The reality of power and control

On a tiny, absurd scale, in 'Big Brother' we are watching very much the same sort of drama being played out in Iraq
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The Independent Online

Something odd is going on, down at Big Brother 5, and even if you hold the entire phenomenon in contempt - perhaps especially if you do - it is worth taking a look at it. This is not, I promise, going to be a column about Big Brother, despite initial appearances. It is really about the exercise of power and its responsibilities.

Something odd is going on, down at Big Brother 5, and even if you hold the entire phenomenon in contempt - perhaps especially if you do - it is worth taking a look at it. This is not, I promise, going to be a column about Big Brother, despite initial appearances. It is really about the exercise of power and its responsibilities.

To recapitulate for the benefit of high-minded readers, Big Brother started up again last Friday. On the surface, it immediately started to look like every other version. There are two homosexuals, a transsexual, a lesbian, a male stripper who immediately started flirting outrageously with one of the homosexuals, an asylum-seeker of somewhat homophobic views - well, you can imagine the whole frothy surface, which is not our concern.

What quickly started to become interesting was the confrontational style of one of the housemates, Kitten, a politically-minded lesbian. She refused to enter the house until she was allowed to say goodbye to her girlfriend, and once inside, started egging the others on to challenge the voice of Big Brother. Through a series of confrontations and refusals to back down, the other 11 housemates were given their suitcases; Kitten's was withheld, largely because she would not come when called. A day later, Big Brother requested the return of the suitcases once they had been emptied; Kitten organised a stand-off, by which the housemates refused to hand them back until she had been given at least the photographs she wanted to bring in. A tense 24 hours ensued before capitulation.

More bad behaviour followed. She has been climbing on the roof - "Will Kitten please come down from the roof" - and refusing to come to the diary room when called. Small infringements followed - "Kitten, will you please close the door of the diary room." "Why?" - designed to make Big Brother's commands explicit in all their arbitrary absurdity. It is working brilliantly well, and the poor saps employed by Endemol to impersonate the voice of Big Brother look like complete berks for even caring about any of this.

Some fairly unsuccessful attempts at sanctions have been tried; the alcohol fridge, which has a transparent door, was filled to the brim with vintage Krug and then locked with a padlock. The housemates immediately started attempting to smash the fridge, before being ordered away and the fridge emptied. It just wasn't working.

The programme makers came up with what seemed to them rather a smart wheeze. It's fairly obvious to anyone that Kitten herself is perfectly indifferent to any sanction that can be imposed on her. The house was told, therefore, that she has been given two verbal warnings for misbehaviour; should she get a third one, another housemate, chosen by Big Brother, will be summarily evicted.

This threat might have worked, but, as I write, Kitten has been given that third warning - I don't know what for - with the result, one would have thought, that there is now no incentive to obey the rules at all. What will happen? Well, I rather recommend that you tune in and find out.

On one level, what we have here is a silly game show, mostly on the level of will-Dan-shag-Jason and Nadia-blurts-out-sex-change-secret-shock. On that level, it would not really be worth our attention. What I guess is that Endemol are doing their best to return the show to that level of silliness, and turn it away from the direction it seems to be heading in. Basically, what we are watching is a concise and rather elegant demonstration of arbitrary power being asserted, being eroded, and the limited possibilities of control available to the ruling authority. On a tiny scale, and over absurdly trivial matters, we are watching very much the same sort of drama being played out in Iraq.

In general terms, Big Brother, like a neo-colonial invading power, has assumed and asserted power without inviting explicit consent. Some consent has been granted by the initial lack of resistance; they have agreed to enter the house, just as many Iraqis clearly thought that this was at any rate a means by which a hated regime could be deposed.

Consent, however, has not proved unlimited. By continuing to assert an arbitrary, unnegotiated control over the lives of the subjects, the ruling power has rapidly eroded its plausibility. We are back in childhood, where the answer to the question "Why should I?" is, all too often, "Because I say so." When Big Brother commands Kitten to come to the diary room immediately, or demands the immediate return of the empty suitcases, the refusal immediately reveals the fragility on which arbitrary, assertive power rests.

What is to be done, when the subjects start to refuse to acknowledge the legitimacy of such a power, and resisting in ways designed to display the contradictions and even cruelty inherent in the command? There are various tactics, most of which have been tried both by America in the world and by Big Brother in the last few days.

There is the option of sanctions. You display the wonderful benefits to be gained by unquestioning obedience - the fridge full of alcohol, or a vast capital programme of investment. You remind them that without Big Brother, none of this would be available at all, before sorrowfully withdrawing it.

You take advantage of the fact that there are those under your control who are prepared to obey your orders without question, and try to groom those to influence more wayward elements. You take the conscious decision that any reprisals will not be too scrupulously limited to the insurgents. And, if these reprisals should fall on innocent people, it is easy to remind everyone that if everyone would calm down and accept your authority, such tragic cases would never arise. In the end, you see, it is not your fault, but the responsibility of the subjects themselves.

You may engage with the beliefs of your opponents, asserting that such beliefs actually require consent to your present rule, presenting your particular version of Islam in Iraq, or, in the case of Big Brother, reminding Kitten that she, surely, believes in community and in the importance of responsible adherence to health and safety regulations.

And if all else fails, there is direct punishment. The Iraqis cannot be expelled from Iraq, as Kitten can be thrown out of the Big Brother House; she cannot, one hopes, be tortured on live television, as the miscreants in jail were tortured. But the threat and the reality of punishment occupy the same position of ultimate sanction. In the end, people will disappear; and the arbitrary power will claim that they deserved it.

It is a grotesque and tasteless comparison, no doubt. But the operations of power, the way it manoeuvres to recapture ground once its basis has been challenged, are fairly constant. Watching Big Brother, you can glimpse the ways in which power operates, and the ways it resourcefully tries to curb anyone standing up and asking "But why should I do what you say?"

And the mental atmosphere of those hideous photographs from the Abu Ghraib jail, the invasion of privacy, the queasy mockery, the preposterous and humiliating games prisoners were required to play; there is a faint but horrible link between that and these game shows. Those soldiers watched Big Brother, no doubt about it; and who can say that there was not a curious echo in their mind from a cheap and undignified television series as they asked one of their subjects to come to a small room, and to close the door firmly behind them?

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