We live in a land bereft of democracy. Nearly every domain of our lives is regimented by hierarchy and entrenched influence. We are constrained to and by bureaucratic forms and control in every endeavor.
However, not long ago, I stumbled across exactly what is so absent from our lives. I found myself participating in a secret society that hid right out in the open, where anyone might see. A society that discreetly coalesced, one day here, the next over there, first consisting of one set of people, the next entirely different. A cabal, moreover, that came together all the time to practice radical democracy.
Where there is no system of coercion, it becomes necessary for everyone—yes, every single person—to agree to a plan of action that no one violently objects to. Suggestions and complaints must be factored into a compromise, until everyone is somewhat content. This occurrence plays out many times a day, throughout New York City, where people gather on basketball courts and soccer fields, and play.
Most of my experience comes from sites where soccer predominates, so I will try to give a sense of the workings of that sect. It is worth bearing in mind that the self-determined groups I will discuss consist mostly of younger, often macho-presenting sports enthusiasts, widely considered one of the least reasonable, stupidest sections of society. Nevertheless, these assemblies achieved wholly adequate governance, without inflicting any serious damage.
Pick-up soccer games form much like stars do. Just as an array of dust particles conglomerate in a nebula, an array of people assemble into groups on a field. Free associations of these groups allow for progressively larger games whose minimum size for fusion is somewhere around six. However, if more than thirty people conglomerate, a game becomes unwieldy and, if there is space available, will split into two or more games. This space may not be easy to obtain. In a densely built environment, small squares of astroturf are the most likely location for a pick-up soccer game. There are fields intended specifically for this game, but they can be hard to come by. In either case, space needs to be negotiated and shared. A person who feels they have the right to a prized goal must get variously enticed to join, worked around, or cajoled, even with a much larger group’s interest at stake. A group of kids, shooting at a goal that would complete the full field needed for a group of 15 to play, get convinced by the most convincing of convincers in that larger group that perhaps they would have a better time shooting against the wall on the side of the field, where the ball would bounce straight back to them so they don’t need to go get it out of the goal every time they shoot. But then one of the kids pipes up that the goal is better because that’s what you use in a real game. All of the other kids suddenly agree with that small brave soul and intractably refuse to leave. Other convincers give convincing a shot. Little progress is made. Eventually—it’s not clear whose idea it was—it is agreed that the kids will play in the large full-field game, now 10 on 10, with everyone else.
In this arena there is no surefire way to get what you want. Charisma is the only means anyone has available to push their agenda. Those who manage to combine decisiveness with a natural human warmth can set the pace of organization. As often as not, no one in a budding assembly of soccer players fits this bill. But it makes no difference; the assembling goes on. The collective makes and revises decisions, on topics like goals to be used, out of bounds lines, and, what often provides the most fractious debate, the dividing of players into teams. Here, a small theater of oration may emerge, as personal conflicts arise and compromise gets hashed out. There stands Cicero, planted in the middle of the field’s center circle, lambasting a ground-facing, head-in-hand Catiline for his efforts to stack his team unfairly, so that they would never lose in the three team winner-stays-on rotation.
Some might insist that the society I describe must be doomed to failure, that it could never function. Wouldn’t people just spend all their time arguing without any structure, without anyone to tell them what to do? Wouldn’t there be violence? It is true, playing a rule-based game without an authority to judge whether those rules are being followed (such as a referee) can lead to disagreements. This is where people often get a little bit testy. Unavoidably, every so often one of the more intractable guys gets frustrated and purposely trips another one or shit-talking gets out of hand. Certain people walk around with a chip on their shoulder and seek out places where they have an excuse to show they’re “down for a scrap.” Even so, I’ve only ever seen maybe a dozen people go beyond chest thumping and threats towards fisticuffs. However, in all my time as part of this society, I have never seen people come to blows over the organization of a game, only concerning foul play during the match.
Being anarchist associations, these cells recognize no borders, including the lines that separate parts of cities. A couple of Brighton Beachers ride up to the Parade Grounds to join a Caribbean-centered milieu. Kids in matching Senegal jerseys and a couple Hasidim take on a Spanish-speaking team with a goalie draped in a Boricua flag at Flushing Meadows. This flouting of borders also means that spectators could vary widely in any given week, as a certain game travels distances large and small, from kid-on-a-monkey-backpack-leash-walking waterfront condo residents, to chihuahua-walking housing project residents, to shopping-cart-full-of-clothes-and-beer-can pushing city park residents, to bureaucrat-with-gun lunch-break taking suburbanites. Because most of the participants are immigrants, assimilated white people who are typically exempt from the question “yes but, where are you really from,” are often interrogated as to their origin. This can cause confusion, which usually gets cleared up with clarification like: “Yes, of course you’re from Brooklyn, we all are or we wouldn’t be here but…” In this way, naturalization of white occupation of stolen land, such that it becomes an origin, is questioned, confronted, and knocked onto shakier–and recognizably hijacked–ground. People are prompted to recall near-universal circumstances of diaspora and dispossession. Therefore—and also because the sport at hand is the most popular pastime most everywhere else in the world—anyone who says they’re from Brooklyn or New York or the U.S. of A. gets asked, “but where are you from.”
