The Moral Economy of the English Football Fan in the Twenty-first Century

Author: Joe Clifford is a postgraduate student in the Development Studies department at the University of Auckland. He is also affiliated with the Australian National University. His current research focuses on the appropriation of a mutual aid project by the state in Indonesia.

Football fans, or soccer for those in Australia, have always been an ideal group for anthropologists to engage with and learn from. It is easy to find distinctions between groups, which are often tied to place and fiercely felt. Their differences are demonstrated through songs, chants, types of dress, and most importantly, histories that reveres former great players and the founding of the institutions. West Ham United, the team that I support, has existed since 1895. It was founded as Thames Iron Work FC by workers from one of the last shipbuilding companies stationed along the River Thames. Since the early Twentieth Century, the club’s badge has featured two crossed rivet hammers, the tools used to create holes in metal sheets, which will be later be attached to large vessels. Everything from the name of the club to it symbols are intimately tied to the East End of London.

These sorts of distinctions have also seen the incorporation of different, often competing moralities and rationales into the game. With a tension between more community minded fans who have a sense of football being about locality and relationships, and those who see it as part of a larger entertainment industry. These tensions came to a head in April when a new breakaway European Super League was announced. This, I believe, fundamentally violated a moral economy held by many fans of the game.

Consumption and class

The game’s modern form is largely due to the influence of private school’s codifying the rules of what a peasant’s sport was. This created a split between the more physical carrying version – rugby, and the less physical and kicking oriented – football. This occurred with the Football Association, established in 1863. The second half of the Nineteenth Century, however, saw the game find an increasingly working class audience, as industrial workplaces began to be regulated by the Factory Acts with most giving a half-day off on Saturdays by 1870. This new window of leisure time combined with increasing urbanisation across the country saw this period develop and build new ideas of recreation and consumption, as working people interacted with and invented new forms of sociality and entertainment.

In his history of football in Britain Matthew Taylor notes how the early consumers of football (pre-1914) were drawn mainly from across the working classes. When the bourgeoise did attend, primarily for cup finals, they were often seated in private boxes, physically removed from the other fans. So, while wealth and football have long links, participation in and following of the sport has been tied to a sense of belonging to ‘the people’ with rugby in Britain going in the opposite direction and developing an association with private education. As James Walvin , British football’s first major academic historian put it, football became the people’s game.

It is partly the ability for elites to profit from this that lead critical commentators such as Terry Eagleton to argue that the game operates as a safety valve; working people are given an opportunity to experience a form of collective effervescence and intense bursts of community. This happens before returning to their alienated realities of selling their labour to those above them in the social hierarchy.

The Super League and moral economies  

In late April of this year, it was announced that twelve of the wealthiest and best supported teams from across Europe would be competing in a new competition across Europe. The Super League was to be played in place of the current Champions League, a European competition that teams enter by finishing in the coveted top four sports of the English Premier League or towards the top end of the table in the other European leagues. However, places in the Super League would not be decided on where a side finished in the existing domestic league table but instead the league would have no relegation or promotion and access to the league would have been based on prior agreement by the founding clubs. These clubs were the richest with the largest global audiences but not necessarily the best achieving teams. The league would have drawn in incredible revenues for those competing in it but was seen as repulsive by their fan bases.

Within three days of the announcement of the new league, all of the English teams who had committed to participating had withdrawn in the face of giant public backlash. The proposal was, seemingly without exception, hated by every football fan including those of the teams that would have joined the league. A prince, the Prime Minister, and the leader of the opposition all publicly declared their opposition to the idea, as did fan organisations and former players with Gary Neville describing it as “the attempted murder of English football.”

So why did this particular proposal arouse such anger and disgust? A general revulsion to the commercialisation of the game would not suffice as everyone is well aware that huge sums of money are involved in every aspect of football, from ticket prices to the wages of players (who are also global celebrities often managing their own brands). In 2019, for example, the amount spent on transfer fees on Manchester City’s squad exceeded one billion Euros. Occasionally, these excesses are challenged by protests; however, in England, these are usually specific to a single club rather than generating cross-club alliances. Opposition to extremely wealthy owners pumping money into these clubs usually takes the form of rival fans mocking or denigrating their success as illegitimate or bought rather than earned.

Likewise, the anger was not simply to do with inequality between teams, everyone is well aware that the current system rewards those sides who happen to have the wealthiest owners and are happiest to spend the most on recruitment of the best managers and players. This would theoretically, although often not in practice, beget even more money so the cycle may continue ad infinitum. To understand why the Super League proposal was so passionately rejected, I believe we should turn to the work of those social historians and anthropologists who have studied the idea of moral economies.

