James Foley

James Foley

Abramovich: Anatomy of a Moral Panic

Reading Time: 6 minutes

The current Russia scare portrays all the classic signs of a reactionary tide, albeit, in this case, stemming from the psychology of centrist “moderates”, argues James Foley.

In English football, all efforts at moral reform come contorted with hypocrisy. Yet even by Premiership standards, last Sunday’s match between Chelsea and Newcastle United was a marvel of virtue acrobatics. This was Chelsea’s first match minus the spectre of Roman Abramovich, the Russian who made billions from privatisation and spent it turning football into an image-laundering service for a global class of plunderers.

By any metric, there is little to like about Abramovich. His link to Putin is less direct than many imagine, but, quite aside from his standing with the Kremlin, Abramovich has put his wealth and power to nefarious ends. Indeed, his most direct complicity in empire-building lies far from Ukraine, in the Middle East, where he has donated $100 million to Israeli settler groups that illegally occupy Palestinian land.

So why does the purge of this saturnine presence feel less like a victory for justice than a product of collective psychosis? Even for those who have no sympathy for Chelsea, or Putin’s Russia, or the oligarch himself. Even for unabashed pinko liberals. Even the Guardian’s chief sports writer considers it a little creepy, calling it a “state of cognitive dissonance”.

There is little debate over Abramovich’s character, save, perhaps, among Chelsea fans. He belongs with Bezos and Musk as a candidate for the paradigm of entrepreneur as Bond villain. The problem is that principles for Russians are being invented on the hoof, with zero thought about their broader implications. The result might politely be called a metaethical muddle; or, less politely, rampaging hypocrisy.

Consider Chelsea’s opponents on Sunday, Newcastle United. Their owner is a sovereign wealth fund of Saudi Arabia: not just any old Saudi businessman, but the state itself. Just prior to Sunday’s game, that state executed 81 political dissidents. Internally, Saudi Arabia’s approach to democracy, sexual rights and freedom of speech makes Russia look like Portland. Externally, they are culpable for a war in Yemen that has produced the world’s worst humanitarian disaster and 400,000 deaths. As Ronan observes:

Newcastle’s ownership is not just ‘associated with’ or distantly tied to the destabilising, undermining and Biblical-scale destruction of its own neighbour Yemen. It is openly and personally engaged in it… Newcastle’s fund is owned by an entity that is literally, not potentially, sending tanks to kill civilians. But in this case those arms are supplied by Britain.

And it gets worse. Currently, with Abramovich’s assets frozen, the sale of Chelsea is suspended. But if the sale goes ahead, one of the favourite bidders is the Saudi Media Company: not directly affiliated with the Saudi state, perhaps, but nor is Abramovich directly affiliated with Putin. So English football’s great purge may simply mean replacing one character linked to a crooked regime with another.

Nor does it end there. Chelsea’s title rivals Manchester City are owned by the deputy prime minister of the United Arab Emirates, a federation of absolute hereditary monarchies who are also embroiled in the Yemeni disaster. Aston Villa’s owners include an Egyptian who helped overthrow democracy and return the country to military rule; Wolves are owned from China.

And by the letter of the charges against Abramovich, there is space for a further provocation. If the aim of sanctions is to punish those who, by dint of national background, are benefitting from “undermining and threatening the territorial integrity, sovereignty and independence” of other nations, then Liverpool, Manchester United and Arsenal had best be worried. Because they, like much of the Premier League, are owned from the United States of America.

Britain, remember, is not technically at war with Russia. The sanctions are being imposed, putatively, to punish violations of international law and to show solidarity with those afflicted. Formally speaking, nothing is stopping those sanctions being applied elsewhere. Indeed, some fantasy prone leftists are cheering on the measures against Chelsea, imagining that the anti-Russian mood might generalise to a wider purge against oligarchs of all national backgrounds. Sadly, this is unlikely; less likely, even, than the hope that solidarity with Ukrainian refugees might generalise into sympathy for all victims of persecution.


English football’s metaethical acrobatics are not specific to sport. They are products of wider dilemmas in the Western conscience. Why do Ukrainians get elaborate displays of sympathy, while Afghans, Yemenis and Palestinians beg for scraps? Why do we demand reprisals against Russia while showing scant interest in others who violate sovereignty at even greater costs of lives? A growing minority are asking these questions, but so far none of the answers are convincing.

