Wednesday, August 05, 2009

James Bond and the corporate view of human nature

Someone on a discussion forum I contribute to asked how the commercial entertainment industry serves or subverts corporate power. This (with a couple of subsequent tweaks) was my answer.


The mass entertainment industry rarely offers much in the way of political subversion (though bits and pieces do get smuggled through, if you look closely), but it can provide us with insights into how the corporate world sees the views and values of ordinary people. Here's an example.

The last James Bond film, Quantum of Solace, involved MI6 agent Bond and a CIA counterpart rebelling against their respective spy agencies to counter a coup against the Bolivian government. The coup was aimed at the eventual privatisation of that country's water resources. This is closely related to real life events, as the University of Michigan’s Juan Cole points out in an excellent piece here. The current left-wing administration in Bolivia is the latest in a long line of progressive South American governments to have been covertly undermined and plotted against by local business and military elites, often with the connivance of Washington. Its a story being played out right now in Honduras. The QoS scriptwriter is obviously familiar with recent South American politics, including the Cochabamba protests against water privatisation in Bolivia, which are alluded to in the plot.

Now James Bond, for all his ostensible devil-may-care individualism is probably the least subversive of all movie characters. So why choose a cause celebre of the international left for his latest mission, and play it in such an eyebrow-raisingly sympathetic way?

The Bond film franchise is a major one, geared to making big bucks on the basis of judging its audience correctly. I would suggest that plenty of people in the entertainment industry understand that there is an awareness amongst the general public - and, more importantly, a disapproval of the fact - that western governments, corporations and intelligence agencies engage in this sort of behaviour in places like Latin America. (Quantum of Solace is far from the only film/tv show in which the state, the CIA etc are the bad guys. Even our own Dr Who and Torchwood have occasional elements of that). The producers of the Bond film calculated that a plot which played to these views would find favour with audiences and make money at the box office.

Film producers take such assessments of the mood of the masses seriously, because getting those calculations right is how they make themselves rich. Active support for the likes of Evo Morales may be in short supply in the West, but the plot selection of the Bond producers suggests that those who make their fortunes understanding the moods of mass audiences know that there is a widespread passive sympathy for causes of this kind: people are aware that right wing US governments try to overthrow or subvert progressive third world governments; and they don‘t like it.

If this assessment of the public mood is correct, then that's very encouraging news for people on the left. It suggests that if we go out there and make the case against US imperialism to the average apolitical person on the street, we may well find a surprisingly receptive audience.

You can take a similar, broader message from advertising. Very rarely does an advert simply tell you the features of the product and the price. Instead, elaborate attempts are made to associate the product in your mind with things like freedom, happiness, fulfilment, love/sex etc etc. The material product itself isn't something we're that interested in, so the advertisers have to hitch it on to something we really value. I don't care particularly which broadband/telephone package I use, but if I'm encouraged to associate BT's product with a happy home and love life then its understood that this will appeal to me far more than the material item itself. Thus are natural human needs and energies diverted down the dead end of consumerism.

Corporate bosses - when in the realms of political debate - never miss a chance to tell us that human beings are driven by greed and self-interest, requiring ever greater rewards to motivate us. See the recent justifications for the return of massive bonuses for the incompetant leaders of the discredited banking industry. But the real corporate assessment of human nature is revealed in the way that profit-making institutions try and sell their products to us. Those communications give us good reason to believe that corporations understand human beings to value freedom, love, empathy for our fellow people and other loftier concerns above shallow material enrichment.

Mass entertainment and other corporate forms of communication may not be subversive in and of themselves, but they can unwittingly provide glimpses into how our own natures contradict, and are capable of subverting, the values of the corporate system.

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Blogger hi0u91e9 said...

I spent most of the article somewhat confused because i didn't know whether it was about the entertainment industry subvertion of corporate power or people power so to speak.

I think I am almost more suspicious of so called "progressive" shows from corporate sectors than I am reactionary ones.

True political action does not come through negotiation and compromise, a consideration of both sides etc it comes through a recognition that a power system is structurally opposed to a principle and that corresponding protest must stand for that principle in a way that brooks no qualification/negotiation etc.

progressive stances by corporations mask their structural opposition to democracy/equality/self determination/independence etc and do convince many that a corporate run society can be all those things above.

In fact its effect might be even more malign than this. You are right. Corporations can now manipulate moral and collective sentiments(in a way that they couldn't when they were forced to fight a bitter class/political struggle against an alternative that had a monopoly on these sentiments) can be commodified. If we are told that every time we buy a coffee at starbucks etc a portion of the money will be spent in Africa, it ensures that the part of our "nature" which could be disposed to challenging these structures, are not simply passified, but actually end up doing the opposite--reinforcing them.

Thursday, August 06, 2009 11:16:00 AM  
Blogger hi0u91e9 said...

of course in the right hands, material from the entertainment industry can be genuinely subversive (and brilliant)

Thursday, August 06, 2009 11:29:00 AM  
Blogger David Wearing said...


The first para under the asterisks sums up what the article's about.

You're right to say that affectations of progressive values on the part of corporations and the powerful have to be treated with a big dose of scepticism. That said, those power structures are populated by human beings, and some acts/expressions of genuine humanity do get smuggled through sometimes. The system's there, but it isn't monolithic or totalitarian.

Thursday, August 06, 2009 6:43:00 PM  
Blogger hi0u91e9 said...

"power structures are populated by human beings, and some acts/expressions of genuine humanity do get smuggled through sometimes. The system's there, but it isn't monolithic or totalitarian."

this is absolutely true. in fact it is equally true of monarchies or [formal] totalitarian states--which are capable of acts of benevolence. some monarchies were more humane than others/the soviet union made a much better job of feeding its people than the current "democracy" for example. the general point however is that our highest aspirations lie outside the corporate system--not just because they are institutionalyl incapable of guaranteeing them, but that the very existence of the corporate system stand opposed to them.

Thursday, August 06, 2009 10:07:00 PM  
Blogger David Wearing said...

no arguments from me on that

Friday, August 07, 2009 2:22:00 PM  

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