Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Running Commentary: Sporting life (1985)

The Running Commentary column from the May 1985 issue of the Socialist Standard 

Sporting life

Now that she has single-handedly seen off General Galtieri and Arthur Scargill, the President of Grantham Town Football Club has turned her attention to that section of British football followers whose activities are famous. at grounds in this country and abroad, for so artistically blurring the distinction between sport and war.

The Labour Party are uneasy at this development, for there may be some solid votes in this, if Thatcher can convince the workers that she is the Iron Lady who not only made the Falklands safe for British Coalite and the coal fields safe for the NCB but the football terraces safe for the family outing.

So Labour's response had to be that she was getting it wrong. Football hooligans, they claimed, do not emerge through any inherent wickedness but because Tory Britain offers youth nothing better than the dole queue, slums, disease . . . Frustrations build up and have to be released somewhere; the excitement of a big football game is as likely a place as any for this to happen.

This line might be more convincing if Britain under the Labour Party had not been a place of poverty, unemployment, slums and despair — if there had been no such thing as aimless, neurotic youth when Wilson and Callaghan were at Number Ten and if those had been halcyon days of impeccable behaviour on the football terraces.

But of course it was not like that. Capitalism is always an ugly, depressing, restrictive system whichever party tries to manage it. It must always condemn the majority to lives of exploitation and poverty, a frustrating contrast to those of the workers' economic and social superiors.

Football is more than a sport, more even than big business. For workers who need relief from the drab monotony of poverty it is a hallucinogen, an exciting dream which seduces millions into the delusion that there is an easy, glorious escape from working-class repression. You too, they tell themselves, can be an adored football star, feted and lauded wherever you go.

The so-called football hooligan is at the very centre of this clash between dreams and reality. Like all conflict, this is a painful experience — and the only relief must be through radical change.

Power drive

Ian MacGregor was bought by the Thatcher government to manage the steel and coal industries so that the workers and the unions would be forced up against reality. In each case, reality meant that world capitalism is in a slump, that the markets for commodities like coal and steel are shrinking, that international competition is hotting up and that the immediate response to it all must be closures of plants and redundancies.

Now, perhaps, there will be a job for MacGregor in the British electricity generating industry, which is about to be hit by a determined sales drive from its French counterpart. Over the past decade French capitalism has invested an enormous amount in the construction of nuclear power stations, to provide cheap and plentiful electricity to what was assumed would be expanding French industry. But the market for power is no less anarchic than that for any other commodity; the recession of the 1980s meant that French industry has not come up to the assumptions, which in turn means that there is now a surplus of generating capacity.

At present, this surplus promises to be about equal to the power demands of the whole of Southern England, including London. The French have tried to off-load as much of this as possible onto home industry, offering cut-price deals, and they have also turned their attention to possible markets abroad. Agreements have been signed to feed some power through cables to Spain and Italy and a similar arrangement is being suggested to British industry.

At a time when profits are under such pressure, British capitalists may find the cheap electricity from France an offer they can't refuse, even if it were to expose all that patriotic encouragement they give to British workers as the cynical nonsense it really is. The outcome may be a surplus of British electricity and pressure for the closure of some power stations as "uneconomic", with production concentrated at those plants where worker exploitation is at its most intense.

People who froze during last winter because they could not afford to heat their homes may be puzzled to hear about a "surplus" of electricity and wonder why it can't simply be given away to the needy. There is a simple explanation. Electricity, like all wealth under capitalism, is produced to be sold in a market at a profit. "Surpluses" are not judged on human needs but on what the market can profitably absorb. That was the message which MacGregor drove home to the steel workers and the miners and which is now likely to be driven home to the power industry workers — and, of course, to the people who need the produce but can't afford to buy it.

Neil down

Will Neil Kinnock ever become Prime Minister? There are strategists in the Labour Party who regard his present troublous times as a holding period for him. They assess the electoral advance Labour needs to unseat the Tories as too great to be realistically attainable by the next election. So Kinnock is marking time, building up support and gaining experience for the big effort in the election after next which, say these strategists, will bring a lifetime of Labour government.

Well this might be an explanation of Kinnock's inability to convince the voters that he should be in charge of British capitalism. None of the guises which politicians are required to adopt has fitted him in any way convincingly. There is the guise of the subtle diplomat, or the consensus-builder, or the iron-willed leader. (We all know which one Thatcher has adopted and with what success). Workers demand that their leaders come before them in some such guise, or in several at once.

Then there is the matter of Kinnock's own party, which continues to display all the symptoms of chronic disarray and schism. In a series of re-selection disputes, sitting MPs are under pressure from left-wing activists; one notable example is in Ealing Southall, where there seems to have been a certain amount of juggling with membership lists and in Brent East, where uncharismatic Reg Freeson has been beset by Ken Livingstone, whose parliamentary ambitions were saved by his U-turn over GLC rate capping. We can expect to hear more of these disputes and of others no less odious.

Kinnock's predicament is that he can give only part of his attention to the shrill demands of his party's theorists and activists; his first concern must be to win power, to placate the political ignorance of the working class so that they change capitalism under Thatcher for the same society under Kinnock.

The lessons of experience are too clear and too recent; they affirm that there is no reason, from the point of view of workers' interests, to make such a change. It does not matter one whit, which guise Kinnock adopts nor whether he wears it to Number Ten. It is time the workers turned against these insulting political games and thought about taking over society for themselves, in their own human interests.

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