New Internationalist

What the surveillance culture will never see

man with binoculars
You are being watched... Gerlos under a CC LIcence

In November 2009 I hitch-hiked into the Correze, a  rural area in central southern France. Nine members of a community there, in the village of Tarnac, had been arrested and charged with ‘criminal association for the purposes of terrorist activity’. I wanted to try to talk to them. You can read the article I wrote here.

Serious doubts had already then been expressed about the ‘evidence’ against them. It finally emerged last November that the arrests had in fact been made on the testimony of the British police spy Mark Kennedy. That it has taken the French authorities so long to reveal that their source was this reviled and utterly discredited figure is remarkable in itself. I also found myself reviewing my own experience there in the light of this new information.

I arrived in the village unannounced, soaking wet and very late. The reception was, as I had expected, cool at first. They had every reason to be wary of ‘journalists’ appearing out of nowhere with lists of questions. They must have felt even warier when, at 6am on my second day there, the police returned to arrest a 10th suspect. The camera crews and TV reporters were not far behind. They got their story, ate in the village’s only hotel and left.

The group gathered in their café that evening to see themselves on the news, to hear about the fate of their friend and eat together, to re-affirm their connectedness. To my surprise, I was invited to join in this party. There was some half-humorous ribbing about the British secret services and I naturally ask myself whether they already then knew who had informed on them.

After his exposure, Mark Kennedy hired the publicity agent Max Clifford. Interviews in the Daily Mail and a ludicrous documentary on Channel 4 followed as does the night the day. Indignant drooling over his serial affairs whilst undercover was the keynote of this tabloid reaction: ‘Unmasked as spy by beautiful Welsh red-head girlfriend’. Of the nine police spies ‘unmasked’ over the past two years, eight of them had engaged in sexual relationships with their ‘targets’. Ten women and one man are now taking the Metropolitan Police to court under the Human Rights Act, alleging, among other things, gross infringement of their right to a private life.

Claims in the media by senior policemen (and -women) that this tactic was never sanctioned clearly do not merit a response. The police are also now seeking to have these cases heard in a special secret court, the Investigatory Powers Tribunal. Anyone would think they were worried about something. A recent ruling determined that some of the cases will indeed be heard in secret, of which more in a moment.

Kennedy also worked as an informer in Germany, where there have been protests in support of the 10 women, and where comparisons with the Stasi have been frequent. Lawyers and politicians are questioning Kennedy’s exact legal status. This was a foreign agent, apparently deployed with the complicity of the German state, to spy on its own citizens and also to commit arson.

The spectacle

The news that Kennedy also informed on the ‘Tarnac 10’ has naturally led to much comment in France. Here the emphasis is different again. As I described three years ago, some have seen in the experimental community in Tarnac the influence of Guy Debord. That his Society of the Spectacle appeared in 1967, and was required reading among the students who shut down Paris the following year, might seem to date him. It’s often forgotten that he published a sequel in 1988, Comments on the Society of the Spectacle, which contains some very pertinent discussion about the role of the secret services.

‘The spectacle’, it will be recalled, was Debord’s name for postwar consumerism, though he traces its emergence to the 1920s. He saw in it a vast diversionary tactic whereby the prevailing economic order defends its interests in advance against any serious criticism. What the spectacle requires is a population which feels ‘indignant and helpless’. Nobody is more easily or more profoundly co-opted by it than those who make careers out of criticizing it. Such a writer (or reader) ‘might like to be regarded as an enemy of its rhetoric, but he will use its syntax.’ Its language ‘is the one in which he learnt to speak’.

The purpose of the spectacle is to inject massive doses of incoherence into public and private life alike. It aims to bring about ‘an absence of logic, that is to say the loss of the ability immediately to perceive what is significant and what is insignificant, what is irrelevant…’ Its purpose is the abolition of meaning.

James Bond

It’s interesting that when the judge in the recent hearing found useful guidance in the character of James Bond, this didn’t feel nearly as strange as it manifestly was. Make enough money out of a series of films and experienced judges will cite the behaviour of its main character as amounting to a legal precedent. This kind of incoherence, and our complicity in it, is the spectacle in action.

Some have tried, more seriously, to explain the behaviour of the police in this case as protecting the interests of large energy companies, or as a form of intimidation. For some it’s a moral question about the private conduct of these officers. Others demand practical measures to bring about more accountable police institutions.

There’s value in all these approaches, no doubt, but perhaps Bristling Badger comes closest, in a recent posting, to what I have in mind here: ‘The set definitions [of rape or fraud] are for things we have ‘had’ to define. What happened to these women is so rare that we don’t actually have a familiar definition or name for what crime it is.’ I think this is basically right but misses a larger point.

Interviewed for a BBC radio programme, one of the climate activists now suing the police was at a loss to say what useful purpose this infiltration could have served. But what if the clue is precisely in the meaninglessness? When the spectacle, or capitalism, or the Daily Mail or whatever we choose to call it, serves up someone like Mark Kennedy as ‘hot news’, what is the real function of that story?

The spectacle must drive out any form of intelligence which seeks necessary change. For this it substitutes forms of ‘intelligence’ that only come close in order to monitor and analyse and then withdraw. So remember those 10 women and the Tarnac 10. Follow their cases closely. Support them. But Mark Kennedy in himself, and all his spooky friends, are not worth10 seconds of your time.

The community in Tarnac was also suspected of having written The Coming Insurrection (2007), a short book which argued that, for much of Europe and elsewhere, patience with the present order was wearing dangerously thin. Whoever wrote it, the book’s ‘theory’ has been amply confirmed. Its title was actually a nod to the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben’s The Coming Community (2001).

Influenced by Debord, and sharing his pessimism, Agamben has nonetheless argued that new forms of community, helped by the internet, are already forming. Their very uncertainty about how to proceed may not be the sign of weakness which the newspapers or the police see in them. In the ‘coming community’ he sees one which is seeking ways to render modern forms of power inoperative. ‘Without being tied to any property, by any identity’, it is indifferent to ready-made forms of belonging. He has openly backed the community at Tarnac against those who denigrate it.

I’d never heard of him before visiting Tarnac. It only occurs to me now that the act of putting on a meal, as they did that evening, and inviting a stranger they weren’t quite sure about – refusing to be suspicious – perhaps that said as much about their true purpose as anything that was literally ‘said’ around that table. But there is no microphone or camera, concealed or other, which could have ‘recorded’ the spirit in which that trust was extended to me. The surveillance culture can see so many things which aren’t actually there. What’s meant by a gathering like that passes it completely by.

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