Singular, planned, fluid and highly versatile: Arsenal Football Club’s presocialist vibes
Sitting at the top of the Premier League with the youngest team in the division, the fluidity of Arsenal’s attractive playing style reflects the increasing integration of society’s economic-technical basis — as the binary mechanisms of mechanisation are replaced by (non-binary) automation — while the club’s international presence and efforts to improve fan inclusivity provide a further glimpse into the future of football in a unified, socialist world.
The contrast in playing styles and technical capacity in the North London Derby between Tottenham and Arsenal was pretty stark.
Spurs under Antonio Conte, an albeit formidable relic of cattenacio, are rather defensive and uninspiring — daftly playing three central defenders against one striker while leaving two mediocre midfielders outnumbered by Arsenal’s untouchable Xhaka-Partey-Ødegaard triumverate, the latter of whom “plays in his own personal metaverse”, as the excellent Jonathan Liew puts it. The Lilywhites are something of a throwback to teams associated more with ‘hard men’ and rigid formations, like the ‘boring’ one-nil-to-the-Arsenal of the pre-Wenger years (something that was truer of the successful early 1970s team than George Graham’s trophy-laden side and especially unfair on the likes of the charismatically expressive Paul Merson, Anders Limpar and Ian Wright).
The two teams, broadly speaking, could be said to represent two phases in human-technical evolution. Lacking dynamic movement and creativity, Tottenham’s players looked disjointed and anarchic yet one-dimensional — features of (especially early) capitalist production and mechanistic mechanisms, which are both binary/dualistic. Tottenham look like an outmoded machine.
Arsenal look like the expression of a singular and planned yet polytypic (versatile/variable) outfit — features of socialism and automation.
As automation replaces mechanisation, the global productive system is increasingly integrated (singular), monopolised by (at least relatively) fewer and fewer capitalists; yet our rising technical-productive capacity enables greater variety in the types of commodities we produce (polytypic).
And so it is with humans. The way we express ourselves changes and varies as our choices expand (in fashion, for example). Whereas manual labour and manufacturing typically demanded and reproduced heterosexual males, in a postindustrial society LGBTQ and mixed race people are thus, with every generation, tending to make up a greater proportion of the population.
The most advanced skilled labourers today are not working down mines or stuck in factories perfoming monotonous repetitions, but writing complex algorithms, analysing gigatons of data, or using the latest technology to smash the binary, atomistic dogmas of classical physics. (Atoms or particles don’t exist! Matter is a fluid, kinetic process!) They even perhaps work from home — since the working class is now connected internationally by the internet — enabling more free time for, say, yoga, calisthenics and healthy home-made cooking. The average skilled labourer today is thus more (singularly) athletic and their labour is increasingly varied (polytypic). (Just look at all the things the average person can do on their smartphone — we are all photographers, editors and publishers now.)
So it is with this Arsenal team. The players are all top tier athletes and all relatively versatile, expected to be able to play as if they could play in any position on the pitch — their ‘labour’ is more varied. Even the goalkeeper Ramsdale and the two centre backs, Saliba and Gabriel, are comfortable with the ball at their feet and technically gifted distributors. (‘Technical’ is a word now frequently used by coaches, commentators and pundits.) The lone striker, especially Jesus but also Nketiah, hardly stops running, pressing the opposition high up as ‘the first line of defence’. Zinchenko is ostensibly a left back who, because he drifts around wherever the hell he likes — further overloading the poor Spurs midfield! — has been compared to the Queen in chess.
Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta set out a vision when he arrived in the role three years ago of a team that plays “with one brain” — like a centrally planned socialist economy. (Incidentally, the Arsenal owner also owns Walmart, a book about which has been written crediting the multinational for laying the basis for a planned socialist economy.) The players know when to press the opposition, together, either as a cluster of players or as a whole team — whereas many players in other teams press the ball individually, tiring themselves out without forcing any opposition errors – squeezing all ten outfield players higher up the pitch and creating a higher volume of turnovers, making for easier scoring opportunities from closer range. “You can just play in sync, everybody is using one brain,” as Kieran Tierney says.
Football has evolved rapidly over the past 30 years, especially, of course, at the professional level, with the ever-greater quantities of capital invested (as capitalists diverse their revenue streams to offset falling profit rates in production) amounting to a greater amount of time invested in the development of players (who as a result of an increasingly holistic approach by clubs even tend to be well educated and speak more eloquently in interviews than in the past). As players have amassed greater wealth and therefore power, managers tend not not be such petty dictators of the past. (The autocratic Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson was unexpectedly challenged for the English title from the late 1990s by the laissez faire liberal Arsene Wenger, for example. After being met with headlines of ‘Arsene Who?’ and mocked as looking more like a university professor — he does have a masters degree in economics and has predicted the end of capitalism — Wenger won the league in ‘98, ‘02 and ‘04, having introduced such revolutionary ideas as plyometric stretching and healthy eating, extending the careers of the English defenders inherited from Graham. Wenger, arriving after a few years in Japan, “doesn’t know anything about English football”, the Scot Ferguson said in 1997.)
As players have become more expensive assets, they have become increasingly protected by referees (having been lobbied by clubs), and so leg-breaking tackles and thuggish on-pitch antics have started to die out.
Better, now-never-muddy pitches, with their underground heating, have of course enabled much more focus on passing the ball on the ground rather than ‘looking for the big man’ with crosses and long balls. More recently, the data science revolution, a form of advanced automation, now means teams and players are so thoroughly analysed by opponents that planning to be unpredictable, developing hybrid, fluid positions and formations on the pitch has become necessary to stay ahead. Arteta almost always speaks about evolving the team in his press conferences. The Spaniard is a team-centric coach — the old tendency to ‘build a team around’ an individual star is dying out (just like ‘the entrepreneur’ or movie star).
