Why Stand Against Modern Football?

Maybe fans should be standing <em>for</em> future football. Mobilising for something is more productive, if more difficult, than simply opposing.

You hear people say they are “against modern football” quite a lot these days. But what does it mean? There is, without doubt, a general sense of dissatisfaction with a whole range of issues, players who are perceived as mercenary and overpaid, high ticket prices, sterile stadiums, traditional fans being pushed aside in favour of what are contemptuously described as “tourists”, a general trashing of tradition and a commodification of a collective culture…

Against modern football is perhaps better understood less as a movement, more a howl of anger, a Twitter hashtag to encompass a whole squad full of gripes. There are two distinct strands.

The first, and easiest to get to grips with, addresses issues related to economics and governance – anger about high ticket prices, about clubs being allowed to change name, move stadium or, most recently in the case of Coventry City, move to another town entirely.

The second strand encompasses a more cultural set of issues – the sterilisation of atmosphere at top-level stadiums, the commodification of fan culture, the apparent rejection of traditional supporters in favour of what are contemptuously referred to as “tourists”.

There is, of course, quite a bit of crossover between hard economic and softer cultural issues. But identifying these strands can perhaps help to work out where to go next, and how to get there – and particularly to counter any criticism.

Reading some of what’s said under the general heading of ‘against modern football’, it’s possible to detect a yearning for a more blokey, anarchic past that rejects any modernising characteristics. It’s a past that perhaps owes more to an image built up by the wealth of hooligan porn that vicariously thrilled a generation of middle class geezers than reality and, with the game’s authorities always quick to label opposition to their moneymaking schemes as reactionary and dangerous, any perceived yearning for it risks playing into their hands.

But this doesn’t mean taking a stand against modern football should concentrate solely on the economic issues. The folk culture built up and valued by fans is a key part of the game and anger at the attempts of the football businesses to repackage and sell the culture we created back to us can be, as John Lydon would have it, a positive energy.

Where we need to be careful is when using concepts such as “real” or “proper” fans. Group subcultures tend towards exclusionary definitions of membership, and committed football fans have a whole list of criteria that are used to label fans ‘real’, ‘gloryhunters’, ‘tourists’ or – worst of all, ‘plastics’. In the end, a fan is someone who wants to watch a game. Adopting an exclusivist approach leads up a dead end.

Clubs are inevitably going to look to expand their appeal, and this means attracting new fans and new demographics. Where the conflict comes is with the perception, or often the reality, that newer fans needs’ are being prioritised at the same time as the loyalty of existing fans is exploited.

Clubs could and should do more to recognise fan bases are made of up different groups with different interests, and seek to balance those interests more transparently. But this could also fuel a backlash against the attempts to control, usually in order to commodify, every aspect of the fan experience. Some of what makes up the ‘against modern football’ meme is a rejection of the idea that everything we do should be controlled and regulated.

Stand Against Modern Football, with initial caps, is a fanzine and website that is developing a coherent set of objectives as well as serving to reflect the wider mood. It brought together fans, supporter activists and journalists including Brian Reade and Tony Evans for a conference and social earlier this year in Liverpool, and is currently encouraging readers to mail MPs urging support for three key ideas – a more robust system of governance, constitutional reform of the FA, and improved supporter engagement.

That approach is, encouragingly, gaining support and, along with the march on Premier League headquarters earlier this summer, indicates that, at last, English supporters are putting common interests before club rivalry. But there’s a school of thought that questions this. You can hear it articulated on the This Is Deep Play podcast – a self-consciously non-mainstream “football podcast that’s not about football” produced by two south east London-based fans of non-league Dulwich Hamlet.

In the first episode, they question the practice of protesting about ticket prices from inside the stadium you’ve only got into because you’ve paid the high price for a ticket and express the hope that ‘against modern football’ means more than just campaigning for cheaper tickets. They encourage a wider perspective, and float the idea that perhaps modern football at the top level is unreformable, that it should be rejected and left to die so that something more real, more properly sporting could emerge.

