(okay I’m a little late on this, sorry)
Paolo di Canio’s appointment as Head Coach at Sunderland has prompted much more discussion than di Canio’s appointment at Swindon. This could be a matter of the greater attention generally paid to Premier League football than lower leagues in the UK, although I think papers such as the Guardian have spilt more ink on SAFC these last two weeks than they have all season. It’s more probably caused by David Milliband’s resignation as Sunderland’s vice-chairman, a decision he claims was taken because of di Canio’s ‘past political statements’. Nothing, of course, to do with his other recent resignation as South Shields MP and his imminent move to New York.
Whatever the explanation for the scrutiny of di Canio’s past political statements, coverage of the appointment has reminded us of what an utter prick di Canio is. A few notable examples of di Canio’s past idiocy have served as a reminder of this. The first is one of many incident that involve di Canio the player: pushing referee Paul Alcock when playing for Sheffield Wednesday in 1998, resulting in Alcock’s laughably embarrassing slow-motion stumble to the ground. This was a particularly silly moment in di Canio’s turbulent career as a player, and is perhaps more forgivable than his conduct during the fallout of the red card and the push. You will read in some recent coverage that di Canio accepted his 11 game ban with dignified remorse, agreeing that he’d made a serious mistake and serving his suspension without fuss. While this may be the case, he was much less honourable following the suspension. Di Canio spent most of the suspension in Italy and when the time came for him to return to Sheffield in December 1998, he refused. His absence from training resulted in fines from the club totalling £102,000, and ultimately a move to West Ham the following January.
In most other footballer’s careers this would be a relatively serious incident, but as a one-off it would likely be forgiven. But of course, in di Canio’s case this was neither a relatively serious incident, nor a one-off, but instead symptomatic of an unpredictable temper and a confused attitude toward authority that would lead to much more serious cases of stupidity. Similar situations in his brief time as a manager are I think less easy to dismiss, and with greater responsibility for the direction of a club the actions of di Canio the manager should be taken more seriously than those of di Canio the player. And so perhaps we should be more worried by the altercation between di Canio and Leon Clarke, a forward at Swindon during di Canio’s period as their manager.
In August 2011, after Swindon were beaten by Southampton 1-3, Clarke left the field in a bit of a strop telling staff around him, including di Canio, to “fuck off”. In the video above we see a clumsy attempt by di Canio to calm Clarke down, putting his arm around Clarke and trying to find the words to cool Clarke’s temper. Di Canio doesn’t have much luck with this, but has already committed himself to the playing the role of comforting coach-father, and refuses to let Clarke go. Di Canio is blinded by his pride and his steadfast refusal to give up on an ill-judged attempt to console his player (the mistake should be evident in the way Clarke reacts initially), and this leads to a quick and violent escalation once di Canio and Clarke are (almost) out of camera-shot at the end of the tunnel.
Di Canio’s explanation of the situation runs as follows: “I saw Leon insulting my colleagues. So, as his manager, I put my arm round his shoulder and told him to go down the tunnel…He kept on swearing. I had to grab his shirt and put him up against the wall. It wasn’t violent. But he’d been saying ‘fuck off’ repeatedly, to people older than him. Imagine Sir Alex Ferguson in that situation. Eventually I had to say: ‘OK. Now you fuck off.’”
Thus according to di Canio he had no choice (and, apparently, Fergie would have done the same). In a sense, he’s right about this, so long as we accept three things. First, that he also “had to” put his arm around Clarke. Once the decision had been made to deal with the situation in this way, there was no going back for di Canio. Second, that the best way to deal with the possibility that, as an inexperienced manager unsure of how to deal with a very pissed off player, you might have made a mistake, is to push ahead with that decision tenaciously and ignore all the signs that you should rethink your approach. And third, that when all else fails the only option in response to a disrespectful player is to “grab his shirt and put him up against the wall”. In other words, that when someone is being irreverent and failing to acquiesce to the authority of elders, that person needs to be dealt with violently.
Although of course according to di Canio he wasn’t being violent; he only grabbed Clarke’s shirt and put him up against the wall. This instance of di Canio’s Jesuitical reasoning bears much resemblance to his account of the third and most infamous example of his utter-prickishness. Di Canio’s personal history of fascism is of course what Milliband was referring to when he cited ‘past political statements’ as his reason for leaving Sunderland. To be more specific, Milliband was referring to di Canio’s explanation of why he had raised a right arm salute to Lazio fans at at least two matches: ‘I am a fascist, not a racist’. Add to that di Canio’s praise for Mussolini in his autobiography (‘basically a very principled, ethical individual’) and the ‘Dux’ tattoo on his right arm, and we have the reason why local war veterans are boycotting the club, and the Durham Miner’s Association have requested the club return their trade union banner, previously on permanent display at the Stadium of Light. This has to be the most worrying aspect of di Canio’s pre-Sunderland history as both a player and a manager, and the fact that it took him so long to go on record at Sunderland to say he is not a fascist will continue to worry fans like myself.