Arsenal are obviously not the first team to play ‘total football’ — Pele’s Brazil and Cruyff’s Ajax did that a long time ago — but it is becoming more common. Manchester City, Liverpool and Barcelona teams, plus Wenger’s early Arsenal sides, especially from 2004, are recent examples.
Even as the biggest clubs monopolise the sport — hoarding the best players, pushing up demand relative to supply and thus prices (just as capitalists do with, for example, housing) — there is a weaker counter-tendency (just as portions of capital break away to form new startups) whereby the features at the top level of the sport diffuse as production expands and prices fall. Sunday league teams, believe it or not, tend to play much better football than they did 20 years ago. They can even film and analyse their matches with automated cameras. It’s not quite VAR — but that’s for the future.
The richest clubs have, of course, become international corporations in the past two decades. Arsenal have millions of fans all over the world. While this development is obviously largely commercially motivated, it also reflects the increasing global integration of production and thus nations.
As the clubs under capitalism become more exclusively owned by billionaires and oligarchs, access to the club through community and online interaction — behind the scenes footage and whatnot — becomes more necessary to keep the punters coming back for more tickets and merchandise. There is always a dual movement.
As part of efforts to improve ‘the connection’ between the fans and the club, Arsenal recently unveiled new artwork to adorn the exterior of their stadium in North London. One of the pieces featured an array of flags from all the different Arsenal fan clubs situated in different countries around the world. It’s a nice touch.
It’s something of a precursor: in the socialist future, fan inclusivity will be usurped by fan ownership.
Arsenal’s history and politics are, of course, hugely problematic from a socialist, anti-imperialist perspective— that the advanced monopoly capitalist nations, having colonised the world, are the closest to becoming socialist in technical terms is perhaps a cruel twist of history — but its (albeit largely commercial) internationalism nevertheless is a sign of relative progress, a sign that internationalism is usurping nationalism as the dominant ideology in the world.
Arsenal have also been pioneers in women’s football, winning almost everything for two decades until other clubs started investing in the sport a few years ago; a short anti-homophobia film by ‘Gay Gooners’ is played in the stadium before every match; it was perhaps the first top flight club in the 1980s to employ and play multiple black players (Paul Davis, Viv Anderson, David Rocastle, Michael Thomas); the first to start a match with nine black players; and the first English club to play a full team of foreign players. “I do not look at a player’s passport,” as Wenger told the British press.
Situated in highly multicultural Islington, the local Member of Parliament is Jeremy Corbyn (an Arsenal fan), who for all his shortcomings from a communist perspective, is probably the most progressive MP in Britain (not that the bar is very high). It is a thoroughly multicultural and international club. That and the way the team plays now are worth appreciating in a presocialist context.
1. Capitalist production is a technical labour process, creating use values (utilities); and a valorisation process, creating (exchange) value — commodities are dualistically both use values and contain exchange value. As more of the former are produced less of the latter is contained in each commodity, leaving only use values and thus necessitating socialism.
Even as capitalist production becomes more planned, competition between capitalists and the tendency for capitalist economies to crash (on average once a decade) to a greater and greater degree, means its anarchic character tends to intensify.
2. “Modern industry, on the other hand, through its catastrophes imposes the necessity of recognising, as a fundamental law of production, variation of work, consequently fitness of the labourer for varied work, consequently the greatest possible development of his varied aptitudes. It becomes a question of life and death for society to adapt the mode of production to the normal functioning of this law. Modern Industry, indeed, compels society, under penalty of death, to replace the detail-worker of today, grappled by life-long repetition of one and the same trivial operation, and thus reduced to the mere fragment of a man, by the fully developed individual, fit for a variety of labours, ready to face any change of production, and to whom the different social functions he performs, are but so many modes of giving free scope to his own natural and acquired powers.” — Marx, Capital vol 1, chapter 16.
Automation increasingly abolishes the source of profit, capital’s theft of commodity-producing labour’s surplus labour time.
Like a fully automated system of production (automation means ‘self-action’), from a scientific point of view we humans are also a single, highly variable, polytypic race; 99.9% genetically identical, disproving old notions of biological race science and leading to recent calls from scientists to phase out the social constructs of ethnicities and race, an analysis and position communists have long put forward.
3. The canon badge, for starters, comes from the old Royal Arsenal arms factory in Woolwich, south London. While the football club was founded by the factory’s working class employees, the arms were of course used for the British Empire’s infamous gunboat diplomacy. (Having said that, gunpowder was at least invented by Taoists, whose ancient Chinese philosophy comes out of the epoch before private property and rejects western binary thought; while the cannon was also a slayer of feudal lords, rendering their castle walls impotent when their capitalist usurpers were historically progressive.)
The airline company Emirates, the sponsor of Arsenal’s stadium, is based in a country whose government “commits serious human rights violations, including arbitrary detention, cruel and inhuman treatment of detainees, suppression of freedom of expression, and violation of the right to privacy” (just like the US and UK, then).
More recently, Arsenal have expressed ‘solidarity’ with Ukraine, flying the flag behind the goal on matchday, when in reality US and UK capitalists are plundering Ukraine, turning it into a debt colony by forcing it to buy arms, and destroying the country’s labour rights. You certainly won’t see the Iraq, Palestine, Yemen, Libya or Syria flags behind the goal — some of the countries the US and UK have invaded and plundered (either directly or by proxy) in recent times (in order to offset their capitalists’ falling profit rates).
Ted Reese is the author of: Socialism or Extinction: Climate, Automation and War in the Final Capitalist Breakdown | Humanising Production: The Second (Not Fourth) Industrial Revolution and The Bio-Economic Necessity of Socialism | The End of Capitalism: The Thought of Henryk Grossman (out May 2022). linktr.ee/grossmanite