‘Justice is what love looks like in public,’ Cornel West said some years ago, a slogan now so well-known that you see it on T-shirts and posters, a kind of ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ or ‘This House Runs on Love, Laughter and Prosecco’ for the activist left. It’s an engaging claim. But is it true? At first glance, justice and love have entirely different, even contradictory, qualities, and elision flatters both. We can argue about the precise meaning of the term ‘justice’, but most definitions would draw on ideals of balance and fairness. Whether it’s balancing the harms caused by a crime against the punishment handed down in a court of law, or seeking compensation for oppression carried out over centuries, the demand for justice assumes that settlement must be made, costs must be paid, wrongs must be righted.
The pursuit of justice has frequently involved some kind of disinterested observer or referee, sufficiently distant from a controversy or crime as to have ‘no dog in the fight’. Judges are expected to be strictly apolitical; the independence of the judiciary is considered sacrosanct. John Rawls went to extraordinary lengths to imagine an ‘original position’ in which everyone would be capable of agreeing on the principles of social justice: in it, each of us would be ignorant of our own social status and effectively function as an outside observer. Adam Smith’s famous metaphor of an ‘invisible hand’ guiding markets was one of the Enlightenment’s many appeals to a fictional outsider, supposed to be a barometer of value. Since then, the discipline of economics has implicitly assumed that markets are instruments of justice, in that the price system is oblivious of the cultural identity or political status of its participants. Similarly, the foundational status of the ‘balance sheet’ in accounting implies, as does the term itself, that getting numbers to match up is a mark of honesty and fairness.
Doubtless these liberal and financial ideals of balance are at some remove from what West was getting at. They aren’t much use to those who are suffering or fighting injustice year in year out. The inadequacy of markets as a means of ‘settling up’ is precisely what draws many people to the left in the first place. Even so, is justice really what love looks like in public? One danger in allowing love to become an organising political principle is how imbalanced and unfair it is – a cloak to hide all manner of injustices. Nepotism doesn’t exist just because rich and influential people are brutes, but also because they love their children. Yet justice demands that everyone be treated equally; such slogans as ‘I am a man’ and ‘Black Lives Matter’ express this basic egalitarianism. The problem and the pain of love is that, for all of us, some people matter infinitely more than others.
Any reckoning with the affective qualities of justice must also weigh the importance of more discomfiting, even hateful, feelings. Feminist thinkers have emphasised the importance of anger as a path to justice, for example. There is a danger that demands for ‘justice’ will tip into a politics of resentment or revenge. Keeping these more dangerous feelings and urges in check is one of the challenges faced by any judicial system, yet where such systems succeed they risk empty proceduralism. Antipathy has its uses. What leads someone to join a protest or demand political change is a complicated matter, but the left can do without the moral narcissism that insists ‘we’ are driven by love, so ‘they’ must be motivated by hate. People love different things – and can end up hating each other because of it.
Justice may not be what love looks like in public, but fandom might be. To be a fan is to renounce fairness or balance, and to open oneself up to joy, despair, triumphalism, indignation and absurdity. In sport, judges are (or are expected to be) dispassionate and disinterested. Critics, too, are expected to keep their feelings in check, at least until they have read the book, seen the film or stood in front of the painting they are assessing; only then might they be permitted to let their feelings enter in. Fans, on the other hand, make no pretence of balance or reason. They are drunk on irrationality and obstinacy, hurling themselves after the fortunes of their chosen team, band, TV show or celebrity. A fan may feel aggrieved at the unfairness of the world (as embodied in a referee, critic or prize panel), but the last thing they aspire to be is fair. A fan is someone with a dog in the fight.
Paul Campos, a law professor, has been a fanatical supporter of the University of Michigan American football team, the Wolverines, since early childhood. In the late 1990s he began visiting the online message boards where Wolverines fans gather to share the emotional highs and lows, along with transfer rumours, cherished memories and predictions. Over the years, distinct characters emerged on the message boards, some of them eternal optimists, others eternal pessimists; some reminding their peers that there’s more to life than football, others believing that life would be meaningless without it. On the message boards, Campos was able to perceive the mania of fandom as something that was, for many, an affliction, but also as something he was himself ensnared in. But it was the arrival of Covid-19, and the cancellation of all college football in 2020, that prompted him to write about the frequently masochistic condition of fandom, and to connect it to broader malaises in American life.
