Radical Olympics: Militarisation Of London Olympics Shows Host Country’s Fetish For Displays Of Force

By Brad Evans

So, the Olympic Games are finally upon us. Whether we perceive this global extravaganza to be a triumphant social gathering which reveals all that is remarkable about the human spirit or yet another corporate feast of plenty, it nevertheless provides us with a pertinent moment to evaluate the operations of power in contemporary liberal societies. Not only does it illustrate how our post-industrial lifestyles are increasingly defined by “event-based” experiences, it also shows how terror has become normalized in the current historical conjuncture. As securitization policies become more visible, the corporate militarization of public space appears routine. It is even to be applauded as a reasoned and rational choice.

For the past few weeks, the British public has been caught in an emotional cross-fire which hallmarks liberal societies. From one direction, we have been encouraged to positively embrace the “spirit of the Games” as it promises to transcend the daily miseries affecting people the world over. The official sales pitch is that this is more than a sports event; it reveals something of the ethical possibility for global togetherness and peaceful cohabitation. From another direction, however, we have been made acutely aware of the dangers forever lurking in our midst. That we need to “secure the Games” is not in any doubt: from what exactly, only speculative reason or a catastrophic passage of time may begin to reveal.

The security operation witnessed today is an Olympic effort. More than 18,000 military personnel are deployed on the streets. This includes some 1,000 combat support troops – a number which is greater than British forces on the ground in Afghanistan. They are accompanied by state police and private security personnel – who, by conservative estimates, add another 30,000 staff. Drones hover over the London skies. HMS Ocean (the Royal Navy’s biggest warship) is moored in the Thames; RAF Typhoon jets remain on permanent standby with the directive to use “lethal force,” while surface to air missiles are deployed on housing estates in East London, leaving us in no doubt to the lethality of the freedom our liberal societies thankfully receive.

None of this appears “out of the ordinary” for us, despite its schizophrenic (dis)orientation. We have learned to fear what we actually produce. One only has to track the various terrorist elevation systems still in background use to evidence this paradox. The more significant the public occasion – the more the spectacle of celebration – the more the risk of something catastrophic happening is heightened. Color-coded systems of anxiety management have come to resemble the fear heartbeat of nations. Compulsive securitization invariably becomes the allied response.

While many in the post-9/11 moment questioned the abandonment of democratic principles and the violent excesses of the Global War on Terror, the privately driven securitization of all aspects of life has continued unabated. Indeed, as Walter Benjamin(1) understood all too well, what previously appeared “exceptional” (especially the abuse of power) quickly comes to reside in the normalized fabric of everyday. Although the “War on Terror,” for instance, is perhaps notable by its absence from the discursive arena of political polemics, its militarized logic has been sophisticatedly incorporated within an expansive strategic framework that connects all things endangering.

Stephen Graham has pointed out how this security terrain is embodied in the Olympic Mascot “Wenlock.” As Graham wrote, “For £10.25 you, too, can own the ultimate symbol of the Games: a member of by far the biggest and most expensive security operation in recent British history packaged as tourist commodity. Eerily, his single panoptic-style eye, peering out from beneath the police helmet, is reminiscent of the all-seeing eye of God so commonly depicted at the top of Enlightenment paintings.” For Graham, this represents the onset of a new type of surveillance society which openly declares its strategic priorities: “Olympics are society on steroids. They exaggerate wider trends. Far removed from their notional or founding ideals, these events dramatically embody changes in the wider world: fast-increasing inequality, growing corporate power, the rise of the homeland security complex and the shift toward much more authoritarian styles of governance utterly obsessed by the global gaze and prestige of media spectacles.”

Underwriting this security effort is a catastrophic imaginary which defines contemporary liberal governance. The Games for their part have produced their own novel and fitting headline – “Olympic-geddon” – to account for all potential disasters that could erupt and force the capital’s vital networks to breakdown. This shift toward an all-hazard spectrum of threat is the real legacy of the militaristic vision of full-spectrum domination. Threats have become indistinguishable from the general environment. Every petty anxiety can become the source of our deepest fears. And all potential racial prejudices are waiting to be resurrected as the nature of the threat offers no clear profile in advance.

But what actually is “security”? Our problem here lies in the question. Ever since Thomas Hobbes wrote his landmark text “The Leviathan,”(2) security has become the foundation stone of modern politics. Security is not, however, a “what”: it is a “how.” While Hobbes wrote of the anarchical war of all against all to prevent the masses from resisting the injustices of feudal exploitation, beneath the veil of his sovereign deceit was the arrangement of social elements into preferable hierarchies. Liberal security today maintains this same inner logic, which is less about showing some allegiance to the principal referent object for security (i.e. the State, the People, the Games), than it is with guaranteeing entitlements to resources deemed essential to contested ways of living.

