The Olympics: how neo-liberalism makes for a joyless Games


I will come on to the crimes of the London Olympics organisers in due course, but I wanted to begin, seemingly a long way away from Stratford, with two ideas which I think are essential to any compelling explanation of the present Games.

The first is the distinction between sport and play. (Anyone who has read the article I posted recently by Gareth Edwards will spot that these next two paragraphs are based on conversations I’ve had with him).

Anyone who has an interest in the politics of sport will be aware of the extraordinarily different reactions that different groups of adult shave towards competitive sport: half of us love it, half loathe it. Very few indeed sit anywhere between these two extremes. My explanation is as follows. Together with art and literature, sport is one of a series of activities that emerges from childhood play. For those unfamiliar with the concept, play is the word used by Marxists, and indeed by non-Marxists who write about childhood development, to describe the self-directed activity of toddlers and young primary school children, and to describe what happens when they make up a game, experiment, and use their discovering to learn about the world. Educationalists love play because they believe that it is the period of anyone’s life when we are learning most quickly and effectively. Marxists are interested in play because we see play as the opposite (even under capitalism) of alienated labour.

Now, the difference between play and sport is that sport is a regulated and therefore “alienated” activity (in the loose sense of the term in which Marx used it in the 1840s). Without going into this in too much detail: in all class societies sport is alienated from play in at least the following respects: i) it belongs to special time of its own (for example, under feudalism: what made village football an alienated activity was not the rules of the game but the fact that peasants were only allowed to play it on a couple of days each year), ii) it is competitive (which I think explains why PE tops any list of the subjects that adults recall with least pleasure from their school days: it’s pretty obvious that if you compel 20 young people to run a competitive race – the person who wins is more likely to remember it with pleasure than the 19 who don’t), iii) it is rule-bound (unlike play, the participants don’t set their own rules), iv) sport is increasingly something that people watch, not something they do, and v) sport is over-determined (especially under capitalism) by the subtle relationships of domination that we associate with the market (think of the increasing price of going to football, or the marketisation of activities such as swimming, which were once what people just did and are now what people have to pay to do).

The reason, I believe, that many people love sport is in part that they are remembering backwards in time to the sporting activities they did as children and enjoyed and which were closer to play than sport, and in part that they are “remembering forwards” to a time under a different sort of society when most of what we now think of as sport will be much more like play. The reason, conversely, many people hate sport is that they see it through sport’s, and their own, alienation.

The second idea I want to introduce is neo-liberalism.

I believe that when historians look back at the last 120 years, they will divide it into three epochs. During the first, to 1917, the dominant form of capitalism was private capitalism. During the second, till 1989, the dominant form was state capitalism. We are back in a private capitalist moment. In every country, state capitalism was characterised by (amongst other things) bureaucratic welfare states, engaged to a greater or lesser extent in redistributing wealth very slowly from the rich to the poor. (At the time, most socialists emphasised the slowness of this transfer, these days we acknowledge the fact that there was any transfer at all). The point about neo-liberalism as a variety of right-wing politics is not, as Thatcher used to pretend, that it sought to scale down the state. In fact the portion of state spending in most countries is about the same as it was thirty years ago. The difference is that taxes are not being used to redistribute wealth down, they are being used rather to redistribute up: to bolster companies and their owners who are already fabulously wealthy.

So, the distinctive neo-liberal “reform” is something like PFI which involved the state deliberately choosing to build schools, hospitals etc on long-term contracts which guaranteed the private companies four to fives times more than the “ordinary” value of their work. It was as if you could walk through a building site where a hospital was being built, and arrive at the other end, to find a manager by a van, simply doling out large bundles of cash to any suitable capitalist who walked by.

Under neo-liberalism, there is inevitably also a general move away from spending on the “nice” bits of welfare state capitalism (education, hospitals, etc), the bits that make people identify with the system, and a relocation of resources towards the “nasty” bits (policing, the military, etc)

Coming finally to the London Olympics; my argument is that they Olympics mark a new stage of the distinction between sport and play, a stage that could only have been reached in the neo-liberal moment.

