Was the Black Death the Father of the Surveillance State?

Danse_macabre_by_Michael_Wolgemut 2

Foucault’s Discipline and Punish is a fun time. It begins with a graphic description of a man being drawn in quartered. It ends with a mystical meditation on the history of prison architecture. In between, it wonders whether the abolition of torture has made justice for criminals impossible.

The Black Death was the mother of all plagues. Slipping silently across the Mediterranean, it struck just as Europe was, after centuries lost in the wilderness of the Dark Ages, rediscovering old Roman decadences like living in cities and reading. At least one third of the entire European population was killed. In many cities, where the plague struck hardest, the death rate climbed as high as 60%. You, your mom, your dad. If the Black Death struck your town, two of you were going to die. The cities of that time, though, didn’t just lie down in their feces-strewn streets and wait to die. They tried frantically to survive. They prayed fervently. They massacred the local Jewish, Gypsy, and leper populations. They flagellated themselves in the streets hoping that God would realize their repentance and spare their lives.

Black Death 2

None of these were terribly effective, of course, but by the time of the Black Death certain people in certain parts of Europe (particularly the wealthier, more urban south) were starting to gain more of a rudimentary understanding of how the plague spread. They didn’t understand germs. They didn’t understand fleas on rats. But they did understand that coming into contact with someone who had the plague was a terrible idea—that the healthy needed to be quarantined from the dead and dying.

To achieve this separation, according to Foucault, they would draw a line around the town—sometimes just the town and its walls (if it had walls), sometimes including the key surrounding areas—and declare that no one could pass over that line, either entering or leaving, under pain of death. Then they would divide up the town into districts, each with a governing intendant. That intendant then divided his district street by street, appointing for reach a “syndic” who would be given the keys to your house and lock you and your family inside. You could not leave your home. If you did without permission, you would be executed. Food and wine were delivered by people called “crows”—untouchables—whose lives were seen as less valuable than other’s.  Even then, the crows were forbidden to come into contact with anyone, instead delivering supplies via tiny canals dug from house to house or by hoisting them up in baskets. If by some undeniable necessity you had to leave your home, you would be allowed to leave it only in rotation so that your meeting anyone in the street would be impossible.

The martial law during the plague was total. Guards patrolled the streets at all times. Stray animals were culled. Sentinels stood watch at every gateway to the town, their eyes sharp for anyone who might approach. Each day, says Foucault, the intendant would inspect his syndics. If one had left their post, they would be executed. Each day, in turn, the syndic would demand that every member of your family appear at the windows so to prove that all of you were still inside and alive. If people were missing, it was recorded. If they were sick, it was recorded. If you were thought to be lying, you were sentenced to death. The reports of the living and dead, sick and ill, present and missing were then presented to the intendants, who in turn presented them to the governors of the town so that they might know the state of every single citizen at every single moment. Everyone was accounted for. Everyone was provided for. Everyone was watched. Everyone knew what it was they had to do or else suffer a punishment so severe it would make surviving the plague irrelevant. “The plague,” Foucault writes, “is met by order.” Complete and total and all-encompassing order.

This desperate order was a revolution in the relationship between the state and the individual. Previous to these plagues, the state and the populace were separate organisms. Even in the almighty Roman Empire, with all its provinces and cohorts, the actual population it ruled over was always considered “the mob”—this gigantic, teaming, animalian mass. The Romans went to elaborate lengths to poke that mob, cajole that mob, impress that mob, suppress that mob, but they never made an attempt to turn that mob into fully controlled appendages of the state like its armies. The people, the rabble, the plebs, as it were, were beyond the state. The state was merely a thing that, like a surfer, attempted to ride on top of them. The common individual—the peasant, the laborer, the provincial prostitute—was so insignificant as to be nothing, as to be completely and utterly unworthy of notice. Maybe sometimes they threw one some bread, or nailed another to a tree, but for the most part they left them to farm their dirt and die of dysentery according to their nature.

What the Black Death did was destroy this harmony of neglect. Unlike in the crises of old (wars and famines and earthquakes), during a plague apocalypse travels on the back of the poorest peasant as easily as it does on the back of a noble or an army. Everyone is a threat. Human nature is the threat. What do you do when the plague strikes? You flee. By fleeing you spread the plague. That most basic of human impulses—that desire to escape a horrible death—suddenly puts the whole of the state, from top to bottom, in mortal peril. Therefore it must be stopped. Therefore human nature must be constantly policed, and the only way to police someone’s every action is to place them under total surveillance. To watch them at all times. To discipline them at all times. No longer, with the Black Death knocking on their doors, could the rulers of Europe afford the luxury of using their power merely to herd their populations like cattle. Now sustaining their power—now their very lives—depended on training each and every person like a dog.

Foucault is not a historian famous for his steadfast loyalty to reality. Often times, looking back, he’s caught pretending what are quite clearly myths were actual historical facts. Still, like the government, he only ever lies to us for our own good—to illustrate something about ourselves and our world. We like to think of modern society, with its democracy and gay marriage and consumer capitalism, as the embodiment of freedom, but it’s the opposite. The more open we are to make any choice, the more society has to train us to make the right choice. We are taught to covet material possessions so that we choose to be productive. We are taught covet monogamy and stability and children so that even the sexually deviant among us choose to get married. We set up tens of thousands of security cameras to make sure we’re not running traffic lights or spray painting penises onto office buildings. We force every one of our children to spend 13 years in state controlled institutions where they are taught all the values and norms of our society like obeying authority figures, working hard for merely symbolic rewards, and coloring inside the lines. The Black Death is when all of that began, because it was during the Black Death that the state asserted, out of necessity, ownership over the internal workings of our minds for time. Sometimes the state has asserted that ownership more than others, but it has never relinquished it.

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