Tag Archives: philosophy

Another day, another attempt by Labour to define its message. When it comes to salvaging the economy, let alone their credibility, they are utterly bankrupt.

To words and phrases such as ‘credit crunch’ and ‘quantative easing’, let us add ‘preditribution’ to the ongoing befuddlement that is the politio-economic lexicon. Or is that the ongoing befuddlement that is the Labour party’s latest response to stimulate the near-death pulse of the UK economy?

At his podium, Mr Miliband presented himself not unlike an evangelist preacher spreading The Word, an affectation that had a bearing on his lexical choices – on being quizzed about how he would feel working with the Lib Dems in a future coalition, the insipid Rev. Miliband replied ‘They made a tragic mistake, but I welcome all people who recant’. How benevolent. Ultimately, this Good Shepherd offered his political equivalent of turning water into wine through ‘predistribution’ (the old New Labour habits of buzz words and spin obviously die hard):

Our aim must be to transform our economy so it is a much higher skill, much higher wage economy. Think about somebody working in a call centre, a supermarket, or in an old peoples’ home. Redistribution offers a top-up to their wages. Predistribution seeks to go further – higher skills with higher wages. [1]

Rev. Miliband proposes that lower paid workers will, through a better skills index, be able to access higher wages previously unavailable to them. This is a radical message from Labour, effectively reversing a philosophy which has hitherto suggested that low paid workers would benefit from wealth distribution – that is, receiving hand outs from those with better opportunities – the cynical may even suggest that this implies they are living off the hard work of others. But like any evangelist, Rev. Milliband issued forth garbled false promises of salvation backed up by no evidence, let alone substance. One person on the BBC News website remarked:

Not sure I get it. Surely simple supply and demand economics means that you’re just down grading skilled workers jobs. The UK only needs a finite supply of electricians for example, say 20,000, if you training 40,000 to do the job your likely to get them cheaper and then have 20,000 people trained for jobs that don’t exist. That or companies will just wack up the prices to cover costs? [2]

Just so. Once again Rev. Miliband continues to deliver the sermon that time and again proves its own vacuity: politicians cannot create jobs. In the costly and unproductive public sector they can, but the private sector is not theirs to master. Indeed, Rev. Miliband has found another use for the bankers bonus tax; this time his populist panacea could be used to fund 25,000 new affordable homes. True to form, Labour have far exceeded the revenue such a tax would grant them with promise after promise about where and how the money would be spent. Listen carefully and one can hear the greasy fat hands of Friar Balls rubbing together with delight.

Rev. Miliband (who, as it transpires, has a hotline to St. Cable the Business Secretary) is a charlatan of the highest order. His promises of a better post-depression afterlife are the stuff of whimsy and outright fantasy, with ‘predistribution’ the latest gimmick to ensnare those members of the electorate who have not yet gone through political Enlightenment of their own. Rev. Miliband can promise idealism because it comes as cheap fodder to the uncritical mind. He may be willing to forgive the Lib Dems who recant the current economic policy under which this country endures, but anyone with sense, who uses their eyes, their ears and their mind will know never to forgive Labour for the ruinous state in which they left this country, nor to entrust them with responsibility for the economy ever gain [3].

Amen to that.

© thepanopticonblog, 2012



What might be taught in the classroom where politicians go to ‘learn lessons’ from poor judgement or mistakes?

In the classroom, the most important skills acquired by any student are reading, writing and arithmetic. To attack the three ‘R’s as conservative or traditional usually belies the accusers depth of understanding. These are matters that open up the possibilities of learning and opportunity rather than close them down. The essential ability to be able to master the pleasures of and/or analytical skills inherently involved in reading, to express oneself clearly and eloquently in a variety of written styles and modes and to be able to command an understanding of basic mathematical principles remain constant if not neglected parts of the national curriculum.

