It’s been a busy past year for Marcus Rashford. The Manchester United forward has become a prominent figure in the media and national consciousness in the UK, something that is already quite a feat when one is a player for both a top UK team and the national squad. Already known for creating opportunities as a footballer, Rashford’s activism (which had already been ongoing long before) drew a lot of attention when he wrote an open letter to all MPs asking them to ‘reconsider your decision to cancel the food voucher scheme over the summer holiday period and guarantee the extension.’ He drew attention to his background as a working class Black man raised by a single mother, as well as to the fact that these are not unique circumstances but ones shared by many other people. The letter ignited interest and support from the public, and the subsequent social media campaign and pressure forced the government to make a U-turn. Even when the campaign faced initial failure through the defeat of a Labour motion to extend free school meals over the half term, Rashford's intervention provoked collective action as The Guardian reported that ‘dozens of hard-hit restaurants, bars and cafes contacted Rashford with offers of help.’ Even being defeated on a legislative level was not enough, and eventually the Prime Minister acquiesced to Rashford’s campaign. And again when the Free School Meals controversy happened, Rashford talked to the Prime Minister to get him to hold the company responsible, though as Labour pointed out (for once), the guidelines are not too dissimilar to the government approved ones.

It must be said, however, that despite the demonstration of direct action on the part of people to alleviate food poverty, it was characterised as a unique outpouring of generosity. The above quoted Guardian article framed it as a heartwarming turn of events where ‘the footballer has harnessed a far greater force than parliament in his battle to defeat food poverty – the kindness of strangers.’ The phrasing brings to mind charities, nonprofits, and individual generosity, divorcing what happened from any potential action as part of a larger strategy. It was a horizontal and collective movement by people around the country, and it is not unfair to point out that whilst Rashford had galvanized people to volunteer, this potential was already there. What it required was a consciousness of a social antagonism, as well as challenging public perception of it as a regrettable but necessary sacrifice, or even worse, as a natural fact of our society. This came from a public figure forcing the matter into public discourse, and organising people to put pressure on the government. What is needed other than that is a critical awareness of the context this is happening in.

In a previous article of mine, ‘Beyond the Social Critic,’ where I analysed how particular forms of socially conscious rap music were recuperated into capitalist cultural production and hegemony, I touched briefly on how the rapper Noname and her reading club organisation Noname Book Club related to radical forms of culture and activists within cultural spaces. One of these that was mentioned was the concept of the ‘Organic Intellectual,’ or the ‘thinking and organising element of a particular fundamental social class.’ I believe that Rashford's intervention within the public discourse demonstrates some of the potential for footballers to act as organic intellectuals, and to work towards creating a social, cultural and political space where they can relate to the two collectives, football fans and the general public, with an awareness of class relations.

There are probably some objections people may raise at this point which have to be addressed. The first objection would be my choice of example, who, despite his background, is now a well-paid footballer. Now, it is not my intention to hold up Marcus Rashford as the perfect socialist intellectual. Rather, my position is that of Stuart Hall in his essay 'Gramsci and Us':

'I do not claim that, in any simple way, Gramsci "has the answers" or "holds the key" to our present troubles. I do believe that we must "think" our problems in a Gramscian way - which is different.'

I believe that Rashford’s use of his platform demonstrates what can be done if one occupies such a position, and that it opens up our thinking to a variety of possibilities. But anyway, it would be a mistake to claim Rashford is somehow unique or exceptional, in the sense that no one else could also do this, and that we must rely on him to lead the way on these matters. In the context of anti-racist struggles led by Black people, this takes on an additional layer because cultural and entertainment figures in the Black community can often be held up as its leaders in order to quell anger or to validate decisions made against that community’s interest. Devyn Springer highlights how this has become apparent amongst rappers in his analysis of T.I. and Killer Mike's statements during rioting in Atlanta last year. As the two rappers called for peace in the city, despite the riots being born out of anger against police brutality, Springer links their willingness to defer to racist, capitalist authority to their being part of what has been called the Black Misleadership Class. This is ‘both an “actual and aspirational class of political forces” readily prepared to “sell out the interests of the overwhelmingly working class Black masses” for the sake of capitalist, corporate, or imperialist interests.’ Springer recalls how celebrities are often brought in to undermine militant social movements and their organisers. This is not to say that Rashford would do this, but to highlight the failings of a framework which prioritises the individual.

