Monday, April 20, 2009

This is not a Police State: an Introduction to the Power Culture

This is not a Police State. It is, however, more Orwellian than the term "Orwellian" is generally given credit for. For the idea of a "Police State" implies something very specific - the rule of citizens by force, wielded by a particular arm of the State. Force not only as a technique to achieve the separation of the "dangerous" from the "normal", but also force as a deterrent in and of itself. Intimidation alongside Internment.

Coming back from a week in France, though, the difference becomes clear; not just the difference between France and the UK, but between the idea of a "Police State" and that of a "Power Culture". This was embedded into me moment ago by nothing to do with G20 protests, or the rights of photographers, but by attitudes towards customers on Southern Rail. We have a <i>culture</i> of hierarchy. One that is growing.

That such an otherwise everyday moment was the trigger for such a shift in realisation is tantamount to how insidious the whole thing has become, how inherent to our society it is, and how accepted it is as part of our culture, like cheese and hip-hop. My visit to France was a disturbing pleasure, not least by way of the <i>respect</i> and courtesy that people seemed to show each other. It became clear that - on this side of the Channel - we are anything but equal, in each other's eyes.

The "Power Culture" is subtle, and can be mistaken easily for a Police State, but in reality the Police State is merely a subset of the Power Culture. To be more specific, we can identify a couple of general aspects that are applicable to the notion of a Police State, but that manifest far more widely than that to be restricted to such an institutional term:

  • The provider of a service has power (ultimately, physical power) over the consumer of that service

  • There is little or no effective route of feedback to change this balance

Nothing particularly fancy about that - power without control. C'est la politique, non?

What intrigues me now is the effects that this power without control has; how does it make the leap from "State" to "Culture"? Why and how does this obvious imbalance become accepted, and indeed encouraged without resorting to further physical force?

I hope to find time over the next few blog posts to pick up on some of these effects, but a shortlist would look something like this:

  • There are those who, noticing the imbalance of power, try to change the service.

  • There are those who, noticing, do something else.

  • There are those who, also noticing, decide that it is easier to put up with the good points (i.e. it is not them being punished, or that a crap service is better than no service and that to complain would be to disrupt what exists, possibly detrimentally)

  • There are those who, noticing or not, actively become proud of this new level of service/treatment, and find a certain satisfaction or reward in celebrating it

  • There are those who actively rebel against the service, but without the notion of changing it - in fact, in extreme cases, the existence of something to rebel against can even cause the sprouting of a new form of identity ("you rebel scum") entirely dependent on the fact that service consumers are treated like crap

  • At this point we wrap around to the start of the list, as very little really separates the rebels with a cause from the rebels without, if the Power Culture is sufficiently resilient to feedback.

Intriguingly, while the Power Culture seeks to disrupt the old cycle of feedback-change, it actively sets up a new cycle to capture and redirect this feedback. In some ways, this re-direction becomes an entirely new "arm" of the Power Culture - people are employed to listen, to take the flak, to be understanding if not actually effective.

These rules apply to any organisation or industry in which there is little chance or opportunity for the scale of feedback to match or threaten the scale of the organisation's workings. For example, there may be thousands, or tens of thousands, or people working at one moment in time for a rail company, or a monopolistic telephone company, but as long as customers, consumers, citizens are encouraged to submit complaints through the individualising, objectifying machinery of bureaucracy, the organisation's power and scale will always be resistant. Less "Divide and Conquer", and more "Divide and Defend".

The same aspect of "individualisation" applies not just to customers and clients, but also to those working lower down the organisation's ranks. For individuality - competition - breeds fear: Fear of being shunted out of the all-feeding organisation for someone else ready and willing to toe the line. Fear that passing the message of change on will bring the almighty glowing eye of the organisation onto oneself.

This notion of individualisation on both sides of the divide is important, and deserves a blog post to itself. For now, we have introduced the idea of a Power Culture over and above that of a Police State, and in doing so we should realise that the "war", if you wish to see it in such a way (not that I particularly do), is not us-verses-them, but us-versus-us. It is everywhere.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Arrested for handing in stolen phone

The Lib Dems bring news of a teenager arrested for handing in a lost mobile phone, including DNA swab and photo record. As Paul, the young man in question notes, "I would not go to the police in future. I would arrange for it to be collected by the last caller."

Why bother? Why not just keep it? Chances are, if someone finds out, it's easier to lie or apologise than to take the risk of being arrested - being in trouble with someone else is less hassles than being in trouble with the state.

Well done Policepeople. Once again you prove just how well Britain has alienated and disgusted its upcoming generation. I could go into the issues with removing DNA from the database, but without an attitude of innocence in the first place, all that just seems kind of detail, really.