Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Spectre: fact or fiction?

A new James Bond film has been released recently called Spectre and I have seen it since I am a fan of these films. As I was watching Spectre I began to muse on the world that this film series has presented to us. Of course, James Bond films are a fictional world and we should take note of that. But it remains true that even in fictional worlds things can be said about our own world that are true or should be taken note of. For even in fiction a point of view is presented and a side is taken. In the case of James Bond films the view presented is that James Bond, and by extension his employers, are basically good guys, guys we should trust with our safety and in terms of their actions. Indeed, in the plot of Spectre James Bond explicitly asks people to trust him a number of times.

We live in a time of mass surveillance (which becomes a plot point of the film, incidentally). We also live in a time of public anxiety about this. But this is not uniform public anxiety. Indeed, in recent days here in the UK where the so-called "Snoopers Charter" has been brought forward by the British Government, it is being remarked that the mass of the British population are somewhat apathetic about being spied on. Perhaps, I suggest, it is because we are now so used to it? 

The UK is pretty much the most spied on nation in the world, not least because it does not have constitutional protection such as in the USA. It has more CCTV cameras than almost any other nation. Thanks to Edward Snowden (my mention of him here and your reading this have almost certainly put us all on a list I'm afraid) we know that the UK has been engaged in spying to capture and retain all online activity of the mass of the population. Are these people, the notional employers of James Bond, people we should trust? If you watched a James Bond film the suggestion would be yes. And, indeed, the Snoopers Charter is presented as mass surveillance but we shouldn't worry because the people collecting the information are the good guys. So we shouldn't worry, right? 

Never mind, then, that anything done online you are doing for all time. At some future point some agent of The State may link an action you did quite innocently some years ago to the fact you were at the wrong place at the wrong time 10 years from now. In the UK people have been arrested because their vehicle registration plate had been spotted at scenes of social unrest. (We have a number plate recognition system in the UK, facilitated by one of the largest CCTV networks in the world.) But cameras and hard disks don't record the why of our actions but only the fact of them. And facts need contexts and relationships to other facts to make sense. If a camera records me speeding through a red light in my car, for example, it doesn't tell you anything at all about why I did it. It tells you only that I did. Perhaps I was driving a getaway car after robbing somewhere. Perhaps the throttle of my car is stuck open. Perhaps I am drunk. Perhaps my pregnant wife has gone into labour and I need to get to the hospital fast. Knowledge is power. But its not always to know anything. And its prey to misinterpretation or, worse, deliberate misinterpretation.

There was a British politician, now sadly deceased, called Tony Benn. Benn was born the son of a Viscount but was a committed socialist. A member of the British Parliament for 47 of the years between 1950 and 2001 and a noted supporter of both social causes and working people, Benn was forced to give up his seat in the House of Commons upon the death of his father, Viscount Stansgate, because he automatically inherited the title and, now as a Viscount, qualified for the House of Lords instead. At this time it was not possible to renounce your title in Great Britain and so Benn campaigned for the ability to do so. He won his fight in 1963 and gave up being a Viscount to once again win an election and be returned to the House of Commons. Benn is the sort of character that certain US commentators would call a "communist" from their neoliberal perspective. But he saw himself as a democratic socialist and the democracy was as important as the socialism in his view. I mention him here because there is a very important quote of his I want to bring into my discussion today and it relates to democracy, that form of government under which most surveillance and spying takes place. Benn said:

In the course of my life I have developed five little democratic questions. If one meets a powerful person--Adolf Hitler, Joe Stalin or Bill Gates--ask them five questions: “What power have you got? Where did you get it from? In whose interests do you exercise it? To whom are you accountable? And how can we get rid of you?” If you cannot get rid of the people who govern you, you do not live in a democratic system.

That last question, "How can we get rid of you?" is very pertinent here to my blog today because even though individual governments come and go the apparatus of "The State" remains. Is there any difference in the actions of the governments of George W. Bush and Barack Obama? Can we tell the difference between the security actions of Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron? Whose actions do the security and surveillance of The State represent and where does the power actually reside? How can we check or remove it? If political power can change but the same activities go on then this strongly suggests that politics alone might not be enough. What if there is consensus among politicians of different sides that a certain activity is required and necessary? What, indeed, if both sides serve the same, higher master? Politics would then be revealed as a tame sop to the people, something to blind their eyes to a greater truth.

And we know this can be true from the world of James Bond. Typically, the James Bond villain is some industrialist or corporatist who wants to dominate the world. This is easy to lambast and laugh at as Mike Myers has successfully done with Dr Evil in his Austin Powers films. But there remains the grain of truth in the fiction. Corporations don't serve the people and are not democratic organisations. We are meant to believe that the people who run them and own them, their boards and shareholders, are regular people like us who share our values. But companies exist just for one purpose: to become as successful and dominant as they can. 

