Olympic Britishness and the crisis of identity

London 2012's opening ceremony offered an epic history of the British worker, but with no acknowledgement of what contemporary work is like. Its celebration of modern Britain was a trans-historical mash-up, flattening all history as repackaged and 'inevitable' British national identity. In fact, the 'national character' is a totem from another century, as is the idea of the 'epic' worker subject. By reverting to these, the ceremony illustrated our present crisis of identity.

As Team GB entered the Olympic stadium during the opening ceremony on Friday night, it was to David Bowie’s ‘Heroes’. The central line from the song struck me as summing up the country’s hopes for its sportswomen and men amid a double-dip recession and seemingly terminal economic inertia - ‘We can be heroes, just for one day’. A concession in the choice of song perhaps that the Olympics represent a temporary, if somewhat spectacular, distraction from an increasingly dire reality that can only intensify over the forthcoming years.

Something of a debate has broken out about the meaning of this extraordinary ceremony, not least here on OurKingdom with Anthony Barnett and Sunder Katwala. The New York Times called it “...neither a nostalgic sweep through the past nor a bold vision of a brave new future”. This struck me as an accurate summation of an event that presented in microcosm the present historical moment in the wake of the global financial crisis of 2008 and the social and economic malaise that has followed. I was reminded of the quote by Antonio Gramsci on crisis in its consisting “...precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot yet be born”. It is similar sentiments that informed the mixed nature of London's opening ceremony, which looked neither wholly forward nor back. 

That is not to say that its Director, Danny Boyle’s efforts were without deeper meaning or any sustained attempt at social and historical critique. In particular, the first section of the opening ceremony offered a reflective and frequently epic expression of the Industrial Revolution.

At the outset of this first movement, the audience is offered a glimpse of ‘Merrie England’, a pre-industrial idyll resplendent with maypoles and games. Amid these scenes we hear four songs representing the formation of the British state, whose constituent nations have their hymns consecutively sung. This begins with a lone child singing William Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’, presumably to represent agrarian England. This is followed by ‘Danny Boy’ representing Ulster and what remains of the British conquest in Ireland; next, ‘Flower of Scotland’ and the Welsh song ‘Bread of Heaven’ (sung in English). These songs represent the political constitution of Britain - the conquest of Wales, the Act of Union with Scotland in 1707, and finally union with Ireland in 1801. Shortly thereafter, ‘Jerusalem’ resumes once more, now sung in unison by a choir - representing both the culmination of the political project of state formation, and a sense of foreboding as the ‘satanic mills’ of industrialisation appear on the horizon of history. 

Opening Ceremony: the 'dark satanic mills' of the Industrial Revolution.

Political union now complete, the engineer Isambard Brunel, played by Kenneth Branagh, leads a group of industrialists from a set of carriages that have entered the arena to the foot of a small hill that represents Glastonbury Tor, where he then proceeds to read from Caliban’s ‘Be Not Afeard’ speech, from Shakespeare’s Tempest.

It is the conclusion of this speech by Brunel that initiates an incredibly carnal depiction of the Industrial Revolution. An impressive percussive performance, led by a Boudicca-like Dame Evelynn Glennie, gradually builds, winding up into a coiled mass of energy as the first industrial ‘workers’ begin to emerge from within the Glastonbury Tor, a new subject unseen in human history until this moment. Brunel’s industrialists, having stayed at the foot of the Tor, remain stoical in manner as they observe ‘their’ creation, the industrial proletariat, as it emerges from the womb of a more ingenuous land, now gone. Boyle wishes to tell us that this is a seismic moment, both in the history of these islands and also, our species.

The percussion builds, coming to imitate a piston engine or the constant velocity of a locomotive train. Meanwhile, the landscape proceeds to rapidly change from the ‘green and pleasant land’ of Jerusalem to Blake’s ‘Satanic Mills’ and, in front of our eyes, the island of John Constable is replaced with that of Joseph Wright of Derby. The combination of the percussion and the chanting provides a pagan drive to this transformation, as if industrialisation itself expresses the basis of some new religion. This section is entitled ‘Pandemonium’, the name of John Milton’s capital of hell in ‘Paradise Lost’; the choice of title illustrates Boyle’s own critique of the new faith. Surely only the zeal of ‘divinely’ inspired constancy can drive, mediate and intensify such purposeful chaos? Yet this does not seem the devil’s work, nor are the industrialists located as uniquely malevolent protagonists within the allegory. Indeed, amid all this turmoil, Brunel’s industrialists stare at the creations of the new civilisation in astonishment as though these ziggurats of industry had appeared by magic from the heart of the Earth, greater symbols and more indomitable successors than that totem of the previous pagan faith, the now recedent Glastonbury Tor.