Like Sauron, the all-seeing eye in J.R.R. Tolken’s wonderful trilogy, the controlling gaze nevertheless has its weak points. It is insecure by design. This, however, is not a source for lament or dismay. It is a further condition of possibility. That the system cannot be made totally secure only serves to ratchet up the securitization all the more. Resilience thus becomes a new term of art for a security-conscious society that has all but abandoned the dream of final security in exchange for a profitable existence. Those attuned to the age of global risk-taking are, after all, the real moneymakers.

Any informed critical theorist knows that the political depends upon the ability to bring into question what is not seen as problematic. This drives us to question why something is not on the public agenda. How does power operate to prevent us from critiquing its most visible traces? Questioning the unquestionable requires making the implicit explicit. When we do so, it allows us to really open up the functioning of power as it impacts upon everyday lives. This is not about abstract esotericism. It is about the desire to question power – especially liberal power – on the basis of its effects.

So, what still remains largely unquestioned? Many of us will now be familiar with the G4S security debacle which led its director Nick Buckles to apologize for the “humiliating shambles.” But who are G4S? And, more importantly still, what are the political implications of this shift toward a private security provision? The company is the world’s largest private security provider with some 657,000 employees and a “unique global footprint” that covers 125 countries. Beyond such marquee events, it also provides a range of global security details, including providing safe passage for the global financial elite; airport and embassy security; leisure tourism; and managing asylum centers, prisons and other detention facilities for less savory elements within societies.

While politicians have taken G4S to task over its contractual failures, the critique of private security provisions, in principle, is absent from the debate. It is left to us to raise the questions of public accountability and political legitimacy. Private contractors invariably work for the private interest. They service particular constituencies. They are allegiant to the flag of currency exchange and profit making. While such organizations claim to be professional and socially responsible, it is a mistake to see them as apolitical. Embodying the (neo)liberal pursuit of power and its will to planetary rule, they represent a profound change in the logic of liberal security governance more generally as the political and the very nature of sovereignty itself is replaced by a technocratic ensemble of private/public, military/policing, local/global contractors. As G4S’s social responsibility statement proclaims: “Our size and scale means we touch the lives of millions of people across the globe and we have a duty and desire to ensure the influence we have makes a positive impact on the people and communities in which we work.”

While the distinction between private security contractors and the military is ultimately a false dichotomy as the lines between the private and the public have long since been abandoned, the British soldier has nevertheless returned as the reliable face of civic protection. The British soldier embodies the freedom society is said to enjoy as a result of soldiers’ sacrifice and commitment: making the streets safe from Kabul to Islington, so we are left in no doubt that our protection cannot be otherwise. But what does it mean politically to have trained killers on the capital’s streets? Should this have happened in North Korea or Iran, politicians would have undoubtedly lambasted the despotic state of military affairs. We, however, reason it to be an efficient use of resources to maintain the democratic peace. So, we fail to question what it means to live in a time when the distinctions between war and peace, global and local, private and public, soldier and citizen, blur.

We are invariably left to ponder here the perceived source of threat. One hundred thousand soldiers on the streets of Manhattan would not have prevented 9/11. The horrifying violence of that day illustrated the futility of conventional force. And, yet, conventional force is the only illusion of power that liberal societies can hope to maintain as the ability to wage war has become one of its most profitable and dependable exports. Militarism of the social aside, this psychological brinksmanship represents a brazen show of potential force that is to echo Susan Sontag’s famous paraphrase “shocking and awful.” Whether the intended audience for such a performance is external or internal, it is clear that militaristic posturing – as both a symptom and defense of the emerging punishing state – demands a more serious discussion than is currently being entertained.

It is well documented that President George W. Bush tried to instill a military spirit into the civilian bodies of American citizens. As he once famously declared, “Every American is a soldiern and every citizen is in this fight.” While some may explain this in terms of the logic of “exceptional times,” it does not account for the more normalized practices of militarism we witness in our liberal societies today. George Chesterton observed some time before the Olympics buildup, “The only place you could be sure of seeing a British soldier used to be outside a pub in a garrison town at chucking-out time. Now there are soldiers on talent shows, parading in sports stadiums and singing on daytime television.” From soldiers dancing on television screens, the rewarding of garrison towns with royal patronage to the subsequent militarization of the public realm, this is what we are witnessing on the streets of London today: “We have turned the reality of war into an emotionally nourishing theatre … [which] serves an ideological and financial function.”

