New Labour. New Britain ; How They Changed Our Nation, by Deborah Orr ++ A Decade Ago, Labour Swept to Power Pledging to Rebuild the Trust between the State and Its Citizens. So Why Are Our Basic Freedoms under Assault as Never before? in the First of a Series of Articles to Mark the 10th Anniversary of Tony Blair's Historic Landslide, Deborah Orr Argues That We Have Lost Far More Than We Realise
Orr, Deborah, The Independent (London, England)
We can't say we weren't warned, again and again. We were warned with such regularity that some of the names of some of the mavens passed into the language. Kafka warned us. Orwell warned us. Foucault warned us, and while he was warning us, he took the opportunity to point out just how long the writing had been on the wall. Here is the late French philosopher, writing in Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, in 1975.
"Inspection functions ceaselessly. The gaze is alert everywhere: 'A considerable body of militia, commanded by good officers and men of substance', guards at the gates, at the town hall and in every quarter to ensure the prompt obedience of the people and the most absolute authority of the magistrates, 'as also to observe all disorder, theft and extortion'. At each of the town gates there will be an observation post; at the end of each street sentinels."
Could Foucault be talking about his future vision of Middlesbrough, the town which has adopted talking CCTV cameras in its town centre, presided over by council apparatchiks who bellow to citizens from their screen-filled observation posts that they are to pick up the fag end they just dropped, or risk arrest? Or is he talking about the whole of Britain, a nation so in love with the CCTV camera that it boasts one for every 14 citizens, and has spent, in the last 10 years, more than three-quarters of its Home Office crime prevention budget on this technology of record? Foucault goes on.
"This surveillance is based on a system of permanent registration: reports from the syndics to the intendants, from the intendants to the magistrates or mayor." What can this be? Identity cards? Passports-by-interview? London Transport travel passes? Customer information, shared for a price? Or maybe it's all a bit less subtle than that. Foucault continues.
"At the beginning of the 'lock up', the role of each of the inhabitants present in the town is laid down, one by one; this document bears 'the name, age, sex of everyone, notwithstanding his condition': a copy is sent to the intendant of the quarter, another to the office of the town hall, another to enable the syndic to make his daily roll call."
What's this then? Arrest under the Terrorism Act? Youth curfews? Anti-Social Behaviour Orders? Or a description of the process by which you inform the authorities that your neighbour on Jobseekers' has been seen entering a house where baby-sitting is dealt in, or your neighbour who diligently pays his water rates - by direct debit, of course - has used his hose during a ban? Possibly.
Or this: "The registration of the pathological must be constantly centralised. The relation of each individual to his disease and to his death passes through the representatives of power, the registration they make of it, the decisions they take on it."
And this? Is it the Govern-ment's planned central database for the NHS. Or is it merely their craved-after system, under the new Mental Health Act, for incarcerating people who may in the future become a psychotic threat to others? Of course it isn't. Instead, It's an order, somehow dug up from the 7th century, that warned French towns of what procedure they ought to follow when the plague hit. Foucault used it in 1975 to illustrate his theories about panopticism, the mechanism for "dissociating the see/being-seen dyad" whose architectural manifestation he identified as prison reformer Jeremy Bentham's spoked and cen-tralised prison layout. So which is it, then? Are we all in a benignly watchful prison, or are we all under mortal threat of plague, and catalogued so obsessively for our own protection?
Poor old Labour. It's so easy to marshall its inept and bureaucratic attempts at social engineering into something that sounds portentous, conspiratorial and authoritarian. Too easy, maybe. Critics of the Govern-ment, from the television documentarymaker, Adam Curtis (whose recent three-parter The Trap was just part of a larger body of work offering a critique of the controlling madnesses of British "late capitalism"), to the print journalist Henry Porter, who has been flagging up the erosion of our civil liberties under Labour almost since the off, are all too often dismissed as exaggerating fusspots whose fears are really just a sort of Luddite technophobia. …