Saturday, April 10, 2010

Australians and Germans at it Again

The Alternative to War

Last Sunday on Radio National's, Australia All Over Macca repeated the proverb that war will be with us always. I don't think he's right about this. War appears to have largely disappeared from the World in fact (with a long view), and I can easily see a future where it is seen as archaic as is slavery and monarchy.

Shit, ok I've got some explaining to do. There's still war going on all over the place right? Small wars in Africa, insurgent wars in the Middle East and southern Russia, and let's not mention Palestine. But here's the curious thing. There's less chance of a new born citizen of the World being killed in war now than ever before in history.* To understand that statistical fact we have to get all anthropological, and answer those who claim that war was in fact infrequent and low-level in most tribal society. The problem is that if you had a bit of a scrap only every few years - over a hunting ground or a woman generally - and only one young warrior was killed - then the casualty rate is very high among a tribe of only dozens or hundreds, and every male has a very high expectation of dying by violence in his life.

Believe it or not the statistic is true, and even with reference to only 100 years before, even for the generation who was born into the great 20th century wars. Although they were World Wars, most of the actual expanse of World remained at peace.

Our first conception of a world at peace is pax romana, the recognition during Roman times that despite the fact that Rome was built by military violence and that the military were highly visible, all of the space within the empire was in fact at peace, and for many of the peoples involved, unusually so. The Greeks did not war with their neighbours during this time for example, and even more unusually they did not war with one another. Ideas spread throughout the area fluidly. It was not a great step for a political thinker to conceive that by conquest World peace was possible.

The more recent and more interesting example of course is Europe, a continent that has been at war pretty much since Rome fell. Pax Europa is pretty compelling - with Europe's continuing integration it's hard to see Germany, France and England ever again scrapping it out. Historically, that is extraordinary. Did it happen by conquest? In the end, no, but war had a lot to do with it. It came as a result of bringing warfare to its logical conclusion, where everyone loses and nobody wins. War only really works (for the victor at least) when technologies are vastly unequal, a historically unsustainable situation, and moreso with globalised information. Friedman, in that book I read a bit of, The Lexus and the Olive Tree, reckoned that no two countries that have an established branch of McDonalds has ever warred with one another. I don't know how well that's borne out over the last decade, but even if exceptions can be found I think it candidly illustrates a truth. With economic integration between nations, which for technological reasons more than political or military ones is unprecedented, war becomes less and less likely. Arms dealers may still relish the prospect of war, but most businesses, highly globalised, specialised and integrated, simply do not. Politically, at least since Vietnam, war has also become a political nightmare for governments, especially in the West.

There's a much deeper argument that war cannot end, to do with human nature. It says that we are warlike by nature, and can draw strong arguments from evolutionary psychology. Our ability and constitutional inclination to divide the human world into an 'us' and a 'them', and indeed to feel warlike toward the 'them', seems to be a part of our nature which we can thank for the survival of our family trees for the past million and more years. We can't throw it just by a bit of state indoctrination or mass participation in flower workshops. It's a strong argument.

Those famous ancient Greek city states, who would often have jolly good scraps with one another during the summertime, would cease warring every four years for the Olympic Games, where they would compete in a more civilised manner. Through these games, a tradition lasting hundreds of years, before the Roman Church banned and repressed it, the Greeks maintained an identity bigger than their city-zenship, of a single people. The games, in terms of the free expression of our human nature (with all its gruesome evolution, its barbaric tribalism, competitiveness and false collective pride), were a direct and explicit alternative to war.

Was it a coincidence that the Greeks, the inventors of a viable alternative to war, also were the inventors of participatory sovereignty - ie democracy? Probably. Yes, I think that was essentially a coincidence.

It's no coincidence though that the World Cup has expanded to include every country in the World in this time of relative peace, and it's clearly no coincidence that the World Cup was cancelled during both the 20th Centuries World Wars. The World Cup is part of globalisation of course, but it is big enough that it also drives globalisation, and has from the beginning been limited mostly by the forefront of technology. The global focus upon it this year will be, as has been the trend, more complete than ever. There will be billions either watching or closely aware of the Final, and everyone on this planet will know who holds the Cup within a few days. Everyone.

On the 13th June, Australia will do battle, in the civilised manner, with Germany, in Durban, South Africa. Let's be clear that the stakes of the World Cup, in a civilised manner, are nothing less than total World domination. The winner is presented with the most beautifully conceived trophy of all time, a pair of hands holding a ball… no not a ball, a globe. You win, symbolically, control of the planet, and hence become the custodian of pax universal for four years.