Watching the performance of the industrialists brings to mind Marx, when he writes in the ‘Communist Manifesto’ how capitalism represents:

“...a society that has conjured up such gigantic means of production and of exchange, it (the bourgeoisie) is like the sorcerer, who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells.”

Isambard Kingdom Brunel and the industrialist entrepreneurs.

Boyle’s capitalists and their collective reaction to the changes in their surroundings evoke the spirit of Marx’s words here - they are unleashing forces of history but don’t yet know where these forces may lead them.

What does not quite fit, however, is the non-antagonistic nature of the relationship between the industrialists and the workers. The performance depicts it as one of a partnership, an archaic corporatism assiduously intent on increasing the productive capabilities of the nation, of capital and of the human species.

In truth, when those workers did figuratively descend from Glastonbury Tor - or to put it literally, began to engage in industrial forms of production - what happened? There was the insurrection of Luddism in Nottinghamshire and then Derbyshire, Lancashire, Yorkshire and Leicestershire, which ultimately had to be pacified by 12,000 soldiers - more troops than were fighting Napoleonic France at the time (1812). Later, there were the Swing Riots of the 1830s, which were overwhelmingly the result of the progressive impoverishment and dispossession of the English peasantry over the previous fifty years. They were also the direct result, according to Lord Carnarvon, of English agricultural labourers being ‘reduced to a plight more abject than that of any race in Europe’. This experience, of worker resistance and dispossession from common land, as well as state repression, is wholly missing from Boyle’s ‘People’s’ history.

Nor is the relationship of the workers to their work particularly representative of historical fact. This feels particularly pertinent at around twenty four minutes through the ceremony when, having quite literally forged an Olympic ring to join the other four already suspended above their heads, the workers and industrialists collectively stand in awe at the sight of their combined achievement. Such a relationship to work in industrial production did not exist and is precisely what distinguishes it from pre-industrial forms of artisanal labour, in so much as workers produced things for exchange value within the new system and are not afforded the possibility of viewing a commodity as the conclusion of ‘their’ labour, as the very division of such labour grows ever more sophisticated in the process of transition.

The workers stand underneath their forged rings.

Work under capitalism in general, and in particular within industrial society, is alienating - which is to say one rarely understands what one is actually doing. A good example of this can be found in the film ‘The Working Class Goes to Heaven’, when the protagonist and piece-work operator, Lulu, becomes enraged at realising he doesn’t even know what the components he produces every day are for. This is a more accurate depiction of the relationship of the worker to their work than the rhythmic and satisfying encomium that Boyle offers.

Boyle seems to think of industrial production and the ‘society of work’ as offering the possibility of producing things of ethical and spiritual significance and perhaps even of redemption. The rings do, after all, hang over the heads of both classes, the workers and the bourgeoisie, as if they were some transcendent god or spiritual ideal. Here is a higher value which they have created through work and which now stands above them. Historically, it could perhaps represent socialism, an ethical ideal formed from class solidarity. Or perhaps the idea (misplaced, in my view) of collective contribution to a purported national interest or human progress. Whatever it is, the collective labours of these men and women seem to attain spiritual significance. Boyle's elision of suffering and alienation is a kind of post-industrial erasure of the historical experience of industrial society.

For the most part, all that work represents within industrial production is that the living human subject is rendered subordinate to the commodity object. Marx calls this the ‘ontological inversion’, where humans are reduced to the ‘object’ of commodity labour while the things they produce for exchange are imbued with the metaphysics of life and ‘subjecthood’. While there are some jobs that permit a sense of craftsmanship or achievement, such as the construction of the ‘majestic’ fixed capital of bridges, boats and buildings, the reality of work under industrial capitalism is mostly more akin to those workers of Guangdong in China who are manufacturing the Wenlock and Mandeville toys for the Olympic Games. These workers were forced to work as much as 120 hours a month overtime in the run up to the Games, while being paid as little as 26p an hour for working an 11-and-a-half hour day. Such work is not noble, honourable or creative. It is dull, repetitive and banal  - as this Luddite poem from 1812 makes perfectly clear. The same reality of work, although by now of differing degree to that in South and East Asia, remains true almost two centuries later in the UK as is clear for those cleaners housed in temporary ‘slums’ on the periphery of the Olympic Park.

As they look upon the fruits of their work, this is not the relationship Boyle’s 'workers' have to the Olympic Rings they have forged.

Move to Social Democracy and Post-Fordism

Actor Daniel Craig, as James Bond, collects the Queen from the palace.

