G20 and Beyond: The Future Is Watching You

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G20 summit in Brisbane. The Queensland Police Force were placed in prominent positions around the spot where US President Obama flew into on Marine 1. (Photo: Steven Penman)G20 summit in Brisbane. The Queensland Police Force were placed in prominent positions around the spot where US President Obama flew into on Marine 1. (Photo: Steven Penman)

The G20 summit meeting in Brisbane has two levels: the overt grandstanding and posturing that politicians love, and a deeper, far more sinister agenda.

All day and long into the night, the drones are circling, so high in the brilliant blue sky they can’t be seen, but their echoes roll down the valleys where I live on the outskirts of the city. On a normal day in the city, you wouldn’t hear them, but it’s very quiet in there today, very quiet. Buses can’t come into the city – they’re banned – and the train stations are swarming with anonymous police who look twice the size of ordinary travelers because of their armor and helmets and boots and guns. You can’t buy drinks on the stations – no containers allowed – and anyway, all the rubbish bins have been welded shut. If you want to drive into the city, be ready for a long wait; you can’t go without “good reason,” meaning a permit, and your car will be searched at least once. Even if you managed to get into the city, there are riot barricades, roadblocks, checkpoints and roving patrols, so most people haven’t bothered. Most businesses have closed.

It’s hot today, abnormally hot, 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) in late spring with blistering dry winds from inland and summer is still weeks away. The rows of police behind their barricades are sweating buckets under their black body armor and their electronic helmets. Not that they have much policing to do; the drones can see even a flock of pigeons if they tried to cross into the exclusion zone. But it’s probably hotter still for the cops sitting in their armored vehicles hidden in warehouses and underground car parks that have been blocked to the public. If the drones detect anything, any gathering at all, swarms of heavily armed police in gas masks will surge up from basement car parks and out of sealed buildings, screaming and bashing their batons on their shields, hurling stun grenades, and spraying capsaicin and tear gas. And don’t for one moment think those military Steyrs are for decoration; a burst from them can sweep any street clean.

Practically every police officer in the state is here; no leave for them or the 1,500 police they flew in from other states. For the first time since the emergency of 1942, armed troops are patrolling Australian streets complete with machine guns and dogs while snipers crouch on city roofs. Don’t forget the commandos who have been training assiduously for “hostage recovery” and are now on the highest level of standby, ready to explode into action. They’ll be keeping a low profile, their general said: “You won’t see a great presence by the military. We’ll be operating in the background . . . searching conference venues in advance, hotels in advance . . . and remaining on standby if required to provide counter terrorism support or other aviation or air support.” That means heavily armed helicopters to drop troops anywhere at a moment’s notice: Whatever you do, don’t underestimate Australian special forces. CCTV cameras are everywhere, thousands of them; car license plates on all main roads are photographed; every mobile phone is tracked; every ATM record logged and analyzed; you need special passes to get from one side of the city to the other and excitable TV commentators are gabbling about red exclusion zones and lockdown.

What about sending a little drone over the city yourself, perhaps to drag a defiant banner behind it or even to drop leaflets? Forget it, the Predators will get it first. Exclusion zone means exclusion; exclusion means, we get you. No, better to surrender. Don’t attract attention, whatever you do. Don’t send that cheeky email to your friend in Peoria: Every incoming email to the United States is opened and scanned for “behavioral signatures” and any information at all can and is sent back to the spies here. And don’t be a nuisance by calling for any sort of resistance; you can now be arrested before you do anything wrong, just because some bureaucrat somewhere doesn’t like your politics.

This is G20. This is the future. The future has arrived and it’s watching you, waiting, never sleeping, ready to strike, searching for a reason to strike, eager to find a reason to strike. Attack instantly with overwhelming force: That’s the name of the new game in town.

