The Olympics opening ceremony and contemporary thinking

As noted in the blog post by Philip Booth on 30th July, the Olympic opening ceremony on Friday was well produced and dramatic, with a skillful use of images drawn from popular culture and history to put over a clear and dramatic message about Britain. What though was the message? The most striking element for a detached observer was the way it put over a particular account of British history, one that has far-reaching implications for the way we understand contemporary British economy and society.

Initially we saw a verdant, bucolic landscape, looking remarkably like the Shire in the Lord of the Rings, with a large tree at its centre. This landscape was inhabited by people in traditional peasant dress taking part in handicraft production and participating in folk festivities, signified by dancing round a maypole. Then (as we were informed by Huw Edwards’ breathless commentary) this rural idyll was uprooted with the advent of industrialism. This was represented by the uprooting of the tree and the sight of dark smoking chimneys rising from the ground and the transformation of the green landscape into a dark one dominated by images of industrialism and mass production. The rural folks of the earlier scene were now replaced by toiling industrial workers, and engineers and industrialists, shown wearing black frock coats and top hats. We then had a scene of modern Britain, represented by the National Health Service (supposedly therefore its main or defining institution) which was symbolized by lots of child patients and nurses as hospital beds swept into the arena. The role of this institution as a protection against anxiety and danger was represented by the appearance of Lord Voldemort from the Harry Potter  novels and the defense of the child patients by an army of Mary Poppins figures. Then we had the presentation of protest movements, represented by the suffragettes of the WSPU, the trades union movement, and CND.

A clear story comes from this. A harmonious, rooted, natural society is overthrown and forcibly replaced by an industrial one in the Industrial revolution. This was driven by greed and selfish interest, represented by the top-hatted industrialists. However a reaction against the dark side of this and the uncertainty it created led to the creation of the modern welfare state, with the National Health Service as its central feature. A crucial element is the part played by artistic subversion and organized protest that led to reform.  One very important thing to grasp is that the director of the ceremony (Danny Boyle) and the BBC commentators did not see this narrative as contested or tendentious or even as something to explicitly articulate. Rather they clearly saw it as uncontroversial, something that everyone knew and broadly accepted.

This is not the case, to put it mildly. The story that the ceremony assumed has many flaws and is not universally accepted. The narrative embodied in the ceremony has a highly romanticized and inaccurate picture of the pre-industrial, rural past. The grinding poverty of the majority, the often acute conflicts between rich and poor and the pervasive uncertainty of life in an order marked by recurrent famines and epidemics is airbrushed away. Industrial society is shown as something of a departure from the natural, rather than a product of human ingenuity (and hence natural). The rise in living standards brought about by the Industrial Revolution (now well attested by historical research) is ignored. The rise of state welfare is seen as the ordained conclusion of historical progress in a remarkably ‘whiggish’ historical narrative while the many alternative ways of providing protection against uncertainty through popular organization and mutual aid were ignored. The choice of protest movements to highlight left out many that were large and important at the time such as the Anti-Corn Law League and there were surprising omissions such as anti-slavery or the wider campaign for the vote and constitutional reform.

The narrative of the opening ceremony leads to and embodies certain assumptions that, we should realize, dominate a great deal of contemporary thinking. One is that modern industrial economies are in some sense unnatural or a violation of a natural order. That means that while they may bring great benefits they are in some sense regrettable. Another is that there is a clear narrative of progress in the modern world. Some kinds of developments and social movements are part of this narrative of progress while others are not and can be ignored, no matter how large or significant they were at the time. Thus the great movement for collective self-help or mutual aid in the 18th and 19th centuries is not part of the main story while the growth of state welfare is. The appearance of a large welfare state and in particular the National Health Service is both inevitable and in some sense the conclusion or climax of a process of historical evolution. Modern government is thus the central agent of progress and a broadly benevolent force.

The fact is that all of these assumptions are wrong or at the very least highly contestable. However they shape argument in a way that is all the more powerful for being unexamined and largely unconscious. Events like the Olympic opening ceremony serve an important purpose, however much they may annoy some of us, because they lay bare the basic beliefs and world view of influential groups in modern British society and help us to understand why, as a result, there is a structural predisposition towards certain kinds of public policy on the part of both elites and the wider population.

Dr Steve Davies is the Head of Education at the IEA. Previously he was program officer at the Institute for Humane Studies (IHS) at George Mason University in Virginia. He joined IHS from the UK where he was Senior Lecturer in the Department of History and Economic History at Manchester Metropolitan University. He has also been a Visiting Scholar at the Social Philosophy and Policy Center at Bowling Green State University, Ohio. A historian, he graduated from St Andrews University in Scotland in 1976 and gained his PhD from the same institution in 1984. He has authored several books, including Empiricism and History (Palgrave Macmillan, 2003) and was co-editor with Nigel Ashford of The Dictionary of Conservative and Libertarian Thought (Routledge, 1991).