It is to Education Secretary Michael Gove’s credit that he is pursuing a hard-line in addressing a restoration of the importance of these subjects as well as other areas of education. According to Conservative Home [1]:

  • The current curriculum states that pupils should be taught, by the end of Year 2, to write each letter of the alphabet, use simple spelling patterns, and spell common words. In the new curriculum, by the end of Year 2, children will be taught contractions, homophones and possessive apostrophes, and the spelling of more complex words.
  • With grammar, the current curriculum says that pupils need, by the end of primary school, to know such things as the “purposes and organisational features of paragraphs and how ideas can be linked”. The Department for Education says the new curriculum will be far more demanding.
  • The new curriculum will seek to place a stronger emphasis on the enjoyment of reading. At present, pupils at the end of Year 6 should be able to “express preferences and support their views by reference to texts; read stories, poems and plays aloud”. Under the new curriculum, pupils at the end of Year 4 will have similar skills.

If education is not demanding, if it does not insist upon challenging the intellectual capacity of those it is meant to enrich, then something is very wrong indeed.

Yet, whilst students enjoy the summer break, perhaps now is a good time for our own politicians to reflect upon their political education. Quite often when mistakes are made, politicians report that they will ‘learn lessons’ from the experience and resolve to do better or else not let it happen again. There is a ring of cliché to this claim not lost on the electorate; indeed, if a politician went back to school every time they claimed they would be learning lessons, classroom overcrowding would indeed be a very great problem.

However, if politicians were to return to the classroom, schooling them in what may be termed ‘The Three “L”s’ would be a strong place to start. In this adaptation of what is contained in the American Declaration of Independence [2], one may suggest that government has a duty to maintain the following: Life, Law and Liberty:

  • Government should determine to protect the lives and the ways of life of the people under its care
  • Government should continue to legislate or repeal laws that serve this first cause
  • In enacting these laws, government must do so without undue exertion of influence over the law-abiding and should diffuse centralised power, deregulating where prosperity is stifled and protecting the rights of the individual, without compromising the will of the many.

These are broad strokes that (like the three ‘R’s that offer a point of entry into learning rather than an end in themselves) may remind politicians of the nature of the democracy they claim to represent, that their responsibility is to those they serve rather than the parties to which they are attached, that, ultimately, big government is incompatible with democracy and prosperity.

Indeed, in their lessons, politicians may learn from other tripartite mottos including “liberté, égalité, fraternité” (liberty, equality, fraternity) in France; “Einigkeit und Recht und Freiheit” (unity, justice and freedom) in Germany’ “life, liberty, and prosperity” in Australia; “peace, order and good government” in Canada. [3]

If the three ‘R’s enhance the ability of the individual to express themselves, so variations upon the three ‘L’s may aid politicians, enabling them to ameliorate the UK’s expression of identity and that of the people within its territory.

© thepanopticonblog, 2012


‘To make anything very terrible, obscurity seems in general to be necessary’ – Edmund Burke’s description of the Romantic sublime has never been more pertinent as this article suggests parallels between both this and the EU. 

One of the Romantic period’s greatest philosophers, Edmund Burke, in his celebrated discourse A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, attempted to articulate the nature of the sublime. This sensation, which today we take to describe a state of almost transcendental perfection, held a different meaning for Burke and his contemporaries and is encoded in much of the great poetry and writing of the period.

In essence, the Romantic sublime is at once the combination of fear and awe. In our own time, we might suggest that some of the natural disasters we see on television, like those powerful images of the tsunami in Japan in 2011, provoke in us a feeling of awe at the power of nature and fear of that very power. More specifically, the Romantic sublime suggests that it is to be within the proximity of like danger (real or imagined) but to be just safe from harm that we recognise the unquantifiable and the reconciliation of the individual self to it. In this spirit, Wordsworth wrote that in his youth he was ‘Foster’d alike by beauty and by fear;’ and ‘sanctifying by such discipline | Both pain and fear until we recognise | A grandeur in the beatings of the heart.’ [1]

The sensation of the sublime is not restricted to encounters with the natural word. Indeed, Edmund Burke notes that the sublime can be used to political ends and that obscurity is key to power:

To make anything very terrible, obscurity seems in general to be necessary. When we know the full extent of any danger, when we can accustom our eyes to it, a great deal of the apprehension vanishes. Every one will be sensible of this, who considers how greatly night adds to our dread, in all cases of danger, and how much the notions of ghosts and goblins, of which none can form clear ideas, affect minds which give credit to the popular tales concerning such sorts of beings. Those despotic governments, which are founded on the passions of men, and principally upon the passion of fear, keep their chief as much as may be from the public eye. [2]

To offer a more recent frame of reference, one need only consider the figure of Big Brother in Orwell’s great novel; whether he is real or not is immaterial, because he is unseen (obscured) save for propaganda, he can be both everywhere and nowhere, obliging the citizens of that dystopia to normalize and regulate their behaviour in the most oppressive fashion. Thus the figure or idea of Big Brother elicits both awe and fear alike.

Away from literature, this idea of the sublime conveniently translates into both the perception and the reality of the EU. Its governance operates remotely (literally in another country) and its politicians and bureaucrats are, too, remote. They are unknown, indeed, obscure quantities ruling from afar; because they have not been voted in, they cannot be voted out and so they are utterly unaccountable.

Generally, those in awe of the EU are not experiencing a pleasant sensation, rather they are struck by the self perpetuating bureaucracy, the job justification and the disparate often vested interests at work within this institution. So, too, one has a legitimate right to experience fear; those making laws, those passing legislation or enacting are doing so without the mandate of the people, let alone their consultation. Indeed, professional obscurity is no bar to occupying professional office: look at the example of the European Court of Justice. As Daniel Hannan remarks ‘it doesn’t require its members to have served on the bench in their home countries. Many of them are academics, politicians and human rights activists who happen to have law degrees. And some are quite blatant about using the institution to advance an agenda that would be rejected at the ballot box.’ [3]

Time and again, when those such as Mr Farage remind the likes of Mr Barosso, Mr Van Rompuy or Mr Schulz that they have not been elected by the people to hold the offices they hold, they respond that they were voted for by colleagues and peers within the EU as if this equates to the same thing. At the most fundamental level, therefore, democracy is replaced by obscurity, since there is no correlation between the electorate and the people who claim to rule in their name.

The fear of the EU is not just in its meddling and efforts to standardize and legislate, it is, most obviously, to be see on the world stage where the effort to salvage the credibility of it economic prowess have floundered. Yet, day in, day out, it issues face-saving propaganda to claim success – but success for whom? Generations have been saddled with insurmountable debt to prop up countries that should have never joined this ill-conceived economic project. The EU’s own ideology has, therefore, become obscure, yet it still wields ‘fearful’ power over the nations and peoples it claims to serve (cf. ‘Weltanschauung: The Destructive Nature of the EU’s Ideology’). It is, in the Romantic sense, sublime.

The list of likenesses between the EU and Burke’s understanding of the sublime are many and varied. Perhaps the most potent sensation is the fact that in giving away practical powers to an unknown quantity, the UK has lost something far more worrying: its own symbolic value. Just as the idea of Big Brother or omnipotence  is powerful enough to regulate and normalise the actions of citizens, so we forget that the idea of the UK, with its independent, individual, pioneering and innovative spirit is more powerful than the sum of its policies. The economic or political ends of a nation state are never as valuable nor as powerful as its symbolic value. When one talks of the UK government failing to stop its ceding of powers to the EU, we cast our politicians as the victims of some obscure plot – but make no mistake – these are powers that have been given away with alacrity to serve an ideology conceived of by the passions of men.

What the obscure EU has to fear is exposure. It is sensitive at precisely the point where normal democracy should be strong – it is neither open, nor democratic, nor accountable –  which is why it is necessary to cast a floodlight over the shadowy machinations of this institution and its politicians, the men and women who keep themselves as much as may be from the public eye.

© thepanopticonblog, 2012.


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!’ [1] 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. [2] 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