Two weeks back I walked past an old prison. Pictured here. This is a Modelo Prison. Modelo is Spanish for “Model”, and that’s because the first one was built as an example for the others.
On paper, it was said to be a new kind of prison. One with reform and education in mind. It was meant to remove the medieval traditions of old, where punishments were brutal, corporeal and spectacles of terror and violence.
And like any sales pitch, it was absolute nonsense. Aside from an exercise yard, there was little in terms of vocation or education. The new addition to the prison was the Panoptic design, a British invention by one Jeremy Bentham.
Idea is simple: You make every prisoner into their own warden by creating a prison design where they always feel watched even when they’re not.
This was meant to be a more humane way of treating prisoners. As wardens would no longer have to rely on beatings, torture and making examples of people to keep them in line.
So why is it then that the most famous examples of this enlightened prison design were used and beloved by fascist dictators?
The two most famous examples in history are those realised by Flugencio Batista and Francisco Franco. Two deeply uncivilised men. Men who would practice public executions, massacres, slave labour and racism. Men who brought shame to Europe and our history. You can call me biased for saying that, but that doesn’t make it any less true.
The Panopticons in practice were like abbotoirs. Widespread cruelty all around. It didn’t get rid of violence or misconduct, rather, it invited it. Because the Panopticon turns men into animals. When you put an animal into the knackering yard they have no idea what’s going on. They have no understanding or control over their environment, and they cannot form a rational relationship to the world around them. They exist on the arbitrary whims of their keepers, in a state of inner chaos.
Another reason it was so appealing to fascism was also because of how cheap and efficient it was. Fascism is an ideology of profit, the main goal of fascism is to consolidate power for a class of industrial and military aristocracy, and by extension, turning public spending into private profit. Fascist economics has a particular obsession with minimal input and maximum output, and the margins that they deem most exploitable are those of human costs.
Fascism is a kind of necromantic school of thought that turns human labour, suffering, toil, blood and misery into factories, estates, treasures and spoils of war.
As such, the Panoptic model was highly profitable. A tiny complement of guards could control populations that outnumbered them 10 to 1. And the rest of the world’s rulers paid close attention.
The prison I walked past was shut down, partly because of capacity reasons but also because of the sheer stigma of it. It was an internment facility. People went there for crimes such as being gypsies, or homosexuals, or communists. Things that shouldn’t be criminal to those who endeavour to live in world that’s abandoned barbarity.
On top of that, it was part of a larger detention network that also involved hundreds of concentration camps. Franco built a second layer of society comprised of an underclass who existed entirely as property of a prison system that was meant to reintroduce the peasant and the serf and the slave to an industrial world. That was meant to turn the blood of the poor and the downtrodden, into the wealth of the rich and the powerful.
Many of the inmates of these concentration camps were people who were associated with what the Axis powers called “Judeo-Bolshevism” in Adolf Heusinger’s commissar order. Heusinger was a war criminal and a butcher who decreed that any persons who were radicalised into this “Judeo-Bolshevism” should be executed immediately. This was the German approach.
But in Spain Franco would employ psychology. He did not want to kill people, he wanted to break them using terror, humiliation, dehumanisation and brainwashing.
Truth is that most of these people were neither Jewish, nor Bolsheviks. It’s true that many of them were socialists, Marxists, syndicalists and anarchists. But a lot of them were also liberal republicans who simply opposed what they saw as remnants of a feudal past.
But even so, it doesn’t matter. They could be vampires for all I care, it’s still no way to treat people. Often one historical criticism of the horrors of anticommunism is that the people they torture and persecute aren’t actually communists, and I always find people who make this sentiment to be quite suspicious.
Because truth is that most fascists do mercenary work. They’re puppet dictators who get their orders and resources from wealthy and industrial nations with parliaments and supposedly democratic elections. In other words, fascists usually work for rich first world liberals who want cheap labour for their foreign investments.
Author’s Note: When I say liberals, then I mean conservatives and progressives alike. In the scholarly sense of the word, both of these are in the category of liberalism. That’s how liberal dictatorships work, you get to vote, but you only get to vote for either progressive or conservative versions of liberalism. Anything else is viciously repressed with media misinformation campaigns, and — if push comes to shove — national guardsmen, bayonets and teargas.
That’s where the word “Banana Republic” comes from. It refers to how the US-owned United Fruit Company lobbied the US government to impose a fascist dictatorship in Guatemala, so that the plantation workers would toil for slave wages, resulting in some 50.000 deaths from the various atrocities.
