The meaning of the Olympic spectacle


Behind the Olympic dreams there is a nightmare of growing inequality, social cleansing and increasing security culture – best demonstrated  by the positioning of anti-aircraft missiles on the rooftops of flats in east London, writes Simon Hardy


Britain in 2012 is a country in a double dip recession, one facing of a decade of declining living standards and a welfare state being dismantled. In times of austerity, when the heart of a society is being torn out whilst the rich engorge themselves, it becomes necessary to create spectacles of great show – the illusion of social cohesion, the ideology of unity in the face of growing division. This year we face two such spectacles – the Olympics and the Diamond Jubilee – a double whammy.

Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle traced the decline of meaning within social life from being, to having to appearance, each one more hollow than the last. Today the appearance of social cohesion and national pride is essential to the maintenance of social control, a shallow appearance designed to mask the horrors of a society in decline.

This is why the Royal Family has been increasingly positioned as the true British institution. A permanent institution, all smiles and charity galas, who better than the nominally apolitical royal family to make us all feel good about ourselves? The Royal Wedding of April 2011 was the dry run for massive securitisation and clampdown of dissent. It involved the use of pre-crime arrests, police swoops on “known troublemakers” before they had even set foot outside their house and police holding cells put aside especially for the protesters. Anyone who looked like they might even lift a placard in opposition to the hideous sight of hereditary wealth and power reinforcing itself, was swiftly bundled away. The spectacle must not be disrupted.

And now in 2012 the Royal Family once against takes the stage, slightly overshadowed its true by the Olympics juggernaut, but nevertheless another reminder of place and privilege, of that strange double think where a nation is supposed to feel united when poor people wave at the grandeur of rich people.

We will even be given an extra bank holiday as a reward for our continued support for this great institution. Of course in Britain we work some of the longest hours in Europe – over 42 hours a week on average, basically a six day week. But the Establishment does not need to worry about that, as long as the spectacle rolls on, it can give the illusion that our considerate rulers are willing to sacrifice a day’s profit to let us celebrate.

The most expensive spectacle in the world

But it is only with the Olympics that we see the stark truth of where our society is heading. The opening ceremony alone will cost around £90 million. The whole thing is going to overspend, yes overspend, its £9.3 billion budget!
In 2008 the Beijing Olympics saw an authoritarian state prevent all potential protests about human rights issues to preserve the appearance of a strong, united nation. At the time many westerners, including the British tut tutted at the undemocratic nature of the regime – fast forward four years and our government is putting Rapier missile batteries on east London apartment blocks, machine gun wielding police officers at tube stations, and two fighter jets to patrol our skies during the games. I wonder if security at Hitler’s 1936 Berlin Olympics was this tight?
But is it not just the creeping police state security culture which the Spectacle both demands and excuses. It is the sinister way that the Olympics is used to further the interests of the richest 1% and their corporations. Ashok Kumar has written elsewhere about the uprooting and destruction of working class communities for the games. This is not the first time that the corporate Olympics has been used to gentrify parts of major cities.

And what about the huge corporate sponsorship from companies such as BP and McDonalds – the fact that a fast food chain should be associated with sport and fitness is evidence of just how far the destruction of genuine meaning between signs and symbols has proceeded in late capitalism.

In a society with growing inequality and alienation, something that is only set to get worse as structural unemployment grows and sets in, what should we think about the imprisonment of young Chelsea Ives? Ives was a “volunteer ambassador” for the games who was seen by her parents throwing bricks during the London riots and handed over to police for a two year prison sentence. Her own father demanded she serve the full length of her sentence, “We only want her out when she has fully learned her lesson ” so she “could see the bad she had done.”

But isn’t Ives the best kind of ambassador to be present at the opening ceremony? An ambassador, not for Britain, but for the victims in Britain who rioted and looted: the inner city youth, the alienated debt-ridden, socially excluded people that the Tories and the media want to write off merely as criminals?

Disrupting the spectacle

How should the left respond to the Olympics and the Jubilee? First small scale direct actions, like Trenton Oldfield took when he disrupted the Oxbridge Boat Race, need to be seen in the wider context. The Olympics is not the Boat Race, it will be ‘enjoyed’ by several million people enthralled by the spectacle – individuals that disrupt this reinforce an idea that it is only the lone outsiders who reject the Spectacle. The response “why is that man ruining it for everyone?” would indicate a failure in how the action was framed and understood. Also disrupting the actual sporting aspect of the events makes it look like the athletes are being targeted, the reality is that they are just pawns in the corporate show, not the perpetrators.

Protests have to be sizeable, drawn from the people being affected by the social cleansing policies of the Olympics, public sector workers and the unemployed need to be seen in large numbers. Lets have some Republican street parties, Roundheads to the fore. The countdown for the Olympic games on the front cover of all the papers should become a countdown for an anti-austerity protest. Protests targeted at the militarisation of the Olympics are also important to disrupt the spectacle, to pull back the curtain to reveal the hideous machine working behind the scenes. We can already get an idea of the absurd clash between the Olympic torch, representing excellence, hope and perseverance, and the total policing methods that we saw in 2008 with a ring of Chinese security officers and British police rugby tackling Free Tibet protesters to the ground.

The call for a protest on the opening day of the Olympics (28 July) provides a potential rallying point for the anti-austerity movement, anticapitalists who are critical of the corporatism of the games and local residents who are being evicted or persecuted by the new high profile policing tactics of the Met. Local anticuts groups should start to plan mobilisations for these demonstartions – not least because the police will be out in force to try and shut down protests – after all, the spectacle must not be disrupted.

On a final note, much has been made about the counter-revolutionary nature of the Olympics themselves, how most of the spectacles that we associate with it came from the Nazi orchestrated 1936 games (torch lit processions anyone?). Yet the Olympics themselves have buried the history of the workers Olympiad, organised by the Second International between 1925 and 1937. These games actually drew more people than the official Olympics held in the same year. The workers games emphasised international solidarity and friendly competition, not the nationalist fervour of the gold medal tables. It promoted a sense of unity across borders without all the nationalist symbolism.

We should never forget that there are alternatives to the corporate dominated Spectacle and that sport can be a means of unifying workers and communities, not dividing them.


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