That’s not what democracy looks like
January 13, 2011 § 19 Comments
The level of involvement that fans should have in the clubs they follow is one of the more contentious and fascinating debates in modern football. English top-flight fans cast envious eyes toward the Bundesliga or Spain, where a variety of fan-based ownership structures demonstrate their compatability with high-level success. Lower down the pyramid, a number of relatively high-profile fan-driven clubs are achieving long-desired stability by involving their fans.
Writing on this topic in today’s Guardian, Louise Taylor addresses the question of “benevolent dictatorship or democracy?“, and concludes that the dictatorial model is the superior option. This conclusion is based on the following three points:
1. Ebbsfleet United — a club owned by (at one point) 20,000 online members, whose team selections are determined by electronic ballot — demonstrate the failure of democratically structured football clubs. Taylor cites the disinclination of 85% of the (now 4,000) members to participate in the selection voting;
2. Sunderland — under the ownership of Ellis Short and the chairmanship of Niall Quinn — demonstrate the success of the benevolent dictatorship model. Taylor cites the disinclination of Short and Quinn to sack Steve Bruce after the 5-1 whomping at Newcastle United, given their sixth-place league position;
3. Clubs, rather than attempting to involve the fans at a corporate level, should devote their time and money to improving the match-day experience. Taylor cites Manchester City’s “fusion of traditional Arabian hospitality [and] American-acquired marketing skills”, which involves child-sized toilets, fruit smoothies, and live music.
To deal with the last point first, there is evidence to support the claim that improving the match-day experience — in terms of cleanliness, service provision, and so on — does have a positive impact on attendances*. Yet to hold up Manchester City as an example is, at the very least, disingenuous, if not wilfully crass. Without wanting to speculate too wildly on the moral provenance of the petrodollars, it is indisputable that Manchester City find themselves in the situation they are as a result not of good governance but of either fortunate patronage or financial doping (delete according to preference).
Manchester City are, to lapse briefly into philosophical jargon, a “nomological dangler”: they operate, financially at least, without reference to or relevance for other ostensibly similar entities. As one comment beneath the article puts it:
Yeah, whenever I chat with people who’ve stopped going to the match or only go once in a blue moon, it’s always the poor catering and lack of balloon-bending clowns on stilts that seems to be the issue; nothing at all to do with the cost of tickets at a time when the economy’s knackered. In fact, I’d get four season ticket just for myself if we start selling Um Bongo and showcase a cat that can play the guitar.
Turning to the heart of the article, the contention that Ebbsfleet are in someway representative of a democratically run institution is slightly baffling. It is true that they are, in a reductive sense, democratic, if we understand “democratic” to mean “have lots of votes on things”. But political democracy is not governance by perpetual plebiscite; it is representative democracy: a constituency elects an individual, or individuals, to act on their behalf. Variations on representation can be found throughout football: FC United of Manchester; AFC Wimbledon; Chester City, most of Germany … even Real Madrid and Barcelona, after a fashion.
Ebbsfleet, while an interesting experiment in the wisdom of crowds, is not an examplar of democratic club ownership. It is not a model generally advocated by those who seek greater representation for fans within the ownership structure of clubs, and so is not relevant to the debate. Taylor also makes the mistake of assuming that “not voting” equals “not caring”; it could be that those who abstain from decisions are, for the most part, happy to leave the footballing decisions to those they consider more knowledgeable. Knowing when not to have an opinion is a central and oft-overlooked pillar of democracy.
Finally, there is a fundamental category error with the characterisation of a “benevolent dictatorship”. The structure of a dictatorship, whether benevolent or malevolent, is the same: power centralised in the hands of one individual. What makes a dictatorship benevolent or otherwise is how that power is used. More hospitals? Benevolent. State-sponsored genocide? Malevolent. Benevolence, or otherwise, is a moral characterisation based on actions, not structures.
Football, of course, is amoral: you only shine when you’re winning. So a benevolent dictatorship in football is a structure that concentrates power in the hands of the few, but runs the club well. A malevolent one looks the same, but cocks it up. To look at Taylor’s own example, if Short had fired Bruce after the Newcastle loss, it would not have been due to a sudden attack of the will of the people. It would have been due to a dictator making a bad decision, rather than a good one. Indeed, one need only look at Sunderland’s nearest and dearest neighbours to appreciate the perils of cack-handed dictatorship.
In a benevolent dictatorship, the benevolence is not sourced from the dictatorship in itself, but from the decision-making capabilities of the dictator. To advocate a model of benevolent dictatorship — while deriding the idea of a more democratic structure — without acknowledging this is to approach the argument from the wrong direction. Football fans are not arguing for greater involvement on the basis that nobody else knows how to run a club. They’re arguing for democracy on the basis that, in a very special sense, nobody else really has the right to. However benevolent they might turn out to be.
* See Simon Kuper & Stefan Sysmanski, Why England Lose