Notes on power in scenes of denunciation

Published 5 March 2014 / By Dace Dzenovska

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It was the UK Home Office’s appeal to the public to report on suspected illegal migrants or workers that first alerted me to the role of denunciations in liberal democracies (see my earlier blog). Once I began to pay attention to denunciations as 'acts by which one citizen tells the authorities on the wrongdoings of another, implicitly or explicitly calling for punishment' (Fitzpatrick 2005), I saw them everywhere. Both, in the United Kingdom, an allegedly established democracy, and in Latvia, which from the Western perspective recently “transitioned” from a Soviet past to a European present. Evidently, denunciations were not survivals from the socialist past, but constitutive elements of liberal democratic regimes of government. In both political spaces—the UK and Latvia, it was not only border agencies that were inviting the public to denounce, but also the police force, the tax authorities, and, in the case of Latvia, the Latvian State Language Centre, an institution charged with the task of policing language use in the public arena. The role of the Centre is to implement the Latvian Language Law, which stipulates that individuals occupying jobs in which they might come into contact with the public must demonstrate a certain level of Latvian language skills. In order to enforce this, the Centre conducts inspections, most of which are initiated by denunciations.

In the Soviet context, denunciations were depicted as virtuous acts by Soviet citizens, proof that a true Soviet citizen valued socialist ideals above and beyond family or friends, as exemplified in the glorified figure of Pavlik Morozov (Fitzpatrick 2005). In liberal democratic regimes, the word ‘denunciation’ has negative connotations. It conjures up associations with the totalitarian socialist state; therefore employees of Latvian state agencies who rely on denunciations in their work tend to speak of reporting or complaining. Moreover, they do not idealize the reporting citizen. For example, the lead inspector of the Latvian State Language Centre acknowledged the value of reporting in the Centre’s work, but noted that members of the public mostly report in anger or, in some cases, as part of an act of revenge towards their former employer: “I mean, she worked there for all those years and did not have a problem with the language used at work and then reported on them as soon as she was fired.”

In further characterizing denouncers, the inspector noted that some people are “professional reporters,” that is, they monitor affairs in multiple spheres of life and report to a variety of state institutions. Most surprisingly, the inspector insisted that the frequency of reporting is significantly influenced by the lunar phases—the number of reports increases substantially around full moon.

Denunciations and morality
Photo by: Emma Mapp, Ghost Walker, COMPAS Photo Competition 2013Inspectors of, the Latvian State Border Guard also told me that  most people do not report out of a sense of civic duty, but rather due to more prosaic sentiments, such as jealousy. Women tend to report on their former partners after splitting up; both men and women tend to report on neighbours with whom they are feuding over something quite trivial and usually under the influence of alcohol. The few denunciations mistakenly addressed to the Oxford University Migration Observatory also suggest that moral sentiments and complex personal relations inform denunciations. Of the five denunciations I have seen, four pertained to the same two asylum seekers—an Iranian man and a woman, allegedly cousins, but, according to the denouncers, posing as a couple in the United Kingdom. The denouncers—possibly four different individuals, possibly one person writing from four different addresses—reported that both are well situated back in Iran, but were claiming asylum in the UK, because they wanted to get benefits. In appealing to authorities, the denouncers wrote that it was not fair that these two individuals should claim asylum and the associated benefits, especially when foreign students struggle so much to survive “in that crazy land” [the UK] where “life is horrible.” The fifth denunciation pertained to a Bangladeshi woman who was also allegedly well situated in Bangladesh—the report included considerable detail as to her family’s properties—, but had lied in order to obtain asylum because “she is greedy for pound and glittering of London.” The denouncers suggested that the individuals they reported on deserved to be punished because they had lied out of greed, desire for benefits and for cosmopolitan existence, and were not in dire economic need at all. Moreover, the denouncers thought that this was especially unfair in relation to other Iranians or Bangladeshis who are struggling to survive in London. While the moralizing overtones of the denunciations play into prevalent stereotypes about asylum seekers, it is hardly possible to know how these denunciations came about. It remains unclear to what extent they were animated by a genuine sense of unfairness and to what extent they were animated by additional factors, such as anger arising out of personal conflict with the reported individuals, whether in the UK, Iran or Bangladesh.

Power effects of denunciations
Nevertheless, even without knowing the full circumstances of each denunciation, it is possible to read some of their effects. First and foremost, denunciations produce punitive consequences for the people denounced. State agencies are obliged to act upon the reports they receive. Moreover, it is often the case that, upon visiting the site indicated in reports, whether an apartment or a restaurant, state agents encounter other individuals deemed to be illegal and therefore the punitive net is cast wider. Thus, the anger of denouncers can produce significant long-term consequences not only for the object of their anger or jealousy, but also for multiple others. Second, despite the implicit appeal to good citizens in the state agencies’ invitation to report, the denouncers are not seen as 'good citizens' in the actual scenes of denunciation. In fact, as the few cases reviewed suggest, it is not necessarily citizens that report on non-citizens. It could very well be migrants reporting on other migrants, because they find their situation unfair in comparison to the life of the people they are reporting. On the basis of insights from preliminary conversations with the authorities in Latvia, and from a review of the few denunciations received by the Migration Observatory, it seems that the denouncer emerges as a marginal subject, seen by the authories as possibly a poor, not very well educated person and someone easily swayed by emotion or lunar phases. It might be the case, then, that the state does not actually intend for the 'good citizens' to report on non-citizens, but rather for the 'failed citizens' or non-citizens to report on others like them (Anderson 2013). From within the state logic, denunciations are tools for governing the marginalized.

Photo by: Sam Ivin, Portrait, COMPAS Photo Competition 2013

Photo by: Sam Ivin, Portrait, COMPAS Photo Competition 2013

From the perspective of the denouncers, however, the act of denouncement could be seen as an instance of yielding a 'weapon of the weak' (Scott 1985). Unable to improve their own situation vis-à-vis the object of their report, whether in London or back home where the family of the denounced could be in a hierarchical power relationship to the denouncer, denouncers turn to the state they may not even think of as theirs to unleash its punitive powers towards their foes. The irony here is that the 'weapon of the weak,' that is, of individuals whose ability to effect change is limited, is also a tool the state uses to govern the marginalized. This weapon-tool does little to address the particular grievances of the reporters. Rather, it serves the state by unleashing punitive forces upon the person denounced, as well as upon 'collateral others.'

Most importantly, then, denunciation is about power. On the one hand, it is about the ability (or the lack thereof) of the denouncer to effect change with regard to their conditions of life, whether personal or social. On the other hand, it is about state power to govern the marginalized, relying on the information provided by the reporters while simultaneously construing them as failed moral subjects. In this sense, denunciations are good sites for reflecting upon contemporary modes of power.

Anderson, Bridget. 2013. Us and Them: The Dangerous Politics of Immigration. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Fitzpatrick, Sheila. 2005. A Little Swine. In London Review of Books 27(21): 3-6.

Scott, James. 1985. Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance. Yale University Press.