Mark Perryman

Mark Perryman

Mark Perryman is a writer and the co-founder of Philosophy Football.

Minding the depth and breadth: a round-up of books for the Left
Friday, 21 September 2018 08:53

Minding the depth and breadth: a round-up of books for the Left

Published in Cultural Commentary

As Labour gathers for its annual conference Mark Perryman welcomes the variety of thinking a range of authors, new and old, are offering the Left at this vital time

It has taken a while but the past few months have seen a near avalanche of books seeking to explain, from a broadly sympathetic point of view, the phenomenon that is Corbynism. Liam Young’s Rise is certainly sympathetic – Liam is an unashamed enthusiast and activist for the cause. Yet in seeking to understand the youthquake that underpinned Labour’s vote surge in 2017 he is hard-headed enough to recognise that this is the beginning, not the end of the story.

The Socialist Challenge Today by Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin comes from a different generation – Liam is twentysomething, whilst they are of pensionable age. This isn’t to pit the generations of the Left against one another, rather to point to an old legacy on which Corbynism builds and a new audience to which it appeals . This short book helps to bridge the gap with an argument that makes all the right connections.

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Culture Wars performs such a role in a different way. First published in 2005 at the height of Blair’s ascendancy, the authors, James Curran, Ivor Gaber and Julian Petley have added new chapters for this second edition, to bring their discursive analysis of the vexed relationship between Labour and the media bang up to date.

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An outbreak of fresh thinking on what Labour might become is also hugely welcome. Chantal Mouffe’s For a Left Populism develops the ‘Hegemony and Socialist Strategy ‘analysis she first pioneered with co-thinker Ernesto Laclau for an era dominated by the rise of a populist Right, countered by what she believes should be a progressive Populist Left .

Could Corbynism turn Labour into such a party? A New Politics from the Left by veteran activist and thinker Hilary Wainwright argues for a not dissimilar project though rooted more in the forms and practice of social movements. Described as a ‘ toolkit for revolution’ in The Shock Doctrine of the Left, author Graham Jones fuses this radical thinking legacy with the dynamics of new generation activism.

It will be crucial to its enduring impact that the Momentum-led Labour left doesn’t isolate itself from such extra-parliamentary thinking. For a regular injection of just such bridge-building the journal Renewal is an essential read. The latest, a pre Labour Conference edition, features an outstanding contribution by former Momentum National Organisers Adam Klug and Emma Rees on Labour as a social movement, free to download here.

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For an insight into the political practice of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party, and in particular during the 2017 General Election campaign there’s nothing that comes close to Steve Howell's Game Changer. Steve is not only acute politically on how Jeremy transformed the political landscape, in and beyond Labour , but also during the course of the eight weeks of the 2017 General Election campaign he was a key member of the leadership’s strategy group. Now out in paperback with a new postscript to account for the political fallout since 2017, it is an unrivalled read for Labour Conference, and after.

A politics rooted in the current vitality of the Labour Party requires a broad perspective on issues that matter, and few are more important than an understanding of changing class relations, a subject brilliantly covered in Charles Umney’s Class Matters.

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A failure to address such changes produces a trade union sectionalism which defends jobs at any price, ignoring issues such as socially useful production. The first and best example of a more progressive kind of trade unionism was The Lucas Plan as written up by Dave Elliott and Hilary Wainwright and now re-issued – and it simply couldn’t be more timely. One small gripe: compared to the 1982 original, both page and font size have been shrunk, making it more difficult to read than it needed to be.

Another challenge to sectionalism is to lift our horizons beyond the national, which has always been the ambition of the annual Socialist Register collection. The 2019 Socialist Register ‘ A World Turned Upside Down’ considers globalisation, in the era of Trump vs the rise, and rise of China.

The 2008 financial crash led to a revival of Marxism. Pre-crash, Michael Kidron was one of the finest practitioners of such thinking, and his wide-ranging writing has now been collected together in a new volume Capitalism and Theory.

Kidron’s writings are mainly drawn from the 1960s and 1970s. Bringing Marxism bang up to date, the much–acclaimed Mike Davis and his new book Old Gods, New Enigmas which deals with two key themes, the agency of change and the solution to a mounting environmental crisis.

The latter may not have featured strongly in the original, though Martin Rowson’s superbly illustrated Communist Manifesto adaptation is perhaps one of the best ways of finding out what insights it does still provide. 

Of course reducing the politics of radical critique simply to the lexicon of Marxism is no longer enough, if it ever was. My favourite dose of theory is therefore provided by a huge volume of the late Mark Fisher’s writings K-Punk. Brutal oppositionalism combined with a razor-sharp wit, broken down into easy to digest chapter chunks, makes for critical thinking that is a joy and pleasure to read.  

Ways and means of understanding the resurgence of a racist populism in America and elsewhere couldn’t be more urgent. Sarah Churchwell’s historical account of what lies behind it in Behold, America is both hugely informative and absolutely terrifying. Sarah’s book focuses mainly on the neo-Nazi 'America First' movement of the interwar years.

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Alt-America by David Neiwert provides more recent post-9/11 background and how that period was marked by the revival and eventual triumph of the American Radical Right. As an accompaniment, Mike Wendling in Alt-Right provides an unrivalled digest of the various groups and ideas which peddle their ways and wares in and around Trumpism.

However, the best single read on this most unwelcome of subjects is Lawrence Grossberg’s Under the Cover of Chaos. Why? Because in one tightly-packed read Lawrence unpicks the conjuncture that produced this ugliness, not as an inevitable product of circumstance, rather an avoidable curse, and how.

More than anything else Bernie Sanders’ bid to be the Democratic Party Presidential candidate represents what an alternative to Trumpism might look like and in that sense Crashing The Party , Heather Gautney’s inside story and analysis of the Sanders campaign, is the antidote required.

If all of this seems an Atlantic faraway, two books from the increasingly impressive Repeater Books serve to remind us of both the global roots and appeal of rightwing populism. Eliane Glaser’s Anti-Politics expertly situates this most unwelcome of phenomena in a long-term project to demonise ideology, the authority of ideas and the role of the state. Joe Kennedy covers not entirely dissimilar ground in his new book Authentocrats via a wonderfully abrasive dissection of the false promise of ‘real people ‘ delivering ‘commonsense politics’ that populism depends upon for its appeal.

Criss-crossing these various manifestations of the Populist Right is an unabated racism, and thus the resistance must likewise be characterised by an unrestrained anti-racism. The provocatively titled Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge has in the past year become pretty much a primer – and deservedly so, for a politics concerned with how privilege is highly racialised. Back to Black by Kehinde Andrews takes as its starting point what a modern and radical Black politics might look like. Be warned, Kehinde’s argument is that this demands a withering critique of previous models of radicalism.

Since Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader, the party’s claim to be an anti-racist party has come under sustained assault, with critics describing it as institutionally anti-semitic, and thus racist. The debate – such as it is – confuses legitimate criticism of Israel with anti-semitism. What this ignores is the rising opposition to the Israeli government within Israel itself, the global Jewish community and Western progressives including, but beyond too, the organised Left, all expertly described by Ben White in his book Cracks in the Wall.

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A very different, though complementary, approach is taken by Jamie Stern-Weiner in his edited collection Moment of Truth. Expertly guiding the reader through what he describes as the ‘toughest questions’ affecting the Israel-Palestine relationship, Jamie has assembled a range of authors to respond to each question in turn. A complex format but it works brilliantly.

How can Labour re-engage with the tasks of being a party of anti-racism following the summer’s impasse over anti-semitism? By rooting its politics in a sense of place, that’s how. Afua Hirsch’s Brit(ish) is a vital starting point on that difficult but necessary journey of understanding. This is a book that fulfils the mantra of ‘the personal is political’ to illuminate both the challenges of, and oppositions to, racism.  

Akala’s Natives achieves something similar via a series of essays, some personal, others political, yet one never divorced from the other. Space, the nation, is of course a contested place, none more so than the histories that frame our present. Kill All the Gentlemen is the chilling title not of a murderous thriller, but Martin Empson’s rather excellent history of the sometimes violent class struggle that has shaped the English countryside, a classic of the ‘hidden from history’ genre.

Great (sic) Britain is of course made of many different places, and nations too. We are increasingly familiar with the tensions of a single unitary state containing four nations within one Union. Patrick Barkham further enriches the issues with Islander, his incredibly engaging trip around just some of the offshore islands and their communities which reveal this island as an archipelago.

