'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Friday, February 12, 2010

Olympic High Modernism 

In his eccentric, pathbreaking book, Seeing Like a State, James Scott examined what he identified as the authoritarian high modernism of the 20th Century, a form of modernism marked by an extreme tendency to impose technocratic solutions upon a populace reduced to fungibility. Authoritarian high modernists had two obsessions: the rationalization of the city and agriculture. After the catastrophic failures of collectivization, they have, by and large, abandoned the countryside, leaving it to the ongoing encroachment of agribusiness, but their fixation upon the city remains.

Curiously, perhaps because its ostensible purpose is sports entertainment, the Olympics endures as one of the sanctuaries of high modernist urban aspirations, and this is evident in the 2010 Winter Olympics about to commence in Vancouver. Vancouver has a deserved reputation as a socially vibrant place, and, yet, it is precisely this vibrance that must be eradicated in order for the Olympics to go forward. In this respect, it recalls the famous example of the 19th Century reconstruction of Paris by Baron Haussmann, briefly discussed by Scott in State.

Just as Haussmann was driven to try to extinguish every aspect of social unpredictability and transgression, the International Olympic Committee and government officials must likewise attempt to sanitize Vancouver and the surrounding areas of such pathologies in order to make it suitable for the event to go forward. Of course, unlike Haussmann in Paris, they cannot rebuild many of the objectionable parts of Vancouver from the ground up. In the early 21st Century, that would be too costly and engender too much opposition. They must limit their developmental ambitions to the Olympic Village and the venues where the athletes will compete for medals. Furthermore, they understand, as Haussmann, and later, Le Corbusier, did not, that there is a limited correlation between the objectionable aspects of human behaviour and urban architecture. But they believe that they can achieve similar results through the imposition of social control measures, and this they have done without remorse. Indeed, we may fairly say that the substitution of intangible social control measures for the physicality of urban design is a defining feature of contemporary high modernism.

Internally, the IOC imposes strict controls upon athletes, spectators, and, implicitly, the people who work within the Olympic Village and specific competitive sites. Athletes may act only in accordance with one purpose, to compete in a way that glamorizes the Olympics and their corporate sponsors. They are not allowed to have any political or social opinions that run contrary to it, except for mild, innocuous expressions of nationalism. Spectators may only attend in order to enjoy the Olympics as a once in a lifetime experience and cheer for their favorite athletes. And, of course, the workers are there to ensure that the trains run on time. As observed by Jules Boykoff, all are expressly prohibited from expressing any kind of anti-Olympic dissent by the IOC official charter. The Olympics are one of the most heavily corporate sponsored activities in the world, and the prohibition is necessary to reduce the prospects for public exposure of it as a corporate utopia in which people have been stripped of all individuality and reduced to the roles of spectator, service worker and performer. The IOC, their corporate sponsers and government enablers loathe spontaneity.

In State, Scott observed that, as the attainment of the initial transformative intentions of high modernist projects became implausible, their promoters miniaturized them into models, model farms, model housing projects, model schools. It was as if the proponents sought to preserve their dreams for another day when they could be attained. But the Olympics constitute a model in which the momentum is in the other direction, and, as such, constitutes the emergence of a postmodern adaption of an essentially modernist project. In Vancouver, the IOC has persuaded government officials to import its authoritarianism into the surrounding communities. According to Boycoff:

In 2003 Olympic boosters low-balled their estimate for the Olympic security budget at $175 million. Since then, security costs have ballooned to almost $1 billion, with taxpayers on the hook for a huge chunk of it. Much of this money has been spent on the Vancouver Integrated Security Unit (ISU), created specifically for the Olympics in 2003 by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP). Comprised of groups like the Vancouver Police Department, the RCMP, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS—Canada’s top spy organization), and the Department of National Defense, the ISU patently shatters the thin glass wall between policing and military activity.

