few women, have secured a greater return on their investments. Put sociologically, relations of class have come to exercise greater influence over relations of command. Since this is a core proposition for me, it requires elaboration. Departing from Habermas, I argue that members of strongly globalized ‘capitalist executive classes’, nominally identified with nation-states but in fact host-free or ‘nomadic’, have been reinvigorated vis-a-vis  members of much more weakly globalized and therefore national ‘power elites’. A hard core of financiers, rentiers and chief executive officers (CEOs) and directors nominally resident in countries like the USA, Britain and Australia, in other words, are in a better position than previously to lean on ‘their’ governments to do their bidding. But this resurgence of objective class relations has not been matched by a resurgence of subjective class relations. National polling suggests that people are not unaware of the import of class; but they are undoubtedly less inclined than during the immediate postwar years to define their identities or to vote or mobilize along class lines. This is in part due to demographic change and a redistribution of jobs, neither of which can be altogether laid at the doors of the likes of Thatcher and Reagan, although their championing of neo-liberal ideology in the 1980s has proved a lasting legacy.

Relentless consumption

One concomitant of hyper-rationalization and of the new class-command dynamic in an increasingly global and finance-oriented capitalism has been the displacement of societies based on production with societies based on consumption. Manufacturing in countries like the UK has all but collapsed. In the wake of the 2008-9 global financial crises, neo-liberalism demands that even those with debt and suspect security continue to consume, if not goods then services. The restoration of growth in the world and national economies, and therefore of enhanced prosperity for all, depends on spending divorced from need, unless, that is, need assumes a ‘postmodern’ aspect.

Postmodern culture

The identification of a ‘postmodern culture’ retains a certain piquancy and compulsion. Post-industrial or financial capitalism, characterized by consumerism, has without question been accompanied by a discernible cultural shift. It is possible, I contend, to reject claims that we have seen the back of either capitalism or modernity and yet accept that financial capitalism has witnessed a postmodernisation or ‘relativisation’ of culture. Lyotard has been especially eloquent in this connection: the ‘old’ grand narratives that guided people in the postwar years, whether pro- or anti-capitalist, have been replaced by a multitude of ‘new’, take-it-or-leave-it, pick-and-mix petit narratives. Religious petit narratives have re-assumed sufficient import for some commentators to write of a ‘post-secular society’. In any event identity-formation is no longer a readily observable function of social position. ‘Choice’ of identity may be consumerist and underpinned by the new class-command dynamic, but it clearly does not simply reduce to that dynamic. Agency and culture are structured without being structurally determined.

Networked individualism

Postmodern culture, functional for financial capitalism if not fully determined by or reducible to it, is intensely individualistic: their co-existence is a happy one. Moreover it is a form of individualism that is undeniably and boldly novel. Sport increasingly through industrial capitalism had come to be mediated by innovative technologies. English soccer as an inter-war sport attracting mass weekly crowds to rather basic stadia was transmuted into a sport mediated by television. Fans no longer argued in the pubs about what they had seen with their own eyes, but about the images transmitted by the camera’s lens. Drawing on Castells, it is possible to see that in our postmodern or ‘networked’ culture things have moved on again. Another kind of individual has emerged: it is an individual with ‘weak ties’, multiple loyalties and a marked responsiveness to cyber- or non-face-to-face interaction. Fandom nowadays has at least one foot in cyberspace.


The celebration of celebrity is paradigmatic of financial capitalism and its ‘structured but not structurally determined’ postmodern culture. Celebrity implies successful marketing in a consumerist society, and nothing more or less. It invokes a notion of identity that is no longer tied to merit or achievement – although some of its possessors, like Jordan or Beckham, may happen to be star achievers in their fields – but rather to effective de facto consumption. Today’s celebrities, such as ‘Big Brother’ contestants, are, to employ a well-worn phrase, famous for being famous. Celebrity and ‘fandom’ are two sides of the same coin. What sells, sells.

De-civilizing spurt

Elias’ historically informed ‘figurational sociology’ documented a slowly unfolding ‘civilizing process’, initially in England but seeping more widely through the Occident as a whole and subsequently beyond. His point was that violence and brutality through modernity or modern or industrial capitalism came to be increasingly unacceptable. We did not lose our capacity for killing and destruction, far from it: our technological competence to kill grew. But our tolerance of more gory or blood-soaked, one-on-one combats diminished (dropping bombs ‘anonymously’ from 20,000 feet may be devastating, but it is not incompatible with a civilizing process in Elias’ restricted sense, whereas duelling is). But for Elias there is nothing either inevitable or irreversible about this civilizing process. I would argue that financial capitalism has been accompanied by a ‘de-civilizing spurt’. Bearing witness to this is the fact that sporting ‘villains’, compare Tyson to Ali, even British soccer hooligans, can now be marketed as celebrities. Moreover forms of unarmed combat somewhat reminiscent of the Pankration of the ancient games at Olympus, Delphi, Corinth and elsewhere are re-emerging, and being televised under the rubric of ‘no-holes-barred fighting’ or mixed-martial arts. After all, what can be unambiguously right or wrong , acceptable or unacceptable, in a postmodernized culture comprising a mix of take-it-or-leave-it petit narratives? Doesn’t anything go, the more so if there are profits to be made?

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