This framework can be seen in the recent Novara Media article on Rashford, titled ‘Marcus Rashford is Bringing Politics Back to Football’ which claims that:

'By inspiring communal solidarity and forcing the government to defend the indefensible, Rashford's campaign has held up a mirror to the cruelty of this government and the brutal ideology it serves. In doing so, he has also exposed the hollow nature of neoliberal giving, which all too often services to mediate elite reputations rather than meaningfully addressing injustice.'

Whilst it is not wrong in its appraisal of how Rashford has brought attention to food poverty and mobilized businesses and people, I think to claim this as some clear cut exposé of our society is perhaps overstating what has happened. And given that Rashford has fallen into the old trap of claiming this entirely political situation is “beyond politics,” I do not think these events help the left as much as some may think it does. It is no good to have left pundits examine what is essentially the first step in a war of position, and then go on to claim we have somehow won a war of manoeuvre. I will return to these concepts later on.

The second objection would be that, beyond Rashford being unsuitable as an example of an organic intellectual, that football itself is a site of reactionary and nationalist ideology, and that it is a space which is toxic to any intellectual activity, let alone radical activity. This objection is a view articulated by Terry Eagleton in particular, who said:

'If every rightwing thinktank came up with a scheme to distract the populace from political injustice and compensate them for lives of hard labour, the solution in each case would be the same: football. No finer way of resolving the problems of capitalism has been dreamed up, bar socialism. And in the tussle between them, football is several lightyears ahead.'

This objection is more serious than the first, and requires me to prove two things:

  1. That football is a space which is not only for intellectual activity and thought, but can encourage it.
  2. That football historically has provided the space for intellectuals to do so.

Let us start with the first point, which we will begin by building an understanding of what an organic intellectual is, so we might better understand how football itself is an intellectual activity.

‘The Beautiful Game’ and Virtuosity

This concept of an organic intellectual was developed by Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci in his Prison Notebooks to answer one question: ‘Are intellectuals an autonomous and independent social group, or does every social group have its own particular specialised category of intellectuals?’ This question needed to be answered because it was often the habit of intellectuals, such as scholars and artists, to believe that they occupied a position outside the class system under which society was organised, and that they had access to some higher truth by being above it all. Gramsci was developing arguments first laid out by Marx & Engels in The German Ideology, where they stated that ‘The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas.’ By this they mean intellectuals, who in both history and the present are usually part of the ruling class, maintained the ruling ideology, because the ‘class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it.’ There was a division of physical labour between the classes, by there being a division of access to the means to engage in intellectual activity, and there was also a division within the ruling class, by means of certain parts of the ruling class having to fulfill intellectual functions and roles to maintain what Gramsci called cultural hegemony.

Gramsci expanded on Marx & Engels’ writing by stating that every class has this internal division, remarking:

'Every social group, coming into existence on the original terrain of an essential function in the world of economic production, creates together with itself, organically, one or more strata of intellectuals which give it homogeneity and an awareness of its own function not only in the economic but also in the social and political fields.'

These organic intellectuals differed from what Gramsci called traditional intellectuals, intellectuals from previous ruling classes or forms of social organisation that due to their survival can appear to be autonomous. However, these traditional intellectuals are usually either subsumed into the new ruling class or find themselves subservient in some form or another to them.

But how do organic intellectuals relate to football? The answer lies precisely in what Gramsci considers intellectual. He writes that he considers the ‘most widespread error of method seems to me that of having looked for this criterion of distinction in the intrinsic nature of intellectual activities’ rather than the social relations in which these activities take place. He adds that ‘the worker or proletarian is not specifically characterised by his manual or instrumental work, but by performing this work in specific conditions and in specific social relations.’ By this he means that certain forms of activity are considered dumb or unintellectual not because they are intrinsically so, but rather because the social relations and material conditions which allow the capitalist to exploit the worker do not require intellectual input from them. Gramsci also notes that, contrary to popular assessment of manual labour, ‘in any physical work, even the most degraded and mechanical, there exists a minimum of technical qualification, that is, a minimum of creative intellectual activity.’ Physical activity is intellectual because moving requires some measure of thought, and it would be fair to say that as the physical action gets more complex, both in terms of the sequences it consists of and how it interrelates to another person’s physical action, the more complex intellectual activity it requires.

