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Sunday, May 31, 2015

FIFA, Geopolitical Economy and World History

Global inequality expert Branko Milanovic has recently published a very smart and provocative blog post, putting FIFA partly in the context of a geopolitical-economic perspective on global history. It works so well that I can't resist making a comment 8)--a few points actually.

1. As for the "aristocratic" era of FIFA leadership, I love this portrayal. Also puts in perspective the double victories by the Hungarian national team over England (6-3, 7-1), the first one in Wembley... (To make it more humiliating for the "aristocratic" opponent, the Hungarian side was largely based on a single team, the Army club Budapesti Honvéd. Mainly peasant and working-class kids from war-torn Hungary, reeling under Stalinism.) This was well before my time of course--but I know that men in my parents' generation memorized the lineup of the Hungarian team and recited it as a form of public prayer afterwards (until well after the entire team of Budapesti Honvéd, including Army Major Ferenc Puskás, their superstar, defected to Spain in late 1956--but that's another story, albeit also illustrative of the intertwining of geopolitics, sports, and the entertainment business.)

2. That FIFA under Rous was "aristocratic"--well, maybe, although it is a little difficult to see, for instance aristocratic, "old-worldly values of decency and gentlemanliness" in his decision to authorize a match between Chile and the USSR in Chile's National Stadium, of all places, in November 1973, i.e., 2 months after the mass murderous military coup. To me that sounds perhaps a wee bit less aristocratic than simply the work of a west European white man who just doesn't get it.

3. The processes that led to Havelange's election, the election itself, and the subsequent "Havelange-era" could not be understood without taking into account two facts.
  • First, that was the era of a huge number of recently independent states, in the process of being transformed under the global geopolitics of neocolonialism, into "the Third World." This Milanovic' article alludes to. 
  • There was something else important about the context: the extreme propaganda struggle between the two, rivaling, high-modernist "sides" in the Cold War. Arguably, the great "scandal" of Havelange's emergence to power, seen from the perspective of the west, was not his inherently "corrupt" character (he was a white Brazilian, a lawyer with a doctorate, son of a Belgian weapons dealer) but the fact that /a/ a non-west European was elected (Pelé campaigned for him), /b/ with very strong Soviet-bloc support to boot. The Soviet-bloc connection is crucial (although of course we should not forget the role of the German sports multinational Adidas in FIFA history, having "sponsored" the games and the FIFA elections, including pretty much all candidates, as well).
So, as a quick summary, Havelange was hated and widely badmouthed in the "west" because he beat Stanley Rous (a west European), because he was from outside western Europe, because he was supported by the "Third World" almost unanimously, and because he also had, for whatever reasons, the Soviet Bloc behind him. The latter is of course true even though Havelange had no problem authorizing the World Cup in Argentina under the dictatorship of the Colonels. Whether that worked to weaken the dictatorship or to consolidate it, is open to interpretation. My hunch: as often is the case in history, it's probably both.

4. As for the current events (here comes, not so much a disagreement with the post by Branko Milanovic, but my offer of a slightly different interpretive frame), I would put Blatter's "corruption," if that's what it is, in the context of that very characteristically central European variety of historical social form characterized by the combination of corporate state with a highly, openly informal variety of capitalism. If you look at the way FIFA is run, and Blatter's demeanor and management style, it radiates a certain highly conventional, conservative male pattern, a conduct of intense power wrapped into all-smiles and all-cuteness. This conduct could be used as a very powerful teaching tool to illustrate something that is referred to, in popular writing about Austrian social history with the untranslatable term "Gemütlichkeit." It is the conduct characteristic of men whose job it is to manage, in an endemically informal manner, an unmanageably complex contiguous empire. My guess is that, had he been born a century or so before, Sepp Blatter would have been a tremendously successful administrator of the Habsburg Empire--wrong timing, I guess. Now he has to contend with the world--of FIFA. The pattern he exudes is of course very, very "white," operating from a position of corporate power and unbreakable security, the world of Habsburg statecraft based on police spies, archconservative policies, a structure rotten to the core. But we might want to remember that what I am calling, somewhat imprecisely, the "Habsburg statecraft" was the institutionalization of a staunch geopolitical opposition to Anglo and north German interests.  From that posture, this not-too-tall, fast talking, Gemütlich quasi-Habsburg prime minister of world football turns around--and there you have it: the likeable bureaucrat, "nice and kind" to everyone, from inside his tower of power. Even self-deprecating sometimes. The sensibilities that go into this demeanor are light years away from the, at least purportedly, highly formal, distant and rigid, "Anglo" / north German style of management and overall conduct.

