The Mass Submission to Football

via Wikimedia Commons.

First published in Le Figaro

It is incredible how as soon as a people becomes subject, it promptly falls into such complete forgetfulness of its freedom that it can hardly be roused to the point of regaining it, obeying so easily and so willingly that one is led to say, on beholding such a situation, that this people has not so much lost its liberty as won its enslavement — La Boétie, Discourse on Voluntary Servitude

The football World Cup currently taking place in Russia is the most typical expression of at least three aspects of the submission displayed by the majority of our fellow citizens subjected to the empire of football, which seems to have established a lasting grip over their minds. The first aspect is the infantile regression which plays such an important role in mass music, which "together with sport and film" "make escape from the whole infantile milieu impossible" (Adorno).

The most hardened supporters, even those who seem sharply critical — unable to bear football being invaded by money — turn back to their wonderful youth, which they relate teary-eyed, their throats choked up with the emotion. After the "I remember when…" there follows an uninterrupted flow of memories that goes from a breathtaking dribble or a miraculous free kick to the wave of nostalgia, the ever-present memory of a crushing victory or a humiliating or unfair defeat. Minds already atrophied by the violence of sociality are drained by the slightest ounce of analysis or even some perspective on the reality of football, for them so pregnant with meaning.

Criticisms presented as the most cutting edge of this uncritical critique tell us that despite the money, the doping, the violence… in short, despite everything, these critics love and adore football and could not do without it. They critique all the most repugnant aspects of football, the better to defend the overwhelming love, the passion that so devours them when they so shamelessly watch it on TV. This critique represents the advanced stage of a powerful social schizophrenia whose consequences include detachment from reality and an identitarian retreat into the inward-looking. Among the supporters we see an infantile bodily activity: jumping up and down, painting themselves the colours of the flag etc. as well as a sexual-type (often homophobic) activity that is just waiting to express itself openly. This return to the past corresponds to an embellished vision of childhood. The parents-become-children, sporting the colours of their own particular country, scream their heads off, shouting their love of the ball and waving as hard as they can the little flags that supposedly represent their nations, as they intone their respective anthems. When we are looking at football, to speak of infantile regression is to indicate the lower, essentially pre-language modes of expression and behaviour, and the famous clamour of the stadium (shouting, calling, rumblings, humming, etc.).

The second aspect of this submission, or enslavement, concerns the beauty of football, its aesthetic, sometimes compared to civilisation’s great works. This often refers to the field of paintings, and quite similarly choreography or dance, and sometimes literature and architecture. Caught up in their own audacity, the aficionados of football (its supporters and its critics) are quick to venture precarious comparisons between footballers’ technical-aesthetic moves and artists in the world of… art. A well-chipped penalty is worth as much as Jackson Pollock’s painting; an excess repeated hundreds of times on the pitch is tantamount to Merce Cunningham’s leaps and jumps; the stadiums drunk on electronic displays are tantamount to the mysteries of the Florence Duomo built by Brunelleschi. The aficionados’ poetic excesses reach such delirium that they dare, without hesitation, to compare the incomparable, to substitute values which have taken form and stabilised across centuries with artefacts and techniques which are very limited from a spiritual or even material point of view.

But these aficionados should know that an artist will never be the sporting superman they — particularly those on the Left — glorify, and art will never be the result or the consequence of unhinged levels of training, a struggle against time (the stopwatch) or space (the pitch, the track, the swimming pool) according to abstract criteria of quantification. The aficionados invoke a bogus aesthetics, within an imaginary hemmed in by a binary contest of winner and loser, a brutal competition where the aim is always to eliminate the other player, team or opponent. Art does not eliminate anything: it does not destroy the living or set individuals against each other. Rather, it brings to light what is not yet conscious in the individual; it anticipates our deepest, not yet conscious wishes. Art points an accusing figure at the established reality, whereas football merely repeats this reality. The true rebellion against the world owes not to the beauty of a decisive assist but to the subjectivity of art as a dissident force standing as a sensory opposition to reality. The awfulness of football and the subjection of those who support it are the matrix of a total submission.

The third aspect is the life-by-proxy that football imposes. Football has slowly hoovered up all modern political conflict, to the point of dissolving classic political representation in favour of a representation or rather an unhinged identification with teams of mercenaries. Marx saw religion as the "opium of the people" but also — and this is often forgotten — the "protest against real suffering." Football is an opium that does not even contribute to this "protest": it much more means the most cowardly and unrestricted adherence to the order of reality.

Opium, need we remind ourselves, produces an artificial feeling of happiness and well-being that is sometimes accompanied by euphoria; it helps some people sleep and alters their awareness and perception. The generalised footballisation of the mind has swept aside everything in its way and weakened the seemingly best-armed consciences. Retired or lacking in any political project, most left-wing intellectuals — now in the company of their counterparts on the Right — invoke the so-called popular character of football in its defence, some of them taking it as the site par excellence of the true resistance to capitalism. We thus dribble reality, we lob our way past social reforms, we tackle the bosses… Footballers show the way. And the stadium looks like a vast general assembly with its democratic debates, in a friendly atmosphere… Some teams are even compared to the vanguard of trade unionism, and some of the gods of the stadium to the figure of combatants or even people resisting oppression… Today unable to raise themselves to the level of true thinking and acting subjects, most individuals have almost delegated their own lives to football. They hand over responsibility to the mercenaries and their leaders, which now even substitute for themselves.

All this is wrong. In a society that has literally fallen prey to sport, sport in general and football in particular represent a projection without a project. Better, football redoubles reality by presenting itself in the illusionary manner of an enchantment, a renewed aesthetic, happiness for all. Unable to wage a political struggle, for they are doubtless unable to understand what the real significance of such a struggle would be, the aficionados constantly increase in number. They join up in closed ranks on the Left and in particular the radical Left. After having previously termed football the opium of the people, Jean-Luc Mélenchon celebrated the "pure joy of the Mannschaft [German national team] being eliminated" and asked "How could I have lived without football? Thanks to Olympique Marseille!"

All these utterly remarkable aspects of the mass submission to football have produced a new, degraded personality as individuals’ consciousness is chipped away by the deleterious assaults of the footballing spectacle, whether seen live or before endless screens. This degraded personality is dominated by the crushing power of football, which has subverted everything and transformed everything into its opposite, without any possibility of resistance. Here, massification becomes emancipation, and meagre bodily technique metamorphoses into art, and even into a new aesthetic. A plague is passed off as happiness. All this, following the logic of an implacable socio-political injunction that is becoming increasingly universal.