Louis Proyect: Rooting for the Bulls

Yves here. This would normally be weekend fare, but IMHO readers need a change from the even-more-disturbing-than-usual news of the past week. Plus this piece includes interesting historical context.

By Louis Proyect, who has written for Sozialismus (Germany), Science and Society, New Politics, Journal of the History of Economic Thought, Organization and Environment, Cultural Logic, Dark Night Field Notes, Revolutionary History (Great Britain), New Interventions (Great Britain), Canadian Dimension, Revolution Magazine (New Zealand), Swans and Green Left Weekly (Australia). Originally published at Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

The news that a bull had gored a matador to death for the first time since 1985 got me thinking about this barbaric “sport” the same day I saw “At the Fork”, the powerful documentary  about humane livestock breeding. My immediate reaction was to root for the home team—the bulls.

The same day there was another home team victory. Two men got gored during the Pamplona bull run, the yearly event that was celebrated in Ernest Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises”, a novel that romanticized bullfighting and the macho values we associate with the morally questionable novelist.

To get a handle on this barbaric practice, I looked at Adrian Shubert’s “Death and Money in the Afternoon: A History of the Spanish Bullfight”, a 1999 Oxford University book. It is much more of a dispassionate scholarly work than the one I would have preferred to read, namely Timothy Mitchell’s “Blood Sport” but was immediately available as a Columbia University EBook. I will allow Schubert to supply the history while I will try to supply the passion.

Although the origins of bullfighting are shrouded in mystery, we do know that by the 11th century it had become entrenched in Spanish society as a pastime of the aristocracy. El Cid, the aristocrat and military leader who was celebrated in an epic poem and who fought both with and against Muslims, was into bullfighting. Like other aristocrats, he was on horseback and used a lance to kill the animals. The noblemen had underlings who fought on foot alongside them using swords against the bull. These two roles continue to this day in the bullfighting ring with the horse-mounted picador and the grounded matador, who has assumed the lead role once assigned to men like El Cid.

By the 1700s, bullfighting had become much more than a sport for the aristocrats. It had become a major source of revenue for public expenditures just like the lottery is today. It paid for good things like hospitals and bad things like the military.

Schubert identifies Francisco Romero as a key figure in the transformation of bullfighting into a mass, money-making spectacle. Born in 1700, Romero was a shoemaker by trade but became involved in bullfighting by assisting a nobleman who fought on horseback just as was the case in El Cid’s day. After becoming adept in the “sport”, he began to give exhibitions of fighting bulls on foot that climaxed with a single sword thrust. By 1726 he had become famous and gave bullfighting the impetus it needed to become a combination of entertainment and revenue generator. By 1749 Madrid had its first bullring and five years later King Ferdinand VI designated it a source of funding for municipal hospitals.

With the rise of the royalist state, the bullring became a microcosm of Spanish society. The seating was segregated by class and the rituals attending the matches were as stylized as the Super Bowl, which in its way performs the same function in American society today.

They performed the same role in the colonies of the New World as Schubert reports:

The new rulers of America wasted little time in introducing this spectacle of power to their recently conquered domains. Beginning in 1529, Mexico City celebrated San Hipólito’s Day, the day on which Hernán Cortés had conquered the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán only ten years before, with a bullfight, and from 1535 on the entry of new viceroys into the capital of New Spain was marked with a series of bullfights.

When the Spanish empire began to crumble, the same colonies began to associate killing bulls for sport with their masters, especially in Cuba. For José Martí, the bullfight was “a futile, bloody spectacle …and against Cuban sentiment as being intimately linked with our colonial past.” Instead the Cubans preferred baseball that the colonial authorities viewed as “anti-Spanish” and had it banned from 1873 to 1874. The ban was reimposed in 1895 just after the war of Independence began. Cubans in Tampa and Key West held baseball games to raise money for the war effort and U.S. military authorities quickly banned bullfighting once they took possession of the island.

After Spain’s defeat, Spanish intellectuals tried to understand why their country was so weak and so decadent. Known as the Generation of 1898, they saw the American victory less in terms of the futility of colonization and more as an expression of their own problems. José Ortega y Gasset, the best known of this group, viewed bullfighting as expressing “pornography without voluptuousness”, “ridiculous Don Juanism” and denounced it as follows: “In sum, whatever has to do with enthusiasm, grace, arrogance, sumptuousness, everything, everything is made negative, corrupted, bastardized, deteriorated, because of those emanations that come from the bullrings to the city and from here to the countryside.”