Such islander stories, criss-crossed with anti-racism and a rediscovery of the radicalism buried in those histories, is a good starting point for a Left politics that matters. But the Left has a history of its own too that needs accounting for. Phil Cohen’s Archive That, Comrade is an affectionate and highly personalised, trawl through what that past can mean as we come to terms with the present, and the future too.

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For those lacking the kind of collection of artefacts Phil can boast, a subscription to the journal Twentieth Century Communism will more than suffice. Unearthing in fascinating detail all manner of aspects of the legacy, the latest issue surveys how the centenary of 1917 was celebrated in places ranging from Belarus to Portugal. That was last year of course, 2018’s big Left anniversary was the 50th of ’68 though my impression is that it hasn’t been celebrated as widely as the 40th in 2008.

The books however have been impressively thoughtful, including the republication of the original 1968 Mayday Manifesto. The Manifesto was a product of the British ’68; Mitchell Abidor’s May Made Me is an oral history of the infinitely more famous May events in France. But the appeal of ’68 as an historical moment was that it was everywhere, an impact powerfully recorded by George Katsiaficas in The Global Imagination of 1968.

Of course like all histories ’68 is contested, sometimes bitterly so. Richard Vinen skilfully navigates that contest in his The Long ’68, and the one thing he leaves readers certain of is that it was a year that mattered.

What made ’68 of such lasting significance was the seamless fusion of the political and the cultural. It is a mix the Left has always struggled to achieve yet when it does the possibilities are unlimited. Few writers come close to George Orwell in providing such a mix, writings that deserve to be visited and revisited over and over again. John Newsinger’s Hope Lies in the Proles is a critical but sympathetic account of Orwell’s politics and lasting significance, while being peerless in its deconstruction of the weaknesses and contradictions therein.

Orwell would often use the device of a kind of travelogue to frame his political writing, and of contemporary authors Owen Hatherley is the outstanding exponent of this style. He combines his journeys of political exploration uniquely with incredibly well-informed explanations of the social construction of the architecture of the places he visits.

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Owen’s two latest books are Trans-Europe Express, which applies his writing mix to Europe in this precarious pre-Brexit moment, while The Adventures of Owen Hatherley in the Post-Soviet Age has him traipsing across Russia to find the lived-in remnants of a bygone era and what has happened to them.

My favourite writer of the political-culture mix of the current era however is Mike Marqusee, who so tragically passed away in 2015, the year his friend and longstanding comrade Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of the Labour Party. There is absolutely no doubt Mike would have contributed hugely to the changes that then erupted in and around the Labour Party. It is enormously welcome therefore that a collection of Mike’s essays, Definable Traces in the Atmosphere has been published, perfect to remind those of us who knew him what we miss so much, but perhaps more importantly for new, younger, audiences to discover his magnificent prose and acute political insight.

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Of course such a political-cultural fusion can never be reduced simply to the written word, however well-written. The two latest titles in the excellent Four Corners ‘Irregulars’ series, Poster Workshop 1978-81 and Leeds Postcards illustrate the contribution the visual arts can make, superbly. The former catalogues the anarcho/agit-prop look of a strand of the libertarian Left which sought to flypost its way out of the nightmare of Thatcherism with graphic intent. The latter was slightly less ‘in your face’ but no less subversive, turning the humble postcard into a propaganda weapon. It’s a very English version of cultural resistance, with lots of humour thrown in to good effect.

As for a soundtrack to all this dissent, while there are plenty of contemporary contenders I remain a tad old school and still hanker after the music that helped to propel me into politics in the first place. How welcome therefore to read Jim Dooley’s Red Set, not only for the definitive history of The Gang of Four, but along the way explains why their music meant so much for the embryonic left-wing ideas of their dedicated followers, my younger self included.

For such a culture of radical intent we need poetry too, yes please. One of the finest practitioners of this purpose over the past 30 years or so, Benjamin Zephaniah, tells the story of how and why in his sparkling biography The Life and Rhymes of Benjamin Zephaniah . Reinventing this tradition for the present is the absolutely outstanding Potent Whisper, live he is electrifying, his collection The Rhyming Guide to Grenfell Britain a pocket-sized spoken word chronicle of our modern times. Poetry has both a very contemporary voice via Potent Whisper’s spoken word style and roots in our radical past.

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arise! by Paul Summers, a celebration of the Durham Miners Gala, is also testament to all that. It is one of a stream of new, beautifully illustrated radical political poetry books coming off the presses of Culture Matters.

There’s also been some great new fiction, a literary form which is key to expanding the political imagination. In recent years there have been few better at that than the sublime Anthony Cartwright. His latest The Cut manages to fulfil the criteria of the fast-growing sub-genre ‘the Brexit novel’ with enough excitement, thrills and spills to produce a ready-made page-turner.

But perhaps the most subversive way to transform the body politic is through what we cook for ourselves. Anybody who needs convincing of the potency of cookery as a political force should take a read of Yasmin Khan’s Zaitoun, a beautifully produced book combining both stories and recipes from a Palestinian kitchen. For younger readers, Clive Gifford and Jacqueline Meldrum’s Living on the Veg explains the politics and morality of vegetarianism for children accompanied by dishes to cook, their strawberry cheesecake a mouthwatering favourite of mine already.

Which brings me rather neatly to childhood. My philosophy is simple, judge the progressiveness of any party or movement via the way it treats their children. If it can’t be bothered with children, then why trust it on how it will treat others? It is the application of that excellent socialist-feminist maxim, ‘the personal is political’.

The prime exponent of this genre, however, remains Michael Rosen. His latest book How To Make Children Laugh provides theory, practice and some very, very funny jokes. And for adolescent boys jealous of the girls and their Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls there is now a kind of companion volume by Ben Brooks called Stories for Boys Who Dare to be Different, which wears its values on the cover via the lovely strap-line ‘true tales of amazing boys who changed the world without killing dragons.’

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Siobhan Curham has written an absolute gem for young adult readers Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow combines music, football, refugees and my hometown Lewes in East Sussex. First on the list for teen readers reading to stretch their horizons.

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And my book of the quarter, the perfect Labour Party Conference, and afters read? I am never one to diss theorising, the historical, the cultural and more, but as someone else once noted ‘the point is to change it.’ In the search for practical outcomes from all this reading, and the ensuing fervour of debate Michael Segalov explores the art of making that change possible in his brilliant debut book Resist! How to be an Activist in the Age of Defiance. A practical how-to-guide for campaigners, stylishly illustrated, easy-to-follow and not so hard to put into practice either. Read it, act upon it, the Tories won’t know what’s hit them.

Now that’s what I call a good read!

Mark Perryman is the editor of The Corbyn Effect and co-founder of the self-styled ‘sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction’ aka Philosophy Football.

Le Maillot Gallois: Tour de France 2018
Tuesday, 31 July 2018 08:17

Le Maillot Gallois: Tour de France 2018

Published in Sport

C’est magnifique, Geraint! declares cycling fan Mark Perryman, and calls on Labour to develop a socialist culture policy to encourage popular, grassroots cycling.

Britain took 109 years to achieve its very first Tour de France winner in 2012. And now we can hardly stop winning it, with the single exception of Italy’s Nibali in 2014 (when Chris Froome crashed and was unable to continue) every year since. The French aren’t best pleased mind: ‘Boring, Boring Team Sky’ is one of their less impolite responses.

Each of our winners has been different. Wiggins in 2012 was impeccably English, complete with RAF roundels mod-style on his helmet and a fondness for The Jam (the band, not what we spread on our toast). His victory was immediately followed by the London 2012 Olympics where he also triumphed in the Time Trial, to win a Gold Medal to add to his Yellow Jersey.

Pictured astride a throne at Hampton Court, where the race ended, Bradley with Wiggomania in tow was rampant with the Union Jack enjoying a late Cool Britannia renaissance. It was a moment when most of us thought Wiggo could do no wrong, until we found out via a jiffy bag that maybe he could.    

Then along came Chris Froome, Wiggins’ number two in 2012 who didn’t much fancy playing second fiddle to anyone, least of all Wiggo. Born in Kenya, educated in South Africa, Froome pays (or rather doesn’t pay) his taxes in Monaco. Never mind, he could climb a mountain on a bike like nobody else, never out of his saddle, twig-like arms outstretched with hands ‘on the hoods’ staring into the distance as if the gradient barely existed.

