Have you ever wondered how much you control yourself due to the risk that others might monitor you? That you almost feel like a ”free prisoner” in the sense that you are not physically incapacitated but in practice mentally deprived of some of your basic freedoms, such as the First Amendment (or equivalent constitutions in Europe), and that some things that you might say or write would have dire consequences for your career and private life?
In any case, welcome to the ”mental prison” that is the panopticon version of 2017. I will guide you through some of its historical tenets and current features.
Panopticon as concrete way to monitor people
The panopticon model was designed by the British utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham in the late 18th century. The construction implies that all (pan) prison inmates can be watched (opticon) by a single officer.
As the French left-leaning scholar Michel Foucault stresses in one chapter of his book Discipline and Punish (1975), the process was linked to economic and material effectiveness. It is less expensive if a single person almost simultaneously can monitor all inmates instead of having multiple guards on duty.
Thus the model was indeed a very concrete prison building with concrete dimensions of surveillance, but few prisons have actually been constructed in this particular way. It has rather been the case that a significant share of modern prisons, as well as mental institutions, have been influenced by the pantopicon model to some extent, but most have been built without a circular center in a horizontal and “decentralized” fashion with symmetrical corridors where inmates dwell.
But some have indeed more or less copied Bentham’s outlines and do still remain (whereas others have been demolished). Koepelgevangenis [cupola prison] at Arnhem, the Netherlands, was constructed in 1886. An American example is Stateville Penitentiary, near Joliet, Illinois, built between 1916-24.
Panopticon as a symbol for real monitoring and self-control
After the birth of more complex monitor systems, such as surveillance cameras, the physical dimension of the panopticon has become more obsolete. Instead we can talk about a general trend of ”panopticism” in the modern Western society. This has happened in parallel with the birth of so-called biopolitics, the will to control a population’s way of thinking and acting to a greater extent than in earlier times. This is not because human nature has changed but due to that modernity comes with improved technology, in conjunction with faster information processing and more rapid human migration.
The modern man is indeed more free in some regards. He can travel to another country and start a new business and even become a citizen overseas. With more disposable income and increased standards of living he has a lot of real agency.
However, he is also really or potentially controlled by others, as well as himself, to a greater extent. Modern ideologies like Fascism and Communism, which severely curtailed individual freedoms (at least in times of war), have vanished, whereas the proponents of liberalism, neoconservatism and cultural Marxism have continued to control people by means of digital surveillance and subtle self-controlling mechanisms in the late-modern era.
Therefore one may say that control is manifested in three major ways: state surveillance (police and military), establishment power, and self-control by the individual citizen himself.
If you are a real threat, then the state will intervene (and that is often a good thing). As the German professor of law, Carl Schmitt, describes in his work Politische Theologie (1922), and the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben in his book State of Exception (2005), a truly sovereign state dictates the exception from common law in times of political crisis. The term ”legal civil war” encompasses this particular dimension of law and politics.
After the USA Patriot Act was implemented October 26, 2001, any general attorney has the lawful right to ”take into custody” anyone who appears to endanger the security of the United States.
If you are not a real existential threat, and thus a real enemy according to Carl Schmitt’s political distinction and terminology, but has said or written something that goes against the current ideology, then media, social media or their helpers among the populace will step in do the work.
Thus the ”panopticon” of today is not necessarily a centralized unit but rather a fragmentary way of supervision (yet more or less linked to the establishment), which uses digital platforms in order to discipline and punish their political opponents.
As ROK has covered in many articles, verbal dissent can result in what I refer to as quasi-ostracism, meaning that people are deprived of their livelihoods, at least in medium to high-status occupations such as law, journalism, academia and teaching, for being “racists,” “sexists” or even anti-globalists. Even smaller private businesses can take a hit after the Pavlov’s watchdogs have responded to their masters rhetorical conditioned learning.
It is like a soft totalitarian ideology. Instead of sending them to Gulags or expelling citizens (i.e. real ostracism), the fear of being deprived of income and/or social status are the main incentives to keep oneself in check.
For that reason the wise man knows not to say everything he has on his mind in “public” (the distinction between public and private are indeed blurry in current times). Self-control is generally a good thing, but when it becomes a tool for serving an ideology that one does not necessarily agree with then it serves a bad end and is problematic in itself and in blatant opposition to the First Amendment. It is a question of evaluating the consequences but regardless of how you choose to act, you are still a “free prisoner” within the global, or at least national panopticon.
Surveillance and self-control can be good things in many ways, and I do not encourage anyone to say, write or do something stupid just to make a point, but these processes have taken a stronghold over a significant part of the West.
Read More: Beware Of The Coming Surveillance State