Football and Fascism

Next time Di Canio is asked about his political opinions, maybe he should meekly reply that he is only following in the tradition of some of the most famous political and intellectual leaders the world has ever seen

Di Canio: In the spotlight
Charles Crawford
On 2 April 2013 16:59

So, David Miliband has resigned from the board of Sunderland AFC to flee the new Sunderland manager, Paolo Di Canio and his self-professed fascist views.

How lucky we are to have some political figures who still set us an example of such high principle! We now eagerly await the noise of scampering feet as other British politicians distance themselves from football clubs whose owners come from Arab countries that deny people the vote and oppress women, or those parts of the former Soviet Union where it is official policy to beat up homosexuals and oppress NGOs and/or boil people alive. 

Let’s not be bamboozled into accepting the Daily Mail view that Italian-style fascism was ‘right-wing’. It wasn’t. It was the malevolent cousin of national socialism, a product of its time. 

It has impossible now to grasp the extraordinary emotional impact of pell-mell Machine Age advances in the first part of the last century. Huge impersonal machines. Stunning machine noise. Unimaginable machine speeds. Machines being used to make other machines. Warfare waged by machines. Machines flying. All from European and American white-skinned genius, leaving blacks and browns and yellows trailing far behind.

These inventions and the social upheaval they brought amazed Western intellectuals, and caused a whole new way of political thinking to emerge: that society too was a single vast machine, capable of (and indeed depending on) being regulated and controlled by the intellectual elite.

In these frenetic circumstances Communism, Nazism and Fascism emerged, self-contained ideologies based on Machine Age Bigness and an instinct for restless action. They promoted revolutionary lies, imagery and violence to try to seize the historic moment and control the past, present and future. They shared an explicit socialist/collectivist core, aimed at submerging the individual in a choreographed mass. Human beings became ‘the masses’, the puny cogs in the bowels of Metropolis toiling for a collective ‘higher’ purpose.

The sheer intensity of these movements across continental Europe made its impact on political thought in the UK and United States and around the world. To a degree we can now scarcely believe, Benito Mussolini and his fascisti were feted by both Left and Right.

Mussolini hailed from an explicitly socialist-populist tradition but in classic New Labour style identified a ‘third way’ between the angry revolutionary masses and big business: huge state-run corporations to control Italy’s economic life. This and his muscular demands for discipline and sacrifice - and above all his noisy popularity - created a political formula in which everyone could find something to admire.

Thus Mahatma Gandhi: “one of the great statesmen of our time”. Or US President Franklin D Roosevelt: “I am keeping in fairly close touch with that admirable Italian gentleman”.

Here in the UK H G Wells, the towering hero of 1930s progressive thought, in 1932 used the elite occasion of the Young Liberals summer school in Oxford to make an unusually explicit appeal: “I am asking for a Liberal Fascism.” Wells argued that the way ahead lay in turning to a new form of communism:  “We shall have to turn - we outsiders, that is, the young people with foresight for enlightened Nazis”. A year later Winston Churchill gushed about Mussolini as he saw him as a bastion against bestial Bolshevism: “the Roman genius…the greatest lawgiver among living men.”

With such giddy praise ringing in his ears, what could go wrong for Mussolini? Everything.

Some 620 weeks later Mussolini was dead, swinging upside-down from a meat-hook in a Milan square. Two of the evil three Machine Age ideologies and most of Europe lay in smoking ruins. It took a further 45 years for their Soviet Communist brother to keel over too.

Yet their malign influence lingers on, in the sprawling role of the state and the ingenious new ways our political masters use to manipulate us to give primacy to the collective over the individual.  See for example the Obama 2012 campaign slogan ‘Forward’ – an unhappy echo of the Mussolini newspaper Avanti! Centuries of British press freedom? Pof, gone! The European Union? As a senior European diplomat was heard to say the other day, “We shall now have to rethink our concept of democracy to make it compatible with Europe’s economic needs”.

So next time Di Canio is asked about his political opinions, maybe he should meekly reply that he is only following in the tradition of some of the most famous political and intellectual leaders the world has ever seen.

Meanwhile cynics might see plenty of similarities between the modern football enterprise and 1930s machine-age mass iconography. The impossible colour and swirl of night games. The teams in bright uniforms marching out to do battle before vast choreographed crowds that roar as a single mindless organism. Bland corporate titan owners perched high in the best seats well protected from the braying masses. Leadership cults. Medals. Heroic striving. Bombast. Lithe kitschy male athleticism – and flashes of brutish violence.

Thought and Reason, subordinated to Form and Emotion.

We mere individuals must be grateful that these days such extraordinarily potent if not dangerous tendencies play themselves out not in machine-age war, but by all of us watching people kicking a ball to and fro. Above all Gareth Bale.


Charles Crawford is a Contributing Editor to The Commentator. A former British Ambassador in Sarajevo, Belgrade and Warsaw, he is now a private consultant and writer. Visit his website and follow him on Twitter: @charlescrawford

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