If bullfighting was a symbol of Spain’s feudal past, essentially a product of the failure to carry out a bourgeois revolution, it naturally follows that General Franco would see it in the same terms as the 18th century monarchs—a way to express the hierarchy and “traditional values” going back to the 11th century and earlier. Schubert was a bit surprised to see that the left backed bullfighting as well. “In 1937 there was even one in Republican Alicante to raise money for the Communist Party militias. (The bulls might have come from the Popular Front Ranch [Ganadería del Frente Popular]!)” One can’t blame him for not having a sharper class analysis but it is obvious that the willingness of the Popular Front to use bullfighting to raise money might have something to do with its failure to retain power. Its inability to confront the Ancien Régime was its undoing after all.

The people of Catalonia were far more willing to carry out a social revolution in the 1930s than other Spaniards, largely as a result of experiencing Spanish power in the same way that the Cubans did—as a colony but one that was internal rather than external. In 2010, they finally caught up with Franco’s legacy and eliminated one of the pillars of fascist culture as Joe O’Connor reported in a National Post article on July 30, 2010 that cited Adrian Schubert:

Originally, the Catalans were separate, a kingdom unto themselves known as Aragon, with a distinct language, governing institutions and customs that persisted long after the birth of the Kingdom of Spain in 1469.

By the end of the 18th century bullfighting, as we picture it today, was already fully developed as a commercial enterprise. It was the first form of mass entertainment in Western society. Arenas dotted the Spanish landscape. Stars were worshipped like matinee idols. Festivals would end with a bullfight, followed by a feast. People loved it, even in Catalonia, the first region in Spain to industrialize and, by the 1850s, the wealthiest.

“A Catalan nationalist movement emerged in the 1850s,” says Adrian Shubert, a historian at York University. “The Catalans saw themselves as more sophisticated, more European, more advanced economically than the rest of the country.”

And the future, to the Catalans, was to be European, and being European meant no more bullfights. Bullfighting was a symbol of Spanish backwardness, of barbarity, a tradition unbecoming a progressive people. To the rest of Spain, bullfighting was the people; it was Castilian virility, artistry and bravery in the face of death.

“Franco detested the Catalans,” Mr. Shubert says. “He saw them as separatists and a threat to the unity of the Fatherland.”

Under Franco, the Catalan language was banned in public, and banished from media. Nationalism went underground and wouldn’t emerge again until after the general’s death in 1975.

Sooner or later bullfighting will die out entirely in Spain since young people raised in post-Franco Spain see it as inimical to their values. It is no longer the cash cow it once was and is mostly the pastime of an older generation and tourists seeking “the real Spain”.

CAS International, the largest worldwide organization committed to ending bullfighting, advises tourists on its website:

As a tourist, you can also help us in our fight to end bullfighting. A few tips:

  • Never go to a bullfight or a cruel patronal event, not even once. If you go to these events, your money and presence support the bullfighting industry. Ask other people to follow your example
  • Do not buy any bullfighting souvenirs
  • Let shop keepers know (in a polite manner) why you don’t want to buy bullfighting souvenirs. You can use our Spanish, French or Portuguese letter.
  • Do not eat or drink in bars and restaurants that promote bullfighting.

Among the tourists visiting Spain, a certain amount of them will be testosterone-laden men in their 20s who take part in the Pamplona bull run possibly without understanding its connection to what takes place in the ring. In fact, the run terminates at the bullring where the animals will be sacrificed at the altar to the traditional values of medieval Spain as Vox reports:

Veterinarians Susan Krebsbach and Mark Jones also tried to scientifically evaluate the suffering endured by bulls by showing video recordings of 28 bullfights to three independent veterinarians, who then graded the animals’ distress. They found that animals were typically wounded more than 10 times every fight, and that signs of distress like tail swishing, slowing down due to exhaustion, reluctance to move, and labored breathing were all common.

“The frequency with which bulls during bullfights exhibit behaviors identified as indicators of distress, suggest that fighting bulls experience distress — they suffer in the bull ring,” Krebsbach and Jones conclude.

It should not be particularly surprising that bullfighting inflicts massive amounts of pain on the roughly 250,000 bulls it kills annually. There’s plenty of evidence in the literature on dairy cows suggesting that cattle are capable of feeling pain. For instance, experiments have shown that giving painkillers to dairy cattle improves their gait — suggesting that they were feeling pain, and that alleviating that pain made walking easier. Cows’ behavior suggests an ability to feel emotion, as they warm to people who pet them and produce less milk among people who frighten them.

