Social control is the most changing mainstay of modernity. Adapted, revised and updated in the course of the centuries to adapt to the conditions of the time; a flexible but effective tool that has proven to always rise to the occasion in every circumstance. The winning weapon capable of dealing with imbalances more threatening, and taking roots intertwined with the ideology and the ethics of work. More than any other archaic society, given its complexity, modernity requires extraordinary social control, subtracted – on a par with ethics – from the Church and assigned to the institutions of the state.
The Church as a powerful instrument of social control was further strengthened in the centuries before the Industrial Revolution, thanks to the Lutheran Reformation – which was well-suited to the new mercantile and entrepreneurial mentality in northern Europe – opening up to dialogue with the now urbanised masses who were perturbed by the mechanisation of work.
In particular, the work of Ignatius de Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus, with his Spiritual Exercises (1527) had helped to persuade the new masses, restless and insecure in view of the process of world secularisation, initiated by the scientific findings and technological inventions from Copernicus to Galileo.
It is a time of great insecurity, of deep crisis and social unrest that threatens the stability of the newly formed states in Europe that have just recovered from the wars of religion and are preparing to cross the threshold of modernity. The phenomenon of urbanisation, coupled with a sudden increase in population, unleashes forces which had not yet been seen and for which the state itself must be responsible for containing.
Looking at how the care to the poor was organised in England in the eighteenth century, which before was the responsibility of parishes, and then increasingly entrusted to public institutions, where manual work was required, and then directly entrusted to the factories, where female and child labour was used, together with the underprivileged and the beggars, we can see how the bourgeoisie gradually replaces the Church in dealing with social control. The transfer of social control from the Church to the state marked the beginning of modernity. This kind of handover, which took place gradually between the sixteenth and the eighteenth century, is one of the major “sociological” changes that can be observed from the Middle Ages to the present day.
It is accompanied by a progressive secularisation of the state and the assertion of the principle Cuius regio, eius religio, as set out by Charles V at Augsburg (1555), according to which those who reign decide on the religion of their people, and then by the Treaties of Westphalia (Münster and Osnabrück in 1648), which sanctioned the definitive separation between Church and State. Teaching, hitherto a privilege of the Church, becomes a public service of the community, then becoming mandatory and guaranteed by the state, was approved first by Great Britain in 1876 and later by other European countries.
Modernity not only betrayed the promises it made at the time of its affirmation, which coincided with the rationalism of the Enlightenment, but somehow, along the way, it managed to lose its libertarian and democratic impulse that had characterised the bourgeoisie in its ascending phase. Most of the historical texts inspired by Marxism always distinguished the progressive phase of the enlightened bourgeoisie from a reactive phase in consideration of the risk of a proletarian revolution which threatened to seize power. The turning point between these two phases is indicated by the uprisings of 1848, a date which coincides with the publication of the Communist Manifesto of Marx and Engels. According to this interpretation, which has all the limitations of every schematic approach, the bourgeoisie – at first open and collaborative – clung to conservative and undemocratic positions to oppose the unstoppable advance of a proletariat fighting for the final victory. In retrospect, the society that is asserting itself in those very years, between the nineteenth and twentieth century, right from the start is a society that envisages the need for tight social control, basically of the authoritarian type, which reserves privileged conditions and special treatment for a minority not yet formed, as in the past to the nobility through birth, but to a “nobility” by virtue of wealth, merit and social success.
It is this minority that represents (to their own advantage) the declarations of democracy and progress that the Enlightenment had firmly put in place and which, in fact, do not fall short even after 1848. On the contrary, those principles give shape to the entire period of modernity. So there is a basic continuity in the behaviour and aims of modernity that the uprisings of 1848 do not call into question in any way, but rather make the reinforcement of social control increasingly tight as the masses become uncontrollable. This control is accompanied, however, by formal concessions in terms of wages, individual rights, conditions of employment, social security and participation in public life.
