Monthly Archives: April 2012

The Reverse Panopticon

By Giulio Amerigo Caperchi

Is the advent of easily available recording technology coupled with mass-distribution of content through social media platforms allowing for the democratization of the state’s surveillance apparatus?

Most of us fear the totalitarian dystopia imagined in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, in which citizens are controlled and stripped of private rights through the use of technologies enforcing total surveillance. It is easy to draw parallels with our world today, where the proliferation of CCTV devices and the use of surveillance drones by law enforcement eerily appear to emulate Big Brother’s tactics.

In fact, police forces worldwide are increasingly relying on overt and covert surveillance technologies. In the UK, police plan on deploying unmanned aerial vehicles to aid them in day to day surveillance operations in the light of the 2012 Olympics[1]. Similarly, on the ground, police are increasingly using Forward Intelligence Teams – officers armed with camcorders and other recording equipment used to document anti-social behavior[2]. Still, local governments continue to spend large sums of money on CCTV surveillance, despite evidence questioning its effectiveness as a deterrent[3].

However, in the past years we have witnessed the mass-consumption of relatively cheap products such as cell-phones equipped with camcorders. By now, any footage recorded by these devices is easily disseminated on the web thanks to social media platforms such as twitter and facebook. For example, the worldwide protests of 2011 have captured hours of footage in which civilians documented and “surveilled” law enforcement operations from Tahrir Square to Wall Street. We are all familiar with the grotesque images of a police officer pepper-spraying a row of seated and peaceful students at UC Davis.

Today we live in a world in which technology allows virtually anyone to easily document the actions of the same individuals whom operate the state’s surveillance apparatus. What occurs to the logics underlining mass surveillance when the “watched” are finally able to “watch the watchers”? And what implications does this have on the dynamics informing popular protest?

The French philosopher Michel Foucault studied the effects that mass surveillance has on society very carefully. For him, modern law enforcement could not possibly sustain the economic cost of maintaining social order through the threat of physical coercion alone. Modern mass democracies would enforce compliance to law through less intrusive and more subtle techniques: techniques which would push individuals to “self-police” themselves. Foucault refers to one of these techniques as “panopticism”. In his studies regarding carceral institutions he analyses the architectural plans of a new type of prison built during the 19th century. The Panopticon was the first prison constructed in such a way so that inmates were always visible to the wardens, but where the inmates could not see the wardens. Its effect was that of forcing inmates to behave as if actually being observed, even though no-one was observing them. Modern surveillance devices such as CCTVs function along the same logic, as “eyes that must see without being seen”[4].

For Foucault, this type of constant and total surveillance produced disciplined subjects; individuals whom would spontaneously conform to socially acceptable behavior thereby conspiring in their own self-regulation. Its effects were those of discouraging abnormal behavior –such as political protest- while fostering acquiescence and the internalization of the status quo. Panopticism, said Foucault, “was the most direct way…of making it possible to substitute for force or other violent constraints the gentle efficiency of total surveillance”[5].

Yet, alas, Foucault died just before the mass availability of today’s recording devices and before facebook and twitter accompanied the Arab Spring and the Occupy movements. However his ideas might still prove useful in determining the effects that these new technological innovations have on society.

On one hand, the fact that we are increasingly watched not just by law enforcement but also by the public at large might reinforce and possibly magnify the discipline-inducing effects that Foucault highlighted. Individuals might feel observed to an even greater extent and behave in an ever more docile manner -with serious implications on their willingness to publicly vent political contention. Moreover, it might render individuals fearful of their neighbors, thereby tearing at the social fabric of our communities. Finally, it would negatively impinge on one’s sacrosanct privacy.

On the other hand, the ability of any individual to surveil public officers might induce law enforcement institutions to “self-police” themselves. The footage of Iraq veteran Scott Olsen, an ex Marine, being shot in the head with a tear-gas canister at an Occupy Oakland protest created public outrage in the US and caused a serious investigation of the Oakland Police Department’s tactics[6]. Last December at an Occupy Wall Street protest the Guardian reported the use of the “occucopter”: a remote controlled helicopter equipped with a camcorder, broadcasting live on the web and documenting police repression[7]. Such devices are often the only instruments that a non-violent protest movement such as Occupy may employ against violent crackdowns.

These technological innovations have the potential to enforce accountability and to increase transparency, particularly within the murky dynamics of street protests. Being able to record and effortlessly disseminate evidence now allows any citizen to report “abnormal” behavior (as Foucault would put it) exhibited by law enforcement officials such as with the pepper-spray incident. However, this new-found ability possesses actual potential only if used to enforce compliance to law, to civil/human rights and to the norms of dignity. Moreover, it is effective solely when those caught breaking the law are held responsible for their actions or when the footage captured manages to influence public opinion.

Perhaps the apparent “democratization” of the surveillance apparatus is not a game-changer for social movements and will not tilt the game of political contention in favor of protesters. But it does serve to remind us that in any healthy democracy everyone should be held accountable for their actions, and if the evidence garnered by and spread through new technologies serves this purpose then this new phenomenon should be welcomed.

This article was originally published by The Heptagon Post on February 9th 2012

Bibliography

  • Foucault, M. 1991. The Foucault Reader. Ed. Rabinow, P. Penguin: London

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Filed under Human Rights, Indignados, Michel Foucault, Occupy Wall Street, security, social movements, surveillance

Occupy Hegemony: Gramsci, Ideology and Common Sense

By Giulio Amerigo Caperchi

Why do we consent to the status quo of the neoliberal hegemony?

