Games put political right on back foot

Anthony Barnett on how the London Olympics are confronting corporate values and showcasing the potential for social democracy

London 2012’s opening ceremony had a lot to say about the British and their homeland. Behind the eccentricity and humour lay a radical challenge to neoliberalism and the corporate control that the City of London thrives upon, and the Games have embraced. It showed that a different form of popular politics for Britain is possible, where freedom and equality are celebrated.

In addition to opening the planet’s foremost athletic competition, the ceremony that starts the Olympics is the host country’s welcome to the world. What the country says about itself and its hopes may not be of that much interest to the other 200 participating nations but it certainly matters to the home country itself.

London’s ceremony was special, however, in that it took place as the system of neo-liberalism, of which the city is arguably the global centre, is in free fall. When the bid was won the spirit of securitised fortunes was at its height and doubtless felt confident that the message of high finance would define the games. But what does London’s market fundamentalism have to offer humanity now?

It was a challenge Danny Boyle, the ceremony’s director, took up with relish. What he and his team delivered is related to but distinct from the Olympics. The games themselves are both a focus of aspiration and human excellence and also a corporate and state exercise to control the human spirit they also encourage. They are not just a commercial exercise – sponsors’ names are kept off the competitors kit and it hasn’t become a version of Formula 1. But on the other hand, the Olympic organisation has been deeply implicated in the fascist tradition, to which its previous Francoist president Juan Antonio Samaranch was an open adherent. Modern forms of control are being imposed on Space Hijackers who have declared themselves the games’ ‘official protestors’ as Twitter expelled them for daring to mock the 2012 logo, and Free Speech Debate have discussed the ominous attempt to establish ‘property rights’ over the language of the games.

The delightful surprise of the opening ceremony was that it aligned itself with the spirit of resistance to corporate control. I can understand Amal de Chickera complaining that they didn’t attack the British Empire or mourn its victims. But Boyle was choreographing a ceremony to ‘bring people together’ and given this massive constraint the outcome could hardly have been more provocative. More important, Danny Boyle explored a new direction for public spectacle, one that is very interesting and welcome. The form is inherently regimental and to a surprising and refreshing extent he subverted this, opposing both corporate domination and authoritarianism, whether in its royal features (to which the UK is all too prone), or Communist mobilisation as displayed four years ago in Beijing, or Hollywood-style synchronised awe, shown off in the Los Angeles opening with its 84 grand pianos.

In any such mobilisation of the spectacle what matters, and certainly what any critic on the left needs to think about, is the relationships between the party throwers and the receivers: between the event as a whole and the public who it claims to define. This relationship is not just set out in what it ‘says’ but in what it offers, the way the offer is made and how it is received. It may be that it “didn’t” work for Amal, but to claim that it simply “failed” as he does, misses the point.

As Niki Seth Smith demonstrates in her masterful evocation of England’s summer festivals, the way to discuss collective public events is not by finger-wagging but by acknowledging the ambiguity of spontaneity – its capacity to be simultaneously radical and reconciling.

A lot of the praise for what Boyle achieved has emphasised its humour, wackiness and eccentricity. If these qualities had been his only aim the results would have been wincingly awful. The surprises and the humanity of the show were held together by an epic sense of purpose that could hardly have been more radical in intent. Boyle states in his programme notes,

“We hope… that through all the noise and excitement you’ll glimpse a single golden thread of purpose – the idea of Jerusalem – of the better world, the world of real freedom and true equality, a world that can be built through the prosperity of industry, through the caring nation that built the welfare state, through the joyous energy of popular culture, through the dream of universal communication.”

A belief that we can build Jerusalem. And that it will be for everyone.

This seems to have been the approach behind the conception of the stadium’s Olympic flame and the way it was lit, the culmination of Friday night’s opening ceremony.

Ignition started 70 days before when the flame arrived in the UK to be borne by torch around the whole country in a relay that took it, as the map shows, “to within an hour of 95 per cent of people in the UK, the Isle of Man, Guernsey and Jersey”. It was carried by 8,000 individuals “spreading the message of peace, unity and friendship”.

Doubtless, the exercise was contrived by the public relations industry, about which for once the claim that ‘Britain leads the world’ is all too credible. Yet this is not all that matters. The organisers set out to touch something. In large numbers, in towns and suburbs, the public were touched. They liked the idea that regular people like themselves with all their difficulties could join together to carry forward a historic symbol. In doing so they expressed an energy that escaped the detritus of Coca-Cola bottles and sponsor-branded frisbees left behind in the trail of the torch bearers.

