Friday, 27 July 2012

Olympic Capital

The first few minutes of the London Olympics' opening ceremony were a magnificent, awe-inspiring tableau of the power of both human co-operation and capitalist economic relations. Both in the scenes of Britain's industrialisation portrayed, and in the show iself, they demonstrated the creative destruction that could be achieved through this particular way of harnessing human ingenuity and money with political authority.

Were the herders, shepherdesses and ploughmen in the opening rural idyll contented with their lot, or were they village idiots? Did the factory-builders and railroad constructors who destroyed their countryside rescue them from their idiocy or take away their souls? Did the governments that then sent them to their deaths in two world wars defend the liberties of Europe and the future for democracy, or did they sacrifice them for the globalisation that would eventually smash those factories into dust, and leave them desperately seeking some new sense of identity and purpose in a post-industrial desert?

The show itself was staged in a glittering new stadium, part of a superb complex of buildings, public art and gardens, equidistant from the most multi-ethnic and most impoverished borough in London and the shining towers that are home to Barclays, HSBC and the rest. As the news media broadcast hourly bulletins of the latest billion pound scams by the financial sector of the City, bringing ruin and shame across the globe, those same institutions have helped to fund a development which will leave a legacy of renewal and hope for the eastern half of London.

In some ways the sport will be an anti-climax after that display. It will show that we humans can run faster and hurl further than our ancestors, and that we can harness the discipline to work in small groups to cross water or scale heights. Capitalism has not destroyed these capacities for our species, though it has refined them in the bodies of a tiny athletic elite, and consigned the rest of us to roles of passive spectators, chewing excess food in front of TV screens.

We will be inspired, for sure, but what opportunities will capitalism give us after the Games are over, either as individuals or collectively, to express that inspiration in projects for the common good? It leaves us free to do so, but it does not point the way. We must find that for ourselves.

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