Four wins in five years 2013- 2017, a legend in the making. The idea that in order to be a world-beating sports superstar an athlete needs the ‘personality’ to go with it is an unwelcome product of our celebritified era, but there’s not much doubt it helps. Froome’s achievements dwarf Wiggins but he was never a hit with the great British sporting public in the same way, most of whom don’t have much more than a passing interest in watching cycling. And so his near downfall via the over use of an asthma inhaler didn’t have quite the big hit of Wiggo and his dodgy jiffy bag full of we know not what. All it did was confirm those deep seated suspicions that the superhuman qualities of Grand Tour cyclists aren’t as naturally-produced as they might appear.

And now we have Geraint Thomas. Previously a super-domestique, always happy and willing to help his leader, as the cliché goes – road cycling is an individual sport played by teams. His emergence first to lead Le Tour and finally win it shocked just about everyone, not least himself.

Yes undoubtedly the suspicions linger, cycling will never entirely be rid of these, but Geraint’s is a homespun story of a Cardiff kid who joined his local cycling club, went to a secondary school with superlative sports facilities, and was talent-spotted at an early age. His is a rare ability, that took him first to Olympic glory and then on to the road, grinding out the hundreds of kilometres mainly in the cause of more-celebrated others. He is in this regard the perfect combination of Wiggins’ personality and Froome’s athleticism on a bike.

So are we about to witness ‘Geraintmania’? If back, and in most cases front, pages are anything to go by on the Monday morning after the Champs Élysées triumph the afternoon before, we might like to think so. Handily sandwiched after World Cup 2018, Wimbledon and the British Open, before England’s test series against India and the start of the football season, a British Tour de France win now receives the kind of blanket media coverage that before Wiggins barely existed. But somehow I doubt the scale of any ‘mania’.

Thomas’s backstory, and particularly his Welshness, adds something to the mix, however. He’s more understated than Wiggins, but someone to warm to in a way Froome never quite manages. Yet short of the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award, it is hard to imagine Thomas will be much in the news in the interim. Despite that, as he revelled in his victory all the media-talk was of how he would inspire others to follow him in the same way he’d been inspired to get on a bike by Le Tour as a kid. 

 This is the cruel myth-making of any sporting triumph. It’s not being a killjoy to point to the social construction of sport, rather it is the only means of understanding how to change participation from sofa-watching to getting off that sofa. 

Cycling in this regard has a lot going for it. It is a means of transport and freedom for children, a way to spend time together as a family, a means to get to work or to do the shopping for adults. And all the while we can dream we are Geraint Thomas.  

Yet each of these opportunities are shaped by the socio-economic circumstances of the world we live in. Fewer children cycle to school than ever before. Safe cycling routes to enjoy for parents and children ambling together on two wheels remain few and far between. Towns and cities are ill-equipped to cope with expanding demand to cycle to work, and we have a rail system that actively deters the carriage of cycles.

Don’t believe me? Visit any other European country and both the much better participation statistics and vastly more positive lived experience of cycling put Britain to shame. Yes there’s been a post-Wiggins increase in cycling but mostly it has been those who have given up one sport, anecdotally marathon-running and golf are often cited, for another.

There’s been next to no overall reversal in ever-declining physical activity participation rates. So well done Geraint, but I’m afraid to change all this its going to be down to another cyclist. Over to you, Jeremy Corbyn!

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Mark Perryman is the co-founder of the ‘sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction’, aka Philosophy FootballTheir Maillot Gallois T-shirt is available from here. 

Fields of Play
Wednesday, 11 July 2018 08:07

Fields of Play

Published in Sport

As England prepare for their first World Cup semi-final for 28 years, Mark Perryman joins the dots between pitches and politics and makes a practical suggestion to the Labour Party about developing a 'football for all'.

It seems like almost yesterday that ‘Football’s Coming Home’ became England’s national anthem, an England shirt our national dress, and not being able to move for St George’s Cross Flags. 2018 is fast becoming the new ’96, and English hope springs eternal that this time there might be a happier ending too.

Football’s coming home is the cry, and one of those fronting it is comedian and writer David Baddiel – born in New York, his father Welsh, and his mother a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany. Baddiel neatly sums up the patchwork of identities most modern, and some ancient, icons of Englishness are constructed out of.

When it was originally written, the song was wrapped up in the mildly imperious idea that England is somehow the home of football. It was a message that framed the disastrous English bid to host the World Cup in 2006, an arrogance that resulted in a humiliatingly low vote. And irony of ironies who got it instead? Germany.

Twenty-two years later the song seems more of a joyful lament than back then. Willing the return of the World Cup to good old Blighty’s shores, it’s been away for too long, far too long. Oh, and it’s got a catchy and easy to remember chorus, that helps.

Does any of this matter very much? Well actually, in the big wide world outside of both Westminster and Planet Placard, yes it does. The South African academic and activist Prishani Naidoo wrote this about football, whilst her country was hosting World Cup 2010:

The field of play it produces stretches far beyond the boundaries of its goal posts and pitches – fields of play that sometimes bring into question the ‘taken-for-granted’, ‘the natural’, the ways in which ‘we are meant’ to be in society.

For many the most important event this week will be the very public falling-out of Tory ministers with each other over Brexit. For others the event they are most looking forward to is Friday’s march against Trump. Both are hugely important, but for millions of others it is all about England v Croatia and the sniff of a World Cup final appearance for the first time in 52 years.

Yes some have a stake in all three but a Left that aspires to be popular should be effortlessly making the connections, joining the dots between Wednesday night’s ‘field of play’ and that process of ‘bringing into question’. The football writer Barney Ronay has located the link superbly well:

The FA neither owns nor controls the mechanics of grassroots football. It has no power to dictate what Premier League clubs do with young players. It isn’t the nation’s PE teacher. It is instead something of a patsy. One of the FA’s significant functions is to act as a kind of political merkin for the wider problem. Which is, simply access for all: the right to play, a form of shared national wealth that has been downgraded by those in power for decades.

These extremely wise words were written several years before World Cup 2018, following yet another earlier-than-we-hoped-for exit . The first part of Barney’s argument has been addressed as far as possible by the FA. Unable to regulate the Premier League clubs’ treatment of young players, they have invested heavily in their own youth teams with startling success.

The core of Southgate’s squad has been playing for England junior teams since their teens, travelling away to tournaments, learning to get on with each other as well as play alongside each other. And Southgate for a period was their Under 21s manager too, with a watching brief on younger squads as well. His appointment has proved to be inspired, but one that within the constraints of ‘free market football’ went alongside the FA re-asserting its role as a governing body, the game’s regulatory authority, if you like.

But the second part of the argument remains as sharply evident now as ever. Those England players who before the tournament revisited the primary and secondary schools where they first learnt their football would have found those institutions with hard-pressed PE departments. In plenty of cases school playing fields have been sold off, and those that remain struggle for the finances to be kept properly maintained.

The youth football set-ups, where these players developed their talent before being spotted for bigger things, struggle to find public pitches to play on and are deprived of the resources to build their own facilities. This is the austerity-driven reality for all those inspired by Russia
2018, young and old, to lace up their boots and drag themselves away from the sofa – sport as not simply something to watch, but to play.

A radical commonsense politics connects the popular with the political. So here’s an idea. On the day of England’s biggest game in 28 years Jeremy Corbyn gives Brexit a rest, leaves the Trump-bashing until he arrives on our shores tomorrow and instead pops down his local park. Not to make the rather trite current Labour party offer of a national (sic) holiday should England win the World Cup, though this does have the added bonus of getting the Scots and Welsh behind the team. Nor a New Labour style photo-opportunity, y’ know the one Blair doing the keep-uppies with Kevin Keegan.

No, to make a serious-minded speech about playing fields, their selling off by successive governments and how a politics of football for all is how we make this most wonderful of World Cup summers actually mean something. 1-0 to Labour and England to win: that will do me nicely.

Mark Perryman is the co-founder of Philosophy Football, aka ‘sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction’. Their World Cup and other T-shirts can be found here

Here we go, here we go......again: the cultural struggle in football over Englishness
Friday, 06 July 2018 08:54

Here we go, here we go......again: the cultural struggle in football over Englishness

Published in Sport

Philosophy Football’s Mark Perryman dares to hope for victory for an ethnically diverse, working-class England team, and for a progressive outcome to the cultural struggle against a xenophobic, racist populism. The England team's success so far offers an entertaining, enjoyable metaphor for a more co-operative, collective approach to life  – so c'mon England!

