Watching The Bourne Legacy, I was struck by how it was the cinematic equivalent of WikiLeaks in more than just the glib sense that some of Julian Assange’s right-wing critics and supporters have suggested.
The film both overlaps with and extends the narrative set up by its three predecessors and, like them, is about how elite networks at the highest levels of US military-intelligence try to re-establish order after the damaging blows dealt to their super-agent program, Treadstone, by Jason Bourne (Matt Damon). Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner) is the product of a sister program, Operation Outcome, which retired Air Force Colonel Eric Byer (Edward Norton) is called in to shut down before more black ops secrets leak out, and further imperil state authority.
The first film in the series, The Bourne Identity, focused on Bourne’s struggle for personal liberation from sinister bureaucratic elites, but with each new instalment, the complexity of the conspiracy and its origins in the very heart of the state have come increasingly to the fore. The portrayal of how the elite rules looks strikingly like the picture Assange has painted of the ‘cognitive conspiracies’ that he seeks to challenge through WikiLeaks. That is, informational and interpersonal connections that gives those ‘in’ on the network greater power than the sum of their individual influence. Bourne and Cross disrupt those connections, thereby weakening the conspiracy.
As the core conspirators are forced to involve allies less closely knitted to them, their web increasingly frays. Despite the numerous chase scenes and explosions, what the conspirators fear most is that the truth will get out, just as WikiLeaks seeks to expose secrets as the key to breaking down the rule of the powerful.
The Bourne films are radical in that they portray our rulers as irredeemably self-interested, anti-democratic and callously violent. They are shown as operating at the head of a system that is stacked against ordinary people. Yet at the same time the movies arrive at profoundly limited and pessimistic conclusions regarding what can be done about this stacking. Either the conspirators manage to get their way (the character played by Joan Allen in the earlier films, a state functionary who turns against her bosses, is shown being effortlessly victimised and silenced in this one), or we must look to a lone, almost superhuman hero to shift the balance of forces. Or a mixture of both.
We’ve been here before. Hollywood tends to incorporate anti-systemic critiques within its idioms in terms of conspiracies. This happened during the last great wave of questioning of the US state in the 1960s and 70s. Back then Hollywood produced a series of paranoia movies that portrayed US politics and society run by shadowy cliques, and which mostly ended pessimistically with the powerful restoring their ability to control and manipulate. Even the most hopeful of these, Alan J Pakula’s depiction of the Watergate scandal All The President’s Men, still relies on uniquely placed, heroic individuals (Washington Post journalists, ‘Deep Throat’, etc) to expose the conspiracy. The darkest is probably Pakula’s masterpiece The Parallax View, in which – despite the action being staged to occur in full public view, right out in the open – the conspirators can simply restore stability by imposing a narrative that suits their interests on the masses.
Of course, modern capitalism necessarily involves the ruling class engaging in secretive, conspiratorial behaviours in order to maintain its rule. Both WikiLeaks and Hollywood paranoia thrillers stress this aspect of domination over that of the existence of capitalist social relations, of a system of class exploitation driven by competitive accumulation. In doing this they fall back on an essentially liberal worldview. Assange has made clear he is no revolutionary who wants to see an end to capitalism but, rather, someone who wants to see more open and accountable governance. Slavoj Žižek has argued that no matter how ruthless this kind of anti-capitalist critique is, the ‘goal, explicit or implied, is to regulate capitalism – through the pressure of the media, parliamentary inquiries, harsher laws, honest police investigations – but never to question the liberal-democratic institutional mechanisms of the bourgeois state of law.’
The ugly aspect of this worldview is its tendency to reduce everyone’s actions to being pawns in a sinister power game. At its most appalling there has been the accusation by some WikiLeaks supporters that the two Swedish women who allege Assange sexually assaulted them must have fabricated the claims to help the US extradite him. But more generally, this attitude both overestimates the coherence of the ruling class and underestimates the possibility of conscious collective action from below.
Perhaps there is one ‘conspiracy’ we can learn from: Babeuf’s ‘conspiracy of equals’, which (however prematurely) sought to radicalise the French Revolution to create ‘a society based on economic equality and common ownership of property’. Far from a tiny privileged group, Babeuf’s conspiracy was focused on mass agitation. As the state prosecutor in Babeuf’s trial complained:
Their means were the publication and distribution of anarchistic newspapers, writings and pamphlets … the formation of a multitude of little clubs run by their agents; it was the establishment of organisers and flyposters; it was the corrupting of workshops; it was the infernal art of sowing false rumours and spreading false news, of stirring up the people by blaming the government for all the ills resulting from current circumstances.
This more closely resembles the building that Antonio Gramsci called an ‘expansive’ hegemonic project, one capable of deepening the cognitive and interpersonal connections between different exploited and oppressed groups in order to not just challenge the state but replace it with an entirely different (and deeply democratic) form of societal organisation. It means relying on the mass of ordinary people and not a select, heroic minority to be the producers of such a society.