London Calling: “Our Great War Is a Spiritual War”

This week I learned that Manchester United, the rough and tumble British footballers, have a Facebook page that ranks in the top five for social engagement—alongside Jesus Daily (conservative Christian powerhouse), Justin Bieber (pious teen idol), and The Bible (“by the greatest author of all time, God”).

There’s undoubtedly much to say about the conservative Christian spin of Facebook engagement and the attendant challenges to interactive digital spirituality confronting more progressive Christians. But as I gazed at the data, I couldn’t help focusing on Manchester United, the team whose fans—hardly alone among their ilk—bloodied the Brits through the Thatcherite 1980s into passing the Football Spectators Act of 1989 (FSA). The still-controversial FSA aimed to curb football-related injury and death not by insisting on safe and secure stadiums, but by banning “known or suspected troublemakers” from attending matches.

Through the 1980s and ’90s, British sociologists tended to argue that soccer hooliganism was an attempt by traditional soccer fans—hyper-masculinized working class youth who had been edged out of attending matches by rising costs of a more commercialized, celebrity-fueled sport—to reclaim the sport and some measure of social dignity and authority. For such fans, though many soccer “yobs” count banning orders as badges of honor, the FSA was a particularly cruel blow that continues to offend.

And now, it seems, the offense has left the stadium environs and extended into the marketplace, where disenfranchised British youth are no more able to afford the Nikes and iPads and flat-screen TVs that are ceaselessly spun into their psyches as inaccessible markers of meaning and status, than they are tickets to a Premier League match.

A Spiritual War?

This, at least, is the gist of much of the heated banter on the uprisings on the Facebook fan page of trip hop duo Massive Attack, where one fan drew something of a spiritual assessment from the film Fight Club:

“Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need. We’re the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War’s a spiritual war… our Great Depression is our lives. We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.”

Massive Attack’s own controversy-stirring appraisal, posted on their blog and generating robust interaction on their Facebook page, moves beyond consumerist failure to what is emerging as a more pointed political indictment from many less mainstream commentators:

…with the complicit support of the government, the banks looted the nation’s wealth while destroying countless small businesses and brought the whole economy to its knees in a covert, clean manner, rather like organised crime… These kids would have to riot and steal every night for a year to run up a bill equivalent to the value of non-paid tax big business has ‘avoided’ out of the economy this year alone. They may not articulate their grievances like the politicians that condemn them but this is absolutely political… It’s mad, sad and scary when we have to take to the streets to defend our homes and businesses from angry thieving kids, but where are the police and what justice is ever done when the mob is dressed in pinstripe?

Ethical Depravity, Ill-Gotten Wealth

The troublesome mix of commerce, politics, and spirituality has a long history in England, going back at least to the Poll Tax Revolt of 1377, which fed into to the more extensive and more violent Peasants Rising of 1381.

As literary historian Steven Justice has shown us, the Rising had everything to do with how ordinary people were using the new media of the day (vernacular spiritual texts for common education and political broadsides for common expression) to “assert the rights of the laity to the intellectual, as to the material, goods of the institutional church.” For medieval rebels influenced by the teachings of John Wyclif, clerical ownership of extensive, untaxed monastic lands facilitated a shifting of the burden of public finance, particularly that required for unpopular foreign wars, onto the shopkeepers, laborers, and the poor.

Of course, religious institutions no longer control the bulk of national wealth in Britain or elsewhere, but the ethical depravity associated with inequitable distribution of education, opportunity, and the shiny stuff that goes with ill-gotten wealth continues to incite tightly twined spiritual and political outrage.

When such outrage spills into the streets, the enduring tradition has been to brand dissenters as villains, hooligans, and rioters regardless of their actual participation in any violent action and without consideration of underlying causes that may not justify but might explain the roots of what Darcus Howe insisted to BBC anchor Fiona Armstrong was no mere opportunistic rioting but “an insurrection of the masses of the people.” The Voice columnist’s deeper social assessment set Armstrong stammering into a line of offensive accusations about Howe’s own past involvement in rioting that eventually prompted an anemic apology from the BBC after video of the interview spread from YouTube to Facebook to Twitter and so on around the world.

Only vaguely satisfactory, but surely better than the connived executions of Wat Tyler, John Ball, and others who spoke on behalf of the 1381 insurgents.

All Out of Opiates in England

Setting the social tone aright has long involved encouraging religious piety—acts of devotion like prayer, fasting, and, it seems now, posting on Facebook, meant to appease an angry god into compassion and, perhaps more importantly, distract believers from both their woes and material longings.

Indeed, religious belief and participation has a strong correlation to self-reported feelings of happiness and well-being. However, new research by Ed Diener and colleagues on Gallup data from 2005 to 2009 shows that the correlation between religion and happiness is amplified by economic misery, with “People living in nations or states with more difficult circumstances… substantially more likely to be religious.” In circumstances of prosperity and security, religiosity has a negligible impact on perceived happiness.

That is, religion does seem to turn out to the opiate of the masses.

But wait: Diener’s research also indicates that the dominant religious orientation of a culture pressures subcultures into conformance despite their less happy circumstances. In Western societies like Britain and the United States, the affluence of the powerful few, uninterested with religion as they happily are, shapes the norms of religious participation for the society as a whole. The effect is to minimize the role of religion as a social balm. That is, the United Kingdom, among the ten least religious nations in Diener’s study, is pretty much all out of opiates. Those who have don’t need them for happiness, so they’re off the market for everyone else.

So, too, with sports teams, which have been sources of identity, pride, and social connection for the working classes in generations past. While the jury is out on whether playing or watching sports encourages aggression or releases it, it’s clear that, as social constructions, sports organize such feelings, bringing cohesion to an otherwise voiceless, fragmented mass. One hardly hopes to see more of the sort of melee that that broke out among rival West Midland fans in 2010, loosing England its bid to host the 2018 World Cup.

Nonetheless, responses to such events that ignore the underlying issues they express—that would see soccer-related violence, like the uprisings this week, simply as ferociously bad manners that can be corrected by cutting off social media access—invite more of the same. Absent religious institutions, soccer grounds, or other outlets as sites for organized repression and/or expression of the powerlessness and hopelessness that characterizes youth culture in places that simmer like East London all over the economically floundering developed world, more such outrage is always just one blind, stupid authoritarian action away.

Of course, however well they may or may not have worked in the past, institutionalized structures for venting or swallowing underclass rage are not the answer. One wishes that some productive combination of government attention and grassroots organization might allow things like education, opportunity, and economic equity to transform so much misdirected pain and anger into lives of meaning and purpose.

Otherwise, whoever picked the Clash’s apocalyptic “London Calling” as the anthem for 2012 Olympics in London is perhaps more prophetic than she or he intended to be.