For fans of a certain age we’ve been here before. World Cup 2002, England v Brazil in the quarters: first Rivaldo equalises on the cusp of half-time, then just after the break Ronaldinho scores what proves to be their winner. English hopes dashed! Never mind, no disgrace going out to the eventual champions.

Four years later and it’s all about Rooney’s sending off, Ronaldo’s knowing wink to the Portuguese bench, and another dismal English showing in a long list of failures in penalty shoot-outs. Unbeaten with 10 men over 120 minutes, this one we could put down to a mix of bad luck and continental skulduggery.

In between, Euro 2004, England v Portugal. Rooney this time is tearing the opposition to shreds, goes off injured, and after battling their way to a 2-2 draw it was yet another English exit on penalties.

That little lot is all of 14 years ago now. Sven was the manager, Becksmania ruled, Michael Owen, who’d burst on to the international scene four years earlier at France ‘98 was world-class, when he wasn’t injured, and the teenage Rooney at Euro 2004 looked to be even better.

The latter, when compared to his contemporary Ronaldo, never came close to fulfilling his world-beating potential however. Wayne’s first tournament, Euro 2004, was also his best. As for Owen, injuries robbed him of his best moments, at World Cup 2006 going off injured in the first minute of England’s final group game versus Sweden – a most unfortunate international swansong.

Sven did his magnificent best to manage England, exceeding all our expectations. In the two previous World Cups we’d gone out at the last sixteen stage, ’98, and failed to qualify, ’94, at Euro 2000 we’d exited at the Group stage. Sven’s was the era of our last so-called golden generation.

Yet the team was fatally unbalanced by the overwhelming popular fixation with Beckham and all that Becksmania brought with it. It’s hard to know without being privy to their respective changing rooms, but it seems that Southgate’s 2018 squad has a collectivity that England 2002-2006 sorely lacked.

This idea that the team is greater than any single individual has an echo of an era before the consumption of football, along with so many other popular cultural activities, became soaked in celebritification.

Of course this isn’t entirely new – before Beckham there was George Best after all, aka ‘the fifth Beatle’. But perhaps the better reference point is the last time England won a World Cup quarter-final, Italia 90. The huge TV viewing figures, the street celebrations, an England football shirt as our national dress, days organised around World Cup kick off times, it had the lot. And Gazza.

Only five years earlier, after the Bradford fire disaster The Sunday Times had infamously described football as “a slum sport ,played in slum stadiums, increasingly watched by slum people who deter decent folk from turning up.” Thanks a bunch!

English club sides were banned from European competition indefinitely following the lethal trouble at the Heysel stadium, and the post-Hillsborough disaster presumption was that the fans were guilty. It’s easy to blame the Sun and their ilk for the awful coverage, but people at the time largely believed the kind of stuff that those papers printed. Football looked dead on its feet in the 80s.

Italia ’90 transformed how football was perceived. The trouble our fans were part of at the start of the tournament was entirely forgotten, thanks to evening after glorious evening with Gary Lineker. And to top it all, Thatcher was out by the end of the year, thanks principally to the catastrophic unpopularity of her poll tax.

But Thatcherism, and the Tory government, remained intact. What Thatcher had created during her 11-year premiership was a neoliberal consensus founded on the market being king, and de-regulation the swashbuckling way to manage both economy and society.

Football wasn’t immune to any of this – the idea that it was a ‘people’s game’, as a description of the way it was run, was no more than a quaint, reassuring fairy story. In the space of just two years following Italia ’90, the top division of the English game had effectively been sold off by the sport’s governing body – de-regulated, in other words.

The broadcasters’ billions would govern the sport’s elite level best interests from now on, while a similar sell-off of the European Cup to become the Champions – or more accurately rich runner’s ups – League would distort the domestic game still further towards the interests of the wealthiest clubs and their transnational ownerships. Free market football was the direct consequence of England’s Italia ’90 success.

One England World Cup campaign won’t change all that. Italia ’90 reignited the popular appeal of football, despite the preceding tragedies, the hostile attitudes, the attendant hooliganism – only for it to be commodified and marketised.

Perhaps Russia 2018 might help remind us of the possibilities of liberating the game from capitalist culture. No single club can ever achieve this in the way a national team can. No club has the universal appeal across our nation that England has. And none will spark the flying, wearing, painted on a face of St George either.

This is a mass, popular culture we dismiss – but also build up – at our peril. Some, such as Jason Cowley in this week’s New Statesman see it as the reawakening of a progressive English nationalism or as he waggishly dubs it, “Gareth Southgate’s England.”

Others such as Stuart Cartland, reflecting on England’s penalty-shoot out triumph in his piece on this website yesterday, dismisses an over-enthusiastic draping of the progressive in the St George flag: “I can’t help but dread how any English success only serves to embolden a sense of Englishness of the Conservative right.”

The point surely though is to mobilise our resources of hope to shift the balance from Stuart’s pessimism towards the most progressive version of Jason’s optimism. Both views are right, and both wrong.

Football produces “ninety-minute nationalists” as Jim Sillars, then an SNP MP, put it way back when Scotland was qualifying for World Cups. Now, with Scotland amongst the international footballing also-rans, Scottish nationalism is an infinitely more potent political force than in the 1980s and 1990s, a civic nationalism that is broadly social-democratic too.

Political forces and circumstances shaped this, not Scottish football’s Tartan Army. Scottish nationalism is about a place, not primarily about a race. It isn’t hung up on the martial and the imperial in the way Little Englandism is, with no sign at all of getting over that, post-Brexit.

The England team represents – in both senses of the word – a nation that is the worst possible nightmare for a right-wing, racist populism. And when we're doing well, the games unleash a street carnivalesque culture that only a miserabilist version of socialism would want to disavow.

Yes, there are on occasion brutish, xenophobic elements but for the most part they’ve gone. So a Left politics which ignores such an opportunity for a cultural struggle over the meaning of England and Englishness is surely making a huge error.

The question shouldn’t be whether, but how. A win on Saturday against Sweden is as good a place to start as any other. No need to apologise – C’mon England!

Mark Perryman is co-founder of Philosophy Football, aka ‘sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction’. Their World Cup and other T-shirts can be found here

England expects........the World Cup, anti-racism, and Corbyn's Labour Party
Tuesday, 03 July 2018 07:00

England expects........the World Cup, anti-racism, and Corbyn's Labour Party

Published in Sport

As England prepare to take on Colombia tonight, Philosophy Football’s Mark Perryman outlines what we can look forward to. He discusses the potential of modern football for communicating anti-racist messages, and offers some advice to Jeremy Corbyn's Labour Party about developing a cultural struggle to run alongside the labour movement's political and economic struggles. This involves adopting a political practice which is rooted in popular culture, where ideas are formed – and changed.

The last time England got to this stage at a World Cup there was no happy ending. A 4-1 thrashing at the hands of Germany at South Africa 2010. Well at least we know that isn’t going to happen, Auf Wiedersehen before the postcards, ouch!

Though it might not do to be too cocky. England have a decent record in the last sixteen, when not up against a top tier football nation. Beating Ecuador at World Cup 2006, Denmark in 2002, Belgium in 1990, Paraguay in 1986. But out of that lot the only time we then made it past the quarters to the semis was when at Italia’90 after beating Belgium in the last 16 we faced Cameroon, rather than a higher-ranked team.

This is what makes the Russia 2018 campaign so mouth-watering a prospect. Beat Colombia and the quarter will be against Sweden or Switzerland. And with Spain dispatched England’s semi-final opponent would be Russia or Croatia. Arguably there has never been a World Cup like it for sending well-fancied former tournament winners home early, Germany now joined by the last sixteen exits of Argentina, Spain, and reigning European champions, Portugal.

But again, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Since England’s last World Cup semi-final appearance 28 years ago, quite a few non top-tier football nations - Bulgaria, Sweden, Croatia, Turkey, South Korea, Portugal, who have never won the World Cup or played in a final - have made it this far. England’s world standing never moved on after 1990. In the almost three decades since then, we have fallen behind others, and in the recent past have slipped back still further. Thus Columbia, Sweden, Switzerland, Croatia and Russia can’t be taken as lightly as some might assume.

