Wednesday, January 12, 2005

The Good Old Days

Our friend Andrew Nixon, on his excellent blog "Think of England", writes a fascinating account about the growth and demise of English hooligan culture. Please read it in full. The story of tribal affiliation among young males is an age-old story, but what is interesting in this case are the reasons for its demise:

Anyway, that all stopped in the early 1990s, and it’s no longer a problem in Britain.What killed it? Partly better police intelligence, but the main reason was a cultural shift.

The old days of the terraces – firm breeding grounds where you could stand where you liked and get yourself into little gangs to sing abusive songs, have gone. Big grounds are required to be all-seating. Football is now, in very sense, ‘multicultural’. Sky television bought the rights to football coverage in 1992, called Division 1 “The Premiership” and glammed it up like the NFL. There are more women, children, middle-classes and ethnic minorities going than ever before – a football match is basically much more like an American sporting occasion.

Chelsea FC – once home of the Headhunters – are now owned by a Russian billionaire, managed by a Portugese coach and have only two or three English players, and their fans are the richest and poshest in the country.

And the few remaining pockets of hooligan culture in England are now in the backwaters and the lower divisions, where the glamour and gentrification has yet to penetrate (Cardiff, Millwall and Stoke are the worst).

So a crucial factor for the success of tribal male gang culture, exclusivity, was removed when English football fanship became, as we say here in the States, a "family" activity. Andrew makes a comparison between hooligan culture and the saga of organized crime in America, especially in respect to the nostalgia being expressed for it:
In much the same way that America’s Italian hoodlums have become lionised in celluloid, time seems to have diminished the genuine feelings of fear and loathing the football ‘firms’ of the 1980s inspired, and replaced them with a romantic notion that these were merely loyal gangs of Merrie Men expressing their masculinity. And a key myth is that hooligans only ever hurt each other, leaving innocent bystanders alone.

The main difference, of course, between English hooligan gangs and the Mafia is that the former was purely a "non-profit", or recreational affilitation. The firms were in it for the excitement, the thrills that the peak experience of group violence bring to the young male psyche. A better analogy from an American standpoint would be the growth of motorcycle gangs like the Hells Angels in the 1950s and 1960s, or Gangsta Culture, a movement originating with black drug gangs in major American inner city neighborhoods such as Los Angeles or Chicago and spread by the popularity of Gangsta Rap, and resulting in local wannabe copycat gangs in smaller cities, among blacks and even middle class or affluent white males with no connection to the drug trade.

One nit to pick with Andrew's account:

In the late 1970 and throughout the 1980s, football crowds were almost exclusively white, working-class men.Within those crowds were pockets of bored, disaffected youths who gradually got themselves in gangs ('firms') with the intention of engaging in tribal warfare with firms from other teams.

It is pretty standard to see such men as being disaffected from society. From Merriam Webster Online, disaffect is defined as "to alienate the affection or loyalty of", suggesting that, through neglect or active discrimination, society has failed to earn the loyalty of these young men. I think that, contrary to this widely held assumption, such behaviors are more akin to the default social behaviors that young men will engage in if not actively coerced out of by the process described as "socialization". Call it the "Lord of the Flies" hypothesis. The kind of pro-social behaviors that we deem normal need to be driven into young men through an active conditioning process, much as a wild horse is "broken" into obedience to human masters. These young men, rather than acting out of some rage brough about by a feeling of being excluded from society, were instead acting from a sense of total freedom, of feeling that they have "the run of the place".

We'd all like to believe that the natural instinct of people, especially males, is to be good and to get along with others in society. It is amazing to ponder the extent to which we all promote this faith, in contradiction to actual experience.


Blogger Peter Burnet said...

"We'd all like to believe that the natural instinct of people, especially males, is to be good and to get along with others in society. It is amazing to ponder the extent to which we all promote this faith, in contradiction to actual experience."

Now wait just a minute here. Wasn't it just the other day that I was accused of being a gloomy Hobbesian for making exactly that point? I thought I was supposed to see how man is a "social animal" that will inevitably find "what works" through trial and error? This isn't fair. Hey, Mom...

This item dovetails nicely with your post on British drinking below. It is hard to deduce general principles because culture plays such a key role here. For instance, Norwegians also drink to get pie-eyed, but for some reason do so much less frequently than, say, Finns or Russians. But if there is one universal observation, I think it is that drunkeness and sports hooliganism seems to be in inverse proportion to the presence of children and mothers at drinking and sports occasions. The much ballyhooed self-discipline of Italian and Greek drinkers may be because they drink at family meals or in outdoor cafes where they can be seen by all. In tougher climes, adults tend to repair to windowless, childless sanctuaries. In this story, it isn't clear whether the new family focus is cause or effect, but whatever, it is to be celebrated.

