Public Sector, Foucault and “V For Vendetta”

Posted on November 24, 2009

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Keeping with the theme of people making a stand, which we have seen today in Ireland, with the public sector workers, I dug out an old essay I had written on V For Vendetta, a wonderful comic book and very good film based on the idea of what happens when a government pushes a people too far.

 

Let me make it clear that I am not airing my views, opinions or support for or against the striking public sector, I’m simply sticking with the theme that’s in the air at the moment, to blog this essay. It’s quite long, so get a cup of tea!

 

 

Examining Michel Foucault and Power and Surveillance in the Wachowski Brothers’ “V For Vendetta” (2006)

 


In this essay, I will examine some of Michel Foucault’s main theories and teachings regarding Power, Surveillance and Resistance, and apply to them to the 2006 movie, “V For Vendetta”.

 

V For Vendetta was originally written by Alan Moore as a comic book series in the 80’s. Interestingly, the comic book was set in a Thatcher-like state and was very much seen as a criticism of the British government at that time. The 2006 film leans more towards a criticism of the present Bush administration in the USA, which has expanded across the world, especially to Britain.

 

Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister in 1979 and reigned for 11 years. Her government was most notably memorable for: reductions in tax; manipulations in money supply to reduce inflation; privatisation of public industry; reduction of trade union power; reduction of governments role in economy; and encouragement of people to save, work and buy property. She also oversaw the reduction of the Welfare state. Sir Charles Powell, the Foreign Affairs Private Secretary to the Prime Minister (1984-91, 96) described her style thus, “I’ve always thought there was something Leninist about Mrs. Thatcher […] there’s no doubt that in the 1980s, No.10 could beat the bushes of Whitehall pretty violently. They could go out and really confront people, lay down the law, bully a bit[1] However, it was argued that Thatcher’s monetary policies sacrificed Britain’s Social well-being, in favour of her economic policies. In 1983, Britain saw the worst unemployment numbers since 1923, due to Thatcher’s anti-inflationary policies. One of the worst examples of Thatcher’s governemt was an accusation made regarding the Miner’s Strike of 1984-1985, in which the power of Trade Union’s was severly weakened. There was an accusation by a former MI5 Chief Stella Rimington that Union Leaders phones had been tapped during the Miner’s strike. Similar situations and practices have also been recorded during the Reagan years in America.

 

V For Vendetta was released on the 17th of March 2006. The film was originally due for a July release in 2005 but the terrorists bombings in London forced the film-makers to delay the films release as it contains scenes of a terrorist nature that would have been far too relevant at the original time of release. The film is a dystopian story about a society ruled by its totalitarian government rather than the government being the voice of the people. The film draws large comparison’s with Orwell’s 1984 in the sense that the movie encompasses aspects of surveillance, discipline and power. The film was seen as being an Anti-Fascist and Anti-Holocaust story. The story revolves around the characters of Evey and V. Evey is a young media worker paralysed by her fear of the world around her until she meets V. V is the freedom fighter/terrorist and protagonist of the piece, whose plan is to blow up the Houses of Parliament on the 5th of November as a symbol depicting the state of the country. The rest of the film centres on the police investigation into V; the relationship between Evey and V; and Evey’s eventual abjection of the fear that has thus far crippled her life. As one of the main actors states, the film is, “A meditation on what happens when a government pushes people too far.”[2]

 

Firstly, I will briefly examine Foucault’s views on Power and Knowledge, and Resistance. Traditional ideas of power began with Francis Bacon who quoted, “Knowledge is Power.” Foucault however, linked Power and Knowledge as being one and the same, and believed that power was achieved through discourse. “In a society such as ours…there are manifold relations of power that permeate, characterize and constitute the social body, and these relations of power cannot themselves be established, consolidated nor implemented without the production, accumulation, circulation and functioning of a discourse.”[3] Foucault argues that power is achieved through discourse, and through social structures. “Without knowing it, we group distinguishable objects into unities and thus constitute our objects.”[4] In the most basic terms, discourse works through repetition of a statement, which said often enough, becomes true. “Discourse is not just a way of speaking or writing, but the whole “mental set” and ideology which encloses the thinking of all members of a given society.”[5] There are numerous elements of discourse in V For Vendetta, most notably through the character of Lewis Prothero, the “Voice of London”. Prothero preaches one phrase above all, “Strength through Unity, Unity through Faith”. He suggests that the present government is on a par with God, and “godlessness” will destroy the country. “The word “power” has a two fold meaning. One is the possession of power over somebody, the ability to dominate him; the other meaning is the possession of power to do something, to be able, to be potent. The latter has nothing to do with domination; it expresses mastery in the sense of ability.”[6] This is seen very clearly in V For Vendetta. The government has a dominating power over its people, but V and the rest of the people have the power to stop this. They have the power to resist.

