Polanyi & British Football's Great Transformation

♠ Posted by Emmanuel at 1/07/2015 01:30:00 AM
Karl Polanyi's The Great Transformation is, by now, probably regarded as one of the main texts on the emergence of capitalist transformation alongside Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations and Karl Marx's Capital. To explain Polanyi's thesis in a nutshell, the emergence of the self-regulating market (supply and demand work conditions themselves out absent non-market intervention) has disembedded the economy from society. Whereas consumers once knew producers and their relations were embedded in society, ever-lengthening "supply chains" have alienated consumers from producers and vice-versa. However, it is not a simple story of Marxist alienation; Polanyi sees this phenomena undergoing a double movement: eventually people tire of the endless commodification of their existence and band together to re-embed the economy in society during a backlash. Hence the so-called "double movement."

David Webber of Warwick University offers an interesting application of Polanyi's "double movement" to English football. As more and more foreigners with next to no vested community interests have bought into the English game--Russian oligarchs, Middle Eastern monarchs, American LBO-ers and so forth--teams have become little more than holding companies of others' commercial interests. That is, there is no longer a community spirit motivating the fans. Unlike in other European countries like Germany where supporters own the club, these teams have become disembedded from the communities they are named after:
Earlier I described how the first phase of Polanyi’s ‘double-movement’ might be used to understand the ‘disembedding’ of football from its traditional communities. Polanyi however, didn't stop here. In the second movement of his ‘double-movement’ thesis, Polanyi argued that wherever this market activity threatened social life, there would be an instinctive reaction against it by society. In the broader movement ‘against modern football’, we have seen precisely this occur. Fans, fed up of being politically and economically excluded from their own clubs, have set up independent supporter groups and supporter unions, such as the Spirit of Shankly. Some supporters, as those at Portsmouth and Wrexham, have gone further still. They have rescued their clubs from the financial mess created by previous owners by taking control themselves.

These movements are an important reminder that clubs are not simply businesses, but are in fact, socially always embedded. Local communities, families and/or friendship groups all revolve around a shared love of the game and affinity towards a particular club. Given that they invoke and reinforce strong bonds of identity and affection, these ties cannot and perhaps should not be easily commodified. It is hardly surprising then that the financialisation of football has been politicised and met with such resistance.
So, how will English clubs take ownership back from Putin loyalists, Arab sheiks and American debt addicts? Or, in other words, how does the second phase of the double movement take place? Here we must speculate a bit more:
How England’s clubs might be socially re-embedded leads us back, rather appropriately, to Polanyi’s earlier observation concerning the formation of market structures. We suggested then that English football’s ‘great transformation’ was not inevitable, but rather a carefully constructed, deeply political response to the crisis experienced in the game, most notably in the aftermath of the Hillsborough disaster [where nearly a hundred fans were crushed to death in an FA Cup match]. The political and legal framework mapped out in the early 1990s incentivised clubs to pursue a more market-minded strategy; one which has created the ‘modern football’ that fans are disillusioned with today.

Here, however, Polanyi’s work provides a note of optimism for those keen to deliver football back into the hands of its supporters. If ‘modern football’ required a distinct political structure in order to transform English football then this would suggest that if there was the political and social will, then the space exists to embrace an alternative, more socially-embedded game. Of course, these small movements face several challenges, not least between competing political and economic interests. Nevertheless, there is at least the possibility of political reform and social change within the game.
The thing is, I suspect that more than a few of us who don't regularly attend games may consider the Premier League era as a welcome one since we don't have to pay for exorbitant tickets. Plus, the worst of English football excesses--fan hooliganism especially--have been reduced. You can certainly argue that we have to take the good with the bad: the price for the civilizing effects of commerce noted by Adam Smith and Albert Hirschman have to be balanced with the Disneyfication of the game together with higher costs of attendance.

Unless the Premier League adopts a German model in the future--which I doubt--we have what we have.