All those fancied teams going home early has certainly opened up the tournament, but something else has happened too. No African team has made it into the last 16. Pelé’s prediction that an African team would win the World Cup by 2000 looks as far away as ever. And with only Japan making it through to the last sixteen, despite their plucky performance against Belgium, their eventual defeat means the same goes for Asia too. Football is a truly global game, but the very top level remains a European-Latin American cartel, with little obvious sign of that changing.

Since the beginning, the World Cup has been won by a remarkably small number of teams. Apart from Brazil, Germany and Italy plus Uruguay’s rather ancient 1930 and 1950 tournament wins following England’s one and only triumph, newcomers Argentina have won the trophy twice, in 1978 and ’86.

Three tournaments later, host nation France lifted the trophy for the first and only time in ‘98, and another three tournaments later Spain did the same in 2010 but not again since. After the exits of Germany and Argentina, and the failure of either four-times winners Italy to qualify or Holland - who hold the unenviable record of making the most appearances in a World Cup Final without winning it - the best possible outcome from Russia 2018 would be for a nation that’s never won the World Cup to lift the trophy. Or England, of course!

World Cup winners may be more or less unchanging yet something else has changed, for European teams in particular. When England won the World Cup in 1966 the team was all white. 24 years later and the team that lined up once again to face West Germany in the ’90 semi-final included just two black players, Des Walker and Paul Parker. Another 28 years on and of the England team to face Columbia tonight more than half the line-up will be black or mixed race. And what is true of England is also true for France, Belgium, Switzerland, Germany and Portugal too - all teams made up of a patchwork of the nation’s migrant communities .

Of course the meaning and effect of all this can be overstated. At France ’98 Zinedine Zidane led arguably the greatest multicultural team of all to World Cup triumph, and two years later the same at Euro 2000. But in 2002 Jean Marie Le Pen makes it into the final round of the French Presidential Election for the first time ever, polling almost 20% of the vote. And in 2017 Marine Le Pen achieved the same, this time attracting a third of the popular vote.

But the point is that a St. George Cross draped in the colours of multiculturalism has at least the potential for the beginnings of a journey away from racism. It has a reach and symbolism like no other, touching the parts of a nation’s soul no anti-racist placard thrust in our faces is ever going to.

This is the meaning of modern football, and when England begin to scale the heights of 2018 World Cup ambition the reach of that message is amplified still further on a scale and in a manner that ’66 could never have done, and ’90 barely began. A popular Left politics must surely connect with such episodes as metaphor, to translate what we see on the pitch into the changes beyond the touchline that we require to become a more equal and socialist society.

So here’s my advice for Jeremy Corbyn and his colleagues. If Labour cannot explain the meaning of the World Cup why should I listen to what the party has to tell me on how they’re going to fix the mess the NHS is in? A World Cup provides an unrivalled opportunity to illustrate occasionally hidebound points on race, nation and globalisation that touch upon the lived experience and emotions of millions who otherwise might not give such issues a second thought at best, and who might adopt a reactionary position at worst. Corbynism has this kind of popular communicative potential but to date has scarcely even begun to make these kinds of connections.

That doesn't mean the flimsy populism of Blair, when he adopted the ‘Labour’s Coming Home’ message after England’s last tournament semi, Euro ‘96. It means a political practice rooted in popular culture, because it's in popular cultures like football, more than anywhere else, that ideas are not only formed, but also changed.

Mark Perryman is the co-founder of Philosophy Football, self-styled ‘sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction’. Their England Expects T-shirt is available from here

England Expects 2018

If a week is a long time in politics......Mark Perryman catches up on the World Cup
Friday, 22 June 2018 12:35

If a week is a long time in politics......Mark Perryman catches up on the World Cup

Published in Sport

Mark Perryman draws some lessons from the first week of World Cup 2018, as England prepare to take on Panama. 

It’s a well-worn footballing cliché that you can only beat the team in front of you. But in most regards, England taking until the 91st minute to secure victory over Tunisia doesn’t look good. Nevertheless, with three points in the bag, and a widely-expected second victory against Panama on Sunday, England’s third match versus Belgium no longer looks as critical as it might have done. If last 16 qualification has been secured by Monday, and the certainly beatable likely opponents of Senegal, Japan or Poland who are next up after Belgium, thoughts will inevitably turn to a possible quarter-final .

Without doubt this is English progress, of sorts, but let's not go getting above ourselves. Our natural status is beaten quarter-finalists, prior to that golden day in ’66 it was the best we’d ever done, and we’ve only bettered this the one time since, at Italia ’90 all of 28 years ago. Sven was the last England manager to get us to a quarter-final, at World Cups 2006, 2002, and another at Euro 2004 for good measure in-between. If we make it this time Gareth Southgate will have got us back to where we belong, amongst the top 8 World Cup nations, but unless the team proves otherwise still a long way short of being among the top 4. It was ever thus.  

Thankfully the games are all being played out against the backdrop of a happy clappy Ros! Si! Ya! In contrast the build-up was full of dire predictions of heavy-handed policing, neo-nazi hooligan gangs, racist attacks, homophobia and the grimmest environment imaginable to ‘enjoy’ for watching a World Cup . The build-up was the same for South Africa’s World Cup 2010, muggings, car-jacking, a race war was what travelling fans were promised, nothing of the sort happened. And again for Brazil 2014, political unrest combined with Favela drug gangs was what was predictd to ruin the World Cup for travelling England fans. Once more, no such incidents occurred.

None of this getting the hosts so spectacularly wrong will be explained as England prepare to head home. And before you know it the same lazy predictions will be rolled out for the next time. But actually, it's even worse than that. When the football begins we go from one extreme, destination hellhole, to another, football paradise. The truth is Russia does have problems - an authoritarian regime, Greater Russian nationalism, massive inequalities of wealth distribution, racism, homophobia and a violent fan sub-culture. None of these were ever going to be allowed to ruin a World Cup which is Russia’s unmatchable opportunity to showcase the best of its nation to the world. And none of them have gone away either just because a game of football is underway. As with the England win against Tunisia, the whistle blows and all sense of perspective is booted out of the window.

We already know it will be Qatar hosting the tournament in 2022, followed by the successful joint bid of USA, Canada and Mexico for 2026. And England is apparently considering a joint British bid for 2030 with the Scots and Welsh FAs, which will face competition from the Uruguay, Argentina, Paraguay joint bid, and no doubt more to come too. These tri-nation hosts are a result of the World Cup’s expansion from the current 32 team format to a gargantuan 48. The global reach of football is continuing so some kind of increase is justified, as it was when the tournament grew first from 16 to 24 nations for Spain ‘82, then again to 32 for France 98 and the same since then.

But 48 is too big a jump, it creates too massive a tournament, too many games, many of which will be meaningless, and too big a disparity in ability. 40 would have been a much better compromise, 8 groups of 5 rather than the current 8 groups of 4, a step-up of 8 teams as every previous expansion has been. With all the extra places awarded to the under-represented continents, ie anywhere but Europe and South America, so sorry Scotland!

This would have also preserved the feasibility of single host nations too. Every previous one has helped define how a World Cup is consumed and remembered almost as much as the football on the pitch and the eventual winner. The one exception, joint hosts Japan and South Korea in 2002, just about worked. Thanks to the extraordinary success of the Korean team and their Red Army of supporters as they reached the semis, while Japan largely defined the consumption of the football and Brazil’s eventual victory in the Tokyo final.

So here’s an idea. 2030 is the centenary World Cup. The first one took place in Uruguay which England, like most of the other European nations, shamefully chose to boycott because South America was too far away and the footballing world revolves around Europe, or in England’s case, ourselves, or so they liked to think. Why not award the hosting of 2030 now to Uruguay, and abandon the expensive and corruptible bidding process? The world of football to give every assistance to this one small nation to host it. Organise it as a celebration of one hundred years’ worth of the growing international appeal of our game, the people’s game. Fly in the face of all that FIFA has become.

Well, like England reaching the semi - even my optimism of the will has its limits - we’re allowed our World Cup dreams aren’t we?

Mark Perryman is the co-founder of Philosophy Football and their England World Cup T-shirt is available from here.

England WC 2018 Navy s s

Thirty-two nations under a groove: World Cup 2018
Wednesday, 13 June 2018 14:49

Thirty-two nations under a groove: World Cup 2018

Published in Sport

Will the World Cup be an orgy of petty-minded nationalism? Philosophy Football’s Mark Perryman doesn’t seem to think so.

