This paper was presented at the 2022 Staff and Student conference at London Metropolitan University
Between the 17th and 19th centuries, Britain had a policy of sending British born criminals to overseas territories as punishments for alleged crimes, often without fair trial and with little evidence proving their conviction. Sending individuals to a land 10,000 miles away for stealing several loaves of bread may seem rather absurd by today’s measurement of crime. However, 200 years later, an alarmingly similar rhetoric re-emerges. Shamima Begum, who was 15 years old when she left the UK to become a bride to soldiers of Isis, has had her citizenship of the United Kingdom revoked, the state arguing that she is entitled to Bangladeshi nationality (Sabbagh, 2021). Her crime? Flying to Syria to become a member of ISIS, an organisation made illegal in the UK for its militant Islamist ideology. New legislation proposed in clause nine of the Borders and Nationality Bill would further increase the power of the state to remove, without notice, British citizenship of anyone accused of terrorism if eligibility for other nationality can be demonstrated (Iqbal et al, 2022). Not only has citizenship by birth (ius soli) become a contestable space subject to greater questions of ethnicity than birth, the process of trial by jury has been bypassed entirely on the justification that some crimes are too heinous to warrant equal application of the law. Joining an Islamist terrorist organisation is beyond murder — it is an act unspeakable, unthinkable, unimaginable. So, we ensure its inconceivability by banishing it from the narrative of Britishness.
So how does the process of criminalisation serve to alienate people from within? It is well understood that nation operates to protect against foreigners entering its borders, maintaining strong border policy to ensure we do not allow the ‘wrong kind’ passage into ‘our country’. But how does the narrative of nationhood serve to mobilise public support for the expulsion and exile of natives, turning those once familiar now into foreign? Drawing on Foucault’s (1975) ideas surrounding crime and punishment as well as Anderson’s (2006) nation as imagined community, this paper will consider how the preservation of nation is deployed to create criminals out of citizens and provide legitimate reason to banish people from within the national community. Foucault argues that state power is enacted on the bodies of citizens by demanding ‘docility’ through institutions such as schools, factories, offices and so on. But when the body refuses to adhere to the social order, threats to Anderson’s national community are invoked to legitimise the expulsion of bodies from within. In this paper, I examine how the penal system is used to alienate society’s ‘others’ and preserve national order.
Michel Foucault, in his enormously influential Discipline and Punish argues that criminal punishment has become the anchor of the new social order of surveillance. But what is punishment? Whereas punishment in the early modern period was violent, public, and corporeally torturous — “an art of unbearable sensations”, punishment today has “become an economy of suspended rights” meted out to life rather than to the body. “It is intended to apply the law not so much to a real body capable of feeling pain as to a juridical subject, the possessor, among other rights, of the right to exist.” (Foucault, 1975, p.13). The law, therefore, is abstracted — the punishment intended to hurt soul and heart rather than body. Carceral punishment regarded by popular opinion as more principled than prior forms of physical discipline (to be hung, drawn, and quartered for example) requires more controlled forms of surveillance. The nature of the crime itself has been called into question, no longer simply establishing who committed it and how it should be punished but: “what is this act of violence or this murder? To what level or to what field of reality does it belong? Is it phantasy, a psychotic reaction, a delusional episode, a perverse action?” (Foucault, 1975, p.19). “What would be the appropriate measures to take? How do we see the future development of the offender? What would be the best way of rehabilitating him?” (ibid). Every aspect of the criminal process is measured and individualised, the crime itself, the accused and the environment in question. The body is mastered through these relations of power that monitor, are monitored and are invested in by all individuals in society. Punishment, then, takes place through representation, the representation of the penalty maximised in order to have its effect on prevention, having a greater effect on the public than on the individual. Criminals and crimes are objectified through the calculation of representations of signs understood by all in society — punishment equivalent to the social infraction committed — the establishment of certainty and proof through evidentiary practices and the adjustment of criminal punishment to subtle variables of intent, capacity, faculty — was it homicide, manslaughter, self-defence? The criminal has emerged as an enemy standing outside of society, disqualifying themselves of citizenship and warranting scientific objectification and treatment. They must be controlled through calculated punishment.
