Thursday, October 23, 2008

Book Recommendation: "Among The Thugs" By Bill Buford

I recently read a book called "Among the Thugs" and I really can't recommend it strongly enough. If ever you guys are going to follow one of my recommendations, this would be the time. Just trust me on this.

What is the book about? Well, it's written by an American journalist who spent almost ten years with soccer hooligans in England (Man United fans, if you must know), and wrote about his experiences. The result is one of the most chilling and unnerving books you'll ever come across. Buford writes in such a disarming and matter-of-fact way, which makes his anecdotes about United fans "taking over Turin" or violently disrupting a dinner party of policemen in a Turkish restaurant in London or preparing for Chelsea fans in subway stations all the more powerful. I won't try to tell the stories here, because I simply will cheat you of the experience of reading them first hand. Instead, I'll concentrate a little bit on the sociological ideas that lurk beneath the surface in the book.

The one thing that stands out in the book - quite deliberately - is the illustration of the power of crowds and mobs. Buford highlights how mobs assume an identity unto themselves that is separate and distinct from the people that make them up. More importantly, however, is the idea that the members of the mob themselves change: they are no longer themselves, they no longer act like the accountant or plumber or clerk that they normally are, but as part of something bigger, something quite literally greater than themselves. Buford talks in length about crowds or mobs transforming from "they" to "it", the ultimate relinquishment of agency.

He also disabuses the reader of the notion that you or I would, under the same circumstances, behave any differently. What is clear from reading the book is that human beings have a savage side to them that cannot be hidden by an ivy-league education (some of the subjects of his book are actually quite well-to-do), only by the circumstances we choose to immerse ourselves in. We all have a little bit of crazy in us, and given the right surroundings, it WILL come out, no matter what you think of your oh-so-refined and bourgeois selves (these two famous psychology experiments showed how quickly and easily "normal" people can become intensely violent).

I only picked up the book because it was recommended to me by one of my professors here, during a class on ethnic violence. What does ethnic violence have to do with Manchester United fans wreaking havoc across the footballing centers of Europe? Why, I'm glad you asked!

The first point is something I've already touched on above: that of the mob assuming a singular identity over and above that of its constituents. The forces that can lead to the rape of 11 year-old Muslim girls and the slitting of fetuses of pregnant women are one and the same as the forces that lead to hooligans urinating in Italian cafes, pulling (yes, pulling, with bare fingers) out a policeman's eyeball from his head and kicking a youth to death simply because he happens to wear a shirt for a team not named Manchester United.

To call these acts "evil" is easy enough; to call their perpetrators the same is perhaps too easy. If these people were this evil, why wouldn't they be doing this stuff all the time? Well, because it takes being in a crowd for a certain side of you to come out. One of the great strengths of the book is the description, in intimate detail, of the escalation in passion that takes place within a crowd. Buford makes the very cogent argument that we know a great deal about what violent crowds do - we see pictures in newspapers and read articles in journals about the tremendous destruction that crowds can wring. But we know much less about how crowds become violent in the first place. We know a lot about the destination, but almost nothing about the journey. This is where Buford's contribution lies.

Another thread tying football hooliganism and ethnic violence together is the ascription of group identity. It turns out that one of the reasons for ethnic violence being so brutal and widely targeted within groups is the catch-all-ism of the entire enterprise. For instance, if you are standing in a group of Hindus, separated by some distance from a crowd of Muslims, and a stone is thrown by one adolescent from the Muslim side, it will be interpreted as "the Muslims are throwing stones". Retaliation against all Muslims is then not only "allowed" but also necessary.

(Read this paper for an argument of how successful ethnic cooperation rests on conquering that instinct. Essentially the argument is that groups get along best when the police themselves. In the hypothetical example above, for instance, no Hindu would touch even a single Muslim if a Muslim threw a stone. Instead, the Muslims themselves would punish the stone-thrower, and do so publicly, thus precluding the need for Hindus to take action against the entire group for the transgressions of a single member of the group).

The every-single-one-of-them-is-the-same-and-so-must-be-punished logic operates with football hooligans too. Buford cites the constant refrain of "their lads" when supporters of other teams are in the area in question. "Their lads" are consequently chased and beaten, and by this very act, all of "our lads" have become "their lads" to them, and the cycle is repeated endlessly.

Finally, and this is what struck me most about the book, is the notion of territoriality. When the United fans leave a trail of carnage behind them in Turin - the city of Juventus - they talk about having "taken the city." The metaphors are all war-related: taking cities, standing guard, lying in wait at tube stations as if planning an amphibious assault on Japanese shores, generals and lieutenants leading the pack, and so on. For the supporters/hooligans, it is war, much as ethnic violence is war in a much more tangible way.

Again, I can't say this enough: read this book. It's written lucidly and crisply, and the content will make you sit up on your chair (and may make you question this whole "human civilization" thing).


NB said...


Good post. I will read this book. Oh, and awesome poll question btw. You're on a roll it seems. Though some would say it was due, given the response to the Milton Friedman post.

Anonymous said...

You can question this whole "human civilization" thing by what many rulers, conquerors, politicians, leaders, elitists, etc do anyway.