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The Panoptic Effect

Stateville Prison, near Joliet, Illinois, perhaps from the 1920s.

When the Second World War ended, the US labor force underwent a dramatic change from war production to civilian production. The workers changed too, from a labor force full of women in important roles to one dominated by men. Why did all those women go home? Didn’t they like working? Didn’t they like being on their own, being responsible for more than just the hubby and the kiddies? Didn’t they like solving puzzles, and the feeling of success that comes with a day’s work well done? This question has as many answers as there are women. My wife remembers from her childhood that women who worked were pitied: it meant that their husbands couldn’t provide for their families, and people talked about it even around the kids. Her mother was trained as a nurse, and quit working when she married to raise her children. When the kids were older, why didn’t she go back to work, even part time? Why didn’t my mother? Perhaps it was because our fathers didn’t want people talking about them in this ugly way? Or because they didn’t want people talking about their husbands that way? Or both?

This might be an example of people watching their neighbors and enforcing a kind of discipline on them. Why people do that is a good question; again, I don’t know. In Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault writes about the way discipline is enforced. He uses the image of the Panopticon, a prison invented by Jeremy Bentham. The image above gives a good idea of the concept. The prison cells are arranged in a circle, and a guard tower stands in the center. Bentham suggested that the guards should be shielded from the view of the prisoners, so they wouldn’t know when they were being observed, but would know that they might be observed at any moment. He also suggested that it didn’t matter who was looking at the prisoners, as long as someone was looking. It reminds me of the neighborhood my wife describes, one in which people could and did watch everything outside their homes.

The principle of close observation of thousands of people by a very few guards applies to other groups as well. Hospitals became places for close observation of the sick by doctors and nurses. Schools became places for close observation of dozens of students by a very few teachers and administrators. The army changed from a rough and ready mass of men to strict hierarchical order, where huge numbers of men could be observed, drilled and taught to act as one by a relatively small cadre. The workplace changed from a place where a single master taught a few apprentices in an open workshop to a tightly disciplined force managed by a few.

At the scale of a factory, a great iron-works or a mine, ‘the objects of expenditure are so multiplied, that the slightest dishonesty on each object would add up to an immense fraud, which would not only absorb the profits, but would lead to a loss of capital. … [T]he slightest incompetence, if left unnoticed and therefore repeated each day, may prove fatal to the enterprise to the extent of destroying it in a very short time'; hence the fact that only agents, directly dependent on the owner, and entrusted with this task alone would be able to see ‘that not a sou is spent uselessly, that not a moment of the day is lost'; their role would be ‘to supervise the workers, to inspect all the places of work, to inform the directors of everything that takes place’ …. Surveillance thus becomes a decisive economic operator both as an internal part of the production machinery and as a specific mechanism in the disciplinary power, ‘The work of directing, superintending and adjusting becomes one of the functions of capital, from the moment that the labour under the control of capital, becomes cooperative. Once a function of capital, it requires special characteristics’ (Marx, Capita!, vol. i, 313). Foucault at 174, emphasis mine.

This discipline was great for productivity. This table is from Capital in the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty, It shows that per capita output increased dramatically in the 1800s, and the most plausible explanation is the change in the methods of production.

I’ll just add that in my bankruptcy practice I never saw a business fail because of the workers. It was always management.

People became accustomed to this surveillance from childhood, through schools, where they are constantly observed and ranked, through their communities, which watch them all the time, through the army, the hospital and the Church, all of which watch them constantly. They become unaware of it, and do not think it is strange to think that at any moment they might be observed, counted, registered in books of account, and evaluated. They seem to think they are free, and that they are completely independent from all others. They do not think of themselves as members of a interdependent grouping, ignoring all the evidence to the contrary.

Think about sports. We have a highly developed system for finding the best athletes, and it starts at a very early age. Kids are taught how to swim in places where there are competitions. The competitions for little kids select from the best swimmers the kids who can be persuaded or persuade themselves to put in hours in the pool and who eventually either move up in competitions or drop out. The same thing is true of musicians, ballplayers, mathematicians, and pretty much everything. The rest move into different competitions: on the factory floor, to see who gets promoted to supervisor; in the fast food franchise, to see who moves up to assistant manager; in the army, to see who gets promoted.

Law schools select the people who are good at the academic side of law, and many are selected for big firms or clerkships where they are further observed and trained. The powers of government and business are devoted to selecting those who will carry on the traditional ideas. We now have systems in place that ensure that no really smart and decent people get those top legal jobs, as Goodwin Liu and others have learned.

We are constantly reminded of the power of government to observe and classify us, and the Snowden revelations have made this even more salient. Somehow this seems much more dangerous than the surveillance and monitoring done by corporations and businesses, which we seem to think is more or less OK.

But the real question is who benefits from all this surveillance. It should be obvious that the primary beneficiaries are rich and powerful private interests. They benefit when government enforces the all-seeing eye. They benefit from the docility of their labor forces, reinforced by a panopticon system of education, and they benefit most from the increased output of each worker. They benefit from domination of a system of selecting and grading people and routing them to the system of production. They benefit from domination of government that gives them special privileges such as low or non-existent taxes, monopolies, patents, and trade protection; and exempts them from application of the criminal law. Again, Piketty hands us a bit of reality: the rate of return to capital runs between 4 and 5% per annum, and has for centuries. Wealth reproduces wealth.

But somehow we as a people can’t see that.

Image scanned by Alex Wellerstein.

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I read a lot of books.