Playing the Great Game with Intelligence: Authority versus the People


Anthony Judge – TRANSCEND Media Service


The disclosures regarding the nature of invasive government intelligence gathering, suggest the possibly of a new take on the so-called Great Game of centuries past (Frederick P. Hitz, The Great Game: the myth and reality of espionage intelligence in recent public literature, 2004; Malcolm Yapp, The Legend of the Great Game, Proceedings of the British Academy, 2001). Those who made them — ,Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden — may in future be acclaimed as the “three wise people ” of the 21st Century. However, ironically, Barack Obama, James Clapper, and Keith Alexander, now run the risk of being framed “otherwise” by the future through their actions against the People.

Any such consideration can be usefully framed by the much-cited remark of Abraham Lincoln:

You may fool all the people some of the time; you can even fool some of the people all the time; but you can’t fool all of the people all the time.

Exposure to the disclosures and the fast footwork displayed by government in variously denying, lying, misleading, acknowledging — now ultimately reframed by “everyone does it” — has considerably sharpened public awareness of the nature of the game played by Authority with the People.

In these exciting times, the question is how best to learn from the moves apparently possible in the Great Game, as they are rendered comprehensible to collective awareness. This can be seen as a process of rendering conscious that which has been primarily characteristic of the collective unconscious, as variously presented (John Ralston Saul, The Unconscious Civilization, 1999; Carl G. Jung, The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, 1996). Authority is providing a unique learning opportunity for the People — much to be welcomed.

There are currently many references to new variants of the Great Game in relation to Central Asia and Afghanistan in particular. A more general perspective of relevance to this argument is offered by the famed originator of the phrase the banality of evil, Hannah Arendt (Le Grand Jeu du Monde, Esprit, 1982), most notably in her consideration of totalitarianism (The Imperialist Character, The Review of Politics, 1950). Commenting on Rudyard’s Kipling’s introduction of the Great Game, and the temptations of the endlessness of the game of imperialism and secrecy, Arendt notes:

Playing the Great Game, a man may feel as though he lives the only life worth his while, because he has been stripped of everything which may still be considered to be accessory. Life itself seems to be left, in a fantastically intensified purity, when man has cut himself off from all ordinary social ties, family, regular occupation, a definite goal, ambitions, and the guarded place in a community to which he belongs by birth. “When every one is dead the Great Game is finished. Not before” … That the game has no ultimate purpose makes it so dangerously similar to life itself. He was tempted only by the basic endlessness of the game and by secrecy as such. And secrecy again seems like a symbol of the basic mysteriousness of life.

Arendt highlights the existential and cognitive implications of the game, central to the following argument, by reference to T. E. Lawrence (Seven Pillars of Wisdom, 1938):

When, at the end of the war, Lawrence had to abandon the pretenses of a secret agent and had somehow to recover his “English self,” he “looked at the West and its conventions with new eyes: they destroyed it all for me.” From the Great Game of incalculable bigness which no publicity had glorified or limited and which had elevated him in his twenties above Kings and Prime Ministers because he had “made ’em or played with them”, Lawrence came home with… the deep conviction that nothing he could still possibly do with his life would ever satisfy him. This conclusion he drew from his perfect knowledge that he himself had not been big, but only the role which he had aptly assumed, that his bigness had been the result of the Game and not a product by himself.

The question explored here is how best to frame the Great Game, as it is now played with “intelligence“. The concern is how to engage more effectively with it — and to name and anticipate both individual “moves” (which are increasingly evident and predictable) and “patterns of moves” (as a potential challenge to understanding). Arguably the “Afghanistan” and “Central Asia” of its early territorial focus have now become both more global and more personal. In a knowledge-based society, the terrain has become virtual with the focus on a nexus of comprehension of shifting patterns of information and claims to their significance as truth. Metaphor may offer possibilities to global sensemaking under these conditions, as previously suggested (Enhancing the Quality of Knowing through Integration of East-West metaphors, 2000).

As with the original Great Game, comparisons with chess offer many insights — as presumably is the case with go. Those games were notably promoted to develop critical thinking skills with regard to strategic options. The People are in many cases already familiar with “moves” and “patterns of moves” through ball games, especially the variants of football. They could usefully have their suspicions confirmed by naming moves regularly used by Authority against them — enabling recognition that “they would say that”.

With respect to the challenges of global governance more generally, the issue can be framed in terms of the classic adage:

This is a story about four people: Everybody, Somebody, Anybody and Nobody.
There was an important job to be done and Everybody was asked to do it.
Everybody was sure that Somebody would do it.
Anybody could have done it, but Nobody did.
Somebody got angry (about that) because it was Everybody’s job.
Everybody knew that Anybody could do it, but Nobody realised that Somebody wouldn’t do it.
It ended up that Everybody blamed Somebody because Nobody did what Anybody could have done.

This can be variously reframed more provocatively (Responsibility for Global Governance Who? Where? When? How? Why? Which? What? 2008)



This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 4 Nov 2013.

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