Friday, 13 June 2008

Philosophy Football: The Political Economy of UEFA and the Future of Democracy

The Thinking Fan's Guide to the World Cup, an anthology of country-themed essays published in anticipation of Germany 2006 with the goal of promoting to the American public the game known everywhere else in the world as football, featured an afterword by lefty fellow traveler Franklin Foer (brother of Jonathan Safran) in which the author made one bold assertion regarding the form of political organization most likely to produce a world cup victory: social democracy. Social democracy, Foer calculates, performs better than either fascism, communism, military junta, liberal democracy, or any other political system - and this on account of the fact that it achieves the ideal balance between team spirit and individual valour.

Taken in a relative rather than an absolute sense, countries with left-leaning, pro-welfare-state governments, win the most cups. And indeed, Foer's prediction bore fruit at the time - Italy, the eventual winners in 2006, had just ousted Berlusconi and elected Prodi. Again, without commenting on the real assets (or lack thereof) of Prodi's leadership, we are talking in relative terms - a left wind blew, a communitarian sentiment came over the Italian people, and they won the cup.

Fast forward 2 years to Euro 2008: the same team, with Berlusconi back at the helm of the Italian nation, is performing dismally. After a catastrophic loss to the Dutch, they barely scraped by with a draw against Romania; their now very slim chance of advancing to the next round hangs on the hope of trouncing none other than one-time world champions France who, with Sarkozy in office, have performed just as dismally. The reigning world champions, Germany, having elected Angela Merkel after a decade-long and steady decline to the right, have fared only slightly better. And the unquestionably best performances so far? Portugal, Croatia, Netherlands, and Spain. Two of these, Portugal and Spain, represent the only remaining left-wing governments in the European Union, however compromised (remember, relative terms).

Sweden too, with Bosnian-born Ibrahimovic, is doing well, so the game with Spain should be interesting; though the current government may not be exemplary, it nevertheless has a deeply embedded and institutionalized social democracy. Croatia, though still led by the nationalist HDZ, has a left-wing president (Mesic), and has even seen the HDZ themselves take a decisively more moderate tone compared to the Tudjman years. Netherlands, although still led by a coalition government, has clearly taken a turn to the left - the current government, the 4th Balkenende coalition, formed as a result of the 2006 election in which the Socialist Party made the greatest gains against the centre-right's decline in popularity, now includes the Labour Party. The Socialists themselves were excluded from the coalition, but nevertheless have substantially increased their share of seats in parliament. And let's remember, folks, that this is after all the first country to de facto legalize marijuana...Simply put, the relative tilt favours the left - the Netherlands, even with a slight shift in the direction of social democracy, have trounced France and Italy (4-1 and 3-0!) who have both taken decisive turns to the right with Sarkozy and Berlusconi, respectively.

Sadly, few people have caught on, or more nations would be clamouring for social democracy as fervently as they do for the world cup. Social democracy has not 'arrived' yet, in the sense that - if anyone recalls the famous 'Philosophy Football' Monty Python sketch - the global collective consciousness still has not grasped the object of the game - to kick the ball away from the centre and into the opponent's goal. Victory would undoubtedly be ours if we only applied ourselves to it, given how vastly the underprivileged of the world outnumber the privileged. The game, in other words, has still not truly begun, and social democracy has still not found its Archimedes to shout 'Eureka!' and run for the ball. Marx only gets us as far as comprehending the line rules and shouting 'offside!' while the capitalists get away with murder.

Money Doesn't Talk, It Swears

The future is worrying - and this in real, not football terms. This week, University College London (where I work) is hosting the China Research Festival, part of China Now, a nationwide (UK) festival of Chinese culture, to "reveal the dynamic heart of modern China."

Harmless, no? May be, until one has actually read some of the promotional material and done a bit of contextual thinking about the long term. Contemporary China, as Naomi Klein recounts in The Shock Doctrine, is perhaps the most successful implementation of Chicago School economic doctrine anywhere in the world. The brutally repressed Tiennamen Square protests in 1989 were in favour of democracy, but they were not, as many mainstream western media would have us believe, against the 'old guard' of Chinese communism and the status quo; they were directed, rather, at precisely the free market reforms of Deng Xiaoping which reduced millions of people to poverty overnight and fundamentally restructured the Chinese economy, creating fertile ground for exploitation, Free Trade Zones beyond the reach of unions and labour regulations, and turning China into the world's working class - playing Labour to the west's Capital, as Zizek put it.

Universities, once sanctuaries and hotbeds of radicalism and resistance to state power, are now being transformed into a key component not only of state power, but of trans-national governmentality, here playing a critical role in a shell game of cross-promotion between governments, corporations, and research institutions to construct one hefty global capitalist empire. The bloody legacy of repression, killing and torture on which it is built - from Tiennamen square to the pillaging of Russian democracy, Chile, Bolivia, etc - is safely tucked away in the past. One promotional banner in the North Cloisters at UCL is emblazoned with a quote from Deng Xiaoping touting the compatibility of communism and the capitalist free market. Sure, I thought, so long as you kill and jail the opposition, and make sure that you take only the worst of both worlds - authoritarian Stalinist repression (the 'Pinochet option' as Naomi Klein describes China's 'transition to democracy') and rampant, unchecked sweatshop exploitation in an unregulated free market at the mercy of the whims of corporate greed.

The betrayal by the Communist elite in China is the very same betrayal carried out by Solidarnosc in Poland - the difference being that the Poles, through the democratic process, were able to halt the free market reforms half-way. And given that much of this was done in China (as in Russia, Poland, and elsewhere) with the strong financial and political backing of western governments and international monetary institutions (IMF, World Bank) who had no qualms about directly opposing the democractic process and putting their bucks behind brutal repression and torture while at the same time touting the unpopular reforms as a 'transition to democracy', it may well be time to take seriously Zizek's remark in a recent lecture that China - capitalism without democracy - is the future. Instead of social democracy we will have capitalist autocracy.

Many of the changes implemented throughout UCL in the past couple of years to bring departments in line with the university's new 'corporate identity', from proto-fascist design guidelines, the outsourcing of an ever greater number of services and functions such as catering, the moving of books from one end of the library to another (done by a supposedly 'library specialist' moving company who left the shelf sequence in a tragic mess) to the Orwellian doublespeak about 'excellence' (theme of the library staff conference this week), certainly point in this direction. Not to mention the fact that the main, if not only motive for the reshuffle in the library is to situate the Law collection in the Donaldson room, the lovely palatial hall just under the UCL dome which until recently housed Art, Philosophy, and Economics, among others - in a bid to attract investment from top City law firms. So what is UCL doing pandering to and promoting China? Well when money talks...

Or as Bob Dylan put it, 'money doesn't talk, it swears.'