Anarchy, The Dispossessed, and Bentham’s Panopticon

I enjoy reading science fiction, especially by more recent writers, who have gotten over entrenched misogyny (why is it that Arthur C. Clarke, so visionary in so much else, insists on referring to women as ‘girls’, and they only appear as secretaries?).

The best science fiction makes us understand ourselves, and what our own world could be like. The sci-fi writer I like most of all is Ursula Le Guin, and of her novels, The Dispossessed is my favourite. It is a very powerful, and meditative book. I recommend it, especially if you haven’t read any of Le Guin’s other books.

The story is a fascinating account of an anarchic society. By ‘anarchic’, Le Guin means a society with no centralised control, and no overt form of government. To be sure, the society has co-ordinating mechanisms, but that’s it. This is anarchism as a political theory, not the folk account of anarchism being the province of Molotov-cocktail throwing, violent, destructive thugs.

Even in this anarchic society, people conform. Work assignments are controlled by PDC. People submit their work requirements and their skills and preferences to PDC, and PDC sends back a posting. In theory, postings can be refused, but in practice, no one ever does.

… we’re ashamed to say we have refused a posting. [The] social conscience completely dominates the individual conscience, instead of striking a balance with it. We don’t co-operate – we obey. We fear being outcast, being called lazy, dysfunctional, egoizing. We fear our neighbour’s opinion more than we respect our own freedom of choice. … We force a man outside the sphere of approval, and then condemn him for it. We’ve made laws, laws of conventional behaviour, built walls all around ourselves, and we can’t see them, because they’re part of our thinking.

This is the most overt political statement in the book. For the most part, the interplay of character and action is the centre of the book. Le Guin very rarely breaks into this didactic mode, and even then, the ideas are consistent with plot and character.

The man who voices these ideas, Shevek, the hero of the novel, is a physicist, and a free thinker. Eventually he dares to think the unthinkable, and leaves his planet, to visit the mother planet that his anarchic society came from. This simple act shakes his supposedly free thinking society to its foundations.

I have been intrigued for a long time by this thought that we constrain ourselves by our own social mores. Depending on the group of people we are in, we buy into certain modes of behaviour, certain ways of expressing ourselves, and we dismiss anyone who doesn’t conform. In doing so, we regulate ourselves, and restrict our own freedom to think.

Michel Foucault saw this, in a brilliant analysis of Bentham’s Panopticon.

Jeremy Bentham (1748 – 1832), the father of utilitarianism, was deeply interested in penal reform, and to this end, he designed the panopticon. The panopticon was a circular prison, with cells in the outside wall, all facing inward. In the middle of all the cells was a tower, in which the guards sat. The guards, sitting in their tower, could see into all the cells. The cells were back lit, so that the prisoners could be seen, but they themselves could not tell whether or not the guards were looking at them. So fearful always of being seen, by the all-seeing warder in the middle, the prisoners would regulate their own behaviour, and thus control would be maintained.

Michel Foucault analysed the effect of the panopticon.

They are like so many cages, so many small theatres, in which each actor is alone, perfectly individualised and constantly visible. The panoptic mechanism arranges spatial unities that make it possible to see constantly and to recognise immediately. In short, it reverses the principle of the dungeon; or rather of its three functions – to enclose, to deprive of light and to hide – it preserves only the first and eliminates the other two. Full lighting and the eye of a supervisor captures better than darkness, which ultimately protected. Visibility is a trap.

Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish, trans. Alan Sheridan, 1975

Fascinating, and prescient, given the proliferation of video surveillance, real time security cameras, and tracking of website visits – we know where you have been!

But I find it even more interesting to think about the extent to which we put ourselves into cells in the panopticon, and like the people in Le Guin’s anarchic society, regulate our own behaviour so that we will fit in with the people around us.

I suspect that anarchy of the kind expressed in throwing petrol bombs is rather easy. It’s a straight forward revolt against authority. But how much harder might it be to think against the masses, to go your own way, and to really, seriously, challenge those in power, in whichever community you might belong to.

And here’s the real kicker – the reward for having read this far.

Jeremy Bentham did not design the panopticon himself, as a penal institution. He ‘borrowed’ the idea from his brother, Samuel.

A few months ago, I read what may be the definitive biography of Potemkin, Catherine the Great’s magnificent first minister (Prince of Princes: The Life of Potemkin, Simon Sebag Montefiore, 2000). I was intrigued to find that Jeremy Bentham had visited Russia, and that Samuel Bentham had been a key assistant to Potemkin. Samuel was responsible for supervising a heterogenous workforce of Russians, Jews, and Geordies. His solution to supervising this rabble was “a factory constructed so that the manager could see all his workers from one central observation point.” This was the origin of the panopticon.

Having a good day at work, gentle reader? Can your manager see what you are doing? Will your colleagues think you are shirking? Do you think you should get back to work now?


5 responses to “Anarchy, The Dispossessed, and Bentham’s Panopticon

  1. Hehe, my manager can see us all, spooky. The one constraint that they use is, “are you working for the good of all”, when of course the reality is, “are you working for the profit of a few?” But these days it’s tough to express dissent, tougher I believe than any other time.
    I am reading The Battle For Spain by Beevor, interestingly The Anarchists lost most control by their leaders following the anarchist creed against a central structure telling other people what to do! The Anarchist leaders would refuse positions in the emerging hierarchy, so when the fighting was done and the divvying up commenced, the Anarchists were not represented at The Party level.
    Wasn’t Trotsky an Anarchist against Stalin?

  2. I have long thought that this is real reason behind the construction of the modern open-plan office. In my field (programming) there is a body of research establishing that private offices promote productivity, but no manager I have ever talked to has been able to stomach the idea, no matter what the argument. I’m pretty sure that most so-called “knowledge work” is best done in privacy, or at least away from noise and visual distraction, but that would allow the worker an intolerable degree of freedom and dignity.

  3. Whatever happened to Leon Trotsky,
    he got an ice-pick in his head
    that made his ears burn. The Stranglers.
    Did some wikipediaingering and there is a fulsome Trotsky entry. Trotsky wasn’t an Anarchist as I thought, he was, er, a Trotskyeist. It’s all in teh spelling. What crazy times, the guy who murdered Mr T. was active in The Spanish Civil War. The book by Beevor is just getting better and better, especially now that it includes Moscow records.
    As for the cubicle farm (gopher incident anyone?), yes it was designed to battery-henify us, the revolution failed, we have all become good machines.

  4. and, clarke was a homosexual paedophile. probably explains the trouble with “the ladies”

  5. and… i think the panopticon analogy is not exactly what le guin imagined. bentham was all about english social control. you had to keep an eye on the peasants, because they couldn’t be trusted.

    le guin’s social control is far more open. it’s more like a park in which numerous people are sitting. they’re all watching each other, and it’s any break for the social conformity, for example moving to a shadier spot and crowding others, that is controlled. but unlike bentham, it’s the opinion of the crowd that controls the movements, and the individuals wish to prevent discomfort for others that provides the control, not the centralised “pillar” with the guards.

    fundamental to the dispossed is shevek’s concern that the creeping bureaucracy of the PDC is preventing him from reaching his full potential. the PDC is becoming centralised, and removing his free will and that of the people.

    he departs the moon and mixes with “the others” because it’s there that he sees himself able to fully explore his physics.

    but, he discovers that this is little relief. he’s able to work, but merely meets another type of barrier. heavy political manipulation from the centre, like the very worst of the PDC.