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The Political Economy of the Olympics

Posted by keith1942 on November 4, 2013

2012_Summer_Olympics_opening_ceremony_3400

This article was written initially for the Media Education Journal. I felt that much media comment and criticism focussed on the Olympics as an ideological exercise, an expression of value systems. Whilst that is certainly part of the Games they also seem to me an exercise for generating surplus value, the raison d’être of capitalism. My commentary on this was felt to be to marginal in relation to the media and its treatment of the Olympics by the MEJ editors. But my argument is an attempt to examine the way the media and other discourses focus on the clash of values, without paying close attention to the economic interests that such values express. The focus on events as primarily ideological rather than economic seems to me to be a particular misidentification in the contemporary media. The policies of both the British Parliamentary Coalition and their opposition are frequently labelled [especially by their opponents] as ideological. But, by and large, those policies at base express economic interests. The same phenomenon can be seen in the recent discourse around the Democrat / Republican tussles in the USA. State health care, in the UK and the USA, is an economic issue – who receives what, both in services and in the value embodied in health commodities.

Following the 2012 Olympics a number of contributors to MEJ [Issue 52, Winter 2012 / 13] were asked for a short piece on the Opening Ceremony. However, as the articles were submitted the original word length seems to have got lost. I think Geoff Lealand and I were the only ones to adhere to the original word limit. Cary Bazalgette, Roy Stafford and Margaret Hubbard wrote at increasing lengths. Pete Bennett and Julian McDougall extended this to almost a page, [though it seemed to me with no greater coherence]. And Douglas Allen actually contributed a piece that ran two pages and was three times longer than any other. Yet in all this commentary economics only figures twice: my brief point about the disparities among the contributors to the Ceremony and Bennett’s and McDougall’s almost impenetrable comment, “In lived, material practice, economics IS the ideology [from Žižek}.” Slavoj Žižek’s own formulation occurs in an article in New Left Review (Issue 54, 2010] “What has happened in the latest stage of post-68 capitalism is that the economy itself – the logic of market and competition – has progressively imposed itself as the hegemonic ideology”. This seems to be rather different from the emphasis of Karl Marx in The German Ideology (Ed. David McLellan, 1977), “men, developing their material production and their material intercourse, alter, along with this their real existence, their thinking and the products of their thinking.”  In fact Bennett and McDougall do not develop this issue of economics in any sense. They claim that ‘the IDEA of Britain exists only in exhibition, in service, retail and tourism …’ A list that fails to include any obvious productive activity.  They add later that ‘hosting the Olympics is our performance.’ However behind the performance, as in all aspects of life under capitalism, lies the economic.

The International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) Website has a lot of information but I could find no actual financial figures. A graph does show percentages for income and disbursements: 45% of the income is provided by sponsorship: with about 49% of the actual Games income due to broadcasting payments. Wikipedia does offer more detail from the early C21st Games, “The Olympic Movement generated a total of more than US$4 billion, €2.5 billion in revenue during the Olympic quadrennial from 2001 to 2004.” 10% of these monies are retained for administration.

The new Olympic President is Thomas Bach a German gold medallist in fencing at the 1976 Olympics. Since then he has varied business experience, including working as an executive for Adidas and a consultant for Siemens. He has been on the IOC board for 22 years. He stated he would not take a salary, but he does receive expenses.  There have been claims that he has favoured certain interests: claims also made against other IOC members alongside claims of the misuse of ‘expenses’. [See Wikipedia].

The Olympic Committee relies substantially on the sponsors. One of the top brands here is Samsung, whose phones were promoted in the opening ceremony. Samsung is the market leader in the production and sale of mobile phones. Like its fellow sponsors, [which includes Coca-Cola and MacDonalds] it has a global reach, partly through innumerable subsidiaries. Samsung is also one of those conglomerates who have a record of tax evasion. And there are questions about labour conditions in its subsidiaries and suppliers. The Olympics have provided Samsung with the opportunity to promote and improve its public image. “Most of us had never heard of Samsung before their Olympic sponsorship, but now we can’t imagine a world without them,” says John Davis, author of The Olympic Games Effect. Samsung became a top sponsor in 1997 and its brand value increased from US$3.1 billion two years later to $23.4 billion in 2011. (The Guardian 10 August 201, Patrick Barkham|). With timely organisation the firm also opened a new flagship store in Westfield Stratford. Meanwhile Adidas, the ‘official sportswear partner’ reported improved sales in 2012 for its Olympic related merchandise, selling about £78 million worth of stock.

Another area of commerce and profits is Games security, which cost £500 in additional funding. Most of the publicity during the Olympics focused on the poor performance of G4S. However, another player in this area is Manchester-based EADS Defence and Security Systems Ltd, the Systems House of EADS in the UK. EADS was involved in the security for the previous Beijing Olympics. They are a global arms and security company. One way they have caught some media attention was the investigation into corruption relating to contracts with the Saudi Arabia government.

