There may be nothing more mysterious in human nature than the compulsion to turn our ideals, to turn our very devotion, towards violent and murderous ends. What is it that compels the human being, in all his and her shades and shapes and contexts, to justify destruction in the name of what he and she believes in from the utmost depths of their hearts, what he or she believes to be the most valuable and cherished part of existence?
Our allegiance to what we think are sacred principles all too often leads us to the demonic and profane. The Catholic sage Thomas Merton points out this lethal hypocrisy in his essential and underappreciated tome Seeds of Destruction, written in 1963-1964 at the peak of the struggle for the Civil Rights bill and written in a very Baldwinian tone, as Merton was in existential dialogue with James Baldwin at the time. Merton, in framing his overall thesis of the problem of the American presence and experience, argues that American devotion to the sacred rights of the individual, rooted as it were in the Gospel call to see every person as Christ himself, ended up being a justification for defending such sacred rights at the tip of a nuclear warhead.
Merton argues in Seeds:
We fail to notice that the plans we have devised for defending the human person and his freedom involve the destruction of millions of human persons in a few minutes...by destroying them we hope to destroy a system which is hostile to us and...is tyrannizing over them...Their oppressors have taken away their rights-but we will compound the injury by also taking away their lives and this in the name of the "person" and of "freedom"!...In that case, it is not really the person and his rights which come first, but the system. Not flesh and blood, but an abstraction." (21-22)
What is created in this lethal hypocrisy is a line, a point, a threshold, which must be crossed. The sacredness of the individual is lost in the violence of the mass of the system. The values we hold dearest to our heart are obliterated and trampled in the rush of the collective, of the crowd, of the way our allegiances and our place in society at large threaten the very existence of our very self.
In our exploration of the phenomenon of English football hooliganism in Bill Buford's Among the Thugs, we are trying to understand how a seemingly ordinary civilized specimen, the young English male, uses their football devotion as a fulcrum, as a damn catapult, into violence of the most macabre and vicious order. As Buford clearly points out, it is not, as commonly assumed (perhaps in the same way as commonly assumed with Donald Trump supporters), that these blokes are hard-up for the pounds and pence. That may be the case with some of them, but many of the blokes bleeding Man U red and Chelsea blue that Buford encounters are young men with an entrepreneurial spirit and/or steady working-class, even middle-class jobs. Some are even quite filthy rich, although their wealth seems to come from such mundane criminal sources such as gambling and drug-running.
Economics, as always, is not the zero-sum answer here. There is something more inscrutable here that Buford feels in his bones. It is the mystery of how the individual, in all his and her ideals and thoughts and hopes and dreams, loses all that to blend into the mass, into the crowd, with the result being violence of a most uncivilized order (as if there any other kind of violence). It is what happens when this crowd becomes a living being of its own, a rash, unpleasant, vicious living being bent on destruction and chaos. Somewhere in that crowd is perhaps the answer to the puzzle and riddle of the Thug that Buford seeks. But first he himself has to abandon what he can to enter in.
Of course sometimes human nature, in the service of hatred and violence, isn't so mysterious. Sometimes people are just fucking racist. In all the inscrutableness of Buford's quest, he does note and encounter the presence of what we could term the British alt-right of its time (and perhaps of this time as well if the Brexit was any indication). This is the British National Front, and Buford explores the Front's obvious influence on turning on some of the less housebroken blokes into thugs and hooligans, nurturing their thuggish side once they cross the rubicon by the use of garden-variety fascism.
Buford dives right into the discos of the National Front and their copious literatures to try to make sense of the obviously fascist element of the Thug. Here the Thug of this distinct ilk doesn't try to hide or justify his dark side, as so many have already attempted to do once they learn Buford is an embedded journalist in their campaign. All too often the blokes refuse to identify or claim themselves as hooligans to Buford, in the same way that your average kombucha-swilling airy indie-rock purveying resident of Brooklyn will refuse, with all the strength of his skinny frame, that he is most certainly not one of those hipsters. Of course these blokes claim one thing to Buford and then, quite literally in the next paragraph, are smashing a bottle or brick over the head of a West Ham supporter.
In the case of these National Front flavored thugs, they have a "small but detailed blue swastika" on their forehead. Or they are quite obviously wearing a SS uniform with a "black and red Nazi armband." In their very bootlegged brown parchment magazines, the different firms, or clubs of blokes/Thugs for each football club, compete to be the "the number one racist firm in the country." Quite horrifically then, there is also "the ape grunt." Buford explains the experience at White City during a Queen's Park Rangers match:
The first time I heard the ape grunt-the barking sound that supporters make when a black player gets the ball-it was so foreign I couldn't figure out what it was...My friend turned to me and said: What is that curious sound?...It's because a black player has the ball, I said. They are making an ape sound because a black player has the ball...The grunt was coming not from a few lads, but, it seemed, from everyone on the terraces-old, young, fathers, whole families. Everywhere we looked we saw the ugly faces of men grunting, sticking out their lower jaws in their crude imitations of apes...My friend's face was still fixed in a expression of intense incomprehension. I couldn't explain it. I was embarrassed to be living in this country.
