Tuesday, 26 June 2012

David Renton on Class, Corruption and Resistance at the London Olympics

'Class, corruption and resistance at the London Olympics' by David Renton - author of Lives Running (among other works).  This was the talk David gave at the London Socialist Historians Group seminar on 25 June 2012:

As I speak, an unusual protest is taking place. It began with a group of runners, not a group of people known for their militancy, and in the Devon village of Torcross, not celebrated for its left-wing credentials. The runners noticed to their surprise that for the majority of its route the official Olympic Torch was not being carried at all. The torch’s route is shown on an interactive map, and anyone who looks at the map for themselves will see the pattern. Each morning, a car drives the torch to a town or a city, and half a dozen runners then take the torch through the centre of that town. The torchbearers each run for about 300 metres only, which takes an hour or so. The torch is then taken by car to a new town the following day, and for the majority of the distance it is being driven.

This ersatz relay offended the sensibilities of Britain’s amateur runners, who sparked by the Torcross pioneers, have responded by volunteering in vast numbers to take a torch of their own across Britain – and Ireland – running in blocks of around 8 to 10 miles each. Every metre of its distance, the unofficial torch is carried by hand. Runners’ websites have taken up the story, and it seems likely that the “Real Relay” will arrive in London 10 days before the official torch, having involved around a thousand runners.

It is interesting that the Torch relay in particular has sparked this very polite protest movement, for the relay is almost the only part of the Games that most people will be able to see in the flesh. In most places, it has been well received, and is authentically popular. Some of the reasons for the relay’s visibility are relatively banal. The Olympic organisers had the choice of distributing the Games across Britain, but plumped for the “safer” option of fitting as many of the events as they could possibly manage within a single, purpose-built stadium. The organisers’ choice to keep everything in Straftord, or at the very least in South East England, is the sole cause of the Games’ net cost to the taxpayer of £11 billion. It has of course meant an absolute bonanza to the major construction companies – Bam Nuttall, Carillion, etc – blacklisters, union busters and promoters of bogus agency employment as they are.

The relative visibility of the Torch relay is a product of more though than just the Games’ over-concentration in London. The London Organising Committee (LOCOG) have actively gone out to minimise the amount of the Games that will be capable of being watched by anyone “in the flesh”. These decisions have included fencing the route of the cycle competitions and charging for the prime viewing spot of Box Hill (to get a sense of how this contradicts the entire history of that sport, just cast you mind back to any images you have ever seen of the Tour de France, which, like almost every cycling road race, is of course perfectly free to view) and refusing public access to horse inspections (a decision which caused one of the main organisers of the equestrian events Hugh Thomas to resign last week). The organisers could also have taken for example the Olympic 10k off the track, where it is a visually boring and uneventful competition, to one of the thousands of routes (road, park, etc) used for 10k races up and down the country. They deliberately did not do so.

The Olympic torch route is of course free to watch; in this it compares to the main Olympics events for which tickets can already be purchased on ebay for over £400 per person (or via ticketmaster for £695 for the shot put final plus a complimentary drink). This is where the “one stadium fits all” model proves so pernicious. It concentrates access to the Olympics in as small a venue as possible, placing a premium on tickets for the Stratford stadium. One of the commercial secrets which LOCOG are refusing to release is what proportion of the tickets for the prestige elements of the Games (eg the men’s 100 metre and 800 metre finals) have been made available for public booking online. Before we get to the ordinary sporting “public”, there are at least groups of spectators who have priority: first, the global rich, second the families and hangers on of the London organisers, the Olympic sponsors, and the IOC committee members, and third, the purveyors of corporate hospitality. In the press, a best guess has been commonplace to the effect that only one third of the tickets for the prestige events have gone on general sale.

While the runners of the Real Relay have been objecting to the bogus nature of a running spectacle in which three-quarters of the distance is not being run at all, other critics of the Olympics have been at pains to point out two further blemishes of the Torch relay. First, rather than originating in some distant Olympic past, the idea of a torch relay goes back only to the 1936 Berlin Olympics and was an invention of Nazi propagandists, temporarily enthused by the idea of connecting their regime to ancient Greece. Second, while the London organisers have publicised the torch relay as a tribute to 8000 of the most generous or the bravest of people, it turns out that at least 1200 of the tickets were handed over to corporate sponsors, and have in turn been cascaded down to various corporate executives, regional salesman, managers in allied companies who negotiated deals favourable to the donating company, and not least of all, Lakshmi Mittal, Britain’s richest man, and his son, Aditya.

