With ESL, football fans showed how to take corporate power and win | European Super League
IIf There Is No Alternative’s age has one philosophy, this is it. Elected governments have no more leverage to pull: their powers have been usurped by multinational corporations without respect for borders, and politicians can simply ride passively the choppy waters of the markets. Collective action within civil society to ensure lasting reforms has been definitively neutralized, as governments lack the power to concede and the fragmentation of society has reduced us all to isolated individuals caring for ours.
“You have so much capacity to effect change in a private sector context like you do in the public sector, in part because nation state governments have become emasculated by globalization, ”says Chuka Umunna, former Labor turned Change UK turned Liberal Democrat politician , who recently joined JP Morgan in a “sustainability role”. “The ability as a middle-ranking minister in a government of a country of 65 million people to make big changes – given these big cross-world currents – is much more limited.”
Umunna could find herself both busy and humiliated this week. JP Morgan was the investment bank that invested 3.25 billion euros (£ 2.8 billion) to launch the European Super League (ESL), a project that was shut down in two days by a massive revolt of fans. Such was the intensity of the grassroots uprising that Boris Johnson – at least a longtime champion of the so-called free market – threatened to drop a legislative bomb on the proposal. The corporate titans have long expected their own way – less regulations, ever lower taxes, government support and, indeed, bailouts when things go horribly wrong; but this week, the frontiers of their power have lit up in primary colors. JP Morgan is in shock: his role has been validated by his internal reputation committee which, New York Times reports, “Did not fully expect the emotional reaction from sports fans that flooded the airwaves around the world.”
The fact that capitalism has corrupted football is widely understood and – even to many who are otherwise politically disengaged – seems obvious. Football is a pillar of our national culture, one of the main sources of emotion in the lives of many people, sometimes just behind the family. Along with the weather, it constitutes the little interview with which strangers, especially men, dispel annoying silences. It’s a game with unequivocal working-class origins – Manchester United was founded by railway workers, Arsenal by arms workers – and in the early 1950s the maximum salary for a football player was £ 14 per week.
But from the 1990s, for-profit companies sought out affluent middle-class fans; While the cost of a pint of milk has doubled since 1990, a match ticket has increased more than six times, and many games are only accessible through subscription services, fueling an inflationary bubble in player salaries and agent fees. This trajectory seemed unstoppable – until it wasn’t.
If corporate power can be pushed back into football, why not into areas of society that matter more to our lives? For questions from this week’s prime minister, Boris Johnson apparently professed ignorance to the use of fire and rehire tactics by corporate titan British Gas, which sparked an epic series of strikes by its workers, even though its own government called the maneuvers “totally unacceptable” back in january. Although seemingly defeated, protracted industrial action has put this otherwise ignored form of corporate control over workers on the agenda: with more popular outrage, the practice could be eliminated.
A young generation of climate protesters – inspired by Greta Thunberg – are on the front lines to challenge corporate power. Throughout the 2010s, the Big Five fossil fuel companies spent £ 217million lobbying the EU to change action on the climate emergency; globally, around £ 153 million is spent to achieve these goals. Money undoubtedly ensures influence, but if corporate power can be suppressed in sport, why not existential threat to the very future of our species?
Recent scandals involving corporate lobbyists – from David Cameron to James Dyson – have underscored how private interests subvert and weaken democracy. Britain’s biggest companies spend at least £ 25m per year on lobbying politicians, not because they like to waste money, but because they expect a return. Once again, popular outrage could demand democracy from companies bypassing the ballot box with their bottomless pockets.
There are plenty of other candidates: from US asset management firms buying affordable housing to increasingly inexplicable internet monopolies dominating our lives. That there has been a consensus this week on the pernicious role of profit in football should be welcome; but it should be applied to examples which are just as pernicious and even more consistent.
Across the Atlantic, the struggles of those who challenge corporate power have paid off. The insurgent left has succeeded in moving the administration of Joe Biden, a politician with impeccable references to “centrist”, to more radical ground, with commitments guaranteed by the political unity working group established between the president and Bernie Sanders last year. The administration’s plans for a comprehensive corporate tax rate represent a reversal of the otherwise supposedly irreversible “race to the bottom” of the last generation.
The great ESL uprising of 2021 showed that corporate boards are not invincible and that business decisions that prioritize profit over broader social needs can be exposed as hubristic rather than lucrative. Rather than one-off, the debacle provided millions of people with much-needed political education about an economy rigged at all levels in favor of inexplicable vested interests. It was grotesquely evident in football; but it should be evident everywhere else as well.