It is simply baffling that citizens in both Europe and the US continue to tolerate the neo-liberal agenda. After the unrestrained greed of financial institutions brought the world to its knees, and after tax-payers bailed out those same institutions responsible for the crisis, the rules of the game appear more or less unchanged. Moreover (and even more baffling), the culprits of the crisis seem to be no longer the unaccountable financial institutions but the citizens responsible for sovereign debt. We are told that “we have lived beyond our means”, that “we are all in this together” and that these are times of sacrifice and austerity for the sake of financial stability.

And the vast majority of citizens consents. We tolerate unelected technical governments (Greece, Italy) and we elect conservative administrations (Spain, England) whose main objective is that of not arousing the ire of financial markets with talks of progressive taxation, labor rights or welfare services of any kind. The only cure for the crisis, we are told, is the well-rehearsed neoliberal mantra of deregulation, liberalization and privatization. Why, may I ask, are we accepting the preposterous idea that the sole cure to a failed free market is more free market theory?

The answer, I believe, lies in the particular way in which the neoliberal hegemony has been able to saturate contemporary political discourse. The way neoliberalism has positioned itself within the field of political theory has effectively displaced alternative political paradigms capable of challenging its hegemony. And it is specifically the alleged lack of political alternatives which functions as a primary generator of consent to an imposed status quo.

An important issue that any movement committed to structural change should consider is to challenge the stranglehold that the neoliberal hegemony exerts on political discourse, for it is precisely there that consent to its worldview is produced. A brief look into the ideas of the great theorist of hegemony Antonio Gramsci, will reveal the dynamic relationship between the power of hegemony and the consent of the governed.

According to Gramsci, hegemony is a disposition of power which does not merely coerce its subjects into submission through top-down impositions. For Gramsci, hegemony is a power which saturates, influences, and permeates all aspects of one’s life:  the economic, cultural, social, ethical, political, and so on. In doing so, it shapes and moulds consciousness, conceptions of common sense and world-views. More importantly, it creates an “ideological terrain” by positing which are the acceptable political alternatives that may be expressed within the particular world-view it is advancing.

“The realization of a hegemonic apparatus, in so far as it creates new ideological terrain, determine[s] a reform of consciousness and of methods of knowledge … when one succeeds in introducing a new morality in conformity with a new conception of the world, one finishes by introducing the conception as well; in other words, one determines a reform of the whole philosophy.” (Gramsci, p192)

Consent to the hegemony, said Gramsci, does not arise solely out of the elites coercing the masses, but through the denial of alternative world-views with which the oppressed can conceive of their positions as subjects. Writing between the two World Wars, Gramsci, a communist, could not understand why the peasant masses of southern Italy were unable to organize and join the militant communists of the industrialized north. He concluded that their plight and immobility were not only caused by the post-feudal domination of the rural bourgeoisie, but rather by the peasants’ lack of a language, of a vocabulary, and of a philosophy capable of explaining the causes of their material conditions.

The peasant masses of the south lacked their own intellectuals, and relied only on their notions of common sense and folklore to conceive of their every-day travails. Gramsci maintained that “common sense” was a piecemeal composition of life experiences, of religion, and of popular morals. Common sense was also heavily influenced by the dominant ideology. In fact, the ability of the hegemonic ideology to mould common sense was of particular concern to Gramsci. Ideological influence did not occur in the form of a coercive “brainwashing” of the ignorant peasant, but was rather a subtle exercise of power which induced a fragmentary and inchoate conceptualization of one’s life experiences. Moreover, this confused worldview would inhibit individuals from thinking outside of the “ideological terrain” predisposed by the powers of hegemony. In sum, a fragmented world-view coupled with the lack of an alternative language with which to vent political contention generated consent to the status quo.

A similar scenario presents itself to us today. Out of the dust and rubble of the Berlin Wall, neoliberalism has proclaimed itself “the last game in town” and politicians for the past twenty years have merely presented variations of the same neoliberal game to which we have consented for too long. If the Occupy and Indignados movements wish to win the hearts and minds of US and EU citizens they must break this mass consent by demonstrating that neoliberalism is not in fact our only option and that mainstream political discourse must be pluralized.

In the same way as the occupation of public squares opens up a new space for democratic participation, occupying hegemony must open up political discourse to a plurality of alternative political ideas. It must explode the hegemony’s veneer of inevitability by exposing its uses of ideology as strategies for sociological subjugation and political displacement. Neoliberalism is not inevitable nor is it the last game in town. In truth, it has failed in both of its privileged sites of intervention: capitalism and democracy. The first step in breaking its hegemony is therefore to demonstrate that alternatives to a world-view founded on the myths of rugged individualism and rational free markets do in fact exist. We are in desperate need of a radical pluralization of the ideological terrain, so that new ideas may emerge and contest the neoliberal hegemony over political discourse. As Gramsci put it:

“Ideologies are anything but arbitrary; they are the result of historical facts which must be combated and their nature as instruments of domination revealed, not for reasons of morality etc.; but for reasons of political struggle: in order to make the governed intellectually independent of the governing, in order to destroy one hegemony and create another one.” (Gramsci, p196)

Bibliography

  • Gramsci, A. 1999 The Antonio Gramsci Reader. ed. Forgacs, D. Lawrence and Wishart: London

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Filed under Gramsci, hegemony, Indignados, Neo-liberalism, neoliberalism, occupy, Occupy Wall Street, political theory, social movements