May 7. On of the major questions of the crisis is the substance of the apparent strengthening of ‘community spirit’. My local television news spends its allocated half hour briefly reporting the daily death toll in the region, then running a series of heart-warming stories about informal and organised efforts to support those suffering in some way from the lockdown. What will not be clear until the crisis is over is how permanent this shift in behaviour is, and how far it conceals much less commendable behaviour. Statistics on rising domestic abuse are already giving pause to more optimistic accounts.
On the debit side of the balance sheet was a recent story in the Guardian:‘Police say they have received 194,000 calls “snitching” on people alleged to have broken the coronavirus lockdown.’ (30 April 2020). Neighbours were reporting neighbours, expecting that fines or other punitive action would follow. The Chairman of the West Yorkshire Police Federation complained that ‘the force has been dealing with a rise in domestic abuse reports at a time when people are living in close quarters without much chance to leave the house, and that there had been a rise in calls from people reporting others for potential flouting of regulations.’ (Wakefield Express 17 April 2020). Further south it was reported that ‘The avalanche of complaints about twice-a-day jogs or overly frequent trips to the supermarket has been such that the Thames Valley Police Commissioner Anthony Stansfield felt obliged to go on the BBC and urge citizens to stop tattling on one another.’ (Politico, 7 April 2020). Elsewhere in Europe, more draconian regulations have been matched by more active tale-telling. The mayor of Rome has set up a website for people denouncing those who breach the quarantine regulations. In Spain it is said that ‘snitchers’ are not only reporting infractions but taking direct action against rule-breakers.
There is in fact nothing new in this behaviour. Nearly three decades ago I wrote a history of poverty and the state in the twentieth century. The Great Depression was the nearest modern equivalent to the current collapse of the economy. Large sections of the working population were forced to rely on state benefits to survive. From 1931 they had to complete a rule-bound Means Test to get support. I wrote in my book:
“The Means Test placed a monetary penalty on a whole range of domestic behaviour. Questions which had always formed the substance of rumour and gossip, such as who had an illicit source of income or a hidden cache of savings, who had bought what luxury or sold what necessity, now had a larger resonance. The greatest source of information on alleged transgressions of the new regulations was not the inspecting officers, whose public enquiries were generally met with silence, but private and frequently anonymous depositions from those who lived and worked alongside the claimant. As Orwell discovered, ‘there is much spying and tale-bearing.’ (Poor Citizens, 1991, p. 86).”
The modern ‘snitching’ could just be seen as evidence of widespread support for government regulation and a collective anxiety to reduce the threat of infection. There is, however, a long and less benign tradition of reporting misbehaviour to the authorities. Such behaviour is a consequence of two conditions. Firstly a stressed citizenry, facing threats they cannot individually manage. Secondly a suddenly enhanced state, possessing, at least in the short term, immense powers over income and behaviour. Historical studies of the totalitarian regimes in twentieth-century Europe, particularly German fascism and East European communism, have long established how far the police authorities relied on networks of informers. The Stasi in East Germany raised reporting by neighbours and family members to a bureaucratic art-form.
There is, with reason, much concern about whether computer apps will cause an invasion of privacy. Less attention is being paid to more basic forms of surveillance, which will flourish for as long as this crisis lasts.