[Note: I finished writing this post a few hours before seeing the above picture (from http://reallyfreeschool.org/, via @RobWhite00). An encouraging sign. As far as warnings of the coming apocalypse can be encouraging, that is.]
Visiting London on 26th March for the anti-government protests, for the first time I found myself in close proximity to the Olympic Countdown Clock, that grotesque emblem of immaterial capital and PR, fake unity and compulsory inclusivity. The Clock is in many ways the ideal symbol, not just for the Olympic brand but for contemporary life as a whole; not so much a memorial as an ‘amnesial’, a monument not to an event but to a non-event, not place but placelessness, not the passing of time but its erasure.
By 6pm Trafalgar Square had resolved itself into a familiar carnival/rock-festival set-up. The space in front of Nelson’s Column was a dancefloor and marchers rested their feet on the steps of the National Gallery, watching the spectacle. The police were happy to allow people to climb the statues and decorate them with revolutionary slogans, but across the Square the Clock was practically untouched. A few people were sitting underneath it, chatting and eating, and as I watched, one of them was instructed quietly but firmly by a police officer standing some distance away to remove a tiny anti-cuts sticker which had been placed on its surface. The citizen obediently unpeeled the sticker, smiling nervously.
Could it be that because of the virtual power transmitted through its digits, the Clock also paradoxically presents itself as a target, an opportunity? This would explain its apparently sacred, totemic position. Of course the failure of the Clock to work properly after its unveiling was symptomatic of the faulty discourse of the Olympic ‘project’ and its style-over-substance marketing; and yet this apparent bumbling ineffectiveness also conveniently conceals the underlying interests which it represents - what might be termed the ‘Boris Johnson defence’. Such gimmicks have apparently been part of the Olympic tradition for years, but this particular structure, appearing at this particular time, seems to function not just as a logo for a sports tournament but as part of the ideological state apparatus. For the protests to move on to the next stage and truly upset the ruling consortium, the Clock must somehow be defeated. For the multitude to stop the Clock would be a huge symbolic act: a chance to switch off the ridiculous work-or-die admonishments of ‘Alarm Clock Britain’; to reject the all-in-this-together austerity script barked at us by our economic masters throughout our duties of somnolent commuting, stupefying labour and competitive jobseeking; to ditch the empty promise of a great corporate experience in which we could all generically ‘participate’. It would mean a historic regaining of temporal territory and an instant unplugging from the Coalition’s ‘Big Society’ Newspeak.
Indeed, the tyrannical timepiece might have been transported from the dystopian future of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, or the film Children of Men, in which downtrodden everyman Clive Owen moves through a shabby wasteland of decay and sterility in a blood-stained 2012 Olympic sweatshirt. For this is the kind of reality which the reverse-time of the Clock ominously counts down towards; the implosion of public space, the draining of life-force out of the cultural body. A noiseless, limbless clock for a silenced, immaterialized population.
What prevented me from attacking the damned thing myself? Maybe I would have felt differently if the Clock had been the locus of the demonstration, but as a marginal actor in the scene I felt restrained, not only by the watchful eyes of the police, but also more abstractly, by a kind of force field (and again, the safe distance kept from the Clock by the main body of protestors suggested that the structure operated an invisible and unconscious deterrent effect). I recognised this as the same vague constellation of fears – economic, juridical, social - which prevented me from walking out of a job I hated, or sitting in a near-empty First Class carriage on an otherwise overcrowded train. As a good neoliberal subject, I was a slave to my internalised self-disciplinary program. I knew that on its own my action would amount to nothing more than a tragicomic moment of self-destructive attention-seeking. Some sort of collective effort is needed, maybe a Fourth-Plinth-type counter-vigil to oppose the Clock’s 24/7 biopolitical discourse, with banners listing public services cut, unemployment figures, tax avoided etc., positioned prominently in front of the numerical display, directly in the line of the media/tourist gaze.
Taking my place under the Clock, I took a Biro out of my bag and scrawled across the top of the ‘No Cuts’ lollipop placard I had carried all day: ‘FUCK THE OLYMPICS’. I sat there, resting the modified sign on my shoulder. After a couple of minutes a photographer approached, knelt professionally in front of me and took a picture. He smiled and gave a thumbs-up sign – for the sentiment, or for a saleable shot, I couldn’t tell – before moving on to frame some people sitting on the steps nearby. I got up and left for the Tube.
It came as no surprise that the police onslaught aimed at the remaining protesters in Trafalgar Square later that night was triggered by a threat to the precious Clock. The force of the state was used to physically ‘contain’ those who might dare to challenge the authority of its apparatus, thereby proving that this is exactly what we must keep doing, in one way or another, in an attempt to rescue time itself from those intent on harnessing the future for their own profit.