The 1994 World Cup hosted by the States (and Canada) went off without one incident on or off the field, which is really amazing. Tough, zero-tolerance policing obviously was important, but so, I believe was the ethos that sports events are family affairs. I've taken Europeans to hockey games here and they are astounded at how fans of opposing sides can mingle even when emotions are stretched and how even the toughest looking guys will defer to attendants and respect the kids around them.

January 13, 2005 4:07 AM  
Blogger Brit said...


First, thanks for reading and linking to Think of England.

I accept the nit you pick. 'Disaffected' is one of those lazy cliches that lefties like to use to excuse all manner of bad behaviour. I should have omitted it.


In terms of the socio-anthropological point about human ethical behaviuor, an interesting lesson from hooligan firms is that although their behaviour is 'anti-social' and unethical in that sense, within each firm there are strict tribal 'ethical' rules: extreme, in fact ridiculous, displays of loyalty to the team (tattoos of the team badge are a must), looking out for your mate in the battle etc.

Incidentally, the Europeans would only be amazed at family atmospheres in sports stadia if they'd only ever seen football. There are no problems with hooliganism or extreme inter-team tribal hatred in any of our other major spectator sports: cricket, rugby, hockey, motorsport, basketball etc, all of which have the 'family fun' vibe you desribe.

The problem has always been unique to football. OJ would doubtless argue that it's because soccer is inherently decadent. In fact, the explanation is simple: football has by tradition been the game of the working man.

January 13, 2005 5:40 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

Hi Peter
I think the beef that Skipper and I had with your earlier rant was that you made it sound as if people would rather flee from any relationships with others, as if we were all hermits by nature. Our point was that people need to be in social relationships, although there is a strong temptation to take advantage of the relationships for selfish purposes. So, rather than term that kind of behavior anti-social, and the cooperative kind of behavior social, it is probably more accurate to refer to them as opportunistic sociability and egalitarian sociability.

As Skipper has pointed out previously, the social pressures of a larger group will try to punish and drive out the opportunistic (cheating) behavior over time, although once an opportunistic clique gains an advantage or a monopoly on violence, they can maintain their superior position for a good long time.

January 14, 2005 6:38 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...


No, I do not say that but for objective morality we would all repair to desert caves or commit daily murder and mayhem on our way to the office. We don't make a million difficult moral judgments a day. But I do challenge the argument that we are naturally inclined to care for one another in some spirit of group efficiency, either instinctively or rationally determined through experience(mother/child excepted). If you mean "social animal" in the sense of "party animal", sure, we need human contact in that sense and suffer without it.

If you are head over heels in love with your wife, you will care for her whatever you believe, just as you may soar on transcendental "family values" at that big Thanksgiving dinner. But staying committed to a spouse you find boring or caring for an aged, sick parent is altogether different.

January 14, 2005 7:40 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...


As social animals, we are pretty good at identifying what works in any given environment. But having a system of ethics, no matter how based, and attaining conduct consistent with those ethics, are two very different things.


You hit the nail on the head in identifying the competition for loyalty as the core problem. For some reason I can, despite living 7 years in England, only scarcely put a finger on, the wider society has utterly failed to earn any claim to loyalty among the most dangerous animals in the world: males between the ages of 14 and 30.

The only clue I have is the at least superficially similar nihilism afflicting African Americans in our inner cities. The similarity, it seems to me, is the notion that where perception diverges from reality, perception wins.

Until no earlier than fairly recently, England was a society with a pretty rigid class structure, with language enforcing the class barriers. Without having lived there, it is impossible to describe how much accent can change in the space of a two or so hour drive from Oxford to Liverpool.

Oxford English is no particular barrier to any listener. Liverpudlian English is indecipherable without a lot of practice. That accent distinction is just one of many, and they exist as a legacy of a class-ridden society. As does the nihilism of young men who have enough money to spend, but perceive they have nothing to lose.

As with our inner cities. African American young men perceive they have nothing to lose, and that the larger society has done nothing to earn their loyalty.

And they react just as nihilistically as the English yobs.

January 16, 2005 4:48 PM  
Blogger Brit said...


"Liverpudlian English is indecipherable without a lot of practice."

If you think Scouse is bad, you should try Geordie (Newcastle) or Glaswegian. Even we struggle to understand what the hell the good people of Glasgow are saying - no wonder US audiences need subtitles for Scottish movies.

I wouldn't have thought there's another country on the planet with so much variation in dialect and accent in such a small physical space.

Even within Liverpool there are two distinct Scouse accents. John Lennon was from south of the Mersey, so he sang "I saw hurr standing thurr".

If he'd have been from north of it, it would have been "I saw hair standing thair".

The comedian Alexei Sayle once pointed out that whereas most British accents blend into each other as you move across the country - for example, Mancunian turns gradually into a Yorkshire brogue as you head from Manchester to Leeds - the unique Scouse accent just seems to stop suddenly halfway along a street in Bootle.

It's a fascinating topic - all about, of course, the evolution of language.

January 17, 2005 8:47 AM  

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