My most memorable encounter with bureaucracy was in 1976 when a British Rail official embargoed the loading of my moped onto a train at Penzance station after a holiday in Cornwall. This was possible back then, when trains had a guard’s van. The realisation hit me how your life could be held hostage by a zealous stranger brandishing a rulebook. The tank had petrol in it, an apparent fire risk. I was so grateful to his colleagues who helped me to persuade him to let it on.
State officials all have rulebooks to work to. By imposing these rules they can consign people to poverty, detention or deportation. Those with a cruel edge to their personality will revel in their work. More humane officials will take some comfort from bending the rules. But the real culprits are the people who make the rules. This is a consolation for the official enforcing them and a frustration for those having to conform to them. When tempers flare in such encounters the simple way to mollify the subject is to politely refer to the rules. I was once advised by a boss to counter every complaint from clients by saying: “It is the organisation’s policy”. This may appear robotic but it provides a carapace against the complainant’s anger. These bland, stonewalling guardians of state control were termed “soft cops” by Caryl Churchill in her play of the same name and included teachers and social workers as well as law enforcers and immigration officers. She drew on Foucault’s idea of “gentle punishment” and Bentham’s utopian omniscient prison design, the Panopticon, to warn that the threat of state surveillance is enough to maintain a controlled society.
The latest edition of this approach is the nudge theory of state intervention where non-punitive measures are used to influence the climate of opinion and ultimately people’s behaviour. Banning smoking in offices led to pariah status for smokers and a rapid decline in tobacco consumption. The “hostile environment” approach to immigration and repatriation uses the same strategy. The “Go Home” billboards in suspected London hot spots were intended to nudge illegal immigrants into jumping before they were pushed. A soft survelliance operation, co-opting landlords, employers and health workers as immigration officers stoked a climate of fear and suspicion. How ironic that Amber Rudd, the politician responsible for the policy, resigned as Home Secretary blaming her officials for its over-enthusiastic implementation.
The threatening, gratuitously offensive interviewer whose disembodied voice is a constant presence in Richard Whitby’s gripping film, The Lost Ones (2019), might represent one such official. This script decision by Whitby and his co-writer Alistair Beaton has two consequences. Firstly, the cruelty of the interrogator becomes conflated with the cruelty of the interrogation policy. This puts the focus on the official rather than the politician as the bogeyman. Secondly, it downplays the unfazed rationality that is often the scariest aspect of any confrontation with a state official, their blank emotional expression leaving you seething. In contrast the hectoring official in Whitby’s film is a necessary device to shock the interviewees into retaliation. The actors playing them had no script so their improvised responses to the provocation of the often absurd questions are genuine and idiosyncratic.
The Brexit mindset is herding us into a corral of shared national pride. By using questions from the citizenship test and benefit screening, Whitby’s film demonstrates that the barriers built by Border Control and the DWP are symptomatic of the state’s wider goals: the creation of pariah groupings and the enforcement of patriotic conformity. His choice of actors of diverse age and ethnicity reinforces that we can all be threatened with scapegoating. The minimalist setting in an anonymous waiting room with bucket chairs and a credit card reader to accept payments is the contemporary equivalent of the Circumlocution Office from Dickens’ Bleak House where you might spent a lifetime trapped in a bureaucratic circle of hell. The grating soundtrack, the intermittent views of the room shot from behind a ventilation grille and the looped screening generate an uncomfortable sense of claustrophobia and paranoia. I felt relieved when the familiarity of the on-screen confrontation indicated my entry point in the loop and I could make my escape. The film’s interviewees were not so lucky, condemned to replay their imprisonment ad infinitum.
The most worrying Panopticon-style use of the internet comes from China where your status as a citizen can be downgraded by your online expressed views. Whitby’s film is adding to the body of art warning that it is not only in authoritarian states that bad things can happen. Good things, like the happy ending to my moped story, need more of us to challenge the surveillance-enforced rulebook that threatens to turn the country into an embattled fortress like the one pictured on the back wall of the The Lost Ones’ interrogation room.