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Polanyi and Football

By István Kollai

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Originally from Hungary, Karl Polanyi was one of the most highly acclaimed social scientists of  the 20th century. His seminal book The Great Transformation articulates the transition from pre-modern to modern times and from pre-capitalist to capitalist modes of production, whereby these transformations helped radicalize societies, prompting an extreme, communal backlash against the liberal economic order. Polanyi argues that such tensions could be dissolved and prevented through new economic ideologies that do not require the labour force to be converted into a capitalist commodity in the market. Given that Polyani wrote The Great Transformation during World War II, it is perhaps understandable that he paid particular attention to social harmony, with most Polanyist interpretations holding that his book is dedicated to the promotion of social solidarity and reciprocity in economics.

One group not known for promoting social solidarity are football fans. The intense atmosphere of football matches fuelled by fans’ almost militant chanting for their teams and against their rivals appears to be the antithesis of social harmony. Still, in one important aspect football fans can be regarded as an embodiment of Polanyi’s ideas on the economy’s social embeddedness. A spectacular example was the spontaneous protest movement against the attempt to create the European Super League in 2021. The Super League would have functioned as a closed competition system, where 15 world-famous super-clubs would have been invited, exclusively playing against each other throughout the season leading up to the final. Within this closed, exclusionary system, even the weakest of the 15 super-clubs would not have been relegated in the event of poor results and, logically, no new teams could have been welcomed from outside.

In some aspects, the idea of a Super League can be considered a symptom of late modern capitalism, the kind of capitalism where ‘relational capital’ can be highly appreciated. The owners of the clubs involved were able to prepare the plan in secret and not go public with it until after coming to a joint agreement behind closed doors, presenting the results to the fans – to their consumers – as a fait accompli. It would be interesting to know whether the club owners were surprised by the strength of the outrage they had to face at the time. Their own most devoted supporters, circles of fans suddenly became the clubs’ fiercest opponents – but politicians did not act any differently. Regardless of their ideological positions, they protested against the behind-closed-doors decision of the club owners. Beside the League all-pervading attempt at profit maximization – for example, by planning to make the matches shorter, so that TV viewers would not get bored – they opposed the lack of relegation, i.e. the ‘perpetual upper house membership’ of clubs. Even fans were not happy with such ‘splendid isolation’: they did not just want their teams to win but also wanted to experience the competition itself. For football fans, victory is a valuable commodity, a ‘market product’ which they are ready to pay for (e.g. through tickets) but its value is rooted in taking part in a competition, a fight, a duel, rivalry with others – i.e. experiencing their uniqueness and social embeddedness at the same time.

This is where Polanyi comes in: football eventually emerges as a special market through these secretive attempts and open protests, where the teams’ value (like brands and products) is not only increased by victory alone but by ‘victory in real competition’. And consumers of tickets sold for matches are loyal to their brands as long as their brand faces real competition. Although we called it a ‘special market’ above, it might in fact be an example of how ‘socially embedded exchange processes’ work, according to Polanyi. But such deep social embeddedness is evoked and fuelled by outstandingly devoted advocates: by core fans, fanatics. Their powerful wave of protests forced the biggest business actors on the football market to retreat; the idea of Super League failed to be realized.

We are not the first to refer to the Polanyian characteristics of the football market. This parallel was also drawn by the British Karl Polanyi Society in their article on the ‘Polanyian moment in English football’, i.e. action against the Super League. And a few years ago, researchers detected the Polanyian counter-movement against market in the initiative ‘Against Modern Football’. Nevertheless, it can be quite difficult to find similar examples outside the world of sport, e.g. in other industrial or service sectors. Perhaps we can say that such devoted groups of consumers tend to evolve around certain branded products, willing to stand up against the elimination of these goods. Therefore consumers as a whole can be said to be interested in the diversity of the product range. But this is rather the exception: masses of consumers tend to follow a ‘business as usual’ pattern, prioritizing relative advantage in price and not a colourful variety – and above all, it cannot be said that product-loyal consumers are easily able to organize themselves into a community. There are some rare examples of such ‘socially embedded consumer behaviour’, e.g. sentiments and actions against the liquidation of retro-products in post-socialist economies (like Czechoslovak Kofola or Hungarian biscuit ‘Győri Keksz’), but these are temporarily organized communities compared to football fans. And an essential uniqueness of the Polanyian embeddedness of football is that football fans who engaged in protest acted not only for but also against their own team, objecting to the prearranged market leadership position.

The Super League’s plan not only revealed the Polanyian nature of European football but the preparedness and propensity of business actors to coordinate the market through secretive and personalistic collusion, which can utterly and ultimately alienate the ordinary average consumers from the idea of ‘competitive societies’, pushing them towards quite differing – even opposing – anti-modern ideologies.

The author is a researcher on the POPREBEL project. This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 822682.