The British historian E.P. Thompson was the first to have used the term moral economy, first in a journal article titled “The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century” (of which the title of this blog is a play), and then later reprinted and expanded in his landmark “Customs in Common.” Thompson was dissatisfied with a number of the Marxist historians whom he thought drew too simple a picture of cause and effect between hunger and rioting in their histories of food riots. Instead, Thompson argued that the crowd had a popular conception of what was morally right surrounding issues of distribution and right. Thompson’s empirical examples focused on the types of grains contained within bread and the hoarding of grain during times of dearth.

While hunger was certainly a motivator in revolt, it is less so if it can be attributed to a blight or act of god. Conversely, if there is a popular conception that hunger is the fault of someone, such as the hoarding of foods in granaries the likelihood of a riot becomes much more likely. Revolt against a situation is not simply tied to material conditions but instead the result of a violation of a shared ethical norm. In this aspect, the rioting English crowds believed they were acting in a legitimate sense regarding local customs and traditional rights – which were in part tied to the notion that it was not permissible for someone to profit from the necessities of others.

James Scott has applied the moral economy framework to Southeast Asia in his study of peasants. Where from his ethnographic and archival research, built up a picture of the peasants’ anger and likelihood to revolt not on neoclassical economic calculations but instead on whether a subsistence ethic was violated. Rather than trying to maximise their income, Scott argued, the groups he worked with, were more interested in not falling below the hunger line, with the peasants demanding subsistence as a right to reciprocate the growing and carrying of grain for the elites. Both of these accounts contrast a “traditional” value-based economy with a more impersonal and transactional market based one.

Moral economies, then, can be summarised as the set of behaviours one can expect as a minimum from another person or an institution. They point out how reciprocity and obligation can carry over to those who act within market settings. Often, these norms are not strictly codified but would produce a sense of outrage when they are violated. Of course, the anger at the establishment of a new sports league does not in any way equate to the hardships of hunger or feudal exploitation. However, the reactions the two generate do share a similar logic.

The People’s Game” no more?

Having paid attention to various online channels that fans complain about the formation of the league as well as protestors outside football grounds, and from various personal conversations, I believe the disgust at this suggestion is due to the idea violating two key norms tied to a moral economy. Firstly, it prevents competition and essentially removes those clubs lucky enough to be picked for the Super League from the risk of relegation or the financial burden of poor seasons. It also stops access to the top leagues for teams who outperform the wealthier or better supported sides. Secondly, it further detaches the club from the community it is supposed to be a representation of.

Connected to the first of these, the idea of the Super League violates a basic norm that governs most “modern” and “liberal” societies where even if inequality is palpably obvious in the distribution of resources and power, there is at least a theoretical equality before a shared set of rules. The type of inequality the Super League was trying to impose was a formalisation of existing hierarchy, as if the bourgeoisie declared themselves to be aristocrats and operating in a giant cartel at the same time.

The second norm that seems to have been violated is overstepping the extent to which a community asset can be commodified. While the formal legal ownership of most football clubs is held by extremely wealthy owners such as oligarchs, business moguls, and princes backed by the wealth of entire nations, there is a sense that the legitimate owners of a club are the fans. Football has long been an entertainment business incorporating and trading off being a spectacle. They have also in some form remained intimately tied to local communities and are seen as community institutions. An idea that is rehashed today in every sign that reads “Football belongs to the fans” or the claims that owners of giant corporations that compete in the Premier League are simply custodians of institutions that belongs to the match-going supporters. The Super League threatened to disrupt this by moving teams more towards a model of competition where the name of a team just happens to be that of a place. Rather than a community institution, the club becomes another global brand with increasingly less identity to be distinguished from their sponsors.

The global popularity of football and existing European leagues has long created a tension between the globalisation of the game and the communities who make claims on their side. It is, of course, highly likely that someone who simply enjoys watching the best teams play each other would have no problem with a new competition dulling local rivalries or weakening the English league system if it delivered a better product. From a certain position this is an entirely rational and consistent view to hold. The Super League, however, disrupted a specific moral economy among fans of the game in at least one country who understand the game as being imbued with local passions and histories. On certain occasions, this passion and surplus meaning justifies violence and exclusion; on others, it generates very real and beautiful forms of solidarity.

[Image of the football game inside a stadium at Wembley, England is by Mitch Rosen sourced from Unsplash.]

[Image of the West Ham United F.C. Badge is by Kolforn (Wikimedia), CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons]

[Image of the football fans is by Emerson Vieira sourced from Unsplash.]

Leave a Reply