No doubt, FIFA is a multinational corporation, a giant operating in the entertainment business. (Check out the television viewership figures for some media markets during the last World Cup final in Maracana Stadium here.) That there will be "corruption" in that business should not surprise us. That's the nature of the game. That's what multinationals, especially entertainment multinationals, do for a living anyway. They use their transborder operations, intransparent operating rules, lack of the slightest hint of any sense of political democracy, by definition shady finances and extraterriotoriality to maximize profits. For share holders and management alike. The entertainment business is particularly prone to unfair competition, bribery, favoritism, etc.

Branko Milanovic argues, "[l]ike every populist who wants to create a more inclusive society and displace the old elite, Blatter had to create his own constituency. He created it by spreading the new soccer wealth to the associations in Africa, Asia, and South and Central America. But the conduits for this wealth redistribution were local caciques who would support Blatter and the top nomenklatura of FIFA only if their federations got some money and they themselves were allowed to keep some too.

I'm not sure I agree with the fastness of the blanket characterization of local football officials, all of them world-wide, as "caciques." That's a very strong claim, I'd be careful to thread there. But, more to the point of my post, my question is this: How is this different from global transnational business overall? Is there any, I repeat: any large-scale business transaction in the world today that takes place without a significant percentage of the deal going to officials, "to grease the wheels," to make sure that things will go smoothly? Is there global capitalism without "corruption"? 

Is this the way the mafia operates? Well, maybe--although I am not seeing the gratuitous violence that marks the boundary-making function of the mafia with respect to FIFA. But if that's what it is, that produces an extremely broad definition of "the mafia," something that definitely includes, I would argue, all crossborder economic transactions today. The world economy is "mafia business," then. I am actually willing to entertain this thought, especially in light of the origins of both modern states and modern business in organized crime--by now a common formula in historical sociology of large-scale power, thanks to Charles Tilly's brilliant formulation as well as insights from global history tracing the links between modern business enterprise and colonial violence, piracy, or the holocaust. It is somewhat hypocrytical, however, for the entire mainstream Anglophone media to single out FIFA and be conspicuously silent about the same "corruption" that takes place, minute-by-minute, everywhere world-wide. But that's just a side remark.

5. So, given the long history of "corruption" in the multinational corporation called FIFA, which has been totally obvious to anyone with half a brain who has the slightest interest in the sport, why are they getting so beaten up in the western press today (and not ten years ago, or ten years from now)?  My hunch is that that is happening for two main reasons: 
  • First, by not awarding the game to the US, his FIFA stepped on the toes of very, very big US corporate interests in promoting football/soccer in the US. We are not only talking about the projected windfall of profits directly from a world cup; we are also talking about a giant opportunity for promoting yet another BIG SPORTS game--third to American "football" and basketball--domestically. In other words, the missed world cup will cost US entertainment capital truly significant losses of profits simply because of the lost opportunity to create a large-scale process of cultural change, establishing a new product, "soccer," in the huge entertainment market that the United States is. That would of course require some changes for the game--e.g., interruption of game time for commercials--but there would be time and opportunity for that, once the giant un-tapped market of the US were to turn toward "soccer."
  •  Second, the Anglo / north German modalities of capitalism and statecraft has always had a problem relating to this Gemütlich management of capitalism. The combination of informal capitalism and corporate statehood is "unpredictable" (because too many things hinge on personal relations, too many things "wiggle"), it is too "personal," and its highly adaptable, fast-moving, personable character can put a more formalistic, more rigid, more directly power-assertive, more unambiguously aggressive kind of business conduct at a bit of a disadvantage. Consequently, journalists schooled exclusively on the US / British / Nordic patterns of business as "normal" will inevitably see corruption, corruption and corruption. 
Remember Commodore Perry and the opening up of Japan for trade by military force? Or the various Opium Wars in which the western powers' main "justification" for wreaking havoc on imperial China was the latter's resistance to penetration of "western" capital interests via "free trade"? Of course opening up football ("soccer") to large-capital interests the US entertainment business is an issue that is infinitesimally smaller than the global significance of forcing Japan and China into the ambit of global capitalism. But the logic--the logic is quite similar.

Just a somewhat distant, and provocative, analogy to think about.

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cover page of the book

cover page of the book
image used for the cover design by Anannya Dasgupta