Paranoia in the Panopticon


There is no such thing as paranoia in a Panopticon

“There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time. But at any rate they could plug in your wire whenever they wanted to. You had to live — did live, from habit that became instinct — in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized.”

George Orwell. 1984

In 1785, English philosopher Jeremy Bentham proposed a design for a prison called the Panopticon. The prison had a central point from which prison warders were able to watch all the prisoners simultaneously, whilst themselves remaining unobserved.

There were two key advantages to this design, Bentham claimed. Firstly, as prisoners would not know whether they were being watched or not, warders would not have to be on duty all the time, thereby reducing costs. Secondly the prisoners, aware of the constant scrutiny, would behave better.

Why? It has become something of a well known trope that observation affects outcome; under observation (of this kind), we often tend to internalise the observer’s desire for discipline in their subject and begin self-policing. And as Bentham put it:

The greater chance there is, of a given person’s being at a given time actually under inspection, the more strong will be the persuasion – the more intense, if I may say so, the feeling, he has of his being so…

… who would expose themselves even to the slightest punishment, or even to the mortification of the disappointment, without so much as a tolerable chance of escaping instantaneous detection?

For Bentham, therefore, the prison was not only a mechanism for confinement or punishment but through its very design, a machine for the reformation of its inmates’ morals. While his intentions were humane and his concerns broad –from costs to hygiene; education to security – his concern was primarily with discipline and its attendant benefits:

…the inspector may have the satisfaction of knowing, that the discipline actually has the effect which it is designed to have: and it is more particularly material in such cases where the inspector… has more or less frequent occasion to give them such transient and incidental directions as will require to be given and enforced, at the commencement at least of every course of industry.

But what is moral reformation systematically imposed by the powerful on the powerless but a straightjacket? As French philosopher Michel Foucault put it in his 1975 word Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison

The major effect of the Panopticon: to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power. So to arrange things that the surveillance is permanent in its effects, even if it is discontinuous in its action; that the perfection of power should tend to render its actual exercise unnecessary; that this architectural apparatus should be a machine for creating and sustaining a power relation independent of the person who exercises it; in short, that the inmates should be caught up in a power situation of which they are themselves the bearers.

In such an environment the undisciplined outbursts of spontaneity that make for an unpredictable but creative environment are stifled and the human faculties that allow for them begin in some sense to ossify. But as Albert Einstein once said, “Everything that is really great and inspiring is created by the individual who can labour in freedom.”

It takes the strength few of us have to labour in freedom whilst under constant surveillance; the art we create under such circumstances – and I mean art in its broadest sense – becomes grimly homogenous Soviet-realism at the service, finally, of those in the watchtower. *

In a country that has 1% of the world’s population but 20% of its CCTV cameras and in which the number of such cameras is expected to double by 2018, the contemporary parallels are not hard to draw.

(It is of course clear that such surveillance serves those in power. Where abuse by authorities of their power occurs, CCTV footage invariable goes missing, is corrupted, or the cameras are found not to have been recording; footage that does emerge of crime by authorities tends to be shot by members of the public…)

When Dame Stella Rimington, the former head of Britain’s domestic intelligence agency MI5 said in February of this year that the UK risks becoming a police state, it sounded like hyperbole to most; a few months later — amid the scenes seen at the G20 in London — her use of verb and tense look more startling than her actual statement and she looks not so much prescient as the rest of us utterly parviscient.

Police porn

Police Forward Intelligence Team. A common sight at any demonstration now.

Most of us have mixed feelings about the police and mixed experiences in dealing with them too. Going purely on personal history, I’ve always come away from my dealings with cops in the U.K. with none-too-bad a feeling.

Granted, I’m not actually much of a protestor; in the past when something has raised my hackles enough for me to actually want to join the banner-waving brigade, I tend to have been in overseas, as I am now. So the last time I came face-to-face with the fluoride-jacketed-and-jack-booted was when I was caught speeding down some wee country lanes without a valid tax disk on my car. “Shite”, I thought, panicking as the sirens wailed. “I’m so fucked.” The copper strolled over and said (verbatim):

“Excuse me sir, are you aware that you were speeding? We could barely keep up with you… You know these roads pretty well don’t you?” He strolled round my car: “Are you aware that your tax is out of date sir? We’re currently conducting a crackdown on drivers without tax and you risk having your car being impounded and crushed…”

I winced. He peered in what looked like idle curiosity through the window of my little Toyota: detritus, CDs and Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass… I was suddenly off the hook, I could feel it in my bones. (I’m sure it’s the poetry that did it. All speeding tax delinquents should bung some transcendental poetry on their passenger seat: I mean, hardened criminals don’t read verse by a hirsute and long-dead American extolling the virtues of Mother Nature do they?)

