Home > Uncategorized > Panopticon: A Trojan Horse from Civil Society

Panopticon: A Trojan Horse from Civil Society

“People know what they do; frequently they know why they do what they do; but what they don’t know is what what they do does.” Michel Foucault.

Jeremy Bentham conceived of the panopticon as an efficient prison wherein a few jailors would be able to watch over, control, and mold a large number of prisoners at minimal cost. It was a highly successful institutional model that has been copied over into such things as schools, hospitals, military barracks and prisons. It’s chief virtue is an omnipresent, and a somewhat omniscient, overlord – the jailor.  But if it were just that, then Anna Hazare’s project to build a panopticon around the higher levels of our civil service and politicians would not be half as bizarre as it is. For who are members of the panopticons in institutions such as schools, hospitals, military barracks and prisons?  These are people who are there to be taught, trained, cured, molded or disciplined. They are in some way deficient, and in need of rectifiying action. Do our civil service and political leaders belong to this category of people?  There is need to understand this bizarre proposal in all it’s implications before it further harms our polity.

The panopticon begins by making everybody uniformly and completely visible to the jailor at all times without the subject being able to determine if he is being watched. Hazare would have every bureaucrat and political leader under such a surveillance system where his phone can be tapped, emails read, records of his decisions scrutinized at will, financial transactions prized open, personal life put under a scanner. That’s the panopticon’s eye that never blinks even if it isn’t looking at you. The nature of the jailor’s gaze is such that you are forced to assume he is watching you. The effect of the gaze is such that you begin to internalize what is expected of you by the jailor in terms of the discipline that he ordains.  The purpose of the discipline  is to produce docile bodies that do as they are told.  If you obey success is not guaranteed but you avoid further punishment. Success still depends on the subject himself.  All that the panopticon does really is minimize the cost of pervasive surveillance and produce docility in it’s subjects. Is that something we want or need from the highest levels of our leadership?

In the panopticon the power of the jailor over subjects is absolute. The Jailor is judge, jury, executioner with no higher appeal because the subject has already been tried, found guilty and condemned. Are our leaders, bureaucrats or politicians, to be presumed guilty as soon as they hold an office? It may be popular to mandate so but the fact remains that these are among the brightest & the best we produce in terms of talent and character. How well will a model designed to manage a prison sit with such talented people?  What would be the consequences of forcing such a structure on the civil service and the political leadership? Who would exercise leadership and initiative under such a system without an incentive to stick his neck out?

Politicians and mandarins are indispensable to the functioning of a modern society – whether it is an open democracy like ours or the authoritarian panopticon that Anna Hazare would put us in. What we need is better, brighter, more talented, and far sighted politicians than we have now.  Did I leave out honesty from the list of attributes? Yes because keeping them honest is our job. This isn’t a problem peculiar to politicians. Businesses have an inherent conflict of interest with their customers despite the mutual dependency between them.  Businesses wield considerable power over their customers as well. Yet the panopticon has never been the solution to management of these conflicts. You cannot legislate away inherent problems. The only solution to such problems has been competition.  Societies set up markets and market rules that make businesses compete so that peer pressure keeps exploitative instincts of businesses in check. Democracy itself works better than a authoritarian government precisely because it compels politicians to compete for our votes & favor forcing them to come up with better solutions to problems than they otherwise would. Competition among politicians is what we need most.

Why is our system unable to apprehend, prosecute and hand out exemplary punishment to corrupt officials and politicians? The answer is a lack of competition between them and an perverse incentive to collude and collaborate in corruption. Since the 1990s, we have had fractured verdicts and coalition Governments. Furthermore, state elections are no longer synchronized with those at the center. We now have a situation where Congress rules at the Center but a variety of regional and opposition parties rule at the state level.  But if you look closely, there is no opposition party! Whether it is BJP, BSP, TC, or whatever, every party is a ruling party somewhere or the other. Every ruling party has skeletons to hide, elections to fund, party workers to pay, and poopgandaists to motivate. So what has happened?  Competition between and among politicians and political parties has diminished. That is the key which enables them to cut cozy backroom deals with each other and to connive at each other’s misdemeanors. It is the absence of competition that we must address to reform the system rather than put everyone in an panopticon.

So long as elections need to be funded, party workers rewarded, party machinery to be run, poopganda bills to be paid, no matter what you do, corruption will persist. Politics is an extremely risky business. If you don’t understand this go take a look at Kashmir or Ghadchiroli.  Politicians put their lives on line. We need to shed hypocrisy that pretends these noble souls are there to serve us out of the goodness of their heart. We need to recognize the need to pay them properly, not only in office but also when we boot them out. Our failure to be realistic about election and party funding lies at the heart of corruption.  The State, society, we the people – all of us need the politicians, no matter how ugly they are. So let us find a transparent, open, legal way to fund them.

