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The subversive pleasures of Spooks… September 20, 2006

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Terrorism, The Left, Totalitarianism, Uncategorized.

Episode one of series five of Spooks screened this week. Intelligence units, MI5 and 6, a contemporary albeit overly glamorous spin on espionage. What’s not to like? Well, it’s a clunky show with plots that are so tenuous that they hover on the point of collapsing under the weight of their own absurdity, a cast that has perfected a sort of restrained hysteria or unlikely calm in the face of each and every threat, and an office (smaller it would seem than in previous years) strewn with Apple G5s, glass walls (hardly the most clever sort of fixture in any building likely to be the target of a bombing) and artfully subdued lighting in improbable shades of blue and purple. Mmmmm…restful.

Still, however unrealistic there is always something in it that is at least faintly disturbing, from the almost flippant way they dispose of major and minor cast members on a regular basis to an uncanny ability to parallel real world events. The latest episode had an effective coup d’etat by right wing elements in the security services in alliance with corporations and media moguls who had decided democracY was redundant in the face of the coming threats of global warming and terrorism. Somewhere along the line the plot involved the Prime Ministers son “Rowan” (droll, very droll) on the run from his halls of residence, the Home Secretary being pulled from his car before it was blown apart, two airliners on a collision course above London and numerous and sundry examples of gratuitous but highly entertaining violence.

A little voice in the head goes…far-fetched, sure but… somehow just enough smidgin of truth to be effective television. These people lounge around glass walled offices, they use computers to find information through bank accounts, airline ticket sales, national databases – why it doesn’t even look like work, but the message? Ah, now there’s the thing.

And it’s subversive in a let’s wreck the audiences heads by twisting current events around in order to fit with the plot lines sort of way. The most recent episodes took footage from the London 2003 Anti-Iraq War and May Day marches in London and dressed it up with some image manipulation in order to make them look like a march against repressive government legislation. They have a second or third generation English Indian head of a civil liberties organisation (who, in a fairly raw piece of television, get’s punched in the face to the phrase ‘that’s what I’ve wanted to do everytime I saw you on television talking about human rights’). They use actors playing anonymous BBC presenters on television sets, last year I seem to recall it was Sky News. And finally, and perhaps most subversively, they have MI5 as the gatekeeper of British democracy. But a conflicted gatekeeper, or as one character says to the head of the conspiracy ‘I share many of the same worries as you do’. Everyone is a player. No one is without an agenda.

It works… and it works – albeit on a somewhat less visceral level than 24 which also has this unusual meld of reality and artifice – because it brings the normal and the everyday and the recognisable straight into conflict with the unusual or the unpleasant or downright terrifying. A scene on Sunday night showed passengers on a bus in London. It panned across a man assisting a woman in a wheelchair onto the bus concentrating upon them as if they might be agents of destruction, then down the line of passengers, stopping reflectively on one or another, in almost exactly the same way one might if one were on a bus. The implicit message, any one of these could be carrying a bomb and be ready to detonate it. The pay-off, such as it was, came when one passenger collapsed with some sort of virus infection.

What was also notable about the current episode, away from the bleakly entertaining marriage of fact and fiction, was the nature of a possible authoritarian future it painted. This isn’t fascism in the old sense, of a single party with a racist creed, instead it’s a sort of authoritarian technocracy where ultra-conservatism and corporate power come together in a marriage of convenience perhaps in such a way as to conceal their true ownership of state power. In a way it’s both a modern form of fascism and a throwback to pre-democratic politics where elites exercised power more nakedly than at present. More clever than Pinochet style caudillo regimes, less totalitarian than classical fascism. The perfect prescription for those who find democracy a messy business (by the by, the episode explicitly referenced those who wanted to use extreme measures against PIRA during the 1990s, an intriguing bit of writing in itself).

