The UK Border Agency (UKBA) conducts raids during which it arrests persons deemed illegally resident or illegally working. In order to undertake such raids, the agency relies on the public’s willingness to report. Apparently, ‘over 100,000 allegations are received per year from members of the public’ by ‘letter, email or telephone’ about ‘individuals living in their community’ (Vine, 2010). The agency’s website addresses the British public as follows: ‘If you suspect that someone is working illegally, has no right to be in the UK or is involved in smuggling, we want to hear from you.’
For someone like me who grew up in Soviet Latvia, and who analyses socialist legacies and postsocialist transformations, it seems paradoxical that government institutions in a liberal democratic state like Britain rely on citizens informing on individuals living in their community. How is it that the informing machinery that the Communist Party deployed is commonly thought of as a feature of a totalitarian state, whereas the informing apparatus crafted by the UKBA is an acceptable technology of government? How is it that in the Soviet Union individual informers were either victims or collaborators, whereas in Britain they are virtuous citizens? Is it because the Soviet state is thought to have governed through arbitrary power whereby everyone was living in fear that tomorrow they too could be informed on, whereas the British state is thought to govern through transparent power whereby the public receives clear guidelines on how to inform and on whom? To put it another way, is it because the Soviet state used informing to govern its own, whereas the British state invites citizens, that is, ‘us’, to inform on foreigners, that is, ‘them’? But is informing not still informing, regardless of who is informing on whom, as Ivan Krastev has argued with regard to spying (2013)?
The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 set into motion a myriad of re-bordering practices. Former internal boundaries between Soviet republics became external borders between new nation states and for some, such as Latvia, they became borders between the European Union and Russia. The interests of the renewed Latvian state converged with those of the European Union, as both aimed to strengthen the external border in order to regulate the movement of variously defined foreigners. The initial period of transformations was somewhat chaotic, since border control procedures and technologies were not yet standardized. The Latvian border guards did what they thought appropriate in order to meet the goal of strengthening the border. Border guard officers explained to me that one of the techniques used to reach this goal was to approach people on the street if they looked as though they did not belong.
In the process of further EU integration and border standardisation, the Latvian border guard was tasked not only with strengthening the external EU border, but also with becoming civilized, that is, with protecting borders while observing the basic human rights of border crossers. Approaching people on the street without any intelligence could be deemed discriminatory. The border guard shifted to other strategies: they collaborated with the police, employment agencies and hotels, and asked government institutions and businesses to report on suspicious persons or activities. The border guards went on raids, but most raids took place because the border guard was tipped off. Hotels and guesthouses reported when guests did not pay or looked suspicious, people reported when they got angry with their boyfriends or girlfriends. Informing turned out to be a crucial strategy for controlling the territory in conditions of freedom. Nobody made a connection between the Soviet and post-Soviet practices of informing. In Latvia, like in Britain, it was now clear who needed to be informed on, which made informing acceptable.
There are important differences between the informing apparatus of the Communist Party and that of the UKBA. Whereas in the Soviet Union everyone could be considered under suspicion, in liberal Britain, it is mostly certain bodies that are targeted by informing practices. While the Soviet state used informing to exercise repressive power over its citizens, the British state uses informing to produce virtuous citizens willing to report on their neighbours. If the Soviet informing apparatus aimed to maintain the power of the Communist Party, the UKBA’s informing apparatus aims to allocate rights. People are asked to report on those who seem like they do not have the right to be present or to work.
Rights-based thinking, then, might be at the foundation of the liberal democratic practice of informing. If one thinks of political life in terms of rights granted by the state – who has the right to be present, to work, to be housed and to receive assistance, then the distinction between those who have rights and those who do not becomes a constitutive feature of the polity. In conditions when polity-making is about the accumulation and distribution of rights and when rights-based resources are thought to be scarce, informing on those who do not have a right to be present or to work becomes a civic duty. And rights-based resources are often thought to be scarce in the UK, as is evident by the sustained ‘moral panic’ in public and political life (Hall et al., 1978). Moral panic translates into the emergence of the virtuous citizen who makes that phone call and writes that email to inform on individuals living in their community.
Surveillance is a modern technology of government deployed by totalitarian states as well as liberal democratic states. However, the difference between them lies in the power of freedom to blind us to the effect of power on ourselves, our ethics and our politics. Perhaps the Soviet state and its traces can still be useful for bringing a critical lens onto the late liberal workings of power.
Hall, S. et al. (1978) Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State and Law and Order, London: MacMillan.
Krastev, I. (2013) ‘The Transparency Delusion’, Eurozine,