Football. Opium laced with bullshit. Yes, we'll go with that. Here's Andrew Thomas.
This piece is a counterpoint to Jamie Cutteridge's excellent Zonal Marxing (or, What Football Is For), which can be read here
Karl Marx's views on religion are widely known, and eminently quotable. It is the opiate of the masses, he said, purportedly casting religion as, (to quote Francis Wheen) "a drug dispensed by wicked rulers to keep the masses in a state of dopey, bubble-brained quiescence". Yet the quote as it is often presented is in fact, to fall back on the defence of every loose-lipped footballer caught mouthing off into a microphone, out of context. It comes from the introduction to one of Marx's earliest writings, the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right, and the quote in full runs thus:
Religious suffering is at the same time an expression of real suffering and a protest of real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the feeling of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless circumstances. It is the opium of the people.
Which is a position of much greater ambiguity, and even sympathy. Religion, says Marx, is not only so much a tool of oppression as a natural response to oppression: when you are kept down in this world, who could help but dream of the next? The traditional understanding of Marx's religious views comes from the wilful misinterpretation of this passage by the fiercely anti-church Lenin, to justify the persecution of the Orthodox church within the USSR.
That Marx considered religions tyrannical is not in dispute. But the desire of the oppressed proletariat for religion is, in Marxian thought, a consequence of their oppression, not a condition or a causation of it. So, if we apply this to football, we can see the parallels: if you'll forgive a small caricature, thousands upon millions of people craving release from the mundanity of their existence choose to focus their energies not on improving their lot or on challenging the status quo but on the working man's ballet. After all, it feels right to say, pace Marx, that football is the soul of soulless circumstances.
That our political and economic overlords might choose to take both long-term and short-term advantage of the willing distraction of the masses is perhaps inevitable. Yet, as an aside, there are notable instances of football being an overt political tool of the radical left. Che Guevara -- a lover of sport and allegedly a Rosario Central fan -- said, "it is not just a simple game, it is a tool of the revolution". More recently, Subcomandante Marcos of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation corresponded with Massimo Moratti, chairman of Internazionale, regarding the possibility of a friendly between the Italian giants and his revolutionary cadre (which you can read here).
The distinction between football and religion lies in the nature of the relationship between fan/worshipper and game/religion. Where religion proffers a straightforward exchange -- fealty in this world, paradise in the next -- football is a participatory narrative located in the past, the present and the future of this life. As such, while religion encourages passivity -- here are your commandments, see you on Sunday -- football requires a certain level of engagement with the world as it is now.
There is nothing fundamental about football that necessitates political disengagement, any more than any other distraction. That football fans utilise the game as opium results from the wider social disengagement of the working and middle classes, a consequence of generations of divisive right-wing politicking and brutal neo-liberal economics: buy your house, marry your wife, have your kids, and shut the fuck up.
Yet it seems reasonable to observe that footballing discourse in England has changed as the game has become progressively more exposed to and exploited by the wider forces of capitalism. Manchester United fans are required to have a passing acquaintance with the mechanisms of leveraged purchases. Portsmouth fans have been forced to undergo a crash course in bankruptcy practices. The staggering rise in club insolvencies and near-insolvencies has forced football fans to engage with the economics and the politics, and the result has been a percolation of knowledge throughout the game; knowledge that turns out to be relevant not only to football but to politics and economics as a whole, underpinned by a growing exposure to the great central truth of our times: the people with money are lying to you.
The one thing that no good religion could ever hope to survive is the congregation getting wise, getting feisty, and maybe wanting to start peeking behind the curtain. Once a football fan begins to realise that her opium is being cut with bullshit, she's going to wake up.
Andrew is on twitter @Twisted_Blood and to read more from him, head to the amazing Twisted Blood blog.