Culture of Control

Ivan Illich:

People would rebel against industrial society if medicine did not explain their biological disorientation as a defect in their health, rather than as a defect in the way of life which is imposed upon them or which they impose upon themselves. The assurance of personal political innocence that a diagnosis offers the patient serves as a hygenic mask that justifies further subjugation …

Each year there are more and more “subjects”, more “clients”, more “patients”, more people in “treatment”, and more officially certified problems to justify treatment. Local, state, and federal agencies have created an enormous network of “programs” to identify and serve such “subjects” – community mental health systems serving “mental health consumers”. There exists a mandatory medical and psychological screening of all the nation’s poor (those eligible for Medicaid). This includes family histories and the collection of extensive personal data about parents, siblings, and other relationships. There are sophisticated data systems which are used to exchange personal information among schools, welfare departments, the courts, and other agencies. These are used to track clients through the social service system. Participation in “treatment centers” is imposed on hundreds of thousands of people whose only crime may be a need for shelter, failure to cooperate with welfare workers, or lifestyles of which their neighbors disapprove. At a time when our government accepts a high unemployment rate, when budgets for conventional forms of social services are curtailed, governments have found new ways of controlling superfluous people. They have invented new categories to convert what is essentially a political and an economic dilemma into a “problem” of mental illness or other forms of individual inadequacy. “Mental illness” is often used as a label for behaviors which fail to satisfy social convention or cultural expectations. The programs include drugs to keep clients docile, behavior modification to keep clients cooperative, questionarres to reinforce the authority of the agency over the client, data banks to record behavior and follow through the system. Such “treatment” is used to maintain order. Organized psychiatry is a creature of government. There is no conspiracy, no master plan of control, but there are clearly a set of interlocking interests. There are professionals who know more about us than we know about ourselves. Federal and state policy created an outpatient system to handle people who had been hospitalized in the first place because they had nowhere to go. Most community mental health centers are so sparsely staffed that there is simply no time or money to offer genuine health care for most of the clients. Outside the gated communities of luxury homes, there is a growing army of human life experiencing the dark side of our consumerist culture. The institutions of social services converts what are essentially problems of money, housing, or education into “mental illness”. The police have learned that it is easier and faster to dispose of cases by hauling them to psychiatric wards of hospitals – the drunks, the junkies, the screamers, the sidewalk nuisances … The other agencies of social service, welfare, schools, and housing refer their difficult clients for counseling, “psychiatric evaluation”, or “treatment”. Entire communities have a prison ambiance to them. In recessions and depressions, and in the collapse of civilizations, the poor are hit the hardest.   It will be the poor who are hit the hardest as the fossil-fuel fiesta literally runs out of steam. A rising tide sinks many ships, and many people will fall into the ranks of the underclass, a class that will become larger and larger as wealth gets more and more concentrated into the coffers of those who own and thereby control society. Will entire cities be transformed into prison colonies? I don’t think human beings were designed for such an existence. After all, all of our ancestors evolved as tribal people where, if people suffered at all, people suffered together. Our culture of control and consumerism does not work for most people. It works for a few, but most people suffer more than if they had been born thousands of years ago among tribal people where there were no “throw-aways”. The elite of industrial societies like to complain about the cost of welfare programs or the cost of running the prison industry, failing to see this dark side as the foundation on which the scarcity economics of the IW is based. The prison system, inherently unjust and inhumane, is the expression of injustice and inhumanity in the society at large. Those of us on the outside do not like to think of wardens and guards as extensions of ourselves, yet they are. And they are intimately locked in a deadly embrace with their human captives behind the prison walls. By extension, so are we. Am I my brother’s keeper? And should I find myself inside the prison walls or within a prison colony, how shall I feel about those “keeping” me? The thing to remember is that everyone is in this prison, including the wardens and guards and Hollywood movie stars. With such a soulless industry in place, no individual is safe from being swallowed alive by it.

Jerome S. Bruner:
David Garland’s disturbing book, The Culture of Control: Crime and Social Order in Contemporary Society, addresses the question why there are so many more people in jail in America and Britain than anywhere else. That, in any case, is its specific focus. Its broader concern is with cultures of control, how societies treat deviance and violence and whom they single out for what treatment. He deals with this politically sensitive subject less dramatically than Michel Foucault did in Discipline and Punish, which brought the subject into public debate in the 1970s. Garland brings a larger amount of factual information to bear, but Foucault’s influence shows in his account. His argument is that by 1980, both countries established a new system of crime control, a system based almost exclusively on imprisonment. This system has continued unabated ever since, the current decade being the most punitive in US history. The new approach to managing crime, in Garland’s account, was an expression of the triumph of free-market political conservatism over the protest-generating upheavals of the late 1960s and 1970s.
What finally emerged in both countries was a highly efficient and technically controlled system of crime management directed almost exclusively at protecting crime’s potential victims instead of coping with its causes. Its principal instruments, inevitably, were swift arrest, tough sentencing, and extensive incarceration. Penal welfare and rehabilitation got lost in the process. Moreover, the transformation took place with scarcely a murmur of public protest. It seemed to escape attention, except among those it affected personally.

While the gorts sit back and thank the Lord that they aren’t inside the prison walls, they fail to see that this prison industry is the free-market’s solution to poverty and scarcity. Woe to you who finds yourself in want in Takerville!


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