Given the post-George Floyd climate, some explain it as racism: with their blonde-hair and blue-eyes, Ukrainians are of a phenotype that guarantees humanisation; by contrast, recent history tells us that brown lives don’t matter. That racial disparity is undeniable, most visibly in attitudes to refugees, but also with war casualties. White skin correlates with attention; but correlation does not always equal causation.

And there are reasons to doubt that racism alone is the explanation. For one thing, this crisis also proves how easily white people can racialise other white people. Consider how anything hinting at ethnic Russianness has been essentialised as traitorous: anti-Putin concert pianists; foodstuffs with Russian-sounding names; even unimpeachable contributors to European civilisation like Tchaikovsky, Bulgakov and Dostoyevsky.

Conversely, Westerners can code all sorts of ethnicities as “one of us” when it suits: Kosovan Muslims or Gurkhas or the people of Hong Kong. “Whiteness” is no precondition for inclusion in the Western sense of self.

Others think the disparity stems from the media’s influence on public attention spans. Again, there is an undeniable element of truth here. It was once held that the “populist moment” was destroying faith in the mainstream media. Surely this war has dispelled that myth. While there was an anti-establishment backlash, many liberals responded by making extravagant displays of faith in the authority of the Guardian, CNN and the BBC, regardless of whether those institutions deserved public trust.

If reporters decide that Ukraine is worth five hundred times more coverage than Yemen, the most educated and well-connected audiences adjust their solidaristic impulses accordingly. The higher your credentials – so it seems – the more you conform to the hypodermic needle of media influence. But even if true, that does not explain why media institutions adopt these preferences in the first place.

For what it’s worth, here’s my provisional hypothesis: personal investments in Ukraine are about how Westerners embroil national peoples in self-aggrandising narratives. Ukraine has helped us, collectively, rebuild some fragile boundaries of self and other, because we – the collective professional class – feel victimised by a common foe.

Western liberals feel personally aggrieved by Putin, a sentiment they rarely felt about Saddam Hussein and certainly don’t feel about Mohammed bin Salman (the only post-Cold War figure who comes close is Osama bin Laden). In turn, they feel aggrieved on behalf of Ukrainians, in a way they will never feel about the (much more afflicted) Yemenis.

Above all, Putin matters to liberals because they have still to process the defeats of 2016. Many still cannot accept that Brexit and the Trump election resulted from political crises with social causes internal to Western states. Seeing that much of the population refused to accept the discipline of traditional parties and media, many liberals assumed the cause must be an external pollutant into the body politic. Conservatives, of course, have their motives for using this crisis to their advantage. But the real energies pushing for escalation are coming from liberals, and it is their behaviours that require a psychological explanation.

The irony is that much of Western anger about Putin is founded in the two “crimes” he did not really commit. With these irrational foundations, this moment seems purpose-built to generate reactionary energies. And, for all the welcome (if hypocritical) solidarity with refugees, most of the evidence thus far suggests a reactionary turn: the growing taboo against criticisms of Western foreign policy; the demonisation of an entire ethnicity and historic people; the cancellation of the anti-imperialist left (Stop the War, Corbyn) but not of those actually linked to oligarchs (Boris Johnson has been saved by this crisis). All classic signs of a reactionary tide, albeit, in this case, stemming from the psychology of centrist “moderates”.

The reaction is even spreading to “bread and butter” social issues. Consider the transmutation of the cost-of-living crisis, in the minds of well-heeled liberals, into “paying more in solidarity with Ukraine”.

East and West, anti-war critics face a purge, and the mood feels revanchist, neoconservative, civilisational. Hence, there is little hope of turning imperialist war into civil war, of turning assaults on Russian oligarchs into assaults on oligarchy, or sympathies with Ukrainian refugees into generalised solidarity with the wretched of the earth.

At best, then, we can raise one cheer for the demise of Abramovich and the miseries of Chelsea Football Club. Witch hunts can indict genuine villains, but those small victories cannot wash off the stench of bad conscience.

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