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Today in Labour History

11 December 1783
Plan of the Panopticum, 1791
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Supervise the Supervisors

On 11 December 1783, the Russian Prince Grigorii Potemkin had a rendez-vous with the English entrepreneur Samuel Bentham. The Prince owned large country estates and numerous factories. Samuel and his brother, the philosopher and social theorist Jeremy Bentham, were offered a management job at one of Potemkins Belorussian estates. British skilled workers were brought in to work there. The Bentham brothers now faced two problems: the local serfs working on the estate were unskilled and slow, their British supervisors were skilled but hard to control. The problem of supervising the subordinates induced Jeremy Bentham to design a building called Panopticon. Its structure would enable one single supervisor to watch the inmates of an institution without them knowing whether they are being watched or not.

Bentham's Panopticum has always been seen as a concept related to prisons and the emergence of a global surveillance system in modern societies. In Bondage. Labor and Rights in Eurasia from the Sixteenth to the Early Twentieth Centuries (New York 2014), Alessandro Stanziani argues that the Panopticon project was actually a system for controlling wage labour, which drew inspiration from the Bentham brothers' experience in Belorussia.


More info: Alessandro Stanziani, Bondage (IISH Publication)