Campos’s emotional investment in the Wolverines long predates the internet, as does the mentality and culture of fandom (he notes that F. Scott Fitzgerald was a fanatical supporter of the Princeton football team, to a point where he would call the coach to offer tactical advice, some of which may even have inspired a new tactic known as the ‘two-platoon system’ in the 1930s). But the internet has made expressible and visible a range of emotions and behaviours that previously lacked media of their own. There were, of course, ‘fanzines’ before the 1990s (fan-published magazines, dedicated for example to punk and post-punk bands, typically printed on photocopiers and sold in record shops or distributed by mail), but the internet has given fandom a public platform of a sort that never previously existed.
The anxiety buzzing in the background throughout A Fan’s Life is that fandom, having entered the public square, has now infected American culture and politics at large, with the eager support of big monied interests. The tribalism, status anxiety and ‘fake news’ that eventually congealed in the form of President Trump are all in some way or other connected to the growing difficulty Americans – especially American men – have in distinguishing ‘life’ from ‘sport’. Campos, with his ambivalent position on the Wolverines message boards, alternating between critical observer and impassioned participant, worries whether he is taking serious things seriously enough. One strand of A Fan’s Life concerns the guilt of a liberal leftist who feels more emotionally engaged by a sport poisoned by money and racism than he does by the plainly more important, more real, challenges facing society.
Campos starts from the psychological insight that, despite its addictive potential, there is nothing hedonistic about being a sports fan. ‘Sports are a form of entertainment,’ he writes, ‘but deep engagement, which makes the entire sports branch of the entertainment industrial complex viable, is not about entertainment at all: it is about suffering.’ By the nature of competitive sports, only a small minority of fans will be celebrating at the end of a season, while the majority will have lost out. Part of what it means to be a true fan (as opposed to a ‘fairweather fan’) is to have endured defeats and to expect more to come. The nostalgia that Campos sees as integral to fan identity stems, in sport at least, from the scarcity value of golden memories. Take these various ingredients – pessimism, winner-take-all competition, nostalgia – and transplant them into the political arena, and you get many of the pathologies that fuelled the rise of Trump.
More than once, Campos acknowledges a writer who captured this melancholic disposition as well as any other. Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch (1992), a memoir about his life as an Arsenal fan, and High Fidelity (1995), a novel about a music fanatic, were products of a new cultural zeitgeist, with fandom to the fore. The two books were also sustained reflections on masculinity. The psychological subplot of Fever Pitch is a boy’s search for a male identity after the break-up of his parents’ marriage, which leads him to the football terraces and the emotional clarity they afford. High Fidelity is about a man whose record collection is his safety net when his relationships with women go wrong. All this now seems something of a cliché, but in the early 1990s it heralded a new way of distinguishing and celebrating masculinity, blokeish but emotionally literate. Contrary to reports, men were capable of expressing their feelings, just so long as it was about stuff blokes actually cared about. Among the feelings of unease that Campos’s fandom causes him is the recognition that, on the message boards, he is in an almost entirely male environment.
Fever Pitch and High Fidelity weren’t the only indicators of this new sensibility in the UK. The ‘lad mags’ that grew in circulation so rapidly following the launch of Loaded in 1994 were notorious for soft pornography and sexist humour. By the late 1990s, magazine shelves marked ‘Men’s’ were dominated by covers showing half-naked women. As a teenager in the mid-1990s, unsure what kind of bloke I wanted to be, I picked up these mags and was struck by the extensive, Hornby-esque world of fandom they opened up. A whole gallery of male heroes was assembled from decades past: Michael Caine, George Best, Keith Moon, Steve McQueen. Some of them I’d barely heard of and some were dead (or very nearly), but I was left in no doubt that a proper lad would be a fan of these geezers. Undoubtedly Loaded – along with Arena, Esquire, GQ, FHM, Maxim (to name just the biggest titles), and later on the likes of Front, Nuts and Zoo – were intent on drawing pornography down from the top shelves, but they also celebrated a kind of primitive fandom, which felt briefly liberating to those who bought into it.
