"Bread and circuses" really was the formula the Roman emperors used to buy the social peace needed to exercise their own power. And not just the Romans - every ruler in all time has always sought to bask in the divine glories of communal spectacle. Can't we grow up and reject these ostentatious vehicles of pomp and power?
This piece is part of our debate 'The Great British Summer?'.
I agree with Andrew Gilligan’s rage at the Olympics (Telegraph blog): they are indeed a terrible waste of money at a time when Britain can least afford it. However, as he rightly points out, the Olympics have their use: ‘Corporations who make people fat and sick – or, in one case, actually maimed and killed them – are allowed to launder their images’. The Olympics have their use, and not just for big business. They are, of course, extremely useful to our politicians - ‘Left’ as well as ‘Right’ - despite Gilligan’s disappointment at the ‘Left’s’ enthusiastic support for this triumphalist sports binge.
As Anthony Barnett points out in his excellent article on Our Kingdom, "what matters, and certainly what any critic on the left needs to think about, is the relationships between the party throwers and the receivers: between the event as a whole and the public who it claims to define." Barnett optimistically claims that while the big nation building Leni Riefenstahl-type spectacle can be used to manipulate the spectators into supporting the status quo, it can also be subversive. I am not so sure.
The Olympics are a ritual in which we subjects (not citizens) joyfully participate and, in doing so, feel united as a nation, and – especially at the beginning and ending ceremonies - as a universal community united by a common pride in what we humans are capable of.
The Olympics perform the same function as religious rituals have always done. They create a community, and foster a loyalty and love of that community. We are given a sense of belonging to something greater than ourselves, we are swept up in excitement, meaning, awe and love.
Religions have always been useful to states as a way of creating subjects who love their empire/nation; football, the monarchy and all the events which generate flag waving do the same. When Augustus was establishing himself as Rome’s first emperor, he and his ideologues carefully created a cult of the divine emperor who was celebrated at the great festivals, which were both sporting and religious - a celebration of Rome’s gods, a celebration of Rome’s physical prowess in athletics, charioteering and gladiatorial combat, its power visible in terms of the number of wild animals and peoples from the world it had conquered and could see killed before its delighted eyes.
And, just as Romney has to be seen at the Olympics simply to seem statesman-like – to be touched by Olympianism - (as Gideon Rachman says in the FT: "A cynic inspecting Mitt Romney’s foreign itinerary of Poland, Israel and Britain might mutter: “Polish vote, Jewish vote, Olympics.") so the Roman emperors had to be seen at gladiatorial combats. Augustus – a supremely adept politician – limited the number of gladiatorial combats his senators could stage and increased the number he himself financed. He regularly appeared, dandling his great-grandchildren on his knee, his grandchildren beside him – the perfect pater familias as he was the perfect father of the nation. (His stepson, the rather dour Tiberius, found the contests boring and didn’t bother to attend – a politically inept move which only increased his unpopularity.)
And of course, the temptation to manipulate the gods or sportsmen is always there. In 4th century BC India, Kautilya, the Machiavelli of his time, counseled his emperor Chandragupta Maurya to hold conversations with gods and goddesses rising out of a lake – who were infact, his spies dressed up as deities – so that his people would believe that their emperor either was a god himself or certainly had direct access to the gods. China, and no doubt many other nations who provide drugs for their Olympic sportsmen, are similarly tricking us.
Barnett thinks that the opening Olympics ritual was indeed an authoritarian status quo enhancing event but that it also managed to fulfilled it's designer's aims: to convey "A belief that we can build Jerusalem. And that it will be for everyone."
But, of course, that is exactly the claim that Christianity too has made and that from Nietzsche onwards has been suspect, precisely because it soothes the people and reconciles them to their lot. Jerusalem will come, but not yet. George Monbiot was terribly moved to see the common people turning out to watch the Olympic torch being carried through the pouring rain - the sense of purpose, the joyful readiness to sacrifice themselves (or at least to get wet) in order to partake in the ritual. Yes, it is terribly moving as spectator or partaker to feel this sense of love of our fellow man, of unity in a common endeavour. However, we shouldn't forget that is why our rulers have always found religion so useful.
Through the Olympic rituals our politicians are trying to make us happy, devoted subjects, as politicians have always done – whether they use religion, sport, or celebrities to do it.
If the Olympics leaves us, at least for a little while, slightly more contented subjects, and therefore a little more reconciled to our corrupt and corrupting banks, MPs, and journalists, then the billions spent on the Olympics is not wasted at all, it would seem.
I don't want to dismiss all these rituals which celebrate the spirit of the nation; there is a spirit there that we badly need to give living form to. However, I am really not that keen on the big, triumphalist, sporting versions that so easily recreate the divisions between us - the subjects - and them - the rulers, that so plagues the political realisations of our nation. The smaller scale actualisations of our spirit at the neighbourhood, borough or village level are preferable because in these, we the celebrants can take control - we are empowered, we are participants in our destinies. Not so in the extravagant, totemic gigantism of the modern Olympics.