Same is true about the Shah of Iran, who was put into power by the British government at the behest of Anglo-Persian Oil Company in a joint US-UK Operation known as Operation Ajax. The Shah’s secret police, SAVAK, was the most brutal oppressors of Iranian history. They would torture people in some of the most terrible ways imaginable.
My point is, liberals rarely have the stomach to work on the killing floor, but they still enjoy their hamburgers.
And granted, there’s some element of self-preservation to my remarks since I am a communist, but the point I am making is that I would never even think of doing this to a liberal. I would never fund or support an anti-liberal concentration camp. I don’t want some eastern bloc equivalent of Guantanamo or Abu Grahib where Americans get a taste of their own medicine, because that’s just fighting fire with fire. You need to fight fire with water.
Even liberals who like war, and sweatshops, and homelessness, and corporations, and austerity and child labour, and pollution and strip mining and giving money and weapons to terrorists in places like Yugoslavia and Libya and Nicaragua.
Even the most jingoistic and voraciously greedy and bloodthristy liberals out there should still be recognised as human beings, no matter how tediously hypocritical.
As they wag their fingers about human rights to a backdrop of mercenaries who are putting chainsaws and blowtorches to the families of Latin American trade unionists.
Because at the end of the day, there’s still principles to be had. I don’t want to punish anyone for being a liberal, I just want them to stop making the world such a miserable place. They can live and grow old for all I care, just as long as people in countries that are poorer than theirs can do the same for a change.
But there’s a reason why I am going on this tangent, because Panoptic control did not stop with fascism. In fact, it’s industrial liberal nations that have truly perfected it.
I think Julian Assange and Edward Snowden are very heroic people. I think they wanted to do something righteous in the interest of democracy. But I also think sadly, that their efforts were to some benefit of the ruling classes.
I would say the same about Chelsea Manning’s efforts to tell the world about the atrocities and torture done by the US Army as well.
Because I think the world’s governments want us to know. I think it is designed with a Panoptic effect in mind. They want us to know that the CIA has secret torture facilities dotted throughout the world, where people go missing and are held without charges. I also think they want us to know that we are being watched, that everything we write, speak, publish, whether in public or in private, is under intense scrutiny by an impossibly large network of authority.
Because otherwise it’s useless.
Like I said, the utility of the Panopticon is how it permits a small amount of people to control a very large population. It’s an illusion. They have no more control over us than they did yesterday, that’s why they rely on psychology to make us into our own police officers. To make us guard our words, and fear reprisal for saying the wrong thing, or asking too many questions.
Because in 1936, the Spanish republicans took one of these prisons in Madrid with relative ease. They were all running on a skeleton crew. The soldiers who took the prison killed about 30 men, and these prisons were designed to hold a general population of some 1000+ people.
But here’s the worrying fact about this artefact that I walked past. Which is that across the highway from it is the location of the new prison. Intended to signify an era of peace, democracy and civilised ways of conducting justice.
Yet what puts me at unease is how the new prison is right across the motorway from the old one, and it’s almost 10 times bigger. Recently the prison population hit a record low with some 1000 inmates. In Franco’s era this would’ve been pushing maximum capacity.
I am by no means apologetic towards fascism, nor do I wish to suggest that the status quo ante is anything to be desired.
But I also have better things to do than to make compromises with a very disturbing reality.
According to Prisonstudies.org, global prison population has grown by about 20% since the year 2000. There is now 11 million incarcerated people globally. We have an entire nation’s worth of people behind bars.
And because of the Panoptic doctrine, it is getting harder and harder to discern where the true borders of the prisons lie. The survalliance and regulation has spilled over the walls and into civil life, and the lines between freedom and incarceration grow ever blurred as probationary sentencing gives the state mechanism enormous power and influence over people’s lives.
And yet look at what a contradiction this is. With technology placing us into a world of lightspeed communication and industrial abundance, why is the world’s criminal population growing? You would think that in a world of plenty, and in a world of communication, we would see less crime.
So what is happening?
I don’t think this is a problem of criminals. Nor do I think it is a problem of resources or technology. I think it is a problem of ideology and consciousness. I do not think we are under threat from a growing criminal element, but rather to the contrary. We’re under threat from a growing police element.
It is not burglars who invade our homes and violate our privacy, it’s corporations. It’s Facebook, and Google, and the many politicians and officials that their lobbies are able to buy.
But I also think it’s worth remembering how liberating ourselves from a Panopticon is as simple as understanding that there’s just thirty men against a thousand.