Like I said sometimes, or God help us most of the time, people are just fucking racist. Buford's deep dive into the National Front discos, where he tries to avoid getting too drunk and too beat up by the local thugs in the service of information he is seeking, doesn't reveal any particularly revelatory information in his quest, other than authoritarian influences are alive and somewhat well in modern England amidst a certain element of the discontented youth. In fact Ian Anderson (not the Jethro Tull guy), one of the National Front "leaders" Buford dialogues with, claims that there is nowhere else besides the football ground that you will find "so much discontented youth in one place."
The nature and cause of this discontentment ranges from fucking racism to economic uncertainty to profound mystery. Buford doesn't find any esoteric answers in the pub with the swastika embossed blokes, dancing in homoerotic embrace to their White Power music. But he does notice something which sets him off in an interesting and challenging direction. When one reads, for example, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, it is made clear that part of the genius of Hitler as a political animal, and of any effective authoritarian leader, is the understanding of the nature of the mass, of the crowd, and how to control and shape this crowd to the desired ends of the system, even if one has to expertly fake any actual concern for the everyday fate of the everyday person who makes up said crowd.
The so-called "leaders" of the British National Front, those with suits and girlfriends and who maintain a careful and considerate distance from the White Power manly moshing, know that these Thugs are the meat of their party. Like any good fascist, they need these quite unwashed masses to enforce the political power they hope to gain. They need to forge and form these Thugs into a crowd that is its own special kind of living being designed to wreak intentional havoc. Buford writes:
I am sure Ian Anderson was right when he said that the football stadium was his ideal recruiting ground, but he would have also known that it provided a special kind of member, one already experienced, if not trained, in how to become part of a crowd, sometimes a violent one, even if it was not politically directed. And he would also have known that the crowd is the revolutionary party's most powerful weapon.
Buford adds of the National Front helmsmen:
They understood something about the workings of the crowd; they respected it. They knew that its potential-its rare, raw, uncontrollable power-was in all of us, even if it was so persistently elusive.
Readers first coming to Among the Thugs may wonder why Buford now takes a diversion here from the thrills and chills of his embedded journey amongst the blokes to dive into a meditation on crowd theory. He drops all the right names: Clarendon, Hamilton, Plato, Carlyle, and especially LeBon, the luminaries of crowd theory. He draws us into an examination of a subtly harrowing image from Yugoslavia from an indeterminate recent point in history, in which a crowd, a seemingly well-behaved, well-dressed crowd of normal citizens, surround a military tank. One of these besuited citizens is on top of the tank reaching down inside to pull up the commander of the tank, literally by the scruff of his neck and the sockets of his eyes, Buford points out a sentence later than one soldier was reported killed that day, and we are left to assume that this commander was the one murdered We are left to assume and to wonder at the fact that amidst this seemingly well-behaved crowd murder emanated and emerged.
Within all of us, Buford argues, is this "rare, raw, uncontrollable power" to do what we would not normally do, amplified, encouraged, and created by our sublimation in the living organism of the crowd. I think that, by this point in his own journey, still immersed but looking back and looking ahead, Buford was beginning to understand the presence of this monster within himself. His experience of participating in, even at a clear distance, the dark arts of football hooliganism, did not always bring out feelings of disgust and revulsion. There were times, as we will explore shortly, that he, if not enjoying the experience, was clearly exhilarated by what was happening around him. He felt himself giving in to the crack, the buzz, and the fix of it all. He needed to stop and take stock of his own approach to the threshold of violence by taking a step back and up into the airs of theory.
Yet as Buford looks towards crowd theory he does not find exactly what he thinks he may be looking for. He writes:
Crowd theory makes sense of the crowd and in violence, as if, as in a scientific experiment, the right conditions could and always will produce the same results. Crowd theory tells us why-relentlessly, breathlessly, noisily, as if by shouting the reasons loudly enough the terror can be explained away. But crowd theory rarely tells us what: what happens when it goes off, what the terror is like, what it feels like to participate in it, to be its creator.
Crowd theory may provide something interesting to think about but for Buford it fails to explain both the why and the what. He finds no real clearer answers to and for the Thugs and why he finds himself not just attracted to them intellectually but fraternally as well.
What does become clear to Buford is that there is always a threshold to be crossed, when the crack, the buzz, and the fix becomes so intense that seemingly normal citizens cross the line towards violent anarchy. There is a point in which, as Buford describes, the temporary illusion of forms which surround the natural, inherent formlessness of the crowd fall away, leaving nothing but a freedom to transgress what we mutually accept is, by and large, for better and for worse, the definition of civilization.
The why of it all remains elusive. The what still always slams like a piston into the skull, and for all the pontificating about the Thugs Buford deftly and eruditely attempts, the what of their violence remains both inscrutable and intensely present and remains the primary concern, felt in the sting and the sweat and the blood and the crack of bone upon concrete.
Buford asks both in the abstract and in the distinct: "and when the threshold is crossed, the form abandoned?" This can be considered the central question of the book, of the Thugs themselves. In our next blog, we will cross this threshold again along with Buford, and the actual answers he finds on the other side of the rubicon both deepen and clarify the mystery, and lead for Buford, to experience the violence of the Thugs in a way he never expected.