Abramovich Isn’t a Russian Problem: He’s a London Problem

Oligarchic supremacy in football is over now that Roman Abramovich’s tenure as Chelsea F.C. owner is ending. Well, that’s what the Western political-media class wants us to think. In reality, it is the scourge of global financial capitalism which is hurting the British working class and its beloved sporting pastime.

Roman Abramovich, oligarch and billionaire, member of the London financial system
Art by Charbak Dipta

After the Russian invasion of Ukraine — prompted by a NATO effort to turn the country into a military and economic vassal state of the U.S. — the British political-media class rushed to condemn Russian businesses and billionaires. Roman Abramovich, one of London’s richest financiers, soon caught flak for his ties to Vladimir Putin’s government. David Davis MP alleged that his 2003 purchase of Chelsea Football Club was done under Kremlin influence. Dame Margaret Hodge MP urged Boris Johnson to sanction Abramovich, saying he should never be allowed to own a club. The Russian-Israeli billionaire’s time as Chelsea custodian is now over, with the U.K. government announcing sanctions against him last Thursday. No matter how much the West attempts to portray Russian business as a pernicious outside influence, Abramovich’s investment should be seen as part of London’s global role — a city spearheading the violent world disorder. 

Billionaire Jungle: London Beyond Abramovich

London has been a great city for many years, but only recently has it become what Rowland Atkinson calls the Alpha City. The fact that it’s the alpha among alphas is not a good thing, at least not for your average Londoner. The professor focuses on how the U.K. capital became “a playground for the wealthy and a hothouse in which to grow capital under hydroponic conditions, carefully tended by the city’s politicians and financial institutions.” Atkinson, who chairs the University of Sheffield’s Inclusive Society, explains that London is not your average super-wealthy metropolis, like New York or Tokyo.

“It’s one that has been captured by the wealthy; they exert a certain kind of influence over the political life of the city…over what kind of buildings get constructed…All of that is quite problematic for ordinary people who live in the city who see a place that is increasingly being made over for the wealthy. For example, public housing is being demolished, we’ve had an austerity regime that has cut welfare, and we’ve seen massive numbers of both the existing rich of the city and many people from overseas buying property to live in the city. Ultimately, is that a good thing?”

Rowland Atkinson in Alpha City (2020)

In this sense, Abramovich is par for the course in modern-day London. But the Russian oil baron is not your typical foreign investor. The city had around 5,000 “Ultra High Net Worth Individuals” (UHNWIs) at the beginning of the pandemic, or people worth over $30 million. Abramovich is, or I suppose was, one of about 95 billionaires in the city. He pumped so much money into Chelsea that, before the sanctions were announced, he was prepared to forgive a £1.5 billion debt the club owed him in order to sell the European Champions at market value. Outside of football, his ferry-sized superyacht, the Eclipse, serves as a reminder of Abromovich’s contribution to climate destruction, and of his supersized wealth in a city chock-full of millionaires. He might have abnormally large coffers, bloated by the illegal breakup of the U.S.S.R., but Abramovich is a part of what makes London what it is today. 

The city’s politicians love what foreign — even Russian! — investment has brought to the British economy. Boris Johnson gloated in 2014 that “London is to the billionaire as the jungles of Sumatra are to the orang-utan,” and Mayor Sadiq Khan “wooed” an American billionaire in the hopes of bringing an NFL team to a city filled to the brim with football funded by West Asian oil princes and American business tyrants. Atkinson describes how, in the last two decades, the “internationalisation” of wealth in London has expanded to include “the Russians, Turks, Nigerians and Chinese, alongside the longer-term presence of Americans, Hong Kongers, Arabs and the French.” Of course, it doesn’t really matter where you come from if you’re paying millions for homes, cars, private security and staff, and ten thousand-pound handbags. It just matters that the media and politicians can say your wealth is ‘trickling down’ to everyone else in the city, no matter how false that myth remains. 

