The Politics Of James Bond

The Politics Of James Bond

More and more it seems that the place and importance of the individual is taking a backseat in Western societies. Symptoms of this include political discourse which regards the desire to keep and enjoy the fruits of your own labour as greedy, and which pushes higher taxes as people paying their fair share. Or when laws are enacted to restrict free speech, on the basis that offensive speech might off end racial groups and cause untold social unrest. Likewise, when mandatory data retention laws were passed in 2015, Australians were told that everyone’s privacy would have to be undermined to combat terrorism (never mind that economic regulators such as the ATO and ASIC also enjoy these powers).

In these cases and more, the individual is being asked to make sacrifices for the ‘greater good’ of society. It is a classic calling card of collectivism. A collectivist world-view regards individuals as belonging to a wider society, and whose value as individuals extends only as far as it serves the purposes of the collective.

In contrast, an individualist world-view sees society as more of a free-association of individuals, whose value is inherent and inalienable. Individualism is at the core of western liberalism, and deserves modern day hero.

It is perhaps ironic that the greatest hero that represents rugged individualism is a fictional character, whose life is singularly devoted to Her Majesty’s Secret Service. This is, of course, James Bond.

Development of the next film in the enduring James Bond franchise is reportedly underway, with producers searching for a ‘relevant’ storyline. An analysis of the franchise throughout the years reveals that real world issues are routinely used to make this fictional world more relevant to contemporary concerns. What the history also suggests is that Bond’s individualism will overcome yet another centrally planning villain.

While the last film in the franchise, 2015’s Spectre, may not have won over audiences, it was surely not for the fact that a central theme was the use and abuse of mass state-surveillance. Indeed, the plot was perhaps more timely than ever. Since the release of the previous instalment, 2012’s Skyfall, western governments have been characterised by an increasingly intrusive attitude towards internet regulation.

The nature of the US mass-surveillance program—until it was revealed by Edward Snowden—was considered the stuff  of conspiracy theorists, while ‘net neutrality’ finds US President Barack Obama himself among its supporters. In Australia, the past 12 months has seen the government add numerous laws governing internet activity—including powers to police cyberbullying and amendments to copyright laws which can find websites taken offline.

In the same month that Spectre was released in Australian cinemas, a mandatory data retention regime came into force, giving numerous government agencies unwarranted access to the private data of citizens.

Prior to Spectre, advanced technology and high-tech gadgetry has been a friend of 007. However in Spectre, the gadgets are taking over. Bond finds himself embroiled in a plot to pool the surveillance assets of the intelligence agencies of the world, creating a multinational surveillance state. In a rush to modernise the intelligence services, and acting swiftly in defence against terrorism (all-too familiar justifications we’ve heard in recent years), control of this program is unwittingly given to the villains of the piece. Throughout, Bond’s chief, M, consistently highlights the illiberal nature of the plan, at one point labelling it ‘George Orwell’s worst nightmare’.

At the centre of this are the eponymous Spectre, a multinational crime and terrorism organisation, last portrayed in 1971’s Diamonds Are Forever. It ought to return in the next film but if it doesn’t, any new villains will inevitably follow in its stead. Megalomaniacal villains with outlandish plans for global supremacy are as much a part of the Bond universe as dry martinis.

Interestingly, SPECTRE (it was formerly an acronym) was Bond’s first villain, and was implicitly but inherently representative of the major fears of the early decades of the Cold War: the Soviet Union.

The legacy of these films have long dominated Bond’s world, which have consistently seen James Bond’s resourceful individual, unique to the West, overcome the collectivism of the Communist East.

THE HISTORY OF SPECTRE

The use of SPECTRE is at first glance curious, since the Soviet Union was plainly available to be directly portrayed. In fact, this could have very easily been the case. Ian Fleming had achieved considerable success with his James Bond novels by the end of the 1950s, where the antagonists were typically the Soviets, or villains collaborating with Communist Russia. However, in adapting the novels to film, an overly cautious approach saw the presence of the Soviet Union minimised, in favour of such organisations as SPECTRE.

   “Individualism is at the core of Western Liberalism, and deserves a modern day hero”

In Fleming’s novels, the Soviet connections were direct. Casino Royale featured Bond being set up to play—and bankrupt—a treasurer of a Soviet-controlled trade union in a high stakes game of baccarat in France; Live and Let Die had Bond in the United States to tackle Soviet influences in the Black Power Movement; From Russia with Love concerned a SMERSH plot to assassinate Bond and discredit the British secret service, while the eponymous villains in Dr. No and Goldfinger were both members or financed by the Soviet Union, respectively.

Around the same time Goldfinger was published, Fleming was meeting with filmmakers to adapt (what were at that point) stories firmly set in the Cold War. Yet when it came to adapting the novels for the big screen, it was feared that the Cold War would not endure long enough for a Soviet villain to be of much relevance. The solution was SPECTRE, a multinational crime organisation, whose ideology was merely the pursuit of power. ‘World domination. Same old game’, Bond sighs in the first adaptation, Dr. No. It’s a formula that’s stuck.

In hindsight, of course, those fears were unfounded and the 1960s was indeed a tense period of the Cold War. Yet across six films in that same decade, Communist antagonism was nearly completely substituted out.

Dr. Julius No became a member of SPECTRE, who acted alone to disrupt American rocket tests. The Soviet plot in From Russia with Love becomes a SPECTRE plot, with chief villain Ernst Stavro Blofeld comparing the Cold War superpowers with Siamese fighting fish who battle each other, while his smarter fish waits for a tired victor to emerge. Goldfinger loses his Soviet connections, but obtains a small nuclear bomb from Red China—who do seek economic instability in the West.

The Spectre formula is remarkable in retrospect in that the West’s chief adversaries of the day were nearly totally absent. However, it may have made Bond flexible enough to maintain relevance.