This Is Deep Play is not setting itself up as the revolutionary vanguard opposed to the more reform-minded efforts of Stand AMF and bodies such as Supporters Direct and the Football Supporters Federation. Instead it is a valuable forum for airing ideas, for rethinking the game, and an illustration of the ways supporters can engage and widen horizons.

Their preference is that fans reach For Future Football rather than Against Modern Football. They may have a point. Mobilising for something is more productive, if more difficult, than simply opposing. What’s encouraging at the moment is that the quality and breadth of the discussion is bringing a clear set of objectives closer.

Cyrus Christie and Franck Mousssa playing for Coventry City. Photo: Getty

Martin Cloake is a writer and editor based in London. You can follow him on Twitter at @MartinCloake.

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We're racing towards another private debt crisis - so why did no one see it coming?

The Office for Budget Responsibility failed to foresee the rise in household debt. 

This is a call for a public inquiry on the current situation regarding private debt.

For almost a decade now, since 2007, we have been living a lie. And that lie is preparing to wreak havoc on our economy. If we do not create some kind of impartial forum to discuss what is actually happening, the results might well prove disastrous. 

The lie I am referring to is the idea that the financial crisis of 2008, and subsequent “Great Recession,” were caused by profligate government spending and subsequent public debt. The exact opposite is in fact the case. The crash happened because of dangerously high levels of private debt (a mortgage crisis specifically). And - this is the part we are not supposed to talk about—there is an inverse relation between public and private debt levels.

If the public sector reduces its debt, overall private sector debt goes up. That's what happened in the years leading up to 2008. Now austerity is making it happening again. And if we don't do something about it, the results will, inevitably, be another catastrophe.

The winners and losers of debt

These graphs show the relationship between public and private debt. They are both forecasts from the Office for Budget Responsibility, produced in 2015 and 2017. 

This is what the OBR was projecting what would happen around now back in 2015:

This year the OBR completely changed its forecast. This is how it now projects things are likely to turn out:

First, notice how both diagrams are symmetrical. What happens on top (that part of the economy that is in surplus) precisely mirrors what happens in the bottom (that part of the economy that is in deficit). This is called an “accounting identity.”

As in any ledger sheet, credits and debits have to match. The easiest way to understand this is to imagine there are just two actors, government, and the private sector. If the government borrows £100, and spends it, then the government has a debt of £100. But by spending, it has injected £100 more pounds into the private economy. In other words, -£100 for the government, +£100 for everyone else in the diagram. 

Similarly, if the government taxes someone for £100 , then the government is £100 richer but there’s £100 subtracted from the private economy (+£100 for government, -£100 for everybody else on the diagram).

So what implications does this kind of bookkeeping have for the overall economy? It means that if the government goes into surplus, then everyone else has to go into debt.

We tend to think of money as if it is a bunch of poker chips already lying around, but that’s not how it really works. Money has to be created. And money is created when banks make loans. Either the government borrows money and injects it into the economy, or private citizens borrow money from banks. Those banks don’t take the money from people’s savings or anywhere else, they just make it up. Anyone can write an IOU. But only banks are allowed to issue IOUs that the government will accept in payment for taxes. (In other words, there actually is a magic money tree. But only banks are allowed to use it.)

There are other factors. The UK has a huge trade deficit (blue), and that means the government (yellow) also has to run a deficit (print money, or more accurately, get banks to do it) to inject into the economy to pay for all those Chinese trainers, American iPads, and German cars. The total amount of money can also fluctuate. But the real point here is, the less the government is in debt, the more everyone else must be. Austerity measures will necessarily lead to rising levels of private debt. And this is exactly what has happened.

Now, if this seems to have very little to do with the way politicians talk about such matters, there's a simple reason: most politicians don’t actually know any of this. A recent survey showed 90 per cent of MPs don't even understand where money comes from (they think it's issued by the Royal Mint). In reality, debt is money. If no one owed anyone anything at all there would be no money and the economy would grind to a halt.

