One Nation Under CCTV: The Surveillance Society in Great Britain

John McGovern


CCTV might just be a new development in what social theorists call mass surveillance. The comparisons it has received to Orwell's 1984 are not related to the modes of control and discipline that this new disciplinary technology annotates, but rather to its degree of explicit precision of monitoring everyday life which is, arguably, a development that signals a shift in the way that the penal system works.


While previous modes of discipline were more hidden and implicit in state control, the development of CCTV could be identified as a shift to a physical, identifiable sign of mass surveillance that has been developing for several centuries. This explicit form of surveillance certainly hints at ominous trends in Western society, which has sparked countless Orwellian allusions to Big Brother, but it may also offer an opportunity for change.


Despite what cursory readings of disciplinary technologies and their effect on society might suggest, it must be affirmed that an analysis of this type is, in short, a struggle. Many people are still unaffected by the surveillance. By studying those marginalized groups who are not as fortunate, the implications of this new development can be discussed.

Paul Rabinow describes Michel Foucault's writings on state tactics of discipline, which uses, at its core, Bentham's 18th century idea of the Panopticon to hypothesize about today's world, as extremely influential, drawing some comparisons to Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud -- work as "a heroic refusal to sentimentalize the past in any way or to shrink the necessity of facing the future as dangerous but open."


The idea of the Panopticon, which could be used as a shorthand for Foucault's ideas about disciplinary measures used by the state, has never been fully realized--a world like that would resemble Orwell's in 1984-- but was and is seen by the state as possible and desirable. It's important here to distinguish the state from the government. Mass surveillance cannot be dismissed as a byproduct of capitalism or the power of the nation-state. In Orwell's 1984, Big Brother watches you in your home, the complete aberration of privacy and individual autonomy that is, essentially, the finality that disciplinary technologies strive toward. 


Disciplinary technologies, like CCTV, also include racial discriminations. The strive towards order involves a goal of preserving whiteness: "The law, established in the police, erects a barrier, not just of respectability but of racial culture or ethnicity" (Gilroy, Paul. 'There Ain't No Black in the Union Jack': The Cultural Politics of Race and Nation, 129. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago, 199).  True struggles against racism are ones that challenge the status quo. In Britain, non-whites face the most adversity in the face of state discipline. Salman Rushdie observes in Imaginary Homelands, "For the citizens of the new, imported Empire, for the colonized Asians and blacks of Britain, the police force represents the colonizing army, those regiments of occupation and control."


According to Paul Gilroy, legality is the pre-eminent symbol of national culture," so policing strategies of the state that use an area-based tactic to fight crime systematically discriminate against non-whites. That shift was to "area-based strategies which assume that any inhabitant of a high-crime district could be treated as a criminal".



Recent riots in London show that these policies are still a reality. "George," the pseudonym for a man from East London caught in the middle of the 2011 riots (as recounted in an article by Younis Mousab), provides a testimony of what it was like in Hackney during the riots (the perfect demonstration of these area-based strategies as they are used in a moment of urban crisis): "I goes, 'I am moving, I'm going!'... he doesn't say nothing, he goes bam!, punches me in the face, licked me with the shield. I go 'What are you hitting me for me?' And he comes at me, and this time I start hitting them back. They've got it all on CCTV."


Policing and other tactics provoke people to act out in defiance and they are punished for it. According to Gilroy,  "The substantive danger which emanates from inner-city pockets of disorderly values and street protests arises not from 'mugging' or riots but from the symbolism of these areas; in particular, their negative symbolism for popular ideas of police capacity and power.”


An article that appeared in the February 25, 2005 Evening Standard cites a study which claims that CCTV does not help combat crime. It also describes how immigrant and working-class neighborhoods, like Hackney, in which rioting took place in during the 2011 London riots, contain the highest concentration of surveillance, whereas wealthier neighborhoods, such as Kensington, contain a relatively low number of CCTV cameras.


The development of large-scale CCTV surveillance in Great Britain may be an important progression in the way that disciplinary technologies have developed over the past few centuries, but it is, to put simply, nothing new. Foucault continues, "This enables the disciplinary power to be both absolutely indiscreet, since it is everywhere and always alert, since by its very principle it leaves no zone of shade and constantly supervises the very individuals who are entrusted with the task of supervising; and absolutely 'discreet,' for it functions permanently and largely in silence.”



Just as the prison was not an innovation in disciplinary methods -- it embodied methods that had pre-existed its own creation -- CCTV is not either. Signs and announcements in the London Underground openly declare the presence of CCTV cameras. In short, this explains how disciplinary power is simultaneously discreet and indiscreet; how passengers are made aware of its presence, but in time become accustomed to it.


Winston Smith, the narrator of 1984, describes the influence of the Thought Police on his life in the dystopian London portrayed in the novel: "You had to live -- did live, from habit that became instinct -- in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized." Of course, obsessing over the surveillance's presence will serve no purpose either; paranoia runs the risk of lapsing into nihilistic passivity. The world described by Orwell resonates with readers for a reason. However, by no means could an experience in public, like riding the Tube, be adequately described as one where "habit," that is, the habit of constantly being under surveillance, "became instinct."  


If CCTV is 'indiscreet' because it "functions permanently and largely in silence," then it follows that this recent development in disciplinary technology is just, as mentioned above, an example of the way that discipline in Western societies functions and, furthermore, a physical manifestation of this particular form of discipline at work. The future, as Orwell told us, is dangerous but open.


Author Bio:

John McGovern is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine. 


Photos: Stephen Johnson (Flickr); Tamas Zador (Flickr); Wikipedia Commons.

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Stephen Johnson (Flickr, Creative Commons)
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