Is it possible? This depends. The dichotomy for us is that the problem such an arrangement purports to be a response to actually exists. I often mention global warming because I genuinely believe that it presents an existential threat to both the developing and developed world in a way quite unlike any other. Terrorism is, to date and not minimising the tragic events in any sense, in the broad scale of nation states an inconvenience. Yes, with certain weapons it could presumably shatter nations, but the likelihood of it getting such weapons remains, thankfully, slim for the moment. Global warming by contrast has effects that are unpredictable, even counterintuitive. In the face of such a crisis it is reasonable to expect that calls for more authoritarian modes of government might, even temporarily, may well be made. Note the way in which under the current spasm of terrorism we see security measures which are extremely intrusive broadly accepted.

On the other hand it’s difficult to see such a power grab going unnoticed, one would hope that there would be outrage on both left and right of the political spectrum.

And yet those who one would hope and expect might resist such events appear less enamoured of democracy than they should. I read on the generally excellent Irish Socialist Network website about how our multi-party democracy is a sham. Others decry it in similar terms as a facade behind which the powerful manipulate us. This is troubling talk (and my intention is not in any way to slag off the ISN who I know are a committed group of socialists), even if it contains a small kernel of truth, because our democracy (however imperfect) is a legitimising process and those who speak against it have yet to provide a convincing example of an alternative form of democracy which would satisfactorily allow both the autonomy of opposition and the opportunity for that opposition to be exercised in a regular franchise. One only has to see how the process of changing power can alter the nature of a system, perhaps cosmetically, perhaps not.

In any case I think it’s a strategic error of significant proportions for the left. Once the concept of democracy as a legitimisation is handed away then there is no effective difference between a technocratic authoritarianism of the right, and say for example, Castroism of the left. In each case a small group of individuals makes decisions and rule by fiat, perhaps agreed later by some or all of the populace, perhaps not. But the core issue is the denial of the people to exercise their oversight, and their right to remove those who exercise power in their name. I’ll discuss Castroism at a later point, but the point is that that form of Revolution has run it’s course.

In any event, for all I dislike the anti-corporate warriors for overstating their message it’s clear that in this society, with all it’s messy complexity, it remains necessary for someone, or for many people, to be holding the feet of the powerful in the fire.

Let them roast a little. It put’s manners on them, and if Spooks in it’s clunky way assists people in asking just a few questions about the world, well it too (to coin a phrase) has it’s part to play.


1. simon - September 20, 2006

ya have to say i enjoy the show as well.


2. WorldbyStorm - September 20, 2006

Yeah, Simon, it’s very entertaining. But is it any good?


3. Donagh - September 20, 2006

“I read on the generally excellent Irish Socialist Network website about how our multi-party democracy is a sham. Others decry it in similar terms as a facade behind which the powerful manipulate us.”
May I recommend John Dunn’s Setting the People Free – The Story of Democracy, if you haven’t read it already. Very good on the history of how democracy developed and how the original values of equality were taken over by ‘egoism’ [by which he means the more distinguised in society] of the capitalist state.


4. Kevin - September 21, 2006

An unrelated comment here, but it’s complimentary and therefore permitted: the new layout is lovely, and it makes comments easier to read. Which is good, unless you were hiding them from, eh, spooks.


5. smiffy - September 21, 2006

Yeah …. but. I don’t know.