How does criminalisation take hold? Foucault takes Bentham’s panopticon, pictured here on the left, and turns it into metaphor. In other words, Bentham’s panopticon offers the opportunity for perpetual monitoring of criminals in cells, the guard sitting up high in the centre positioned so as to observe everyone, but Foucault argues that the panopticon functions as the wider system of governance. The panopticon enables one to see all individuals in the cells that are confined, making each an individual, always visible and simultaneously confined. The panopticon arrangement turns collectives into individuals who cannot return to being collectives because they are trapped in their individuation. Their sole purpose is to remain accountable to the observer in the panopticon. From the perspective of the guard, this creates a multiplicity that can be numbered and supervised, and from the perspective of the inmate, there is only sequestered solitude. This perpetual visibility assures the automatic functioning of power — one need not fear a test to fear being tested, so we perform as if always being tested. We thus become docile, always performing and perfecting our performances through institutions that make efficient our adherence to the system.
But who operates this panopticon? Why does everyone accept perpetual surveillance? We agree to being examined because we feel that it is a step towards achievement. But why do we agree to being watched and monitored in society? I here draw in Anderson’s description of nation as imagined community. Anderson argues that nations have taken the role of divine order, creating eternal community in an age of secularism. The nation represents community, a protective system supporting fraternity between strangers on the basis of shared land, culture, history and language. “The idea of a sociological organism moving calendrically through homogeneous, empty time is a precise analogue of the idea of nation, which also is conceived as solid community moving steadily down (or up) history.” (Anderson, 2006, p.26). In much the same way that an individual’s identity is understood as evolving over time but maintaining a commonality, like an adult observing a photograph of themselves as a child, certain of who they are through description by others but not through personal memory, we understand nation as progressing and maturing, assuming a likeness to but separation from its former self. Though kings of the old did not speak English, their presence in ‘British’ history is included in the country’s progression to contemporary society.
Nation is overlayed with a halo because the land is linked to ties of nature. Just as one does not choose familial ties, one cannot choose connection to nation. In this sense, nations inspire love and self-sacrifice in equal measure to that of hatred and fear. With its aura of fatality in that one is willing to fight for it till death, the nation is therefore pure in its imaginedness. Our willingness to be surveilled derives here, through a maintenance of the purity of nation. We fear the threat of outsiders invading our community, disrupting our way of life, and destroying our connection to one another on the basis of shared history, language and culture. So, we offer ourselves up for monitoring, whilst also participating in processes of monitoring.
What does this mean in contemporary society? Our functioning as ‘border guards’ in all institutions. In schools, the ‘Prevent’ agenda, launched because fear of Islamisation demands teachers monitor students for signs of ‘radicalisation’, a term that once meant counter-hegemonic (and therefore simply activist). In hospitals, universities, corporations, banks, libraries, housing, so on, individuals are criminalised for serving those not in possession of adequate visa documentation. But this ‘sacrifice’ offers incentive — housing, healthcare, income, education. To exile citizens who threaten the social order is to protect our rights, to protect our ever-elusive way of life. We become invested in a system of monitoring — acting in a capacity that is both controlling and controlled — because we benefit from its outcome: participating in society. We allow the criminal to be objectified, separated, individuated and ‘othered’ because we ourselves our constantly subject to objectification, separation, and individuation. So, the imagined community operates as the centralised moral thesis for why these power relations function, or what is behind these checks that ensures participation by society. But here I argue that in as much as we fear invasion to preserve our imagined community, we fear our own positions within this community — we accept the ‘othering’ of citizens from within because we accept a narrative that remains inclusive of us (even if exclusive of others). If my unbelonging is the consequence of the “other’s” existence, to sacrifice the “other” appears not only legitimate but logical.
What capacity do we have to challenge this logic, particularly if we ourselves are being perpetually observed? Although often touted as deterministic, Foucault’s arguments do suggest that the subject has some room for manoeuvre. Initiatives to stop deportations, especially the removal of refugees to Rwanda, have proven successful through persistent social media campaigning and physical protest. Resistance in this manner suggests that opportunities to confront systems of power remain open, if somewhat limited. The question remains as to whether we are willing to accept a certain degree of unbelongingness in order to expand our imagination of who can exist within our concept of community.
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