As the Olympics approach, the ISU has made numerous moves to intimidate activists and gather intelligence on them. For starters, there is a concern among activists and civil libertarians that ISU officials are infiltrating activist groups and that these undercover agents lack proper safeguards guiding their actions. In February 2009 B.C. Civil Liberties Association President Rob Holmes wrote letters to CSIS and the ISU asking for assurance that agents would not inflame tensions and tactics as agents provocateur or attempt to influence the political direction, policy positions, or internal discussions of any organizations infiltrated by security forces. In clipped, written responses, both CSIS and ISU officials refused to rule out the possibility that their infiltrating agents would break the law or try to assume leadership positions within anti-Olympic groups.

Law enforcement officials have also frequented the homes and workplaces of anti-Olympics activists as part of their threat assessment program. On January 20, 2010, ISU personnel visited the workspace of Vancouver-based dissident Franklin Lopez. An hour earlier, Lopez had filmed a public talk that political sportswriter Dave Zirin delivered at the Maritime Labour Centre in Vancouver. To be honest, Lopez told me, I was not surprised, being that most people that I have been involved with either through friendship or through organizing have been visited, some multiple times.

First Nations activist Gord Hill was also visited by the ISU’s Joint Intelligence Group after he offered strongly worded criticism of the Olympics in the media. It should be noted that the Olympics are taking place on unceded indigenous territory—hence, the slogan No Olympics on Stolen Native Land is plastered on kiosks across Vancouver, which sits on unceded Coast Salish territory. ISU officials visited Hill’s residence in October 2009, leaving their business cards when they did not find him home. Hill, from the Kwakwaka’wakw nation, promptly plunked images of these cards online along with an account he penned, Statement by Gord Hill Regarding Visits by Olympic Police Agents.

Canada has also refused to permit activists and alternative media participants from the US from entering the country after subjecting them to interrogation. Boycoff relates how Vancouver police are so obsessed with preventing the subversion of the transcendent IOC message of a joyful world of athletic competition that they are removing homeless people from the streets of the impoverished Eastside and arresting people for jaywalking, unlicensed street vending and, worst of all, putting up anti-Olympic posters on poles.

There is, however, an alternative to the passive, repressive social vision of the IOC and those within government who embrace it. It is an approach that celebrates unpredictability, spontaneity, diversity, and, most importantly, participation:

Reclaim the Streets often stage non-violent direct action street reclaiming events such as the 'invasion' of a major road, highway or freeway to stage a party. While this may obstruct the regular users of these spaces such as car drivers and public bus riders, the philosophy of RTS is that it is vehicle traffic, not pedestrians, who are causing the obstruction, and that by occupying the road they are in fact opening up public space. The events are usually spectacular and colourful, with sand pits for kids to play in, free food and music.

Or, as expressed by Reclaim the Streets London:

The street
is an
out of the street
The idea
to keep

on the curbstone
"should I play it safe
and stay on the
should I
go into the street?"
the most risks
that will ultimately
effect the change in society

New Orleans Reclaim the Streets recently blockaded Canal Street to create a police free zone as a contrast to ineffectual policies of arrest and incarceration, as described in this flyer:

So, What’s Wrong with prisons anyway:

-Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate in the U.S., yet we are no safer.

-Louisiana has the highest arrest rate in the U.S., yet we are no safer.

-The Angola 3 are still in prison, yet we are no safer.

-We spend more on police and prisons, yet our communities are never protected from the violence that is poverty, war, racism, sexism, and homophobia. In fact, these communities are disproportionately targeted by the very system claiming to exist for their protection.

-We spend more on police, but no one protects our communities from the destruction of our homes for private hospitals, new condos, and “mixed-income” developments.

It was, no doubt, confirmation of what Reclaim the Streets London blanded observed in 2007: The Reclaim the Streets idea has grown up and left home. Street parties and suchlike often happen without anyone in RTS London hearing about them until afterwards.

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