Fiasco, disaster, police state: don’t talk to me about the Olympics

27/07/2012 § 1 Comment

Photo from the Guardian

I should start by saying that my objections to the Olympics are not about the enjoyment that people will get out of watching the sports, and in particular are not about the thousands of people  – including good friends of mine – who have signed up to volunteer for the Games. I have nothing but admiration for their enthusiasm and altruism in volunteering; it’s just a shame that they don’t have a Games worthy of them.

Instead the Games are a combination of corporate greed, brand control-freakery, repression of civil liberties, and thinly disguised contempt for the people who live where the games will take place. The adverts by McDonalds and Procter and Gamble (with their repellent ‘Proud Sponsors of Mums’ slogan, a whole world of sexist WTF) nakedly exploit the admirable human qualities shown by competitors, spectators and volunteers at the Olympic games in order to sell burgers and washing powder. Despite these adverts none of the sponsoring companies have much confidence in their products, insisting on draconian ‘brand protection’ measures which mean that using the wrong kind of liquid soap on an Olympic site may lead to Olympics officials covering up brand names and logos with sticky labels.

The Counter-Olympics Network have a good collection of reasons to hate the Olympics (including their Games Monitor RSS feed), from exploitative labour practices to civil liberties. Despite attempts by Tower Hamlets Council to ban it, they have organised a Counter-Olympics demonstration (Facebook link) tomorrow, marching from Mile End Park to Wennington Green.

Vanity Fair’s hilarious, but appalling investigation into how London won the bid, which will make you despise Tessa Jowell (When she hired economists to conduct a full-scale feasibility study, they too shot her down. “The quantifiable evidence to support each of the perceived benefits for mega-events is weak,” the study concluded. “They appear to be more about celebration than economic return.”), hate Tony Blair more than you already do (TB: “For a country like Britain, it’s a great thing for us to have the Olympics here. We can afford to do the Olympics. We’re Britain. We’re not some Third World country.”) and gain a sneaking respect for Gordon Brown, who warned Jowell and Blair that the Olympics games would cost more than Britain could afford.

That cost:

the $3.9 billion price tag for the entire Olympics, the figure that Tessa Jowell had used to persuade her fellow Cabinet members to come on board, was blown away. In fact, it would cost a full $8 billion just to remediate the real estate, before construction could even begin.

The Guardian’s investigation suggests a total cost of £11.3 billion; £9.3 billion of which comes from the public sector, of which approximately £1 billion (£1 billion!) has gone on security including policing and the army. When you look at those figures, note how little money the IOC itself puts in, and how small, relatively, is the amount of money that comes from corporate sponsorship – little more than the amount generated by ticket sales. Instead, central government contributes over half the money needed, in addition to agreeing to an extensive list of requirements stipulated by the IOC, most of them covered by a special Olympic Games Act covering branding, advertising, transport (including special lanes on London roads reserved for Olympics athletes and officials), ‘protection’ of the Olympic symbols and even street lighting.

It costs £0.5 billion to build a hospital. It costs approximately £0.5 million to run a local library for a year.

(It must be added that while the public spending doesn’t seem to me to be justifiable, one total waste of public money, G4S, does have an upside. So egregious is its failure that it has provoked extensive discussion about the inefficiency of the private sector. G4S’s decision not to recruit security workers until the last minute – until, as it turned out, it was too late to recruit suitable workers in sufficient numbers – was motivated purely by the bottom line. It’s not the first time that the kneejerk tendency of both this government and the last one to privatise and outsource has been exposed as deeply misguided, but every example is useful, and as a trade unionist and a  socialist I welcome every nail being hammered into this particular coffin.)

The other tragedy of the games is the way that the so-called regeneration of the Lea Valley area has been handled. Here’s Iain Sinclair in the LRB four years ago writing about the closing off of large areas of the Lea Valley to local people as the Olympics buildings went up:

On the day the blue fence went up – olympic park, road closed here from Monday 2 July, footpath closed, keep clear – I met a man called Keith Foster, one of those centaurs of the marshes: camera-head perched on bicycle. Foster, who described himself as a ‘fieldwork photographer’ for Waltham Forest, had been keeping a meticulous record of the Lower Lea Valley, the shifts in land use, narrowboats, wildlife, for more than thirty years. Until today: when he was threatened with summary arrest by private security guards, for the crime of pointing his camera at the fence – this overnight intruder who shadowed the towpath, accompanied the Greenway, stuttered through Stratford, marked out the half-abandoned estate due for demolition on Clays Lane.

When Sinclair wrote that in 2008 the full extent of the civil repression was not yet evident: surface-to-air missiles had not yet been installed on civilians’ rooves; automatic weapon-totin’ armed police were not yet patrolling Westfield shopping centre and the London Underground, the deployment of snipers in helicopters over east London had not yet been announced.

It’s some comfort that my fellow Londoners feel about the Olympics much as I do, as the New York Times reported rather wryly:

Asked “What do you feel about the Olympics?” the other day, a random sampling of people here… gave answers that included bitter laughter; the words “fiasco,” “disaster” and “police state”; and detailed explanations of how they usually get to work, how that is no longer possible and how very unhappy that makes them.

There’s a cheering example of a Coca Cola-sponsored graffiti advert being wiped out by graffiti artists in Hackney Wick (my sister lives next to that wall!) but at the same time anti-Olympics wall paintings on private space, authorised by the property owner, have been painted out by the authorities in order to prevent any tarnishing of the Olympic shine. Last week four graffiti artists were arrested by the Transport Police and then released under punitive bail conditions which prevent them from possessing spray paint or marker pens, or from coming within one mile of any Olympic venue.

