Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

The Surveillance State in Your Head

What Foucault and Bentham tell us about Edward Snowden's NSA revelations.
Cuban Panopticon

As revelations about the NSA’s all-seeing surveillance programs continue to trickle out, debate has consisted mostly of quarrels over Edward Snowden’s heroism or villainy, parsings of the potentially perjurious testimony of senior officials, or challenges to the lawfulness and constitutionality of the programs themselves. Very little attention is being given to a subtly important question: what consequences does the surveillance state hold for the character of our culture? One term flirting around the edges of the discourse has the potential to provide an answer: “panopticon.”

The “panopticon”—a creative compound of Greek words to mean “observe all”—was originally conceived as a hypothetical penitentiary by Jeremy Bentham, the 18th-century British utilitarian. The prison was designed around a central tower that would allow the watchman to observe each inmate all of the time, while he himself was obscured from view.

Bentham’s plans for his panopticon

An inmate would never know whether he was being watched—he would have to assume he was under scrutiny and maintain his best behavior; thus order was assured by the presumption of constant surveillance. Bentham introduced his prison as a “new model of obtaining power of mind over mind, in a quantity hitherto without example.” Bentham believed that schools, hospitals, and asylums could all be regimented by his social theory of surveillance and constancy, too. While Bentham’s prison was never built during his lifetime, his theory lived on, achieving cult status in academia as a powerful metaphor for social correction and obedience.

In Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, French postmodern philosopher Michel Foucault describes a social evolution from the “culture of spectacle” to the “carceral culture.” Once punishment was administered on display: for thousands of years, men were crucified, hanged, and garroted to demonstrate social rights and wrongs. Now, though, we are “disciplined” internally, through the composition of our character.

Foucault suggests that panopticism determines the shape of society and the principles of power. If “Bentham presents it as a particular institution closed in on itself,” Foucault writes that the panopticon today “must be understood as a generalizable model of functioning; a way of defining power relations in term of the everyday life of me,” and as “a figure of political technology that may and must be detached from any specific use.”

Dino Felluga of Purdue University has identified the major themes of Foucault’s panoptical society. It is marked by social internalization of rules and regulation—and our conditioned hesitance to contest unjust law. Rehabilitation is favored over cruel and unusual corporal punishment, and while this change may be superficially kind, the emphasis on normalcy harms those who exist outside the status quo. In Foucault’s words:

The judges of normality are present everywhere. We are in the society of the teacher-judge, the doctor-judge, the educator-judge, the ‘social-worker’-judge; it is on them that the universal reign of the normative is based; and each individual, wherever he may find himself, subjects to it his body, his gestures, his behavior, his aptitudes, his achievements.

Then it gets really scary. Foucault describes the observation of our private lives, as aided by new technology. Felluga notes the French philosopher’s emphasis on surveillance within an emerging information society and a developing bureaucracy that “turns individuals into statistics and paperwork,” followed by an emphasis on the organization of data and specialization of skill.

Sound familiar? What emerges now is the new watchman.

Historian Arthur Schlesinger’s classic The Imperial Presidency cautioned that our system of American governance is threatened by “a conception of presidential power so spacious and peremptory as to imply a radical transformation of the traditional polity.” A postwar atmosphere of pervasive crisis amplified government surveillance and public acquiescence. Before Vietnam and the Watergate scandal, the office had morphed into a pseudo-sultanate, elected by the people but armed virtually unchecked in the global arena.

With the fall of the Soviet Union, there was hope that the imperial presidency would be scaled back by Congress, but such optimism proved hollow. In The Cult of the Presidency, Gene Healy notes that while partisan rhetoric today is as acerbic as it has been in decades, Republicans and Democrats alike accept the bottomless depth of executive responsibility and the president’s unique grasp on power. We’ve normalized dependence on his guidance and our subordination.

The modern president has greatly exceeded, in size and scope, the few enumerated powers initially bestowed upon him and in the process has become a great deal more powerful—and potentially more dangerous. His powers of surveillance and social compulsion are virtually unmatched in human history.

From a Foucauldian perspective, one might argue our president (Bush or Obama, it hardly matters) has staked his claim as our watchman. We become increasingly aware that all we do takes place under surveillance, and our dull surprise at this revelation suggests our submission to the system—the  inevitable outcome of our assent to political power.

Reid Smith is FreedomWorks’s staff writer and editor. Follow him on Twitter @reidtsmith.