 

However, Foucault also argues that one of the most important aspects of power is Resistance. According to Foucault, there are no relations of power without the existence of resistance. He believed that power was far more complex, and insidious than the power of ideology or brute economic oppression and that without resistance, all instances of power fade. V believes that there is something very wrong with the country and appeals to the people to join him a year later for the blowing up of parliament. As V states: “People should not be afraid of their governments, governments should be afraid of their people.”  “We must make allowance for the concept’s complex and unstable process whereby discourse can be both an instrument and an effect of power, but also a hindrance, a stumbling block, a point of resistance and a starting point for an opposing strategy. Discourse transmits and produces power; it reinforces it, but also undermines and exposes it, renders it fragile and makes it possible to thwart it.”[7] This is seen in the film as we see V read his “manifesto” to the people, when he appeals to their sense of morality not to allow the misdeeds of the government to go unnoticed or unpunished. “His (Guy Fawkes) hope was to remind the world that fairness, justice, and freedom are more than words, they are perspectives. So if you’ve seen nothing, if the crimes of this government remain unknown to you then I would suggest you allow the fifth of November to pass unmarked.” It is in this instance that we see discourse working as a hindrance to its original perpetrator. V speaks in the language of the people. He appeals to their sense of morality and rather than order them to act, causes them to question themselves. In his work “Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison” Foucault identified how there had been a shift in the use of power from pre-modern to post-modern societies. There was a new reliance on self-discipline as opposed to punishment as a means of social control. The citizens of the film have slipped into a system of self-discipline as a manner of control.

 

The biggest aspect of Foucault’s theories that we see in V For Vendetta is the Surveillance and Control. Surveillance, in Foucault’s thinking is an important means of controlling people and practices. The “gaze” is an expression of power, and the idea has been reiterated in many different areas, for example, George Orwell’s “1984”, from which the iconic phrase “Big Brother is watching” originated from. This idea is reiterated in V For Vendetta. The Chancellor (a term we would most commonly associate with Adolf Hitler.) Adam Sutler is seen only on a large TV screen as a powerful, forceful individual, until the end of the film when we meet him for the first and last time in the flesh, as a terrified, weeping little man. One of the main questions regarding surveillance is the line between safety and privacy. What are security CCTV camera’s intended to achieve? The answer to this question is control. Foucault viewed the body as a centre point for social control. In V For Vendetta, the Government is run in sections, with different names assigned to different aspects of policing. The Finger consists of a Gestapo like force that polices the streets, and issues immoral punishments as we see at the beginning when the two men attempt to rape Evey. The other sections are made up of the Ear, which is sound surveillance; the Eye, visual surveillance; and the mouth, which is the TV Company that partakes in pro-government propaganda. Foucault views institutions such as prisons, armies, schools, hospitals, etc, as institutions through which control can be implemented.  The aim of these institutions is the production of Docile and Useful bodies. These institutions therefore, acted as tools for shaping the identity of a person. There was a shift from bodily domination and control to patterns of self-regulation and discipline. In the film we learn of testing that is taking place on the patients. This is where the vendetta story begins. We learn that the patient in Cell Number Five, i.e. – V in Roman numerals, is not responding to any of the tests, while many others have died. From V’s blood, a virus is extracted, and a cure developed. This virus is later used by the government to inflict fear in the people of the country. The cure is “miraculously” discovered after the Norsefire government comes into power.

 

One of the most interesting aspects of this film is the interpretation of identity. Evey begins the film as a media worker trying to live beneath the radar, not drawing attention to herself. We learn that her parents were killed during riots before Norsefire and she believes that her parents chose their political activism over her. She is afraid to speak out because she claims that every time she has seen the world change it has always been for the worse. We could go as far as to say that Evey is abjecting the idea of freedom at the beginning of the film. Evey’s “self” is one of fear, and the “other” is the idea of freedom. This is an interesting idea because we can also see aspects of Orientalism in the film, as we look at the people who are imprisoned in the detention/concentration camps. It is only after Evey meets V and faces her death that she loses her fear, and becomes free. It is a role reversal from the beginning of the film. When Evey pulls the lever at the end of the film, she is abjecting fear and embracing freedom.

 

As previously mentioned, the comic book was very much a critique of the 1980’s Thatcher England. The movie adaptation moves towards a critique of the present Bush administration in America. While the original comic book was written during the era just before the end of the Cold War, the movie is released while the “War on Terrorism” is very much in full swing. The context of the story has changed since the 1980’s. While the comic book critiqued the Thatcher government in the 80’s, the 2006 film version very much solidifies the present political structures and issues that we, in the present day are affected by. It is interesting also then, to note, that the writer of the original comic book, Alan Moore demanded that his name would not be associated with the film adaptation. His comic book dealt with the happenings of the 80’s, whereas the film is very much an Americanisation of that story, even though it is set in Britain. By many, the film is seen as a critique on the Bush government, using an already constructed template. The theme of terrorism plays a huge part in the film, with V being described as a terrorist by the authorities. Also, the elements of surveillance seen in the film very much mirror the American psyche since 9/11. An intense feeling of paranoia surrounds the detective in the film, as; indeed it surrounds American society, and even the rest of the world. The fact of the film is, that even though it is fictional, the scariest fact is, that none of the incidents are terribly far from reality. None of the hideous crimes of the government in the film are so hideous, that they couldn’t possibly happen in present times.

 

All in all, V For Vendetta shows a bleak outlook of a totalitarian future that is not too distant. Some may suggest that it is already upon us. Indeed when we look at how the comic book framed its view on the society and the context it was set in, it is almost scary to think that the film adaptation is doing the same thing, for the present day.

 


[1] Peter Hennessy The Prime Minister: The Office and its Holders since 1945. Penguin 2001. p. 397 

 

[2] Stephen Rea; Freedom! Forever! Making V For Vendetta.

[3] http://www.colostate.edu/Depts/Speech/rccs/theory54.htm

[4] http://www.california.com/~rathbone/foucau10.htm

[5] Barry, Peter; Beginning Theory

[6] Fromm, Erich; The Fear of Freedom, pp 139.

[7] http://www.colostate.edu/Depts/Speech/rccs/theory54.htm