Having been given the epic (and tragic) story of the Industrial Revolution, the audience is offered the world of fiction: James Bond and various characters from children’s literature. Here is a smoothing of reality and fantasy in a very post-modern sense, with the Queen quite unflatteringly (and I say this as a republican) having to address the actor Daniel Craig as ‘Mr Bond’. The sovereign herself is thus rendered to no more than an actor in a world of transient symbolic representation that no longer coheres with reality. She is an actor on a set - London - which is selling itself as spectacle to the world. All that is solid melts into air, and the only divine right on display is not that of kings but of the image.

The performance gradually moves to a dance routine performed by health workers from the NHS - a popular nod to post-war social reform, the Beveridge Report and the establishment of socialised healthcare. No mention, of course, of reforms by the present government (nor indeed previous ones) that may render such provision a thing of the past within the near future. As the audience delights in the routine and ‘we’ collectively celebrate the NHS as a uniquely ‘British’ institution, no doubt senior members of KPMG - such as Neil Sherlock, the Liberal Democrat Lord - who have helped mediate its institutional dismemberment, will be drinking vintage champagne, safe in the knowledge that a performance of historical reality is sufficient to mask its very real demise in the present. In the truest spirit of transfixion to spectacle, Britain stands on the precipice of losing the NHS while gaining a dance troupe that celebrates it.

After the health workers, there is a melange of ‘Modern Britain’, confirmed by its pop music, consisting of Paul McCartney, Punk, New Wave and finally Dizzee Rascal. At the climax, there is Tim Berners-Lee, pioneer of the World Wide Web, conspicuously seated alone - a message beamed on to the stadium seats reads ‘THIS IS FOR EVERYONE’, referring to his life’s work. This is a wonderful statement and one that articulates the generosity of a soul as kind as Berners-Lee, an individual with few equals in intellect or integrity in British public life, and at least the equal of Brunel in historical significance. 

Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the internet, tweets to the crowd. 

Conclusion

Many have been keen to point out the explicitly ‘eccentric’ nature of the performance (a typical interpretation with these kinds of events in the United Kingdom, it seems) while also claiming that it felt more geared towards the domestic audience than any real attempt to project cultural power towards the rest of the globe, as was the case with the opening ceremony in Beijing four years ago. However, there is more to contemplate here than just another ‘kooky’ performance which ‘tells us about ourselves’. Indeed, amid crisis and periods of social and political turbulence, the need for meaningful symbolic representation is more desired and yearned for than ever.

Yet the journey Boyle takes us on is one that certainly does not carry on to the present moment. Many of the contemporary music acts, such as Dizzee Rascal and the Arctic Monkeys, could easily have been performing four years ago during the handover ceremony at Beijing. In fact the ceremony seemed to specifically situate itself up until the global financial crisis of 2008. History has stopped, it would seem - or perhaps the present conditions cannot be so comfortably mediated.

Crucial to the work is how Boyle quite subtly depicts the transformation from the ‘society of work’ and the Industrial Revolution, to one of post-Fordism with its attendant qualities of multiplicity and diversity, thus replacing the ‘worker’ subject with a new and heterogeneous range of identities. To locate this transformation as peculiarly ‘British’ does, however, seem rather strange. The liberation struggles of the LGBT, black and feminist movements happened in spite of strong and frequently reactionary national identities, not because of them, and their strength and vibrancy went beyond borders to traverse much of the world. The ‘Britishness’ that Boyle seems to offer subsequent to these changes is a trans-historical catch-all which merely subsumes all the parts of these islands' historical experience that we would prefer to claim were really ‘us’ all along.

The liberation movements, like the gains of the post-war consensus and the worker’s movement, did not gain ascendancy because of some flattening national identity. They proved transformative and historically coherent because, quite literally, thousands upon thousands of people stood up. They stood up in workplaces, in relationships and in political organisations, from universities in California to factories in Dagenham and the streets of Algiers. Gains were made on the backs of people who permitted the possibility of a society with more enlightened attitudes than that into which they themselves had been born. This was never inevitable and is most certainly not because of any set of mystical ‘national characteristics’. Indeed, the attempt to locate any such ethical sediment within British society, seemingly latent unless excavated by an inevitably ‘national’ genius, is not entirely different to Riefenstahl’s desire to provide an expression for the German Feeling in her production for the 1936 Berlin Olympics ‘Olympia’. I mention this not from a base desire to insert a reductio ad hitlerum for something I find aesthetically disagreeable, but quite simply to provide a historical antecedent for another artist who sought to fashion a cultural object while investigating ‘a people’ in a particular historical moment through the medium of an Olympics opening ceremony.

One need not mention that Boyle failed to include the historical experiences of revolt (the Peasant’s Revolt, the English Civil War, the Luddites), nor Exodus (the Mayflower), nor the death and murder that was at the heart of British imperialism (the slave trade, the Irish and Indian famines). Instead, the intention here was to reflect ‘contemporary’ Britishness back towards the watching public while cultivating a trans-historical identity that subsumes all the things we like, within a form - nationalism - that has been historically at odds with the majority of those values now held as sacred within the new subjectivity.