It appears the London elite only thrash out against this harmful foreign investment when it serves them politically. Russia’s Ukraine incursion immediately set off a wave of reprimands, yet there were no calls to oust the many U.S.-based moguls after the illegal (and far, far more violent) invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003 — mostly because Labour PM Tony Blair took part himself. In the real estate sector, Leon Black, an American oligarch, recently bought a £21 million Eaton Square home despite his ties to Jeffery Epstein, a friend of many American and British elites and a renowned sexual offender. Turning to Abramovich, it wasn’t his sale of a gas company to the state-owned Gazprom that sparked cries for his ousting. Nor was Abramovich criticized during PMQs when we discovered he secretly poured $100 million into El’ad, an Israeli group that was committed to settling Jewish families in Palestinian homes in Jerusalem’s Silwan neighbourhood, in blatant disregard for morality and international law.

The truth about London is that, like the United States, it appears benevolent and uplifting, while in reality, it upholds capitalism’s decrepit mission to siphon funds from the lower classes to the bourgeoisie. Whether they’re Russian, British, or American is largely unimportant. 

The United States’ Global Finance Empire

You might be asking: “Isn’t it good that we’re sanctioning Putin’s regime? We have to do something!” Well, we already did a lot of things, many of which were reckless and took us to this very point in history. Russia might have invaded Ukraine illegally, but it was in reaction to the U.S. making Ukraine a de-facto NATO ally in an attempt to turn it into a “bulwark on Russia’s border,” as International Relations professor John Mearsheimer points out. Furthermore, the reasons for NATO expansion include American investors’ need to sell obscene amounts of weapons, as all NATO members basically have to purchase U.S. military equipment upon joining. We see here how the U.S. benefits not from global order, but from violence and chaos — global disorder. The political and media classes want us to believe sanctions will end the war, but they will only escalate the issue and hurt regular Russians.  

While Londoners are worried about a Russian threat to peace, it is the very financialisation of their city that is oppressing them and upholding violence in the world. The late David Graeber, who lectured at the London School of Economics, said that “what financialization actually means is [businesses] collude with the government through various elaborate forms of bribery to change the law so as to put everyone deeper and deeper in debt, directly turning their income over to the FIRE (finance, insurance, and real estate) sector.” Real estate plays an important role, in tandem with finance, because most rich investors know they’ll be safe in a London with tight state security and a fence between themselves and the working masses. As the one percent prosper, the workers of London and around the world are made to pay.

At this point, it’s crucial to explore how the United States is involved. As we know, the neo-liberal order is set and maintained by the U.S., the world’s predominant financial power. Yet this power doesn’t come from business ingenuity:

“The essence of U.S. military predominance in the world is, ultimately, the fact that it can, at will, with only a few hours’ notice, drop bombs at absolutely any point on the surface of the planet. No other government has ever had anything remotely like this sort of capability. In fact, a case could well be made that it is this very cosmic power that holds the entire world monetary system, organized around the dollar, together.” 

David Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years (2011)

The United States and allies like Britain maintain their economic advantage through brute force, not unlike a playground bully forcibly taking money from a weaker classmate. They invaded Libya when Muammar Gadaffi threatened to unshackle oil revenue from the US Dollar, and Iraq after Saddam Hussein switched to the Euro. They currently occupy a stretch of Syria for its oil fields, continuing the illegal terror they purport to be against. And they helped orchestrate the 2014 Maidan Coup in Kyiv to topple a pro-Russian leader, ostensibly turning Ukraine into the West’s military vassal state. Under imperialism, every threat is extinguished, every opportunity ruthlessly exploited. 

The emerging global alliance of China-Russia-Iran, as well as revolutionary movements across Latin America and other parts of the Global South, serve as existential threats to Western rule. The empire is lashing out, in Syria and Ukraine, but also in Somalia, Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, Palestine, and elsewhere. The mystical “free” world economy remains in place because behind the wizard there exists a man with a gun, and that man wants nothing more than to see Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin overthrown in a CIA-backed revolution. That is what Putin is trying to prevent by asserting dominance in eastern Europe, not some reversion to the days of the Russian Empire. 