We know, for example, that in our very real world global companies are pushing for trade agreements that would make prosecuting them impossible because they wish, in certain circumstances, to do business outside of the law. They also want their liabilities for when things go wrong removed. The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), for example, has been described by one person as "an assault on European and US societies by transnational corporations". These trade talks, which are aimed at making business easier for these corporations by bypassing democratic regulation and process, if they were in a James Bond film and being carried out by Spectre, you would find incredible. But they are happening right now, in secret, and we only know about it because of leaks. (The secrecy, of course, is quite deliberate on their part and even democratically elected members of parliaments have not had access to details of the talks.) Companies don't operate for the common good. They operate for their good and for the good of their owners.

Think, for example, of one particular area of business which, if we reasonably extrapolate, can get very "James Bond" in a hurry. This area of business is biotech. We already know that a company like Monsanto has aggressively tried to market its genetically modified crops around the world. In a number of countries democracy has fought back, though, and they have not been allowed either to sell them or to sell them by mixing them in with the non-genetically modified kind by stealth. Often they have also been forced to label them adequately as well. It seems they do not always want you to know what you might be eating. The genetic modification of things that grow doesn't stop there though. 

The other day I was reading an article that was about the genetic modification and patenting of genes, the very things that make up the living tissue of animals and, indeed, of us. Imagine that in future, and this is a genuine if still a somewhat far-fetched prospect, companies could actually own the genes that living beings are made of. Let's take it one more James Bond supervillian step further. Imagine that a biotech company in future could grow and own human beings, owning them because it owns their very genetic code that makes them up. Does our world have the necessary ethical framework and democratic and legal processes to handle this kind of future? Where will we be if governments, our elected representatives, barter the rights of the people away on the altar of commerce that benefits such companies?

It seems to me that the world of James Bond and the world we all live in is not so far apart. Fact and fiction intertwine, the far-fetched and the scarily possible hide together in the shadows. Maybe it will turn out that someone, somewhere, lives in a hollowed out volcano. But from my point of view it makes me think about the big picture and how this world is organized - the system in total, in other words. This world is based on economic and commercial lines. In many places you would be regarded as a mad fool for renouncing commerce or not looking at things from an economic point of view. This view is totally dominant in public life and those who do not have or stick to this agenda are completely disregarded. The only worth is commercial worth.

But the societies that this mentality plays out in are not equal. Commerce does not make everyone equally happy or equally wealthy. Indeed, the world today has more of two things than it has had at any other time in its history: millionaires and the dirt poor. And the inequality between these groups grows every day as those at the top come to own more and more of the resources of the world. Its like the plot of a James Bond film but its not far-fetched. Its happening in front of your eyes. And so the questions that we, the people, need to ask is who holds the power in this world? Where is the influence? You don't need to be the most analytic person in the world to start thinking that so many resources and so much power concentrated in so few hands starts to give such people influence that the regular person just doesn't have, by him or herself, at least. The spectre of corruption rises. When politicians leave office to take seats on the boards of transnational companies that they gave deals to whilst in power we should take such things very seriously. To be blunt: political power can be bought, and often is. The democratic process is somewhat of a sham.

I've spoken long enough and I need to start wrapping this blog up for now. Mostly, my blogs are written for the thoughtful. I don't have time to go into all the details or explore where every thread I pull leads. But I hope that some of my readers might. My blogs are the beginning of things, not the end. Here I have really been writing about the system that we all live in, our world. In the end, this world is all about preserving the status quo, keeping those at the top at the top and those at the bottom at the bottom. Of course, a few people are allowed to pass from the bottom to the top and occasionally this happens. But those at the top see this as a good thing. It preserves the illusion that anyone could do it. It is a carrot for the aspiring have-nots. But make no mistake that those at the top are happy that most of us are at the bottom. Only in that situation can their vast wealth be turned to influence, influence which shapes our world and conditions all of our lives. But who do you want to have power in this world: CEO's and shareholders who stand for their own wealth and advancement or elected representatives who are meant to stand for yours?

So what I'm saying here is open your eyes. Be active in your own interests and those of your family and friends. Don't assume that a good James Bond watches over you because "we are the good guys". That is very naive, dangerously naive. Better to have the attitude of Tony Benn and ask his five questions of power, especially "How can we take your power away from you?" If it turns out that, in actuality, you can't then the world may not be quite as democratic as you once thought it was. And let's not forget that the real James Bonds are the ones who are noting and recording your every online action, they are the ones who spirit people away to black ops sites in unknown places around the world in the dead of night. They too, like Bond, will ask you to trust them, even when doing bad things. But you should ask yourself if such people really act in your interest or in your name and, if not, then in whose.

And you should also remember this. The State, and those in power (which is not always just politicians) fears most of all the ideological, those who think. For those who think can see other ways forward, ways which locate power elsewhere than with those who have the most power and most money and most influence right now. The State, whichever political side is in power, (its often irrelevant anyway) is nervously suspicious of those who think. This is why it wants to record every search you make online, every message you send to anyone else and everything you browse. It wants a record of your thoughts much like Orwell said. Doesn't that sound very sinister to you? It's like having a spectre looking over your shoulder.

This blog is another written for my project #IndustrialSoundsForTheWorkingClass which can be followed on Twitter using that hashtag. My album of the same name will be released in January 2016.

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