They’re also remarkably intelligent. “Cows can not only solve simple problems but they become excited when a solution is found,” researchers F. Bailey Norwood and Jayson L. Lusk write in Compassion by the Pound. “Cows can be trained to perform simple feats, such as pushing a lever for food, and they can read certain signs. Cows are especially adept at remembering directions and geographic locations, and at recognizing their peers.”

This is the animal that’s being tormented in a bullfight, that’s being stabbed repeatedly and having its organs pierced and ruptured.

In 1936 Munro Leaf wrote a children’s book titled “Ferdinand the Bull” whose eponymous hero preferred smelling flowers in the pasture to butting heads with other bulls or—naturally enough—being the prey of a matador.

The book was treated as a Rorschach test by the media at the time, which saw Ferdinand as either a fascist or a communist. The fascists themselves had no problem deciphering the message. Franco banned it as a pacifist work while Adolph Hitler ordered it to be burned as “degenerate democratic propaganda”. Following the Nazi defeat, the Americans handed out 30,000 copies to Germany’s children in order to encourage peace even as they were smuggling top Nazi officials out of harm’s way in order to build up a reliable anti-Communist resource.

Ever the jerk, Hemingway wrote a short story in 1951 titled “The Faithful Bull” that was intended to refute Munro Leaf. It ends this way:

So the man sent him away with five other bulls to be killed in the ring, and at least the bull could fight, even though he was faithful. He fought wonderfully and everyone admired him and the man who killed him admired him the most. But the fighting jacket of the man who killed him and who is called the matador was wet through by the end, and his mouth was very dry.

Que toro más bravo,” the matador said as he handed his sword to his sword handler. He handed it with the hilt up and the blade dripping with the blood from the heart of the brave bull who no longer had any problems of any kind and was being dragged out of the ring by four horses.

I have never read “Ferdinand the Bull” but I have good memories of the Disney cartoon that is completely faithful to the original.

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  1. ambrit

    There are non lethal types of bullfight in Southern France. The types where groundlings try to snatch rosettes from between the bulls horns, and a type where groundlings leap over cows, and dodge charging animals harken back to the bull leaping depicted in mosaics from Crete from around 1500 BC. That appears to have been religious in character and been the source of the myths of Ariadne, Theseus and the Minotaur.
    Bulls have always been symbols to humans, and a source of food.
    I do notice that the article implies that bullfighting in Spain became excessive when it was financialized. Go figure.

    1. JEHR

      My uncle, whose family came from Finland, successfully called his cows for milking by cupping his hands around his mouth and saying, “Co'(me) Boss, Co’ Boss” many times. Worked too. For pigs it was: “Souee, Souee.”

  2. Ed

    Without bullfighting, bulls would no longer exist, because this animal serves no other purpose (and its breeding is excedingly expensive). So the alternative is between some hundred thousand animals to feed the industry, or almost no animals if the industry is prohibited.

    Of course bulls suffer a lot during the lidia, 15 minutes of suffering vs a life freer than any other animal destined for human consumption. So in balance, their amount of suffering is much les than any other animal (dare to say, is better than the life experience of most of the mankind).

    1. weinerdog43

      I don’t think I agree with your premise. While artificial insemination does indeed negate the need for bulls all over the place. both male and female bovines are born regardless. While the females are left alone, the males are simply neutered. I really don’t think it holds that one must have a continued supply of bulls destined to be tortured to death just to satisfy some sick human desire. I think the better response would be for humane treatment of all animals regardless of where they and how they are destined to die.

    2. Carolinian

      Yes I suspect those bulls have much better lives than the animals that those of us who aren’t vegetarians eat every day.

      But that doesn’t address the question of whether bullfighting celebrates violence and is therefore more degrading to the spectators than to the bulls.

    3. diptherio

      We don’t allow Spanish-style bull-fighting in Montana, and yet we have plenty of bulls. Your argument is just silly and ill-informed.

      Some bulls must be kept around as sperm factories, since nature still requires bull sperm to create new cows and last time I checked beef was still a pretty popular dish. Also, there are these things called Rodeos that are rather popular out West here. Bull-riding is one of the events. Perhaps you’ve heard of it. It requires bulls. Some people think that it is “barbaric,” although if anyone gets hurt bull-riding, it tends to be the rider.