Some will invariably counter here that the militarization of the public realm is unfortunately reflective of the dangerous world in which we now live. After all, none of us would wish to be blown up by a suicide bomber. Where is the freedom in that? While the high-profile nature and location of the Games undoubtedly makes it a target, what is required is a more somber and considered reflection. It was common after 9/11 and 7/7 to question why these people hated us. While many politicians and embedded academics insisted that we were endangered simply because of who we were, the simple law of physics tells us that we need to account for our actions and our histories of violence. Only then can we deal with the problem at the level of power (hence, political contestation).

Michel Foucault(3) put forward the idea of the bio-political in order to critically assess the racial-, gender- and class-based dimensions to securitization practices. Foucault was acutely aware that making life secure was not about setting limits as if everything stemmed from legal declaration. It was all about creating certain conditions that benefited particular constituencies. By determining what needed protection as a matter of risk assessment, disposability is concealed behind the objective mask of scientific verification. This brings us to one of the most sinister dimensions to Olympiad security.

The placing of rapier missiles on the Fred Wiggs Tower block in Leytonstone, along with five additional sites across the city brings into critical question the very meaning of the term “Terror.” Not only have the tenants living in marginal social conditions expressed their concerns that the missiles actually make them more of a target, they have pointed out the somewhat obvious point that sleeping with a high-velocity missile system on your rooftop is truly terrifying. While the residents have famously protested with banners proclaiming, “This is not a war zone,” their opposition was overruled by High Court Judge Charles Haddon-Cave, who stated that missile deployment was lawful and proportionate to the level of threat faced. He did, however, note that the residents’ concerns demonstrated “something of a misapprehension” about the equipment.

This is not a critique of the tremendous effort and dedication of the athletes. Neither is it a challenge to major sporting events and their genuine ability to have a marked impact upon the emotional well-being of people. It is to question who benefits financially and politically from Olympiad security in the longer run. While it is too early to tell the lasting effects, if the previous experience of the Games in Athens is anything to go by, when private contractors feasted on a security bill of some $1.5 billion, domestic taxpayers can be forgiven for seeing this in hindsight as perverse given the current social conditions with the weight of austerity selective in its target audience.

Major sporting events will always be deeply political. For too long, we have placed politics in a neatly defined box such that it becomes the ownership of a distinct political class. This has benefited only a select few, despite the fact that some of the most significant political moments in the history of human struggles asked a blessing neither of politicians nor universal moral theorists. Neither do we wish to banish from memory the victory of Jessie Owens from the 1936 Olympics, nor the dignity showed by Tommie Smith and John Carlos as the idea of global revolt entered the political lexicon during the troubled year of 1968. And just as Diego Maradona claimed some divine intervention against the forces of British colonial oppression in 1986, so the terrain seems ripe for a further act of Argentinean political defiance as the Falklands question refuses to go away. We should not, however, be blinded to the wider political project at work here. As Will Self critically explains:

“The modern Olympics is a fatuous exercise in internationalism through limbering up and then running down to entropy. The modern Olympics have always been a political football – nothing more and nothing less – endlessly traduced and manipulated by the regimes that ‘host’ them. This one is no different, presenting a fine opportunity for the British security state apparatus and its private security firm hangers-on to deploy the mass-suppression and urban paranoiac technologies in the service of export-earning. Some Peace. Some Freedom.”

Olympiad security provides us with a glimpse into a possible future. It is a bit like the airport experience where the idea of perfect regulation of life is played out – albeit with lifestyle benefits more seductive than the latest perfumes. Overtly militarized enclaves deploy the most advanced security technologies to ensure the frictionless (i.e. resistant free) circulation of all things commodifiable, so that, as with airports, once you enter “the zone,” you begin to realize that you have no political rights. Our choice is straightforward. Either we accept this manufactured simulacrum of experience or we can demand the return of the political into social discussion. This requires us to start questioning that which is concealed within the vacuous politics of normative deliberation. It is not to accept the privileged boundaries of the debate. It is to question the framing of the question such that we expose the power and violence of the discursive framing as originally conceived.


1. Walter Benjamin, “Illuminations: Essays and Reflections” (New York, Schocken Books: 1968) p.257.

2. Thomas Hobbes, “Leviathan” (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press: 1991).

3. See in particular, Michel Foucault, “Society Must be Defended”; Michel Foucault, “Security, Territory and Population: Lectures at the College de France 1977-1978” (New York, Palgrave Macmillan: 2007); and Michel Foucault, “The Birth of Bio-Politics: Lectures at the College de France 1978-1979” (New York, Palgrave Macmillan: 2008).

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