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Sports and Politics. Force and Politics.

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Sports and Politics. Force and Politics.

Soccer fans defy emergency rule, force work stoppage in Port Said

Protesters block government offices (Source: Al Jazeera)
By James M. Dorsey (2/18/13)
Note from Dennis Loo: James Dorsey writes a blog called "The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer." I met James at a conference on the Middle East held at Cal Poly Pomona in 2012. Prior to his superb presentation I had no idea that soccer figured so significantly in Middle Eastern politics. His frequent commentary on soccer and its relationship to Middle East politics is always illuminating. I'm posting the introduction to his latest posting and encourage you to go to his site to read the rest of it.
Thousands of militant soccer fans, in an indication that emergency rule will not squash mass protests, blocked government buildings as part of a general strike in the Suez Canal city of Port Said that is at the center of mounting anger at the brutality of police and security forces and demands that those responsible for the death of more than 800 protesters since mass demonstrations erupted in Egypt two years ago and toppled president Hosni Mubarak be held accountable.
The protest that forced the closure of the port authority and disrupted rail and telecommunications services constitutes a reaffirmation of a deep-seated sense among residents that Port Said is being made a scapegoat for at best the failure by law enforcement to prevent and at worst to have instigated a politically loaded soccer brawl a year ago in which 74 fans were killed.

By targeting the port authority but stopping short of seeking to close the Suez Canal, the fans signaled that they could strike where it hurts most: Egypt’s economy that has been in decline since the overthrow of Mr. Mubarak and constitutes one of President Mohammed Morsi’s foremost Achilles heels. In a victory for the protesters, Mr. Morsi shied away from enforcing the 30-day curfew in the city that he had declared in January.

To see the rest of this, go here. But before doing that, a little further context:

By Dennis Loo (2/18/13)

As I wrote in 2011 immediately after Egypt's Mubarak was toppled:

In early 2011, the whole world witnessed the glorious and successful toppling in first Tunisia, and then Egypt, of their respective presidents. Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak finally resigned and fled the country on February 11, 2011 after an eighteen-day mass uprising, unprecedented in modern Egyptian history. Egyptians were inspired and triggered into motion by what the people of Tunisia had done over four weeks of mass protests. In the initial stages of the Egyptians’ popular upheaval Mubarak unleashed the police and then thugs not in uniform upon the people, killing some three hundred Egyptians. Street battles between the demonstrators and Mubarak’s forces ensued. Mubarak also attempted to bribe government workers with an immediate fifteen percent raise, fired his cabinet, cut off the Internet and (undoubtedly) ordered physical assaults upon foreign and Egyptian journalists. All to no avail. His legitimacy and capacity to rule by terror were finished, with the military choosing not to come to his defense in the face of this mass rejection by the people. The Tunisian and Egyptian people have thus written a new page in history.

The road ahead for them now is much brighter but immensely complicated, as Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Mubarak’s departures do not by themselves change the fundamental nature of power relations in these nations. In particular, as any initial euphoria towards the Egyptian military inevitably wears off, the recognition that this is the same military that served despot Mubarak and foreign power interests faithfully for thirty years will come to the fore.

The failure to recognize the central role of force in politics has drowned many a political struggle in blood or rendered it a failure through co-optation. The uprooting of regimes of domination and plunder cannot occur without a powerful struggle that includes, without exception, at least some degree of violence. The American Revolution against the British imperialists was not accomplished through a vote. The revolutionaries did not use tea to shoot at the British soldiers; they used bullets. The British did not say in response to numerous petitions from its colony, “Oh, all right, you want to be free, you shall be free. We’re leaving now. Best of luck, what?”

The end of apartheid in South Africa provides another instructive example. The white minority regime eventually ceded power in 1994 to a black majority but it did not do so without the African National Congress’ prior prolonged armed struggle. The eventual peaceful transition via negotiations for multiracial elections circumvented the necessary destruction of the mechanisms that had for so long violently subordinated the black majority. In the absence of that vital restructuring that cannot occur simply through substituting who is in high office, the condition for black South Africans has not been fully transformed and much suffering continues, except now under darker-skinned leaders. (Globalization and the Demolition of Society, pp. 126-127) (Emphasis added) See my comments in endnote below about the Oscar Pistorius case.[1]

I wrote these words shortly after an Egyptian in the streets, after Mubarak fled the country, declared that the Egyptian Army was a fast friend of the people.

“You shall see soon enough,” I thought, “that this is definitely not the case.”

