The New Aristocracy
It’s interesting, throughout history there have been works of philosophy devoted entirely to art... These works of philosophy were not just about what makes good or bad art, or what makes a work of art better or worse - but also about the historical context of art itself. What were the origins of art? What was art like in its earliest forms? What were the precursors and/or offshoots of art? What does art say about being human? All of this is fascinating to really think about, but you have to realize that for most of history art was the singular alternative to work -- (things having to do with survival and physical security). Thinking about art philosophically would fall on deaf ears for most people of our generation... but not because we’re degenerates or representatives of the spiritual decay of modern society and humanity... No -- It would seem boring, irrelevant, tedious; like the person talking to you about it was trying to prove something about themselves more than they were trying to share something of joy with you. It would come off condescending more than enlightening...
But what if we’re not talking about art in this way, but something more relevant? Something more modern? -- What if we talked about sports in this way... There’s no one doing this anywhere! The closest you’ll get to a historical philosophy of sport is a boring history of the facts of sport... “Basketball was invented in the 1800’s by people throwing a ball through a laundry bin”.... “Football was first played as an alternative to rugby”... The forward pass wasn’t even invented until 50 years later! (Note: I’m entirely making up these histories). They’ll talk about how golf developed in Scotland 500 years ago, or how tennis was played in French royal courtyards or something or the other, or how hockey was played with broomsticks and a frozen chicken thigh... (Again, making all this up)... But that’s just the facts of the history of sport. What’s far more interesting is the context in which sport was born; the reason it was born. When we know this, we can better theorize why it has developed the way it has, what have been unforeseen developments, how the underlying structure itself has shifted, and by consequence: what it once said about being human vs what it possibly says different about being human in our modern day.
Let’s dive right in!
The Origins of Sport: Leisure and Amateurism
The word “sport” is derived from the French word “desport” which meant “leisure”, and was defined as (all of this according to Wikipedia -- entry: Sport), “anything humans find amusing or entertaining”. It was what was done to pass time and enjoy oneself, just for the sake of enjoyment. It wasn’t until the 1970’s that the first professional athlete signed a contract garnering 1 million dollars. On the other end, a little known example to most readers, one of the more famous golfers of all time, Bobby Jones (he won 7 majors), remained an amateur his whole career on principle alone; he worked as a lawyer, and it was his belief that sport should fundamentally be an amateur activity. He was not willing to budge on this, even though he often beat the best professionals in tournaments when he played against them. It is from this same principle that college sports was and has remained devotedly amateurist.
But does that still hold? Is such an argument still valid? Is sport still standing on the same ground as its founding: that of extracurricular enjoyment, and nothing more? I don’t think so, and I think that the key to understanding this lies in a brief overview of how the substructure of the economy has itself changed.
The Economy and Production
It’s tough to really get a grasp of what “wealth” is outside of the context of how it’s grown across time. For starters, we’ll say “wealth” is anything produced that can be consumed or traded for within a constrained period of time (for example: within a 1 year stretch of time)... You have to include the constraint of time! That’s how you’re able to figure out that “wealth production” is capable of increasing! How much stuff could you make in a previous year vs how much stuff you’re making in the current year... If you make more stuff in the current year, simplistically speaking, wealth production has increased.
Now let’s look at how wealth production has changed through history.
In the year 1000 BC, the world produced just over 5 billion dollars of “wealth” (source: Wikipedia entry: Gross World Product -- adjusted to modern purchasing power of a dollar). That production took 2500 years to increase 10-fold to 50 billion dollars of wealth produced per year in the year 1500 AD. It next increased 10-fold to 500 billion dollars in 1875, only 375 years later. And it rose to 5 trillion dollars (another 10-fold increase) by 1955, 80 years later. To put this in perspective, over the last 20 years, our “wealth” production has increased about 3 trillion dollars PER YEAR. We now produce upwards of 80 trillion dollars of wealth a year.
At first glance, you might think, “well yeah, the population has grown since 1000BC, so it would make sense that we produce more wealth.” But when you investigate this, you realize that the world wealth production has increased far beyond the rate of population growth. For example, since 1900 the population has grown 5-fold (from roughly 1.5 billion people to 7.5 billion people), but in that same time the wealth production of the world has grown 80-fold (from 1 trillion dollars to 80 trillion dollars). That means that the wealth production of the world has increased 16x faster than the population....
The reason we point this out is because it reveals the fact that personal labor does not directly equate to economic production. And we all know this. With technology and factories and efficiency we produce far more per person today than we did 100 years ago. Even more interesting is the fact that the percentage of workers in our economy devoted to food production and other manufacturing is actually shrinking as time goes by. As we now make quite clear when speaking about economics and what an “economy” is: an economy is the marketplace for the exchange of goods and services. So putting what we’ve just said in perspective -- as production of goods gets better and better, the proportion of the economy driven by services increases. This means the substructure of the economy shifts from being survival-driven to “desport”-driven; leisure and extracurricular -driven. And further, it means that the better a society is at producing goods, the more time it can devote to consuming services. Modern America has far and away the most diverse leisurely landscape the world has ever seen; I will go as far as to say it has the most diverse cultural landscape the world has ever seen...
