The European Super League is symptomatic of capitalism’s final crisis. Socialism will put football fans in charge of the clubs and the sport

The announcement made on 18 April 2021 by an initial 12 clubs, including six from England, that they had signed up to new closed shop European Super League was met with widespread outrage.[1] With promotions and relegations for the founding clubs prohibited, the move is the final nail in the competitiveness of a sport whose monopolisation by a few clubs has accelerated[2] since the the Sky Sports/Premier League/Champions League era began in 1992–3.[3]

Unsurprisingly, the general feeling from the fans who love the game (who are now treated by clubs (and professional sport at large) almost exclusively as consumers) is that the move is all about the greed of a handful of billionaire owners. While this is partly true, it does not explain the underlying and primary compulsion behind the development.

That it has been incentivised or accelerated by the sport having lost 15% of income during the past year of ‘lockdown’ is fairly well understood. What is not well understood, however, is that economic crises (recessions/contractions) under capitalism are inevitable (they tend to strike roughly every 10 years); that the necessary resolution to each crisis is the tendency towards the monopolisation of industry; and, most importantly, that this tendency is being accelerated by the ongoing automation revolution — which is abolishing the source of profit (capital’s exploitation of commodity-producing labour)[4] and sending capitalism ever-closer to its final crisis.

Briefly: as a profit-based system, capitalism must continue to accumulate more and more capital by maximising profits. Profits need to rise each year to attract more investment, otherwise companies shrink, become uncompetitive and go bankrupt. To raise profits, continual innovation is required to raise productivity. This means the total machinery (capital) employed tends to rise relative to the amount of labour employed. But the exploitation of commodity-producing labour is the source of profit. The more capital-biased the ratio of capital-to-labour becomes, the harder it becomes for labour to reproduce and expand capital yet further; yet the necessary reaction to each recession is to intensify this contradiction further by raising the productivity of labour, thereby restoring accumulation and raising the rate of profit. An economic recession is needed to induce panic-selling and therefore cheaper innovation and mergers. In the long run, though, the rate of profit (even though the mass of profit rises absolutely) tends to fall — and historically to zero, along with GDP and interest rates, and commodity prices.

Capitalism, the illusion of choice

Football is like any other industry operating under capitalism. Just as the likes of Amazon, Facebook, Apple and a few other multi- and trans-national corporations have monopolised their respective industries, so a small number of ‘elite’ clubs have monopolised football. Assets, which include the world’s most expensive footballers in this case, must be hoarded by a relative few, killing off competition.

Unsustainable

This is all logically unsustainable. In the case of football, the European Super League can only offset thinning profit margins for so long. As the former Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger said in a recent interview, the top clubs want more matches to guarantee higher income from TV money, but spectators only tune in in big numbers when there is something at stake, which threatens to disincentivise the sponsors that fund the TV channels and the clubs. The very economic motivations behind the new model must also undermine it. Such are the contradictions of capitalism.

More broadly, not only is automation abolishing the source of profit, but the intensifying centralisation of capital is making the system more rent-dependent, while impoverishing more and more people who will no longer be able to afford to buy or rent commodities. The system must collapse.

“The citizens will revolt against us, the privileged.” — Arsene Wenger

Logically and historically, capitalism must lead to total monopoly. This is not possible under capitalism, though, since total monopoly demands fully automated production, which is abolishing the source of profit. Such a monopoly must therefore be publicly owned. Capitalism is actually, then, necessarily laying the basis for socialism, the lower stage of communism (not just the mild redistribution of wealth promoted by the likes of Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders).

While capitalism has a long-run tendency to centralise wealth and power, socialism has a long-term tendency to decentralise wealth and power. Total public ownership does this to a significant extent pretty much immediately, but as socialism completes the final development of fully automated production and makes it increasingly diffused or ‘localised’ (along with 3-D printing, lab-grown food, etc.), bringing about abundant material wealth for all, the centrality of the state becomes increasingly irrelevant and withers away, bringing about the higher stage of communism.

Fan ownership

That is going to be a decades-long process, but football fans will not have to wait that long to take back the game they love — by kicking out the billionaire owners and replacing them with democratic fan-based ownership models. As I recently argued in the essay “Socialism is now and economic necessity”), one of the pledges communist parties should make is for “professional sports clubs to be owned and run by their (nation-based) fans”. The fans will collectively elect their spokespeople and hire their managers; decide on the club’s badge and the season’s kit (which won’t be blighted by a sponsor(s)!); direct community ties; vote for the rules and innovations; and so on.

Fan ownership under socialism will restore competition to the sport, not just through sport-wide democratic decision-making, but economically. While the biggest clubs may continue to dominate initially given their headstarts, as economic power becomes more even across regions, nations and continents (as socialism becomes more and more global and developed), the sport will become more competitive than ever before.

