The Roman emperor Vespasian came into the Purple after the fall of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, presiding over a much-depleted treasury. One of his policies was to implement a tax on purchasing urine – a raw material for tanning and textile industries. His son Titus protested this decision, claiming it was a dirty way to rebuild the state finances. Reputedly, Vespasian took a coin, asked his son if it smelled. When he said no, Vespasian replied that it was odourless despite being earned through urine. Hence the saying “pecunia non olet” or “money does not stink”. Fittingly, a public street urinal is called a vespasienne in French.
Vespasian’s notion of odourless money unites the ruling class from Doha to Delaware. But in the 21st Century, the stench of death emanating from Qatar is inescapable. This creates a problem of legitimacy for the ruling class. It simply cannot pretend there is no problem, they tried that briefly and failed. When a venal figure like Sepp Blatter starts saying awarding Qatar the rights of hosting was a mistake, you had best put on the stern visage of an angry headmaster.
Their solution is to stage a convincing Kabuki theatre to show moral outrage to soothe self-righteous aspersions without drawing attention to underlying economic relations. The basic economic relations underpinning Qatar prevail in the elite nations, in many ways much more gruesomely than in Qatar itself.
The sacrifices and agitation of women and LGBTQ+ people in the late 20th Century achieved limited social gains in the elite nations. It became convenient to use identity based political demands to differentiate and not class-based politics. Today, the well of advancing social rights for minorities has run dry. This doesn’t stop a façade being erected to prosecute an Islamophobia-laced campaign of performative condemnation of the Qatar World Cup.
“One love” has become the rallying slogan against the repression of LGBTQ+ people in Qatar. Welsh fans are barred from entering venues wearing shirts with a rainbow flag, Harry Kane is threatened with being yellow-carded if he wears an armband with the slogan. Newscasters perform defiance by wearing the slogan as they broadcast back home to a sympathetic audience. When the pressure gets a bit severe, many wilt revealing the fickleness of their allyship.
Amidst the concerted effort by white people and their minority class-compatriots, the real victims of Qatar become side-lined or outright erased from the picture. There is only one reasonable line of attack against the Qatari state, only one argument that does not kick up the stench of hypocrisy or generalizability. That focuses on the particularly acute abuse of migrant workers on whose backs the World Cup is being prosecuted and profited through.
To centre criticisms of Qatar’s religious and social conservatism in relation to women and LGBTQ+ people centres Western sensibilities over the advocacy needs of this repressed, subaltern class that is the fodder fuelling this vain corporate bonanza. Defenders of the World Cup, not least the FIFA President Gianni Infantino (who made some appeals to identity based “knowing what it’s like” arguments), claim that elite nations are driven by a bigoted, Islamophobic dislike of Qatar – they are not wholly incorrect. Furthermore, those claims counter arguments about exploitation, by saying that the same nations also built their wealth on theft and murder. These moral arguments are put to service for horrible ends.
The truth is that the same pro-migration but anti-immigrant policies that Qatar uses to enable the World Cup are policies that elite nations want to implement but face too much domestic opposition to get away with. The nascent fascism of Europe and the USA, the virtual hegemony of anti-immigration across the nominal political divide are evidence of this.
Infantino himself remarked on the deaths of refugees at sea trying to get into Europe (an estimated 3000) to rebut attacks on Qatar’s treatment of migrant workers, who by and large come to work in the Gulf States using legal means. Corporations like Budweiser and Brew Dog, and mascots – such as David Beckham – get paid to sportwash the Qatari regime. They participate in the promiscuous polycule of capitalism. They are home grown products of elite nations being sold abroad in this fictive pariah state. Qatar is selling liquified natural gas to Europe to smooth over the supply shock set off by the invasion of Ukraine. Focusing on this set of economic relations – merely a vulgarised reflection of the elite nations’ own realities – only gives its own crisis of legitimacy.
That is why the LGBTQ+ community becomes red meat for the illegitimate stratum of rulers in these nations. Rather than risking any admissions of guilt in the past or the present, sexual minorities become the convenient wedge. They present the only viable instrument of performative protest that can be kept sufficiently isolated from these politico-economic co-dependencies East and West. Eliding this corpulent carapace of capitalist hyper-exploitation becomes the singular task.
But in so doing, sexual minorities become targets for repression in Qatar, and the Arab world in general, since this performative advocacy inspires a counter-reaction. This half-hearted attempt at advocacy is quickly abandoned whenever any material sacrifice is demanded as a solidaristic wage of allyship. Both migrant workers and sexual minorities experience a further oppression in the process, the former by erasure and the latter by performative instrumentalization.
Who benefits? The capitalist class of the world and their lackeys in charge of state governance; from Tokyo to Washington, from Canberra to London.
No progress will be made until the unity of the villains and the protagonists in this media confected theatre play is confronted. Unfortunately, there are no longer any serious organs of information dispersal serving the needs of the working class, or any minority group for that matter. The media commons are enclosed by an oligarchic billionaire class. The free press is mostly engaging in stenography for elites, taking their cues from PR agencies, corporate sponsored think tanks, or governments themselves. This includes the most liberal, fictively “left” institutions like the New York Times or The Guardian. And so, I offer this entreaty as a meagre tribute in defiance.
I ask that the reader reconsider the focus of their own angst, shifting it away from the close to heart commitment to LGBTQ+ people and towards the very particular wrongs of this World Cup. That of the inhumane degradation of immigrants from poor nations, nations whose poverty they themselves are complicit in enjoying, and the unity of their ruling class (despite pretensions to the contrary) with that of Qatar. That ought to be the fulcrum of discontent.