Monday, June 17, 2013

The Politics of Continuum, Part II

While the television show Continuum has drawn attention for its depiction of North America as a corporatocratic police state in the late twenty-first century, its attitude toward that milieu is what seems to have drawn most of the comment. A primary reason for this is that its protagonist (Rachel Nichols' Kiera Cameron) is a policewoman who came back in time to 2012 in pursuit of Liber8, a rebel group fightng the corporate order (led by Tony Amendola's Edouard Kagame), who are depicted as criminals and terrorists. One might consequently expect that Cameron's character is being presented as the hero, Kagame's group the villains – a role-reversal atypical for a genre which ordinarily has the good guys fighting dictatorships and police states rather than defending them.

The resulting ambiguity has been compounded by what the show's creators and cast have had to say about its politics. Their remarks suggest a relativistic neutrality in the conflict between Keira Cameron and Liber8, their attitudes treated as equally valid. This is no doubt meant to seem intriguing and daring, but in practice such "equal time" treatment of conflicting understandings and experiences has often distorted rather than clarified (as journalistic coverage of issues like climate change constantly reminds us).

Indeed, there are grounds for taking issue with the intent itself. Such a stance, after all, can be taken as a very convenient way of evading the writer's responsibility to seek the truth (again, as the lamentable state of contemporary journalism regularly reminds us). One can even contend that the willingness to give "equal time" to a dictatorial, human rights-abusing corporatocracy and its opponents is problematic from an ethical perspective, while also reflecting biases so deep-rooted as to scarcely be noticed. (Consider, for instance, how the show's relativistic stance would have been received were the secret police and the dissidents butting heads in a Communist society rather than a corporatocratic one.1)

What the show itself says about the world of 2077 at the outset is also worth noting, and possibly quite telling. Where the origins of the corporatocracy are concerned we are told that business took over an insolvent government in the course of bailing it out financially, a narrative which evokes the idea of efficient, market-disciplined private firms on the one side and government made profligate by its pandering to the voting rabble on the other.2 This premise at the least suggests that the show's economic thinking is not merely of the right (whose sympathy for business and wealth does not necessarily equal approval of corporatocracy), but those explicitly elitist and overtly anti-democratic quarters of the right where one might most expect to find sympathy for a fully privatized society.

Reinforcing this view is the fact that this understanding of economic life is never problematized, let alone challenged, at any point during the show's first season.3 Certainly I cannot think of any aspect of the show's future history which similarly reflects any critique of capitalism, corporate power or the tensions between these and political democracy (the Liber8 rebels instead having little to offer but resentment over inequity).4 This makes it at least plausible to argue that the show falls short of the "equal time" standard proclaimed by its creators, the writers taking the case for a Corporate Congress rather more seriously than they do any alternative for which the rebels might be fighting.

1. Simon Barry remarked in an interview that "I think that if you were to ask Rachel’s character if she lived in an oppressive society, she would say, 'No.' And I think that’s kind of the point. Our Liber8 freedom fighters/terrorists, if you will, have a different opinion."
2. It is also quite far from the reality of recent events. What we saw in 2008 was the opposite – profligate businesses run by corrupt executives bailed out by government, governments which arguably run in the red because of their pandering to business and the wealthy, exempting them from their fair share of taxes, showering these groups with giveaways of other sorts, and of course, enduring the revenue shortfalls that go along with the mediocre economic growth that has tended to follow in the wake of "pro-business" policy.
3. Indeed, it is worth noting that the scenario dramatizes at least one fear strongly associated with the populist right, namely the absorption of the United States into a North American Union.
4. Such a reading also seems to me reinforced by the presentation of farm boy and technical genius Alec Sadler as an Edisonade-hero-in-the-making (rather than a youth born to privilege, whose ascent to the uppermost strata of the North American Union is a function of his having picked his parents well), implying the meritocracy that is the justification generally given today for such extreme differences in wealth and status.

My Posts on Continuum
My Posts on Postmodernism

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