Now that the smoke has cleared, the medals handed out, and Paul McCartney safely returned to storage, the other shoe can officially begin its descent. The Olympic party is over and a hangover of Big Ben proportions awaits. If the Olympic planners had been honest, they would have used the closing ceremonies to introduce the new sixth Spice Girl, “Austerity Spice”.
When I was in London last May, I met people optimistic and pessimistic about the coming Olympics. I spoke with Tories excited about the coming spectacle and union leaders concerned that the promises of jobs and development would fall short. I met right-wing economists railing against the Olympic-sized debt and Labour party leaders giddy about the tourism and “prestige” the Games would bring. I met cab drivers enraged about restrictions on their routes and bus drivers ready to strike if they didn’t receive a hefty bonus for the extra demands of the Olympics (the government caved and paid transit workers to be happy during the fortnight).
But there was one thing everyone agreed about, and they used the same phrase repeatedly: “After the Olympics, the gloves will come off.” They all meant that the Olympics were a vacation from political reality. After the games were done, a political battle would commence over who would bail the UK out of a crippling economic crisis. Simon Lee, senior politics lecturer at the University of Hull, was quoted by Reuters as saying that the Olympics did little more than “paper over the fact that we are on the verge of a depression.”
The numbers are certainly dire. The economy has been shrinking for nine consecutive months, even with the added stimulus of pre-Olympic spending. Youth unemployment is well over 20 percent. Among all unemployed, almost a third have been out of work for a year. The plan for correcting this is even more dire, with Prime Minister David Cameron committed to an agenda of acute austerity. That means laying off government employees, including doctors, nurses and teachers, and raising taxes on working people, all in the name of paying down their debt.
If Cameron believes that debt is truly the economy’s greatest problem, then the Olympic hangover, as it did in Greece in 2004, could severely aggravate the existing crisis. The final price tag of the games, including massive security costs, will reach as high as 24 billion pounds, ten times the original rosy projections when they won the bid back in 2005. Back then, London Mayor Ken Livingstone predicted a tax of £240 per citizen to pay for the games. Suffice it to say, those costs can safely be adjusted upward.
Debt is not the only hangover of these Olympics. A treasure trove of new surveillance equipment has now become a permanent part of the London landscape. Already the world’s most surveilled metropolis, the city is now, as Stephen Graham reported in the Guardian, “wired up with a new range of scanners, biometric ID cards, number-plate and facial-recognition CCTV systems, disease tracking systems, new police control centres and checkpoints. These will intensify the sense of lockdown in a city which is already a byword across the world for remarkably intensive surveillance.” As one security official told me when I was in London, “These toys aren’t going anywhere. What are we going to do? Put them back in the box?”
Then there are the displacements. In the opening ceremonies, NBC’s Meredith Viera described East London as a “wasteland” that had been “transformed” by the Olympics. I actually walked the streets of East London, and I wish Ms. Viera has done the same. Another word for “wasteland” could be “working-class community where people live and raise families”. In addition, if the area has been “transformed” it’s because hundreds of residents were displaced. They are on the waiting list for promised new public housing, which, once again, because of the austerity agenda may never be built. Watch the homelessness statistics in London spike in the months ahead.
All of these chickens will come home to roost in the aftermath of the games when austerity explodes out of the starting blocks like a demonic Usain Bolt. The crisis is real and the only question is who is going to pay to bail out the country. If it’s the 1 percent, that will mean nationalization, tax hikes, deficit spending and the state’s pumping money into the economy to avoid a depression. If it’s the 99 percent, and that’s already the plan, expect a round of vicious cuts amidst the Olympic afterglow. The National Health Service, so praised in the Olympic opening ceremonies, will see a reduction in staff of 50,000. Tax hikes on workers will be a reality alongside layoffs. Anger will rise. Then, all of that surveillance equipment will really come into use.
The gloves will come off indeed. Let’s see if the workers, immigrants, and everyday people of the UK can take the punch and return in kind. If not, we’ll always have the Spice Girls.