Since the Olympics have started I have found myself in numerous conversations, ones that four years ago I wouldn’t have even dreamed about having. Olympics being harmful? Wrong even? I thought it was simply harmless athletic contests. Yet now it seems that there is more that meets the eye to these games. I have friends that are almost at the point of taking off work so they can stay glued to the TV to watch the games, I have friends who have participated in protests against them. The following post is from a friend of mine who at this time requested to stay nameless. Originally this post was submitted for the conference website to be added to the contributed entries but the conference organizing team that I am a part of thought that because of the anonymity of the post and the potential for it being interpreted as supporting violence that it wasn’t appropriate for type of conversation we were having on the site. I still think the post is valuable in a different conversation that might be more suited for my site. Here it is.
For the next couple of weeks a good many of the nations of the world will be gathered together in Vancouver at the behest of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), and under the banner of the five rings as well as the surveillance of the Security Forces. Welcome to Vancouver 2010: we attend “with glowing hearts”!
But beyond all the hype, looking past the selective (and distorted) presentation of the Games that dominate the mainstream media, the Olympics serve as an almost perfect example of the way in which the death-dealing economics of our day function. Juvenal tells us that the citizens of imperial Rome were willing to surrender their right to be politically involved in exchange for “bread and circuses”, and I reckon that things are much the same in our world of global capitalism.
Because the truth is that the Olympics are a fundamentally violent and death-dealing event, designed in order to transfer wealth, property, power, legal rights, and land out of the hands of the poor and the public and into the hands of the wealthy and the privileged – it really doesn’t take much work to start to learn this but for those who have chosen to remain ignorant, I recommend the writings of scholars like Helen Lenskyj, as well as the relevant information on websites run by the Olympic Resistance Network, No 2010, and the Vancouver Media Co-op. So, with the arrival of the Olympics in Vancouver, no one should be surprised to see the dismantling of poor communities, the theft of land by massive real estate corporations, the criminalization of poverty, the destruction of precious environmental sites, the withdrawal of human and civil rights, and the transfer of public wealth into the hands of corporate sponsors, private companies, and Security Forces. Adding insult to injury, the people of Vancouver will be stuck with the bill for this and will be paying it for many years to come. Again, I should emphasize that there is nothing particularly shocking about this – this is the way in which the Olympics have always functioned and this is standard activity when it comes to the death-dealing ethics of global capitalism.
However, what is interesting about the Olympics is the way in which they are structured in order to garner public support and make criticisms difficult. It is fairly easy for most people to understand, at least at some level, the death-dealing nature of contemporary economics when one talks about the practices of Canadian mining companies in Latin America, of Canadian owned t-shirt sweatshops in Honduras, of the Royal Bank of Canada’s involvement with the tar sands in Alberta (and you all are already aware of these things, right?), but it is much more difficult to gain a public voice, or gain public respect, when speaking critically of the Olympics. This is because the Olympics have been able to draw upon other powerful motifs that exist within our culture – the glorification of youth, the respectability of ‘amateur’ athletes, patriotism, the thrill of competition, the heart-rending stories of trials and losses overcome and, of course, the pure entertainment value of it all. I mean, I can honestly say that I think nothing good of the Olympics… but part of me still wants to watch the Canadian hockey games! This is a fine example of the ways in which the economics of death disciplines our desires, so that we end up loving that which kills us. Consequently, the Games end up being so breath-taking, so emotional, so full of ‘human interest’ stories, that those who speak critically of them are rapidly marginalized as insensitive upstarts (or just plain old assholes) who are pursuing causes that might be decent enough on their own (it’s difficult to say that caring about poor people is bad thing…) but who are doing so at the wrong time. Of course, this is all ideology functioning in its most sinister way – the fact is that the Olympics are exactly the right time to be pursuing these causes and trying to bring about an alternative form of economics, because the Olympics are so deeply interwoven with the economics of death. Of course, those who spread this ideology understand this – the IOC knows what really goes on with the Games as they are the ones who made it that way (in conjunction with their corporate sponsors and various political supports) – which is precisely why the ideology is spread. If the protestors were completely wrong in the arguments they make about the relation of the Olympics to death-dealing economics then the IOC et al. could respond to their arguments and demonstrate how they are wrong. However, because the protestors are right, the IOC must find a way to invalidate the arguments without actually responding to them.
With these things in mind, I thought that I would act in solidarity with those who are opposed to the economics of death in Vancouver. I am tired of people simply speaking, writing or reading about ‘Kingdom economics’ or some sort of alternative economics of life, and desire to spend more time with those who are actually acting to bring these things about. In this regard, I am inspired by the words of Mikhail Bakunin (spoken when he quit the Jura Federation in 1873):
During the last nine years more than enough ideas for the salvation of the world have been developed… and I defy anyone to come up with a new one. This is the time not for ideas but for action, for deeds.
Ain’t that the truth, eh? Something to keep in mind, perhaps, when attending yet another conference on subversive, kingdom-based economics?