Some estimates suggest over ten million people turned out to witness, cheer and photograph the Olympic flame for themselves; from Northern Ireland, where some held placards saying “keep ‘er lit”, to the 60,000 who greeted it in London’s Hyde Park. The celebration of fire took place through the wettest summer in living memory, outdoing the Queen’s jubilee. With the astonishment of a Romantic poet, George Monbiot stumbled across the crowd as he walked into the “lashing” rain to catch a train home,

“I found the pavements packed with people. The rain bounced off their umbrellas, forming a silver mist. The front passed and the sun came out, and a few minutes later everyone began to cheer and wave their flags as the Olympic torch was carried down the road. The sense of common purpose was tangible, the readiness for sacrifice (in the form of a thorough soaking) just as evident. Half of what we need is here already. Now how do we recruit it to the fight for democracy?”

That question is for another time! But why did the torch inspire this tangible sense of common purpose, as millions wanted to ‘be part’ of its flickering history? OK, it is a small, safe ‘once in a lifetime’ moment of interruption. Yet the flame is also an attractive metaphor for freedom, danger, a transformative power and a source of light. And in this case also it claims a link to antiquity, as the Olympic fire is passed from one torch to another (reminding me of the way the annual miracle of the Holy Fire is passed from candle to candle by rumbustious pilgrims around the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem to mark the resurrection).

Of course those who planned the torch’s domestic Odyssey are cynics cashing in on the Olympic boondoggle, demanding exorbitant fees to utilise its super-brand to reinforce the elite division they enjoy. If Philip Comerford’s research and observations are right, even though it is paid for with public money, an £80 million high security fence around the entire 500 acre Olympic area is primed to become a post-games private enclosure against London’s East End, fortified by 900 CCTV cameras.

And what better way of legitimising such a legacy and the whole exercise of corporate sponsorship and privilege than by making the affair appear to ‘belong to the people’ by encouraging a desperate paraplegic to carry the flame ‘on behalf of us all’? The cynicism of such David Cameron PR fraudsters enraged the Mail on Sunday’s Peter Hitchens:

“Personally, I find it very odd that large crowds have turned out in the street to see a glorified pilot light carried about in a large cheese-grater… This is supposed to be a light-hearted, generous-spirited event. But it isn’t really. It’s an overbearing, officious, self-important celebration of corporate greed, unpunished corruption, tolerated cheating and multiculturalism.”

Britain’s multicultural publics trust themselves more than they trust Hitchens. Millions long to see the confinement of commercialised life leavened by something larger and shared. The Olympic symbol of meaning deployed through the country’s towns and cities may have been an artifice, but the desire for something brighter and shared is real; all the more so for being preserved and protected by a public culture of ironic self-depreciation.

It was Danny Boyle’s achievement, to have caught and expressed this feeling with his belief that we can build a social Jerusalem: a personal self-confidence that despite everything refuses to extinguish hope in the common good, and cheered on a vulnerable flame.

As it entered the stadium a copper ‘petal’ accompanied each competing country. This was attached to a 28 foot stem. When they were lit they rose upwards to form a single flower of flame (see video 3 minutes in). Thus the great stadium torch represents the competitors, the 8,000 torchbearers and the crowds that witnessed them. As the picture of the fire filled my TV screen I thought of the last time I’d watched a multi-story blaze – a year ago when Reeves furniture store in Croydon was torched during last year’s London riots. The flash-back, if that’s an appropriate word, seemed to confirm the argument in Matthew Cheesman’s short essay in ReGeneration, that the riots were more closely related to the economy of the night and its permissive drives than any political insurrection. The link with the ceremony was reinforced by the incendiary role of seven unknown youngsters (naturally of athletic promise) running through the dark wearing shell suits.

The decision to give the high point of the evening, the lighting of the game’s Olympic flame, to a mixed group of young unknowns reinforced the democratic theme. The welcome decision to collectivise the moment was condemned especially in America (not least by Rupert Murdoch tweeting it as “a little too politically incorrect”). Instead of a moment of fame and a celebrity branding that the media expected, we had ourselves. This delightful surprise perfectly fitted the occasion and confounded even the bookmakers who “vowed” to refund those who had bet on a famous star, as they deemed the idea that unknown athletes might be given the role as inconceivable.

It is a historic break from the fascist-corporatist choreography of Olympic grandiosity, from Berlin to Beijing, and it made the opinion peddlers of the USA very uncomfortable. Mitt Romney swung into London revealing the tacit knowledge of a second rate dictator. But even though he could well be the next President his journalistic compatriots felt entitled to patronise the proceedings. The L.A. Times thought the opening ceremony “higgledy-piggledy”:

“…often surprisingly dark; certainly it was never dull. It had at times a quality of seeming completely random even as one suspected that repeated viewings would reveal all sorts of connections and echoes and interior rhymes.”

Or even the way to Jerusalem?