The conclusion that Gramsci draws from this observation is thus; ‘All men are intellectuals, one could therefore say: but not all men have in society the function of intellectuals.’ The reason that some people are intellectuals and some are not is because those who are have often received specialised education as part of the class which owns the means of production. Whilst every social class develops its own organic intellectuals, this does not mean such individuals will be recognised as such, or have access to becoming so. This was touched upon by Marx & Engels in their analysis of artists. Rather than having access to a unique, metaphysical talent, an artist’s ability and perception of the world ‘was determined by the technical advances made in art before him, by the organisation of society and the division of labour in his locality, and finally, by the division of labour in all the countries with which his locality had intercourse.’ To be a prominent intellectual in terms of its social function relies more on the control one's class or country has over others and the means of production than it does on whatever “unique” insight that intellectual may have. But for Gramsci intellectual activity lies beyond its social function, as ‘although one can speak of intellectuals, one cannot speak of non-intellectuals, because non-intellectuals do not exist’.

Suffice to say we can argue from a Marxist and Gramscian conception of intellectuals that sport and football can count as intellectual activity simply by all activity being to some extent intellectual, but I would go further as to say that football shares many characteristics with the concept developed by the Italian Autonomist Marxist Paolo Virno: ‘virtuosity.’ Laying out the different types of activity (Labour, political Action/praxis, and Intellect/reflection) in his book A Grammar of the Multitude, Virno analyzes how in a Post-Fordist economy the boundaries between them have dissolved, writing that:

'[...] the contemporary multitude has as its background the crisis of the subdivision of human experience in Labor, (political) Action and Intellect. The multitude affirms itself, in high relief, as a mode of being in which there is juxtaposition, or at least a hybridization, between spheres which, until very recently, even during the Ford era, seemed clearly distinct and separated.'

In order to explain the subsumption of the two processes of activity into one another, Virno begins by explaining how ‘The subsumption into the labor process of what formerly guaranteed an indisputable physiognomy for public Action can be clarified by means of an ancient, but by no means ineffective, category: virtuosity.’ Following the arguments of Aristotle and Hannah Arendt, Virno explains that an understanding of virtuosity comes from the simplest meaning of the word, of skill or technique found in the action of a performing artist, in that:

'First of all, theirs is an activity which finds its own fulfillment (that is, its own purpose) in itself, without objectifying itself into an end product, without settling into a "finished product," or into an object which would survive the performance. Secondly, it is an activity which requires the presence of others, which exists only in the presence of an audience.'

Following on from this Virno argues that one ‘distinguishes labor (or poiesis) from political action (or praxis), utilizing precisely the notion of virtuosity: we have labor when an object is produced, an opus which can be separated from action; we have praxis when the purpose of action is found in action itself.’ I would argue that football and most sports fall under this category, given it too does not produce an end product, at least purely from the participants' activity. But Virno’s argument is not that certain types of activity can be considered very good due to the audiences focus being on the skill of the actions performed. Rather he considers that virtuosity, by not producing an object as an end result and being a performative action with an audience, could be classified as political action. He writes, ‘Every political action, in fact, shares with virtuosity a sense of contingency, the absence of a "finished product," the immediate and unavoidable presence of others.’ Football contains all of these characteristics. So by this logic it is not just an intellectual activity by nature, but also a political one as well.

Now at this point I could, very fairly, be accused of misrepresenting Virno’s argument. The true virtuosic act, for him, lies not just in physical action itself. Virno argues in opposition to this that ‘the fundamental model of virtuosity, the experience which is the base of the concept, is the activity of the speaker.’ This is why both Labour and Action have become so intertwined in a Post-Fordist world, asLabour has taken on many aspects of communication, calling to mind concepts like ‘emotional labour.’ On the other side of it, Action, has become more of an industry, more commodified and static, and virtuosity is allowed according to the dominant conception of what makes good art or performance. If virtuosity is allowed to exist, it was because in ‘the culture industry, [...] it was therefore necessary to maintain a certain space that was informal, not programmed, one which was open to the unforeseen spark, to communicative and creative improvisation: not in order to favor human creativity, naturally, but in order to achieve satisfactory levels of corporate productivity.’ And just as it could be argued that Football is the same as art in terms of its virtuosity, it can also be argued it is the same in its commodification, which provides the thrust of Eagleton’s summary of it as a new ‘bread and circuses.’

