Masters of All They Survey

One of the useful things done by the late Michel Foucault was to remind us of what a looney Jeremy Bentham was. He did this by setting up Bentham’s screwball plans for a "panopticon" prison, as a central metaphor in his Birth of the Prison. This pretty much exhausts my interest in Foucault, and we may proceed now to Bentham.

Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) is remembered as a founder of utilitarianism, as an economist of some note, and as a would-be social reformer. The two most scathing essays on Bentham and his work are by Gertrude Himmelfarb and the late Murray Rothbard.(1) There is not much to be said in Bentham’s favor, once you have read these two pieces.

But – staying focused – I zero in on Bentham’s projected reforms in British prison and pauper management. Briefly, Bentham wanted Parliament to entrust the care of felons, the poor, and the idle to a state-chartered, profit-making mercantilist company – to be run by Jeremy Bentham. Leaving the poor to one side, it is the proposed prison, or Panopticon, which seems most pertinent today.

The model was to consist of cells ranged along the perimeter of a circle. Each inmate was isolated from the others and could see nothing which the warders did not want him to see. The warders could see every prisoner at all times from their position in the center. Even church services were to be conducted from the center by means of speaking tubes.

Bentham modified his plan from time to time, but never could convince Parliament to approve it. Edmund Burke, no friend of radical, rationalistic innovations, referred to Bentham as "the spider in the web." Like Bentham, he saw that the point of the whole thing was total surveillance. Unlike Bentham, Burke believed in some of the traditional protections of English law, which however much they might inconvenience spies, warders, and jailers, existed for very good reasons.

A correspondent in Australia tells me that a Panopticon-style prison was actually set up at Port Arthur in Tasmania. Naturally, it was called The Model Prison. The prisoners all went mad. Go figure.


Today we find ourselves subject to rule by people who have as little interest in the protections of English law as did Jeremy Bentham. Many details are found in a very good book by Paul Craig Roberts and Lawrence M. Stratton.(2) In the present crisis, emergency, barbecue, whatever it is, we see the Godzilla of the perfected liberal-democratic soft police state rising from the ocean and striding up the beach.

This is a lot scarier, in the end, than a few bedouins who have taken courses in chemistry, pyrotechnics, and ballistics. They may be a problem, to be sure, but they don’t live here – yet – and they are in no position to shred the first ten amendments to that laughable old document from time out of mind. The people who are in such a position do live here and they have very big plans.

I shall not go over those plans in detail. We have heard quite enough about the Homeland Sicherheits-Office and good old DARPA, with its panoptical eye-in-the-pyramid emblem, which looks as if it were deliberately designed to push conspiracy theorists over the edge.

I have characterized the rising Godzilla as a liberal-democratic soft police state. How can that be? Well, lip-service is still paid to equality, social justice, and other modern liberal concerns, and as long as elections are still held, the system is by definition democratic. So there they are: welfare and meaningless elections – the great pillars of our freedom and independence.

In such a happy democracy, what could it matter that everyone and everything will be brought under constant and thorough surveillance?


An interesting essay by Peter Holquist sketches out the Bolsheviks’ philosophy of surveillance.(3) I know there are not any Bolsheviks in the present administration, yet, but bear with me. Anyway, the original Bolshies wanted to have lots and lots of bits of information about everything. They were especially interested in finding out what everyone thought.

Armed with total information, they could build "a better, purer society." The "whole purpose was to act on people, to change them." The Bolsheviks did more of this than some other regimes, and with characteristic brutality (as needed), but the main reason for that, Holquist believes, is that they were committed to "the modern if surreal project of realizing socialism in practice."(4)

There was, however, little that was unique about the Soviets’ interest in surveillance as such. Surveillance, and as much of it as possible, reflects instead "a shift from a territorial concept to a governmental one. A governmental state seeks to manage populations, not just to rule territories."(5)

No longer were there countries with people living in them. Peoples were now "populations" and, therefore, objects to be studied, manipulated, and remolded to fit various high ideals – although a cynic would say it was to suit the purposes of particularly ambitious ruling classes. Of course we are not cynics around here.

To fulfill the promise of all this good work, the state needed censuses, statistics, and monthly reports from every district on what people were thinking. The old regimes in Europe had been happy to "police" society, that is, to keep order. Under the new regimes, "surveillance, as part of the governmental project, sought to transform it."(6)


So when, exactly, did states feel the need to do so much good, and when did they develop the tools wherewith to do it? Not too suprisingly, Holquist refers us to a bottomless source of evil: "The First World War was the matrix within which states nurtured their own particular aspirations and developed the mechanisms to realize them."(7)

Ultimately claiming justification in the operationally idle notion of popular sovereignty, states determined to reinvent peoples so as to make them worthy of their appointed role in the farce. Like Rousseau, states would "force people to be free," while reserving the right to define freedom, along with the individual character traits it entailed.

Whatever aspirations progressive bureaucrats and neurasthenic dreamers had about social reconstruction, it was the First European Suicide Attempt, 1914-1918, which made the project feasible. Holquist writes that the war brought into being "a particular type of modern governmental politics in the form of the national security state." Worse luck, the new-model states "did not pass from war to peace, but from war to preparation for future wars." Someone should mention this to Jay Winik, the next time he tells us that the present emergency measures will wither away, as soon as the present emergency is over.

Further, states began using wartime controls and methods of surveillance as means of peacetime governing. The overpraised and sainted Weimar Republic, for example, was one such state. Over here, we got our first real taste of peacetime war-government after 1932; it was called the New Deal.

Of course it may be that there is nothing wrong with governments that want to remold their peoples through total surveillance and other modern notions. After all, forty some percent of us elect five hundred rascals and one Supreme Generalissimo, every so often. They then pass our deepest desires along to several million unelected functionaries and subaltern clerks, who provide for the general happiness in complex and unfathomable ways. How could you improve on such a perfected system?

There is, I suppose, the minor problem that the unelected functionaries, military and civil, share an ideology according to which we do indeed require a great deal of reconstructing and new-modeling to make us fit to live in their country. There is the further problem that if they are allowed to seize even more irresponsible power than they had before, including total surveillance of the worldwide, spherical globe and everything contained therein, they might use that power.

One mustn’t worry about such things: the heroically anti-government Republicans are in power! An English Liberal once wrote a book called The Good Want Power. I never got past the title; I got stuck on whether the good lacked power or just plain wanted power. Professor Paul Gottfried’s books go a long way toward answering such questions.

Some folks don’t mind being spied on, I guess. They have nothing to hide. Hence the following dialogue:

SICHERHEITS-BUSCH-OFFIZIER: Hey, what’re you doin’ there, boy? You an evil-doer?

FREAVIS: I’m just standing.

SICHERHEITS-BUSCH-OFFIZIER: You better come with us. Standin’ fits the profile.

FREEPHEAD: Heh, heh.

The Good always want power. Best not to give it to them. We gave them World War I. We can’t possibly owe them anything after that.


1. Gertrude Himmelfarb, Victorian Minds (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1968), Chap. 2, "The Haunted House of Jeremy Bentham," pp. 32-81; Murray N. Rothbard, Classical Economics (Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar, 1995), pp. 49-68.

2. Paul Craig Roberts and Lawrence M. Stratton, The Tyranny of Good Intentions (Roseville, CA: Forum, 2000).

3. Peter Holquist, "’Information Is the Alpha and Omega of Our Work’: Bolshevik Surveillance in Its Pan-European Context," Journal of Modern History, 69: 3 (September 1997), pp. 415-450.

4. Ibid., pp. 417, 426.

5. Ibid., p. 420.

6. Ibid., p. 421.

7. Ibid., p. 446.