The twists and turns in Egypt since Mubarak’s downfall have shown this over and over:

  • The military has not ceded its role as ultimate enforcer of interests opposed to the people of Egypt as a whole, it has in fact moved to expand its dictatorial powers;
  • Elections do not and never will produce revolutionary change;
  • Anyone (e.g., Morsi) arising through elections or any other process other than a revolutionary people’s uprising that forcefully and thoroughly destroys the existing organs of political power (including the military and police forces in particular and the bureaucracy in general) is not going to be able to, even if they wanted to, break with the past in a progressive, let alone, revolutionary direction.

While Egypt’s successful toppling of Mubarak is widely seen as a non-violent popular action, the occupying of Tahrir Square - which was the centerpiece of Egypt’s initial stages of this revolution in process - required at numerous points the use of people’s violence against Mubarak’s uniformed and non-uniformed goons. In other words, even in what is considered non-violent protest, some degrees of revolutionary violence were necessary. Had the Egyptian people all sworn themselves to pacifism, they would have been routed and dispersed by Mubarak’s henchmen and Mubarak would today still be in power.

Politics and force are inseparable. Why is this?

Clausewitz’s famous dictum about war—“War is nothing but the continuation of policy [politics] with other [violent] means”[2] —highlights the fact that war is not something arbitrary, mad, and apart from any other human activity. Rather, wars are extensions of politics. They represent politics carried forward into the realm of the open use of massive violence to achieve political objectives. The extreme violence of wars represents a magnification of the force present in everyday politics and built into the social and economic structures of societies themselves and the choreography of everyday movements and interactions. Where there is not explicit coercion, domination exists. Coercion, in other words, exists on a continuum. Domination and resistance to that domination assume a multitude of expressions.

As a friend of mine who taught a number of years in the American South has observed, people there are extremely polite. That politeness masks and helps to forestall the eruption of open violence, given the long-standing domination there along racial, class, and gender lines. Politics and coercion are, in short, inextricably intertwined. Speaking of politics and failing to also address the role of coercion and violence is like talking about the ocean and not mentioning tides and waves. It is like discussing silk’s properties and forgetting that silk comes from the deaths of silkworms. It is like striking a nail into a board without the board.

Even voluntary associations of people such as unions cannot dispense with some level of coercion over their membership. When a majority of union members votes to strike, but a few union members still want to continue working despite the strike, the workers observing the strike must exercise some pressure over their resistant union members. If everyone gets to do what they want, and some union members choose to cross the picket line, then the strike will be lost. Extended into the larger societal sphere, existing economic structures that advantage some over others cannot be changed if some compulsion is not applied upon those with privilege. Those with privilege are not, as a whole, going to willingly and voluntarily give up their privileges just because “it’s the right thing to do,” especially if those privileges are immense.

The notion, in other words, that you can have social change that enhances fairness and equity without resorting to some level of coercion constitutes wishful folly. Coercion is an inescapable product of the fact that, at the very least, disagreements will always exist among people over what should be done. Parents coerce their children into going to bed at a certain time and into eating their vegetables. We call that parenting. The need to get things done, whether those things are the right or best things to do or not, still means that some people must be forced to go along with things they do not agree with. The fact that coercion might be being exercised in the interests of, and with the full backing of, the majority of people and/or exercised by a wise minority in the greater interests of the community does not change the fact that coercion is being used. (I tell my students sometimes that my classes are an example of a benevolent dictatorship, suitable for a classroom, but not for a society.) As Frederick Douglass put it,

Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without ploughing the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.[3]

Or, as Frederick Engels said in response to those within the communist movement who thought it possible to peacefully transition from capitalism to socialism and have a revolution by ballot: “Have these gentlemen ever seen a revolution? A revolution is certainly the most authoritarian thing there is. . . . one part of the population imposes its will upon the other part by means of rifles, bayonets and cannon. . . . ”[4] Real revolutions involve force. This has always been so. There are no exceptions. Speaking and advocating “revolution” without mentioning the fact that force must come into play, whether you want it to or not, claiming that a “revolution at the ballot box” can do it, amounts to misrepresentation of a high order as to how political power actually operates. If the revolution is to live up to its name as a thoroughgoing systemic change and not merely a change in who is in charge, then revolutions cannot occur wholly peacefully.

In general, the larger the material gap between those who resist a revolution and those who back a revolution, the more we can expect that violence will be required and will ensue. Put another way, the more unequal the society, the more the mechanisms that perpetuate those inequities are in place and the more likely it is that those who benefit from those inequities will fight fiercely, deviously, and tenaciously to protect—or restore—their positions, as they have so much to lose.

