The Control of the Public Realm
19 Friday Apr 2013
I wasn’t planning to write about Thatcher. I reviewed “The Iron Lady” when it came out which pretty much summed up what I wanted to say about her, but I think her death has made a statement or perhaps exposed a truth that wasn’t expected. The links between the run down of 80s Britain and the current austerity measures were inevitable, as was the implicit need for strength and leadership, qualities for which she was admired in some quarters; as well as her iconic status as a formidable woman politician of a major global player – like Merkil and her humble grocer’s daughter to Prime Minister narrative, a living justification for the aspirations of the middle class. So far, so predictable, but more was also exposed.
I first found out the joyous news as I lay in bed, being shouting at “Wake up, wake up, She’s dead! Thatcher’s dead! We can open the champagne”. Entrusted to me by someone who had carefully guarded it, she had kept it safe while I was out of the country. After an afternoon of “Ding Dong, The Witch is Dead”, “Ghost Town” nad “Maggies’ Farm”, we headed down to George Square for it to be opened at the long anticipated party. It was smaller and younger than I imagined it would be. Those worst affected by her regime didn’t live to see her die; those who survived now perhaps of an age where events to mark someone’s passing are both common and sad affairs, finding it hard to conjure up the required party spirit.
But party we did. With congalines, saxophones, pipers and dancing. Champagne and Buckfast; party hats and streamers. We chanted “Pass me a shovel“, “Maggie, Maggie, Maggie; Dead, Dead, Dead” and “Build a Bonfire, Build a Bonfire; put the Tories on the top; put the LibDems in the middle and we’ll burn the bloody lot“. We hugged one another as finally an era ended. I can only imagine what those who danced in the streets when her mate Pinochet died must have felt, but there was a release of tension, and a feeling of closure that I am sure must have been common.
Predictably, the media were out in force. after all they have column inches in the wall to wall coverage that has dominated the landscape for the last week. Perhaps what was less expected was the intense personalisation and demonisation of those who were identified with it. Tweets were picked out from public figures timelines, while private individuals suddenly found themselves the subject of newpaper articles. Intense scrutiny was placed on private people who participated in a public self-organised event in response to a public figure. For public shamings are not for public figures, public figures require public adoration.
For public perception must be managed. They can’t not cover the public response, because to do so would imply that she was insignificant; they need to cover the “public response” angle, because there must be a public response, but equally it must be dismissed in favour of the judgements of prominent figures and international states(wo)men. Ordinary wo/men count for so much less, especially if they have piercings or have had breast implants.
Public sentiment is irrelevant, public perception is all that really matters, so when a rather excellent mural went up in what has come to be known as “The Banksy Tunnel, where murals and graffitti adorn the underpass, within a few days it was painted over. For public art must be state sanctioned – or at least unchallenging to it.
Justifying this blatent act of vandalism a British Rail Residuary Board spokesman said: “The removal of the graffiti at the Leake Street site is in line with our standard policy when properties are defaced with graffiti that is obscene, racist or likely to cause offence.” The mural clearly wasnt obscene, racist – so it must be questioned how was it likely to cause offense and to whom?
In Athens, public art is everywhere, much of it simply created by individual artists who want to showcase their work on the abandoned buildings and corrogated iron facades which attempt to hide the decay. In stark contrast, the murals of Glasgow show sporting scenes commissioned to promote the Commonwealth Games, another state approved spectacle, where all superlative athletes of the former colonies of the Great British Empire will descend on one of its current colonies, in an area itself colonised by private companies, where communities and facilities have been wrecked to provide an image an Glasgow at odds with the reality. All sponsored by ATOS, the company which is currently killing the disabled people whose facilities are being removed in this land grab.
For public celebrations must be state approved, and public art controlled. Public spectacles are what the public are supposed to consume. The Olympics, Royal Jubilee, Royal Wedding all acceptable public celebrations, where the public can provide a backdrop of featureless faces waving little flags while the camera can zoom in to happy, smiley shiney faces of the state approved kind. In Greece there is an outright ban on the media showing pictures of social deprivation, in the UK it is done much more subtly – the deaths caused by the benefit cuts quietly tucked away on page 9, while headlines of feckless, workshy, scroungers dominate the front covers.
The public are there to justify the interests of the private sector. George Square – where once tanks rolled in to control the striking crowds is to be redeveloped to make it more attractive for corporate interests, and there is no corporate interest in conga-ing round it at the long awaited death of a hate figure. Street media is dominated by advertising – huge billboards encourage us to consume while the massive television screens, which spewed out live coverage of Thatcher’s funeral to non-existant crowds, provide a backdrop of rolling propaganda from the state broadcaster.
When Thatcher said “There is no such thing as society“, it was not an observation, but a speech act. It was a statement that society was not to exist. The free association of individuals, expressing their collective views, desires and opinions is dangerous to those who seek to control them. We must toe the line, drink in the propaganda and celebrate state-approved events in state approved ways. Only there is such a thing as society, and last week, it partied.