Too much has been made, I think, of di Canio’s attempt to distinguish fascism from racism, partly because it wasn’t really much of an attempt at all, but just another instance of di Canio doing or saying something without any thought. Di Canio doesn’t show any sign of having a considered position on whether fascism entails racism, what fascist principles are, or what it would mean to be a fascist. He also doesn’t seem to have much understanding of what racism is, or any understanding of the difficulties in distinguishing nationalism, jingoism, xenophobia, chauvism, and racism, nor should we expect him to.
But this hasn’t stopped others trying to make these distinctions for him. I’m thinking particularly here of a feature on Newsnight last week, a panel discussion on the history of fascism with Paxman approaching the issue with a typically clumsy “what is fascism, anyway?” and historians and anti-fascism campaigners disagreeing over whether the fact that Mussolini didn’t introduce explicitly anti-semetic laws until 1935 means that fascism is not inherently racist.
The “what is fascism?” question should, I think, remind us that what fascism is not necessarily what it was when it was first given a name in Italy, not necessarily a feature of a political ideology that is common to each instance of a legitimate use of the word “fascism”. What fascism means now, and what it means for someone to state that they are a fascist in the 21st century, can be and is different to what it would have meant in pre-war Italy, and different again from what it would have meant in Europe immediately after the war. Figuring out whether there is something to defend in di Canio’s claim that he is a fascist and not a racist should not involve an effort to identify core principles of fascism that predate the explicitly racist laws of war-era Italy. This is precisely because a commitment to fascism, with a proper understanding of what that entails, is a commitment that will entail different things at different points in history, and in 2013 it is (at least) more likely that a commitment to fascism, with a full understanding of what that means, is also a commitment to racism.
All this is to say that whether or not we can legitimately divorce fascism from racism will not be decided by trying to identify a feature common to different uses of the word “fascism”, nor a version of fascism that is purified of its ostensibly accidental features. Nietzsche was making a similar point when he said that ‘only something which has no history can be defined’ (On the Genealogy of Morality II 13): that to try to understand something like a society’s punitive practices, or in our case a political position known as fascism, we must do something other than settle on a definition of the phenomenon (features X, Y, Z are necessary and sufficient for something to be an example of fascism).
Nietzsche’s application of this principle in the case of the history of punishment leads him to object to the common place assumption that punishment has always been thought of as retribution for those who have wronged. Originally we did not punish because the punished “deserved it”, Nietzsche will say, but instead because those who fail to keep their obligations to others (particularly material debt obligations) needed to compensate those others for that failure, and did so in the form of a right to indulge in sadism (“can’t get your money back? Make up for it by getting off on beating up your debtor”). Understanding what punishment is now, for Nietzsche, does involve understanding its history, but not to understand what has stayed the same through that history but in order to understand what new perspectives and interpretations have been introduced in order to make punishment what it is today.
Similarly, an application of this sentiment in the case of di Canio and fascism should lead us to resist finding the answer in core content of fascism ever-present in its history. This is not to say that the history of fascism is irrelevant to the question of whether fascism entails racism, but it is to say that looking to an original meaning of fascism is unhelpful.
The issue of di Canio’s racism aside, we have the question of whether he is a fascist – it’s not as if the problem with di Canio’s possible fascism is just whether or not he is must be committed to racism. Di Canio himself is obviously confused about whether he is a fascist (and indeed confused about whether Mussolini was worthy of admiration). But what di Canio thinks about this isn’t really the point. The sense in which di Canio is a fascist is seen is his conduct, and not in what he has said about fascism explicitly.
There is a reason di Canio has been drawn to Irriducibili Lazio (to whom his fascist salutes on the pitch have been directed), and a reason for his attraction to Mussolini. An answer to the question of whether di Canio is a fascist, and not just if he is thereby a racist, must recognise the character seen in, for example, his confrontation with Clarke. If I’ve read the situation correctly, Clarke ends up against the wall because of di Canio’s stubborn refusal to back down, a hard-headed tenacity that his defenders portray as principle and passion but surely rather betrays a fragile pride and a reluctance to admit error. Combine this with di Canio’s claim that he had to deal with Clarke’s irreverence with violence, and you see the latent fascism in di Canio’s attitude towards player management. The authority of the manager, and of other elders, is not to be questioned. The possibility that this authority has made mistake cannot enter into his assessment of the situation, and when a decision is made by this authority it must be followed through no matter what. And if the dissenting subservient continues to question the authority, violence is a legitimate, in some situations the only, way to deal with that subservient. Thus whether di Canio’s past political statements are a reliable indicator of his attitude towards fascism, his fascist sympathies are evident in his unspoken statements, and the way he has conducted himself as a manager.
Still, we should at least entertain the prospect that just as fascism is a historical phenomenon – and thus capable of adopting different meanings at different times – so too is di Canio. It may have taken him a while, but he did finally denounce ‘fascist ideology’ in a late attempt to defuse the situation. Has a new, non-fascist interpretation imposed itself on Paolo di Canio? As a Sunderland fan, I certainly hope so.