“…how deeply irrational it is to essentially gamble the economic health of a city on its success or failure in a competition held between it and a few other cities which have a similar post-industrial profile. This irrationality is evidence of capitalism’s tendency to encourage competition where we should, instead, be encouraging cooperation.” Mark Crawford discusses the Commonwealth games and Cities of Culture in the context of neoliberal economics.
In writing this brief note, as a Dundee-based Radical Independence activist, I am reaching out to friends and comrades fighting for a YES vote in Glasgow. As you will be campaigning for independence in the midst of a major international sporting event, the 2014 Commonwealth Games, I felt it might be appropriate to supply some of my own reflections on how concerns over this event intersects with the independence debate. By examining the two issues together, we will see that there is much to connect them – in particular, the conjunction of these two events raises general questions of poverty, gentrification and the politics of entertainment, which should resonate far beyond Glasgow to have an impact on the fight for an independent Scotland more generally.
My home city of Dundee recently lost out to Hull in a bid to become branded with the rather dubious distinction of UK City of Culture 2017. I was amongst the small number of people I know locally who was against Dundee’s bid for the City of Culture title from the very beginning. Shortly after the bid was announced, I happened to read David Harvey’s book Rebel Cities. Harvey provides some powerfully critical tools with which to examine the economic madness of a system which encourages cities to compete with each other on the most ineffable and hard-to-grasp of differentials i.e. culture. During the bid’s campaign, the economic benefits of raising Dundee’s profile were frequently cited as one of the motivating factors – perhaps even the main motivating factor – behind the project. Few people had actually stopped to think about how deeply irrational it is to essentially gamble the economic health of a city on its success or failure in a competition held between it and a few other cities which have a similar post-industrial profile. This irrationality is evidence of capitalism’s tendency to encourage competition where we should, instead, be encouraging cooperation. Conversely, there is also evidence that such competition between cities encourages misguided cooperation between artists working within the city where, in fact, a humane degree of competition is healthier. (To understand better what I’m saying here, think about cities such as Liverpool, Manchester and Glasgow which have, for a limited period of time, developed strong independent music cultures; these cultures emerged, in part, because there was some healthy competition between aspiring musicians within the cities in question, not because the musicians in different cities decided to cooperate with each other in order to collectively compete against the other cities. Sometimes bottom-up really is better than top-down.)
As the controversy over the initial plan to include the demolition of Glasgow’s Red Road flats in the Commonwealth Games’ opening ceremony demonstrates, there is an explicit urban politics at stake in such extravaganzas. And it should be noted that it is no accident these big international sporting events, cultural competitions and the like are linked to attempts to regenerate post-industrial cities like Glasgow. As Harvey explains in Rebel Cities, the social richness of post-War urban life in cities like Dundee and Glasgow was disrupted when neoliberal economics dictated a shift towards post-Fordist models of organising the workplace, suburbanisation, the hollowing out of city centres along with an attendant atomisation in subjectivity (which was itself aided by the breaking-up of the organised labour movement). This radical shift in the economic and social organisation of society was undertaken without any proper debate over the role of the traditional city centre as a motor of rich social contact which was, as a result of the changes, lost.
A set of pictures can tell a fascinating story, and the set of pictures of Dundee cinemas, past and present, on the Scottish Cinemas and Theatres website does not disappoint. First, we have the three cinemas (two multiscreen out-of-towners, one art-house) in Dundee open and showing films today, next come the dozen or so former cinemas still standing (half of which are now being used as things like theatres, bingo halls and public houses, the other half of which are derelict shells) and then, finally, the twenty-five cinemas which are now demolished. So, what happened? Television, some might say, and they would no doubt be partly correct. But, then, given the central role of atomised television viewing in neoliberalism’s suburbanist economic model – and the correlated decline and impoverishment of more sociable forms of post-work entertainment (such as going with your workmates to the local cinema several nights a week) which marked the Fordist-era – is there not a case to be made for revisiting the issue of entertainment and the production of a rich and communal social life accessible to all? This is inherently as much a question of the economics and politics of urban planning as it is a question of entertainment.
As David Thorburn pointed out in his classic essay ‘Television as an Aesthetic Medium’[i], in anthropological terms, television has taken over cinema’s historical role as the consensus medium, fulfilling an essentially conservative function (indeed, this is why, during the 1960s, when television was consolidating its role as the primary consensus medium, cinema suddenly developed a radical edge). The question of television as productive locus of a conservative consensus has importance for the referendum debate, as the protests against the BBC’s referendum coverage have demonstrated. Disrupting this consensus during the Commonwealth Games will be both necessary and risky for the Radical Independence Campaign. Thus far we have looked at two phenomena: firstly, the tendency to link urban regeneration in the post-industrial context with economically-irrational spectacles, sporting events, competitions and extravaganzas and then, secondly, the suburbanisation (and its uniquely atomised forms of entertainment and subjectivity) which was an attendant feature of the very process of deindustrialisation which created the post-industrial city in the first instance. This is a very delicate knot indeed, if we are to consider ways in which we can politicise events like the Commonwealth Games.
Intuitively, I think as radicals fighting for independence, most of us will have a sense that there is a risk that if we disrupt the Games in the what is perceived to be the ‘wrong way’ in the name of independence, we will make a terrible tactical blunder. Why? From what we have said so far, the reason should be clear: with little in the way of community resources to fall back on socially, atomised family units whose enjoyment has been hooked up to the Games they are watching on the TV screen are at risk of simply becoming enraged at any attempts by the independence movement to politicise the Games. And yet, at the same time, there is no doubt that some attempt will be made to turn the Games into a political tool, whether by Better Together or the mainstream YES campaign. What role should the Radical Independence Campaign play here? My suggestion is to avoid isolated counter-productive stunts which will simply disrupt people’s atomised enjoyment and may turn them against voting YES. But, on the other hand, we cannot just ignore the Games; thus, I recommend that we make criticism of the Games – and the good points we can make about the irrationality of regenerating post-industrial Scotland through these big events and inter-city cultural competitions – part and parcel of both our doorstep canvassing campaign and the campaign against the BBC’s biased referendum coverage.