What is the Surveillance State?

It is time to take a serious look at what living in a surveillance state does to us. We can leave aside the usual question of what it looks like. Surveillance is by nature clandestine. It is a ruse. When caught in the act, it pretends to be unofficial, or even accidental. It wears a mask of many rationalizations, each of which presents itself as “evidence of the unseen.” Thus, it demands that we take it on faith. Does that mean that those who accept a state of surveillance, of being watched, have simply enlisted in another faith-based community? Does surveillance belong to a competition of “faiths.” Who do we become when, politically and technologically, we are forced into such a “community”?

Surveillance and crime prevention

At the present time, in the US, the focus of surveillance has become the “crime problem.” On the lookout for the incipient evil-doer, surveillance rationalizes itself through technological silence, while depending on sociological explanations. It is supposed to help prevent crime. But that just makes it more mysterious. Does it stop corporate crime? Does it rescue us from administrative corruption? These crimes reside in the domain of brave investigative journalism. When nine different people observed a woman being sexually assaulted on a train (Philadelphia, 10/13/21), all they could think of to do was record the event on their nine separate cellphones – thinking, perhaps, that that act of surveillance would stop the crime they were witnessing. Remaining in the hands of the police, will the technology of surveillance stop the crimes committed by the police?

Even the judicial system finds itself unable to prosecute crimes unless caught on viral video. It refused to charge the cop who shot Jacob Blake seven times point-blank in the back; it couldn’t even bring itself to charge him with cowardice on the job, let alone attempted murder. You’ve got to be either a craven coward or a dedicated murderer to shoot someone in the back.

The alleged act of crime prevention gives surveillance an aura of social value. Yet even then, its social acceptance must be rationalized in turn. Typically, one says: “I have nothing to fear from it. I’m not doing anything wrong.” But what reveals itself in such a disclaimer is a very complicated structure of fear. It is addressed to a primordial fear (of the state), for which it substitutes a postulated and fearful threat (a crime problem), with respect to which it takes sides (“I’m not part of the threat”), as if afraid to be confused with those who are. In other words, surveillance strategies carefully brand themselves as protection against crime in order to assuage the more basic fear of surveillance.

A society that lives by hiding one fear under another is a paranoid society. And a paranoid society can be led around by the nose, by anyone who shouts “threat” loud enough to be unquestionable.

That which fear defines

Fear of crime is a tautology. Fear is the very means by which crime is defined. To establish the criminality of an act, one must make commission of that act fearful. Law by itself will not do that. It requires a certain kind of administrative terrorism. Throughout the 17th century in England, the sanctity of property was established by hanging anyone, even children, for stealing anything – a handkerchief or a piece of string. Very few people fear white collar crime, so it is rarely investigated. When fear defines criminality, it is bottom-feeding. Though a call for assistance is not itself criminal, the arriving police will assume criminality, and then escalate that innocent request to a need for law enforcement. Whatever the call, the assumption of criminality becomes the real content of police response. This is said openly in the recent docu-drama video, “The Killing of Kenneth Chamberlain.” [cf. Martinot, “A Film for Our Time,” Counterpunch, 11/28/21] If the person is black, the cops approach with guns drawn, ready to shoot – an essential ingredient in criminalizing the black body.

This basic element of our social environment (police behavior) cannot help but skew our typical attitudes toward crime. Imagined potential criminalities get conflated with real life itself. The presence of an eight year old black girl selling lemonade on the street becomes a reason to call the police. The interlinking of fear and surveillance becomes manic.

We can see just how skewed the concept of justice can be in the vastness of the plea bargaining system. A huge number of people, estimated to be between 50% and 90% of all US prisoners, are locked up owing to plea bargaining. In the plea bargain process, a person is charged with a serious crime on questionable evidence in order to extort a confession to a lesser crime for which there is no evidence, in order to imprison while avoiding the expense of a trial. The actual number of victims of this extortion is unknowable since conviction records only contain the elicited confession, and not the bargain. It is simply an easy way of filling prisons. In its drive for mass incarceration, the US has become world renown, and has broken all records.

