Today, I asked to what extent our own society is actually that different from Nazi Germany. Students pointed out various ways that Nazi power structures are still inherent in our own society:
- the efforts in both Nazi Germany and the United States to influence public opinion through various forms of propaganda. (The two important figures that stand out are Paul Joseph Goebbels in Germany, Reich Minister for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, and Joseph McCarthy in the United States.
- the tendency for people to "doublethink" even in our own culture, to allow repressive structures to stay in place because of apathy or a lack of belief in the power of one's own agency.
- examples of technological surveillance in our own culture: in the workforce through computer programs that allow you to check up on your workers; through computerized devices like the World Wide Web, the Pentium III, and cell phones; the increasing number of surveillance cameras tied to commercial buildings; the new use of police cameras at stop lights, etc.; the new phenomenon of spy stores where private citizens can purchase high-tech surveillance equipment; Watergate; the census and the social security number.
I then went over a major change that has occurred in our own culture in our understanding of power and social control; that is, the transition from what Michel Foucault in Discipline and Punish calls a culture of spectacle to a carceral culture. Whereas, in the former, punishment is effected on the body in public displays of torture, dismemberment, and obliteration, in the latter punishment and discipline become internalized and directed to the constitution and, when necessary, rehabilitation of social subjects. I also discussed some of the ways that Bentham's theories about penal reform have affected such disparate social formations as the university classroom (constructed on the panoptic model; see right), urban planning (the grid vs. the central piazza), and factory organization. I also discussed some of the inherent benefits and also dangers of the present system and suggested that the current popular fascination with conspiracy-theory narratives (the X-Files being a prominent example) may be a symptom of our inherent fears about certain aspects of our carceral system of social control. (The importance of anonymous denunciations in the Nazi Gestapo system was discussed as an example of when the carceral system goes too far.) Various examples of carceral control in our own society were cited, particularly the fact the the U.S. has the largest per capita number of prisons of any other nation in the world; new uses of video surveillance by traffic police; the camera-and-mirror form of surveillance in most drugstores; the ease by which one's movements can be tracked in our contemporary culture (ATMs, cameras, credit cards, etc.).
Finally, I pointed out some of the effects of this new model of organization:
- the internalization of rules and regulations. (Freud's very model of the human psyche--id, ego, and superego--could be said to come out of this new understanding of the social subject.)
- the resulting emphasis on rehabilitation over cruel and unusual punishment.
- surveillance into ever more private aspects of our lives.
- the new emphasis on information; all of this surveillance and information gathering leads, of course, to huge challenges for the organization and retrieval of data. Perhaps the very move of society into this new mode of social organization made the invention of the computer inevitable since it allows us to organize ever more vast amounts of data.
- bureaucracy. A new white-collar labor force is necessary to set up the procedures for information retrieval and storage. The result is the perception that we are now confronting a MACHINE of POWER, manifested in bureaucracy, government, law. These structures tend to abstract themselves from the desires and needs of specific individuals. It is arguably because of the increasing power of such "machines" that we have the postmodern phenomenon of the paranoia narrative or the conspiracy theory. The pervasive feeling is that the powers that be (THEM) have reached such a level of surveillance that any opposition is useless ("Resistance is futile, you will be assimilated," as the Borg states on Star Trek: The Next Generation). Slacker culture and the X Generation could be seen as by-products of this very tendency. Of course, the danger is that this very stance allows such machines to run amock, since no one is then willing to speak up when they go wrong.
- efficiency. Value is placed on the most efficient means of organizing data and individuals to effect the mass production and dissemination of more goods and information.
- specialization. Members of the workforce are organized into increasingly specialized fields, so much so that we often must rely on other experts to complete specific operations.
As Foucault makes clear in his later article, "The Subject and Power," however, power in fact resides in the individual. Herein lies the real nexus of power, something that is easily forgotten in the face of society's new machines of control. After all, our bureaucracies are, in fact, made to function by the efforts of individual agents and, so, these individuals always have the "power" to undo the system. I gave Schindler as a good example of the power of one individual even in the most repressive of systems. I also pointed out how in, for example, Denmark, Bulgaria, or Italy the same fascist race laws failed to be implemented in the same way, once again because of the efforts (the refusals) of countless individuals. I suggested, then, that power qua power is not inherently evil. One could even argue that the power we exert on each other on a day-to-day basis is precisely the guarantee of our freedom. Each "hello" and "how are you?" is, in fact, a reaffirmation of this important deference to the rights of the other. (As I suggest in my article, that may be why it was so important for Nazism to impose a "heil Hitler" into quotidian interactions with others, as if one thereby stated that one acknowledged an other only through the state.) It is also true that "machines of power" like bureaucracies or stock markets can have positive effects since they can help to get things done. Nonetheless, a danger always adheres to such "machines" given their tendency to abstract themselves from individual needs or individual responsibility, as in Adolf Eichmann's case.
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