In reality, on closer inspection, the trade union victories for a reduction in working hours and higher wages, achieved after years of struggle, are not absolute victories after all, but only limited and prudent concessions necessary to maintain social balance, given the implicit recognition of the subordinate condition of the masses with respect to the ruling class.
Factory work is the first, tragic experience of totalitarian control of modernity. The individual is forced to live in an environment from which he cannot escape, which keeps both mind and body occupied, and that imposes hectic paces of life, forced choices, even moral ones: he is imbued with bourgeois ethics, from which he cannot escape even if he tried fighting against it, because it has become part of his culture (amongst which, the sense of sacrifice, dedication to work, subjection to a higher authority, and the deferment of gratification).
A tight control indeed that, in the previous century, Jeremy Bentham had advocated in his Panopticon building in which it was possible to “see” and control the behaviour of the inmates (and therefore the workers) without being seen.
It is not just the prerogative of the State to take care of its citizens, but a real need on the part of society to control its citizens, in an invasive way. For centuries the prerogative of the Church, social control becomes the task of the bourgeois state, which is modelled on the factory system, or rather the workshop industry, as they called the first industrial realities of the eighteenth century, and they transfer it to the lives of citizens, with the same characteristics: transparency, diligence, loyalty, routine, corporal and economic punishment, and fewer civil rights.
To withstand the complex framework of modernity, to cope with the changing conditions of the society closest to us, there are centrepiece pillars that could be called “totalitarian institutions”. These are places organized in a private environment that bring together a group of people, either voluntarily or forced to by law. Within these places individuals lose their capacity as citizens, even just temporarily, and are subjected to special rules that apply within them. It is an incredible invention and socially very significant, substantially altering the lives of millions of people, because no one is free of it, and everyone has had to undergo the experience during their lifetime.
In times closer to us, the need for tighter and more effective social control for the complexity of the masses who are less and less willing to passively accept the conditions of life imposed on them by an undemocratic State and by a brutal economic system (a phenomenon that appears from the second half of the nineteenth century and that is destined to explode in the early years of the twentieth century), leads to the emergence of totalitarianism. Namely, to a more extreme form of social control, implemented with violence and the systematic intrusion into the private lives of citizens. Totalitarianism, as a condition of extreme authoritarianism is both the answer to the incipient massification of society and its exaltation, through the use of means designed to maintain consensus, to exercise coercive power over consciences, to induce a soporific condition through mass culture.
It is interesting to observe how the totalitarian systems of the twentieth century tried to imitate the control over individuals had already been established by the factories of the eighteenth century. The coercive system of the factory becomes the model adopted by the totalitarian State. The same commitment to manage and control the citizen-worker from birth to death, the same constant attention to his education, his initiation into the work environment, his leisure time, his ethical principles and also his religious ones. The same guarantee of the minimum subsistence, but also the same economic and even corporal punishment in cases of transgression. Constant repression and control at all times; an absolute State-master of the body and mind of his subjects, with the difference that it is not accessed by necessity or by virtue of an employment contract, but simply by birth.
In late modernity, we have the emergence of the total institutions in which people in them have to obey the rules in force regulating conduct and imposing restrictions on individual freedom, which distinguish them from the outside: prisons, mental institutions, hospitals, nursing homes, barracks, boarding schools, colleges, universities, even brothels.
“Taken one by one, most of these procedures have a long history behind them. – wrote Michel Foucault, who dedicated a fundamental study to total institutions (cf. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, 1975 – First hospitals, then schools, later still, factories, were not simply set in order by discipline: thanks to it they have become systems such that every mechanism of objectification has the same weight as an instrument of subjection”.
The authoritarian State does not apply this mechanism to the entire country: if in the eighteenth century totalitarian institutions served to solve the problems of “social diseases”, two centuries later they have been extended to all, even to the healthy part of the population. This status has had a precise historical parable that can be observed sociologically only now that modernity has entered into crisis, that it has shown its structural limits and, in addition to broken promises, has seen its foundations being called into question.
