Trapped in the Panopticon

Panopticon*: a prison with cells that face inward to a guard tower. The guard tower itself is impossible to see into, but from it the activities of every prisoner are visible. The inmates themselves have no way of knowing if they are being watched at any moment, and so they must act at all times as if they are being watched. From the watchtower, a guard can focus on the behavior of particular inmates, and mete out punishment on a whim. Alternatively, the guard can leave the watchtower without inmates knowing, and they will continue regulating themselves. From the tower, force must only be exerted frequently enough in order to demonstrate a credible commitment to punishment. With a credible commitment, self-regulation continues.

Now imagine for a moment that prisoners in certain cells begin to organize resistance in the panopticon. Perhaps they want to escape, perhaps they want time away from their cells, perhaps they themselves want to enter the watchtower. Where these upheavals begin to occur, the guard focuses their attention. In order to make communities self-regulate into the behaviors expected of “good” inmates, punishment must be increased. In order to escape punishment, inmates must prove that they match this ideal type.

Who determines the ideal “good” inmate? Those with discursive power, the authority to define. Who has this authority? Those who run the prison, or those who direct the system in which the prison is contained. 

Is a prison the only panopticon? No. In a sense, any centralized authority with coercive capabilities carries out the same function in the same way. States themselves are centralized power, where certain mechanisms operate behind the veil. Even when they do not operate behind the veil, the intentions of those who carry out the mission of the state are not always transparent. In this sense, the state itself is a guard tower. The state can use its coercive capabilities to quell dissent, indeed, it is most likely to engage the coercive apparatus against segments of society which rebel. When doing so in non-autocratic states (and in many autocracies) the state must provide some legitimating logic for the intervention itself. These legitimating logics are centered around what Richard Ashley and Cynthia Weber call sovereign man. This sovereign man is an ideal type, a socially constructed version of what a well-behaved citizen is. How does this construction occur? I posit that the construction is largely centered around winning coalitions. Winning coalitions are the *smallest* (not always, but generally) amount of supporters it takes for a government to gain or maintain power. The central principles that the winning coalition shares among themselves largely constitute the domestic (and international) interests of the state. The sovereign man (from hereon referred to as the ideal person) is an organizing principle that can create sharp distinctions between self and other. Imagine ideal persons as those people to whom the state must cater to, and from whom it gains its authority. That is, the state is largely organized around maximizing the interests of these ideal persons. This is the self.

Contrasted to these ideal people are the subaltern, or other. Winning coalitions do not have to be representative of a particular population, and so there may not be a perfect bell curve of interests that can show the ideological spread of winning coalitions. But imagining that their beliefs fall within a certain range, say 20-60 “units”, the subaltern would be those who fall radically outside of the range that members of the winning coalition are likely to be found, so say, 85-100 “units.”

The trouble with these political orders is that many times those “subaltern” are people who find themselves on the bloody end of cultural wars. I have illustrated the state as the panopticon, but we can imagine that in non-autocratic states (and some autocracies) the interests of the government are also reflective of the interests of society-at-large. This means that there is potential for coercive material and social power to be leveraged against subaltern groups, even when those groups are non-threats or in-the-right. Sound familiar?

I would argue that most governments (if not all, I just don’t have the knowledge to make this sweeping of a generalization) have been largely panoptic. Indeed, that just seems to be a risk inherent to centralized authority. The Panopticon is also double, it does not just exist due to a concentration of coercive power in government control, but also coercive and social power in individual control.

Again, imagine.  Now there is no state, we live in anarchy. Power is completely diffuse, all of the earth’s coercive potential is divided among individual actors. Eliminating the social structuration of government does not eliminate the social structuration of norms. That is, beliefs that individuals have about certain things can still influence their behavior. Because power is so diffuse, it is easier to act on individual beliefs. Perhaps I believe everyone deserves cookies, I give you a cookie. MMMMMMM. Cookie. Perhaps I believe that people with green eyes should die, and there is nothing preventing me from taking action to exert my will except the power of individual actors. These beliefs can still spread among individuals, now groups can act out against or for certain identities. I would argue that this ultimately leads to the formation of government, but leaving that aside, getting rid of government still has not eliminated the social panopticon. Civil society itself (people – not government – acting) can create certain cultures of anarchy that are harmful to the subaltern. In this case, there is no government to moderate these whims (whether they exist in a culture of anarchy that harms or helps the subaltern).

In a sense, we are doubly trapped in a Panopticon. Civil society and government structure our relations in such a way that we are regulated and self-regulating. Radical acts of resistence to escape self-regulation result in the state or society itself acting against the subaltern, reintroducing the credible threat of punishment and attempting to destroy any passion for dissent. All individuals are forced to perform in such a way that they model the ideal person to escape punishment.

How do we escape this situation? At the moment, I see two scenarios.

  1. altruism

Some aspects of social order may be structured by altruism.  The order itself rather than centering around winning coalitions and imitating a societal panopticon could instead center around collective identities and interests including a normative valuation of other people(s) as endowed with certain qualities that are worth sacrificing individual interests for. While this does not eliminate problems of conflict, discrimination, etc. it could create new possibilities for action that prevent the subaltern from having to engage in a performativity that portrays the “self” as “other” (from the subject-position of the subaltern) in order to gain legitimacy for their individual rights. The downside? A hegemonic social order could propose that the long-term interests of society are best served when the subaltern themselves sacrifice the potential for the abatement of abuses. That, and I see no way to easily persuade whole societies to be altruistic. In that case, the subaltern must seek to disrupt traditional ways of thinking in order to slowly turn minds and hearts. The unfortunate truth is that much of the time this solution places tremendous and undeserved pressure on groups which face discrimination to educate victimizers. In states with constitutions, perhaps some of this work can be done through bills of rights, but these bills can only be so radical when the winning coalition itself is largely composed of oppressors. 

2. A reimagination of what’s possible

This seems like a nice way to say “I don’t see altruism working, but I also don’t know how to solve major societal issues.” But, when we collectively encounter the solution, I feel confident in saying that it will be something so radical that it has not widely entered into social consciousness. Somehow, I believe that this solution would reorient liberal and conservative societies away from their collective ideologies and instead center them around a new collective-agentic order that, in many ways, reflects secular humanist values. But it would also transcend these secular humanist values, and recognize the agentic nature of other creatures, weather systems, the environment, etc. while setting them equal to (if not superior to) other agents in world systems such as states, religions, corporations, etc.

In order to reimagine what is possible, I believe it is also necessary to determine just what politics and government are for. In order to escape the Panopticon, both seem necessary.

Devil’s advocate: just because something resembles a thing that is *bad* doesn’t mean that it is. Not everything with centralized power is inherently evil, and perhaps we have already done enough to limit centralized power (at least in the United States) or have very little to do in order to properly regulate it (based on this post, I think you see where I stand).

*See Bentham and Foucault. I’ve admittedly not read either of their pieces on the panopticon, but I like the idea of it as an illustrative device. These are definitely future readings for me. Like a lot of my thinking, this draws heavily on Cynthia Weber and Richard Ashley … but also reactions to Immanuel Kant, Thomas Paine, Louise Hartz, Rogers M. Smith, and more … all of it combines into what is probably a very hackneyed sketch of politics.


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