In between the matches from Russia over the next few weeks, here’s a Trivial Pursuit question to test your mates’ footballing knowledge. Which is the only World Cup squad with the entire list of players playing in their own country’s domestic league?

Easy! Easy! Easy! I hear the chant go up. The answer is England, of course, except it’s not just a knowledge of football that provides the answer, but politics, history and culture too.

Firstly, and most importantly, the political economy of the game. In other words, English clubs pay heaps more dosh than most overseas outfits.

Secondly, Anglo-superiority complex. Who in England’s 2018 squad would make it as a certain first team starter at a top German, Italian or Spanish club? Precious few – there’s a number who aren’t even regular starters at their own clubs, edged out by Johnny Foreigner’s talent.

Thirdly, the domesticity of our players betrays a certain very English parochialism. More comfortable at home than abroad, Europe after all is a foreign country.

England’s second most successful World Cup campaign remains Italia ’90. Of England’s starting line-up in that year, Lineker had played for Barcelona, and Waddle was then playing for Marseilles in France. Gazza, Des Walker and Platt all went on to play for Italian clubs.

As for the victorious West Germany side who went on to win the trophy, none of them played in England, though Klinsmann would end up being snapped up by an English side – but that was in 4 years’ time, in 1994.

The lesson that was drawn from Italia ’90 was that English football had the potential to recover its reputation and popularity, following the ban on our club sides from European competitions post-Heysel, and the human tragedy of Hillsborough.

This, like so much else after Thatcher’s election in ’79 – until Jeremy Corbyn came along to break the spell of its appeal – was down to neo-liberal deregulation. The FA effectively gave up its right to govern the elite level of the game by floating off the First Division, now the Premier League, to be run by the clubs themselves.

With Murdoch in hot pursuit following the dawning realisation that broadcasting live football was the only way to save his fledgling satellite TV company, Sky, the deregulation accelerated via the vast wealth generated by TV contracts.

Neoliberalism isn’t the same as globalisation, but they are intimately connected. Globalisation, which has involved the shifting of capital investment – and the jobs that go with it – from the West to the East, has produced a counter-reaction.

In the U.S. of Donald Trump, this is his populist America First nationalism. Across Europe movements for independence, from Catalonia to Scotland. And throughout the same continent anti-migrant movements have been resurgent, too.

In the case of football, we see the counter-reaction in the persistent influence of racism and worse amongst certain fan subcultures, co-existing with the huge influx of foreign players.

Again, the World Cup illustrates this. Consulting once more my handy pocket-sized World Cup Squads ‘guide for reference, a tasty looking English Premier League eleven out in Russia would line up like this: De Gea in goal, Mendy, Monreal and Christensen providing three at the back; Pogba, Eriksen, Hazard and De Bruyne packing the midfield; and up front Firmino, Aguero, and Salah. And there’s plenty more where that lot came from too.

Yet precious few fans in their right minds are going to complain about these particular migrant workers, over here, nicking our players’ jobs, with their foreign ways and the like. Racist attitudes to that extent are thankfully fairly marginalised.

Another Trivial Pursuits question for you: what is the most globalised public institution in English society and culture? Again, easy – the football club, up and down the divisions, even stretching down into non-league football, is easily the most globalised public institution in English society. The owners, the management and coaching staff, the aforementioned players, the fan-base, the sponsors and advertisers , the TV viewing public – all are globalised, and few would object to that.

This doesn’t mean the process is entirely unproblematic. Football mythologises itself as the People’s Game, although it has never been thus, clubs have always been owned by the local butcher, baker and candlestick maker. In Manchester United’s case, quite literally, as the Edwards family were butchers who sold the club they owned off to the Glazers, US sports moguls. Local business elites have nearly always owned the game and ran it in their own local interest. The only difference now is that it’s a global business elite running it, in their own trans-national interest. Corporate monopoly capitalism has replaced small businesses, in football as in everything else.

Resistance to absent owners erupts from time to time, though home-grown owners are often not much better – just look at West Ham. But what frames modern fan culture most of all is a popular cosmopolitanism. While England agonises over how and when it will exit Europe, every football club’s ambition is to get into Europe. This is our cultural barricade against the hateful rise of the Football Lads’ Alliance. Their values, founded on division, are the complete opposite to the way the modern game is consumed and supported.

For every fan cheering on England over the next few weeks there will be others keeping an interested and supportive eye on how their club’s foreign players are doing, and most importantly many are fully capable of doing both. One nation, thirty-two nations, for the next three and a week under the same groove. For this precious moment, nothing could be more powerful as a resistance to racism and division.

What’s more, despite FIFA’s worst efforts, it’s broadly equitable too. My last Trivial Pursuit question is this: what have the superpowers of the USA, Russia and China got in common? They’ve not got one World Cup between them. And that’s because international football is regulated, no country on earth however rich is ever going to persuade Messi, Neymar or Ronaldo to sign for them. If that’s not neoliberal globalisation turned on its economic head into something a tad better, I don’t know what is.

WC 2018 32 teams tee shirt

The Thirty-Two Nations Philosophy Football T-shirt is available from Philosophy Football

USSR Rocket Sweet Tin
Monday, 27 November 2017 13:31

Every revolution needs some smashing plates

Published in Visual Arts

Mark Perryman went to the 1985 Exhibition of Soviet Design in London, and learned the real meaning of revolution.

In 1985, Thatcherism reigned triumphant. The Miners' Strike was coming to a sorry end. With Reagan in the White House the second Cold War dominated what remained of international relations. It was perhaps curious therefore that the Crafts Council of England and Wales should choose to open the year with an exhibition of Soviet textiles, fashion and ceramics 1917-1935, Art into Production.

In 2017 there has been a whole host of Russian Revolution centenary exhibitions, conferences, TV specials and the like. But 1985? The extraordinary richness of the art however was more than sufficient to resist and reverse the pessimism that leftist visitors to the exhibition like myself were suffering from as any prospect of a progressive, let alone a socialist, politics receded ever further into the faraway distance. The emotional downturn of opportunities for change in turn created bitter divisions in and around a Left in retreat. If our lot was convinced we were right, then we were absolutely certain the other lot were wrong - and this was just on our own side.

How could a dash of Russian Revolutionary art impact upon this? In the beautifully produced exhibition catalogue, there were some lines extracted from Komsomol’skaya Pravda, the newspaper of the Young Communist League, 28th April 1928 which began to form in my mind a very different approach to a Left cultural politics to the one most of us were used to. And as the 1917 centenary fast approached, with a resurgent Corbynite Left, I’ve been reminded of those words:

We must not accept this ‘non-resistance’. The cultural revolution, like the bugler’s trumpet, is summoning for examination and revaluation everything which mobilises or poisons our consciousness, our will and our readiness for battle!

So far, so familiar. The over-familiar instrumentalism of almost all versions of socialist, and communist too, cultural politics. But then the extract took a less predictable turn:

In this ‘parade’ of objects there are no non-combatants – nor can there be! Plates and cups, ie things we see daily, several times a day, which can do their bit for the organising of consciousness – these occupy an important place.

MP Sofranova plate 2017

Blimey, this was wasn’t the usual socialist fare I was used to. Perhaps susceptible to a workerist ‘proletkult’ tendency perhaps, though the colourful, often highly feminised, designs throughout the exhibition indicated this was a relatively minor deviation (sic). Rather what the young communists of 1928 were mapping out was a cultural politics that was both all-embracing and highly practical. Pluralist and pre-figurative as the leftie-jargon speak I had learnt by ’85 to drop into any conversation of the right political sort might describe such a venture. And they weren’t going to put up with any naysayers and feet draggers either:

We demand that a plate should fulfil its social function. We demand that the role of everyday objects should not be forgotten by our young specialist artists and the bodies in charge of our industry.

It is easy to mock the idealism but if the debates over what happened in 1917 serve to mask the boldly radical ambition in these words, then we surely lose something invaluable. This is what Art into Production all those years ago achieved. and I’ve never forgotten it. More recently Owen Hatherley’s peerless book Landscapes of Communism does something similar via the architecture of the Soviet era, as does poet Rosy Carrick’s stunning reading of Mayakovsky’s epic poem Lenin. And cartoonist Tim Sanders' hugely imaginative depiction of the events of October 1917 via the subversive idiom of a graphic novel, Russia’s Red Year.

