“We want to hear from you” (or how informing works in a liberal democracy)

Published 9 April 2013 / By Dace Dzenovska

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The UK Border Agency’s (UKBA) news feed includes regular reports on successful raids, namely raids which result in arrests of workers or persons deemed illegal.

Jail Cell With Closed Door And Bunch Of KeysFor example, on March 18 the UKBA described raids in Bournemouth, Poole and Ferndown in the course of which six workers were arrested. On March 5, the UKBA noted that three workers were arrested in a Whitechapel raid. On March 11 two workers were detained during a raid on a Weymouth restaurant. What struck me as I was reviewing these news feeds is that all of them included a remark that the UK Border Agency was either acting “on intelligence” or “on information received.”

A report by John Vine, the Independent Chief Inspector of the UK Border Agency, states that the UKBA receives intelligence from “members of the public, frontline staff and community organisations” and that “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: 3). Evidently, the general public’s willingness to inform is crucial to the work of the UKBA. 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.”[1]

For someone like me who grew up in the Soviet Union, and who has spent the last decade engaging in analysis of socialist legacies and post-socialist 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”? However, what if one tried to think about informing as an ethical and political practice without the benefit of border-thinking distinguishing between those within the liberal ethical horizon and those without? Is informing not informing, regardless of who is informing on whom, as Ivan Krastev has argued with regard to spying (Krastev 2013)? In what follows, I draw on my observations about post-Soviet re-bordering practices to raise some questions about liberal democratic migration regimes and the politics and ethics of informing.

Post-Soviet re-bordering
The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 set into motion a myriad of practices of re-bordering. 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 transformation was somewhat chaotic, since border control procedures and technologies were not yet standardised. 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. Indeed, a colleague of mine, whose husband is African American, often had to go and pick him up from various police stations where he had been detained on suspicion that he might be illegal. Immigration police simply detained him on the street until his persona and legal status could be clarified.

Subsequently, in the process of further EU integration and border standardization, 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 could be deemed discriminatory, though, as one officer put it, “we could still do it if we wanted to, but our attitudes have changed.”

Part of that change involved the border guards shifting to other strategies: they re-oriented their activities towards collaboration with police, employment agencies and hotels, asking 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. Interestingly, 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 seemed to make informing itself acceptable.

The problem of rights
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. That is to say, it is hard to imagine that a middle or upper class white body would be viewed as suspicious while the darker skinned individual whose accent betrays a hint of foreign status is going to be watched. Moreover, 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, to work or to live.

whisperingRights-based thinking, then, might be at the foundation of the liberal democratic practice of informing. If one thinks of 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 there will always be someone who does not have the right in relation to whom the right to have these things becomes especially valuable.  In conditions when political life is about the accumulation and distribution of rights and when claims on scarce resources are thought through on the basis of rights, informing on those who do not have a right to be present or to work becomes a virtue and a duty. And rights-based resources are currently thought to be scarce in the UK, as is evident by the sustained “moral panic” in the media and in the speeches of politicians (Hall et. al. 1978). Such imagined scarcity of resources is conducive to the practice of informing.

Implications for political activism
While Soviet power worked through the fear it instilled in the population with the help of the vast informing apparatus, it also created conditions within which citizens could discipline power. Such disciplining could still be observed in the early post-Soviet period.

Jessica Allina-Pisano and Eric Allina-Pisano describe how in the early 1990s police officers stopped and harassed one of their interlocutors—an African student—near a Moscow metro station. They wanted to check his papers. Apparently, “an elderly Russian woman approached, excoriated the police officer for bothering the African student, and, in a fashion not atypical for the time, hit one of the officers with her handbag” (2007: 185). The elderly woman acted as an arbiter of social order, one in which the state’s agents both kept its citizens in fear and yet were also subject to the disciplining powers of the Soviet citizen if they were deemed to have violated socialist ethics.[2] The elderly woman’s disciplining act was an effect of a particular pattern of the distribution of state power within the population. It also reflected the Soviet internationalist ethos where the mere presence of difference in public space was no grounds for being harassed by state agents (though it does not mean that difference was not hierarchically arranged).

In the UK, rather than disciplining state agents, various individuals and groups have organised resistance against the UKBA agents who harass those who, when seeing like the state, might look like they do not belong. For example, in August of 2012, “residents, academics and lawyers” protested against the forceful removal of people and the discriminatory targeting of the non-white male population during UKBA raids Brixton (Dickens 2012). In a blog report on the Brixton anti-raids activism, a woman is quoted saying that “the Border Agency needs to know that if they are going to be conducting these kind of arrests in the community then the community will be watching.”

However one might want to consider that the watchful eye of the community is not the prerogative of resistance. Given that the UKBA cannot conduct speculative immigration checks and must have a reason to act, they must have received or produced “intelligence.” The community had already been watching. This raises the question of how one might conceive of a politics that takes into account the pervasive presence of the virtuous citizen who makes that phone call or writes that email to inform on “individuals living in their community?”

Resistance or political activism aimed at state agents is necessary, yet also entails limitations. For example, anti-raids activists do address a very immediate and pragmatic problem, that is, they inform those at risk of being rounded up in raids of their rights.[3] At the same time, rights-based claims tend to reproduce the state as the rights-granting agency and thus as the arbiter of social order. This overlooks that, as noted above, the community had already been watching, and that it is precisely this watchful eye and the practices of informing that are the reason why state agents are rounding up bodies designated as foreign in the first place. Perhaps, if it were possible to rethink presence not as a matter of rights, but as a matter of cohabitation as a fundamental condition of life into which one is born, as Judith Butler (2012) has suggested, informing might become a less conceivable ethic of cohabitation.

The powers of freedom
When I first noted the prominent role of informing in the work of the UKBA, I recalled another seemingly paradoxical moment. In 1990, having just arrived in the United States from the Soviet Union, I was greeted as someone who had escaped the grip of a totalitarian state. This began to seem strange when I realized that such greetings were coming from people who willingly worked 14-hour days. Moreover, some of them worked in places where they had to register their arrival time by placing a card in a punch-card machine, and where they were continuously monitored by large screens, which displayed the latest calculations of worker productivity. I recall being surprised about the powers of freedom to disguise the workings of power.

Now, however, I think this is not surprising at all. Surveillance, as many have noted, is a modern technology of government and is deployed by totalitarian states as well as liberal democratic ones. This is not to say, of course, that there are no differences between them. One important difference is precisely the power of freedom to blind us to the work 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.


  • Allina-Pisano, Eric and Jessica Allina-Pisano. 2007. “Friendship of Peoples’ After the Fall: Violence and Pan-African Community in Post-Soviet Moscow.” In Matusevich, Maxim (ed). Africa in Russia, Russia in Africa: Three Centuries of Encounters. Trenton: Africa World Press.
  • Butler, Judith. 2012. Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism. New York: Columbia University Press.
  • Dickens, Tim. 2012. Anger Over Border Agency Raids in Brixton. BrixtonBlog:
  • Hall, Stuart, Charles Critcher, Tony Jefferson, John Clarke and Brian Roberts. 1978. Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State and Law and Order. London: MacMillan.
  • Krastev, Ivan. 2013. The Transparency Delusion. Eurozine. Available:
  • Vine, John. 2010. Preventing and Detecting Immigration and Customs Offenses: A Thematic Inspection of How the UK Border Agency receives and uses intelligence. Available online:
  • Yurchak, Alexei. 2005. Everything Was Forever Until It Was No More: The Last Soviet Generation. Princeton: Princeton University Press.


[2] See Alexei Yurchak’s (2005) work on how a particular socialist ethics could co-exist with critique of the Soviet state and of its agents.