‘The Olympics, London – and Totalitarianism?’

‘The image of the city as a heaven of recreation and culture has its dark side – the side of the excluded and repressed.’

To attend to the dark side of the Olympics, as it is has begun to emerge over the last decade and now in London, is not necessarily to ignore its bright side or its promise. It is not to ignore the skills and commitment of the athletes or the emotional engagement of the spectators. Nor is it to ignore the utopian promise of an event in which, at best, the nature of achievement and competition is a celebration of positive human potential rather than an exploitation of that potential. Nor is it to blame the Olympics itself for that exploitation. But it is to attend to the evidence for a rapidly emerging trend, dramatised and accelerated by the Olympics, a complex socio-economic, psychosocial yet deeply material, and political trend, a counter-spirit and set of arrangements that need both to be identified, interpreted, and to be addressed, resisted and overcome.

Some of the evidence for that trend and its dramatisation and acceleration by the Olympics is identified and interpreted in CITY 16. 4. It comes from London and Athens.

Some of the research is presented in two special features, one with a specific focus on the Olympics that extends from London now and back eight years to Athens, the other on architecture and the politics of ‘the new’, with particular reference to London and an excursion to Renaissance Italy (1). It continues in a reading of the global class dialectics of the nouveau poor looking inwards and outwards from the ‘local’, ‘national’ debt crisis of Greece, and in reexamination of the class structure of London, a new analysis that challenges established views of gentrification and professionalization.

‘The open wounds of the Olympics’; photo by Panos Totsikas.

‘The open wounds of the Olympics’; photo by Panos Totsikas.

The open wounds of the Olympics

What kind of identification and interpretation can be gleaned from this material? We can begin from the Olympics, yet for the strongest indication not from the London Olympics but from the Athens Olympics now that there have been eight years in which to encounter and seek to identify that legacy. Two passages from the Kompreser Collective’s succinct and powerful essay, ‘Constructing the City of Crisis’, serve to indicate their conclusions. First, a general summing up of the contradictory legacy: ‘The image of the city as a heaven of recreation and culture has its dark side – the side of the excluded and repressed.’ Going on to specify aspects of this dark side they observe:

“Looking at the production of space in Athens, public land was wasted, the environment was degraded and the city was fortified with mechanisms of control and repression. The latter are being used today against the demonstrators reacting to the austerity measures undertaken by the government to pay back a debt that partially includes the massive expense of the Olympic Games…”

‘The open wounds of the Olympics’, the caption for Panos Totsikas’ photograph (reproduced here and on the cover of CITY 16.4) are, then, not immediately evident in the actual event but in its aftermath, in fact, its ‘legacy’. That such tendencies are not confined to Athens and include other socio-economic aspects than those highlighted above is clear from other work presented in this issue. In an article, on the privatisation of urban development, in our London Olympics feature, Mike Raco identifies a

“system of regulatory capitalism in which states and major corporations act in each other’s interests. In many instances, new regulations are drafted by networks of private beneficiaries and regulators. State powers and resources are then used to institutionalise and fund these new arrangements…”

The paradox of the co-existence a combination of the apparent opposites of the more familiar notion of de-regulated capitalism with regulated or regulatory becomes more intelligible once it is recognised that they operate at different levels. Beneath the surface of financial deregulation there is increasing, so far largely clandestine, socioeconomic regulation.

In an independent paper on ‘Class-ifying London’ (link to the whole full article), Mark Davidson and Elvin Wyly extend their formidable statistical work on the social composition of London, countering the mainstream view that professionalization has largely replaced rather than displaced class antagonisms, to a reading of the now partly atomised displacements where class antagonisms not only persist but accumulate. This is an exercise in critical empiricism that, necessarily, includes a psychosocial dimension. To exclude this dimension is to uphold a ‘characterisation of the middle-class metropolis, devoid of antagonisms, existing as a space of elective belonging, [that] performs a fetishistic politics.’

Naming the trend

How might the trend be named, perhaps provisionally, so that we can begin to take its measure? ‘Neoliberalism’ provides one powerful and influential name for some key aspects of this trend. Of the formula signalled in the first paragraph, ‘a complex socio-economic, psychosocial yet deeply material, and political trend’, that label leans towards the first and last elements, socio-economic and political, but tends to neglect the ‘psychosocial yet deeply material’ dimension.

How then can we further characterise this trend? It can be seen as a form of hedonism in which apparently pure pleasure is extracted, sucked from the earth, while marginalising and alienating the aesthetic and ethical qualities that have mediated the intercourse between the various materialities that link the human psyche and the planet. A totalising agenda whose imperatives are increasingly contradictory and destructive at a time of imposed and totalising austerity that seeks to hide the open wounds that it inflicts. The name for such a project is totalitarianism, an emerging form that retains the hedonistic pleasures of ‘the affluent society’ while restricting and sensationalising these pleasures, and restricting and undermining the support for this life style provided by ‘the welfare state’ now controlled in the allied name of austerity. It is a system of hedonistic totalitarianism controlled in the name of austerity, a system that was partly identified by Lefebvre in the 1960s when he named it ‘the bureaucratic society of controlled consumption.’ It is now much more evident as an emerging system, now moving very rapidly towards completion but not quite yet fully established. It is both a counterrevolution, and a so far successful coup, one that could and can nevetheless be resisted and overcome.