I can’t say I’m much of a fan of Spooks. I watched a couple of the first series, and I watched the first episode of the new series, but I just found it all a bit crap. It seemed to be trying too hard to be 24, with the fancy pomo offices and the Apple computers and the manic editing. And maybe I’d be happier to accept it if it was a US programme, but I just found the melodrama and the bad acting and the simplistic writing to be very grating. Give me Smiley any day.
Still, that’s just a matter of taste. The question about something like Spooks assisting people in asking questions about the world is an interesting one. I’m not so sure. The same, of course, could be said about 24 or, going back a little while, The X-Files. They all present a world where real power is held by shadowy men meeting in smoky boardrooms hidden from the public gaze. And there’s certainly an element in truth in there. The problem, though, is that narratives like these are just as likely to breed a kind of cynicism, where if people are convinced that they have no influence and that even the structures of democracy that are in place are so flawed as to be powerless, they’re just as likely to adopt a position of apathy rather than activism. Why bother doing anything (even voting) if everything is controlled by the Corporations/the Illuminati/he Greys.
An interesting contrast to Spooks might be something I was rewatching on DVD over the weekend – A Very British Coup, the Chris Mullin drama from the late eighties (early nineties?) starring Ray McNally as the newly-elected Prime Minister in a radical Labour government (kind of like ‘What if Michael Foot had won’). The basic theme isn’t far from that of Spooks. A secret group within the British establishment – intelligence services, the media, the civil service – don’t like the way the country is going and attempt to derail the government and force the Prime Minister out of office (without the exciting explosions of Spooks). Even leaving aside the premise, and the now strangely dated rhetoric, it’s a great programme simply in terms of the writing and the acting. But besides the obvious artistic superiority, the big difference between it and the programmes above is that it doesn’t present a situation where the ‘goodies’ are within the system itself (be it the CTU, MI5 or the FBI), fighting on behalf of the public but on the inside. Surely such an approach doesn’t encourage people to think about the structures of power, diverting them with often wild conspiracy theories about who wields the reigns. Rather AVBP very deliberately and self-consciously presents an alternative to the status quo, which more contemporary dramas tend to uphold.

Admittedly that’s all a bit w-nky and pretentious and may lead to calls of ‘Why can’t you just enjoy the programme’, but, I guess pretentious lefty waffle is what we’re here for.


6. WorldbyStorm - September 21, 2006

It’s interesting, when I first saw the X-files back in the early 90s I was disturbed by the anti-government tone of it. It seemed to me to feed straight into militia like thinking. As time went on I began to enjoy the UFO arc simply as entertainment, although I never found a lot of the standalone epidsodes that compelling. And then of course in the movie they were almost self-referential with the on-screen destruction of a building not disimilar to the Oklahoma bombing. In retrospect it seems as significant or insignificant as any other TV show.

I agree that they present a very clear impression of who is good or bad. Still isn’t there a counter argument that Spooks, X-Files and 24 prove that the ‘goodies’ are in some respects indistinguishable from those they protect the public from – in their methods at least. That’s not the worst message to come out.

Re: AVBC, what was interesting about that viewing it now is how naive the policies that Ray McNally sought to impose appear to be. Heart in right place, but almost impossible to sell in a consumerist age. But it was and is a great piece of TV.


7. WorldbyStorm - September 21, 2006

Incidentally thanks Kevin, we’ve been trying to make it more navigable. The last version was nice but you’re right the comments were almost impossible to read.


8. Pidge - September 21, 2006

One thing that got to me in that recent episode of Spooks was the “TDO” the police issued to Harry Pierce (sp?), the MI5 unit controller. The story went that under the new legislation, the security services could detain anyone they wished, using what was called a “Temporary Detention Order”. The thing that was strange was that phrase was couched in the kind of language that would be used to make authoritarian laws sound reasonable.

I found the whole two-episode package to be unnerving and – aside from some cheaper moments – really entertaining. Channel 4 had covered a similar theme in “Last Rights”, a three-parter, although it wasn’t quite as clever or as entertaining.


9. WorldbyStorm - September 21, 2006

Yeah, there is a certain cheapness and the two aircraft diverging was laughable. Still, the TDO’s had an unpleasantly contemporary ring to them. And it’s interesting to speculate just how much power the state is accruing to itself at this point in time and how easily that power could be misused.

Incidentally wanted to say to Donagh will most certainly give Setting the People Free a look. Sounds good.


10. Pidge - September 25, 2006

Ah, it seems that this week they’ve gone back to good old Al Qaeda.



11. WorldbyStorm - September 25, 2006

Sugar, I missed it, toiling away on this site!


12. Pidge - September 26, 2006

And there was a fairly good African debt one on later on BBC3. It should be on mere-mortal analog BBC next week.

It’s gone downhill since the previous series, but it’s still entertaining.


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