Protest Suicides and the Theatralization of Power in Morocco, part 3

The public wreckage of Fikri’s goods is not so different from the public executions that took place in medieval times. In the past, the executions were physical. At present, they are symbolic executions. What does it mean to destroy the capital of a fishmonger in front of his eyes without giving him the least chance to defend his case, or conduct impartial investigations involving the parties implicated in fishing the banned type, and the fishery officials who falsified the papers to authorize its selling inside the port of al-Houceima?

The destruction of the goods and the humiliation of their owner in public either verbally or through symbolic gestures is reinforcement of both judicial and political power through a public act of terrorism upon the lawbreakers. The question we ask the Moroccan state is: how does it define power? Is power repressive or productive? Does power exclude, repress, censor, mask, conceal or produce power subjects?

The Western world has already interred the ancient repressive conception of power with its liturgies of torture and public display of punishment inflicting pain on the body to terrorize over the rest of society. Hanging people in public squares or beheading them and hanging their head for public display are outdated scarecrow modes that can only engender public indignation and fury nowadays.

Power is productive in the sense that now it does not work through public exhibition of punishment but through surveillance and discipline. It evokes the concept of the panopticon, a prison house design where the prisoners feel they are observed by the inspector in the watchtower even if their surveillance is discontinuous in its action. The major effect of the panopticon is conscious and permanent visibility of power to assure its automatic functioning.

In the panopticon, the actual exercise of power is unnecessary. Subjects of power are inscribed by its discourses and ideologies. According to Foucault, Bentham’s panopticon illustrates a historical shift from the eighteenth century onwards in methods of social control. Instead of spectacular punishment and display of power, the establishment enforces norms of behaviour through surveillance and discipline. Panpoticism has been transmitted to technologies of surveillance in contemporary societies. In UK, for instance, 4.2 million CCTV cameras, one camera for every 14 people, are set in public spaces as if the Big Brother is watching you.

Power has been dispersed through modern institutions to create a regime of truth legitimating its practice. It is no longer concentrated in legislature or GV but dispersed as Foucault maintains throughout institutions both governmental and nongovernmental. The social body is normalized through institutional segmentation. The school, prison, hospital, media are codified contexts that structure and “docilize” bodies. Even the public space, the street is codified through competences, sports and games to structure subjectivities.

Justice is severed from punishment. Specific penal institutions have been established to hide where justice is performed. The body is no longer the locus of pain and physical torture but caught up in a system of constraints and privations, obligations and prohibitions. Executions are replaced by an army of technicians, psychiatrists, doctors, social workers, lawyers, educationalists, etc. It is the scientization of power. The world has moved from torture to educational reform. When we talk about power, we do not mean the power of the presidency or the sovereign but the everyday use of power.

What we witness in the cases of Mmi Fatiha and Mohsine Fikri is a regime of power operating at the grass-roots level by using the eighteenth century mode of liturgies of punishment. The attempt to destroy Fikri’s fish-load in public, and the alleged humiliation of Mmi Fatiha and el-Kanouni in the market place are all executive gestures that do not preserve the integrity of the individual and safeguard his dignity. The three suiciders have retaliated in pain and suffering to such instances of hogra.

The sense of humiliation felt by the alleged miscreants does not come from the administration of the law but from the theatralization of power while implementing the law. The law should be enforced but the ritual practice of power and its ceremonial theatralization should be avoided to save plebeian lives. Let us remember that the law should not be theatralized only against the weak and the helpless, especially that corruption is structural in society, and people know that some of those who infringe the law at the top of society may go virtually unchecked–needless to refer to social anomie owing to unemployment and other social ills. Besides, instead of helping street vendors and organizing their trade, local authorities opt for a strange decision to punish them in public by confiscating their capital, and reducing them to economic nonentities. It is a too harsh destiny to send someone back to the streets penniless to start from scratch; this may only gear up and fuel protest suicides in the future.

Instead of intimidating citizens by the use of verbal or physical force, the Makhzanian establishment should modernize its ethics and styles of rule maintaining a solid democratic system of surveillance. Surveillance does not mean to spy on people through intelligence agencies but rather to structure them through discursive practices. When political power is dispersed and suffuses in many spheres, it becomes internalized by those whom it disempowers and thus it does need to be constantly enforced externally in liturgies of punishment. Social control is thus normalized.

*Dr. Mohammed Maarouf, Chouaib Doukkali University, Morocco