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Global surveillance helps politicians, bureaucrats, criminals and terrorists in latest Bond film

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WARNING: the following contains spoilers for the movie Spectre.

I recently saw the latest installment in the James Bond movie franchise, which I’ve been a big fan of since I can remember.

SPECTRE (the Special Executive for Counter-Intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion) is a fictional criminal organization that first appeared in Ian Fleming’s novels, and was featured in many of the early Bond films. The earliest Bond novels had 007 working against Soviet counter-intelligence and the occasional criminal mastermind, but when Fleming saw the Cold War thawing a bit, he invented a global network of crime and terrorism as a suitable adversary.

When the film series began, the producers made the decision to downplay the Cold War angle, and SPECTRE was elevated to chief adversary status for six of the first seven films, with its head, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, eventually killed by Bond. When Daniel Craig took over the role of James Bond in 2006, the producers consciously intended to reboot the franchise, so Craig’s first outing was to be Bond’s first assignment as a 00 agent. This made it possible for new stories involving SPECTRE, which, as the title of this new film suggests, is what we have. The film is a treat for long-time Bond fans with its many shout-outs, some quite subtle, to classic lore, but also has timely themes about privacy and power.

In this new tale of SPECTRE, current concerns about the surveillance state are brought to the fore. As the film begins, Bond is tracking a terrorist who plans to blow up an entire football stadium in Mexico City. He succeeds in averting this catastrophe, and at the same time, discovers ties to a larger criminal network, which has a strangely symbiotic relationship with the very intelligence agencies one would expect to be their adversaries. Bond’s supervisor, M, is on the verge of being pushed aside, and the entre 00 program disbanded, in favour of a new bureaucrat, C, who will not only coordinate all British intelligence activity, but will spearhead a global network of all the larger nations’ intelligence services. Even M bristles at the unprecedented level of privacy violations this will entail, referring to it as Orwell’s worst nightmare—which C sees as good thing.

The irony, which Bond discovers and attempts to communicate to M, is that SPECTRE is facilitating the global surveillance network, and has operatives in the various intelligence agencies, including C. The global intelligence network helps SPECTRE in its various criminal enterprises, and SPECTRE in turn helps the intelligence agencies maintain their claims to legitimacy. It turns out SPECTRE even orchestrates terrorist attacks in order to ensure that there will be sufficient popular outcry to justify the various governments’ weakening of civil liberties.

What we see, then, is ends-justify-the-means reasoning among the politicians and bureaucrats, which feeds off the equally self-serving rationale of the criminals. C explicitly mocks M’s concern about the deleterious effects on a democratic society that this erosion of freedom represents. Like “bootleggers and Baptists” on an epic global scale, the total surveillance helps the politicians and bureaucrats as much as it helps the criminals and terrorists, and indeed the crime and terrorism perversely works to the benefit of the politicians and bureaucrats.

Ironically, it’s old-school spies like Bond and M who work against this new threat, who are actually working to protect freedom and security from those who would invoke those words to destroy them more completely.


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