If the age of There Is No Alternative has an ethos, it is this. Elected governments no longer have any levers to pull: their powers have been usurped by multinational corporations with no respect for borders, and politicians can merely surf passively on the choppy waters of the markets. Collective action from within civil society to secure lasting reforms has been permanently neutered, because governments lack the power to concede, and the fragmentation of society has reduced us all to isolated individuals looking after our own.
“You have as much capacity to effect change in a private sector setting as you do in the public sector, partly because nation-state governments have become emasculated by globalisation,” says former Labour turned Change UK turned Liberal Democrat politician Chuka Umunna, who recently joined JP Morgan in a “sustainability role”. “Capacity as a middle-ranking minister in a government of a country with 65 million people to do big change – given these big cross-cutting global currents – is much more limited.”
Umunna may find himself both busy and humbled this week. JP Morgan was the investment bank that put up €3.25bn (£2.8bn) to launch the European Super League (ESL), a project that was snuffed out of existence within two days by a mass revolt of fans. Such was the intensity of the grassroots uprising that Boris Johnson – long a champion in word, at least, of the so-called free market – threatened to drop a legislative bomb on the proposal. Corporate titans have long expected to get their own way – less regulations, ever-lower tax, government support and, indeed, bailouts when it all goes horribly wrong; but this week, the frontiers of their power were lit up in primary colours. JP Morgan is reeling: its role was signed off by its internal reputation committee which, the New York Times reports, “didn’t fully expect the emotional reaction from sports fans that has flooded the airwaves around the world”.
That capitalism has corrupted football is widely understood and – even to many of the otherwise politically disengaged – seems obvious. Football is a pillar of our national culture, one of the key sources of emotion in many people’s lives, sometimes second only to family. Along with the weather, it constitutes the go-to small talk with which strangers, disproportionately male, dispel awkward silences. It is a game with unequivocally working-class origins – Manchester United was founded by railwaymen, Arsenal by armaments workers – and in the early 1950s, the maximum wage of a football player was £14 a week.
But from the 1990s onwards, profit-driven businesses sought affluent middle-class fans; while the cost of a pint of milk has doubled since 1990, a match ticket has increased more than sixfold, and many games are only accessible via subscription services, fuelling an inflationary bubble of players’ salaries and agents’ fees. This trajectory seemed unstoppable – until it wasn’t.
If corporate power can be driven back in football then why not in sectors of society of greater consequence for our lives? At this week’s prime minister’s questions, Boris Johnson seemingly professed ignorance at the use of fire-and-rehire tactics by corporate titan British Gas, which provoked an epic series of strikes by its workers, even though his own government described such manoeuvres as “completely unacceptable” back in January. Although seemingly defeated, the protracted industrial action forced this otherwise ignored form of corporate control over workers on to the agenda: with more popular outrage this practice could be eliminated.
A young generation of climate protesters – inspired by Greta Thunberg – are on the frontlines of challenging corporate power. Throughout the 2010s, the big five fossil fuel companies spent £217m lobbying the EU to water down action on the climate emergency; globally, around £153m is spent to meet such ends. Money undoubtedly secures influence, but if corporate power can be chastened in sport, why not over an existential threat to our species’ very future?
Recent scandals involving corporate lobbyists – from David Cameron to James Dyson – have underlined how private interests subvert and enfeeble democracy. Britain’s biggest businesses spend at least £25m a year on lobbying politicians, not because they like to fritter away cash, but because they expect a return. Again, popular outrage could reclaim democracy from corporations bypassing ballot boxes with their bottomless pockets.
There are numerous other candidates: from the US asset management firms buying up affordable housing to unaccountable internet monopolies increasingly dominating our lives. That there was a consensus this week over the pernicious role of profit in football should be welcome; but it should be applied to examples that are just as malign and even more consequential.
Across the Atlantic, the struggles of those challenging corporate power has paid off. The insurgent left has succeeded in shifting the administration of Joe Biden, a politician with impeccable “centrist” credentials, to more radical ground, with commitments secured by the policy unity taskforce established between the president and Bernie Sanders last year. Plans by the administration for a global corporate tax rate represent a reversal in the otherwise supposedly irreversible “race to the bottom” of the last generation.
The great ESL revolt of 2021 has shown that corporate boardrooms are not invincible, and that business decisions that prioritise profit over wider social needs can be exposed as hubristic rather than lucrative. Rather than a one-off, the debacle has provided much-needed political education to millions about an economy rigged at every level in favour of unaccountable vested interests. It was grotesquely self-evident in football; but it should be obvious everywhere else, too.
Owen Jones is a Guardian columnist