10 January 2008

Sport shall be political

Mediocracy combines the demand that everyone should be regarded as identical — thus weight of numbers is the principal criterion — with a certain anti-intellectualism. (As an adjunct there is an official high culture, but it may only be performed by accredited operatives, and is not really intended for consumption outside its official spheres.)

Sport satisfies the requirement that culture provide pleasure for the masses but in a way that is relatively uncerebral and unthreatening. Like cookery, therefore, it has begun to take on the status of trivia-elevated-to-high-culture.

One might think that sport, which seems to dominate the public arena as never before, is already sufficiently mediocratic. The willingness of New Labour to pronounce on issues of sport, even when clearly outside its jurisdiction, provides a clue as to how the activity is now viewed. "We" (the mass, represented by our leaders) are encouraged to believe "we" own sport and have a right to determine what happens in it. I am thinking, for example, of Tony Blair and the Glenn Hoddle case.

It appears, however, that sport in some ways still falls foul of mediocratic standards. As I wrote here,

mediocracy is not about empowering the mass but about disempowering the individual. Mass taste is to be exploited in so far as it contributes to the agenda of degradation: encouraged where it does so, discouraged where it does not. ... The mass is not entirely to be trusted since its instincts are not always mediocratic. ... The mass is liable to be sceptical about the intellectual pretensions on which mediocratic ideology depends.

From a different angle, then, big sports presents a serious problem for mediocracy, because it represents power of a kind that is still relatively uncontrolled by the state or the mediocratic elite. Although there seems little likelihood that a stadium full of football spectators might rise up against the phoney ideology of its masters, you can never be entirely sure.

This may explain an article in December's Prospect, by David Goldblatt, demanding that sport become more politicised.

sport should be ... judged by the same standards of transparency, sustainability and democracy that we expect elsewhere in public life ... How are we to police the line between the realms of power and play, economic space and social space?

Specifically, we are given a number of recommendations for policing:

Michel Platini's UEFA and the EU have [made] proposals for salary restrictions, limits on foreign players, spreading Champions League money more evenly and enshrining sport's distinct status in EU legalisation. But we also need to re-examine the whole question of ownership in sport. We should consider placing stricter limits on private investment in clubs (as in France and Germany) or making it easier to experiment with other forms of ownership, such as the fan-owned model in Spain, where senior club officials are elected.
... at a time when no aspect of social or political life can absent itself from the debate on climate change, sport needs to take a lead. The prevalence and low cost of air transport has been a key factor in the geographical expansion of sporting competition. ... Governments generally should be making more effort to hold the aviation industry to account, but surely a slice of the €500m income that the Champions League generates, or the billions that flow to FIFA, should be spent on some kind of offset.

Given the article is written by a former Labour adviser, we should perhaps not be surprised that it is a classic example of Marxist/mediocratic cultural analysis, which typically works as follows. (1) Private human activity is reinterpreted from a collective social perspective. This is not exactly uninteresting in itself, though you can take it or leave it. (2) It soon becomes obvious that the theoretical perspective has a practical political purpose, i.e. to justify collective interference.

Sport's ... apparatus of challenges, contests, competitions, unknown outcomes and final results is like a vast polymorphous machine for generating improvised and compressed stories.
the crowd is unquestionably the chorus, not only supplying ambience, commentary and income, but actively shaping the tone and the course of the game. The opportunity that this provides for the collective dramatisation of identities and social relationships, both spontaneous and organised, is without parallel ...
organised sport illustrates one of the central insights of classical social theory, from Tönnie's distinction between Gemeinschaft and Gescellschaft* to Weber's theory of rationalisation: that the modern world is founded on an institutional separation of the realms of instrumental reason and value-driven action. The separation of state and civil society [... continues in this vein]

'Stories', 'identities', 'relationships', 'instrumental reason' — the vocabulary of the left wing sociologist: strong on resonance and ideological implication, not so strong on testable hypotheses.

Whose fault is it that we have so far failed to treat sport with sufficient socio-political respect? Goldblatt manages, by various sleights-of-hand, to point the finger at the usual suspects: Victorians, the upper class, men, Britain.

This absence of politics has apparently affected histories of sport, with undesirable consequences.

All modern sports revel in their own histories and use them to manufacture contemporary meanings and pleasures ... Narratives of clubs, tournaments and traditions of styles of play provide a rich seam of interest in sporting competition. However, in both official and popular idioms, it has been mainly ersatz history that we have been offered: deracinated, concocted myth, hermetically sealed from the wider economic social and political context in which it has occurred.
What gives Arsenal continuity is the accumulated social capital amassed by generations who have attached significance to the narratives generated by the team's performances. This network of memories, meanings, identities and rituals constitute a precious form of value which cannot be owned by anyone and should not have its fortunes exclusively linked to the vagaries of private capital ...

Fortunately (Goldblatt writes) "a few rare sportswriters, such as Simon Barnes at the Times, have broadened their horizons, geographically and contextually, and looked for something more than the same old narratives and vocabulary." Is this the same Simon Barnes who appears regularly in Private Eye's 'Pseuds Corner'?

At the end of the article, Goldblatt makes a number of interesting counterpoints, but seems unwilling to let them affect his thesis.

I recently heard David James, Portsmouth's politically aware goalkeeper, ask a football punter whether he thought environmental issues should be a priority for his club. In reply, he received a groan of irritation.

(Despite the majority always being right in theory, the mass's scepticism about ideology arises from having insufficiently tutored minds, and must therefore be rejected.)

one of the strongest arguments against taking sport seriously is the dismal record of those ideologies that have sought to do so in the past: muscular Christianity in the service of imperialism; varieties of social Darwinism and ultra-nationalism bent on hardening the nation for war; the ludicrous bread and circuses of fascism, Latin American populist authoritarianism and European communism ... But abandoning politics or pretending it doesn't matter is not an effective response.

(Mediocracy has the right to ignore the lessons of history.)

The world of sport is ... a social space that is dependent on the state and the market but knows how to hold them both at arm's length.

Clearly, for Mr Goldblatt, the world of sport needs to start being a little less effective at keeping the state at a distance.

* sic; correct spelling is "Gesellschaft".