Wednesday, 30 June 2010

England: Not Anarchist Enough

After John Barnes' extraordinary claim that England's footballers don't have enough of a socialist mentality comes Germany's two-goal hero Thomas Müller, who makes a similar point (minus the political metaphor)- arguing that England have 'too many chiefs and not enough Indians'.

pic: Toby Price

Both, I feel, are on to something. Perhaps the most prominent example of what they're getting at was Steven Gerrard's incessantly hopeless long-range shooting: a marked feature of England's World Cup campaign (and noted in this post of Mark's). He frequently persisted with it even when there were better placed teammates, so it's easy to support Barnes and Müller and note that a rather more 'collective' mentality might have served England a little better.

Yet to my mind this analysis rests on a troublesome dichotomy: that of the individual versus the collective. To overcome this- and think how a football team should match individual 'talent' with collective strength- we might turn again to political theory, appealing this time to anarchism rather than socialism.

For 'classical' anarchists, there is no inherent tension between the individual and their society; the relationship is one of mutuality in which the interests of the individual are best served by working as part of a collective. Kropotkin's Mutual Aid is perhaps the best known proponent of this work arguing for this, portraying a convergence of the interests of the one and the many:

'On our mutual relations every one of us has his moments of revolt against the fashionable individualistic creed of the day, and actions in which men are guided by their mutual aid inclinations constitute so great a part of our daily intercourse that if a stop to such actions could be put all further ethical progress would be stopped at once. Human society itself could not be maintained for even so much as the lifetime of one generation'.

George Woodcock, meanwhile, argues that anarchism is to be distinguished from Marxism in its insistence that collectivity is not privileged over the individual: anarchist but survive because each individual retains their freedom, but sees that it is in their interests to keep the bonds strong.

Of particular interest to me, though, is the 'post-left' guise of anarchism: a strongly individualist current which flows through Nietzsche and Stirner through Deleuze (& Guattari) and on to thinkers like Alfredo M. Bonnano and Hakim Bey. It is a strand of thought with which I have a number of problems (particularly in the anti-civilisational guise of John Zerzan), but there's much I find to admire in its urgent calls for individual liberty*.

Suspicious of the essentialism inherent in Kropotkin's appeal to the 'laws of nature', post-left anarchism further muddies the boundary between the individual and the collective: individuals are both 'fully a part of the crowd and at the same time completely outside it', as Deleuze and Guattari would have it. It is not possible to say that 'the interests of the individual tally with the interests of the collective', because it is not possible to discern where the interests of the individual and the interests of the collective begin and end. As Hakim Bey puts it, 'Individual vs Group- Self vs. Other [is] a false dichotomy propagated through the Media of Control...Self and Other complement and complete one another.'

To me, this speaks loudly to the needs of a football team. Supremely disciplined collective play can be successful (and, in its own way, fascinating)- Greece's Euro 2004 triumph and Inter Milan's success this season just finished are testament to that- but all too often well-drilled, disciplined teams are too predictable in attack and struggle when the onus is on them to make something happen (Greece v Argentina and Portugal v Spain would be prime examples at this World Cup). To answer this problem- and the problem of England's lack of solidarity- I would argue for a form of anarchist football in which attacking players are allowed to express their creativity in full (of course, defensive players need to be somewhat more disciplined and team-spirited- curbing any attacking urges to prevent the opposition from exploiting space they leave unoccupied). Revelling in their freedom, attackers see no need to try the ridiculous in order to prove themselves or give themselves a feeling of legitimacy (this echoes Max Stirner's account of the 'union of egoists' in The Ego and Its Own).

The point for a manager, then, is not to deny their attacking players their egos- but to get players' egos to co-operate; to pull in the same direction. There must be no competition between the attackers in a team; each member must be happy for his teammates to retain their individuality and happy that their own individuality is respected. There is no need to shoot from ridiculous angles and distances merely to show (to themselves as much as anyone) that they can do it. Gerrard and Lampard no longer need to compete to show who is most worthy of playing; Rooney does not need to prove to himself how good he is.

Manchester United's triumvarate of Rooney, Tevez and Ronaldo was perhaps the ultimate expression of this form of football: the three of them swarming forward and retaining their individual flair but acting as a devestating unit. You cannot tell me that any of them tempered their egos- rather they followed them through to the full and strengthened their bonds as they did. They were fully a part of the team and yet fully outside any notion of 'collectivity': there is nothing 'collective' about a sharp turn of pace, a stepover, an improvised chip into the corner**. As I discuss here, Carlos Alberto Parriera's claim that the formation of the future is 4-6-0 resonates strongly with this form of 'anarchist' football.

The problem for England is not that they have too many chiefs and not enough Indians, but that they have too many players who want to be chief and rule over the other Indians. They're worried about their place in the team; scared of each other; fearful of not being as good as they could be. It's a problem of Nietzschean ressentiment- a 'slave mentality'. Rather than having more Indians, England needs more Chiefs. Rather than being socialist, England need to be more anarchist.

*though I do quite like Colin Ward's scathing riposte (in Talking Anarchy, with David Goodaway) that he'd known a good few 'individualist' anarchists and found them all to be startlingly boring people.

**I once saw an interview with a footballing legend- it may well have been George Best- and he said he didn't really care whether his team won; he just wanted to play beautiful football. But of course him playing beautiful football would make it more likely that his team would win, and his team winning would make it more likely he would have the time and space to play beautiful football.


  1. Rebuked once by his club owner Agnelli for the fact that he was a smoker, Platini replied: "It doesn't matter if I smoke. The important thing is that Bonini doesn't". Massimo Bonini was guy in the team who did all of Platini's running and okay, not everybody will be given one of those. Still the impression I got with England in the end is that their midfield collectively just wasn't dynamic enough, and everybody was left to do Platini's job, but without enough time and space on the ball. And without enough talent, because let's face it, you can talk psychology as much as you want, but skill levels were exposed too. You can sometimes be outrun and outpressed and still win if you've got enough skill.

    (Another thing that Platini was fond to say: it's the ball that is supposed to run.)

  2. Bookchin's still classic critique of individualist anarchism here creeps in here, which I still love to smash you over the head with from time to time. But this is an argument we have been having for years...something which I often think is actually down to personality quite a bit! Thing is, that even 'beautiful football' depends on a prior social relation, the observers able to recognise this and the public language which encode this which is also social (cf. Wittgenstein on the private language argument). Even modern twatish football is based on certain collectively held (ie capitalist) ideas of what society is like, that depend on the recognition of socially held goods - which is the point of the Nike adverts - only if a collective buys into the mythos of the supremely talented individual does this occur or be seen as something you'd want to replicate in the field of play, even if it ends with you banging it towards the waiting keep Gerrard style. I digress, its just sociality all the way down.

    Back to football, problem is that Rooney et al are only as good as the team: they rely as much on the goalie and the defenders as they do on themselves to score goals. They are only as good as the last incisive pass, or searching goal kick. "A sharp turn of pace, a stepover, an improvised chip into the corner" are useless if you are going to drop two goals every quarter at the other end. They might be the best player in existence and perform a marvellous group of egotists, but if the keeper is shit, its all over. This is why football is more socialist than it is (individualist) anarchist, it requires teamwork and teamwork requires more cooperation than flair. In the end, even the star striker has to be able to clear a ball, subjugate his ego to the collective end, etc. You even admit this yourself in a round about way!

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