On the Olympic website below there is a section devoted to the “8,000 inspirational people” who “will carry the Olympic Flame as it journeys across the UK. Nominated by someone they know, it will be their moment to shine, inspiring millions of people watching in their community, in the UK and worldwide.”

Let me read you what Aditya Mittal says in his torchbearers’ statement

“Aditya Mittal is Chief Financial Officer and member of the Group Management Board of ArcelorMittal. As head of Mergers & Acquisitions he initiated and led Mittal Steel's offer for Arcelor to create the world's largest steel company and is now helping run it. This year he assumed responsibility for the European operations, the company's largest division.”

“In 2008, Aditya was awarded 'European Business Leader of the Future' by CNBC Europe. In 2011, he was ranked 4th in the '40 under 40' list of Fortune magazine. He is a member of the World Economic Forum's Young Global Leaders Forum, the Young Presidents Organization, a Board Member at the Wharton School, a Board Member at PPR and a member of Citigroup's International Advisory Board.”

Inspirational stuff, I’m sure you’ll agree.

I will come back to the crimes of the London Olympics organisers in due course, but I wanted to move on, 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 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 five 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), i.e. the bits that make people identify with the system, and a relocation of resources towards the “nasty” bits (policing, the military, etc), i.e. the bits which are necessary to keep a lid on any signs of discontent.

This is a process which can be seen just as clearly in a country such as the Congo where the state spends a dollar per person per year and almost all spending is on the army, as it can in America, or Britain, of Greece.

Coming back 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

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. In Stratford, landlords’ dreams of an “Olympic windfall” are being used to justify the eviction of several thousand insecure private sector tenants. The Olympic boroughs are increasingly willing to offer housing to homeless people (which is a legal duty), not only just out of borough, but even out of London. 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, alongside 12,500 police officers and 23,500 private security guards; the navy is deploying two attack vessels, including HMS Ocean, an amphibious attack vessel and the largest boat in the fleet, which will be stationed for the Thames for the duration of the Games. There will be Eurofighters and attack helicopters, missiles stationed at six sites in East London and around the capital, including on the building where the 1888 Marchgirls strike began. We are seeing armed police becoming a routine sight at many of London’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 permanently stationed just 2 miles from the Games.

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 the Bhopal chemical leak) and Rio Tinto (responsible for extensive air pollution in the US). 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 Games are taking place at a time of extreme austerity measures.

The bid for the Olympics specified that the total extent of the budget 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.

£11 billion of this – the entire net loss – is going to come from taxation.

This is almost exactly the same amount of course that is being spent on the East London building site.

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.

Now the title my talk alludes to class and corruption and I should say something about two points in particular where the London Olympics may have crossed the line into something worse even than ordinary corporate conduct.

The first part of this on which I want to focus is the remuneration of the very best paid LOCOG officials. Sixteen Olympic managers are being paid in excess of £150,000 per year. There have been suggestions in the press that individuals are on spot bonuses associated with the Games that may take their salaries over £1 million.

To make it as concrete as possible, let me dwell on the figure of Seb Coe, about whose career as an athlete I have written in the LSHG Newsletter (and I won’t go over that ground again tonight, save only to note my belief which is that if you want to understand how the IOC chose London over the other bidding cities, much of this is down to the final speech in the bid process given by Coe, and to the cultural capital he maintains in sporting circles – in contrast to the other IOC bigwigs – as someone who was part of a truly great sporting rivalry).

How much are the Games worth to Coe? First, Seb Coe draws from LOCOG an annual salary of £357,000 p/a (2010-2011). This is determined by LOCOG’s remuneration committee, attended by Coe and five other LOCOG committee members. It met just twice in 2011.

Second, Coe has set up a company “Seb Coe Ltd” to benefit from his image rights, which have clearly grown considerably in value ever since the successful 2005 bid. Certain of the company’s accounts have been deposited at Companies House (and can be accessed online via the Companies House “web check” service: they show that these of Coe’s interests made him a profit of £131,508 in 2007-2008).

In 2008 Seb Coe spent £41,760 on administering this company, but in 2007 his “administrative expenses” were a whopping £587,359. I'd love to know what that was: a team of 30 people working full-time for a year solely on Coe’s accounts?

Third, Coe receives a salary (undisclosed) from the Nike running shoe company, for which he is a “worldwide ambassador”.

