Back in the days of the Soviet Union, it was common to hear people on the left criticise the Kremlin for pursuing the wrong kind of socialism. There was nothing wrong with the theory, they said, rather the warped form of it conducted behind the iron curtain.

The same argument has surfaced this week amid the furious response to the now-aborted plans to form a European Super League for 20 football clubs, only this time from the right. Free-market purists say they hate the idea because it is the wrong form of capitalism.

They are both right and wrong about that. Free-market capitalism is supposed to work through competition, which means no barriers to entry for new, innovative products. In football’s case, that would be a go-ahead small club with a manager trying radical new training methods and fielding a crop of players it had nurtured itself or invested in through the transfer market. The league-winning Derby County and Nottingham Forest teams developed by Brian Clough in the 1970s would be an example of this.

Supporters of free-market capitalism say that the system can tolerate inequality provided there is the opportunity to better yourself. They are opposed to cartels and firms that use their market power to protect themselves from smaller and nimbler rivals. Nor do they like rentier capitalism, which is where people can make large returns from assets they happen to own but without doing anything themselves.

The organisers of the ESL have taken textbook free-market capitalism and turned it on its head. Having 15 of the 20 places guaranteed for the founder members represents a colossal barrier to entry and clearly stifles competition. There is not much chance of “creative destruction” if an elite group of clubs can entrench their position by trousering the bulk of the TV receipts that their matches will generate. Owners of the clubs are classic rentier capitalists.

Where the free-market critics of the ESL are wrong is in thinking the ESL is some sort of aberration, a one-off deviation from established practice, rather than a metaphor for what global capitalism has become: an edifice built on piles


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