All of this coincided with Britpop. The endless retrospectives rarely register its organising principle: it was a celebration of fandom. Oasis weren’t the first indie band to bang on about their record collections in interviews, but they were the first to become a mass-market success while continuing to talk incessantly about their heroes. It seemed that, as long as you proclaimed your love of a precursor (the Beatles) earnestly and often enough, you could deflect the criticism that you were ripping them off. Blur, who in 1993 had adopted a 1960s mod aesthetic for Modern Life Is Rubbish (mods themselves being distinguished by their obsession with particular clothing brands and music styles), invited the latterday mod icon Phil Daniels to be a guest vocalist on their follow-up, Parklife. Oasis’s very public love for Manchester City FC (then the hopeless, pre-oil-money rival to the all-conquering Manchester United) made clear their authenticity as real, which is to say long-suffering, football fans.
The status of football in this festival of male fandom pointed to a deeper sociological shift, of which Hornby was a symptom. ‘Lad culture’ presented an opportunity for middle-class men to dabble in working-class cultural pursuits and behaviours. As Adrian Tempany details expertly in And the Sun Shines Now (2016), football underwent a complete political overhaul between the Hillsborough disaster of 1989 and the mass euphoria of the 1996 European Championship, held in England, which corresponded to a steady and deliberate embourgeoisement of the game. While middle-class men began dressing like working-class football fans, top-tier football was flooded with Rupert Murdoch’s money and the glamorous Italian players it was used to recruit – this was the beginning of the long investment wave that led to today’s multi-billion-pound industry. ‘To have been sports fans over the past few decades,’ Campos writes, ‘is to have witnessed how our passions have been identified, catalogued and then exploited by the relentless engines of hypercapitalism, in its insatiable pursuit of ever-greater profits.’
Class politics in the United States is different from the class politics anywhere else, Britain included. Campos doesn’t reflect much on the class position of the people he encounters on the Wolverines message boards. But in Britain, as Hornby was certainly aware, impassioned fandom wasn’t something most ‘respectable’ middle-class men would have owned up to before the 1990s. (Campos notes that the term ‘anorak’ first emerged in Britain in the 1980s, as a derisory term for trainspotters.) The 1960s mods who inspired Blur were usually working-class, and were treated as a nuisance by middle-class society. The permission to express unreasoned devotion to a flag, a team or an icon was gained by flirting with working-class identity and pursuits, in a way that would have been hard to imagine only a decade earlier. The culture of the ‘masses’, long looked down on for their sentimentality and herd behaviour, was now seen as a mine of opportunities for fandom. Fan identities and rituals were no longer considered unsophisticated, but were instead overtly, reflexively and commercially valorised.
In Britain, all this happened in a brief cultural and political window, coinciding with the Major government. Why then? One significant factor is that working-class crowds, and working-class culture in general, stopped being perceived as a threat. Tempany emphasises the importance of the Taylor Report into Hillsborough, published in 1990, which led to all-seater stadiums and made football a safer, more ‘family-friendly’ experience. But the broader ideological terrain had already been set by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan: socialism and the organised working class had been defeated, their political threat neutered. In 1994, the year of Loaded’s first issue and Oasis’s first album, Tony Blair took over the Labour Party and immediately rewrote ‘Clause Four’ of its constitution, which had until then committed the party to public ownership of industry. ‘Cool Britannia’, Britpop and lad mags notably looked back to the 1960s for their working-class icons, brushing over the proletarian iconography of more recent events: Bobby Moore, fine; Arthur Scargill, not so much. A new type of post-Thatcherite celebrity-as-superfan emerged, typified by Chris Evans and Keith Allen, characterised by the depth of their love for music, football and money.