Incidentally, Wenger said in his interview — when discussing the £1bn debts held by Real Madrid and Barcelona, respectively, that are underwritten by the state (i.e. the public) — that “citizens will revolt against us, the privileged”. The holder of a PhD in economics, Wenger said in another interview around 20 years ago that capitalism “looks to be unsustainable”.[5]

He was right. With capital becoming extremely dependent on public debt, in turn making governments dependent on central bank money printing, worldwide hyperinflation is already on the horizon.

There are much more pressing reasons to end capitalism: the rocketing levels of poverty; the devastating wars caused by inherent economic crises and intensifying competition between multinational corporations; and now even the existential threat of climate change, which is driven by the extractive production capitalism relies upon; and so on. But a world without competition in sport is one that diminishes our culture and leisure time — things that make the daily drudgery of capitalism a little more tolerable.

This seismic decision was announced out of the blue, taken by self-interested billionaires without any consultation with fans (or even, it seems, the footballers they employ). We have already been locked out of matches for a year, ‘lockdown’ (read acute social enclosure) being something all billionaires most likely lobbied for (torching our civil rights), since it has enabled them to accelerate the centralisation of wealth and power (and justified capital’s now extreme dependence on public debt) not just in football but in politics and industry more broadly.

“Accumulation of wealth at one pole is at the same time accumulation of misery, agony of toil, slavery, ignorance, brutality, mental degradation, at the opposite pole.” — Karl Marx

Just as the working class has been disenfranchised by capitalist ‘democracy’, football fans have been disenfranchised from their football clubs (with a lot of overlap, of course; and it’s alsoincreasingly too expensive to watch or even play in our increasingly limited spare time).

But this cannot last forever — the capitalists are eating their own tails. Even the biggest clubs will one day belong to the fans.

[1] The richest European clubs have long used the threat of a breakaway Super League to negotiate a greater share of TV revenue from their domestic leagues, to the financial detriment of the rest of the clubs. There is some ‘justification’ to this in that the biggest clubs attract the biggest TV audiences (especially internationally), but this itself is driven by capitalism’s tendency to monopolise in the first place. TV rights are now moving away from being domestic to being international, which makes a Super League more possible and necessary (from capital’s perspective), after years of advertising the European leagues to audiences in the US, China and so on, through summer-time commercial tours. Whether this announcement turns out to be just a bigger threat remains to be seen, and the clubs may capitulate to the backlash: UEFA and domestic football associations have threatened to ban clubs from domestic leagues (which they say they want to stay in, a dubious claim given TV audiences are biggest at weekends) and even players from playing for their national teams. Similar threats were made when the Premier League formed.*

*On 20 April all six English clubs pulled out of the breakaway ESL.

[2] The centralisation of wealth in football has been going on since the contentious introduction of professional football in the Victorian era. This has accelerated to such a degree in modern times because the size of the global economy tends to double every 20 years (similar to how computing power tends to double every two years).

[3] Sky Sports privatised the TV viewership of professional English football (starting a long-term process of gentrification, too). Fans who could watch matches on terrestial TV for free now had to rent the right to watch through subscription models (although relatively few matches were shown on terrestial TV, partly because nationalised or socialised industries operating under capitalism are limited by the amount of funding they receive through taxes, which eats into ever-thinning profit margins). Socialism will return live football to terrestial, only with all the modern technology that has since enhanced the viewing experience.

[4] The worker keeps less value than they created, with the surplus value being appropriated by the capitalist and then realised through commodity sales. Another counter-reaction to crisis is for the capitalist to deepen this rate of exploitation, again mostly through innovation raising the productivity of labour. For exmaple, the capitalist may appropriate four hours of every eight working day but then increase this to five through innovation to counter falling profit rates. Or simply cut wages, make redundancies, and so on.

[5] Wenger also said that “the communist model does not work economically, we all realised that”. This is not correct, but it is true that socialism in a handful of countries could never become ‘fully socialist’ in a world dominated by capitalism. For example, economies could never be fully planned, since fluctuating foreign prices could not be predicted when importing goods from capitalist corporations (where blockades and sanctions could be circumvented). This also made it logical to allow black markets to a certain extent, to build up foreign currency (upon which the socialist bloc eventually became too dependent). Decades of improvements in computing power, ‘big data’ and stock coding will make planning much easier in future, meaning the command-and-control system that tended to overlook the finer details is no longer necessary.

For a ‘frequently asked questions’ on economics, capitalism and socialism, see here.

Ted Reese is a Marxist and author of: Socialism or Extinction; Humanising Production; and The Thought of Henryk Grossman (May 2022). linktr.ee/grossmanite