A thawing of relations between East and West in the 1970s was reflected, with the Bond universe perhaps going so far as to predict the end of the Cold War altogether. The Spy who Loved Me saw Bond work with a Russian spy, while the head of the Soviet secret service, General Gogol, was a friendly figure.

“Despite being a ‘blunt instrument of the British Government, Bond best represents the spirit of individualism that is only possible in the west.”

When détente ended and tensions renewed in the 1980s, Soviet antagonism was featured—but only half-hearted at best. General Gogol’s attempt to acquire advanced British technology from Greek smuggler Aristotle Kristatos, is foiled when Bond throws the machine in question off a cliff. Gogol laughs when Bond quips ‘That’s détente, comrade. You don’t have it. I don’t have it’. He later speaks forcefully against a plan from a fellow Soviet general to launch a real war against the West.

In The Living Daylights, Bond makes an uncomfortable alliance (uncomfortable for viewers, that is) with the Afghan mujahedeen, to infiltrate a Soviet airbase run by a renegade general—himself working with an American arms dealer. The conclusion sees a concert in London attended by a number of British and Soviet officials, with M revealing that Gogol has persuaded the Soviet government to allow a Russian cellist to perform in the West. The era of Perestroika and Glasnost is plainly represented (although the appearance of the mujahedeen took it to the absurd). This flexibility likely allowed the franchise to transition seamlessly beyond the end of the Cold War.

In the 1990s, Pierce Brosnan was the Blairite-Bond. Youthful, reinvigorated, and like Blair’s ‘New Labour’, seen as a more exciting departure from his predecessors. However, the plots themselves are of inconsistent relevance. The 1995 GoldenEye worked—as it dealt with instability in post-Communist Russia—while Alec Trevelyan’s plots to disable every computer system and cause financial chaos was a reflection of an increasingly digital society (fears which were particularly prevalent in the UK, as Black Wednesday had only occurred less than three years earlier). The Brosnan films steadily declined and by 2002’s Die Another Day—a story involving North Korean antagonists in the immediate post-9/11 world—completely missed the mark.

For the most part, the SPECTRE formula has enabled the Bond universe to maintain enough flexibility to enable the franchise to survive through the stages of the Cold War and beyond. However, it would be a mistake to regard the overt omission of communist villains as an avoidance of that ideology. In fact, what the Soviet’s represented is what Bond’s non-Soviet villains also represent.

A SYMBOL OF COMMUNISM

Existential threats to the liberal-democratic West in the 20th and 21st centuries all have something in common: ideology. Thanks to German and Japanese nationalism, European fascism and global communism, the 20th century was one of the most destructive periods in human history—and all were driven by a fundamental conflict of ideologies. Today, the West faces global terrorism, inspired by radical Islamism, while a loss of faith and belief in the virtues of the central tenets of Western Civilisation—which underpin our liberties—is weakening us from within.

Firmly setting the Bond novels in the Cold War—and having reported on a show trial Moscow in 1933—Ian Fleming well understood the nature of Communism. At the height of Stalin’s purges, Fleming travelled to Moscow for the Reuters News Agency where he covered the show trial of six engineers from the British company Metropolitan-Vickers, who were accused of sabotage, spying and bribery. To the Foreign Office in London, Fleming wrote that the Soviets were not to be underestimated:

   It is impossible to judge these men by English standards. Their fatalism, their lack of critical standards, their general unawareness are all foreign to our character…But when the moment comes for action [the British and French] will realise that these tough grey-faced little men…are a vastly different force from the ill-equipped gun fodder of 1914.

Later, Fleming wrote that while the Soviet Union could provide ‘the very greatest strategic value to the Allies’ against the Axis, the Russians ‘would be an exceedingly treacherous ally’ who would ‘not hesitate to stab us in the back the moment it suited her’.

SPECTRE and other Bond villains however, are seemingly not recognisably ideological. For various reasons, they appear to seek power or wealth for the sake of obtaining wealth and power. And yet, these villains share many characteristics with collectivist totalitarians.

A characteristic common to most Bond villains is a penchant for highly elaborate, meticulous planning. Top-down management from the megalomaniacal chairman. As cultural historian Jeremy Black described it:

    The villains believe in planning and, indeed, represent a conflation of plutocratic and bureaucratic man, the last understood by Fleming as a characteristic of communism.

Of course, a feature of communism is the highly-planned, utopian idealism of many of its adherents. Th e most obvious instances of this are Stromborg in The Spy who Loved Me who wanted to recreate a better society underwater, while Hugo Drax in Moonraker carries similar plans for a space-based society shaped by eugenics.

Despite being a ‘blunt instrument’ of the British government, Bond best represents the spirit of individualism that is only possible in the West. He is unpredictable, yet flexible to deal with any unexpected change in situation. Like a resourceful businessman, he employs ingenuity to solve problems, and frequently makes an opportunity out of a dire predicament. His love of alcohol, gambling, and for a time, smoking, suggests he has no time for the Nanny State. He is never bureaucratic in how he approaches his job.

Compare this to any number of Bond villains who, despite being specialists in creating chaos and sowing discord in their enemies, struggle to deal with the chaos that Bond imposes on them. When Bond is (temporarily) captured, they can’t help but reveal the details of their plotting—up until that point, everything has gone to plan. Things quickly fall apart when Bond, unpredictably for the villain, escapes to save the day. It was this individualism that was able to defeat the East on so many occasions.

So, what will the next Bond film be about? Th e answer is it will depend on whether the filmmakers are true to the roots of Ian Fleming’s creation. Fleming understood the threat of communism, and that the individual could stand against the worst of statism—and win. If the filmmakers fail to understand this, then it will be a 007 film in name only.

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