This cop relaxed as if I’d sung out “Oh Captain My Captain” to him and turned back to his motor.  “Well, you better get this taxed pronto hadn’t you sir; and easy on the pedal eh?” And off he went on his law abiding way. Legend that the good officer was.

Anyway, cops: they aren’t all power-hungry sadists ready to backhand you across the face like a bitch. But the one’s that do answer to the above description are increasingly prevalent and this is symptomatic of something much more disturbing than the obvious character flaws in those who actually pursue or condone such activity.

Canterbury Tales...

Canterbury Tales... "Will nobody rid me of these troublesome protestors?"

I’d long had my reservations about the state of democracy in the country. An electoral system that at times appears to almost actively conspire against the electorate; massive centralization; a “spineless, supine” legislature; abuse of power by the executive; excessive amounts of poorly written legislation being churned out yearly to further bolster a growing authoritarianism: all these are accepted by most people with an interest in politics as among the major concerns of the day.

But the extent to which these problems (which I’d previously looked at with a certain academic detachment) were sweeping a town near me first struck viscerally in 2oo3. Home in Canterbury – a small, conservative and picturesque cathedral city – after a spell overseas, I was taking a walk down the high street among the tourist hordes when I came across a small anti-Iraq-war protest.

It’s the kind of  city where you’d feel a touch embarrassed to register your dissent and the demo was, in short, about as far from a riot as you can get. Just a clutch of students mutedly shouting “Stop the War.” And holding “Bliar” placards.  So far, so tame… But the police. The frigging police! Phalanxes of them ten-thick. Many of them with handheld digital video cameras, right up in the faces of those protesting, getting the best footage and taking verbal notes.

The atmosphere was intimidating and oppressive, but even more startling was the incongruity. What on earth were they doing conducting intensive surveillance of such a small bunch of people holding a peaceful protest?

It was suddenly very clear: if you dared raise so much as a voice against government policy you were going to be monitored, categorised, added to a database. It wouldn’t even remotely surreptitious: they’ll just stick a fuck-off big camera right in your face and take verbal notes whilst you stuttered on your cheesy chant.

This was my introduction to police Forward Intelligence Teams (FIT). Any protest, any meeting, any Greenpeace gathering of vaguely activist types, FIT will be there, snapping and videoing and spying away. Nobody even knows what the fuck they do with all their footage, which agencies and departments it’s shared with etc. But they’ve started harrassing journalists too. As The Journalist (the magazine of the national union of journalists) reported in August of last year

Photojournalist Marc Vallée was unable to work for a month after police threw him to the curb at a demonstration he was covering. Milton Keynes staff photographer Andy Handley was detained for eight hours when he refused to stop taking pictures in a public area.

And police tactics seem to be becoming more menacing. Photographers have complained that the Metropolitan Police’s Forward Intelligence Team (FIT) — set up to target public disorder and anti-social behaviour by having high-visibility police officers use camera and video footage to gather intelligence — has started surveillance of press-card carrying journalists. They say that images of them are given a four-figure “photographic reference number” and held on a database.

All journalists covering a demonstration against restrictions in the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act in March were catalogued by the FIT team. Photographers say they were even recorded while waiting outside a London hospital when Prince Philip was admitted for treatment of a chest infection in April. NUJ General Secretary Jeremy Dear wrote to Home Secretary Jacqui Smith in May, complaining of “intimidatory policing”. He cited examples of police officers who know journalists by name, follow them and film them all the time they are working.

Regular, low-level intimidation of photographers often goes unreported. David Hoffman, a freelance with more than 30 years experience, told the Journalist: “If you’re just walking down the street and taking a picture of police on the beat, when you’re well away from any problem and not causing an obstruction, they come over and interfere. “It happens constantly. In May I was taking pictures of the party on the London tube — the last day people could drink alcohol — from a good distance when two police officers started pushing me around and put a hand over my lens. There was no reason at all. I was simply recording the event and they stopped me because they thought they could. That’s a very typical incident. That will happen to me once a week if I’m out working.”

"The Mother of Democracies"

"The Mother of Democracies"

“If you have ten thousand regulations, you destroy all respect for the law” Winston Churchill

The British government has introduced 3,023 new criminal offences since 1997, figures released in 2006 showed

Given this kind of behaviour, the police sometimes seem like a law unto themselves. It’s simply not true: they may be a powerful interest group in their own right; they may have stacked the Independent Police Complaints Commission with pliant proxies and they may manage to oversee the deaths of more than 600 people in custody annually without too much political interference, but at the end of the day, they can only arrest protestors on anti-terrorism charges, detain people without trial for obscene periods of time and rough-up journalists if they have been given a great deal of legislative sanction to do so.