Culture and Sport
“Culture”, according to Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, is, “the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a [group]”... It is the material structure and the interacting forum of a group of people. It is what they do with all their time not spent on survival (and learning). We can think of this in roughly four main categories: religious worship, language, architecture, and enjoyment (arts and sport)... Religious Worship falls under the category of “customary beliefs”, Arts & Sport fall under the category of “social forms” -- the ways in which we interact socially, extracurricularly, just to add enjoyment and entertainment to our lives. At the ground floor of that interaction (and beliefs) has to lie language. And architecture (and art) well represents the material traits...
These are the four pillars holding up and manifesting culture between a group of people.
You can almost deduce backwards what is most significant to a society’s culture at a given time by where they put their grandest architectural resources. And if you do that for modern America, you find that our greatest modern architectural achievements are the stadiums and arenas we build for sports! Think about it! Between college and professional football stadiums, we have 100 stadiums across America that rival the Roman Colosseum of antiquity. They have retractable roofs, and all glass walls. They are absolutely breathtaking and awe-inspiring! They are the signposts of our modern culture -- of our modern landscape of sport!
It is no longer churches to which the glory of our resources go, but modern arenas for sport. Troubling or not that that is, it is what it is...
A Digression: Culture and Geo-Politics
It’s fascinating, through this lens of culture, to think about how countries were established pre-America... With America was the introduction of “geo-politics”: politics based on geographical line-drawing... It wasn’t the first country to be defined by the drawing of borders on a map. But it was one of the first countries to define its territory by drawing lines on a map, and for those borders to then remain stable into the foreseeable future, as time passed. Prior to this it was language that determined societies (if not initially, at least across time), and in consequence, countries. Any country that has tried to overreach is territorial claim has been constrained by the restrictions of their shared language. Countries, throughout history, have shrunk down to the locus of common language, not expanded out to territorial claims... Look at Europe: England, France, Spain, Italy, Germany, Greece, Russia (which historically is considered a European country); each of these countries have their own languages. That’s a big deal. That means that regardless of what treaties are signed to designate a country’s territory, there is something more fundamental defining a group of people: how they communicate and express themselves. We could even say that territorial conquests of history (Imperial Rome, Genghis Khan’s Mongols, Bonaparte’s France, the Soviet Union & Eastern Bloc) inevitably disintegrated because they tried to encompass groups of people that diverged from them linguistically; it is from there that all other disintegration followed. And think about America! If we didn’t have media, television, radio, movies, (and Sport!), we’d have long since diverged in the literal language being spoken within our borders... If it weren’t for newspapers and media and the sharing of a common and effectively-distributed narrative, there’s no way southern Americans would still be speaking the same language as northern/midwestern/west coast Americans!... No Wayyy! We may even be separated further along other *subcultural* lines... But due to the distribution of news, media, and narrative, we’ve managed to maintain a coherent linguistic foundation, and from there the latter two areas of culture (architecture and enjoyment) have flourished beyond imagination!
An Ode to Sport
Where else in the world does a sports landscape exist such as in America?? Basketball, Baseball, Football, Hockey, Boxing, MMA -- in each of these sports their pinnacle is found in America! 3 out of the 4 majors in Golf are held in America. Horse racing has found its apex in America. We even have a burgeoning soccer league if that’s what you’re in to. And all of this is without touching on the landscape of college sports, which elevates numerous other activities to prominent followings and willful devotion. Sports, their diversity and their complexity, are a historical anomaly. And sports in America are a worldwide anomaly. Culture didn’t go in the direction of expanding on the historical arts (painting, music, etc), but transformed into entirely new domains. Movies and Sports! This new culture has proliferated societal participation. It’s not just in a few cities (like of old: Vienna, Paris, Moscow) that you have to be in to experience culture - i.e. orchestras, ballets, theater... but instead cultural participation has been brought to all the far corners of our modern society. We get to interact with the culture of sports year round, with well over 100 opportunities to actively engage in sport of one form or another. We see humans manifesting excellence all over the place -- and not just physical excellence; mental, emotional, ingenious, creative excellence. It’s not brute physicality that constitutes sport in the modern world; in fact, it is precisely the added human dimensions of rules and novelty that define all the major sports in America and diverge them from the purely physical competitions of sprinting and javelin throwing. They are novel games, bearing forth novel individuals. They create the dynamic constraints by which a premium emerges on courage, fortitude, cleverness, cunning, improvisation, and ruthlessness! It exposes timidity, indecision, cowardice, insufficiency.... everything we would want exposed! The winners are held up as winners around all the best strengths, and the losers are put down as losers around all the truest weaknesses! Sport is the modern crucible, where the heroes of our day are forged, wherein iron sharpens iron, one man sharpens another, and the whole society gets to come along for the ride.
