Editorial: Society and the Spectacle

IssueSeptember 2012
Comment by Milan Rai , Emily Johns

We’re guessing that PN readers divide roughly 50/50 on the Olympics. Half of us are blissfully ignorant of the whole thing. Half of us know varying amounts about what happened. (At a UK level, 90% of the population watched at least 15 minutes of coverage, according to the BBC.)

If you want to take the most positive, Colin Ward-ish perspective, you can cherish the fact that ‘the British nation’ has taken a black man (an immigrant from Somaliland) and a mixed-race woman to its heart, as embodying ‘the best of Britain’.

You could value the boost to women’s self-esteem and self-image that many women commentators have perceived in ‘the women’s Games’.

You could appreciate the emotional opening that the Olympics represented for the previously stiff-upper-lip society, with British athletes (and sometimes their interviewers) weeping unapologetically.

No doubt there will be similar positive effects one could find with the Paralympics (which had yet to start as this issue went to press).

At the same time, when we look at the overall effect of the Games on British society, on societies around the world, the most obvious thing that they have done is to reinforce nationalism and established power. The obsession with ‘national’ heroes and ‘national’ medals reinforces an irrational loyalty to ‘the nation’. (Quite apart from the fact that, here, the UK is made up of three nations – and northern Ireland.)

According to an Ipsos MORI poll for thinktank ‘British Future’, 82% of people in the UK said the Olympic games had made people feel more proud to be British; 67% said they were surprised how much the Olympics had brought the country together.

We value community and unity as much as anyone else – but what was the basis for this unity? A version of Britishness that is glued together with the military, royalty – and ‘beating the world’.

True, Mo Farah ‘is adored in these islands, for his modesty, his dedication and the boundless zest of his running’ (Paul Hayward, Daily Telegraph). But the man from Somaliland would not be adored if he was not a winner (for Britain) – a double gold medallist (for Britain).

Over the last 18 months, Britain has seen three major spectacles. The Olympics and Paralympics cost a staggering £9bn to stage. The diamond jubilee weekend cost the taxpayer at least £4.5m (including £1m paid to the royal household for administration and ‘increased correspondence’). The royal wedding day last April cost £20m in policing.

These spectacles are awe-inspiring and emotional – and corrosive of democracy. The state stages these dramas not only to impress foreign powers, but also to dazzle its own subjects into submission.

See more of: Editorial