Football, and footballers, make so much money, that the concept in the mind of the public of an undeserving and lazy sportsman splashing cash is extremely common and (certain) footballers are often called out in the tabloids because of their spending. Rashford himself has had to respond to accusations in this regard. I find this common occurrence, which is often a case of young black footballers being targeted for their spending, symptomatic of the way in which football, which has been a working class activity for most of its existence, is considered compared to other forms of cultural production. Actors, for example, are rarely criticised for their spending or lifestyle, at least not as much as footballers are. This likely has to do with the fact that whilst football clubs and the media surrounding them are owned by billionaires, the actions of the footballers themselves, both in and out of the game, are not determined by a preexisting idea of what it should like in the same way that they can be applied to art and performance. It is a space where the footballers, engaging in the activity and intellectual engagement of the sport, assert themselves through action that does not reinforce existing ideologies and in doing so make clear the intellectual aspect of their activity and the inherently political nature of it. It is precisely because ‘all virtuosity is intrinsically political’ that there is an attempt to conceal this nature by denigrating footballers, in order to render them as mere athletic performers whose role is to be consumed by a passive audience. If they speak out about political issues, it is them getting out of line or not knowing their place.

Moving on from this we can use Virno’s arguments to situate football and sporting activity as a type of virtuosic action which lies outside linguistic communication, and as such cannot be determined in exactly the same way. An accessible summary of its particular nature is the fact that, as hip hop artist and public intellectual Akala pointed out, ‘it takes sacrifice, discipline, hard work, willingness to learn, ability to delay gratification, take on board criticism, intelligence to read the game etc, to actually make it’ as a Footballer. Football in many ways epitomises an engaged, practical form of learning and work ethic which intersects with various ‘intellectual’ qualities and subjects. Through the virtuosic nature of the sport these qualities can be encouraged in the participants in a form that presents a break with previous forms of learning. Indeed, Gramsci argued that ‘The mode of being of the new intellectual can no longer consist in eloquence, [...] but in active participation in practical life, as constructor, organiser, “permanent persuader” and not just a simple orator.’ I think football presents a good space within which to develop this new type of intellectual, not just as a practical activity, but the way in which it is often part of community life in many places, and at different levels. Not only that, but it is also a space that can provide new frameworks for other types of action.

An example of this can be found in the 2018 Parquet Courts song ‘Total Football,’ which uses the famous Ajax strategy perfected by Johan Cruyff to describe striking, and organising according to socialist principles. In the song, the fluid and highly versatile strategy becomes a lense through which we can view collective action; ‘Swapping parts and roles is not acting but rather emancipation from expectation.’ The chorus itself features the lead singer Andrew Savage shouting out a trinity of artists, workers and athletes, with the message that it is this trinity and interrelation of the different types of action that is the base for a new type of collectivist socialism. It is here that Gramsci’s notion of working class intellectuals as a counter-hegemonic actor finds a clear expression. To argue for football and sports to be reconsidered as a site for organising & intellectual action is not to say that football is the only way for working class people to express themselves, or that Rashford and his Premier league contemporaries are ‘the new vanguard’ of revolutionaries. Rather it is to argue for an understanding that these spaces within working class communities present a particular form of intellectual expression and affirmation for participants which are a common and immediate feature of their everyday life as part of their communities and as a community in itself, and that it is here we should meet them. That by meeting them there we will then discover new ways of organising with them. It is to understand that in practice every cultural space is a site for struggle, and given the way in which football clearly has a problem with racism and other reactionary ideas, the need to counter reactionary politics within the sport in a meaningful way is obvious. In the next part we’ll ask: are there any examples of this we can look at from football’s history?


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