We live in a discipline-and-surveillance society wrapped up in a soft liberal cloak, hidden beneath slogans of freedom and democracy. Four million camera lenses follow every one of our moves, planted on street corners and in shopping centres, restaurants and cafes, schools and libraries.
The moment we step outside our homes, we come under the state’s watchful eye, as we drive our kids to school, pick up the morning paper, sip our coffee, walk in the street, or meet a friend. Already, the Home Office Scientific Development Branch in Hertfordshire is working on ways of automatically recognising human faces by computer.
The vast advances in digital technology have allowed the liberal state to expand and metamorphose into a gigantic surveillance machine.
While gradually unburdening itself of its social responsibilities in the delivery of public services and towards the weak and the underprivileged, the state has amassed greater powers of regulation and control. Our moves are watched, our telephone conversations are intercepted, email exchanges read, everyday transactions recorded.
Even our medical records, in theory protected by the ancient principle of patient-doctor confidentiality, are now available for others to see – whether we consent or not. Is there any point in speaking of a difference between the private and public any more? Much hangs on whether we answer the question in the negative or affirmative, for the distinction between the two spheres, we should remember, is a fundamental pillar of the modern liberal system. Without it, the whole structure simply does not stand.
The terrorist events of September 11 have set the hands of the security and surveillance apparatus free to place every detail of our existences under the microscope. In the name of national security, the state’s hidden arms, ears and eyes have penetrated into the fabric of our private lives with impunity. This has proceeded hand in hand with the assault on the civil liberties and human rights of citizens, particularly of immigrants and those belonging to vulnerable ethnic and religious minorities.
We are progressively moving towards Michel Foucault’s “disciplinary and punitive society”, where the gigantic octopus that is the state extends its tentacles in every corner of our space. Just as the capitalist giant is no longer controllable, with its complex network of transnational corporations and their freely moving multi-billion capital, so too is the security apparatus. It operates according to its own code of conduct, its own rules, and own logic, neither elected nor accountable to any elected bodies.
What makes the state’s expansion all the more worrying is the fragmentation of society and shrinking of its institutions due to the decline of collective common political action, with every individual absorbed in his/her individuality, his/her own “little narrative”.
This is not to say that we have somehow grown more selfish, or less sociable, but that the complexities of our modern lives have forced each of us to withdraw into our tiny islands, away from everyone else’s. Our existences are exhausted by the demands of work, the dictats of the market, mortgages, bills, loans, taxes, and by how we can fill what little room that remains: where to dine in the weekend, what shade of red to paint the conservatory, and where to go on holiday.
We have neither the time, nor the energy to question what we are fed by trained politicians, and skilful media tycoons. Our type of existence makes us passive consumers by necessity; domesticated animals, naturally receptive to the games of Blair, Murdoch and their likes.
Whatever those fond of reading Rousseau, J S Mill, or Rawls may think, politics is no longer the expression of our collective will. It is the prerogative of a few, of a small elite versed in the arts of oration, deception and manipulation of the political machine and, us, its subjects.
First Published in The Guardian, Tuesday 30 January 2007