Monday, 20 June 2011

Homage to Catalonia

Hello everyone

Maurice Glasman (the labour peer Lord Glasman) - see previous posting - has just sent me a short piece that uses the recent Champions League cup final in order to bring out the philosophical and political dimensions of his position.

This is an unpublished piece and so this is more than a bit of a scoop! Many thanks to him for allowing us to post it here.

As a life-long Man U fan, I do find some of the analysis difficult to swallow - although I think we will all have to concede that he has a point. More significantly, there is a clear political vision here and I think that it is a very interesting one that should generate quite a bit of debate.

Neil T

Barcelona V Man United was Blue Labour V New Labour

The European Cup Final was more than just a game.

On Saturday night a community owned club with local players, all of whom upheld an ethos and vision of how beautiful, brave and brilliant football could be were victorious over a foreign-owned debt-ridden corporate juggernaut who had run out of energy and ideas.

It was a clash between two different philosophies of football, two different ways of organising a club, two different ways of responding to globalisation and market forces, two different ways of playing the game.

Whether you like it or not, the good guys won.

I remember a very different feeling. I was seven in 1968 and it felt like a collective rapture. Balletic and brutal, noble and nasty; George Best and Nobby Stiles, Bobby Charlton and Pat Crerand. Manchester United embodied all that was best about English football and made friends all over the country and the world. Friends for life. There was something heroic about Manchester United in 1968 but all the magic was on the other side on Saturday night.

The story of Manchester United is everything that was right and wrong about New Labour, and the story of Barcelona indicates where Labour have to go if they are to combine victory with glory; so that winning gives hope to people that global competitive success is about more than money. It’s about something more than the contractual minimum, it concentrates on a skilled and excellent workforce, it requires a clearly defined ethical brand. Winning requires sacrifice, a much more broadly defined conception of self-interest. This is the point that Blue Labour is trying to make in thinking about how to generate real and substantial private sector growth. This requires institutions that uphold excellence and virtue, a concern for regional diversity and a renewed sense of energy and pride.

Under Sir Alex Ferguson’s leadership Manchester United have surged into a dominant position in English football. Dominant; but not hegemonic. They did not develop a distinctive and original style of play that required others to change in order to beat it. Like Tony Blair, Alex Ferguson has enjoyed unprecedented success surpassing Liverpool in terms of Championships won and FA Cups. He has established the club as one of the great European powers. Tony Blair won three successive elections with ease. Something unheard of in British political history. He turned a political party from one that couldn’t win, even against John Major, to one that couldn’t lose. Alex Ferguson and Tony Blair, New Labour and Manchester United, 4-4-2 and swing voters. Attlee and Thatcher led hegemonic government that set the parameters of common sense for those that followed. Hungary in the 50s, Spurs in the 60’s, Ajax in the 70’s and Milan in the 80’s. Like Barcelona today they changed the way the game is played.

In contrast, under New Labour, we were told that success and globalisation required us to change, that sacrifices were necessary for the sake of modernisation and progress. We were told that transferrable skills would replace vocational skills, we were told that the City of London knew best and we lost our regional banks and industries. We were told that management knew best and the workforce lost its status at work. We were told that careers were more important than family. We were told that anywhere was just as good as here. And we were told that football clubs were a commodity, just like any other. That meaning was less important than price. That is was in our best interests to put the stewardship of our clubs in the hands of venture capitalists who were solely interested in maximising their returns on investment.

Commodity football has no feeling for the faithfulness fans feel and what that means. The pride in place and the site of the ground. The way it links us to our grandmas and our sons, the pain we share with other supporters. The pride we take when our team plays with adventure, bravery and guile. The lightning rods of glory that punctuate the gloom. But Barcelona understand all that.

Barcelona is owned by its supporters. There is no difference between meaning and price. It is their club. They elect the president and the board. It is their ethos that the club upholds. The club is not answerable to its shareholders but to its fans. They give money, they give time, they own it. Many play an active role in the governance of the club. They expand its role into their communities so that Barcelona is woven into the fabric of Catalonian society. A football pitch here, a disabled charity there. It is the civic pride of Barcelona and a source of glory and renown. Barcelona are good, in all meanings of the word.

And this is the message of Blue Labour. Ownership matters. Democracy matters. Leadership matters. Responsibility, initiative and innovation can only be exercised if people have power. Real democratic power to protect the people and the things that they love. Compare Barcelona to Manchester United who did not turn to their supporters to epand, but to the financial markets. Manchester United fans have no power, no citizenship in the club, they are only consumers. Commodity football turns love into money and leaves people feeling used. The green and yellow scarves are a permanent rebuke to their relentless domestic success.

This is linked to vocation.

The Barcelona players did not play like professional footballers but vocational footballers. They played with an excellence of technique and control combined with an empathetic understanding of each others positions so that they improvised mesmeric patterns that exhausted their opponents. When Manchester United equalised Barcelona just continued to experiment, to show audacity and verve. Compare the way that Messi, Xavi and Iniesta combined to the lonely rage of Wayne Rooney. They were master craftsmen and they made Manchester United look like journeymen. Barcelona played that way because they were nurtured within an institutional culture that gave incentives to virtue. It’s a different moral economy, a virtue economy, and it is the basis of competitive global success. For two centuries economic theory has been based on the idea that being bad leads to good results. The Barcelona lesson is that pursuing the good directly may not be such a bad idea after all.

