The Subversive Conservatism of Rocky Balboa
Sylvester Stallone in Rocky IV, USA 1985

The Subversive Conservatism of Rocky Balboa

Rocky's vision of a good life was humble, traditional, and local.

Stewart Slater
Stewart Slater
7 min read


If, at the height of the Cold War, you fly to Moscow and beat two metres of ice-blond Soviet beefcake to a pulp while wearing stars-and-stripes shorts, it is hard to avoid becoming an American hero. Although he made his debut in 1976, Rocky’s heroics in Rocky IV established him in the pantheon of Reaganite America, emblematic, like Top Gun’s Maverick, of a confident, can-do nation all too ready and able to kick Commie butt to show the superiority of Uncle Sam and his political model.

But while Tom Cruise’s brash fighter jock was a good match for the cocky confidence of 1980s America, Sylvester Stallone’s boxer, like his misfit veteran Rambo, was always a more nuanced representation of the zeitgeist. Conservative? Certainly. Libertarian? On occasion. But a fully paid-up follower of the Reagan/Thatcher orthodoxy? Not really. From his first appearance as a washed-up club fighter via his reincarnation as a retired champ back for one last fight to the mentor role in Creed, Rocky has displayed a consistent philosophy, but one which often harks back to an earlier form of right-wing thinking.

That Rocky Balboa made National Review’s list of the 50 best conservative movies demonstrates that the Right is happy to adopt the character as one of its own, as should the frequency with which his speech to his son in the film is cited by that side of the political divide. His overt religiosity—he prays before every fight—would, in an American context, suggest he is a Republican. His reaction to the Boxing Commission’s proposed refusal of his licence would gladden the heart of any small-stater.

And yet, in a time which prizes wealth and fame, he shows the downsides to both. In an age which fetishises technology, he is unashamedly old school. In a globalised world, he is resolutely local.

Wealth and fame

If there is a single fictional character who is seen to represent the ideology of the ’80s, it is Gordon Gekko in Wall Street, who famously declared “Greed is good.” Even China’s communist leader Deng Xiaoping is said to have remarked, “To get rich is glorious.” Free-market, “winner takes all” capitalism was the spirit of the age, and governments across the West saw their duty as getting out of the way to allow their citizens to make money.

While this had been a strain of conservative thinking—the Republican Calvin Coolidge had remarked in the 1920s, “the chief business of the American people is business. They are profoundly concerned with … prospering in the world”—there was another tradition more sceptical of the pursuit of wealth and free markets. In the United Kingdom, the economic policies associated with Margaret Thatcher would, in the 19th century, have marked her out as a Liberal. Conservative thinking was more paternalistic and sceptical of free trade. In America, it might have been the Democrat Roosevelt who introduced a top tax rate of 94 percent as an emergency wartime measure, but the Republican Dwight Eisenhower did not cut it during the recovery of the 1950s. Britain’s prime minister in the 1970s referred to the “unpleasant and unacceptable face of capitalism.” If the “go-go” decade of the 1980s, and the neoliberal paradigm which followed it, represent one tradition in conservative thought, it is not, as it might appear, the only one.

Rocky’s financial trajectory follows the pattern sadly all too common for professional boxers. He starts poor, acquires wealth, and then loses it. While in the middle films of the series he has the traditional trappings of wealth in a mansion, domestic staff, and a sports car, by the end, he is back in his old neighbourhood, running a restaurant and driving a van. But while we see him mourning his late wife in Rocky Balboa, we never see him grieving over his reduced circumstances.

Following Kipling’s advice, he seems to treat the impostors of financial triumph and disaster just the same. When his opponent’s managers pitch the fight to the champion, they do so on the basis of his likely take of the pay-per-view revenues. When they approach Rocky, they talk about giving a percentage to charity. Wealth does not appear important to him.

If the character shows little concern for the acquisition of money, the films seem keen to point out its downsides. Having won the belts and fought a succession of hand-picked opponents, in their first fight in Rocky III, the affluent champ loses convincingly to the poor Clubber Lang. Rocky’s wealth may have bought him nice suits, but it has cost him “the eye of the tiger” which the challenger, still on the wrong side of the tracks, possesses. It is only once he leaves his mansion for a seedy hotel and swaps his glitzy public training sessions for a gritty inner-city gym that he is able to reacquire his fighting prowess and regain the belt.

That the trappings of wealth can sap motivation is a well-worn trope in boxing. The famed middleweight “Marvelous” Marvin Hagler said, “It’s tough to get out of bed at 5am to do roadwork when you’re sleeping in silk pyjamas.” But the films go out of their way to show the downsides of money and ostentation.

In Rocky III, the trainer, Micky, gets outraged by the circus surrounding his public training sessions and stunts, such as a bout with a wrestler. Such activities distract from the task at hand and, sure enough, Rocky loses his next fight. In Rocky IV, Apollo Creed enters the ring in a glitzy display of American wealth, only to be killed by his more sober Soviet opponent. It is only by sequestering himself in an isolated and dilapidated Siberian farmhouse that Rocky can train with the focus necessary to avenge his friend’s death.