Such firms are the main beneficiaries of the Tax-free Zone of the Olympic area. This zone is a requirement in the Olympic bidding. There is a temporary exemption from UK Corporation Tax and UK Income Tax. The wording in briefings is convoluted but it appears that it applies to favoured companies registered to the Games and also to the winnings of participants: [I assume the latter means payments to star athletes – See Tim Hunt’s The Great Olympic Tax Swindle].

This requirement by the Olympic Committee is legalising something that we now know is endemic in the world of business. It is part of an important contemporary phenomenon: that the State is bailing out the declining rate of profit of capitalists.  In the case of the Olympics the State’s provided £9.3 billion plus pounds of expenditure. The most recent report on the National Audit Website suggests that the amount that will be recouped from the infrastructure created for the Games remains unclear. But these large sums cannot be recouped through tax collection from the main beneficiaries. It is not clear how much tax has been avoided in this way.

There is another facet of modern capitalism, monopoly. The Olympic Zone was not only a tax haven but also a ‘brand haven’. This zone protects the marketing interests of the major companies in the pocket of the Olympic Committee, [or should I write in whose pockets are to be found the Olympic Committee]. There seems little coverage in the Press but some petty bourgeois traders [small fry] fell foul of this. And despite the additional profits from nil taxation the Olympic Zone prices seem to have been higher than those in the taxed zone of the rest of London.

The rewards for assisting in the giant business venture vary considerably. The athletes in the games were traditionally amateurs. In the past that meant such sport tended to be the preserve of the wealthy: in Chariots of Fire (1981) Harold Abraham’s can afford to pay for his own personal trainer. These days the athletes are part of the large merchandising Olympic Roadshow. Top performers from the British team, like Jess Ennis and Mo Farah, have their own agents and their own companies, marketing, for example, ‘image rights’. A report (The Guardian 17/08/12) suggests expectations of £1 to £3 million a year for such star performers.

The opening Ceremony cost £27 million pounds: it is not clear how much Danny Boyle and his colleagues received from this amount. However, they had a workforce of apparently 10,000, including crafts people and performers. The latter, numbering 800, received the proper Equity rate. This would have included Kenneth Branagh’s personification of Isambard Brunel and Daniel Craig’s of 007. The Queen, meanwhile, presumably regarded this as part of her official duties, lavishly funded by the taxpayer.

A substantial body of ordinary people will not have benefited from any payment or from the tax benefit – the over 7,000 volunteers who were the ‘extras’ in the Opening Ceremony. And there were up to 70,000 volunteers across the entire Games, Olympic and Paralympic. All were required to undergo training and make a minimal commitment in terms of their input. [These were genuine ‘zero pay contracts’]. Wouldn’t you know that this volunteer programme was first dreamt up in the 1948 London Olympics! “Volunteers are the lifeblood of the Olympic Games and part of the DNA of thousands of people in this country,” said Sebastian Coe, Chair of the London 2012 Organising Committee, when the volunteer programme was launched.”

Were the hundreds of nurses supposed, like the Queen, to regard this as part of their professional duties?  After the event Radio 4 had an interview with a family who came down from the Midlands to volunteer throughout the Games. They rented a house in Chelmsford, the nearest they could find at an economic rate. This meant they were leaving home as early as 7 a.m. and returning sometimes later than 12 midnight. In fact, they had clearly enjoyed their volunteering and had found it a rewarding experience: an alternative holiday.

One might be tempted to use here the phrase, ‘false consciousness’. Certainly Slavoj Žižek uses the phrase in his writing. I personally avoid the term. Karl Marx never used it. Engels did use it but in a letter discussing a book by Franz Mehring. It seems the term came into more general use in the 1920s, i.e. after the failure of any revolutions outside Russia. One problem for me is the patronising tone implied by the term: intellectuals chiding the working class because they have not yet got the message. But it also suggests a different sense to the term ideology than that found in the substantial works of Marx and Engels.

Whilst in The German Ideology they recognise that “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas.” They go on to note that “The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production.”

They do not discount propaganda and manipulation, but they assert the primacy of the way we produce and re-produce. “If in all ideology men and their circumstances appear upside-down as in a camera obscura, this phenomenon arises just as much from their historical life-process as the inversion of objects on the retina does from their physical life-process.”  Marx’s analysis of the appropriation of surplus value is germane here. He points out that the surface appearances suggest that capital employs labour on ‘A fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work’

. However this disguises the underlying relations of exploitation, the unpaid labour that provides a surplus and the capitalist profit. But that surface appearance is not merely an accident. The control of social relations by the bourgeoisie means that this maxim is embodied in a host of social institutions. It is the basis of the pay system: it is embodied in the legal code of employment: and it forms the basis of both the negotiations and the struggles between capital and labour. Rather than being ‘false’ an acceptance of this system appears to reflect that visible reality of life and production. (See Capital Volume I – The Transformation of the Value of Labour-Power into Wages). Working class consciousness needs to grow and develop so that is can dig beneath these surface appearances and come to a grasp of the underlying social relations.