The Barcelona academy teaches a style of play that is true to their traditions. There is an ethos and practice that define excellence. Like being a good plumber, dental technician, doctor, carpenter, computer programmer, nurse, electrician. The vocational economy is not a luxury. The German economy is built on vocational training and so was the Barcelona victory. That is also the Blue Labour way. With regional banks so that local people can have access to capital to start businesses or learn a vocation. Decentralised democratic institutions that constrain the domination of finance capital is a good definition of civilisation and Barcelona embodied it.

The story of our football clubs is the story of our economy as great English firms like Cadbury’s were brought up by foreign corporations with no understanding of its meaning and tradition, no understanding of anything but its price. It is the same understanding of the world that cannot comprehend the objection to Dover Port being sold to the French. Barcelona sustain and invest in a football academy that instils virtue. Such a word sounds alien to us but it is linked directly to the idea of a vocation and in that ideal lies the key to competitive global success in the new economy. A virtue rather than a virtual economy should guide statecraft.

Our critics say that we are nostalgic. They say that Blue Labour puts too much emphasis on friendship, family, solidarity, place, work, vocation and patriotism and that these are not the values we need to succeed in the modern globalised world.

We have an answer to that – stick it up your Barcelona.


  1. No mention of Barcelona's debts of 500 million. Also fail to see how this article encourages any philosophical debate any further than which tactics work best. The message of the article seems to be "Like Barcelona? Then you will love the Labour party" Patronizing political propaganda at its worst.

  2. I think as a philosopher you need to look past that.

    The key philosophical question here is what a society organised around Aristotelian conceptions of virtue might look like.

    The piece suggests that such a society could be modern, dynamic and successful - a la Barcelona.

    So let's stick to Aristotle and MG's claim that his ideas can form the basis for a 'good society'. I think that there is clearly something to this claim - for isn't the current critique of capitalism, with respect to the banks etc, precisely that it isn't virtuous enough?

    Can we criticise what is happening at the moment without this term or its equivalent?



  3. your comment is more interesting than the article though. I could have done without knowing the aspirations of labour and the tenuous links to football. In actual fact I think that Cameron's "big society" has links to Aristotle's conceptions of virtue. The financial collapse has caused most parties to rethink the values of capitalism not just labour

  4. well, that's true in a way - the big society purports to do a similar a thing.

    However it is difficult to see how Cameron's version gels with his obvious liberalism. The big society means nothing if it isn't grounded in an idea of community - and the big society as its stands is simply individualist volunteerism in fancy dress.

    As for the football stuff - although interesting its own right, I think that it brings the main point out quite well


  5. I think this is a very stimulating piece... I never thought I would enjoy reading about a football match haha!

    I take sympathy with this article... in what football has become, the film 'Base-ketball' touches upon what sport has become within a capitalist society... 'the tampax stadium' a stadium centered around irrelevant commodities. Also teams having no connection or 'groundedness' to the sport they play.

    I feel that there is this sense of irrelevance in alot of other jobs in modern society which alienate people; for example my partner has just left working in a factory packaging german ink. In this job he felt no sense of meaning, purpose, connection or fulfilment of virtue. Because of this he wasnt happy at work and felt no pride in what he was producing, because all of what he produced was the same!!!

    I think there seems to be a lack of connection in many peoples live's. Lyotards quote towards eclecticism, for me highlights this alienation in our daily lives.

    People have jobs because they need the money, and not because they love what they do. Because of this people are not persuing their virtues, and arguably by Aristotle, cannot attain happiness.

    I'm not an expert on either politics or football, but certainly agree that what we need more of is virtue - encouraging young (and old) people to persue their virtues to a standard of excellence as opposed to persuing the queens head!


  6. I agree,by and large

    I think that some kind of Aristotelian conception of society can allow us to transcend the vacuity of the post-crisis era. In many ways the entire political establishment are to blame for the mess we're in and we certainly need new ideas to take us forward.

    Thatcher de-industrialised the UK and so there is no easy going beck to the class-based industrialism of the pre-Thatcher era. However, the attempt to found a version of British society based around the pseudo-virtues of finance captial have now run aground as well. The attempt to found a politics onn the classical philosophical idea of the good seems to me to be not only practical but potentially radical as well.

    This not just a question of philosophical importance but what the mediaevals referred to as necessitudo - that is practical political necessity.

    The idea that social life should be concerned with 'good offices' will allow us to tackle some of the more disagreeable aspects of British society.


    ps A unison official contacted me and informed me that he is interested in running his own office along the Aristotelian lines outlined in the article. That's great - Aristotle informing trades union practice!! Who says that Philosophy has no relevance for everyday life?

  7. Wow amazing - I've only just read this response now. Before asking your opinion on a thesis concerning the role of Philosophy today!!! Would it be cheeky to ask this unison official to come to Trent this academic year to give a guest lecture?
    That would be brilliant!!!!!