Cleaning up after Capitalism. The Vacuum Cleaner. Some Rights Reserved.I’m at the Royal College of Psychiatrists meeting their research team. I make a half-hearted joke as I’m a little intimidated by the situation. “Y’know how people who said they are being monitored by the CIA were labelled as paranoid? In light of Snowden’s revelations, is that going to be reviewed?” Half the room laugh, the other look at me disapprovingly, either annoyed by this query or thinking, ‘Just because someone was listening in, doesn’t mean you’re not paranoid/psychotic.’
Like any human experience, being paranoid can be totally healthy, provided it doesn't begin to effect you in a way that becomes destructive, either to yourself or those around you. If it does, then that could be the point at which to get some support to help you keep your feet on the ground (but not too firmly rooted, otherwise you lose the ability to move around and change it up).
When I’ve not been crushed by debilitating mental distress I’ve spent my adult life working as an artist and activist, with a foot in both camps – however unlikely a pairing the two are. For me, art is about asking interesting questions in new ways, where activism is about answering/confronting problems with solutions.
But I’m already getting off topic. I’ve always battled with acute mental distress, and increasingly it’s something I am no longer ashamed of. Sometimes I can feel proud of the difference. It has always made me acutely aware of the psychological implications of my actions and the actions that the world and its governing systems of power have had on me. Or maybe a less intellectual way of saying this is that I’m a very sensitive person and that the shit that happens in the world hurts.
So what happens when our attempts to effect change come up against the structures of power? How does it feel to know you’re being surveilled and spied upon? And what effect does this have on social movements? This gets under our skin.
Firstly, it’s important to take all the practical steps you can to protect yourself from being surveilled and spied upon. Tor browsers, PGP and the rest of the crypto-tools out there are becoming much more user friendly. This is a good thing, because until they become so, they will remain ghetto-tech.
It’s important, though, to remember that tools of mass surveillance aren’t the only tools out there, and that both the state and corporations have a lot of resources and love to use them. Almost as if someone removed the word ‘restraint’ from their dictionary, and confined this to the physical version for police and mental health rapid response teams. They love it: they just can’t get enough. I’m getting off message again.
So Much Culture. The Vacuum Cleaner. Some Rights Reserved.There are some forms of surveillance that we have very little control over at this point, even if we resist them. Whilst being on the domestic extremist watchlist may be a badge of honour within activist circles, it’s silly to pretend that the tactic doesn't have psychological implications. Let’s be clear, its methodology as a form of intelligence gathering is somewhat limited. But with a few hundred years of colonial rule under its belt, the British state has mastered the art of psychological intimidation, and that’s why they use it.
I’ve got a copy of my domestic extremist file. Apart from the spelling mistakes and as a memory jogger of exciting actions past, it really isn’t that threatening in terms of the information they have gathered. What is unpleasant is the removal of my humanity, the reduction to a number, a subject, a mere reminder of the ‘We know who you are, and what you’re doing. We know who you’re sleeping with, we know who you hang out with, what you care about. And it means nothing to us.’
Portrait. The Vacuum Cleaner. Some Rights Reserved.This is the first reference in my file:
On SATURDAY 11/06/2005 I was on duty in full uniform in company with PS deployed to the SHEFFIELD ant-G8 demonstration in South Yorkshire…. James LEADBITTER (know to us as UNIDENT0013ACCO11) was outside and was quite amiable. He would not discuss specifics and again wanted to know if we were a FIT team and why we were there. He did let slip that there may be a samba band on the march and that CIRCA may make an appearance too.
I’m doubtful that the knowledge of who was going to be on a march against the G8 finance minister constitutes vital intelligence for the British State.
Picture the Police HQ in Sheffield, a panicked cop fumbles through the phone directory.
- Hello, you’re through to MI5 Counter Subversion Branch, Ruth speaking.
- Hello, I’m officer Blahpants of South Yorkshire Police, you need to tell your boss to call a COBRA meeting now. There are going to be some unwashed hippies playing drums and dressing up as clowns on a march….
(This is made up, obviously. When MI5 answer the phone, they already know who they are speaking to.)