But of course debt has to be owed to someone. These charts show who owes what to whom.

The crisis in private debt

Bearing all this in mind, let's look at those diagrams again - keeping our eye particularly on the dark blue that represents household debt. In the first, 2015 version, the OBR duly noted that there was a substantial build-up of household debt in the years leading up to the crash of 2008. This is significant because it was the first time in British history that total household debts were higher than total household savings, and therefore the household sector itself was in deficit territory. (Corporations, at the same time, were raking in enormous profits.) But it also predicted this wouldn't happen again.

True, the OBR observed, austerity and the reduction of government deficits meant private debt levels would have to go up. However, the OBR economists insisted this wouldn't be a problem because the burden would fall not on households but on corporations. Business-friendly Tory policies would, they insisted, inspire a boom in corporate expansion, which would mean frenzied corporate borrowing (that huge red bulge below the line in the first diagram, which was supposed to eventually replace government deficits entirely). Ordinary households would have little or nothing to worry about.

This was total fantasy. No such frenzied boom took place.

In the second diagram, two years later, the OBR is forced to acknowledge this. Corporations are just raking in the profits and sitting on them. The household sector, on the other hand, is a rolling catastrophe. Austerity has meant falling wages, less government spending on social services (or anything else), and higher de facto taxes. This puts the squeeze on household budgets and people are forced to borrow. As a result, not only are households in overall deficit for the second time in British history, the situation is actually worse than it was in the years leading up to 2008.

And remember: it was a mortgage crisis that set off the 2008 crash, which almost destroyed the world economy and plunged millions into penury. Not a crisis in public debt. A crisis in private debt.

An inquiry

In 2015, around the time the original OBR predictions came out, I wrote an essay in the Guardian predicting that austerity and budget-balancing would create a disastrous crisis in private debt. Now it's so clearly, unmistakably, happening that even the OBR cannot deny it.

I believe the time has come for there be a public investigation - a formal public inquiry, in fact - into how this could be allowed to happen. After the 2008 crash, at least the economists in Treasury and the Bank of England could plausibly claim they hadn't completely understood the relation between private debt and financial instability. Now they simply have no excuse.

What on earth is an institution called the “Office for Budget Responsibility” credulously imagining corporate borrowing binges in order to suggest the government will balance the budget to no ill effects? How responsible is that? Even the second chart is extremely odd. Up to 2017, the top and bottom of the diagram are exact mirrors of one another, as they ought to be. However, in the projected future after 2017, the section below the line is much smaller than the section above, apparently seriously understating the amount both of future government, and future private, debt. In other words, the numbers don't add up.

The OBR told the New Statesman ​that it was not aware of any errors in its 2015 forecast for corporate sector net lending, and that the forecast was based on the available data. It said the forecast for business investment has been revised down because of the uncertainty created by Brexit. 

Still, if the “Office of Budget Responsibility” was true to its name, it should be sounding off the alarm bells right about now. So far all we've got is one mention of private debt and a mild warning about the rise of personal debt from the Bank of England, which did not however connect the problem to austerity, and one fairly strong statement from a maverick columnist in the Daily Mail. Otherwise, silence. 

The only plausible explanation is that institutions like the Treasury, OBR, and to a degree as well the Bank of England can't, by definition, warn against the dangers of austerity, however alarming the situation, because they have been set up the way they have in order to justify austerity. It's important to emphasise that most professional economists have never supported Conservative policies in this regard. The policy was adopted because it was convenient to politicians; institutions were set up in order to support it; economists were hired in order to come up with arguments for austerity, rather than to judge whether it would be a good idea. At present, this situation has led us to the brink of disaster.

The last time there was a financial crash, the Queen famously asked: why was no one able to foresee this? We now have the tools. Perhaps the most important task for a public inquiry will be to finally ask: what is the real purpose of the institutions that are supposed to foresee such matters, to what degree have they been politicised, and what would it take to turn them back into institutions that can at least inform us if we're staring into the lights of an oncoming train?