From Identification to Resistance and Transformation

Do we have the tools, though, having identified it, at least provisionally, to resist this trend and move beyond the emerging system of hedonistic totalitarianism towards deep-seated transformation?

The possibly limited sufficiency of those tools as deployed by current critical theory and the resulting need to critique and add to those tools is what is principally at issue in our continuing series “Beyond ‘Cities for People…’” An emphasis on the temporal and spatial range of the trend and the need for a transdisciplinary and deeply reflexive investigation allied to on-the-ground involvement reflect some principal aspects of this journal’s approach to urban and socio-spatial studies.

The discussion so far outlined above expands elsewhere in CITY 16.4 to take in other aspects of London and the Olympics (the creatively critical approach by the NEOutopia project to the politics of ‘the new’ in architecture and property, Stephen Graham’s initiatory(2) account of ‘ lockdown London’, and the close-up investigations undertaken by the genuinely organic intellectuals of ‘Games Monitor’ ), homeless people in San Francisco, racial conflicts in Los Angeles and Florida presented in the context of ‘law-and-order urbanism’, and concludes with a reading of Patrick Keiller’s ironic perambulation around, combined with investigation of, a section of England’s ‘home counties’ that excavates more than six hundred years of class and imperial struggle, seeking perhaps to re-establish a meaningful, rather than an essentially hedonistic, exploitative and totalitarian relationship, between the various materialities that connect the human psyche and the planet. All is not lost (3), as is clear from much of this work, but what is required is not so much the often invoked pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will as a combination of the intellect and the will mediated by imagination, grounded in social observation and material engagement, tested and projected by committed but open-minded (not dogmatic) praxis. There is a world to win but only if it is linked to saving the planet.

by Bob Catterall, Chief Editor of CITY
Editorial to CITY, Vol. 16 Issue 4; see contents list below.

Contents list for Issue 16.4


Bob Catteral, Pages 391-394


Class-ifying London: Questioning social division and space claims in the post-industrial metropolis Mark Davidson & Elvin Wyly, Pages 395-421

The economic crisis seen from the everyday Europe’s nouveau poor and the global affective implications of a ‘local’ debt crisis Maria Kaika, Pages 422-430

The fire next time Rodney King, Trayvon Martin and law-and-order urbanism Jenna M. Loyd, Pages 431-438

Un-linking the rings: cities and the Olympic Games

Introduction: Re-writing London and the Olympic City: Critical implications of ‘Faster, Higher, Stronger’ Andrea Gibbons & Nick Wolff, Pages 439-445

Olympics 2012 security: Welcome to lockdown London Stephen Graham, Pages 446-451

The privatisation of urban development and the London Olympics 2012 Mike Raco, Pages 452-460

Athens 2004: Constructing the city of crisis Kompreser Collective, Pages 461-467

Games Monitor: Undermining the hype of the London Olympics (Interview) Andrea Gibbons & Nick Wolff, Pages 468-473

Beyond ‘Cities for People, Not for Profit’: Part Three

Introduction: Towards a renewal of critical praxis Bob Catterall, Pages 474-475

Unsettling critical urban theory Sharon M. Meagher, Pages 476-480

Moving beyond ‘Cities for People, Not for Profit’ Margit Mayer, Pages 481-483

Book Review

Out on the streets David Storey, Pages 484-485


Towards the great transformation: (2) Nature, Marx’s ‘Old Mole’, and ‘Robinson’ Bob Catterall, Pages 486-493


  1. This special feature, ‘NEOutopia: Architecture and the Politics of “the New”’, appears now under the Forthcoming Articles tab on Taylor and Francis Online, and will also be published in 16.5 of CITY.
  2. Our thanks to Steve Graham who first suggested this special feature, and to others who helped in its development.
  3. The opening ceremony to the London Olympics, directed by Danny Boyle, was in effect a symbolic counterblow to neoliberal hegemony over contemporary Britain, reflecting and enhancing the spirit of most of the audience. In a well-balanced discussion of it in the Financial Times John McDermott wrote: ‘On Friday, the 55-year-old film director from Lancashire fused left and right, old and new, rural and urban, imperial and metropolitan, and grotesque and beautiful… It is no coincidence that Britain is the only country to have ever boasted residents from all 204 of the Olympic nations. ‘They all seemed at home. And so, for a few hours on Friday, did we.’ (July 30, 2012)

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