Fourth, Coe markets himself as a public speaker and can be booked through The Edge agency for c£10,000 per evening. This is relevant to Coe’s public activities as a sports administrator, because the topics he speaks to (Leadership, The Art of Winning, Formulating the Perfect Team) relate to his present, publicly-funded role as Chairman of London 2012, not his past life as a private athlete.

These figures can’t simply be added up – there is too much missing information – but at a conservative estimate I would say that the London Olympic Bid has resulted in Seb Coe profiting to the tune of at least £600,000 per year, and perhaps several times more.

The other personality on which I want to focus is Sead Dizdarevic, who through two companies Co Sport and Jet Set Sports holds exclusive rights to sell hospitality packages for London 2012 to citizens of Australia, Austria, Bulgaria, Canada, Norway, Sweden and the United States.

This is a lucrative business. Dizdarevic's ticket sales are generally estimated to have netted him a cool $70 million in pure profit from the Beijing Olympics (Dizdarevic, it is worth noting, disputes this figure, estimating that his profit on the games was a mere $20-$30 million).

As ever, the super-profits of the rich are not a mere private matter; in order for ultima-touts such as Dizdarevic to flourish, there has to be a market of private tickets, inside which Dizdarevic can operate, offering top-paying clients entrance to (say) the men's 100 metres final bundled together with hotel rooms, landing spaces for their private jets, etc.

JSS haven't just been offering private companies access to niche events, they have also promised that people who buy through them can purchase access to the Olympics Route Network which will be jamming up London for the rest of us. "For the avoidance of doubt", the CoSport website tells us, "CoSPort coaches have access to the Olympic Route Network (ORN) but do not have access to the dedicated Games Lanes".

And any happiness I feel that the purchasers of CoSport's consumer hospitality packages (retailing at c5-£10,000) will be kept out of the Games Lanes, reserved as they are for officials of the various international federations, etc, is tempered by my conviction that the global mega rich will be going to Dizdaervic for bespoke packages (at costs of up to £500,000 per magnate). Those packages, I am certain, will include access to the Lanes.

Now Dizdaervic has an interesting history. He was investigated by American federal authorities for bribery during the Salt Lake City games. In return for immunity from prosecution, he eventually turned state witness, testifying at the trial of Salt Lake Olympic directors Tom Welch and David Johnson that he (Dizdaervic) and his sister-in-law had delivered $131,000 in cash contributions to Welch and Johnson in the hope of securing an exclusive hospitality contract with them.

And he now has sufficient loose change to have bunged a cool million into the campaign finances of Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

So, whatever dealings Dizdaervic has or hasn’t had with LOCOG – which I must emphasise are presently hidden behind the veil of corporate secrecy – we can see that his general approach to business (that is of sweetening his relationships with key players by sending them money) has not changed in 20 years.

It will be interesting to see what more comes of this part of the story over successive weeks.

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, including the Palestinian competitors, and 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 Mile End 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. There will be a demonstration, passing the site of the Olympic missiles, and followed by cultural events, activities for children, etc.

This will be the biggest and best chance for all of Red London (not just London’s runners, nor even just London’s Socialist Historians) to make our opposition felt to the corporate take-over of the Games.

Monday, 25 June 2012

West Yorkshire Socialist Historians Group

 Further to this post about a Northern Radical History Network being formed,  this letter in Socialist Worker caught my eye recently:

 A forum for Yorkshire's working class history

In recent months we have set up the West Yorkshire Socialist Historians Group on the model of the London Socialist Historians Group.
We intend to provide a forum for socialist historians in the former West Riding and beyond.
Our aim is to intervene on many levels, from popular history to more ostensibly rigorous academic work.
We are recently retired college lecturers who want to promote discussion of new socialist approaches to history. We will discuss history from the point of view of the working class.
Our initial focus is on the revolutionary north in two periods.
First that immediately following the so-called Great Reform Act and the Chartist period. Second the period of the Great Unrest 1910-21/6.
Contact us if you are interested.
Brian Collier and Barry Pavier, mailbri@hotmail.co.uk or barry.pavier@ntlworld.com
Edited to add: WYSHG inaugural meeting on 17 July, 7.30pm at the Bradford Resource Centre. 

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Inaugural Dorothy and E.P. Thompson Lecture in Worcester

 Worcester 2012 Dorothy and E.P. Thompson Lecture