Escape from Panopticon

We may have nothing to fear but freedom itself

"Big Brother is watching you." With these words the postwar era began, and in some ways they have come to embody the principal political fear of our time. Worries over identity cards and CCTV are part of a tendency to see surveillance as the means by which power is enforced. The repression in Nineteen Eighty-Four must be resisted. But is our focus on surveillance distracting us from more pressing political concerns?

Michel Foucault was influential in propagating the notion that power in modern societies is based on surveillance, and his work remains a cause of acute paranoia and depression among countless humanities students. In Discipline and Punish, Foucault argues that Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon - a prison designed so that all inmates are potentially under constant surveillance by an unseen official - is a template for modern society, "a society penetrated through and through with disciplinary mechanisms".

Bentham's prisoner gradually internalises the feeling of being watched, and in effect begins to police himself; he "becomes the principle of his own subjection". Foucault uses this to argue that liberal societies are at heart profoundly authoritarian: even when we think we are acting freely, we are probably obeying the tenets of oppressive power structures that we have unwittingly absorbed through surveillance.

This position is irritatingly watertight, as anyone who disagrees is implicitly the unknowing servant of power. But the endurance of the Panopticon thesis is more to do with its huge psychological appeal, which can be explained using the ideas of a thinker who has cachet among a certain type of teenager but is less fashionable than Foucault in universities: Jean-Paul Sartre.

Sartre argued that, far from living under the spell of surveillance society, we are "condemned to be free", and that the thing that we most fear is our own freedom. To illustrate this, he pointed to vertigo: the sickening sensation one has when standing on the edge of a cliff, caused by the knowledge that one could freely choose to jump. People will do almost anything to avoid confronting this freedom, because it is not simply liberating, but profoundly terrifying.

Sartre distrusted belief systems that allow people to disown responsibility for their thoughts and actions by implying that they are not freely chosen. Psychoanalysis - which explained thoughts and actions as consequences of desires and drives repressed in childhood - was anathema. Similarly, Foucault's insistence that in modern society power is enforced by surveillance is merely a comforting parable. It's all too easy to point at the CCTV camera or the identity card and complain that our lives are conditioned and determined by sinister forces beyond our control. This lets us off the hook when it comes to taking control of our destiny. Like it or not, you're freer than you think you are.