Saturday, 23 June 2012

Does competitive sport turn us into flag-waving morons?

This summer is seeing a plethora of spectacular events. First we have had the Queen's Diamond Jubilee, we are currently experiencing the Euro 2012 football contest and shortly we will be forced to endure the Olympics, made even worse by the fact that it is held here in Britain.

I say 'endure' because quite apart from the fact that none of these events interest me in the slightest, they are complimented by what Noam Chomsky describes as 'training in irrational jingoism'. The flags and the faux 'pride' in ones country are the perfect antidote, from the perspective of the ruling class, to the resistance to austerity and the sense of a lack of legitimacy of our rulers that is building in this country and across the world. Strikes, demonstrations on the one hand and the revelations about phone-hacking and the corrupt links between politicians, the police and the press on the other are doing immense damage to people's consent to be ruled in this way. We must strengthen and deepen this sense and not be knocked of course by these spectacles.

Noam Chomsky discusses this in his book 'Manufacturing Consent'. He argues that whereas totalitarian regimes use force to control what people do, in 'democratic' countries, the ruling class has to use propaganda, what the Italian revolutionary Antonio Gramsci called 'bourgeois ideology', to control what people think.

Chomsky says the media plays two main roles in society. One is to filter out news that the ruling class does not want us to hear. This might include positive news of strikes and protests but also negative news such as atrocities caused by the army abroad. One example he gives is the relative coverage of two atrocities around 1975 on. One, involving the Indonesian genocide of Timorians in East Timor, armed and funded by America, was hardly reported on at all in America and if it was, the US government was whitewashed. The other, involving the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia was discussed in shocking detail. Naturally Americans were outraged about events in Cambodia and entirely ignorant of events in East Timor.

The other role the media has is to keep people preoccupied with other things. This is the 'circus' part of what the Romans called Bread and Circuses (Panem et Circense). This is the idea that if people have enough to eat and enough spectacles to occupy them, they will not resist the nefarious practices of the regime.

Chomsky describes the role of sport as the ruling class 'reducing people's capacity to think'. He argues that it diverts their attention away from doing something about the issues that negatively affect their lives. He also argues that it creates 'irrational attitudes of submission to authority'. In other words it turns people into flag-waving morons. We need to resist these diversions and get back to fighting the government's programme of austerity, cuts and privatisation.

Here and above is a fim called 'Manufacturing Consent - Noam Chomsky and the Media' which outlines these ideas in an easily accessible way. Go to 1:04:39 for the section on sport.


  1. So perhaps the insurgent nationalism of suppressed minority peoples revolting against the imposed identity of the ethnic majority, struggling against capitalist exploitation from distant capitals, can be seen as progressive?

    1. Yes of course. As I've said before, I believe it is right to support all national liberation struggles. As someone who could be defined as 'English', I am far more annoyed by the sight of Union Jacks and English flags than I am by the sight of the national flags of Scotland, Wales or Cornwall. India was suppressed, colonised and massacred under the Union Jack. Black people were put to work as slaves in the plantations of British colonies in America. The Union Jack accompanied the British Army while it shot unarmed civilians in Northern Ireland. The proto-fascist English Defence League flies the flag of St. George, the flag of the crusades, while it beats up, and sometimes kills muslim people. I support the Irish in their struggle to rid their land of the British imperialist occupiers.

      However, I'm not entirely convinced there is particularly strong "insurgent nationalism" in Cornwall at present. If the Cornish people voted for devolution, on the Welsh or Scottish model, I would support it. If, at some point in the future, they voted for independence, I would support that too, although I think it is highly unlikely and probably a bad idea.

      In short, I understand the desire to organise in Cornwall on a national basis "against capitalist exploitation from [a] distant capital", but I also happen to think it is a mistake. I think the cause of working class Cornish people is best served in alliance with the working class of England, Scotland and Wales, rather than in alliance with the ruling class of Cornwall. A working class Cornish person is more likely to be oppressed by a ruling class Cornish boss than an English person. By dividing along national lines you are weakening the ability to fight against the British government and ruling class along class lines thus playing into their hands and allowing them to 'divide and rule'. The same could be said about race, religion or gender. The ruling class uses sexism and racism to divide the working class when to win we need to be united.

  2. This article by Paul McGarr in Socialist Worker ten years ago explains why "Nationalism, however dressed up, is something which helps obscure the real class divide in society and helps divide us from our fellow workers across the world. That is why socialists should oppose all nationalism, and follow no national flag":

  3. I don't see how by having a devolved, or even independent, government the working class of Cornwall would be divided from the working class of England or any other territory for that matter. This would seem to suggest that it would have been better to maintain the British Empire, out with the terrible cultural damage and exploitation it incurred, for fear of dividing the working class. Internationalism being the keyword. Having huge territories governed centrally and at the mercy of one elite usually from one ethnic majority also plays into the hands of globalisation and capitalism.

    I fully understand what you say about a possible capitalist exploitation in Cornwall by a Cornish ruling elite but I think such a potential outcome not only being a slim possibility (see Iceland) is a risk worth taking when faced with continuing inside an unreformed and unredeemable UK state. The UK needs to be smashed and then something better built from smaller democratic units upwards. Equally the new leaders of an autonomous Cornwall being responsible for a much smaller number of people would also be much closer and therefore more responsible to the people. It would be harder form them to hide behind the trappings of an all powerful state.

    "The same could be said about race, religion or gender"

    Of course and this is why organisations form to defend the rights of these groups. I'll have to see if I can dig up an old paper I read once that offered a feminist analysis of the Cornish question.

    Anyway I don't think we're going to agree on everything so probably best to continue fighting in our own corners for outcomes that probably aren't that different.

  4. I agree with you that there is no reason why devolution or independence would necessarily prevent the working classes of Cornwall and England from working together and that is why I would support either proposition if it is the democratic wish of the Cornish people. What I *am* saying is that organising resistance to the British state on a national basis is not the best way of smashing that state, something I think we can agree needs to be done. That will be done by campaigning on class lines for the overthrow of the state by the working class. As you say, groups organise on the basis of race, religion, gender and nationality and it is right that they do so, but the danger comes when you subordinate the key question, the class question, to those other questions. "Capitalist exploitation in Cornwall by a Cornish ruling elite" is not a "slim possibility" for the future it is a reality now.

    Of course I am not arguing the British Empire should have been maintained, I have continually said I support all national liberation struggles as all genuine socialists do. The key word is indeed internationalism. The workers' movement has nothing to gain from colonial oppression of others, and everything to gain from solidarity with movements against oppression across the globe. However, sometimes the left has made the mistake of treating national liberation movements as if they were socialist. They weren't and nor was that the reason for socialists in the imperial heartlands to support them. Those who led national liberation movements aimed to establish a state not directly controlled by a colonising power. In itself, that was a democratic advance.

    However, it did not make those leaders socialist. Winning national independence only cleared the decks, in a sense, for the direct class struggle. The clearest position was advanced by the early Communist International, the international organisation of socialists founded in the wake of the 1917 Russian Revolution. Socialists, it argued, following Lenin, should unconditionally support movements for national liberation. But they should not make the mistake of giving them a "communist coloration". The workers' movement must maintain its political independence from these movements' middle class leaderships.

    As you say, we will never agree on everything, but that doesn't mean there won't be occasions when we can argue for the same things.


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