The collusive and convivial nature of present politics has created a space for a new breed of politicians that partly supplants that which used to belong to the opposition. We must welcome the new players because it means more competition for existing players. However, that doesn’t mean we must change our system. It does mean we must examine their new ideas closely but insist they play by our rules. We don’t belong in their panopticon. We must not compromise our freedoms to be rid of corruption. Their panopticon is not our solution. Democracy works well enough.

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Categories: Uncategorized
  1. G. Adityakiran
    July 12, 2011 at 7:01 pm

    Hi Sonali,
    Good to see that you have started a blog….A very good article…to tell the truth..this is the first time I read this word…panopticon…but as I read ahead..it made sense. You have correctly raised the spectre of an all-pervasive authoritative ‘Monitor’ . Well, but having said that….perhaps Govts world-over are becoming so. So, as our democracy evolves, we will realise the pitfalls of these suggestions and slowly make changes to usher in Yogakshema and Lokasamgraha…the original aims of a nation state.

  2. August 14, 2011 at 3:34 am

    The panopticon analogy is stretching it too far. If you care to read the JanLokpal bill, you will realize that enough checks and balances are in place. Whereas, the bill being sought to be introduced by the government imposes huge penalties on the whistle-blower while offering full support to the accused. The intent is clear and to support wrong in the name of democracy is a folly. In any case, our democracy is a dysfunctional one today. One is supposed to vote the candidates into ‘power’ to have the license to loot for 5 years and you do not even have the right to protest against them in the interim. If you want to tell them something, wait for the next elections. Ha! What a farce. Thanks, but no thanks.

    P.S. – Just nitpicking, but there’s a difference between it’s and its. Do look it up.

    • August 17, 2011 at 6:47 pm

      I have long discussed the need for Election commission to monitor spending of all elected and runners-up candidate of the election. But, you see this is practically impossible.
      Politicians at MLA and MP level are so close and intertwined with their voters that they visit them at every occasion, predominantly weddings and if someone passes away. Given their economic status these people need instant relief in either cases. Wedding and for that matter deaths are not cheap in India. It requires money which is very easily distributed throughout the years to the needy in this sick manner.

      As for Anna’s JanLokpal bill. I think its blackmale and Mr. Nitesh is talking out of his ass-When he says there are checks in place. I DO NOT WANT NON ELECTED PUNKS HAVING POWER TO WHISTLE BLOW MP AND THE PRIME MINISTER.

      • August 19, 2011 at 5:32 pm

        I agree, Judiciary too should be removed… no? That’s also a bunch of bullies giving verdicts against our respected representatives… Or alteast they should have no power to prosecute our beloved MP, MLAs and especially PM.

  3. Derek
    August 17, 2011 at 4:03 pm

    I can sum up all your hogwash ramblings :-

    “Screw the anti-corruption movement. Just get more political parties in this treater so that they get suddenly honest.”

    See you could have just saved your & our time.

    • August 19, 2011 at 5:41 pm

      Wow!! explained her very complicated blog in a single sentence… excellent work dude … hope it will save other’s time 🙂

  4. Tony
    August 21, 2011 at 8:30 am

    Democracy works and works well enough – true
    Bureaucrats are the brightest and the best of India – true but not politicians!
    The system has become so bad that party affiliation is only to fool the masses
    We don’t need Anna’s version of a Lokpal, but the Govt’s version is a joke
    We need a strong lokpal within the framework of the constitution to cleanse our system.
    Legislating our way out alone cannot work – true, but a strong lokpal first is a must!

  5. Harsh
    August 21, 2011 at 7:07 pm

    Sonali, sounds like you are advocating for election reforms. I don’t think election reforms can alone wipe out corruption though it is one of the things we really need.

  6. Manoj Jain
    October 25, 2011 at 9:41 am

    U r ryt sonali. I liked ur views. But in india, u rightly said, there is no competition in democracy. Some parties hv religion, cast, region based vote banks. It may still take decades to break d vote banks. So v cant rely on competition as of now. Further, v dont judge our leaders by d work done by them, v still feel comfortable in dynasty politics. I wonder even our well educated leaders prefer to support it. They dont hv dignity. I agree that IPC has failed to stop murders &
    rapes but u vl agree that IPC is keeping these under control. So need of d hour is to hv some mechanism to control corruption & to bring back money looted from us & deposited in swiss banks & tax heaven countries. If u can suggest some better & workable opsn d contry vl b thankful 2 u.

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