How the state’s armed forces act is central to the question of how much violence will be involved. If they side with the despised regime, then violence will be greater. If the armed forces abandon the state that is under siege by the people, then violence will be less. In the 1917 Russian Revolution the soldiers en masse abandoned the government’s side and the revolution itself was therefore relatively bloodless. In addition, since the Bolsheviks immediately made good on their promises to pull Russia out of World War I, the level of violence dropped enormously. Subsequently, however, the White Armies of those who had been overthrown—joined by European and US forces—waged a bloody civil war against the revolution in an attempt to regain power.

States, it should be noted, have not always been with us. In fact, over the course of the two hundred thousand years of human societies, states have existed for less than five percent of that time. Prior to the development of an economic surplus, a state, which is in its essence an organized body of (usually) men with weapons who use force to implement state policies, was not present. Throughout most of human existence, there was no economic surplus to protect on behalf of those who controlled and enjoyed the fruits of that surplus. Put another way, states exist because classes exist.

“Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” as the often cited quote by Lord Acton goes. This saying, however much it may perceptually describe what frequently happens, nevertheless does not uncover the source of the problem. It treats power as if it were something pursued for its own sake. Power does not exist in the abstract; it must include the ability to do something; power on a societal level means control over the distribution of material resources. Political power is, therefore, fundamentally a development linked to certain levels and configurations of material distribution and to a certain epoch of human history in which resources and services are distributed highly unevenly. When that lopsided distribution is overcome, then the need for a state and its exercise of political power will be superseded.

Acton’s notion is based on the fallacy that corruption and misuse of power are products of some invariant thing called “human nature.” Invoking “human nature” is a very common practice, but it fails to take into account the fact that throughout most of human existence, class oppression and classes did not exist. If “human nature” is at fault for our present troubles, then why has human nature been so strikingly different for the last five percent of our existence as compared to the previous ninety-five percent of human history, when no governments and no classes existed?

To paraphrase sociologist Robert Michels’ “Whoever says organization, says oligarchy”: whoever says government, says classes. What neoliberalism represents is the unapologetic assertion that classes shall exist. To paraphrase George Wallace’s comments about segregation, classes now, classes tomorrow, and classes forever. And the gap between them shall grow wider and wider and wider. . . .  (GDS, pp. 127-130)

Struggle over how society should be organized, what should be valued most highly and what should be subordinated to that, what the relations among the people should be characterized by – shall women be subordinated to men or should people of all genders be equal, should private interests prevail at the expense of the whole or should the public interest prevail over private interests, and so on – are all in play always. They express themselves in hundreds of ways, ranging from the explicitly political to realms such as sport and art. The struggle in Egypt continues and a genuine revolutionary leadership – revolutionary communists – who deeply understand what it will take and why the twin poles of Islamic fundamentalism and U.S. imperialism are deadly dead ends, must come to the fore. Anything else is illusion.

[1] South African sports figure Oscar Pistorius’ shooting and killing his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp in their gated community is a tragic example of the ongoing problems there. A few years ago another resident of this same gated community, a rugby player, Rudi Visagie woke to the sound of his car being driven away in the predawn hours. Opening fire upon the driver, he tragically killed his own 19-year old daughter Maryle. South Africa has one of the highest murder rates in the world and one of the highest incarceration rates (the U.S. has the highest). The paranoia that people feel and that led in likely part to Steenkamp and Maryle Visagie’s killings, by their very own loved ones, is directly linked to the fact that South Africa has not had a revolution. There are undoubtedly other dimensions to the Pistorius case, not the least of which is probably domestic violence, but that too can be linked to the fact that revolutionary changes would and must include ending the oppression of women and their being treated as the property of men.

[2] Carl Von Clausewitz was a Prussian general and famous military theorist (1780-1831). In many different passages in his writings he reiterates the point that the sources of war lie in politics. For example, "War is not a mere act of policy but a true political instrument, a continuation of political activity by other means." See “Some Juicy Quotes from Clausewitz, On War,”,, accessed February 11, 2011.

[3] Frederick Douglass, “Letter to an Abolitionist Associate,” In Organizing for Social Change: A Mandate for Activity in the 1990s, eds. K. Bobo, J. Kendall, and S. Max (Washington, D.C.: Seven Locks Press, [1849] 1991), cited at “Frederick Douglass, the Accurate ‘Without Struggle/No Freedom’ Quote,”,, accessed February 13, 2011.

[4] Frederick Engels, “On Authority,” in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels,, Selected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1973), 2:379.

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