Some people do commit crimes, but once the process of criminalization transcends the principle of justice, the notion of punishment becomes primary over the idea of crime itself. It is a criminalization process that creates injustice in the desire to absolve paranoia.

And there is a real irony. If I claim that all prisoners jailed in the US today through plea bargaining are themselves innocent, that statement is irrefutable. It may not be true, but it cannot be disproved since plea bargains leave no record of trial or certification of evidence or witness testimony; nothing at all to signify a judicial process. Only confessions exist, forced under the pressure of blackmail. Judicial condemnation is reduced to pure existential event.

The use of suspicion linked to camera evidence, or other surveillance, will play a similar circumstantial (non-evidentiary) role. One can expect the results to involve a plea bargain, or police harassment, or outright criminalization. (A judiciary deserves harsh judgment to the extent it reconciles itself with its own commission of injustice.)

The Environment of Super Surveillance

The drivenness of fear has succeeded in producing a system of surveillance that is already ubiquitous. In the name of security, the government has built a system that goes by the name of “Echelon.” Echelon is a worldwide surveillance project whose purpose is to listen to and record all electronic communications in the world. (In the world!) [cf. Wikipedia: Echelon] It uses antennas, “vortex” satellites, wire taps, cable taps, fiber-optic cable taps, etc. It has enormous data storage capacity, and filters its info-extractions into categories using key-words. Most of its collected data may be useless at the moment, but nothing is discarded as unusable. That which pertains to current government projects or schemes gets forwarded to the relevant agencies. And the rest sits waiting for future projects that may find some of that stored data relevant.

The local reflection of Echelon’s existence appears in urban police demands for their own means of surveillance. Five years ago, the Berkeley police department asked to have Automated License Plate Readers (ALPR) provided and installed. Carried by police cars, the readers would record all license plates parked on the street the car would pass. The plate’s numbers would be read and compiled with time and place of reading, and later combined with owner’s name, address, warrants, etc. obtained from the DMV. Stationary readers (on buildings or lampposts) would record passing car plates and include their identification in the database.

At the time of the police demand, the police were accused of participating in federal surveillance. They demurred, and promised that the data collected would remain only with the department and not be given to any federal bureau or a fusion center [e.g. NCRIC: Northern California Research and Intelligence Center]. But that was an empty and mendacious promise. Since the data was to be radioed from the “reader” to a collector at the police station, it would be recorded automatically by Echelon while in transmission. Thus, the information would not have been literally “given” to the federal government, but there was nothing anyone could do to stop it from being “taken.” Police pretense that data could be withheld is only a form of deception.

The same holds true for any additional surveillance projects or use of police cameras.

The Panopticon

The intimate connection between social control and surveillance has been extensively analyzed through a concept of prison architecture called a Panopticon. It was a 19th century idea developed by Jeremy Bentham, a plan to make the control of prisoners direct and efficient through the use of surveillance.

The Panopticon consisted of a multi-tiered structure of cells, each tier arranged in a semi-circle around a central tower. The outer walls of the semi-circular tiers were solid and windowless, as were the walls between cells. The inner wall, facing the tower, was composed of bars, through which everything the prisoner did in the cell could be seen. None of the prisoners could see each other, but all could be seen by a guard from his vantage point at the circle’s center in the tower. Each prisoner’s activities could be watched without the individual prisoner knowing neither his watcher nor the fact that he was being watched. Any violation of the rules would be instantly observed, however, and subsequently punishment.

The expected effect of this setup was two-fold. Each person became their own constant disciplinarian and source of regimentation. And each lived his own life in the awareness of being an object for another unseen consciousness. In effect, each became a dual consciousness, his own and that of the unseen other, resulting in a loss of identity through that doubling of consciousness. Who one thinks one is will drain away under the pressure of what the one watching may think. Suspended between solitary confinement, alone in one’s cell, and under the inescapable gaze of a guard, the psychological effect would be a slow process of self-dislocation, and eventually dementia.

