Social Order and the Panopticon

This post is basically expressing one of those interesting cross-over ideas that you get when themes in two separate courses you’re taking join up – a little bit thinking out loud.

On the one hand, in the context of a political philosophy course focusing on issues of social order, ensuring co-operation, collective action problems, and so on, there’s this distinction between two types of human society:

  • the anarchic communal society, typical of hunter gatherers and dominant throughout human prehistory, and
  • the hierarchical state society, typical of settled agriculturalists and dominant through human history.

On the other hand, in the context of a bioethics course focused on the work of Foucault, there’s the over-arching idea of a multi-faceted transition in the modes by which social power is exercised over the individual:

  • away from the sovereign power of a king and the hierarchy below him, embodied in the right to inflict death, in religiously-backed schemes of ideas, and obsessed with the symbol of ‘blood’;
  • towards the disciplinary power of a network of meticulous regimenting institutions (schools, factories, prisons, hospitals, etc), embodied in the skill to manage and optimise life, in a scientifically-backed scheme of ideas, obsessed (Foucault claims) with the symbol of ‘sexuality’.

It occurred to me – what if we map the second item in the first pair onto the first item in the second pair, i.e. what if we see the changes Foucault describes (assuming they’re real) are the beginnings of a potential third strategy for arranging social control of individuals.

Of course even the most technological, scientific, surveillance-and-regimentation-oriented society nowadays is run by a state: but equally, states don’t automatically do away with community or with the role of communities in maintaining order – though they have the potential to do so in some cases.

The difference is more the weight placed on various factors: a ‘primitive anarchy’ rests primarily on the role of communal feelings and behaviours, a state shifts some of the weight onto centralised instruments of force, and modern societies are able to shift that weight in turn onto their greatly increased epistemic resources.

Symbolically, one could put the point by observing that the panopticon, Foucault’s favourite symbol of modern disciplinary power, potentially removes the need for special people to play the role of guards – the people watching and the people watched could be the same people at different times. It is, potentially, an egalitarian sort of prison.

It is, of course, still a prison – even if we all participate in its exercise (perhaps especially if we all participate in its exercise) power can be too strict, too repressive, too omnipresent. And as it grows up, under the control of elites, directed towards maintaining the power of governments and of capital, it will often take oppressive forms.

But I don’t think this is necessary. After all, the state pioneered the use of omnipresent security cameras, but was still surprised and alarmed when crowds of civilians turned out to all have their own little security cameras. The powers that human society produces don’t remain in the hands of those who first oversaw their production.

To put it another way – some degree of social control of individuals is unquestionably desirable. Collective action problems, the odd violent individual, stopping people from littering and polluting, etc. The development of carceral society/disciplinary power/biopower/scientific epistemes/whatever-Foucault-calls-it-in-the-next-book means a vast increase in the resources available for this, and makes them easier to apply in egalitarian and non-violent ways.

For instance, if people performing some anti-social action are only 15% more likely to get caught, then the deterrent that will be effective needs to be much harsher (assuming it will be effective at all). Whereas if they are 85% likely to get caught, a smaller penalty can be just as effective. And that smaller penalty may require very different institutional structures to apply it.

So the paradoxical upshot is that anarchists should in a sense welcome these increases in the means available for society and the state to control people – because while the particular manifestations should often be resisted and fought, the means they make available serve to further weaken the rationale for the state.

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2 Responses to Social Order and the Panopticon

  1. Duncan says:

    It’s gone a bit quiet here.

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