Sunday, 11 March 2012

Police state


Sometimes you have to take a subject and push it a little to make a point. The UK is not a police state in the global meaning of the term, but we have initiated certain trends which should be watched with an acutely critical eye.

Because the modern world seems to have learned a few lessons from the last century, not least on the question of tight social control. The crude Stalinist police state has given way to more subtle and superficially relaxed control measures which arouse far less opposition than a man with a submachine gun on every street corner.

North Korea is in many respects a misleading totem of George Orwell’s nightmare vision, a reminder of the past and a distraction from other, more covert ways of micro-managing whole societies.

If you want a police state these days, the way to go about it is firstly to downplay the size of your police force. It’s best if most aren’t even referred to as police officers and don’t wear uniforms. We in the UK are in not remotely in the same situation as North Korea, yet vast numbers of people in the public sector have some kind of policing role.

It’s a trend and as usual we aren’t really acknowledging it as such. But we could so easily drift into situations we never would have planned. If we simply list a few institutions with policing powers, then maybe the potential for drift becomes clearer.

  • Defra
  • The Environment Agency.
  • HMRC.
  • HSE.
  • Local Authority planners.
  • Local Authority public health officials.
  • Local Authority trading standards.
  • LEA.
  • Fire brigades.
  • Doctors.
  • Teachers.
  • Social workers.
  • Traffic wardens.
And so on and so on. These trends aren’t necessarily dangerous, but to my mind they should be seen for what they are and discussed as such. What we have today in the UK is mass-policing where a large percentage of the population has some kind of official role in the enforcement of minutely structured social control.

But our addiction to polite euphemism has its penalties and an obvious one is how we fail to describe mass-policing as policing at all. Yet a vast number of people may in their official capacity, fine, direct or entangle their fellow citizens in legal proceedings - it’s part of their job.

They may also be expected to act as informers, even though that side of things will not be explicitly laid down in the job description. We don’t do explicit.

We have wandered along the path towards a full-scale police state without the wit to tell ourselves in plain language what we are doing. I see it ending in tears.


Sam Vega said...

"Foucault argues between the 17th and 18th centuries a new, more subtle form of power was being exercised transnationally. He calls this form of power discipline. Soldiers could be made and formed rather than just being chosen because of their natural characteristics. Knowledge and power are central to Foucault's analysis. He questions common concepts like justice or equality and asks where these concepts originated and who they benefit. The process of observing and evaluating individuals leads to more and more knowledge about peoples.
Foucault also compares modern society with Jeremy Bentham's "Panopticon" design for prisons (which was unrealized in its original form, but nonetheless influential): in the Panopticon, a single guard can watch over many prisoners while the guard remains unseen. Ancient prisons have been replaced by clear and visible ones, but Foucault cautions that "visibility is a trap." It is through this visibility, Foucault writes, that modern society exercises its controlling systems of power and knowledge (terms Foucault believed to be so fundamentally connected that he often combined them in a single hyphenated concept, "power-knowledge"). Increasing visibility leads to power located on an increasingly individualized level, shown by the possibility for institutions to track individuals throughout their lives. Foucault suggests that a "carceral continuum" runs through modern society, from the maximum security prison, through secure accommodation, probation, social workers, police, and teachers, to our everyday working and domestic lives. All are connected by the (witting or unwitting) supervision (surveillance, application of norms of acceptable behaviour) of some humans by others."

From the wiki entry on Michel Foucault. You really are a sociologists, AKH, despite your protestations to the contrary.

James Higham said...

Yes and coupled with that policing role is the feeling that one must interfere, no matter what.

A K Haart said...

SV - I've sniffed around sociology, but I'm not keen on the language. Things are said which have been said already in simpler language.

Even so, you may be right - I think it's a blogging thing.

JH - many don't just see it as a duty, they love it.