Foucault’s Panopticon and the Jobcentre

‘Come in,’ she said, and my Mom and I walked behind the Council worker into a small office. Its glass doors faced into the reception, and made it seem pretty futile as we followed her from one room into the next. As we entered, there was a wall of staleness. I pulled a face at the cheap tomato soup smell, and she asked us to pass over our personal details.

I looked around at the building as they discussed the minutiae of Council Tax. It was shaped hexagonally, and all of the offices had the same transparent doors looking in on each other. In the middle of the respective fish-bowl offices sat the reception, manned by an unaccompanied woman. It lacked natural light, the ceiling was high, and there was an overall, indescribable dullness in the air.

This wasn’t the first time that I had noticed such an atmosphere in these places; a few weeks before I had started claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) and had experienced a similar architectural oppression. After telling the Jobcentre security guards my reason for visiting on the day of my first appointment, I made my way upstairs. The meeting ‘rooms’ were simply a collection of desks in an open-plan space; various work coaches milled around photocopiers, chatting away to each other.

Only a small board separated the desks, which were attached to one another in groups of four. As such, those who were having meetings with their work coaches were completely exposed to others; not only were they explaining their personal situations to the member of staff assigned to them, but they had no choice but to share them with the other ‘Job Seekers.’

This begins to represent what is essentially a Catholic Church style confession – with considerably less privacy – where the guilty party admit that their usefulness to society is not currently at the level expected from them in front of their fellow confessors, and most importantly, the employed individual who sits before them ticking boxes on the computer.

In this ‘one-on-one’ meeting, I sat beside a woman who spoke of how she needed urgent dental work. She stated that she couldn’t get help with the costs as her partner was the sole claimant for their JSA, but that there was no way that she could afford to pay for it. Having already overheard her recite her personal details, I listened in on the response from her work coach, which may as well have been ‘tough shit.’

This sense of Kafkaesque dehumanisation is so apparent within these environments, but is very rarely discussed. Every glass room that you sit in, all of the rooms that you wait in before you wait in other rooms. The open offices, the transparent doors. It would be foolish to overlook the fact that these things exist in the way that they do by design, and that the purpose behind this design is seemingly humiliation.

I

This manufactured humiliation can be linked to Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, in which he discusses the concept of Panopticism. It is difficult to ignore how much his theory (which was adapted from Jeremy Bentham’s) resonates with the way that the British social welfare system functions. Whilst it is complex and can be interpreted differently, there are some basic notions that are worth drawing from.

The idea of the Panopticon varies with each form of social discipline that it is applied to, but it is always a ‘pure architectural and optical system,’ classified by ‘the analytical arrangement of space’ (Foucault, pp.203-205). In layman’s terms, the building itself is intentionally used as a means of creating and upholding the power of any given authority. The fact that surveillance is so interwoven into the architecture means that an individual essentially asserts this power onto himself.

As Bentham states, in an ideal scenario, the individual in question is under constant watch from an authority figure. However, this can prove almost impossible, so the ‘next thing to be wished for is, that, at every instant, seeing reason to believe as much, and not being able to satisfy himself to the contrary, he should conceive himself to be so’ (Bentham, Letter I.).

In short, you can’t be watched by somebody all of the time. However, the illusion that you are being watched all of the time is enough to control your behaviour. This is easier to understand when applied to a social institution, and Foucault uses the example of a prison. This prison inhabits a circular building, but it can also be octagonal, or any shape that allows the cells to be inward-facing.


The Panopticon,' by Jenni Fagan - The New York Times
Foucault’s Panopticon

In the Panopticon, one set of windows or bars faces inwards (to what is essentially the courtyard), and another gives the inmate a view of outside and access to sunlight – which must enter the cell in a certain way – and as such, all that is needed is a supervisor or observer in a central tower. In fact, the observer in the central tower is not even required to be present; rather, he should be thought to be so.