Progress

This last training montage reveals another facet of Rocky’s worldview: a scepticism of technology. While his opponent is in a high-tech gym, monitored by a battery of electronics which precisely calculate such variables as his punching strength, Rocky is chopping logs, running up mountains, and lifting horse-drawn carts. It is striking how little his training regimen changes from his first appearance in 1976 to his last fight in 2006. He lifts weights (often beer kegs or large chains which happen to be at hand rather than specialised equipment), runs outdoors, consumes protein in the form of raw eggs, and toughens his knuckles by pounding away at frozen meat carcasses. Not only does his regime show no awareness of developments in nutrition and sports science over his three-decade career, but his success also suggests they are unnecessary.

During the series, the world has seen the mass adoption of computers, the invention of the Internet, and the widespread availability of mobile telephones. While these developments have been celebrated across the political spectrum, the Right has touted them as benefits of free-market capitalism and celebrates companies such as Apple which operate at the forefront of progress. Much conservative policy over the past decades has focused not on conserving the world, but on remaking it, whether, as in the UK, by privatising the large swathes of the economy owned by the government, or, more generally in the West, by enabling the offshoring that has shrunk heavy industry so dramatically. Not unreasonably, a recent documentary series on Britain in the ’80s was titled, “Thatcher: A Very British Revolution.”

Conservatism though, from its beginnings with Edmund Burke, has been highly sceptical of revolutions and attempts to remake the world order. In On Being Conservative, British thinker Michael Oakeshott describes it as a disposition, not a philosophy—it is “to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried.” To Oakeshott, much of recent right-wing thinking would be seen as fundamentally unconservative, relying, as it does, on economic theories derived from reason, rather than the lessons of experience. By contrast, in his training regimen, Rocky seems profoundly conservative, sticking to what he knows works rather than seeking potential gains from novel methods. In contrast to his contemporaries, “he prefers the actual to the possible, the sufficient to the superabundant.” To his opponents, and society at large, he may appear a Luddite, but his approach reveals a deeply conservative sentiment.

Localism

“If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere,” Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May opined in 2016. Coming after the country’s Brexit referendum, her remarks were seen (like the result) as a rebuke to the “Everywhere” class who had gained power and influence following the process of globalisation. Much of the criticism of her came from libertarians who celebrated the spread of free markets and free trade, which had made such lives possible following the triumph of the neoliberal model.

But if Mrs May was an uncomfortable fit with the modern conservative movement—her belief in “the good that government can do” contrasts sharply with Ronald Reagan’s quip that “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: “I’m from the government and I’m here to help”—she stood in a longstanding conservative tradition which, in Oakeshott’s words, prefers “the near to the distant … Familiar relationships and loyalties … to the allure of more profitable attachments”. The importance of home and community is a key feature of a more recent conservative writer, Sir Roger Scruton, who argued that “Human beings, in their settled condition, are animated by oikophilia: the love of the oikos which means not only the home but the people contained in it and the surrounding settlements which endow that home with lasting contours.”

Rocky’s own oikophilia can be seen in his domestic arrangements. No matter whether he is rich or poor, he lives in Philadelphia. His opponent in Rocky Balboa, by contrast, has taken advantage of his wealth to move from Tampa to Las Vegas. His interactions with his community in the first film show that he is fully embedded in it, and he retains those links throughout the series, employing a former opponent from the club circuit in his restaurant and starting a relationship with a woman he had known as a girl. No rootless globalist willing to swap New York for London in the pursuit of wealth, Rocky gains his identity from his local community. As he says to his brother-in-law Paulie, “If you stay in one place long enough, you become that place.”

Rocky’s subversiveness, then, lies not in his being a conservative. Hollywood, despite being widely seen as left-leaning, has no problems with right-wing characters, from the billionaires Tony Stark and Bruce Wayne to the psychopathic assassin James Bond, with his taste for the high life and apparent ignorance of the International Criminal Court. Nor is his focus on individual responsibility unusual: Obama nominee Sonia Sotomayor recently described her differences with Supreme Court colleague Clarence Thomas as revolving around whether or not people needed help reaching their bootstraps before pulling themselves up by them.

His challenge, rather, lies in rejecting, from a right-wing viewpoint, many of the assumptions of the modern conservative movement. His vision of a good life—humble, traditional, and local—is at odds with a philosophy which has recently hymned the acquisition of wealth and those who shrug off most constraints to achieve it, while having little to say to those “left behind.” Yet, recent election results in Germany, Australia, and the US suggest an increasing dissatisfaction with neoliberalism, and the knee-jerk, “zombie Reaganism” response of tax cuts to every problem seems ill-suited to current problems. He may not be the one it wants, but Rocky might just be the hero the Right needs.

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Stewart Slater

Stewart Slater is a freelance writer based in London. His work has appeared in Spiked, Areo, and Modern Stoicism.