I live on the outskirts of Brisbane, in Australia, a city of about 2.2 million sunburned souls, the capital of a state about three times the size of Texas, rich, boozy and uncultured. Normally, nothing much happens here apart from the odd flood (the city spreads across a floodplain which, surprisingly enough, floods fairly regularly). Queensland is a bit like Texas; it’s hot, sprawling and rich in fossil fuel industries that are quietly destroying the Great Barrier Reef. It’s the national home of crackpot religions, crackpot politicians and the drug and crime-ridden Gold Coast, but mostly it’s bearable. If you want a quiet life, the weather is fine; the beaches are fine; hospitals and schools are good; food is cheap; the roads are good and the Opera Society is presenting “Tosca” this month. But for some reason, a few years ago, some clown decided that our dull provincial lives would be improved by holding the annual Group of 20 summit meeting here.

After two years of often hysterical preparation, and nobody knows how many hundreds of millions of dollars, it’s happening this weekend. It’s not without its humor: A woman was arrested this morning for carrying a gas mask in the city. Imagine that. The goodwives of the assembled heads of state have been to Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary, a hilly place, but koalas aren’t overly friendly by day, and 40-degree Celsius heat doesn’t improve their disposition. And the ladies? Pity them, koalas or no. Lunch was provided for second level dignitaries at Parliament House, but it was that fine Queensland tradition, a barbecue. The visitors, practically all from the Northern Hemisphere, melted.

But it’s not the humor that worries me. The money I don’t care about either: Politicians exact a tribute from us in order to keep themselves in the manner to which they believe they are entitled. Nor do I begrudge the police their free holidays and their overtime (the Army boys won’t get either). Likewise, they can close the city most of the year; it won’t affect me; I hate shopping. When our prime minister, Tony Abbott, threatened to knuckle Vladimir Putin, I wasn’t much put out because having an audience helps the PM get in touch with his inner buffoon. No, that’s not the worry about this huge, 20-ring circus. My worry is this: In politics, whatever goes up doesn’t come down.

Taxes go up; armies and police forces go up; regulations and laws and restrictions go up; heavily armed police SWAT teams go up; CCTVs go up; cameras and spies and drones and internal passes and pre-emptive detention and DNA banks and all that, inexorably and inevitably go up, just because no politician has the intention of ever letting them come down again. It’s not a question of political courage, because politicians actually like these things. Our Dear Leaders become delirious over the trappings of power; they are mesmerized by the sound of marching boots and jets overhead, thrilled by laws and restrictions; they are energized by armor and weapons, excited by spy satellites and drones, ecstatic over tanks and troops and fighters and warships – and they are bored shitless by the griping, whingeing concerns of ordinary people.

That is inevitable. It is the nature of the political beast. It does not matter whether the individual politicians are of right or of left, high-born or low, male or female, religious or secular, white, black, brown or brindle, smart or stupid; it just is the nature of the political animal to want to control and dominate. That’s what politics is; that’s what politics is about and that’s what makes politics so irresistible to a small group in each town. People who like politics are obsessed by dominance hierarchies and they cannot dismantle them. Anything that assists control and domination will be ratcheted up and it will not come down again just because that goes against the nature of the beast. Politicians would sooner give up sex because sex is good for only a few minutes a day but the turbo-charged cocktail of adrenaline and testosterone that is generated by the thrill of domination lasts 24/7, year after year. Expecting a politician to unravel the national surveillance state is asking him to do something he is constitutionally incapable of doing, like ordering worms to stand to attention.

So we know in advance that the assembled Great and Good of the Group of 20 gabfest will not do anything serious about the global warming that is giving us record heat waves every month. They will not bother themselves with inequality, or militarism, environmental degradation, the international drug trade, corruption or any other of the concerns that keep we the people awake at night. Instead, they will discuss how to get the capitalist, consumerist economy roaring again so the rich can get richer, how to take control of the internet, who will get to mine the Arctic or how to force poor people to pay more for medicines. And all the while, they will ratchet up the repression and violence. In fact, if you wanted to say the whole G20 jamboree is actually a full-blown dress rehearsal for the new totalitarianism, that it is held only to sell repression itself and the talks are just an excuse, I won’t argue. There won’t be any meaningful result, that’s for sure, but all the participants will go home delighted with the displays of repression in action and just itching to put it into practice.

“If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever.”

Orwell’s dystopian future is on show in Brisbane this week. It’s coming to a city like yours real soon but look out: Once it arrives, it will not go away.