All three sit outside the orthodoxy of both an establishment culture that treats the Russian Revolution purely as an historical event, and a tendency on parts of the Left to divorce the insistence on a particular political interpretation of the revolution from a broader understanding of the heady idealism 1917. All these books are a most welcome addition to the centenary celebrations, but also they suggest an approach to understanding the Russian Revolution that can be traced back to those young Communists of 1928 exhorting the production of socialist plates, cups and saucers.

Also coinciding with the centenary has been the release of Armando Iannucci’s blockbuster comedy The Death Of Stalin. The man behind the brilliantly funny The Thick of It which skewered the Blairite world of spin and soundbites with brutal wit, has turned to an era that the film’s posters mischievously describe as ‘ a comedy of terrors’. Only the most po-faced would stifle the laughs as one wisecrack after another demolishes what Stalinism had turned Soviet Russia into. But the film ends up being satirical for a cheap laugh’s sake, and leaves this cinemagoer at least with a sense that if all we are left with is the cynicism of pointlessness then the prospects for change are inevitably narrowed, and all we are left with is the motto ‘who cares, who wins’.

This is what the likes of Iannucci, Private Eye and Have I Got News for You thrive on, a manufactured anti-politics with the lazy assumption that everybody is as bad as each other and never mind either the causes or consequences. The political clowning of Boris Johnson becomes the natural expression of all this, a rebel without a cause except his own personal advancement. Oh c’mon he’s only having a laugh, and what’s the harm in that? £350m for the NHS thanks to #Brexit has at last partly put paid to that sorry myth!

MP Chimneys plate 2017

So instead of rollicking in the cinema aisles as one Death of Stalin joke piles into another, I prefer instead the necessity of having some smashing plates, mugs and saucers. Framed by the utopian idealism for a better world than the one that those in Russia had endured in the years preceding 1917, and visualising via the most vivid combination of imagination, originality and clash of colours the prospect of constructing a new society. When that hopeful vision is absent then our capacity to imagine what change might look like lacks something vital too. A sentiment worth preserving via some tasty antique ceramics. Not trapped by the past - that way spells dogma and cultural conservatism. But there is something wrong too with the ahistorical version of modernity which became the watchword of 1990s Blairism. If it’s old it must be crap, the denial therefore of the past ever inspiring the present towards changing what the future otherwise has in store for us. And most crucially, if you like the revolutionary element, given practical expression via its lived presence in the everyday. Pasokification across Europe has led to a new era of headlong retreat for social democracy but this time accompanied by an insurgent, popular, Left that is seeking to challenge and transcend the limitations imposed upon it by a wholesale surrender to neoliberalism. The advances are patchy, and incomplete, not remotely revolutionary according to the 1917 model but decidedly radical and seeking a decisive rupture with the existing system of ideas. In 2017 that’s more than enough for me.

So where do the plates, mugs and cups of 1917 fit in to all of this? Not to merchandise but to politicise. The revolutionary ceramics, and the process of production the Young Communists demanded, is entirely different from the naff trinkets and trifles emblazoned with Jeremy Corbyn’s name and face the Labour was flogging at party conference.

MP Red Wedge plate 2017

Harmless fun? Well possibly, and to declare an interest Philosophy Football has produced its own COR 8YN T-shirt but if that is the scale of our imagination and productive capacity it just shows how far we still have to go to get anywhere close to the scale of ambition of those 1917 plates. What might a 2017 version look like, fired up and framed by The Corbyn Effect? That’s the kind of question I’d like to hear both being asked, and answered with practical output. And in that process of originality and production creating a great variety of means to identify with a politics that can effect a wholesale shift in the balance of forces from those few, to our many.

Now that’s what I call politics!

The 1917 centenary plates collection reproducing original Soviet designs is available here.

 

USSR Rocket Sweet Tin
Friday, 03 November 2017 17:11

Every revolution needs some smashing plates

Published in 1917 Centenary

Mark Perryman went to the 1985 Exhibition of Soviet Design in London, and learned the real meaning of revolution.

In 1985, Thatcherism reigned triumphant. The Miners' Strike was coming to a sorry end. With Reagan in the White House the second Cold War dominated what remained of international relations. It was perhaps curious therefore that the Crafts Council of England and Wales should choose to open the year with an exhibition of Soviet textiles, fashion and ceramics 1917-1935, Art into Production.

In 2017 there has been a whole host of Russian Revolution centenary exhibitions, conferences, TV specials and the like. But 1985? The extraordinary richness of the art however was more than sufficient to resist and reverse the pessimism that leftist visitors to the exhibition like myself were suffering from as any prospect of a progressive, let alone a socialist, politics receded ever further into the faraway distance. The emotional downturn of opportunities for change in turn created bitter divisions in and around a Left in retreat. If our lot was convinced we were right, then we were absolutely certain the other lot were wrong - and this was just on our own side.

How could a dash of Russian Revolutionary art impact upon this? In the beautifully produced exhibition catalogue, there were some lines extracted from Komsomol’skaya Pravda, the newspaper of the Young Communist League, 28th April 1928 which began to form in my mind a very different approach to a Left cultural politics to the one most of us were used to. And as the 1917 centenary fast approached, with a resurgent Corbynite Left, I’ve been reminded of those words:

We must not accept this ‘non-resistance’. The cultural revolution, like the bugler’s trumpet, is summoning for examination and revaluation everything which mobilises or poisons our consciousness, our will and our readiness for battle!

So far, so familiar. The over-familiar instrumentalism of almost all versions of socialist, and communist too, cultural politics. But then the extract took a less predictable turn:

In this ‘parade’ of objects there are no non-combatants – nor can there be! Plates and cups, ie things we see daily, several times a day, which can do their bit for the organising of consciousness – these occupy an important place.

MP Sofranova plate 2017

Blimey, this was wasn’t the usual socialist fare I was used to. Perhaps susceptible to a workerist ‘proletkult’ tendency perhaps, though the colourful, often highly feminised, designs throughout the exhibition indicated this was a relatively minor deviation (sic). Rather what the young communists of 1928 were mapping out was a cultural politics that was both all-embracing and highly practical. Pluralist and pre-figurative as the leftie-jargon speak I had learnt by ’85 to drop into any conversation of the right political sort might describe such a venture. And they weren’t going to put up with any naysayers and feet draggers either:

We demand that a plate should fulfil its social function. We demand that the role of everyday objects should not be forgotten by our young specialist artists and the bodies in charge of our industry.

It is easy to mock the idealism but if the debates over what happened in 1917 serve to mask the boldly radical ambition in these words, then we surely lose something invaluable. This is what Art into Production all those years ago achieved. and I’ve never forgotten it. More recently Owen Hatherley’s peerless book Landscapes of Communism does something similar via the architecture of the Soviet era, as does poet Rosy Carrick’s stunning reading of Mayakovsky’s epic poem Lenin. And cartoonist Tim Sanders' hugely imaginative depiction of the events of October 1917 via the subversive idiom of a graphic novel, Russia’s Red Year.

All three sit outside the orthodoxy of both an establishment culture that treats the Russian Revolution purely as an historical event, and a tendency on parts of the Left to divorce the insistence on a particular political interpretation of the revolution from a broader understanding of the heady idealism 1917. All these books are a most welcome addition to the centenary celebrations, but also they suggest an approach to understanding the Russian Revolution that can be traced back to those young Communists of 1928 exhorting the production of socialist plates, cups and saucers.

Also coinciding with the centenary has been the release of Armando Iannucci’s blockbuster comedy The Death Of Stalin. The man behind the brilliantly funny The Thick of It which skewered the Blairite world of spin and soundbites with brutal wit, has turned to an era that the film’s posters mischievously describe as ‘ a comedy of terrors’. Only the most po-faced would stifle the laughs as one wisecrack after another demolishes what Stalinism had turned Soviet Russia into. But the film ends up being satirical for a cheap laugh’s sake, and leaves this cinemagoer at least with a sense that if all we are left with is the cynicism of pointlessness then the prospects for change are inevitably narrowed, and all we are left with is the motto ‘who cares, who wins’.

This is what the likes of Iannucci, Private Eye and Have I Got News for You thrive on, a manufactured anti-politics with the lazy assumption that everybody is as bad as each other and never mind either the causes or consequences. The political clowning of Boris Johnson becomes the natural expression of all this, a rebel without a cause except his own personal advancement. Oh c’mon he’s only having a laugh, and what’s the harm in that? £350m for the NHS thanks to #Brexit has at last partly put paid to that sorry myth!