How can we deny the importance of these institutions in maintaining social cohesion that takes no account of differences in caste, class or level of education? Such a generalised mode of social cohesion that levels and bears down on each individual to justify the use of the term mass. Whoever enters one of those institutions loses his individual characteristics, is no longer recognised for his own individuality, his merits, his qualities (in some cases he even loses his identity), specifically because of the need for equal treatment for all, with no exceptions.
The evolution of modernity is marked by a progressive attempt to extend the scope and scale of these institutions, in order to adapt the need for progressive social control to the growing complexity of the social fabric, to the extreme point of making the State itself the total institution par excellence, the totalitarian state, where social control is so overwhelming as to concern every moment of the public and private life of the individual citizen.
The dystopian narrative depicts an unacceptable future in which massification is exasperated, where the individual is reduced to a nonentity. The threat seen in the totalitarian states of the twentieth century is well represented in the collective imagination by scenes of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1923), in which groups of faceless workers alternate in the lifts that take them inside the Moloch, the underground machine that governs and feeds the world, and in which the frightening image of the Leviathan can be glimpsed.
But if the totalitarian state is the last resort of the process of social totalisation, it is also the weakest point, bound to enter into crisis with the other pillars of modernity.
The crisis of the modern state is accompanied by the crisis of all its total institutions that, gradually and with different results, have been showing signs of weakening since World War II. The Basaglia law closed down the mental institutions, perhaps the most inhuman forms of segregation and also the most useless. But the others are breaking down or at least showing disturbing cracks in their precarious structure. Think of schools, for example. Once a strict places where students were treated in a military fashion, who had to observe strict rules of behaviour, as well as of clothing; subjected to corporal punishment and bullying by their older peers. A reading of The Confusion of Young Törless by Robert Musil (1906) can give an idea of what the atmosphere was like in educational institutions at the beginning of the last century, i.e. at the peak of modernity.
School, today, has changed dramatically. Behind the apparent process of democratisation (relaxation of the rules, abolition of corporal punishment, elasticity of the rules, introduction of parents into the management bodies) hides the deterioration of its totalising principles, which are manifested primarily in a much lower educational level. The loss of the primary objective of this institution, now accompanied and even replaced by other educational tools that convey knowledge, is the cause, as often happens, of the resulting loss of respect towards teachers and faith in the function of public education.
As for the factories, they have undergone a different process, following the dematerialisation of work and the profound innovation that industrial production experienced after the introduction of new technologies.
The factory was the first among the total institutions to begin a process of internal liberalisation, by virtue of pressure made by the unions that is obviously not present in other cases. None of the other institutions, in fact, has such a direct economic function and so to speak “load-bearing” in modern society. More than deteriorate and lose effectiveness, as in the case of the school, the factory was dismantled instead, separated into its essential components, thus breaking up the unity which determined that physical proximity, togetherness, the unity of its being an institution and the solidity of its actors the workers.
Separating the workers and the individual departments, displacing them geographically, making them independent and therefore denying them an overview of the production process (from design to marketing) – a phenomenon that can be said to have started when the assembly line was introduced – has not damaged the functionality of the factory. On the contrary, it seems to have optimised output in economic terms. But it has undoubtedly deconstructed its totalising form, thus accompanying it towards the crisis of modernity. It is now giving rise to a social condition in which the totalising institutions, as they had been created in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, are no longer suited to a transformed society and appear rather as something left over from an obscure past.
The total institutions, on the one hand, urge the people who access them to take on a homologous behaviour, to feel solidarity and perceive the rules imposed (including their de-personalisation) as an injustice they are subjected to. On the other hand, they induce those who are not easily subordinated (those in whom the spirit of autonomy prevails) to reject the institution – in cases where it is possible to do so for legal or economic reasons – and turn to similar private institutions, where, instead, individual recognition and ad personam service is guaranteed.