I will give five examples of aspects of the Olympics which strike me as new:

1. Their use to concentrate riches in the hands of those already wealthy

Huge contracts amounting to £12 billion have been awarded to the construction companies building the venues. Sixteen Olympic managers are being paid in excess of £150,000 per year. Meanwhile the typical Olympics jobs, cleaning, guarding, etc, are being done by workers on short-term insecure contracts, usually for an hourly rate of £10 or less. InStratford, landlords’ dreams of an “Olympic windfall” are being used to justify the eviction of large numbers of private sector or insecure public sector tenants. The Olympic boroughs are increasingly willing to offer housing to homeless people, not only just out of borough, but even out ofLondon. People are being moved, families broken up, only so that the landlords can make more money.

2. The Games’ militarisation

13,500 soldiers are being deployed at the Olympics; the navy is deploying two attack vessels, including HMS Ocean, the largest boat in the fleet. There will be Eurofighters and attack helicopters, missiles stationed inEast Londonand around the capital. We are seeing armed police becoming a routine sight at many ofLondon’s train stations. The army has bought in additional technology for the games, including a sonic cannon, a form of crowd dispersal technology used in occupied Gaza and Baghdad, which is now stationed on HMS Ocean on theThames.

3. The promotion of some of the most unscrupulous units of capital

The Olympic Games has long been associated with Nike, Adidas, etc. What’s different now is the adoption of sponsors such as Dow (responsible for theBhopalchemical leak) and Rio Tinto (responsible for extensive air pollution in theUS). The worst single sponsor is undoubtedly BP, the games’ official “sustainability partner”, and responsible not just for Deepwater (the worst oil leak in world history) but also the mining of the Canadian tar sands, probably the single greatest instance of unsustainable resource extraction taking place anywhere in the world today.

The Games’ organisers have also been busy protecting the intellectual property of the sponsors – ie cracking down on companies, people and protesters associating themselves in any way with Olympic (or even anti-Olympic) words or images.

4. Their extravagance

The bid for the Olympics specified that the total event of the budge would be no more than £2 billion. The true figure has crept up, according even to the limited scrutiny of the House of Commons Public Account committee to £23 billion, of which the public subsidy will be no less than £11 billion, and in all likelihood rather more.

5. Very specifically, the organisers have allowed the Games to be associated with companies who exist only to leech money from the public sector

This includes the sponsors G4S and Atos, the former of which has received in return a large slice of the total £500 million that will be spent on security guards.

Finally, what can be done about the Games? There are a lot of small things that people could be doing to reverse parts of the alienation process from play to sport that the Games represents. I see a positive trend in people turning out to watch the Olympic torch relay – almost the only part of the Games that will be held sustainedly outsideLondon. And I would be all in favour for example of a similar process of wresting back control of spectating around the Olympic cycling: a sport which is almost universally free to watch, save at this year’s Games.

We will see hints of struggle even during the Games itself. There are athletes whose participation in the Games represents moments in their individual struggles against oppression (I am not thinking of the organised Paralympics, which most disabled activists regard as patronising in the extreme), but there are athletes, the Palestinian competitors, the intersex runner Caster Semanya, who I wish well.

Some local groups are talking organising counter-Olympic sporting or cultural events, there will be a Fattylympics against body fascism, there is already a fantastic anti-Olympic exhibition at the Free Word centre in Farringdon. Where the events take place, socialists should welcome them, and spread the message of how mass left-wing sporting movements have organised play differently – such as through the Workers’ Olympics of the 1920s and 1930s, which involved more athletes and more spectators in different kinds of activities from their rival the official Olympics, and which are a part of the immediate context, for example, to the Civil War in Spain.

Finally, there will be a main, single anti-Olympics demonstration taking place at 12 noon at a venue in East London on 28 July, and organised by the Counter Olympics Network, which I hope will bring together people from all the different counter-cultural and anti-Olympic movements. This will be the biggest and best chance for all of Red London to make our opposition felt.

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