The reification of Welsh rugby

(Also available to read on Medium)

A shiver down the collective spine of the Welsh nation: international rugby (or, one presumes, that which is presented in the English language) may soon disappear from free-to-air television. This has obviously created a degree of collective consternation about the implication for Welsh mass culture, and rugby’s apparently totemic place within it.

This mass panic is renewing calls for devolved broadcasting, among other things, and is shining a light on how Welsh interests are marginalised in an increasingly homogenised British discourse. Yet this (righteous and welcome) campaign is in danger of erasing the deeper cultural logic of rugby in Wales, what its political economy is, and the class relations bound up therein.

In the conversation around this issue thus far, there seems to be a failure to notice the changing class composition of the Welsh rugby audience as a unified mass over the last decade or so. For despite the assertion framing Plaid Cymru’s petition on the matter (a cynical data harvesting exercise if ever I’ve seen one), the notion that ‘Welsh rugby is not for sale’ is an overly-romantic falsehood driven by wishful thinking.

I wouldn’t want to overstate (as it so often is) the importance of rugby to the ‘Welsh national psyche’ (such that a thing exists), but the Welsh Rugby Union has long-since reified the cultural worth of rugby union in Wales; a mere symptom of the process by which, as Fredric Jameson describes:

‘the older traditional forms of human activity are instrumentally reorganized and “taylorized”, analytically fragmented and reconstructed according to various rational models of efficiency, and essentially restructured along the lines of a differentiation between means and ends.’

The slow commodification of Rugby union in Wales, in this formulation, has removed the sport from its place as a ‘traditional activity’ in which ‘the value of the activity is immanent to it, and qualitatively distinct from other ends or values articulated in other forms of human work and play’. Consequently, rugby is but one facet of Welsh culture ‘in a world in which everything…has become a commodity’, and as such ‘by its transformation into a commodity a thing, of whatever type, has been reduced to a means for its own consumption.’ This is what we talk about when we talk about the sport being ‘for sale’, not merely the minutiae of television broadcast rights.

It will come as no great shock to longstanding observers that the grassroots soul of the game is being sold to keep up with the process of monetisation that deems rugby as nothing more than a vehicle for selling mortgage advice and Range Rovers to middle England. The possibility of the Welsh national team disappearing from living room TVs and pub big screens is thus simply a continuation of Wales’s longstanding punishment for being a poor country enraptured by a rich man’s sport.

The evidence for this is insurmountable. Ticket prices for international games are all-but-unaffordable for what’s ostensibly an expression of national working-class culture; clubs and the communities that sustain them are struggling to survive; world-famous teams are left with little choice but to give up their historic homes (ask David Buttress, entrepreneur-darling of IndyWales, about this one).

This tendency has obviously been accelerated — and necessitated to some degree — by the professionalisation of the sport in the mid-nineties. At a ‘regional’ level — the artificial bridge between the amateur and international game — Welsh rugby has succumbed to neoliberal market logic: once-historic clubs forced to ‘unite or die’ to compete for the lucrative-but-limited riches of the professional game. As a result, clubs have ripped themselves from longstanding geographical specificities in the misguided aim of broadening their appeal. From Newport and Ebbw Vale to ‘the Dragons’, from Neath and Swansea to ‘the Ospreys’, and so on. Hyperreal zombie-teams that bear little resemblance to the working-class sporting culture from which they were born.

In spite of its contemporary presentation, the ‘Welsh’ in Welsh rugby is the solidarity, the community, the collective endeavour of working-class peoples creating their own leisure time. It is this real value that has been exploited, exaggerated beyond recognition into an empty signifier of nation, monetised into a grotesque extravagance, and ultimately recuperated into the middle-class British spectacle we see on those two-or-three springtime Saturdays. The pre-game military parade; the pissed-up boorishness; the inflatable-daff theme-park Welshness. No, despite the assertions of those who now wish to save it from what it has become, this thing we call ‘Welsh rugby’ was sold off a long time ago.

Beyond petitions and impotent worrying, there are coherent means of overcoming this problem, but first it’s worth recognising the underlying politics driving the hollowing-out of our so-called ‘national sport’. Namely, it shouldn’t go unnoticed that rugby only has mass cultural value and ‘national’ meaning because it’s embedded so deeply in many of our communities. Therefore, if its health is failing, it’s because the health of our communities is failing. In other words, the commodification of Welsh rugby is a mere symptom of wider political problems.

Like many things in our lives, therefore, we suffer because control of that which is precious to us has been removed from our collective ownership and snatched by the hands of private capital. Rugby is a sport that we hold dear, but one that we do not own. In many ways, the situation is somewhat analogous to the changing class dynamic of football in Wales, England and beyond, which, according to Mark Fisher, ‘has been at the forefront of the total re-engineering of English culture, society and economy wrought by neoliberalism over the last thirty years’.

There is a growing intellectual culture around class relations and football, and Welsh football in particular is one of the many beacons of resistance to the commercialisation of the game. Indeed, football in Wales feels very much in the hands of the people, whether that’s the fan engagement fostered via Y Wal Goch and Wales Away (Dan Evans’ essay in Planet 233provides a great summary of the principles driving these efforts), or the fact that so many of our successful clubs are leading the way in their approach to fan ownership.

It is difficult to articulate a similar means of reclaiming ownership in rugby, which is held hostage by the paternalistic, old boys’ club administration of ‘the blazers’ that run the game. Ultimately this is because such alternatives are simply not part of the emotional-political vocabulary of rugby fans in other parts of the world. Due to the pervasive British middle-class presentation of it at a mass level, and its legacy as a sport that ventures little beyond the post-imperial upper classes, rugby lacks the ideological framework with which the impoverishment of the grassroots game can be resisted. This is the real risk of rugby disappearing behind a paywall: we will once and for all lose the ability to collectively construct the meaning of our own relationship to it.

The first step should therefore be to recognise rugby for what it is: that is, to raise popular awareness of the phenomena described above, but also acknowledge that ‘we’ have a relationship to it that can be best described as metamodern:

‘a kind of informed naivety, a pragmatic idealism, a moderate fanaticism, oscillating between sincerity and irony, deconstruction and construction, apathy and affect, attempting to attain some sort of transcendent position, as if such a thing were within our grasp.’

On some level we know all the structural-political flaws of rugby and Wales’ place within it, but we love it sincerely anyway in spite of this, creating our meanings dialectically in semi-isolation from other cultures. There is real utopian power in that, and nobody — not Sky Sports, not the Welsh Rugby Union, not opportunist liberal Welsh politicians — should be able to take it away.

We should be deeply suspicious of any politician merely crowing about the sacredness of rugby without paying due attention to underlying, intrinsic socio-political phenomena, as both Plaid Cymru and Welsh Labour are wont to do. We should also recognise that the worrying about what we’re losing from the sport belies the real value it has for our collective material culture. Only then can we begin to invert the anti-utopianism of ‘global’, modern rugby, and reassert:

Proletarian artistry … the beauty of teamwork, competition, yes, but not the dog-eat-dog combat of capitalist realism …There could surely be no utopia that didn’t include something like this…

This is the meaning the Welsh gave rugby, in spite of everything, and it’s this, not a vague sense of cartoonish, commodified nationalism, that is being taken away.