  3. MikeNY

    Gandhi claimed “Ferdinand” was his favorite book. Papa Hemingway had something of a nihilistic and violent character, which comes through in his novels and his life.

    I lived in Madrid after college and never saw a fight. To a person, my Spanish friends considered lo de los toros a barbarous disgrace.

  4. visitor

    bullfighting inflicts massive amounts of pain on the roughly 250,000 bulls it kills annually.

    250000 bulls killed in arenas per year? That is about 685 per day — that would mean hundreds of bull fights organized every day. I have difficulties to imagine that this can be true, even adding other countries where bullfighting is still a thing (such as Mexico and France).

    And if those figures are true, then it does not jibe with bullfighting being mostly the pastime of an older generation and tourists seeking “the real Spain”.

  5. Eclair

    Oh goddess! People who claim that bulls live a great life …. with the exception of that 15 minutes of confusion, pain and ear-deafening roar of the maddened crowd … Do they also claim that African slaves led a good life, food, clothing and shelter provided, except for the occasional beatings?

    I do imagine such folk ride around in diesel-powered four-wheel-drive pickups, with rear-wheel mud flaps displaying the shiny silver silhouettes of a reclining, big-breasted human female. Nah … my prejudice is showing through.

    But, lately, I find myself rooting for the bears who root through Aspen’s trash cans, coyotes who snatch up irritatingly yappy small dogs who happen to wander onto their evening hunting route, and even alligators who consider a plump toddler as a toothsome snack.

    1. tony

      That is really not a fair argument. People have a lot more needs, such as self-determination, identity, art and self-expression. Bulls have simpler needs. Slaves were also worked and beaten to death in the course of years, not killed in a single afternoon.

      Comparing people to animals like that is dehumanizing.

  6. RabidGandhi

    Have to say, with the antidote in Links, the Bulls vs Bears quotient is particularly high today on NC.

    1. Jim Haygood

      Crikey … I thought this was going to be an article about the S&P index’s breakout this week.

      And yes — some unfortunate bears were brutally harmed in the making of this rally.

      Your spare change would be appreciated by the good Dr Hussman, who now declares himself “neutral.”

      1. MikeNY

        Oh dear, that’s worrisome. When Dr H changes his outlook to ‘bullish’, the End of Days is upon us.

        1. Jim Haygood

          Relax, my man. He’s not there yet:

          Enough trend-following components have improved to hold us to a fairly neutral near-term outlook.

          Further uniformity could create a speculative environment that, despite wicked valuations, could support an outlook that might be described as “constructive with a safety net.”


          Poor guy … he tried to say “b … b-b-b … buh … buhhhhh ….” [BUY] — but he just couldn’t enunciate the shameful dirty word.

  7. a different chris

    Good read. I have to single out this, though, like I intended to (and aging mind, don’t know if I did or not!) with another post that said something along the lines of “Americans insist on no GMO restrictions”.

    >even as they were smuggling top Nazi officials

    I do not know, but I really don’t think the “they” that were smuggling the Nazis were the same as the ones that were trying to help the regular people. I really don’t. We need to stop letting people blame all of us for the nasty few at the top.

    1. fosforos

      Both sets were just carrying out the orders from “the nasty few at the top” (aka Roosevelt, Truman, Marshall, Byrnes, Bush, et. al.).

  8. pretzelattack

    speaking of bulls vs bears, that was also a popular sport at one time, for the spanish in north america. i don’t know if that’s where the stock market meme came from.

  9. tony

    A tourist in Spain goes into a local restaurant one evening and orders an unintelligibly named Spanish meal. It turns out to be a big, delicious, spicy meat dish, which he consumes with gusto. Then he asks the waiter “Hey, what was in that recipe?”. The waiter answers: “Well, sir, if you must know, It was the testicles of the bull that lost to the matador today in the bullfighting event”. The tourist is taken aback, but nevertheless returns the following evening and orders the same dish. This time, the tourist gets a disappointingly small dish. He eats it, but complains to waiter that the meal was inadequate. “I’m very sorry sir,” says the waiter, apologetically, “but today the bull won…”

  10. ks

    I have never read “Ferdinand the Bull” but I have good memories of the Disney cartoon that is completely faithful to the original.

    No. The words were the same but the voice was Disney’s, not my mother’s. Or mine. You should read the book and supply your own.

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