Modernity and Man Utd image

Modernity and Man Utd

One of the challenges faced by any student of "modernisation," or whatever we call it, is how to sail between the Scylla of Eurocentrism and the Charybdis of fashionably inclusive political correctness (as in, "everyone modernised in their own way, and Europe had no more impact than anyone else.") On the one hand, we want to avoid the idea that the world only advanced through contact with Europe, because Europeans are culturally, intellectually or morally superior. On the other hand, if we ignore the unique place of Europe in the story of modernisation, industrialisation, the rise of science and the shape of the modern world, we will fail to understand it.

Well: I’m hugely enjoying C. A. Bayly’s The Birth of the Modern World, 1780-1914 at the moment, and he grasps this nettle superbly. He demonstrates both the global interconnectedness of the growth towards modernity in the long nineteenth century, with the majority world shaping Europe and vice versa, and the central and irreplaceable role played by Europe in the story, as evidenced around the world to this day in patterns of dress, language, naming, medicine, leisure, mapping, freedom of women, communication, bureaucracy, literature and timekeeping. Modernisation has happened globally, in thousands of different ways, but each instantiation has remained indelibly marked by European features, and will continue to for the foreseeable future.

Here’s a helpful summary paragraph of why that happened, applied in this case to scientific inquiry (p. 318):

Complex human societies everywhere had developed rational systems of thought and ways of applying technologies to production. The early expansion of industrialization and the creation of professions in Europe and North America, however, had given specialists there a substantial lead in the creation of general systems of scientific thought which legitimated themselves internally, rather than through recourse to theological or cultural arguments. Euro-American economic expansion also allowed physical, chemical and biological discoveries to be applied to routine mass production more rapidly. When non-European societies began to experience rapid urbanization, state formation and industrialization, they, too, rapidly found ways of borrowing from the Western centres, as well as adapting aspects of their own, older systems of knowledge and rational investigation to create indigenous scientific thought.

It’s an important idea, although admittedly difficult to explain on the back of a napkin. But this is where Manchester United comes in.

Football teams rise and fall. You win some, you lose some. But if the ones you win happen to coincide with a period of dramatic growth, global expansion and economic power—such as the formation of the Premier League in 1992, and the massive financial investment made by Sky as part of Rupert Murdoch’s bid for world domination—then you are likely to be able to build on your victories, plough your profits back into the system, and set yourself up as a key footballing power for a very long time. As a lifelong Liverpool fan, I obviously hate Man Utd, and would have the strongest possible objection to the idea that they were better than all other football clubs. But by being the best team in the country at the right time (1993-97), thanks to a top manager, a strong youth team, a global support base stretching back to the Munich air crash, and the two best bargains in the history of the modern game (Schmeichel plus Cantona for £1.5m?!), they were able to capitalise on the huge money that had started flowing into the Premiership, turn a team into a squad into a dynasty, finally win in Europe, and consolidate their position as the UK’s leading club without the need for an oligarch owner. Despite two calamitous subsequent managerial appointments, in which I have personally delighted, they are still in a position to buy Paul Pogba and Zlatan Ibrahimovic in one year, and will remain a force to be reckoned with, in all likelihood, for generations.

That, if I am reading Bayly right, is basically what happened to Europe. The sudden breakthroughs of international communication, industrialisation, scientific acceleration and global commerce happened to occur in a period when Europe was in the best position to profit from them. If globalisation had begun when the Chinese, or the Ottomans, or the Safavids or Mughals or Spanish were the key world power, then we would now be living in a world shaped by their discoveries, their languages, and their culture. They would have been the ones in the best position to consolidate their power. But for whatever reason—and this is not the place to go into that, although my reading leads me to believe it has something to do with Christianity, something to do with Roman law, and something to do with slavery—it was Europe who was in the right place at the right time, and therefore able to profit from the sudden influx of money and innovation that took place in the long nineteenth century. Europe is not superior, any more than Man Utd is superior. It just happened to be the power with the most advantages at the moment when everything changed.

And, of course, the situation will be entirely different a hundred years from now. There will be a new global powerhouse, and Europe, and Man Utd, may be playing in the Vanarama National League for all we know. That should prompt a bit of perspective, as well as humility. “My name is OzyManUtdias, king of kings …”


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