You always take for granted what’s happening in the moment, because the moment is never perfect, it is never full. The moment is forever looking forward and running from the past; a perpetual anxiety pushes it desperately forward. And so it’s impossible to feel the full magnitude of the times we’re living in. If you don’t know, there’s a war against sport being waged right now. Not head on -- No, that would be silly. Wars are always fought in the dark, in the jungles, with guerrilla tactics, diversion and misdirection. The war is against money, it is against success, it is against winners, it is against predators, it is against the dominant. Where else do we see all these things borne forth more plainly and unadulteratedly as in sport?? There are objective winners. There is success. To them goes ALL the money and ALL the fruits. If they are great, we hope they do dominate their opponents! We hope they suffocate them and squeeze them, humiliate and expose them. To the greatest predator we heap our greatest praises! We don’t want there to be ties, or emotional victories; we want to be the last ones standing after everyone else has been thrust below our feet, against their will -- entirely against their will! Make no mistake about it....
The New Aristocracy
What was the Aristocracy? It’s a word that is little more than an old grave, marking a spot where there was once life, but is now little more than decaying bone. It’s an aversive term. It seems to represent injustice. Some group of people that lived in a scarce class separate from everyone else, not subject to the same struggles or burdens that the masses were forced to confront. They had two things: property and social currency. They were given land, on which they could set up estates and produce goods and use them to trade and accrue possessions; and they were granted invitations to the most exclusive social gatherings. They showed up to the Queen’s wedding, or the seasonal balls; they hung out in gentlemen’s clubs and were privy to all the latest fashions and one off events. Being an aristocrat was not solely being rich; no, even more than that, it was a ticket into a network of human interactions, par excellence.
And don’t think they got this just arbitrarily. The aristocratic classes were started at the dawn of monarchies and countries. Their status was awarded to the great warriors and diplomats that catalyzed the birth of their kingdoms. To those who demonstrated their worth at the right time, at a very constrained point in time, went all the spoils, so that generations later their winnings were still felt.
Framed as so, it becomes self evident that the athletes of our modern America are The New Aristocracy. They make in one year what most of the population won’t make in three lifetimes. That’s property. They are given access to social events that simply being rich can’t even grant you; they have an extramonaterial status. They are able to pass on their wealth for generations to come, should they not poison their wells. Their life is un-relatable, it exists in a separate stratosphere than the rest of us, they breathe a different air than we breathe. They are set apart from us. They are distinguished. They are glorified... They are not manufacturers or labor workers; they neither host nor serve... They are satellites of our modern world....
The Crux of it All
Never before 30 or so years ago was it possible to be a self-made wealthy individual under the age of about 50. With technology and sport we’ve seen this change. A one off technological invention can net you unfathomable wealth, and being a professional athlete can do the same. If you were to be rich before the age of 40 in all of human history, it did not come of your own doing. If you were in your 20’s or 30’s and rich, it was by inheritance, not self-creation... And that’s because the only way to real wealth in pre-modern times was through innovations in distribution and long term successful business operation. Even if you produced something new, without being able to distribute it effectively to increasing numbers of people, you weren’t going to get oil rich. That’s why you had to be 40/50+ years old. You can’t have manufacturing or distribution wealth before the age of 40. And rightfully so! It takes time to set up networks, to establish a reputation, to prove yourself reliable, to build up trust and expediency. This wasn’t an oppression, this was practically necessary.
And the greatest artists of all time -- the cultural celebrities of their age -- were paid moderate commissions by individual patrons, the richest men of their times... They were not independently wealthy... They didn’t have faceless wealth... That was not a thing for a painter, a sculptor, an actor, a composer, or a musician... You had to devote your life to those trades only to be familially adopted by some rich monarch, (what we’d call today a sugar daddy), if you were lucky, so that you could scrape by on a fetishized dependence....
That time has passed! You can now be rich young and be self-made! Forget the proven reliability across time. Forget the trust. If you can make it, if you can do it, you can have it. And you can have all of it. This, more than anything else, is a psychological anomaly. The human condition doesn’t know what to do with this newfound capacity to vanity.... To be rich and indebted to no one... To be 23 years old and be a billionaire (ie. tech money)... All the wealth is so impersonal; it’s all aggregated from the millions of faceless consumers that willingly want to consume what you have to offer....
You can have it all, when you’re young, be self-made, and owe nothing to anyone in particular for it... This is the religious-existential crux of our new age; the new devil calling us away from humility and toward vanity -- toward the eternally delusional ideal of self-sufficiency and transcendence of dependence... Away from self-imposed subjugation to the “other”... What’s coming of it? -- A hatred of the mundane. A hatred of being slighted, or overlooked, or dismissed, or turned away... A hatred of the perception of condescension... -- Being humble has been replaced by the vainglorious command, “B*tch, be humble.” This is what’s at work under the surface. This is the new dilemma... This is the new curse...
This is the new terrain.
A.J. Barker is co-Founder of The Last Renaissance. He is author of the book ‘The Will to Despair’ and is a former standout division one football player. He lives in the Twin Cities.