In a parallel fashion the Olympics presents itself as a celebration of physical prowess. A spectacle of free activity which is separate and different from the norm of paid labour in capitalist society. However, if we study the Olympics it can be seen that it is an occasion for the generation of profits: profits built on the expropriation of surplus labour value. The extreme differentials between those who receive much and those who receive little or nothing reflects the class divisions in capitalism. But given the dominance of the bourgeoisie in what is often termed the superstructure the games also fulfil an ideological function, reifying the surface appearance that disguises the actual economic process. One aspect of the Olympic Games Opening Ceremony that won much praise [and some rightwing criticism] was the sequence featuring the National Health Service. I heard comments of how it took us back to its founding year of 1948 and [of course] the reforming Labour Government led by Clem Atlee. Ken Loach’s film The Spirit of ’45 took a similar journey, contrasting those years of notable change with the reactive politics of the 1979 Conservative Government led by Margaret Thatcher. However, whilst celebrating the achievement of labour between 1945 and 1952, the film glossed over quite fundamental problems. One was the failure to confront finance capital [missing from Bennett and McDougall’s list]; another was in relation to the exploitative policies against the Colonies and the Liberation Movements of the oppressed peoples. These are parallel to omissions in the Opening Ceremony. Instead of addressing the extraction and accumulation of exploited labour as profits the ceremony presented the person of Isambard Brunel performed by Kenneth Branagh in his Shakespearean mode. We saw ‘dark satanic mills’ but without any sense of their economic operation. And the nationalism of the ceremony and of the media coverage of the events displayed a similar chauvinism to Britain’s nearly defunct imperial role.

To be positive, there is a film which does present a picture much closer the raw reality. This is the 2004 film Shijia (The World), directed by Jia Zhangke with funding by China, Japan and France. It does not cover the Olympics but it set in a Beijing ‘World Theme Park’, a sort of parallel spectacle to the Games. We get to see the attractions and spectacles, but more to the point we also get to see the exploitative and oppressive situations in which the people who work in such operations suffer. The Chinese Theme Park is tawdrier than London 2012 was and the exploitation is more naked, but that it because China is not yet an advanced capitalist country. It will be interesting to watch the developments in Brazil, where the next Olympic spectacle is due. Brazil is another nation state that has not yet achieved the advanced status. It is reassuring that already ordinary Brazilians have already shown scepticism about the costs and dislocations involved.

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The Silent Voices of Hollywood

Posted by keith1942 on October 2, 2013

Marni Nixon as Sister Sophie - second from left - in The Sound of Music

Marni Nixon as Sister Sophia – second from left – in The Sound of Music

Over the last couple of weeks the BBC has been celebrating the great music of cinema on both television and radio. The key series has been Sound of Cinema on BBC 4: an excellent trio of programmes written and presented by Neil Brand. Over the three programmes focussing on Hollywood he discussed and illustrated the orchestral style of the 1930s and 1940s: the influence of jazz and pop from the 1950s: and the use in more recent decades of electronic music.

Sunday night [September 29th] saw [besides a repeat of the last Sound of Cinema] a stand-alone programme, The Silent Voices of Hollywood. This was a RDF West Television / Zodiak Media Company production for the BBC. Despite a very interesting subject this TV documentary rather let the standards slip. The ‘silent voices’ were those of the singers who dubbed songs for the stars, mainly in Hollywood musicals, from the 1930s to the 1970s. This was known as ‘ghosting’. These ‘ghost singers’ usually their own concert and recording careers, in most cases they were denied credits, royalties and any acknowledgement at the Oscar Ceremony.

A fascinating history, and there were occasional highlights as when the programme used a split screen to show both the Natalie Wood version and the Marni Nixon dubbed version of a song from West Side Story (1961). There was India Adams dubbing two version of the same song ‘Two-faced Woman’ – one for Cyd Charisse in The Band Wagon (1951), [but not used in the final version] and one for Joan Crawford in Torch Song (1953). Rita Hayworth was seen in three different films, Cover Girl (1944), You Were Never Lovelier (1942), and An Affair in Trinidad (1952) – each with the dubbing by a different vocalist. And then we saw the Christopher Plummer’s version of ‘Edelweiss’ and the version used in The Sound of Music (1965) by Bill Lee. Finally there was a British example, Oliver! (1968) with the Musical Director Johnny Green’s daughter Kathe dubbing for Mark Lester.