A related form of dual consciousness was theorized by W.E.B. DuBois as the condition of the African American in the US, insofar as black people were watched as subjects of white attention all the time. In large part, this semi-Panopticon character of black life in white supremacist society has been mediated by the black construction of alternate cultural communities. They provide some insulation from the psychological incarceration imposed by white culture and its systemic discrimination. By turning toward each other, these communities enabled the seizure and reconstruction of black identity. For many, they provide the peace of being out of reach of white malign attentions (even those that begin with “we just want to help.”). This sense of community was the environment for the efflorescence of art and letters in the Harlem Renaissance during the 1930s. In the 1960s, it gave rise to black arts movements in many cities. It was just such a black cultural environment on which Chokwe Lumumba’s program of community development and cooperative administration relied in Jackson, MS.

Having begun as defense against white hostility, these communities have attempted to remain as protection against subsequent attempts to destroy them. “Urban renewal” programs, gentrification, mass incarceration, police terror, gerrymandering, the destruction of black-identity political organizations, and the displacement of entire urban neighborhoods by rent gouging and economic inflation have all been expressions of a white need to eliminate the limited autonomy engendered by these black communities. .

In the bay area, serious damage and disruption to the black community in Berkeley and Oakland occurred at the hands of BART construction (Bay Area Rapid Transit) during the 1970s. The 7th St. center of black life in West Oakland was laid waste, and in South Berkeley, the area where MLK and Adeline streets came together, as a similar center of black life, succumbed to the sprawl of a BART parking lot.

On the other hand, the psycho-cultural effect of the US racial Panopticon was somewhat mitigated by the fact that black people know the generalizations and narratives by which white people tell themselves who black people are. For black people, the character of the “watchers” is not unknown.

It should be clear by now that the use of surveillance technology as a dimension of governing (even under the pretense of a limited form of crime control) reveals deep historical and cultural links to white supremacy and its systemic racism. Only resistance against it keeps modern society as a whole from simply devolving to a form of prison.

The original fear

The original fear underlying our topic here – police and the surveillance state – which skews our typical attitudes toward crime, criminality, and thus justice, emerged from the first founding of a police agency in the North American colonies. As soon as chattel slavery was established (1682), a fear of the enslaved, of the exploited and oppressed, was inculcated by the elite as a foreseen rising in rebellion against the elite, against the landowners with their straw bosses, and against government bureaucrats with their tax collectors (think of Daniel Shay and his 1786 rebellion in Massachusetts).

To fear the possibility of rebellion, however, is to accept the injustice against which real rebellion will eventually hurl itself.

In the pre-US colonies, the original police agency guarding enslavement was the slave patrols, founded in 1710. They consisted of poor white farmers and workers (those from whom social standing in the colony had been withheld), enlisted by the landed elite to stop runaways and suppress all indications of organization among the enslaved. It was the original surveillance mechanism. When the patrols treated any of the enslaved with unbridled brutality, they simply said they had discovered a rebellion in progress and smashed it. For that, they received effusive gratitude, and eventually membership in colonial society. In short, the slave system gave the white disfranchised (because poor) a chance to get membership and standing in the colony through policing and the exercise of social control. That is, policing in US society originated in abuse and the criminality of enslavement; and violence against people of color became the ticket to legitimacy for the disfranchised.

Today’s attempt to protect against criminality with technology rather than social re-humanization is the twin brother of the slave patrols; they share the same heart.


Part 2 will address the psychological effects of surveillance on everyone, its availability for abuse, its misplacement of our political thinking, and its relation to current structures of racialization.

Steve Martinot is Instructor Emeritus at the Center for Interdisciplinary Programs at San Francisco State University. He is the author of The Rule of Racialization: Class, Identity, Governance, Forms in the Abyss: a Philosophical Bridge between Sartre and Derrida (both Temple) and The Machinery of Whiteness. He is also the editor of two previous books, and translator of Racism by Albert Memmi. He has written extensively on the structures of racism and white supremacy in the United States, as well as on corporate culture and economics, and leads seminars on these subjects in the Bay Area.