MetropolitanLice. The Vacuum Cleaner. Some Rights Reserved.This feeling of having your humanity bypassed has implications for your sanity. Often our activism isn’t clear cut. It isn’t either a success or a failure. It contributes to a broad movement and it can be easy to get lost in that, adrenaline rush aside. To change the direction that society, ecology and humanity is heading in is an epic task. If the state and/or corporations are undermining this through psychological intimidation it can disenfranchise us even further, when our actions should be the opposite of this: empowering, engaging and effective.
If being on the domestic extremist list and the uncomfortable emotions associated with it is surveillance lite, then the role of undercover police and corporate spies is perhaps the full fat version. In 2011, I volunteered to be a subject for Channel 4 documentary on how private investigators work. This was at the time when the hacking scandal was just breaking, with each day bringing new revelations about Celebrity X,Y and Z finding out that their most private information wasn’t so private any more. The object of the film was to demonstrate that the PI industry targeted non-celebrities significantly more than the famous, and more importantly it set out to show how they did it.
For over a year I was aware that a private investigator was looking at me, trying to get access to my most personal information. There was an attempt to buy my medical records, benefits information, details about my family and data on my contacts with the police.
During that year there where times when I was completely oblivious to what was going on, and life carried on as normal. Other times were debilitating. The uncertainty about who I could and couldn’t trust became an intrusive complication. As someone who has relied heavily on NHS mental health services, this had a knock-on, hugely problematic effect.
It is vital that discussions about your inner self remain private. The need to trust the private nature of discussions is crucial to a therapeutic relationship. Without this trust it will never work.
There was a funny situation whilst I was in Accident and Emergency talking to the psychiatric liaison team. These are the folks you talk to in a crisis because it can take 8 weeks to get an appointment with your psychiatrist if you’re in crisis, by which point the crisis may have passed. Anyway, I’m talking to this psychiatrist and she is asking me about the stress factors in my life. I mention that I’m being surveilled by a private investigator, she raises an eyebrow, writes something in her notes and then underlines it three times. I pause: she pauses. I know what she’s thinking and feel the need to clarify. “I’m not paranoid or psychotic, it’s actually happening.” She, being a logical kind of person, moves the conversation sideways. “How is that affecting you?”
“I feel kind of like I’m losing my personal space, like nothing is private any more, like I can’t trust those people I need to trust. I mean I can trust my close friends and so on, and I’m sure I can trust you. But those notes you’re taking, how do I know that they aren’t going to end up being passed onto someone who I don’t want to read them.”
Your Enthusiasm. The Vacuum Cleaner. Some Rights Reserved.It’s about a year later and it’s interview time for the Dispatches TV show. One disclosure after another. Chris Atkins, the filmmaker, is going through the information he has bought about me, and tells me how much he's paid for it. He shows me the hidden camera footage of his conversations with the private investigator. It ends with Atkins saying “James we’re done, that’s it.” That’s the bit that breaks me. The relief, the sudden awareness of the intense emotional strain of being under surveillance. And that was with my consent, with full awareness of what I was volunteering for.
This is all very interesting James… dear reader I hear what you're thinking… Yes, I’m like the NSA and I can read your mind. What is the point I’m trying to make here? This is where the artist in me struggles – good with the questions; not so great with the answers and conclusions.
OK, so, the thing for me is about trust. An invasion of trust, whether that’s through remote surveillance, human surveillance or the psychological effects of surveillance, is toxic. Toxic effects left unprocessed and ignored grow, the impact of this can lead to some pretty weird-ass things.
ChicagoFuckOff. The Vacuum Cleaner. Some Rights Reserved.It may be that in the short term we can’t get rid of surveillance, unless we abandon everything, live in a field and eat bugs. But let’s leave that to the trustafarian. It may be that you’re stronger than me, and that’s great. But it’s also important to remember that we all have different limits and limitations. That we all have different forms of privilege that enable and disable us, and we should be wary of judging each other too quickly or too harshly.
If something breaks someone, makes us paranoid, infects how we think in a negative way and we try to continue regardless, we’re playing into the hands of the powerful. In V for Vendetta, Alan Moore’s astonishingly brilliant criticism of ultra-power, the slogan of the fascist state is “Strength through Unity. Unity through Faith”. In my ideal world it would be more like “Strength through Unity. Unity through Vulnerability”.
Get our weekly email