Extending the Carceral System: Ferguson and Foucault

Watching you always. Just in case
Watching you always. Just in case

All too often the ideological operations of our day-to-day life function with a degree of concealment. In moments of crisis however ideology and certain discursive operations become easier to spot yet often paradoxically harder to analyse as the crisis itself discourages critical examination in favor of solutions or immediate action as critical thinking becomes a luxury that cannot be allowed in the midst of emergency (a phenomena ably pointed out by Slavoj Zizek)

The news from Ferguson Missouri has been nothing less than horrific, beginning with the murder of Mike Brown by a police officer, the disproportionate response of the police and the frankly chilling militarized escalation that’s imposed a curfew on the town, threatened journalists and civilians with arrest and violence as well firing tear gas and rubber bullets into crowds of people.

Whilst exposing the vast scale of institutionalized racism within American legal and civic systems the incidents in Ferguson show the larger discourses around justice and society that all too often we are too happy to ignore. In his work “Surveiller et punir: Naissance de la Prison” Foucault offers an analysis of the penal system as it has developed throughout Western civilization. The historical shift that Foucault identifies is a shift away from a discourse of punishment towards disciplining and controlling society’s subjects. This disciplinary procedure is ostensibly motivated by the desire of humanist reformists but thanks to Ferguson the modern penal system can no longer hide behind that excuse. Punishment has been replaced on the streets of Missouri by a brutal discipline and as those tear-gassed crowds can attest the carceral system extends further than the walls of the local department of corrections institution – its now just outside your front door.

This brutal discipline of the society constructed in the States has created new economies and political form for the individual. We no longer just imprison young black men but place them within certain structures that may appear egalitarian but individuate them for observation and hence, control. As Foucault puts it:

The general juridical form that guaranteed a system of rights that were egalitarian in principle was supported by these tiny, everyday, physical mechanisms, by all those systems of micro-power that are essentially non-egalitarian and asymmetrical that we call the disciplines

Micro-power or disciplinary procedures are not merely the heavily armed and thuggish police but the smallest details of life as the systems of society are designed to monitor and control the potential agency of young men like Mike Brown. These discourses are designed to create a generation of compliant, docile and useful subjects – ideal for military service or cheap and easily exploitable labor; but clearly deeply threatening to authority when these individuals dare to exert their own agency in activities like going to the shops or walking home with iced tea and skittles.

The violence of the police in Ferguson is just the most visible example of a disciplinary system that extends into almost every aspect of daily life. This disciplining depends upon a constant observation and monitoring of its subjects and from there comes the most immediate issue with the suggestion some have made post-Ferguson of placing cameras upon all on duty police officers. The issue with what seems like an innocuous suggestion is twofold: first, it implies that the solution to police violence is cameras focused on those who come into contact with them, and secondly it implies that individuals have no right to unobserved resistance to police action.

The violence of the police in Ferguson is bone chilling, yet it reveals something that again, most of us in our day-to-day life might prefer not to acknowledge. The violence on the streets of Missouri is not unique but a symptom of discursive practises designed to observe and criminalize the most vulnerable. We should be furious about Ferguson but the anger and the hurt should not be limited to just yet another single, isolated incident. The actions of the police in Ferguson are separated from the actions of police elsewhere by nothing more substantial than circumstances. The violence displayed toward the crowds of protesters is part of the same system that disciplines and controls all subjects that come into contact with it. If we’re angry about Ferguson we should also remember to widen our gaze as demolishing the extended carceral system will need not only justice for Mike Brown, a teenager who can be executed for the crime of being young, male and black but a new way of imagining the systems of society so they engender not discipline, but freedom for all.

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