A kind of industrialised fandom took off just as class conflict appeared to have concluded in favour of capital. Meanwhile, in those heady post-socialist days, when all the talk was of ‘globalisation’ and the ‘information superhighway’, questions of how society should be organised – questions, fundamentally, of justice – gave way to the rhetoric of consumer choice and branding, a process the New Democrats in the US and New Labour in the UK understood as well as anyone. The sociological premise of the Third Way, which influenced these political projects, was that the global market was now the arena in which nations, cities, firms and individuals would be judged. It fell to every policymaker, manager, local mayor, teacher and jobseeker to exert and distinguish themselves as best they could, in order to succeed in this vast global game. Passion, pride and partiality would be rewarded, while the original capitalist virtues – prudence, impartiality, measurement – would be devalued. Once liberalism gave way to neoliberalism, the bourgeoisie were no longer tasked with sustaining juridical ideals of fairness and balance in society, but were tasked instead with whipping up enthusiasm. It was against this backdrop that Blair was filmed heading a football back and forth with Kevin Keegan, and gushing on the BBC’s Football Focus about his unsung heroes of the Premiership (the first player he mentioned, for what it’s worth, was Steed Malbranque).
The same conjuncture included the emergence of the internet as a part of everyday life. The world wide web (the protocol which organises and links much of the information on the internet) was opened to the public in 1991, and the Netscape Navigator browser released in 1994, with Microsoft’s Internet Explorer hard on its heels. It would be another few years before most of us engaged with the internet as a social space, first via email and message boards (Campos was an early adopter, visiting the Wolverines message board for the first time in 1997), then later via social media platforms. These spaces have since given obsessions, identities, animosities, passions, conspiracy theories and much else a visibility and global reach previously unthinkable. Campos interprets this as a problem of social psychology, whereby fellow fans grant one another permission to become ever more unhinged in their devotion, a kind of arms race in unreason. But the internet also does away with the technological bottleneck (the finite bandwidth of the printing press) that had once required the bourgeoisie to develop editorial norms and liberal ideals of the ‘public interest’. Where only limited information can be made public, it is (in principle) crucial that it be carefully selected and verified. Once there is sufficient space for every opinion and claim to be published, what need is there for anyone to be looking down on them from a position of assumed disinterest? Fandom can become the norm instead. The internet is less a ‘marketplace of ideas’ (as conservatives and libertarians would have it) and more a ‘marketplace of passions’.
This has significant knock-on effects for the rest of the media, especially the liberal media that once sought to distinguish themselves in terms of their commitment to facts, neutrality and critical distance – values which, in a public sphere awash with fandom, can appear both technically unnecessary and culturally haughty. Britain’s tabloid press predated the world wide web, obviously, as did talk radio in the US. But the internet has enabled the creation of communities and publishing ventures which are closer in spirit to fanzines, in which the first principle is fidelity to a particular team, band, political identity or celebrity. Anyone following in Hornby’s footsteps today can still read newspaper reports about Arsenal’s latest match if they wish, but they may prefer to watch AFTV on YouTube, which proclaims itself ‘The largest football fan network in the world! With a bias towards Arsenal Football Club, we are the authentic voice of the football fan.’ In these communities, the ostensibly ‘neutral’ decisions of referees, critics and judges are forensically examined for evidence of bias, putting further pressure on the efforts of legacy institutions to sustain an air of impartiality. Sporting authorities have sought to combat this by resorting to video assistant referees (in football, the widely despised ‘VAR’), which succeeds only in focusing ever more fine-grained attention on the mistakes that inevitably creep into officials’ decision-making. The result is a doom loop of ubiquitous surveillance, suspicion and tribalism.
