By Jim Slaven
So the Olympics are over and it is time to reflect on the significance of London 2012. While the coverage has been extensive, none of it has come close to a brilliant book published before London 2012 had even started. French intellectual Marc Perelman’s extended essay Barbaric Sports does a great job of dissecting the modern Olympics, exploring how various host state’s have used the Olympics to promote and extend their influence and power both domestically and internationally.
In Scotland the debate has been more narrowly drawn and, predictably, largely been viewed through the prism of the forthcoming constitutional referendum. Unionist politicians, particularly Labour Party ones, have claimed the Olympics were such a great success that the chances of independence were greatly diminished. Warming to their theme they also claimed the Olympic spirit was the British spirit. Naturally Nationalists didn’t see it that way and argued that the Olympics are just sport and would have no bearing whatsoever on the Independence referendum.
Personally I tend to agree with those arguing that in and of itself the Olympics will not have altered the referendum voting intention of many people. Or as one nationalist put it, no nationalist is going to vote unionist because some Etonian won a medal at rowing. However that is not to say we don’t think the Olympics have been of significance. In fact the London 2012 Games have been fascinating politically but not for the reasons political parties would have us believe. The Olympics (and the Jubilee) have been an ideological battle in an ongoing ideological war.
According to another French intellectual, Louis Althusser, ideology works through a process of interpellation, that is to say it shouts out at us. Well, this year British ideology has been positively screaming at us. The British state (or more accurately the UK state), like most other capitalist societies maintains and reproduces its unequal power relationships by ideological means. This is true most of the time for most of the population. It must also be acknowledged that this ideological process takes place under the protection of the state’s considerable repressive powers.
Ideology does not, of course, correspond to our lived experience rather it is an illusion of our lived experience. It is the ideas, concepts, myths and images that surround us all the time. It is a stream of discourse to which we do not apply critical reflection rather we view the messages (which surround us from birth) as common sense or what everybody thinks. It is, as Althusser says, ‘a misrecognition’ of our lived experience. In other words ideology is the stories we tell ourselves to make our lives bearable. While surrounded by ideological messages constantly we are largely oblivious to them as the process is an unconscious process. Ideology must never speak of certain things, like our real place in the world or our real relation to power; in fact ideology exists precisely not to speak of such things.
However when ideology is represented in concrete form, as it was in the Olympic opening ceremony for example, we can see the limitations of British ideology and in particular we can see its illusionary character. In its images, sounds, myths and concepts, its promotion of military power and monarchist privilege the opening ceremony exposed the limitation, contradictions and exclusions at work in British ideology. Nobody thought the opening ceremony represented the UK state as it really is. In other words the representation was a misrepresentation, this time not hidden but there for the entire world to see.
The state advanced British (ruling) ideology through its cultural (state) apparatus. It offered a British narrative and did so without having to concern itself with any possible alternative narrative, as none was offered. Historically we might have expected the left to have offered such an alternative however that would be to misunderstand the Brit left’s rather strange relationship with Britishness. Put bluntly many of them don’t have a problem with it.
So what of Scottish and Irish nationalism? One of the enduring political narratives of recent years has been that the electoral growth of Sinn Fein and the SNP is a mortal threat to the UK State. According to this view the bumbling parties of Unionism and a remote, even disinterested political centre in London have led to the imminent break up of the UK state. Leaving to one side the veracity of such an analysis, surely these political parties, parties of government, would offer an alternative narrative? Surely they would challenge British ideology? Just asking the question is to make it sound ridiculous.
For both nationalist parties their electoral advance has been matched by ideological retreat. They have been ditching long held positions and policies faster than Sammy Wilson ditches his clothes in a field. Their respective visions are limited and conservative both see the objective of their political activity as the shifting of governmental functions from one locality to another. Both talk of the transfer of powers but it is clear they are conflating government power with state power. The two are not synonymous. In fact we could go further both parties have sought an accommodation with British state power while attempting to shift governmental functions to Edinburgh or Belfast. Governmental functions which they will gratefully administer in the interests of the ruling class alliance.
We have argued previously that rather than a process controlled by powerful Scottish (or Irish) nationalism this process is aimed at the reconfiguration of the UK state. Indeed the terms of reference for this debate are being set by the UK state. What matters to the centre is not who administers governmental functions or even who controls state apparatus, rather what matters is in whose interest they are administered and controlled. Recent attempts by nationalist parties to embrace Britishness must be seen in this context. Again we could go further, moves by Scottish and Irish nationalism to embrace British (repressive and ideological) state apparatus as diverse as the police (Sinn Fein) and military (SNP) to the monarchy and Team GB (both Sinn Fein and SNP) can be viewed as attempts to reaffirm their suitability for the job.
There is however some cause for optimism as the British state cannot control the dynamic, even though that is precisely what it is attempting to do. The Olympics (and sport and culture generally) are sites of ideological struggle and although this battle was lost there will be others. The political parties of Scottish and Irish nationalism are running away from themselves as they seek to augment their power and patronage within their own geographic locations. Nationalism has shown time and again that without an analysis of the state political parties are destined to follow the well trodden path of electoralism and right wing opportunism. The first task for those of us seeking the maximum change in society is to develop a strategic (not to mention theoretical) framework through which we can view that society and to develop oppositional class based ideologies to challenge British ideology.