What does this have to do with Roman Abramovich? Everything and nothing. There is a political point, which is that he represents a threat to Britain and football not because of his nationality, or his ethnoreligious identity, but his class status, specifically that of the financier. While in some ways he’s seen as an old-fashioned industrial capitalist, his gaining of power at the oil firm Sibneft was ultimately part of the same financial process that gives John Henry the power to afford Liverpool. Professor Michael Hudson explains how the richest people in the U.S. are no longer industrialists, but financiers, bankers, monopolists, and landlords. “In the United States more than 90 percent of the corporate profits are not used to expand business,” he lectures. “They’re used simply to pay out as dividends, or to buy back their shares. If you use your profits to buy back the stock in your company, that pushes up the stock price…So economics is really all about wealth, and basically financial wealth.” In some sense, Abramovich is the embodiment of global finance while also acting as a mere cog in the machine.

Chelsea’s (Humanity’s) Debt Trap

The accumulation of wealth by Russia’s one percent in the wake of Soviet dismemberment follows the same principle as Wall Street: take a stranglehold over one sector of business, list your shares on the stock exchanges, and use your newfound wealth to further inflate your net worth. In fact, Hudson points out that this is exactly what the U.S. told Russians like Abramovich to do at the time. If swathes of the world economy are driven by an ever-expanding finance bubble, it’s no wonder the rich are getting even richer while the rest of us are left to suffer crippling debt and endless economic misery. Abramovich funded Chelsea through a more anarchic version of finance capital accumulation, but it’s very much the same process that U.S. and European investors use themselves. 

Western media frame Abramovich as an ‘oligarch’ — really just a Russophobic term for billionaire — but find no issue in referring to his American and British equivalents as ‘businessmen’. In doing so, we are tricked into believing that Putin is in cahoots with Russia’s billionaire class (he is) but that the West is an open, democratic society where business and political interests are separate (it has never been). When Margaret Hodge MP calls for Abramovich to be barred from the British game, we are supposed to cheer this as a return to normalcy, eschewing the polluting effects of Russian influence on our free soil. In reality, this soil has never been free.

The financialisation of our world can be seen in football, especially in England. Abramovich wasn’t the first rich man to prioritize the goals of one club over the economic health of others: that’s what British owners did when the Big Five broke from the Football League before Abramovich’s involvement. But the sheer quantity of his wealth exposes the sinister nature of finance in the game. While Chelsea paid eye-watering fees for players all over the pitch, thousands of smaller clubs, domestically and internationally, were made to further sink into a debt trap. The modern financialised world is not equal, and the rising tides of one’s fortune do not ensure the lifting of everyone else’s boats, whether in football or London’s highrise flat market. 

Just as small clubs are shackled to the world football economy, in reality, we Americans and Brits have never been so shackled to misery, forced to work at least forty hours a week just to have enough to eat unhealthy foods and sleep in cramped apartments. We drown our sorrows in drink and drugs, and even then we are hounded by advertisements telling us to buy more, entrench ourselves in more debt! And news reports telling us to Hate Putin! Hate China! But for the love of Christ, don’t hate Britain. Don’t disrupt the American world order. You’ll be worse off for it. 

Abramovich has nothing to do with our sorrow. He is but a cog in a multi-trillion dollar global machine, driven in large part by London, that keeps the working and caring classes on their backs while the rich sit safe and comfortable in their mansions. Abramovich has been derided for changing modern football for the worse, but he just did to the Premier League what was already happening in the real world. With billionaire backing, Chelsea became the alpha club in an Alpha City, at the expense of everything else. But it wasn’t Russia or Abramovich who did this. It was London. 

Heed this lesson: the only ‘freedom’ in a financialised economy is the freedom, to paraphrase David Graeber, to invest in a slice of your own exploitation, your own indebtedness. 

Special thanks to Oli Carpenter (@goalitics on Twitter) for lending his thoughts on Chelsea and the Abramovich situation as it unfolds. 

Further Reading:

  • David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years (2011) — Chapter 12 focuses on the post-1971 world economy and U.S. military and financial dominance. 
  • Economist Michael Hudson uploaded a series of lectures on finance capitalism on YouTube. You can watch Part 1 here.
  • Professor Rowland Atkinson’s Alpha City is available for purchase. He also gave an interview on YouTube I found informative.
Alex Dieker

Alex is a fan and writer based in the U.S. with a particular passion for Dutch football. His work outside FP can be found on crossbarpost.nl or on his Twitter, @alex_dieker.