The best way of considering the Olympics comes from Potlatch (who has written some excellent pieces on the pernicious aspects of the Games) who imagines the Olympics as symbolic of the pre-Lehman Bros neoliberal ideology: justifiable, if only spuriously, before the global financial crisis, but now completely without reason or explanation, stumbling on like a zombie:

An honest Olympics would be silent, offer no explanation for its wastage, its purpose, because it no longer has one. Seb Coe would take to the airwaves, and be entirely mute. This could be the symbolically-empty games, and our dwindling reserves of optimism could then be diverted where they are more needed.

Enjoy the games.


Imre Kertész speaks to Le Monde

16/02/2012 § Leave a comment

I thought this interview with Le Monde, (via the Bookslut blog) in which Kertész speaks about the current political situation in Hungary, was tremendously interesting, so I thought I’d translate it into English (it’s quite a rough and ready translation). Pdf here.

I don’t agree with his ideas about the polarity between the East and West, tribal and Christian cultures in Hungary, but what I think is especially interesting is what he says about Hungary’s history:

The question I ask myself is: why has Hungary always taken the wrong path? Remember. When revolution was roaring through Europe, Hungary supported Marie-Thérèse! From the 16th century onwards, the country was first part of the Ottoman empire, then the Habsburg, then the Soviet bloc. Every time, it tried to play the game of the country which had absorbed it. That appeared to work quite well. But only in appearance. Under Kadar the country seemed like the most enthusiastic part of the Soviet camp, but that was at the price of the suppression of the 1956 revolution and a political indebtedness which cost them dearly. The current situation is just another example of this tendency to take the wrong path. The Hungarian state chooses today to be in opposition to Europe in the name of the defence of its national interest, which gives the impression of a return to sovereignty. But once more it’s in error. Nothing new, no problem, and therefore no solution because there is no problem.

Can we see a parallel with the 1930s?

In Hungary, yes. There are pages on that in my Diaries. Images. The walls of the metro escalators in Budapest covered in posters in the same green that the Arrow Cross Party used (Hungarian fascists of the 1930s): “Neither left nor right, Christian and Hungarian” and underneath, the sign of the far-right party. These visions remind me of my childhood. In 1938 we collected the electoral flyers of the Arrow Cross Party: Jews in top hat and tails, bouncing like fleas in the passage of a steamroller…

How do you see the future?

Some days, I tell myself that secretly the Hungarians know that we’re going in the wrong direction. And that Orban will fail–after all, in the 1940s, the situation in Southern Tyrol seemed equally intractable. And that was resolved. But I don’t think we can rule out any hypothesis. It’s also possible that Hungary will descend into utter chaos. That would be a tragedy, but when the people are alienated from politics and the economy is in an impasse, the danger is serious. The question of the gypsies is as important as that of the Jews. If the systematic persecution of the gypsies continues, they will eventually lose patience. They will be driven to violence.


02/01/2012 § 1 Comment

My sister on the March 26th trade union demo

Good things

1. There is a crack, a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in. I was born the day before Margaret Thatcher was elected Prime Minister. I grew up left-wing in a period which possibly saw the worst defeat and demoralisation of the left in the twentieth century. I don’t want to seem too optimistic about what will happen in the next few years, but for the first time in my life it feels like anything might happen, which is in a lot of ways better than the feeling that nothing will change.

2. The Arab spring. None of the things I’m listing here are unambiguously good and the some of the political and military repression following the Arab spring has been (and continues to be) truly horrific. But the civil resistance across the Middle East and North Africa has been an astonishing, almost unbelievable development, and the courage of the protestors is unimaginable.

3. UK popular opposition. My twitter bio reads: ‘Forthe broad democratic alliance!’ which is a joke about something my dad always says. But one thing that seems heartening to me this year is the way that opposition to the coalition’s austerity measures has forged links between different groups and generations. Trade unionists visiting the Occupy movement; UKUncut activists developing links with unions; broad-based, coordinated strike action; even poor beleaguered Ed Miliband seems to be starting to understand how mainstream opposition to austerity is, despite the best attempts of the Blairite dinosaurs of his party. (They’re relics of the pre-2008 age, Ed, don’t listen to them!)

4. The Murdoch crisis. Horrific details, yes. Appalling corruption of our media and politics, yes. But you can’t tell me you didn’t enjoy it! (Fingers crossed that 2012 sees the crisis spread to the Mail.)

Bad things

1. The Eurocrisis. It’s astonishing to have confirmed for you what you’ve always secretly suspected: that no one who has any power, knowledge or influence combines ‘knowing what to do’ with ‘being able to do it’. Here’s Paul Krugman’s Eurovenn, a visual guide to the ongoing situation: 

2. Climate change. As though the Eurocrisis hadn’t proved the total lack of any vision or courage among the politicians of the world.

3.  The coalition government. I don’t need to expand on this.

4. Technocrats and the threat to democracy. The technocratic governments in Europe are a pretty chilling development. The installation of leaders whose task is to push through changes that the population wouldn’t agree to democratically seems one of the most sinister effects of the Eurocrisis and one which has forced me to reassess my attitude to quite a lot of things – not least, to the far right and the threat they pose, not necessarily because they could directly take political power, but because the kind of disorder they can create could be used as a reason to impose an undemocratic régime.

5. The end of the Iraq war. Not, of course, that I’m sorry that it’s ended. But it hasn’t really ended, has it? The pointlessness of eight years (and counting) of slaughter and destruction is unutterably sad and terrible.

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