It took six reporters from the New York Times to miss the point, although they were clearly alarmed by the presence of trade unions: 

“With its hilariously quirky Olympic opening ceremony, a wild jumble of the celebratory and the fanciful; the conventional and the eccentric; and the frankly off-the-wall, Britain presented itself to the world Friday night as something it has often struggled to express even to itself: a nation secure in its own post-empire identity, whatever that actually is…. It was neither a nostalgic sweep through the past nor a bold vision of a brave new future. Rather, it was a sometimes slightly insane portrait of a country that has changed almost beyond measure since the last time it hosted the Games, in the grim post-war summer of 1948….”

The ceremony, too, reflected the deeply left-leaning sensibilities of Mr. Boyle. It pointedly included trade union members among a parade of people celebrating political agitators from the past, a parade that also included Suffragists, Afro-Caribbean immigrants who fought for minority rights, and the Jarrow hunger marchers, who protested against unemployment in 1936.

For the Washington Post it was “quixotic”, “whimsical” and “sometimes seemed like the world’s biggest inside joke”.

Such glorious discomfort! In Beijing, meanwhile, Ai Weiwei grasped its qualities in a moving comparison with the monumentalism of China’s ruling party,

“Beijing’s Olympics were very grand – they were trying to throw a party for the world, but the hosts didn’t enjoy it. The government didn’t care about people’s feelings because it was trying to create an image. In London, they really turned the ceremony into a party – they are proud of themselves and respect where they come from, from the industrial revolution to now. I never saw an event before that had such a density of information about events and stories and literature and music; about folktales and movies.”

‘This was about Great Britain’, Weiwei claimed at the start while concluding, ‘Anyone who watched it would have a clear understanding of what England is’. Which shows that a baffling element escaped him. Henry Porter blogging it in Vanity Fair addressed the ambiguity,

“Most countries know what they are about. Britain doesn’t. Without an empire, we are still wondering where we fit into the world. The Scottish Independence movement threatens the United Kingdom and there is a growing chorus, demanding an exit from the European Union. We agonize about our future. Are we Europeans, or natural Atlanticists? Are we even a country?”

So, to some extent, Boyle was describing us to ourselves, as well as the world. And the result was good. The confidence and ingenuity of his production proved strangely reassuring. And when you think about it, it was a remarkable decision to choose the nation’s troubled health service as one of the major themes.

For me, in addition to the NHS, there were two highlights that in different ways rebuked the values of neo-liberalism. The first was the ‘forging’ of the Olympic ring and the reminder that this is a country that once made things and has the skills and muscle to manufacture. The second was the celebration of Tim Berners Lee who tweeted “This is for Everyone” from the centre of the stadium and the words appeared in huge letters across the seating screens.

Most people still do not know who Berners Lee is or what he did that was so exceptional. This was not just to have developed the World Wide Web but also that he gave us our liberty to use it at will, sharing it as a free universal form of expression on the internet, rather than seeking to patent and profit from it. The gifter matters more than the inventor who refused to close and control the space he created, in marked contrast to the political economy of the Olympics.

This politics may be aspirational but is not balmy or whimsical and its left-wingness does not harp back to a nostalgic past.

The celebration puts the right into an awkward position, desperate to blow the patriotic trumpet and unable to overtly ‘spoil the party’ when even the Queen and Bond have been recruited into it, two unchallengeable symbols of the post-war British state. Sunny Hundel blogged the 10 ‘silliest tweets’ while later John Walker spotted and screen-saved a Daily Mail attack that was promptly pulled for its racist loathing of Boyle’s celebration.

But if for the first time since the Festival of Britain it is the right and not the left that is, by and large, lining up against a British celebration by the side of the Thames, this makes it also a time to lace any welcome with ambivalence. In an elated account, Richard Williams of the Guardian even claimed “Cameron and his gang will surely not dare to continue the dismemberment of the NHS after this”. Whereas, of course, Cameron got as many votes as he did in the 2010 General Election by promising to safeguard the ethos of the NHS and protect it from “top down” reorganisation. His approval of Boyle’s plans (he could hardly have fired him for them) can equally function as a cover for continuing to hand over the Health Service to corporate providers, especially in the absence of organised political opposition.

What the Olympic opening shows is that a different form of politics from that on offer is possible and would be popular. All it does is show this, literally, which is both a little and a lot.

In four years time, when Rio takes the stage, will the opening ceremony be a well-choreographed carnival of Brazil-as-spectacle, or will it celebrate participatory budgets and the overthrow of a military who tortured their president? It is Danny Boyle’s achievement that we can ask such a question. At a point where the left in the developed world has been routed and seems incapable of mounting an effective response to the crash and austerity, the London Olympics opened with a dramatic demonstration of the potential popularity of a different political culture of “real freedom and true equality”. Achieving this is another matter.

Anthony Barnett is co-founder of OpenDemocracy and co-editor of its UK section OurKingdom where this article first appeared.

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