It requires challenging mental gymnastics to reconcile having radical politics with being a fan of a premier league football club. With extortionate ticket prices, the explosion of corporate ownership and the prioritisation of profit maximisation over fan accessibility, the corruption of a working class social institution is a grim microcosm of how our cultural sphere is sandpapered into blandness by market forces.
Perhaps no club encapsulates this bleak process more than the one I have grown up supporting: Manchester United. In a morbid reflection of our post-2008 era of rampantly unequal, debt-fuelled economic growth, the Glazer family – United’s Trump-supporting American owners – have saddled the club with debt whilst creaming-off increasing returns for themselves. The club’s corporate wing boasts no fewer than 23 “official global partners”.
As an industry, Big Football has exploited the unique and unshakeable attachment that fans have for their team – an attachment that is often steeped in family and community. As Simon Critchley argues in What We Think About When We Think About Football, the innate communality of football clashes uneasily against the corruption and hyper-capitalism which has grown to define the game.
This context is partly why Marcus Rashford’s inspiring campaign against child hunger has so successfully captured the popular imagination. His relentless crusade to extend free school meals during a pandemic and an unprecedented economic crisis is in stark contrast with the corporatisation of his club and his industry. Yet beyond football, Rashford’s style of advocacy has also exposed the hollow nature of elite charitable giving.
The neoliberal form of giving.
The leftist critique of philanthropy is best encapsulated by Clement Attlee’s oft-repeated observation: “Charity is a cold, grey, loveless thing. If a rich man wants to help the poor, he should pay his taxes gladly, not dole out money at a whim.”
Historians including Donald Fisher, Barry Karl and Joan Malczewski have persuasively laid out the development of industrial philanthropy as a tool for elites to launder their reputation, avoid taxation and strengthen the status quo which enabled them to build their extreme wealth.
Historically, ‘robber barons’ such as John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie helped to develop the state in a way which protected their profits and guaranteed their influence in policy. Since 2010, Bill Gates and Warren Buffet – two of the wealthiest individuals alive today – have recruited around 200 billionaires to their Giving Pledge, which commits signatories to donate half of their wealth to philanthropy.
On the face of it, this is commendable. Yet a report by Global Justice Now argues that this form of neoliberal philanthropy – pioneered by Bill Gates – serves to exacerbate global inequality and entrench corporate power. Ultra-rich individuals, who routinely avoid taxation, also use charity to obfuscate their obscene wealth. Jeff Bezos may have recently donated $100m to food banks, yet this amounts to about 11 days of his income – and a fraction of the $120bn that his largely un-taxed wealth has increased since 2016.
As the wages of elite footballers have skyrocketed, a level of charitable giving has become the norm. Today, footballers from deprived areas across the world routinely give back generously to their communities.
It is unsurprising that philanthropy within the game has internalised the neoliberal nature of charitable giving. This is perhaps best encapsulated by the organisation Common Goal, in which players and managers donate 1% of their earnings to football charities across the world.
This is not to criticise these endeavours or the footballers behind them, who are often working class people from across the world whose talent has afforded them entry into an industry of extreme wealth. Yet it is revealing how the form of charitable giving within football tends to align with the dominant neoliberal form of philanthropy.
A new kind of advocacy.
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Rashford’s campaign is how it deviates from this established way of giving. We are used to the rich and famous allocating a section of their fortunes towards causes that ameliorate social ills, rather than meaningfully addressing them. Yet Rashford’s willingness to directly challenge the government by appealing to a shared morality stands out against this charitable norm.
It is, however, important to note the limitations of Rashford’s campaign. His food task force is staffed with corporate giants and many companies – including Jeff Bezos’ Amazon – have used support for this campaign to distract from their nefarious practices. Indeed, Rashford’s demands are hardly revolutionary and have only been rejected because of the unique cruelty of our government.
Despite these limitations, his campaign has been marked by a determination to mobilise opinion against the government to leverage concessions. This strategy was successful in June, when the government did a U-turn and provided free school meals over the summer holidays. After Boris Johnson rejected his recent petition for this to be extended for all upcoming school holidays, Rashford issued a rallying cry: “We must … unite to protect our most vulnerable children. No more sticking plasters. Let’s face this head-on. Let’s level up once and for all.”
This polite combativeness has been the hallmark of Rashford’s campaigning. Far from the neoliberal template of philanthropy, this is a celebrity using their platform to challenge the status quo – not just mediate it.
Solidarity, not charity.
Much has rightly made of the outpouring of community support which has been sparked by Rashford’s campaign, with councils, businesses and community organisations stepping in to provide free meals for the children who have been left behind by the state. Whilst feeding young people should never be left to the voluntary sector, such solidarity has been a heart-warming tonic against the divisive individualism peddled by a government which is all too happy to blame the public for its disastrous handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
Rashford is also reviving a proud tradition of football as a hub of communal solidarity. Many clubs, notably those set up by the Irish catholic diaspora, such as Hibernian and Celtic, were initially established to help combat rampant urban poverty. More recently, Fans Supporting Foodbanks, an initiative established by now Labour MP Ian Byrne, set aside the bitter rivalry between Everton and Liverpool supporters to inspire mass donations across the country.
In this vein, working class empowerment has been a central feature of Rashford’s campaign. His statements are defined by a refusal to blame children or families for poverty and a determination to break the stigma of food insecurity. In a recent rebuke to critics, he asserted, “I don’t have the education of a politician … but I have a social education having lived through this and having spent time with the families and children most affected”.
This refusal to accept rightwing talking points that exist to delegitimise common-sense beliefs, such as ‘children should not starve in the sixth richest country in the world’, is what most distinguishes Rashford’s campaign from the neoliberal standard of giving.
The government’s intransigence in the face of his campaign has laid bare the mindset of the governing class, with Tory MPs like Ben Bradley and Brendan Clarke-Smith spouting offensive ideological soundbites about free school meals increasing “dependency”, subsidising drug use or “nationalising children”.
These empty, neoliberal justifiers reflect exactly the kind of ideologies with which philanthropic efforts usually align. The fact that they are being challenged represents a welcome form of opposition that subverts the prevailing logic of high-profile charitable campaigns.
By inspiring communal solidarity and forcing the government to defend the indefensible, Rashford’s campaign has held up a mirror to the cruelty of this government and the brutal ideology it serves. In doing so, he has also exposed the hollow nature of neoliberal giving, which all too often serves to mediate elite reputations rather than meaningfully addressing injustice.
Joe Duffy is a writer based in south London with a particular interest in climate justice, radical history and weird fiction.