Foucault 2: Government Surveillance & Prison | Philosophy Tube


Welcome back. In Part 1 we talked about French
philosopher Michel Foucault’s thesis that the penal system – that’s laws, policing, and survellance – exists not to prevent crime but to defend the power of the ruling class. And that was supposed to explain some of the odd and inconsistent ways we see those systems actually being applied in the real world. But in this Part 2 it’s time to learn about how he thinks the penal system defends the power of the ruling class – what is the mechanism there? And in order to understand that, we need to talk about Bentham. 18th and 19th Century English philosopher
Jeremy Bentham designed a hypothetical prison called the ‘Panopticon.’ The Panopticon is a circular prison with cells built into the circular wall and a central observation tower. From the tower you can see into every cell, and from each cell you can see that the tower is there. But the tower is designed with shutters and blinds so that the prisoners can’t see into it, they can only see that it’s there. So at any moment the prisoners can’t be sure that they’re being
watched but they know there’s a pretty good chance they might be. The name Panopticon is a reference
to Argus Panoptes, a mythological Greek giant with 100 eyes. And the upshot of this design, Bentham thought, is that the prisoners would bloody well behave themselves all the time! Just knowing that you’re visible, he thought, would be enough to keep you in line. You wouldn’t need whips or chains or truncheons – most of the time: you keep them in reserve, just in case. But most of the time the prisoners would regulate their own conduct. He thought that as far as possible the prisoners should actually be under 24/7 surveillance but the
great thing about the Panopticon’s design, he thought, is that even if you can’t quite manage that the prisoners are gonna behave themselves anyway because they don’t know whether or not they’re being watched 24/7. He also goes on at great length describing how the Panopticon could be privately run and profitable, which will be important in a second. What Foucault realised is that the Panopticon is more than a building. It’s the embodiment of a set of four principles. The first is
Pervasive Power: the tower sees into every cell and sees everything that goes on, so it can regulate everything. The second is Obscure Power: the tower sees into the cells, but the prisoners can’t see into the tower, and they can’t ever know when, how, or why they’re being observed. Third: direct violence is replaced by structural violence. Bentham makes a big deal about how you wouldn’t need chains or beatings – that prisoners would behave themselves “without being coerced.”
But what he doesn’t realise is that the structure of the Panopticon itself is coercive. It subjugates the prisoners just by being there. If you’d like to know more about the difference between direct violence and structural violence there are some links in the doobleydoo. The fourth principle is related: and that’s that working towards power’s goals is the only option available. Bentham thought that you could make the Panopticon profitable: you could make the prisoners work on whatever you wanted and then sell the things they make for profit if the only alternative was to sit in their cells and and eat bread and water. That’s taking the structural violence and using it for the benefit of those in power. By using these four principles the people
running the Panopticon can expand their power into every facet of the prisoners’ lives
and mould them into the kind of obedient workers that they want. The question they start with is, ‘What is good for me?’ not ‘What is good for the prisoners?’ or even, ‘Should
these people be prisoners in the first place?’ And because the Panopticon is a set of principles Bentham thought you could make a panoptic hospital, you could make a panoptic school, you could make a panoptic mental ward – And Foucault realised you could even make a panoptic country. There’s a connection between being seen
and being known. When we learn something we might say, “Oh, I see!” or if we don’t
understand: “I’m in the dark.” The more power knows, the more it sees into the prisoners’ cells, the more pervasive it becomes. So let’s shift now from the hypothetical to the real world. When Edward Snowden revealed that the US, UK, Australian, New Zealand, and Canadian governments were monitoring citizens’ phone calls and emails, and even forcing internet service providers to hand over personal information – why were they gathering all that data? Is there any reason to believe that all those people might be criminals? Six British journalists are currently suing the Metropolitan Police Force because they found they were on the Met’s ‘Domestic Extremism Watchlist.’ These
are political journalists: they take photos of political protests, a perfectly respectable job. I’ve even met some of them, they’re quite nice. But they found that their movements, their phone numbers, their addresses, even their clothing and medical records had all been noted on a police computer somewhere. Why? Last time we talked about the police stopping and searching people in the UK. If that happens to you the police may ask you for your name and address, even though you’re not always actually required to give them that information. So why do they ask? Well, the official answer to all these is that it’s hard to tell a criminal from a normal person and some
investigation techniques, especially those that rely on technology, are unfortunately a little bit blunt. And yeah, Ok, maybe that’s part of it. But Foucault would say that all that surveillance serves the ulterior purpose of expanding power. Allowing it to see further into the prisoners’ cells and regulate what it finds there. That last one, stop and search, might also serve the purpose of reminding you that the tower is there. In the UK less than half of all stop and searches end in an arrest and you are much more likely to get stopped and searched if you’re a black or minority ethnic person – that is explained if the purpose of stop and search is more about reminding you that the police are watching and less to do with actually catching criminals. If you are in the UK and you want to know more about your rights with stop and search – what kinds of things you have to tell the police and what you don’t have to tell them – the London Campaign Against Police & State Violence is a great resource. Links
in the doobleydoo. Remember, you don’t have to forget legitimate
security concerns – you can be a police officer or work for MI5 and still read
Foucault! You can be an anarchist or police abolitionist and still read Foucault! What he’s reminding us is that surveillance is necessarily a form of control. Some people say that when it comes to government surveillance the good have nothing to fear, but Foucault argues that if you’re being surveilled that is necessarily opposed to your freedom. And it’s never politically neutral. If the people who design and staff the tower in the Panopticon are sexist, racist, transphobic, ableist, against sex workers, are particularly fond of capitalism, or whatever, then the Panopticon itself and the behaviours that it enforces on its prisoners will reflect that. Foucault calls the penal system, “A subtle, calculated technology of subjection.” If you’re having conversations in your class about this, or you’re writing comments, you might wanna think about how could we dismantle panoptic structures and replace them with alternative law enforcement strategies; do we need to do that? Do you agree with Foucault? Do you think that he’s right? And would changing who sits in the tower necessarily make a Panoptic system better? I always need help paying the bills and giving away free education so Patreon.com/PhilosophyTube is where you can just give a tiny bit each month and that really really helps me out. Alterantively if you can’t do a regular donation I have a tip jar at PayPal.me/PhilosophyTube; it’s like putting a hat round at the end of a lecture.
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