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.

Matthew Taunton is a Leverhulme Fellow in the School of Literature, Drama and Creative Writing at UEA, and is currently working on a book about the cultural resonances of the Russian Revolution in Britain.

This article first appeared in the 24 March 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The truth about Tibet

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Geoffrey Howe dies, aged 88

Howe was Margaret Thatcher's longest serving Cabinet minister – and the man credited with precipitating her downfall.

The former Conservative chancellor Lord Howe, a key figure in the Thatcher government, has died of a suspected heart attack, his family has said. He was 88.

Geoffrey Howe was the longest-serving member of Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet, playing a key role in both her government and her downfall. Born in Port Talbot in 1926, he began his career as a lawyer, and was first elected to parliament in 1964, but lost his seat just 18 months later.

Returning as MP for Reigate in the Conservative election victory of 1970, he served in the government of Edward Heath, first as Solicitor General for England & Wales, then as a Minister of State for Trade. When Margaret Thatcher became opposition leader in 1975, she named Howe as her shadow chancellor.

He retained this brief when the party returned to government in 1979. In the controversial budget of 1981, he outlined a radical monetarist programme, abandoning then-mainstream economic thinking by attempting to rapidly tackle the deficit at a time of recession and unemployment. Following the 1983 election, he was appointed as foreign secretary, in which post he negotiated the return of Hong Kong to China.

In 1989, Thatcher demoted Howe to the position of leader of the house and deputy prime minister. And on 1 November 1990, following disagreements over Britain's relationship with Europe, he resigned from the Cabinet altogether. 

Twelve days later, in a powerful speech explaining his resignation, he attacked the prime minister's attitude to Brussels, and called on his former colleagues to "consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long".

Labour Chancellor Denis Healey once described an attack from Howe as "like being savaged by a dead sheep" - but his resignation speech is widely credited for triggering the process that led to Thatcher's downfall. Nine days later, her premiership was over.

Howe retired from the Commons in 1992, and was made a life peer as Baron Howe of Aberavon. He later said that his resignation speech "was not intended as a challenge, it was intended as a way of summarising the importance of Europe". 

Nonetheless, he added: "I am sure that, without [Thatcher's] resignation, we would not have won the 1992 election... If there had been a Labour government from 1992 onwards, New Labour would never have been born."

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.