Excerpts from Officious: the rise of the busybody state by Josie Appleton.
The red sign with a slash-through line has come to define the character of public spaces. The entrance of every public space is announced with large red signs saying what cannot be done within it: no smoking on the platform, no hoodies, no helmets, no cycling. The character of public space is given by its specific menu of restrictions, the things that cannot be done.
The meaning of the ban is legislation as mere restriction. It is legislation that creates a slash through social life, which puts up a barrier and says merely, ‘this cannot be done’. This is not legislation that seeks to provide services, or organise social life on a more rational basis: it is the creation of a no-go zone.
The ban is the embodiment of an interfering, disapproving authority, which finds its raison d’être in interfering in other people’s habits. The officious officer will look out of their window at children skateboarding or playing in the fountain, and think: they shouldn’t be doing that. The following week a sign will appear: no skateboarding, no bathing in the fountain. Over time an increasing number of activities will be added.
It is through this sort of restriction that the officious state defines itself and makes its presence felt. For the officious state, there is rarely a good reason not to ban things, and lifestyle bans are posed as the answer to every social problem and ethical failing. If young people are being disrespectful the answer is to ban them from spitting or wearing hoods or low-slung trousers. If there are street alcoholics. the answer is to ban them from entering the park or to ban drinking in public.
Here the banning of a habit – the symbol or emblem of social problems – becomes the primary way in which the state can affect society, and replaces substantive interventions. The ban becomes a public service.
Increasingly, the lifestyle ban defines state authority. One of the few things that a politician can do at a stroke is to ban something or other, which is why a ban is often the first act of a new regime or government. The first act of the London mayor Boris Johnson was to ban drinking on the Tube, a benign habit that had been largely restricted to tired commuters and snoozy drunks. The role of the ban was not to deal with a social problem, but to announce the new regime, to at a stroke effect a change in the life of the city.
This ideological role explains the excessive passion with which politicians propose bans on some minor habit or practice. Various smoking bans have been described as ‘making history’; councillors seeking bans on spitting are gripped by an ecumenical zeal. The parliamentary houses of France and Belgium pulled out all rhetorical flourishes to bring through bans on burqas. In particular. the Belgian government was in a state of dissolution, all lawmaking had ceased, yet politicians managed to come together for an emergency session to prohibit this rare form of women’s headwear.
It is through lifestyle prohibition that the state can make its own statement of values. And so French republicanism is increasingly defined against the burqa, without which perhaps it would lose all definition. The Spanish state of Catalonia banned both bullfighting, the habit associated with the rule of Madrid, and the burqa, associated with Muslim immigrants. So the Catalonian principle is defined: non-Madrid, and non-Islam. By prohibiting the cultural practices of others one makes one’s own statement of principle.
The ban, therefore, bears the weight of state ideological definition and legislative capacity. The ban doesn’t reflect society but serves ideological needs intrinsic to the state or those in authority…
Security cameras would have once been restricted to private property, facing outwards to guard against incursions along with the wire and the guard dogs. If there were cameras it meant you were not supposed to be there.
Now cameras define public spaces; they are facing across squares, on buses, in public buildings or restaurants. When a new public square is built the cameras are put in along with the benches and streetlights. Now if there are no cameras, you are not supposed to be there; if there are no cameras you must be in a no-man’s land or wasteland, an unsafe and shadowy space. Public space has come to mean surveyed space.
Unwatched spaces are seen as disorderly and a threat to public order: if there is no camera then anything could happen….
…it is only if they are being watched, apparently, that people will treat each other well. Ethics originates from the restraining presence of the third eye, without which it would be all against all.
Stasi surveillance was obsessed with people’s activities and associations: what they had done and with whom. Now the citizen is categorised as a bare life form, as fingerprints, DNA, irises, face shapes….
A belief in the primacy of the paper world is characteristic of estranged bureaucracies that seem to generate policy out of themselves. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s novel The First Circle describes how Stalinist elites were more concerned with whether an event was recorded ‘on paper’ than whether it actually happened. The secret police would get to know somebody ‘by their files’ before they got to know them in person: the person would be interpreted through their files and not the other way around.