“The forest is a socialist community, and trees work in harmony to share the sunlight”
Ted Lasso has become one of the most popularly streamed shows. One common theory behind the show’s reception is that it came out during the pandemic, at a time when audiences were looking for feel-good shows amid the stress and anxiety caused by COVID 19. TV critics, however, had noted an increase appeal for shows depicting earnest, feel-good characters, and storylines, well before the pandemic. The pandemic likely only intensified a trend that had been emerging since the Great Recession of 2008–that is the increased appeal of socialism. The advent of the pandemic and accompanying economic and social chaos represented an intensification of already-existing discontent with capitalism and a desire for alternatives.
By the way, the fact that you are still reading, and that this piece was published in the first place, is in further evidence of this trend. The show sets up a subtle but poignant contrast between the values of capitalist and socialist values. The actions of the individual characters that either make the team better or help each other out in some way are the result of socialist ethics. Whereas the type of actions or attitudes that bring people down or make the team less cohesive are the result of self-interested, self-serving ethics. That is because capitalist ethics prioritize the individual over the community. Recall Margaret Thatcher’s dictum that “there is no such thing” as society, but only “individual men and women”.
From a capitalist perspective, people are seen as inherently self-interested, seeking to maximize their own individual well-being even at the expense of their community. The interests of the individual are often seen as directly in conflict with those of the community. This is why the ideas behind the so-called “tragedy of the commons” (whose author, by the way, was a eugenicist and white supremacist and whose ideas have been thoroughly debunked) are so popular with the advocates of capitalism. From this paradigm, relationships are seen as transactional, with each individual seeking to improve their own lot. Since the gains an individual makes come at the expense of another, there is also a necessary emphasis on hierarchies and statuses.
Socialist ethics on the other hand, are inherently egalitarian and eschew statuses and hierarchies. It is not so much that the individual is not valued but rather that their fate and well-being is inextricable from that of the community. Contrary to capitalist ethics, the interests of the individual are not in opposition to those of the community–as the community thrives so does the individual and vice versa.
There is perhaps not a better illustration of this tension between capitalist and socialist ethics within the show, than that embodied by Nate Shelley–the “kit manager.” At the beginning of the show, we see capitalist ethics reigning supreme. There is a clear hierarchy among the boss and the players and among the players and Nate. In this hierarchy, Nate is at the bottom of the pecking order and regularly bullied by the players. Not all players participate in the bulling, but none is willing to challenge the bullies. Within this system, they don’t stand to benefit in any way from standing up to the bullies on Nate’s behalf. As Coach Lasso not only embodies but also encourages prosocial ethics, Nate’s fate begins to improve, and he becomes an important and influential member of the team. Unfortunately, as we see towards the end of the show, Nate proves unable to emulate the socialist ethics that rescued him from the pit of despair and instead embraces the kind of behavior and ethics associated with his former tormentor (and utter personification of capitalist ethics, at least in the beginning,) Jamie Tart.
Tart’s unrelenting selfishness, competitiveness, and lack of any of regard for the rest of the team stand in stark contrast with the socialist ethics promoted by Lasso and increasingly embraced by Roy Kent and other players in the team. He is never happier than when hearing his own name being chanted by the crowd (and himself!). His constant preoccupation with his “brand” is part of these distinctly capitalist ethics, which also lead him to pursue scoring goals by himself, even when passing the ball to other players, such as Sam Obisanya, would more likely result in more scored goals. It is Kent who finally decides to put an end Tart’s reign of terror. He realizes, following Lasso’s lead, that the well-being of the individual and the community are intertwined and that better morale among the individual players will translate to a more cohesive and better performing team.
If Tart, and perhaps later Nate, represent the damaging results of capitalist ethics, Sam Obisanya (a football player from Nigeria) represents what can be achieved through embracing socialist ethics. Sam, much like Nate in the beginning, is subject to constant undermining by Tart which impacts his performance on field. Coach Lasso counters Sam’s alienation by drawing him into the collective of the team. With Ted’s encouragement, the team celebrates Sam’s birthday by pooling money and sharing cake after a stunning football match loss. Their celebration despite the loss reinforces the team’s value and shared humanity beyond their abilities as laborers.
As Sam comes to feel more a part of his team-community, he feels more emboldened to stand up for his other community–the one back home. These views are first hinted at when Sam reminds Ted Lasso that his gifts of plastic toy soldiers represent American imperialism and rampant capitalism in Africa and the broader, Global South. Sam, with the support of this teammates, later takes a more visible stance against capitalist ethics. He boycotts his team’s sponsor, who funds a Nigerian oil magnate with a dubious human and environmental rights record, even when doing so will affect his livelihood and compromise his future with the team. His team, in a demonstration of the interconnectedness between individual and community well-being, offers to support his public activism by similarly altering their jerseys to hide the sponsor.
Ted Lasso and its representation of what socialist ethics can achieve stands in contrast to another recent runaway show, Squid Game. While Ted Lasso depicts the society we may want to be part of, Squid Game represents the worst excess of the capitalist society we currently inhabit. The games within the show are only an exaggerated (and dramatized) version of the despair and desperation in which many people are forced to live in our current society. Capitalist ethics are present not only in the games depicted in the show, but also in the social context in which the games take place. The people who ultimately end up becoming players in the games by and large agreed to do so out of the despair of not being able to have any kind of decent life under the current socioeconomic system. They are only in the games because they are already victims of the reality another rigged game–capitalism.