The Matchup

Australia and Germany have battled before, and the stakes in the wider competition were also no less than World domination. Like Durban 2010, Tobruk 1941 was not a home game for either side, but was on very unfamiliar territory. It may also be prophetic that at Tobruk Australia played a deep, sustained defense, with speedy, incisive counterattacks following each German advance. Rommel's Afrika Corp had never been defeated and Germany were clear favourites to win.

This battle did not just concern the poor bastards in Africa doing the scrapping. The German and Australian people were both following the battle as closely as information would allow, and were intensely emotionally involved with every gleening. Psychically the nations were at the battle, willing their side to win, supporting in any small way they could, needing the elation that would come with victory, even despite the horrible sacrifice, and dreading in the darkest possible way the prospect of defeat. I don't blame the newspapers. I think we're just like that.

The apparently weak Australian lineup was written off by strategists on both sides, but it held. Goalless draw, with Australia winning on penalties. In Durban there will be no tie-breaker, but a goalless draw would be good. A flawless defense with a minor miracle from Timmy Cahill would be better. Don't tell me that's not possible. It's one 90 minute period.

Just for the exercise, and perhaps because it was ANZAC Day the other day, can we consider for the moment the reality of Tobruk. Our Australian grandfathers really did fight their grandfathers. They killed each other, did everything in their power to make the others' life and death hellish, whist enduring the same. They made one another's mothers weep, orphaned one another's children. Australians and Germans really did this to each other. Fucking crazy but true. Globalisation, of which The World Cup is a profound, even crowning, expression, has given us hope that Germans and Australians will not organise to treat one another with such incivility, even in passionately patriotic competition, ever again.

But on that football field, on the 13th June 2010 in Durban, Australia begins its humble but spirited campaign for World domination in a battle against a superior foe. May the game be fair, well refereed and have no serious injuries.

45 Days. Fuck.

* My "statistical fact" comes from Stephen Pinker (maybe 7 or 8 years ago), either in The Language Instinct, The Blank Slate or How the Mind Works. I can't remember which and can't be bothered looking for it. Aside from any cynical questions about my memory, I understand Pinker to be in the habit of using a high standard of peer reviewed research.


Tuesday, April 06, 2010


It was about three and a half years ago that I began this blog, on a high of enthusiasm for the new sport I have quickly grown to love. September 2006 was my first post. No mysteries about the timing.

The World Cup itself was over though so I launched automatically into following the A-League. Soccer has absorbed me since, and I count it as an important part of spiritual life, but I can no longer think of any compelling reason to follow the A-League.

Some may think I'm being mean or spiteful. "Why dis Australia's League?" they might ask. After all, it can only get better with support. If I love soccer then I should support the A-League anyway, right?

It's a reasonable argument, but really I just think I'm being honest about my response as a consumer. Regardless of how you do it, it costs money to follow the A-League. Not just $5 or something either, but hundreds of dollars a season - as much as a hard-core music enthusiast would spend on concerts, say. It has to be worth it. It's not. Increasingly it just looks like a circus, but without the quality entertainment.

The short of it is that the Brisbane Roar cannot repeat its original seduction of this consumer. This time they're going to have to realise a product that is worth it for me to seek out.

The next clamour of voices I hear are going on about "Loyalty." How you can't abandon support for your team when its down. There is allusion to the great English club traditions where fan-loyalty is tatooed onto a person's soul if not their body. I'm interested in this phenomena.

Now I have trod a twisted path so far in this life, having been involved in religious groups and political groups. I've heard the call for "Loyalty" before. In my mind it comes from a time of Protestant vs Catholic, English vs Irish, worker vs boss, a time of sharply deliniated and highly destructive divisions in an industrialised anglo-celtic world. "Solidarity brother!" "Discipline comrade!" "The workers, united, will never be defeated." "Manchester, United, will never be defeated." It's an old world, and not one that can avoid critique, especially as it gave rise not just to colourful fan cultures but to tribalism, hooliganism and violence. So sorry there, the Loyalty thing just doesn't rub. I'll make independent decisions about what I'll spend my money on, thanks.

Meanwhile of course The Brisbane Roar and the A-League are about as far away from the sorts of communities that evolved these fan-cultures as David Beckham is from Garrincha. Quite clearly they are businesses, as cynically run as any, who have no regard for the loyalty of these old fashioned fans whatsoever, especially as these loyal fans are not where they expect any growth to come from.

The modern Australian clubs are selling a product to consumers. That's absolutely fine - I'm not some sort of anti-capitalist - but let them sell it! There's a lot of good, inexpensive competition for entertainment. There's much better soccer on free pay-TV if you love the game itself, and if you just love supporting a team, it costs practically nothing to support the Brisbane Strikers, who, like the Brisbane Roar, are great for amateurs.

Anyway, the World Cup is the gig right now. 65 Days. Soccer is life. Life is soccer. But the A-League is an overpriced product.