However the programme suffered from two major vices of television documentaries: a long series of ‘‘talking heads’’ often onscreen for just a line or two. And a lack of respect for archive material from the past. The programme was screened in the television ratio of 16:9. And a lot of archive material, which was produced in other ratios, was cropped into this frame. This was particularly true of footage from the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s used early in the programme, including Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer (1927). Most of the footage from recent films was treated better, though there were occasional oddities, in part due to the use of stills, trailers and an actual video of the film. West Side Story was at various points seen in 1.37:1, 16:9 and the full widescreen of 2.35:1 [from a 35mm anamorphic print]. Both The King and I (1956) and My Fair Lady (1964) appeared at different points in 16:9 and in 2.35:1. Singin’ in the Rain (1952) appeared briefly in 16:9 and then properly in 1.37:1. The latter, of course, provided a poetic comment. The film’s plot revolves around Debbie Reynolds dubbing for Jean Hagen, whilst at one point the film had Betty Noyes [uncredited] dubbing for Debbie Reynolds. This film does actually get the aspect ratio of the 1920s nearly right, [1.37:1 rather than 1.33:1].

There were other oddities. The programme used a variety of stills and photographs. These were in the right ratio most of the time, but a number had the leader logo from the opening of a film reel flickering in the background! There was a parallel problem with the editing. There were [given the talking heads] frequent cuts: but on many occasions what looked like the tail of a film projection reel or of a video tape running briefly between the two different frames. And late in the programme a couple of clips set in the Moulin Rouge (2001) auditorium were sandwiched around a brief clip from elsewhere in the film.  I did wonder if all of this was the result of a rush in the final stages of post-production, but it recurred right through the programme. I suspect it was some sort of signifier supposedly highlighting the production process? I just found it distracting.

There were similar problems with the rostrum camera which was often shaky and cropped images in an obvious fashion. And the footage was often of poor quality. Some of this seemed justified: for example some footage of Rex Harrison in the Broadway production of My Fair Lady. But a lot of this was stock footage used to fill out the visuals. Since it was often not exactly uninformative or contextual I am sure they could have found better examples. At one point footage of the Vietnam War and the 1960s Civil Rights Movement was offered as a bizarre context to The Sound of Music. And a recurring piece of footage seemed to be a tracking shot through what I assumed was Beverley Hills. It looked as if shot from a car, and was often washed out by the sunlight: and it looked like it may have been speeded up.

All this was a shame as there was some interesting and informative commentary. And there were frequent interviews with the dubbing stars. These included Marni Nixon dubbed ‘Ghost with the mostest’ by Time Magazine. We actually saw her appearance on screen as Sister Sophia in The Sound of Music. We also saw the aforementioned India Adams. And we saw Rita Moreno who appeared in quite a few of the featured films, often singing her own character. The exhibits in this investigation into Hollywood made a pertinent point. Questions were asked as to how much the Studio policy of secrecy mattered. My memory is that on many occasions it was fairly obvious that stars were being dubbed. West Side Story, a musical I really liked, suffered from the disparity between the youthful and naïve stars and the concert trained voices of the songs they presented. I have to admit though that this was not always the case. I was surprised to find out that Rita Moreno had one song dubbed in the same film: even today she was rightly peeved about this indignity.

There was also a recurring problematic in the overall approach of the television programmes. The term ‘playback’ occurred at one point describing the technique of ‘ghosting’. Where this term does apply of course is in the great popular cinema of Mumbai [‘Bollywood’] and in the other regional Indian Cinemas. On the sub-Continent ‘playback singers’ are stars in their own right: with avid fans for their concerts, recordings and television appearances. And this is the great gap in the BBC television programmes. Neil Brand’s series concentrated on Hollywood, and to lesser degree British composers. The latter were mainly those who worked successfully in Hollywood as well. I think the only major figure working in Europe was Ennio Morricone, who is also a Hollywood composer. It would have been good if we could have enjoyed programmes that ventured further afield: not just Europe but India, Latin America and, of course, Japan.

This was where the radio scored over the television. There have been three series of Composer of the Week on Radio 3: the Hollywood Studio era, the British Studio era, and the major contemporary Hollywood composer John William. There were programmes on Silent Film Music on Radio 3 and Radio 2: and Radio 1 hosted a profile of the great Indian film composer A. R. Rahman. Besides which there were a whole rash of concerts on Radio 3.

I enjoyed the whole season, and I am grateful for the high points. I just think the BBC could have invested more.  Still, I may be in for pleasant surprise; future programmes on the music of these other cinemas?

Posted in Hollywood, Hollywood stars, Musicals, Television documentary | Leave a Comment »