If the public hospital does not provide the treatment required in a timely manner, we turn to a private clinic; if the public school does not meet the needs of the family, there is always the exclusive college, unlike the case of the prison and the factory. In the factory it is necessary to apply the principle of transparency for more effective control of the workers, which was then extended to the prison, according to the principles already explained by Jeremy Bentham: transparency is an Enlightenment requirement endorsed by modernity. This points towards the evolution experienced by the concept of “punishment”: in ancient times it meant the removal of the offender from civil society (ostracism). Therefore, physical separation was expected, of the spatial type. This was subsequently modified to a visual removal, by imprisonment in a closed place, where the convicted person is not only separated from the community, but is also “out of sight” of the community and therefore forgotten. Freud would say “removed”.
To this removal of the offender is added the Enlightenment variant of Bentham is added, which envisages one-way, limited visibility, to permit greater control. This is the modern idea: exclude and segregate, while maintaining visual supervision.
Imprisonment, i.e. the removal from active social life of those who have broken the law, is a typical choice of modernity and falls into the scheme of total institutions. As in archaic societies, culprits were removed from the social context because they were considered unworthy to be part of it; modernity hides them from view of others in the belief that the prisoner has a chance to redeem himself.
However, for the most part, prison does not redeem or punish in the right way, if anything, it is merely a barbaric annihilation of human dignity. As in many countries, mental institutions have been closed (in Italy as a result of the Basaglia law of 1978), and sooner or later also the prisons will have to be closed and other less uncivilized ways will have to be found to inflict punishment on those guilty of a crime against society.
Ostracism was more humane, but also more terrible. At a time when life expectancy was only guaranteed within the polis and outside of them there was only a desert full of hidden dangers and enemies, removal from society was tantamount to a death sentence. Certainly to a civil death, even more than a physical one. The condemned man had at least some hope, as a castaway who is abandoned on a raft at the mercy of the ocean.
Modern prisons guarantee life, provide food and bedding, health care and even ways of passing the time (books, work, television), but erases the dignity of being human by locking the person in a cage. Many strides have been made towards the humanisation of the places of imprisonment and the first is undoubtedly the abolition of the death penalty, which still exists in some countries (for example in China, Iran, North Korea, the Yemen and the United States), but there is still a long way to go.
The weakening of the total institutions, in the long road towards de-massification, allowed for the re-evaluation of individualism, sometimes even to an exaggerated level, within them: that has contributed to erase that sense of solidarity that was created among peers, both to further undermine the credibility, reliability and prestige enjoyed in the past. Whoever comes into contact with one of those institutions, it is always with reluctance, with a sense of unease, with little trust and with the mental reservations. Ready to criticise, to despise and to protest about the lack of recognition of his rights, among which is, in the first place, respect for the individual and his individuality. Which leads to the tendency to expect proper treatment for oneself, regardless of whether such treatment is also offered to others, so giving precedence to one’s own selfishness – one’s own centrality and own needs – as opposed to those of everyone, thus losing the sense of social solidarity.
The solidarity that was only possible because of the passive and reverential submission and that the total institution demanded from its citizens. However, massification is based on psychological subservience and on the deception of the democratic principle that not only the laws, but public services, treatments, concessions, are equal for everyone; anonymous and impersonal, aimed at a uniform and undifferentiated mass. It is on this principle of equality that modernity was based, believing, from the French revolution onwards, in the ability to eliminate social differences. And modernity has tried to impose and maintain this very purpose, in spite of evidence to the contrary, obstacles, objections, exceptions, misrepresentations and contradictions; despite the social problems that the uprisings of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries brought to light.
Despite the emergence and affirmation within modernity of theories to the contrary that aimed to revolutionise or mediate, or at least to correct that balance, modernity has pushed its totalising idea of equality among human beings to its extreme consequences.
It is precisely the degradation of total institutions – the loss of their social authority – that clearly marks the sense of insecurity and disorientation that afflicts today’s society. And it is this same degradation that appears to be largely responsible for the process of de-massification taking place, with the results that we have seen in the last century, where the principle of totalisation has been taken to the extreme and extended to the state in its entirety. This is the last product of modernity: the unthinkable conclusion of the delusion of equality and social equity that had inspired the creators of the Leviathan in the seventeenth century. A monstrosity that, as such, is likely to self-destruct.