Wednesday, 12 October 2011

English football and modern England: getting America wrong, badly

(Many thanks, as so often, to David Conn in The Guardian for placing the idea of this article in my mind)

Between the collapse of the culture of imperial entitlement and autarky and the rise of the culture of neoliberalism and institutionalised inequality and poverty disguised as "democracy", getting America wrong was what made Britain great. For all that it may have been used as a sticking plaster on Britain's ongoing failings in so many areas (it is important for those of us who prefer the economic model of that time not to deny that the seeds of its demise were sown very, very early on), the creative misinterpretation of American music - specifically the music isolated and ghettoised in a semi-apartheid society - was the starting point for a cultural rebirth, genuinely convincing many that the collapse of British power could be the starting point for a whole new form of invention and challenge.

Everything in English football that has led to Liverpool's statement of intent yesterday is the byproduct of the years when all that broke down, when Sunday evening Channel 4 brought in a misunderstood image of American-ness - now with no pretence to any kind of true democratisation, merely the neoliberal mirage of "freedom" - as the way out of a dying prole culture that was by then so rotten, so vile, that it didn't deserve to survive. This piece is a brief argument - a whole book could be written about it, and should be - that with different politics and a different way of seeing the world, we could have found a quite different way out, which quite apart from being truer and fairer to the people of modern England, would also have been truer and fairer to the people of the United States.

This is very obviously not how the NFL appeared to British audiences during the Huey Lewis / Miami Vice years that unconsciously begat the Premier League, but American sports are in at least two ways profoundly un-American, at least in terms of the idea of American-ness that defines modern Britain; they have a quasi-socialist structure (a vitally important fact which is not generally known in the UK for all the most predictable reasons; both new and old prejudices are at fault here) and they are not globally exported. If they had been - for which you would probably have needed the US to have been an active, unashamed imperial power in Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Oceania when Britain was, rather than mired in its own isolationism whose legacy is still reflected in sport - English football would have been most unlikely to gain its scale of global appeal; it has got this big because England seems, on a broader cultural level, like the Next Best Thing to aspirational Westerners, and the involvement of American capitalists in English football has to do with the fact that it offers them the chance to be American in the most stereotypical (and, within British socialism, pejorative) sense - extreme financial dominance over their lesser rivals, without any institutional structures to bridge the divide and make the sports more fair, and status as a ubiquitous global product - which they could have if they worked in the US film or pop music industries, but which their own sports deny them.

It is a harsh irony that it is Liverpool that should have instigated this; when the Beatles got America wrong, they made its influences much more socialist, much more collectivist than they had been originally (yes, yes, I know, first track on Revolver from now till doomsday, yes, yes, I know, Oliver Smedley, but earlier on they'd taken "Money (That's What I Want)" and somehow, miraculously, made its legacy, its impact, seem wholly compatible with the politics of the Left), but now the city's most successful team - which was at the core of the tragedies from which Thames Estuary politics dictated that neoliberalism was the only way out, even though most of their core supporters knew, and still know, that it wasn't - have taken one of the few aspects of American society that is comparatively socialist and collectivist and made it a parody of greed and selfishness; a parody of its supposed inspiration that only reveals how little it knows about it, and what it is, and why and how it is what it is (Thatcherites, Blairites and Cameronites, in this respect, have actually understood America significantly less than Macmillanites did back in the birth years of British consumerism).

This is the inevitable legacy of the Thatcher-and-onwards interpretation of American-ness which gets its source wrong in a manner as socially alienating and divisive as the beat groups getting America wrong (not least in terms of identifying with its oppressed classes, and recognising the Bobby Vees and Neil Sedakas as the playthings and safety valves of the very same overclass that had oppressed them, here) was socially unifying and utopian. To say that English football has become "more American than the Americans" would be too simplistic, only halfway there; a fairer analysis is that it has become the embodiment of a fundamental misinterpretation of a country which in fact - however it presents itself today - was not founded on mere consumerism and certainly not on glorifying inequality for its own sake, and is every bit as patronising, ahistorical and anti-democratic as any "Greece to their Rome" paternalism ever was. English football in 2011 is not doing America proud. It is, in its own way, letting America down just as much as the Tea Party.

Obviously English football was broken beyond repair in the mid-1980s (which is why those who call Stoke City a "breath of fresh air" are so enraging) but those who, desperate to escape Songs of Praise and Highway, flicked between "St Elmo's Fire" on the Network Chart and the Chicago Bears during the blackout really didn't know what they were doing. It wasn't their fault, obviously; they were the victims of someone else's ideology. But think of the difference; the Beatles didn't know what they were doing when they first heard R&B and Motown, but they did something wonderful and liberating almost by accident. The gridiron class of '86 also did something almost by accident, but something that strengthened and enforced elite power as definitively as pop originally promised to erode it. In the light of what the Premier League has become, that moment stands out as the decisive time when getting America wrong ceased to be a force for liberation and became a force for dehumanisation, when it ceased to be our national saving grace and became, instead - sadly unpredicted and unpredictable - our greatest national sickness.