The internet is the natural home for obsessive fandom. It’s what enables memes to be shared, great moments from the past to be endlessly replayed, rage to be voiced, and shared identities to be affirmed. Social media platforms are machines for announcing what you do and don’t love. The digital synopticon, in which everyone is constantly watching everyone else, breeds manic surges of euphoria and disappointment, as fans feed one another’s appetites for information. Once rumours circulate that the Wolverines are signing some star player, the message boards start filling up with the latest flight tracker data, as possible evidence that the player in question is en route to Michigan. But as Hornby, Loaded, Blair, Britpop and Euro 96 show, much of what Campos reports had permeated the zeitgeist before most of us had ever logged on in earnest. Fandom acquired a political and economic utility at a moment in history when passion became required of us both in the workplace and at the shopping mall, and when nations were reimagined as giant corporate brands in a race against one another.
What monsters were unleashed in the process? Nationalism, after all, is a form of fandom, which rebels against the constraints of liberal reason by expressing an unapologetic bias for one ‘side’ against every other. Outrageous conservative media outlets such as Fox News (founded in 1996) and Breitbart (2005) have nourished the sense that nobody is free from bias or prejudice, and that it is only the liberal elite who would ever pretend to be so in the first place. The internet isn’t just a space where fans debate with one another, but also where tribes build up a distorted and hateful picture of their enemies. ‘While sports allegiances can be seen as a sublimated form of politics,’ Campos argues, ‘political allegiances can also be understood as a form of sublimated fandom of the more traditional kind.’ Trump is one result of this. Similarly, James Meek has observed of Jacob Rees-Mogg that
his career shows how much like sport British politics has become, where politicians have fans and supporters, rather than voters who are swayed by their arguments or troubled by their extra-parliamentary activities. If you don’t support the Rees-Mogg team, you have no time for him anyway; you’re not going to hate him more. If you’re a fan, it isn’t so important that he should take personal responsibility for making the country better or that he should be morally consistent.*
Just as dangerous, the mentality that distrusts all claims to neutrality ends up seeing corruption everywhere. The introduction of VAR into football in 2019 seems to have exacerbated a tendency among online fans to allege that matches are being fixed or officials bribed. Every time a decision goes wrong, fans demand to know why this keeps happening to them, not to other teams. There is no limit to how long such debates can rage, and no decision too unremarkable to be considered an injustice. In the political domain, something similar is going on with the populist rhetoric according to which everything is ‘rigged’, nothing is ever ‘fair’, and the gravest enemies are those liberals who claim otherwise. Campos expresses some fondness for the way these absurdities attach themselves to his football team, but is all too aware that the Republican Party has recently nurtured the same spirit of ressentiment.
In his lecture of 1919, ‘Politics as a Vocation’, Max Weber sought to identify the traits that make for a good politician. The trouble, as he perceived it, was that a leader must show emotion and demonstrate purpose to their followers, but without losing sight of objective facts. ‘The problem is simply how can warm passion and a cool sense of proportion be forged together in one and the same soul?’ Many of the political upheavals liberal democracies have undergone in the last few years can be seen as evidence of what happens when this combination fails and any sense of ‘proportion’ is abandoned. There are sometimes good reasons to ditch a sense of proportion – when, for instance, technocrats take charge and the methods of economics, cost-benefit analysis and accounting lead to a political cul-de-sac. But offering only ‘warm passion’ in its place (or believing that this is simply what justice looks like in public) is no good either. Fandom, including political fandom, has become the norm because notions of proportionality and justice have been outsourced to the market and to online platforms.
In a sad note, reflecting on the political controversies American football has recently been embroiled in, Campos wonders how long he can continue to let his passion outweigh his judgment. ‘Ultimately, as American culture and politics become ever darker and more divisive, the time may come when people who oppose reactionary politics may find it necessary to reject definitively a sport they have loved.’ Sobriety (‘a cool sense of proportion’) has to be wrestled back from the addictive highs and lows of fandom, at some emotional cost. But if the model of mass industrialised fandom developed against the backdrop of neoliberal capitalism is one in which the ‘rules of the game’ are beyond politics, and the only question is who or what to love and who or what to hate, then the escape route from this game-space can only lie in establishing different measures of justice altogether.
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