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Panoptic Power & the Surveillance State

1,278 words

A new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind, in quantity hitherto without example.

— Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832)

The panopticon rotunda prison designed by the 18th-century utilitarian English philosopher Jeremy Bentham ostensibly allows a single security guard to observe the prison’s inmates without them being able to tell if they are being watched. This causes them to regulate their own behavior out of simple fear. In a metaphorical sense, this panopticon has already been constructed and is now fully operational.

It is currently most fully manifest in the insidious social conditioning termed “political correctness,” but was originally conceived at a time of rapid industrialization, when Bentham believed the principles set out for his humane prisons could be applied to factories, hospitals, and schools. The idealist naively foresaw the societal adoption and application of the architect Willey Reveley’s designs for a secure holding center as the physical embodiment of his duty-and-interest junction principle. This would, in effect, facilitate public transparency, as the jailers would simultaneously be observable to the wider community and therefore solve the age-old problem of “who guards the guards?”

An interesting idea, but one that totally underestimates the coercive power of human agency and the propensity for elites to want to control the herd’s sensibilities. Conservative historian Shirley Robin Letwin, as long ago as 1965, traced the socialist Fabian movement’s enthusiasm for social planning back to the early utilitarian thinkers and described Bentham’s panopticon notions as “monstrous” and “overlooking the dangers of unrestrained power.” More libertarian types identified in Bentham’s “ardor for reform” the seeds of totalitarianism.

These threats were fully explained in books; by the American Gertrude Himmelfarb’s The Haunted House of Jeremy Bentham (1965), and David John Manning’s The Mind of Jeremy Bentham (1986). Both argued that Bentham’s fear of communal instability led to him advancing theories of social engineering that would inevitably result in negative impacts, particularly in areas such as personal privacy, and would further erode any sympathy or tolerance that might already exist for people who deviated from the societal norms upon which the power of the elites rested.

Michel Foucault touched on this in his work Discipline and Punish (1975), which focused on “corrective technology,” and in his subsequent work The Eye of Power (1980) which emphasizes the fact that Panopticism is “a mechanism that automatizes and disindividualizes power so as to establish permanent surveillance and assure automatic functioning of power.” French psychoanalyst, Jacque-Alain Miller saw, like Foucault, in the panopticon concept a “mechanism of power and a diagram of political technology”; and the sociologist Henri Lefebvre, who like Dutchman Marc Schuilenburg, a lecturer and author of books like Mediapolis (2006) and The Securitization of Society (2015), believes that “spatiality” is in fact a social phenomenon and points to a “different self-consciousness arising among humans who live in an urban area.”

A rich seam, then, for writers of fiction to mine for their visions of a dystopian future! David Lyon, author of The Electronic Eye (1994) fully grasps this when he concludes:

No single metaphor or model is adequate to the task of summing up what is central to contemporary surveillance, but important clues are available in Orwell’s Nineteen-Eighty-Four and in Bentham’s panopticon.

These fears surface time and time again in the fictional writings like that of Yevgeny Zamyatin, whose novel We (1920) inspired Orwell; Sauron’s All-Seeing Eye, peering out from the Dark Tower of Barad-Dur in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings; Gabriel Marcia Marques’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold (1981); and Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus (1984). Take fiction alongside Gilles Deleuze’s non-fictional essay Postscript on the Societies of Control (1990), where he argues that the “towering enclosures” envisaged by Bentham have been superseded by the rapid advances in technology and behavioral training such as the modern incarnation of political correctness. This means that people are self-censoring, even while accessing “mostly” controlled news narratives — perfectly exemplified by the case of George Floyd and the “mostly peaceful” Black Lives Matter protests, while the counter-protests that followed the vandals tearing down statues in London were described as “unacceptable right-wing thuggery” by the MSM. It’s as Thomas Mathiesen, a Norwegian professor of criminology in Oslo says: “the majority watch the few” and “mass media has thus turned the discipline society into a viewer society.”

This brings to mind the satirical science fiction movie The Truman Show (1998) and thoughts of the Omnicam Ecosphere, which in some ways preempted reality TV shows like Endemol Entertainment’s Big Brother. Derrick Jensen and George Draffan, co-authors of Welcome to the Machine: Science, Surveillance, and the Culture of Control (2004) named Bentham as one of the “earliest pioneers of modern surveillance.” Simone Brown’s Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness (2015), although giving preeminence to the fact that Bentham was traveling aboard a slaving ship even as he drafted his papers on panopticon, nevertheless makes a valuable point when she proposes that society is ruled by an exceptionalism of power; the constant state of emergency becomes permanent, and certain groups are excluded on the basis of their predicted future behavior through a profiling system adopted by those in authority.

How might we be profiled? By the CCTV on our streets, in our city centers, and following our every step in shopping malls all across the country. The advent of such technology provides an “electronic panopticon,” according to Nicholas Fyfe and Jon Bannister’s academic paper Fear and the City in the journal of Urban Studies (2001). Shoshana Zuboff uses the metaphor of the panopticon in her book In the Age of the Smart Machine to describe how employees are monitored by their employers. Phil Taylor and Peter Bain add their concerns about people being forced into unrewarding service industry call-centers in their book Entrapped by the electronic panopticon?  (2000), and Roger Clarke expresses the notion of social media’s capacity to conduct “dataveillance.” Mark Poster, a professor in Media and Film Studies at the University of Irvine in the US first coined the expression “superpanopticon” in his book The Mode of Information (1990), and sociologist Christian Fuchs points out the massive corporate surveillance conducted by socio-technical platforms like Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook.

These incredibly powerful billionaire entities — including Jeff Bezos’s Amazon, et al — are mostly owned or controlled by people who share the same tribal origin. Their reach transcends national and cultural boundaries, and their company mission statements espouse values that are totally and unapologetically inimical to white well-being. They remind me of Patrick Curry, who says in his book Defending Middle-Earth (2004): “Sauron’s desire is one empire, ruled by one logic in accordance with one will.”

The elite’s clear ambition is to establish what Foucault describes as institutional forms of standardization, a sort of universal hegemonic power; under the economically applied methodology of Panopticism, it will further nourish capitalism’s need for communal subjection, easy access to cheap manpower, and all-pervasive technology. C.S. Lewis foresaw such a thing when he described in his science-fiction novel, That Hideous Strength (1945), a modern-machine centered attitude, or technocracy, seeking to control and possess nature, which in turn destroys our very humanity.

George Orwell reviewed Strength in the Manchester Evening News some two years before publishing the epic Nineteen Eighty-Four, writing: “Plenty of people in our age do entertain the monstrous dreams of power that Mr. Lewis attributes to his characters, and we are within sight of the time when such dreams will be realizable.”

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