Short Cuts

James Meek

Is living through a process enough to know it, if you don’t know how others experience it? Those in the middle of historical events most people only know from TV can feel they missed the thing, even though they were there, because their memories don’t conform to whatever iconic thirty-second clip comes to stand for the event in most people’s minds. Today, belief in the power of Facebook to swing a vote runs high. Can I understand the election campaign under way in the country where I live if I’m not on Facebook? (I’m not on Facebook.)

Social media, and the internet in general, promise to fill in the gaps between society’s three cardinal points: the self (individual, spectator, voter), the masses (population, audience, electorate) and power (party, spectacle, government). The promise is partly kept. Individuals can and do form flash commonwealths of mutual interest. For me, it was merely reassuring to know, via Google, that we weren’t the only parents whose one-year-old had learned how to make himself throw up: we were part of a virtual horde of anxious mothers and fathers across the English-speaking world. For others, the closure of the gap between the self and the masses also draws near to power, as when lonely, bored, bitter old men, projecting their life disappointments onto the countries where they live, discover through the internet that there are millions like them, and begin talking to one another about how the country has gone to the dogs, and needs a strong leader.

In another direction, the internet allows power to address the masses in such a way that it appears to be speaking to individuals, knowing their specific concerns and desires; or allows an individual who has merged himself with power, like Donald Trump, to deliver an endless monologue to everyone, everywhere, all the time.

For all this, for all the hopes and dread aroused by the manipulative force of big data and the internet’s ability to convene a demos at the drop of a clip, when it comes to elections, there’s a risk that the ingenuity of the mood engineers tweaking us on social media only ends up emphasising the disjunct between the offer and the product. The offer is like a dating agency’s: we know who you want, we know who you are, your quirks and obsessions, your ideals, concerns and prejudices, your means, age, appearance, family status, hobbies – we can match you with your ideal. But even if you choose the winning party, the product you end up with, a government, is more like a big league football team: support us when we score, support us when we’re scored against, support us when we shame you and let you down, support us no matter what we do, not because of what we do, but because you support us.

The abrupt transition from lonely heart to fan in the crowd, the journey from voter making a choice to absorption into a mass of citizens spectating on a newly elected government, has been there since the franchise became universal. What has made it more extreme this time around is not just the intensive use of algorithms to target and fit internet campaign messages to individuals – we’ve got policies you’ll love, Julie aged 39 of Northampton NN1 divorced one child good credit rating no county court judgments pending! – but, at the other end of the process, an archaic, Brexit-influenced notion that in fact there can be no choice at all. That if we are ‘true’ Britons, real fans, we can only support one side. All others being enemies of the people. The high-riding populist political movements of Britain and America have never known more about us as individuals, and never cared less about our individuality.

Curiously, the actual relationship between the fan body of Britain’s big football clubs and the physical-financial nature of those clubs does reflect the complex, ambivalent attitudes towards foreign influence and control that were in play in the Brexit referendum and are in play now. On the one hand, tolerance and an embrace of multiculturalism; on the other, a fanatical spirit of partisanship.

As long as the club exists in name and function, an entity formally separate from, and rival to, other clubs, as long as there’s money for players and a decent manager and cash is being put in rather than siphoned off, as long as the club keeps its history, its symbols and its colours, the fans don’t seem to care where the players, the manager, the owners or their money come from. With the current season almost over, the top four teams in the English Premier League are Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester City and Liverpool. All have non-British managers; of their hundred first team players, only eight are natives of the cities where they play home games. Chelsea is owned by a Russian billionaire, Spurs by an English billionaire who lives in the Bahamas and on his yacht, Manchester City by a member of the ruling family of Abu Dhabi, and Liverpool by an American conglomerate. All have seen or are about to see radical changes to their stadiums. Yet to the fans and the pundits, their essential identity remains the same as it always was.

By attempting to swallow Ukip whole and ingest its voters, Theresa May is banking on a similar attitude from Brexit supporters: that their insistence on the forms and legalities of British independence from the foreign usurpers of Brussels will be matched by a willingness to overlook the extent to which Britain has become a tenant of overseas landlords in every sphere of its economy. Migrants not welcome; migrant capital – well, how much have you got?

She may be right. A recent Guardian feature about British industry and how it will fare post-Brexit visited five manufacturers; the paper was content to deem them British manufacturers, although four of the five were, respectively, subsidiaries of Japanese Sony, German Siemens, French EADS and French LVMH. Just as Britain’s football fans, even those unhappy that their clubs have become playthings for the world’s billionaires, will still support the team, ‘taking back control’ from the EU doesn’t seem to extend, for Brexiters, to taking back control of the country’s foreign-owned infrastructure. Even Labour’s bold and interesting proposals for Britain to own, rather than rent, its water, energy and rail services, focuses on the private ownership of infrastructure, rather than the fact that so many of the private owners are absentee landlords.

That’s not to say fans never rebel. They do, when their clubs face a severe enough threat. Revolts at Manchester United over Malcolm Glazer’s loading debt onto the club and at Wimbledon FC over the club’s owners moving the team 56 miles away to Milton Keynes resulted in the creation of new, breakaway clubs, FC United of Manchester and AFC Wimbledon. In 1990, in Edinburgh, Wallace Mercer, the owner of one of the city’s two rival teams, Hearts, tried to take over the other, Hibernian, as if it were a simple business transaction. He wanted to create a single super-team, but he might as well have sent the Hearts players out onto the pitch to face Hibs with guns in their hands. I lived round the corner from the Hibs stadium at the time and the mood outside among the Hibs fans was as incendiary as any public gathering in Britain I’ve attended. Mercer backed off.

After various travails the two breakaway clubs and Hibs itself are, or soon will be, owned by their fans. The fans were, in a sense, patriots for their clubs, but patriots who managed to perceive the connection between pride in place, symbols, history and sovereignty, on the one hand, and economic self-determination, on the other. It’s the connection the crowd in Stadium Britain doesn’t seem to be making. The fan-owned club, at least in its ideal form, is a model for an alternative to the new political landscape where power uses the internet to craft individually tailored approaches to citizens, each of which leads to the same outcome of mass, pseudo-patriotic conformity. It’s an alternative where the individual recognises herself in the crowd, and the crowd knows it’s made up of individuals – and there’s power enough in that realisation to do without another.