The Green Bay Packers: Football communists?

What we have here, a Northwestern Ph.D. candidate insists, is the face of communism. Mike Roemer | AP

Just hear out Alan J. Kellner, a Ph.D. candidate in political science at Northwestern University.

He’s watching how political dialogue goes these days, particularly the “socialist” or “communist” label that’s tagged on opponents, a real conversation starter.

He and his dad, a Sheboygan, Wis., native who spent his life working in a toilet seat factory, went to a Packers game recently and — as often is the case with football fans — the talk turned to what topic Kellner would tackle for his dissertation.

And, again as is often the case with football fans, Kellner chose Immanuel Kant, the German philosopher. He was going to go with Karl Marx, he told his dad. But he thought that future employers would be less likely to hire him, what with Marx being linked to communism and all.

“Communism – no, no, no,” his dad said. “I don’t want anything to do with communism. The very idea of it sickens me.”

His dad is a lifelong Packers fan, speaking of things that sicken people.

That’s when Kellner had a revelation about his father’s cognitive dissonance, Kellner-the-younger writes on “The Conversation.”

Technically, the Packers have no owner. They are owned by the people.

I’m not really interested in the degree to which the Packers are a communist organization. But I am interested in my father’s reaction to the word “communism,” and how this response conflicted with a real-world example of one of communism’s animating ideas.

He has not, to my knowledge, ever read Marx or any genuinely communist literature. But he has obviously adopted a negative attitude to the word.

Capitalist ideology seems to have launched a successful marketing campaign against communism. To be a communist, in my father’s mind, is to be against freedom. It is to want total control over the lives and fates of all individuals in society. It is to be a Stalinist.

What he fears isn’t communism; it’s totalitarianism.

I couldn’t bring myself to point this out. I couldn’t tell him, “Dad, everything you just said about the Packers – that’s communism.”

The Packers are the only team in the capitalist NFL allowed to be owned by the people, with stock that pays no dividends.

Granted there’s a lot of capitalist philosophy in how the team runs its business. But there’s a grain of communism too.

“Without an owner, more people overall benefit,” Kellner writes. “The team benefits first to be sure. But its interest happens to be the first interest of fans like my dad as well.”

Even though professional athletes make insane salaries by comparison to my father and my brother-in-law, they make far less than the owners. And this despite the fact that the owners themselves don’t do anything except own the team.

Without using any of the vocabulary – with no reference to bourgeois and proletariat, to owners of the means of production, and even without using the term “exploitation” – my brother-in-law has rather accurately described one of Marx’s main critiques of capitalism: Labor is fundamentally exploitative. Those who create surplus value are not the ones who benefit from it.

It doesn’t take Marx, apparently, to see what’s wrong with the owner-laborer, bourgeois-proletariat relation.

Kellner says when he teaches Marx to students, they almost always connect him to “communism” or the Soviet Union. But the Soviet Union wasn’t really communist, he says. It was totalitarian. There’s a difference.

His father’s age group is in the one demographic least likely in a recent poll of voters to view socialism favorably for pretty much the same reason as Kellner’s students.

So he’s thinking about changing how he conveys his thoughts on Marx.

With a new word: Packerism.

“If you want a political movement to work in Wisconsin, that’s what to call it,” he says. “But, of course, what might be a successful rebrand in Wisconsin is not likely to be successful across the country as a whole.”