Michel Foucault’s theory of the Panopticon is as prescient as ever as the Coalition considers new powers of surveillance that will affect us all. This article applies some of Foucault’s theories to what we know – or rather what remains unknown – about the EU. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?
‘Morals reformed— health preserved — industry invigorated — instruction diffused — public burthens lightened — Economy seated, as it were, upon a rock — the gordian knot of the poor-law not cut, but untied — all by a simple idea in Architecture!’  This was eighteenth century philosopher and social theorist Jeremy Bentham’s excited pitch for what he called the panopticon. A circular building with a single observation post at its centre. Though it was suggested by Betham that the building may serve a number of social, industrial and municipal purposes, it is chiefly regarded as a revolutionary design for a prison.
The prisoners, located in cells situated on the building’s circumference could be watched by a guard/guards located in the central observation post, but the prisoners could not see the guard. Since the prisoners would not know if or when they were being watched, it would engender in them a spirit of self-regulation and control, lest further transgressions beget further punishments.
Whilst a prison following the panopticon design was neither constructed in Bentham’s lifetime nor in our own age, its metaphorical implications are keenly felt perhaps now more than ever. These implications are articulated by the French philosopher Michel Foucault in his work Discipline and Punish.  It is a remarkably insightful work which out to be read in full, so mere quotation cannot do it justice, though it can offer an impression.
Foucault suggests that those occupying a panoptic prison are ‘the object[s] of information, never a subject[s] in communication’ since they can be watched but they cannot communicate with others. With Bentham’s design, as Foucault observes:
The crowd, a compact mass, a locus of multiple exchanges, individualities merging together, a collective effect, is abolished and replaced by a collection of separated individualities. From the point of view of the guardian, it is replaced by a multiplicity that can be numbered and supervised; from the point of view of the inmates, by a sequestered and observed solitude. Hence the major effect of the Panopticon: to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power.
Foucault elaborates upon this model by suggesting that panopticism supposes two types of power: visible and unverifiable:
Visible: the inmate will constantly have before his eyes the tall outline of the central tower from which he is spied upon. Unverifiable: the inmate must never know whether he is being looked at any one moment; but he must be sure that he may always be so.
Starkly, Foucault suggests that ‘The Panopticon is a machine for dissociating the see/being seen dyad: in the peripheric ring, one is totally seen, without ever seeing; in the central tower, one sees everything without ever being seen.’ So it is with the EU – its presence is known, but its quantity is not since it comprises of unelected representatives and unqualified bureaucrats, all of whom are unaccountable or in some particular cases, immune.
A common response to the notion of increased surveillance is that if one has done nothing wrong, then one has nothing to hide. This accords with Foucault’s remarks that the success of an autonomous state may be measured by the self-regulation of the individuals within:
He who is subjected to a field of visibility, and who knows it, assumes responsibility for the constraints of power; he makes them play spontaneously upon himself; he inscribes in himself the power relation in which he simultaneously plays both roles; he becomes the principle of his own subjection. By this very fact, the external power may throw off its physical weight; it tends to the non-corporal; and, the more it approaches this limit, the more constant, profound and permanent are its effects: it is a perpetual victory that avoids any physical confrontation and which is always decided in advance.
But if one takes the panopticon as a structure (its building materials, the geometric alignments that need to be made, the guiding principles of its design, the perfection of its lines of visibility, notwithstanding the land required for the building, the materials and equipments needed to cater for the prisoners and the staff), it entails a great amount of labour before the dream of self regulation can be realised. So the EU cannot ‘throw off its physical weight’ whilst it builds its dream of a geographically, politically and fiscally united Europe. Thus, during construction of the EU panopticon, Europe’s nations occupy a prison of another sort: the building site of the EU’s edifice. They are bogged down in the mire of its foundations, at the mercy of the haphazard construction, of self-appointed cowboy builders who claim knowledge, authority and command of their craft as the walls they built the previous day collapse upon the people’s occupying this dangerous and unworkable project who are obliged to meet the costs of its floundering construction.
Indeed, Foucault’s theories of panopticism could not have accounted for the institution that is the EU because it is so abstract and absurd a notion, that it resembles the excesses of a deluded fantasist rather than a learned philosopher. In this way, the self-regulatory notion that if one has done nothing wrong, one has nothing to hide, does not account for the way in which governments that practise intensive surveillance are prepared to find something wrong in what you do. And let us not forget that the snooper’s charter derives from an EU initiative. Indeed, one may not be doing something wrong in their own country, but if the data collected amounts to a criminal offence in another EU country, they have the right to extradite you thanks to the European Arrest Warrant, where you can be held in a foreign jail for many months before your case is heard.
One may take some comfort in Foucault’s suggestion that whilst in the central tower ‘the director may spy on all the employees that he has under his orders: nurses, doctors, foremen, teachers, warders; he will be able to judge them continuously, alter their behaviour, impose upon them the methods he thinks best; and it will even be possible to observe the director himself.’ He continues:
An inspector arriving unexpectedly at the centre of the Panopticon will be able to judge at a glance, without anything being concealed from him, how the entire establishment is functioning. And, in any case, enclosed as he is in the middle of this architectural mechanism, is not the – 5 director’s own fate entirely bound up with it ? The incompetent physician who has allowed contagion to spread, the incompetent prison governor or workshop manager will be the first victims of an epidemic or a revolt. ‘
UKIP would seem well placed to represent the erstwhile and timely visitations of a director to the unruly institution of the EU panopticon. Regrettably, however, UKIP’s inspections of the EU building site are currently as close as the people can get to auditing the construction, let alone object to the planning application. Foucault suggests that the completed panoptican would be democratically controlled:
In fact, any panoptic institution, even if it is as rigorously closed as a penitentiary, may without difficulty be subjected to such irregular and constant inspections: and not only by the appointed inspectors, but also by the public; any member of society will have the right to come and see with his own eyes how the schools, hospitals, factories, prisons function. There is no risk, therefore, that the increase of power created by the panoptic machine may degenerate into tyranny; he disciplinary mechanism will be democratically controlled, since it will be constantly accessible ‘to the great tribunal committee of the world’. This Panopticon, subtly arranged so that an observer may observe, at a glance, so many different individuals, also enables everyone to come and observe any of the observers. The seeing machine was once a sort of dark room into which individuals spied; it has become a transparent building in which the exercise of power may be supervised by society as a whole.
Just as big government like the EU wants to eradicate identity in the name of some perverted sense ‘progressive’ social synthesis, so laws concerning surveillance seem prepared to identify guilt or the likelihood of guilt rather than the presumption of innocence. The revelation of Foucault’s panopticism in our own time is that the process of isolation, exclusion and the separation of individuals is being applied to all rather than the perpetrators of criminal acts. The exceptions are justifying the rules. Our actions, like our nations, remain in the darkened rooms under the watch of the EU’s unaccountable spies. Until such institutions can offer a genuinely reciprocal relationship with the people they claim to represent, the dream of an illuminated, transparent building for individuals, for society and for government, will remain a vivid but stinging illusion.
© thepanopticonblog, 2012
- 1. Jeremy Bentham. Panopticon. In Miran Bozovic (ed.), The Panopticon Writings, London: Verso, 1995, 29-95
- 2. Michel Foucault. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Vintage Books, 1977. <http://itpedia.nyu.edu/mediawiki/images/3/3e/Foucault-Discipline_and_Punish.pdf> All quotations are taken from this edition.