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Friday, 9 November 2012

How to frame an argument, with Ai Wei Wei and Arsene Wenger

The week has been dominated by oppositions, the contrast of this with that, most noisily the US Presidential election. No sooner was the result known than political commentators were busy contrasting American democracy with China's leadership regeneration process (not quite as exciting as Doctor Who's). The reporting on China tends to assume that the common people really want Western-style democracy, hence the high profile given to those like Ai Wei Wei who deal in concepts such as freedom of expression, even though all the evidence of recent decades, from Iran in 1978 (before the Khomeini putsch) through to Libya last year, is that what the people want may only loosely relate to the Western model.

The philosophical debate about democracy tends to polarise between a relativist view, which sees it as culturally determined and contingent (many varieties), and an idealist view that sees it in terms of universal principles (the one true church). This is not a straight left-right division, as many proponents of relativism are pessimistic conservatives (or "agnostic liberals", like John Gray), while some on the left cleave to the Enlightenment belief in a rational ideal. Others, like Ai Wei Wei, are sensitive to both views without explaining how this can be resolved. Broadly though, neoliberals tend to believe that democracy and free markets are the same thing, a species of consumer choice, and that one inevitably entails the other. This is the underlying assumption of much reporting on China, hence the "growing demand for freedom" trope in reports on industrial workers, as if agricultural workers didn't give a shit. When those liberated from the yoke of tyranny fail to adopt western-style democracy and markets wholesale, this is attributed to the baleful influence of religion, tribalism and poor education, or just plain "backwardness". A neoliberal take on false consciousness. Thus enlightenment liberals end up supporting anti-Islamic pacification while women demanding education and improved health care get more column inches than trades unionists demanding higher wages.

The idealist-relativist argument is intractable because the idealists invariably identify the form of democracy they are committed to as the one truth, while the relativists say that this very behaviour proves their own view to be correct: a variant on Arsene Wenger's "everyone thinks they have the prettiest wife" crack. In the West we "bracket" this problem and simply ignore the wrinkles in practical democracy (money in the US, the House of Lords in the UK, the EU's "democratic deficit" etc). Instead, we eulogise those features we think are common and foundational. Prominent amongst these is the notion of a "free press", though the term has long been hijacked to mean the liberty of media owners rather than the right of anyone to publish. As anticipated, the media agenda-setting for the upcoming Leveson Inquiry report is focusing on the narrow question of statutory regulation, with no discussion about media ownership or plurality.

The amount of heat and noise generated over an issue is often inversely proportional to the degree of difference between the two opposing positions, a variant on Sayre's Law (usually attributed to Henry Kissinger in the form "academic politics are so vicious precisely because the stakes are so small"). Sometimes there is no meaningful opposition. In a piece charmingly entitled "the tribal grunts of left and right", Simon Jenkins today delivered a beauty: "The right has no answer to the widening gulf between rich and poor. The left has no answer to the chronic need for welfare targeting and means testing." These positions are not equivalent. One, inequality, is a consequence of policy, while the others are policy prescriptions. Jenkins seems oblivious to the role that the latter may have in creating the former.

All of this high-falutin' nonsense is just a preamble to a discussion of the latest chunterings in the world of Arsenal. As noted by many, the sports media have been indulging in an "Arsenal supporters deserve better" riff for some weeks now, legitimised as they see it by the dissent at the recent AGM (much of which was obviously influenced by prior media stirring). Henry Winter in the Telegraph has accused them of having a "runners-up mentality", while Richard Williams in the Guardian thinks Wenger is "finally losing his grip" (note the use of the word "finally").

The contrast here is between Arsenal's current performance and league position and where they "should be". As the more sane Arsenal fans regularly point out, the club's current resources would predict a 4th place position in the League, which is where we've tended to end up in recent years. Between 1998 and 2005 we finished in either first or second place. Roman Abramovich bought Chelsea in 2003, moving them from the 4th-6th range to 1st-2nd from 2004 by spending shedloads. The Abu Dhabi United Group bought Man City in 2008, working their way from 10th in 2009 to 1st in 2012 by the same method. Since 2005, Arsenal have finished either third or fourth. Over the same period, Liverpool have dropped out of the top four. Achieving the "runners up" slot, taking Winter's phrase literally, would be a good result. Indeed, coming third last season (ahead of Chelsea) was no mean feat. Unless you look at the season-on-season history, it's easy to forget just how consistently good Arsenal have been relative to the competition, and how misleading talk of Wenger "losing it" is.

League position, and cup success, broadly reflect the amount of money invested in the team, though the cups are obviously more arbitrary. Chelsea enjoyed luck on their way to the Champions League title last season, but no one could claim it hadn't been coming over the last decade. A good manager, like Wenger, can push a team higher, but the difficulty of this increases exponentially - i.e. you can add 5 or 6 places at the bottom of the division, 2 or 3 in the middle, and only 1 at most at the top. A new manager would not result in Arsenal suddenly jumping from 3rd to 1st, though presumably the calls for a change are working on the assumption that a new broom would result in a lot of money being spent on new players. This is unlikely. Most observers estimate that there is enough free cash to buy one or two top-level players, though we need to recognise that the top-whack price is never fixed. If Lionel Messi were on the market, we could in theory make a bid, but we'd quickly be blown out of the water by a richer club setting a new world record transfer fee.

All debates about Arsenal ultimately boil down to the willingness of the owners to spend money with no expectation of a return. It should be obvious that this isn't going to happen under Stan Kroenke, any more than it did under previous owners. When Arsenal had the "Bank of England" tag in the 1930s, this was on the basis of a self-sustaining model - i.e. the new ground at Highbury delivered big crowd receipts that funded record-breaking transfers. The Hill-Wood family did not spunk their fortune, any more than Danny Fiszman did. Anyone who argues for a massive cash outlay now must therefore accept that they are arguing for a full takeover by Alisher Usmanov, but without any guarantees that he will actually do what they want. You see, football clubs, being businesses, aren't democracies, and there is little in Usmanov's track record to indicate he is a champion of the rights of the little guy.

My personal day-dream is that some kindly benefactor (i.e. me, after I discover a garden shed-sized gold nugget underneath my garden shed) buys the club and then hands it over to the fans on a one-fan-one-vote basis (my definition of fan would cover all existing members plus fan clubs and others on payment of a reasonable minimum sub). This would, by definition, commit the club to operating on a self-sustaining basis (the occasional whip-round might be possible, but I doubt that would raise enough for cover at left-back). Presumably, those fans who think we should be finishing in 1st or 2nd would vote for the club to abolish its new-found democracy and become the plaything of a rich mogul.

Given that my daydream isn't going to happen, the only feasible revolution would be an Usmanov takeover, which could happen if Kroenke has his price or simply loses interest. The odds are that Usmanov would spend silly money, but then the odds are that we'd morph into a combination of Chelsea and Man City. While this would on the face of it satisfy those who chant "we want our Arsenal back", it would ironically be the one thing that would utterly divorce the club from its history. We didn't sell our soul when we moved to the new stadium, so let's not start now.

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