Social control, the 21st Century thinking

Oakland police clash with Occupy Oakland.

By: Raúl Zibechi

When the social control that states and corporations exercise becomes a mesh so fine that it traps and subjects all manifestations of daily life, is it important who governs? The concept of government (state national, federal or municipal institutions) is absolutely insufficient for understanding what’s happening day-to-day in our societies.

Last week in Bogotá, I listened in amazement to stories about the level that application of the Police Code is reaching. A young 22-year old man, a worker and university student, was punished with a fine of $280 dollars (more than $5,000 Mexican pesos) for buying an empanada on the street. The vendor also was fined.

In just two years of the code going into effect 400,000 fines were imposed, for everyday situations like running in a bus station, buying from street venders or defending someone who suffer a police fine, or for “obstructing” police work.

The Police Code was approved in 2017, while peace was being negotiated with the FARC. The objective is evident: plugging the pores through which the popular and youth culture breathes, since habits such as drinking in the plazas, juggling, circus attitudes towards the police, among many others, are punished. For those below, the new code implements the “permanent state of emergency” that Walter Benjamin talked about, which makes up part of the everyday life of oppressed peoples.

In China the State’s control of society is much stricter. The system of “social credit” grants or takes away points from people that, for example, smoke in prohibited places, and get on those that have condescending attitudes. All behaviors of people enter the point system, even some intimate ones, like the consumption of “erotic” films or books, or speaking rudely with anyone.

The control modes combine video surveillance cameras (China has almost half of the existing ones in the world) with artificial intelligence and facial recognition. In that way, the State is able to know how many trips you have made in a taxi and to where, what you buy, your medical bills and even your “generosities” with others, as highlighted in the Le Monde Diplomatique report entitled “Good Chinese and bad Chinese” (January edition).

As an example of the scores that are imposed on citizens, the monthly report emphasizes: one point for helping an elderly person get to a hospital; minus five points and a fine for throwing garbage in the river. But for placing a sticker against the government, they take away 50 points and a thousand mil yuan fine. As in good authoritarian regimes, everything comes mixed: the punishment of dissidents with the aid of others and bad habits.

But that’s where the real problems begin. Those who behave well receive gifts on Chinese New Year’s Day or have the ability to obtain credit for trips or studies. Those with few points can’t apply for certain jobs, take vacations, get on fast trains for a year, reserve a room in a hotel or enroll their child in a good school.

Black lists go hand in hand with public humiliations, since the data are published on web pages, but in some towns “the bad scores and the name of their holders are repeated through a loudspeaker on Friday night,” in a way that the system converts your neighbors into sentinels, according to Le Monde Diplomatique.

The Amnesty International researcher for China, Patrick Poon, considers that the system of giving rewards and punishments is a “large-scale social control practice that legitimizes the hierarchical classification of citizens” (

When important political events take place, like the National Popular Assembly, the regime imposes “forced vacations” on the dissidents, obliging them to leave the city, accompanied by police agents, to be lodged in remote hotels and tourist complexes with all expenses paid (

There are many more examples of social control. Reality is getting closer and closer to the concept of the “totalitarian democracy,” of the Portuguese writer João Bernardo. In his forthcoming book in Spanish, he discusses the tight relationship between entrepreneurial and governmental authoritarianism, since workers spend a good part of their life submitted to the strict discipline prevailing during work hours.

He wonders what democracy means, in our societies where the omnipotent power of the corporations prevails. “The neoliberal society reached a point in which it’s very difficult to apply the old definitions of the rule of law that until recently distinguished democracies from the regimes where political arbitrariness prevails,” Bernardo continues. The task of tracing the paths for changing the world in the face of these systemic mutations is left to us.


Originally Published in Spanish by La Jornada

Friday, April 12, 2019

Re-Published with English interpretation by the Chiapas Support Committee








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