Anyway, on February 13th, I joined up with a Black Bloc at an anti-Olympic protest aimed at claiming a key intersection and disrupting the flow of traffic to Whistler on the first day of the Games. Unfortunately, the riot police were far better organized than the protestors and the action was not a success. At this point, legal constraints prevent me from saying anything further about the specifics of what took place. However, I do wish to comment on the protest more generally.
First of all, I think events like protests are important because our commitment to an economics of life necessarily requires us to confront, expose, and demolish the economics of death. In order to construct a society that is more just, less just ways of organizing life together must be destructed. This should be obvious. So, at least those who participated in the protest that occurred on February 13th were willing to take a genuine stand for their convictions and were willing to pay a price for taking that stand (several people were assaulted by police officers, others were imprisoned, and so on). Although some may have been afraid, they did not allow that fear to prevent them from acting out their beliefs, and this is genuinely admirable. It is, at least, a step up from those who get together just to talk about these things and then never do anything but talk.
However, when engaging in this necessarily creative and destructive work, the participants must be careful to ensure that they do not simply end up perpetuating or replicating prior forms of oppression and dehumanization. This, of course, is what we saw take place in the fall-out of the October Revolution in Russia and the Cultural Revolution in China (as the opponents of Communism, Marxism, Socialism and other more Christian ways of structuring life together have never failed to remind us). Perhaps some of the so-called ‘violence’ that took place at the protest could also be an illustration of this – to put it crudely, a dog that is regularly beaten will learn to bite back but, even then, one should only feel compassion for that dog. One doesn’t punish that dog, instead one should go after those who beat the dog. However, I emphasize the word ‘perhaps’, because I’m not sure that much of what was described as ‘violence’ at the protest was really all that violent. What we need is a much more sustained public reflection upon what does and does not constitute ‘violence’ and when such ‘violence’ is or is not appropriate. After all, if the Toronto Dominion Bank and the Hudson Bay Company are fundamentally death-dealing in their actions, and if they exist on stolen property, is it then inappropriate to smash their windows? Wasn’t Jesus action in the Jerusalem Temple even more violent than what the protestors did in Vancouver on the 13th? At the very least, we should be wary of accepting definitions of violence that are provided for us by those who benefit from the death-dealing status quo of global capitalism (for these people will tell us that the Olympics are driven by a commitment to peace and solidarity – even though we know that the Olympics are fundamentally violent against indigenous people, poor people and the environment – while also telling us that people who wear black and break two windows [yes, only two windows were broken] are raging violent criminals).
That said, I think that the greatest danger facing those who wish to protest against the death-dealing economics of our day is not that of perpetuating cycles of violence; rather, the danger is that of falling into a spectacular form of resistance that is composed of simulacra of actions rather than practicing anything that is genuinely disruptive and creative. Now, by speaking of ‘spectacular’ resistance I am drawing on the insights provided by Guy Debord’s famous book, The Society of the Spectacle. In that book, Debord argues that our focus in life has gradually shifted from a focus upon being (pre-capitalism), to having (nascent capitalism), to appearing (contemporary capitalism). This focus upon appearances leads us to live spectacular lives, wherein we lose track of ourselves as genuine historical agents capable of engaging in transformative actions. Instead, we become focused upon creating certain images (or brands) around ourselves. It is this focus that I think has infused much of the culture of resistance (Andrew Heath and Joseph Potter analyze this in greater detail in their book, The Rebel Sell: Why the Culture Can’t be Jammed). Thus, people think they are creating a change simply by dressing in black, disrupting traffic, tipping over newspaper boxes, and so on. But this is mostly untrue. The truth is that the protest on February 13th failed to achieve its objective and to claim it as a victory is dishonest. Not only that, but to claim it as a victory – which I’m sure is done with good motives, in order to inspire people to continue to resist, to not give up, and so on – is actually self-defeating. It is self-defeating because it prevents us from learning from our failures so that we can go on to succeed. Failure must be truly recognized if success is to follow. To call failure success is only to ensure that we will continue to fail.
Now I wish to highlight this because I think that the same criticism applies to many of the actions being taken by Christians who are trying to pursue an alternative economics and restructure their lives together. Sadly, much of that activity remains stuck at the level of image, appearance, and simulacrum, and fails to get to the core of things or create any significant or genuinely meaningful change. Therefore, it is my hope that those who attend this conference on Kingdom Economics will be able to make the transition from words to deeds and from a series of failures to Spirit-empowered success. It is time that more Christians stopped talking amongst themselves and joined others on the barricades. It is time that more Christians spent less time trying to find the perfect theological perspective on reality, and spent more time actually participating in reality. And, perhaps it is also time that we learn to sacrifice some of our values and beliefs in order to enact positive change. To be very honest, I would be willing to abandon my own values if I thought, even for a minute, that doing so would make a difference for those who are oppressed and abandoned today. Now, before you dismiss this idea out of hand, do remember that Jesus was damned and forsaken by God because of his commitment to the poor and abandoned, and Paul also writes that he would be willing to cursed and cut off from Christ if it would assist in the salvation of Israel. The pursuit of abundant life (for all, not just for some) might well lead us to be counted amongst the damned. The pursuit of God’s economics might very well result in our excommunication. So be it. Despite everything, we will continue to pray: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy upon us, sinners.