The inmates do not know who watches them, and when these acts of surveillance take place, but are constantly under the impression that they are observed. As such, ‘power has its principle not so much in a person as in a certain concerted distribution of bodies, surfaces, lights, [and] gazes’ (Foucault, p.202). Power is, therefore, exercised through the specific use of architecture.

II

Understandably, it may seem that applying this to the Jobcentre, and a local Council building, is grasping at abstract philosophical straws. Yet Foucault insists time and time again that the panoptic schema ‘was destined to spread throughout the social body’ (ibid., p.207). There are few limits on its application within social institutions.

Whenever an authority wishes to impose a particular type of behaviour onto a group of individuals, he states, ‘the panoptic schema may be used. It is – necessary modifications apart – applicable to all establishments whatsoever’ (ibid., p.205). And whilst it may originally have been developed to explain power relations within prisons, hospitals, schools and factories, it has also been described as a means of getting the idle to work, and a way of assessing the causes of these displays of idleness.

The Jobcentre, then, may be exploiting similar tools of surveillance and vulnerability, in order to create a sense of power that one cannot help but feel is fundamental to its existence. This begins from the second that you explain the purpose of your visit to the security guards on the door, and continues as you describe your personal situation in front of a multitude of observers.

Of course, there are differences in the architectural setup of the Jobcentre and the idea of the Panopticism. There is not one central tower, wherein there may be an observer. In fact, the mode of surveillance is much more explicit. The surveillance that takes place is evident, and one could argue, amplified. Security guards, CCTV cameras, work coaches, and other ‘Job Seekers’ reinforce it.

The main point worth taking from Foucault’s theory is that architecture can be used to strip an individual’s privacy away from them, and to highlight any feelings of being subjected to an invisible, but nonetheless omnipresent, power. And just as the central tower in a prison is used to require less ‘official’ observers, ‘Job Seekers’ are almost persuaded to serve this purpose within the Jobcentre.

III

Elsewhere, it’s evident that class and privacy are interlinked on many levels. A higher social status brings with it an increased ability to protect oneself from the visibility of others, and this is something that few working-class individuals, such as those who are on JSA, can afford for themselves. The higher up the social ladder you are, the higher the possibility that you can resist surveillance.

Exposing people before each other in an open-plan office, so that they must confess how unprofitable they are publicly, is only one method of using visibility as a means of humiliation. Elsewhere, it manifests itself as long queues of people on the street waiting to sign on, used as an example to others of where they could be if they do not skip gaily down the capitalist path, however shitty their options may be.

In Foucault’s words, ‘visibility is a trap,’ and this isn’t all that it is (ibid., p.200). Visibility is a weapon, used by the state to afford privacy to some, and exposure to others: those that become a part of the mass body known as the ‘unemployed’. Take a step further, and you will see that those who are at the very bottom – the homeless – are afforded no privacy at all. They are out in the cold, subjected to the derision of those who could also quite easily fall into a state of constant visibility.

And this is what we should be focusing on, whether you have stepped foot in the Jobcentre or you’ve managed to avoid the pleasure until now. We may allow our state to be one of humiliation and surveillance whilst it doesn’t subject all of us to such powers, but it can, and a large part of the population is one paycheck away from losing the luxury of such privacy.

Jobseeker’s Allowance is not the state exercising kindness to its most vulnerable. It is a symbol of what we are all aware of under a capitalist system: if you fulfil the purpose assigned to you as a human being – to find yourself a 9 ‘til 5 job – then you are rewarded with the privilege of maintaining your pride and solitude. If not, you are exposed as an example of what not to be, and you must play by the rules of others.


Bentham, J (1995) The Panopticon Writings (ed. Miran Bozovic). London, Verso Books.

Foucault, M (1991) Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. 3rd Ed. London, Penguin Books Ltd.

Originally published in Lumpen: A Journal of Poor and Working Class Writing.

Emily

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