This is where the broader issue of we, the people – and our failure to push for the renewal of a political system ill-disposed towards us – come in. It is some irony that unelected members of the House of Lords have been the most vocal defenders of  civil liberties and a properly functioning legislature:

In July 2006, Lord Andrew Phillips of Sudbury, a City solicitor and philanthropist resigned from the House of Lords after having failed in his battle to prevent an ID cards bill passing. Parliament is producing a “ludicrous excess of legislative effluent” Phillips said, pointing out that 13,000 pages a year is far beyond what most parliaments pass.

Yet it’s not like ideas are thin on the ground: solid proposals for a better functioning, more transparent parliament have been knocking around for ages. The Better Government Initiative, a crusty group of elderly former civil servants  came up with a few commendable suggestions in a paper called Governing Well that they put out in 2006. Here’s a few of their recommendations:

R1: The capacity of Parliament to scrutinise the proposals of the Executive and to hold it to account for its decisions should be strengthened. Parliament should provide for more rigorous initial analysis of policy proposals; and retrospective review, after a suitable period of time has elapsed, of the costs and outcomes of policy and legislation actually achieved against those in the initial proposals.

R2: Before policy decisions are taken by the Government, proposals should be  thoroughly tested by objective analysis, by drawing on the experience of politicians in Parliament and in Government and of officials (including people familiar with delivery), and by wider consultation.

R3: The Government should establish a better balance between the strategic role of the Centre of Government in determining the overall policy framework and the operational role of departments in framing policies and delivering services in their specialist areas or responsibility.

R4:  Service deliverers – such as executive agencies, non departmental public bodies the NHS and local authorities – should be set clear objectives against which their performance will be monitored, but they should not be micro-managed by Departments or by the Centre of Government. Stability of structures and instructions from the Government is clearly desirable.

R5: Pressures from the media should be handled consistently in a way that avoids responses, let alone policy commitments, before the Government is ready. This intention should be explained to the public and to the media themselves.

R17: The volume of legislation should be reduced, and the quality of scrutiny (especially in the Commons) thereby increased, through stronger pre-introduction tests.

R18: the numbers and range of skills of staff supporting Select Committees should be increased so as to improve the speed, depth and range of their investigations

Whilst such language meet appear a touch arcane or dry as dust to some, it points to some massive failings in how our legislature is run and offers some substantial pointers in terms of how to rectify them.

Politicians like to complain about political apathy and cynicism amongst the electorate. Given the pathetic turnout rates in recent general elections, they have a point of course. But as Bertrand Russell once said (and I paraphrase because I can’t dig up the exact quote), “apathy is a combination of powerlessness and comfort: the powerlessness causes unrest and the comfort vitiates the desire to do anything about it; the result is apathy.”

We might appear powerless but we are also increasingly losing our comforts: will this be enough to shake off the above? It’s clear that whichever ideological viewpoint you look from, Britain is in urgent need of a massive political enema.

Some standing politicians have made promising suggestions, such as Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg’s call for a freedom bill to roll back excessive legislation. But as councils spy massively on citizen’s emails, police beat the crap out of people at peaceful protests and an unelected prime minister has his way with an almost bankrupt country, GK Chesterton’s words echo like a call to arms. A shame that so many seem to have concurred that beer is, indeed, best.

They have given us into the hands of the new unhappy lords,
Lords without anger and honour, who dare not carry their swords.
They fight by shuffling papers; they have bright dead alien eyes;
They look at our labour and laughter as a tired man looks at flies.
And the load of their loveless pity is worse than the ancient wrongs,
Their doors are shut in the evenings; and they know no songs.

We hear men speaking for us of new laws strong and sweet,
Yet is there no man speaketh as we speak in the street.
It may be we shall rise the last as Frenchmen rose the first,
Our wrath come after Russia’s wrath and our wrath be the worst.
It may be we are meant to mark with our riot and our rest
God’s scorn for all men governing. It may be beer is best.
But we are the people of England; and we have not spoken yet.
Smile at us, pay us, pass us. But do not quite forget.


*It’s interesting to note that this disciplining is in a sense the direct opposite of the resolution proposed by Friedrich Schiller for the conflict between two competing drives; that associated with law and reason and that “sensuous drive” associated with the personal appetite of individuals.

Where in the Panopticon the infringement of the latter on the former is what has landed inmates in the machine to start with and hence one of the key drives of the soul — for want of a better word — that must be disciplined and sterilised, Schiller in contrast argues for a resolution of the two drives through play. Creative play brings abstract form to sensual life, he wrote in his Letters on The Aesthetic Education of Man, and the result is beauty, harmony as “living form”.


I initially published this post in early April. It was written in a rush, lacked a lot of hyperlinks, had no paragraphing and was generally a bit of a mess. In the six months that I’ve been blogging it’s nonetheless been the post that consistently gets most hits…

So to save me some ongoing embarrassment at its flaws I decided to update it, patch the more obvious lacunae and “reprint” it, for it remains germane to the situation in England I think. Apologies for the repetition to those who’ve already read it; I hope it was of interest for those who haven’t.

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