During my time moving around in these circles, I fell in for a while with one particular well-established assembly. This was a weekday morning group that met in various settings, every week of the year, without fail. There were various iterations, but for the most part one of a loose association of regulars would bring a ball and sometimes some colored bibs or fold-up mini-goals used for marking teams to a certain field (which changed every few weeks) and receive from other participants a dollar for the laundromat, a cigarette, some of their joint, or an expression of gratitude. An eye towards giving was encultured. Fruit or water tended to get shared. You might (in addition to the radical democracy) call it a gift economy.
In my time attending this assembly, I came to know people who had escaped daytime work in any number of ways. Soccer coaches and architects, realtors and retail workers, bartenders and rappers, freelance photographers and freelance cannabis merchants, Uber drivers and sushi chefs. It is an irregular few who are able to join a weekday morning ritual. These self-selected individuals may have had one hand in the mainstream capitalist cookie jar, but they also had two feet in a sense of freedom that comes from spending every morning playing and talking, sharing in a different form of social organization than exists in other parts of life. They spent a lot of time before, after, and sometimes during games sitting on the ground talking, musing on the meaning of headers and hegemony, half-volleys and hangovers, countries or continents, coaches or couches.
A good group like this one, that can last for indefinite periods of time, has a way of breaking in the egotists. This ubiquitous practice, honed and passed down by many wise players, consists of a subtle combination of jibe and encouragement, a precise deflation and inflation that teaches its object to be a team-player. It is a feature of any regularly-meeting and long-lasting game, and prevents selfish tendencies like lazy defending or ball-hogging. Someone resistant to learning may end up in a pool of shame. Someone absorbent of the teaching may carry the wisdom on and promote it elsewhere.
It is true clout can develop in some instances, but it can only reach a very short distance. If a certain game or field develops some kind of power structure, where an entrenched organizer tyrannically wields authority over affairs, the players who don’t like the way things are going can simply abscond and join another group, or begin something new elsewhere. In fact, in some places it seems as though games get set up to complement each other. One field might host a 7am game to accommodate 9 to 5ers and later a 12pm game for nighthawks. Another could split itself in half with an aggressive group and more chill group sticking to separate sides. Each stays out of the others’ way. They organically spread out across time (in the week) and space (in the city), effectively ensuring possibilities are never in short supply. Anyone who can’t get on board with one situation always has many others to turn to. If a pair or group of enemies develop, these people can split up. If someone feels aggrieved at cliquiness occurring somewhere, they can find more welcoming pastures elsewhere.
This freedom whose source is the ability to leave only stays alive as long as there is a somewhat unlimited number of games or places to play in. As soon as this becomes limited, freedom begins to get curtailed. Suppose local authorities begin to require field permits. Exclusive right to use, enforced by park officials and other bureaucrats backed by the threat of force, can lead to authority and monetization, limiting space for free society. Groups who will pay for a couple hours of regimented recreation crowd out those who won’t. Eventually freedom can become the exception rather than the rule. Those who can’t give up their former heterarchical practice seek out the cracks, the concrete playgrounds where kids set up backpacks as goalposts after school, random collections of people putting themselves together in the in-between times of sanctioned play, or Whats-App groups clinging to the old ways at hard-to-reach football fields.
The old ways are old, but they’re not consigned to some golden age. Though some places may not have room for much pick-up anymore, many others do, and will continue to provide space for people to assemble and engage in self-determined play. In this way, the soccer playing hooligans of the city forge a functioning society for themselves. Some of this achievement could be put down to the therapeutic purpose of the activity at hand. Whether acknowledged or not, the reason people play is to relieve stress, to become, for a period of time, one with your feet, and from there join in a collectivity of feet. It may be a calmed or at-peace version of this demographic that is observed engaging in pick-up. Still, if these idiots can create off-the-cuff heterarchies, webs of social relations that are entirely different from the dominant scheme of top-down dominance, we can’t help but wonder what else might work just as well without hierarchy. How creative can we be in creating spheres of recreation and beyond? One way to find out is to get together in a park and see.
This ubiquitous practice, honed and passed down by many wise players, consists of a subtle combination of jibe and encouragement, a precise deflation and inflation that teaches its object to be a team-player.