MP Chimneys plate 2017

So instead of rollicking in the cinema aisles as one Death of Stalin joke piles into another, I prefer instead the necessity of having some smashing plates, mugs and saucers. Framed by the utopian idealism for a better world than the one that those in Russia had endured in the years preceding 1917, and visualising via the most vivid combination of imagination, originality and clash of colours the prospect of constructing a new society. When that hopeful vision is absent then our capacity to imagine what change might look like lacks something vital too. A sentiment worth preserving via some tasty antique ceramics. Not trapped by the past - that way spells dogma and cultural conservatism. But there is something wrong too with the ahistorical version of modernity which became the watchword of 1990s Blairism. If it’s old it must be crap, the denial therefore of the past ever inspiring the present towards changing what the future otherwise has in store for us. And most crucially, if you like the revolutionary element, given practical expression via its lived presence in the everyday. Pasokification across Europe has led to a new era of headlong retreat for social democracy but this time accompanied by an insurgent, popular, Left that is seeking to challenge and transcend the limitations imposed upon it by a wholesale surrender to neoliberalism. The advances are patchy, and incomplete, not remotely revolutionary according to the 1917 model but decidedly radical and seeking a decisive rupture with the existing system of ideas. In 2017 that’s more than enough for me.

So where do the plates, mugs and cups of 1917 fit in to all of this? Not to merchandise but to politicise. The revolutionary ceramics, and the process of production the Young Communists demanded, is entirely different from the naff trinkets and trifles emblazoned with Jeremy Corbyn’s name and face the Labour was flogging at party conference.

MP Red Wedge plate 2017

Harmless fun? Well possibly, and to declare an interest Philosophy Football has produced its own COR 8YN T-shirt but if that is the scale of our imagination and productive capacity it just shows how far we still have to go to get anywhere close to the scale of ambition of those 1917 plates. What might a 2017 version look like, fired up and framed by The Corbyn Effect? That’s the kind of question I’d like to hear both being asked, and answered with practical output. And in that process of originality and production creating a great variety of means to identify with a politics that can effect a wholesale shift in the balance of forces from those few, to our many.

Now that’s what I call politics!

The 1917 centenary plates collection reproducing original Soviet designs is available here.

 

Football from Below
Friday, 08 September 2017 07:46

Football from Below

Published in Sport

Mark Perryman of Philosophy Football criticises the commercialisation of football, and explores the possibilities of fan culture as a social movement.

During the international break, a mini-spat over the England players’ pride – or lack of – in wearing the three lions on their shirt, provided a helpful starting point towards the remaking of football as a social movement.

Explaining England’s inability to go even 1-0 up against the proverbial minnows of the Maltese football team until well into the second half has a lot less to do with the lack of emotional commitment from Harry Kane et al to end now more than half-century’s worth of years of hurt, than their actual inability to play.

‘Pride’ is the easy cop-out – what we’re actually witnessing is the ever-decreasing quality of English football. How many of England’s starting eleven would Paris Saint German be chasing after with their chequebooks, or Barcelona and Borussia Dortmund be in the market for after their most talented players have been sold off ?

Of course the best eleven England can put on a pitch isn’t all bad, but mostly their talent is boosted at club level by playing alongside foreign, more technically gifted and able players. On their own they’re not half as good.  

And for those players who turn out for United, City, Chelsea, Liverpool and Spurs, a World Cup Qualifier, and – short of reaching the long-forgotten semi-final stage – the tournament itself, doesn’t come close to being the biggest match of their careers compared to the more realistic chance of Champions League glory.

It gets worse. The enormous wealth the Premier League provides to their clubs means that even for those players who are a long way from making it into the Champions League, the season-long battle to maintain that status pushes England games pretty far down their, and their coaches’, list of priorities. Arguably this also applies to clubs competing for promotion to the Premier League.

Is it lack of passion? No, it is the result of commercial calculation.  This is at the core of the sickness of what football has become, the hopeless confusion of mistaking the richest league in the world with being the best. It’s no accident that the Championship play-off final is described almost exclusively in terms of the riches awarded to the victor rather than the quality of the football played.

MP against modern football

For a while, those of us who were disillusioned with that corrupting commercialisation adopted the mantra ‘Against Mod£rn Football.’ We first turned this into a T-shirt having spotted the words on a Croatian banner at Euro 2008. The sentiment was internationalist enough to make perfect sense. It’s a catchy, oppositional phrase that fits neatly on to chest sizes small-XXL – but ‘Against Mod£rn Football’ is increasingly problematic in two ways. 

Firstly, there’s more than one version of modernity. Is the ‘against’ aimed at the growth of women’s football, or refugee leagues? Is it aimed against a game that has no intrinsic borders, a game that is all about overcoming divisions of race, gender, sexuality and nationality? Being against all that ends with oppositionalism masking conservatism, or worse.

Secondly the business of football has become inseparable from multinational corporate power. The macro-politics to reform the game traditionally adopted by both Labour and groups such as the Football Supporters Federation means any agency to enforce these policies seems almost impossible to imagine. Somehow I think an incoming Labour Government is going to have more immediate issues on its mind than nationalising the Premier League.

For these reasons it is absolutely vital to the future of the game to reimagine fan culture not just as hardpressed consumers, but as a social movement with the capacity to achieve change.

Currently this is very much a minority movement, but all such movements start out with big ambitions and modest advances. Their potential to grow and effect change is dependent on the ability to inspire via small victories which help convince wider forces that this is a direction of travel worth pursuing.

We can see this in the rise of militantly anti-racist ultra groups, at Clapton, Whitehawk and elsewhere. We can also see it in the growth of start-up football clubs – Hackney Wick FC, City of Liverpool FC and the women’s football club AFC Unity in Sheffield. The spread of community ownership up and down the divisions is another encouraging sign, as is the pro-refugees message heard from at least some stands – not on the scale of what was seen across the Bundesliga but present nevertheless.

At the core of any such movement will be gender issues – the recognition that if football is to become modern for all then the sport’s entrenched masculinity has to be challenged. Treating women’s football as different yet equal is a key step towards a truly inclusive game. On this basis the Equality FC initiative at Lewes FC, where the playing budgets are the same for women and men, is a model for all clubs to aspire to if the pressure ‘from below’ can be developed and sustained.

This isn’t fantasy football. It is about the remaking of the political, the recognition that it is in popular culture more than any other space that ideas are formed, the limitations on what is possible challenged and transformations take shape.

Brighton, for example, is now a Premier League club, playing in their own city. This is an ambition only made possible because of a 15-year campaign by their fans developing and sustaining a fan-led club culture.  And it is fitting therefore that it is in Brighton, at The World Transformed Festival which runs alongside the Labour Party Conference, that many of those involved in these practical initiatives will be gathered together by Philosophy Football to launch a discussion on what a campaign for ‘Football from Below’ might look like.

Any such discussion, if it is to have a meaningful purpose, demands allies. Labour and the trade unions via such a dialogue will be forced to address the narrowness of their own agendas and the scarcity of their own alliances. Football is a signifier of so many other spaces in popular culture where Labour and the trade unions need to be present, be part of, connecting ideas to lived experience towards change. 

New Labour adopted football in the same way it adopted Britpop as a cultural accessory, providing photo opportunities and celebrity endorsements. It was a flimsy appropriation, coming out of a flimsy politics.  Corbynism promises something different, the framing of a popular, cultural politics will be vital to any fulfilment of that proud boast.  Football is just one of what should become countless journeys of putting the ideas of Corbynism into practical extra-parliamentary achievement. All of our cultural activities, all of the topics covered by Culture Matters – poetry, film, theatre, visual art, religion, eating and drinking, fashion and clothing, the media – should be the subject of campaigns to resist commercialisation and ideological manipulation, democratise access, and reclaim our common cultural heritage. We need culture for the many, not the few.

‘Football from Below’ wears the colours of FC St Pauli as our inspiration. But it is time to make that change in our own image too.  From the bottom-up, not in opposition to those who choose to follow the Premier League moneybagged bandwagon, that would be not only futile but also self-destructive. Instead as a minority we will be pioneering the practical possibility of building a game that doesn’t have to be run in the way it is. Rethinking football as a sport for all not a business to be run.

Idealistic? Guilty as charged.

Philosophy Football’s Football from Below T-shirt is available from here

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