Fleming’s Genius: We Now Live in James Bond’s World

Fleming’s Genius: We Now Live in James Bond’s World

The Bond storylines remain relevant as globalization makes nonstate actors capable of threatening established nation-states both economically and militarily.

Sixty years after the release of the first Bond movie, James Bond remains an iconic action figure even though many of the premises on which the franchise rose to popularity are long dead. The British Empire, still alive and kicking when Fleming was writing, is no longer there. Bond’s womanizing and misogyny now make the viewer’s skin crawl. And the casual racism of Bond—witness the comments on Koreans in the book Goldfinger—are simply laughable. On the other hand, Bond survives as the one globally recognizable action hero. Jason Bourne may be grittier but has never developed the same international following, and sadly, Modesty Blaise was never convincingly brought to the big screen. Also, what makes the franchise and the books compelling is the fact that Fleming was able to portray the global reach of transnational crime long before anyone else in the literary genre did. Before Fleming, the villains in fiction were usually representatives of a foreign government—for the British, that usually meant Germans or Russians—but this all changed with the Bond novels.

Fleming, thus, was the first fiction writer, in the Cold War era, to examine the role of transnational crime, be it the Union Corse, SPECTRE, or individuals like Auric Goldfinger, Hugo Drax, and the menacing Ernst Stavro Blofeld. Fleming’s imagination and genius lay in understanding that transnational criminals could go global in their operations when, at the time of writing in the 1950s and 1960s, such organizations were at best confined to various subregions of the world. For example, the Mafia and the Union Corse were known for smuggling contraband across the borders of neighboring countries in Europe, while the Yakuza and the Chinese tongs were restricted in their criminal operations to their own countries. In Fleming’s writings, these organizations developed a global reach.

Second, the Bond books showed how deliberately engineered economic chaos by nonstate actors could conceivably cripple Western economies and polities. In a series of books ranging from Dr. No to Moonraker to Goldfinger, Fleming built on the theme of transnational actors seeking to bring about the downfall of Western economies. Today, in a world of computer hackers, terrorists, and international criminal networks, such villains no longer seem incredible or campy, just as the possibility of a nonstate actor using weapons of mass destruction is no longer solely in the realm of literary fantasy.

Thus, in Moonraker, the villain, Sir Hugo Drax, places a Soviet supplied nuclear warhead on the Moonraker missile to target London, but not before he sells all his shares on the London stock exchange to provide himself with a healthy fortune while leaving Britain a nuclear wasteland.

In Goldfinger, Fleming took the argument even further by having the eponymous villain, collaborating with the Soviet Union’s SMERSH, attempt to steal $15 billion of U.S. gold reserves from Fort Knox. (For the record, the Soviets preferred to use ideologically similar groups rather than criminal organizations to pursue their agenda in the West.) When Goldfinger was written and the movie was released, the United States was committed to the gold standard, which pegged the U.S. dollar to the country’s gold reserves and thereby facilitated international trade. Stealing from Fort Knox, therefore, would not only deal a symbolic blow to America’s economic hegemony but would have also created chaos in the global financial system and helped the Soviet Union achieve its goal of destabilizing the West. In fact, the first part of the book, when Goldfinger’s gold smuggling activities lead to increased British interest rates, is based on actual events in Britain about the outflow of gold and the subsequent raising of interest rates.

Goldfinger also proposed using chemical agents to incapacitate a large population in order to carry out the crime as well as the use of an atomic device to blow the robbers’ way into Fort Knox. In Fleming’s times, it would have been difficult for criminal organizations to access weapons of mass destruction, but after the Cold War, and especially after the September 11 attacks, preventing such an occurrence became a priority for Western intelligence agencies. In 1995, the Japanese doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyo was actually able to launch a sarin gas attack in the Tokyo subway system, raising concerns about more attacks by other groups.

Perhaps Fleming’s masterstroke was Thunderball’s introduction of SPECTRE, or the Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge, and Extortion. SPECTRE displayed the characteristics of a modern multinational corporation: its leadership was globalized rather than derived from one nationality; it was not loyal to, or dependent on, any national government; and it was willing to confront the governments of nation-states to further its profit motives.

The organization reaches a new threat level for Bond novels when it steals two nuclear warheads and holds the United States and Britain to ransom, threatening to annihilate one American and one British city if its demands are not met. Again, Fleming’s storytelling became a case of life imitating art when, after the fall of the Soviet Union and particularly after September 11, Western intelligence agencies focused considerable effort on securing loose nukes and denying radioactive materials to nonstate actors.

Sixty years since Dr. No hit the screens, Bond continues to survive and thrive as an international movie franchise even though much of what made the movies a hit in the 1960s and 1970s has been overtaken by the reality of power politics and changing social mores. What has not changed, however, is that the Bond storylines, especially those of the original novels, remain relevant as globalization has made nonstate actors capable of threatening established nation-states both economically and militarily. Such is the genius of Fleming.

Note: This piece is based on the article by the author titled, “Political economy, globalisation, and transnational actors as themes in the Bond literature,” published in The Round Table, The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs, Volume 111, Issue 4, pp. 506-515).

Amit Gupta is a Senior Advisor to the Forum of Federations, Ottawa, Canada.

Image: Reuters.