7 thoughts on “The Olympics opening ceremony and contemporary thinking”

  1. Posted 01/08/2012 at 14:09 | Permalink

    I watched the opening ceremony again. Without the BBC commentary it seemed a bit less ‘left-wing’.
    Hayek said that one reason why the laissez-faire era ended was that people came to take its material results for granted. I must admit I do wonder how much it would have delayed *(or even aborted) the ‘spontaneous’ Industrial Revolution if British governments of the time — covering probably about a century — had tried to ‘help’.

  2. Posted 01/08/2012 at 15:56 | Permalink

    Several people I respect (including Peter Ryley and Stephen Clark) have argued the case to me that I have misread the ceremony and that while there was a sentimentalisation of the rural past, the presentation of industrialism was celebratory rather than critical. I can see this, and it seems that is partly how Danny Boyle wanted that part of the show to be understood. However the BBC commentary explicitly told the kind of narrative I describe in the post. I think that shows that the vocabulary or discourse that is dominant is one that leads to this narrative for most people, even if the author has a different intention which is a very interesting finding. I do still think though that the choice of the NHS as the definitive national institution and its portrayal reflect a very ‘whiggish’ and present oriented account of the development of modern welfare institutions.

  3. Posted 01/08/2012 at 20:15 | Permalink

    The Olympic opening ceremony may have incorporated a narrative but the view of history represented here as its burden is not. On the contrary, the ‘assumptions’ that you assert are ‘wrong’ are, at least in part, perfectly viable and broadly correct, far from unexamined’ and certainly not ‘unconscious’. The NHS was not offered as the paradigmatic institution, but as one manifestation of a historical turn that recognised the salience of precarity and inequality, both exacerbated by the industrial revolution. Of course, capitalism has brought immeasurable good, but it has done incalculable harm as well, harm that undoes the good. I recommend a course of reading beginning with Adam Smith and Marx and proceeding via Ferdinand Toennies and E. P. Thompson to Guattari and Zygmunt Bauman. We have seen all too plainly the effects of the profit motive unrestrained on polity and comity. G4S is only the cartoon version, but it magnifies the small-minded, mean-spirited quality of a narrow preoccupation with markets and profits, a quality that has led us to the edge of global catastrophe and egregious inequality.

  4. Posted 02/08/2012 at 06:20 | Permalink

    I think Boyle’s choice of Brunel as a central figure indicates that his intention was to show progress in a positive light, and the whole thing, appeared designed to show off Britain as largely responsible for the modern world – whether industry, culture and technology. The mode of expression was that of another world-dominant English creation: West End musical staging. So far so Whiggish, indeed.

    But against that the segment of NHS-worship sticks out oddly. It is a *conservative* cult at the core of “progressive” views. For the NHS is institutionally stuck in the mid-20th century, the deliberate, ideological – and to non-cultists obviously mistaken – choice of Soviet-style centrally planned and administered system, is thought to be something that must be preserved at all costs. Its continuing change resistant rock-like existence was made the centrepiece of a narrative that otherwise celebrated change, diversity, and disruptive innovation.

    (Wrapped up in that was another allusion to stasis: an explicit celebration of Gt Ormond St Hospital’s statutory eternal copyright in Peter Pan.)

  5. Posted 02/08/2012 at 07:26 | Permalink

    I like this exchange which is rather illuminating. It brings to mind a question. How anti-modern, supposed Davies is right in his reading of the opening ceremony as loath of industrialism and favorable to idyllic medievalism and organic culture, has the BBC and the progressive strand of politics actually become? And the further question, is this something new or was it already prefigured in a sort of statism ingrained in whiggishness. Traditionally this anti-industrial bias has been a genuine conservative or Tory tenet but it used to be linked to scepticism against the state. However Cameron, following is idol Obama, is attempting to harness nature against classical liberalism.

  6. Posted 02/08/2012 at 12:07 | Permalink

    Good job you didn’t watch Horrible Histories on BBC2 this morning, Steve. The Victorian industry scene – sending them up chimneys etc – would have had you choking on your muesli.

  7. Posted 03/08/2012 at 12:18 | Permalink

    Throughout the whole first segment I thought it was, as you say above Steve, ‘celebratory rather than critical’. I thought this was quite obvious when the rings were forged – ‘look what capitalism can do’ – and then elevated.

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