1381, Wat Tyler leading the Peasant's Revolt, where 20,000 English peasants stormed London. 

It seems to me that the desire for ‘Britishness’, within post-Fordism, is born from the lack of any unifying subject - Britain no longer has an empire, nor does it have the universalising figure of the worker that Boyle so articulately showed as the co-creator of industrial civilisation. Those two great ideologies of the 19th century -  liberal nationalism and labour-based socialism - witnessed their fullest expansion during the course of the 20th century and in the first decade of the 21st century and now seem, by comparison, profoundly exhausted. This exhaustion is perhaps a consequence of the liberation movements of the last forty years, showing that power transcends exploitation in work and the wage relation, and is diffused throughout society in manifold ways. Seismic changes in production also have huge implications for the previous subjectivity of the worker, as well as any liberal nationalist politics founded upon the primacy of national sovereignty. As one French group writes:

'...here lies the present paradox: work has totally triumphed over all other ways of existing, at the very moment when workers have become superfluous. Gains in productivity, outsourcing, mechanization, automated and digital production have so progressed that they have almost reduced to zero the quantity of living labor necessary in the manufacture of any product. We are living the paradox of a society of workers without work, where entertainment, consumption and leisure only underscore the lack from which they are supposed to distract us.'
The crossroads of the present thus present a vacuum of the previous identities and ideologies upon which the edifice of the previous two centuries have been built and it is this which has led to a kind of existential nomadism inherent to the modern condition. As Castells writes:
“....political democracy, as conceived by the liberal revolutions of the eighteenth century, and as diffused throughout the world in the twentieth century, has become an empty shell....the new institutional, cultural, and technological conditions of democratic exercise have made the existing party system, and the current regime of competitive politics, obsolete as adequate mechanisms of political representation in the network society...citizens are still citizens but they are uncertain of which city, and of whose city

Perhaps by way of coincidence, Boyle offers the identities of both the workers' movement and liberal nationalism in the opening ceremony, at points attempting to conjoin the two. Ultimately he appears to favour a post-modern iteration of the latter which flattens historical experience and includes all forms-of-life into a category, nationalism, which does not correspond with them. It is not ‘uniquely British’ to respect difference and relish in lives abundant in multiplicity and aiming at personal expression. Nor should we wish that to be the case.

While I sympathise with Anthony Barnett’s take on the ceremony - after all, who knows the constraints within which Boyle was operating, and at least it wasn’t St. George, dragons and King Arthur - I don't agree that Boyle in any way engaged meaningfully with the crisis, nor what ‘Jerusalem’ could potentially mean or represent in a contemporary sense. Indeed, my feeling is that he singly avoided asking such a question by using as his referent patriotism and an inchoate and meaningless notion of ‘Britishness’.

I also disagree with Sunder Katwala’s piece about ‘Britishness’ as the ‘warm ability to adapt, to absorb, and to include’. Such a statement seems somewhat orientalist and this kind of cultural osmosis can be found throughout history as far back as the 8th century – for example, Islamic Spain and the ‘Convivencia’. Such multiplicity seems to thrive to a far greater extent within the transnational polities of Islamic Spain or the Ottoman Empire (the latter of which invited Sephardi Jews to re-settle there as they fled from the Spanish Inquisition and the Reconquista in the late 15th Century) than is historically observable with the nation-state.

Amid an economic crisis perhaps unprecedented since the 19th century which, for many of us, will define our lives, it is hardly surprising that Boyle’s vision of ‘modern Britishness’ expresses the spirit of a confident, modern country (whatever that actually is) which may appear alluring for some. In reality, the categories with which we are dealing no longer conform to reality and new forms-of-life, subjectivity and collectivity must be permitted beyond the mystifications of national, sexual and racial ‘character’, as was the case in previous centuries. Anything less is to regress on those movements of the last four decades. The liberation of work and of subjectivities should be the basis for meaningful forms of togetherness and, while the opening ceremony sought to satisfy that very fundamental human need for a sense of shared purpose, by adopting the form of a previous age, nationalism, it fell short of any real substantive meaning. If we are to have forms of collectivity that transcend gender, race, age and sexual orientation, then it is very hard to imagine how those same collectivities can authentically believe that borders and national identity make any real sense at all.

About the author

Aaron Bastani is a Ph.D candidate at the  New Political Communications Unit (Royal Holloway University) and is also a participant with Novara Media. He is interested in technology, politics and social change and how these three areas intersect in the contemporary context, from political economy to social movements.