Drug lists and other authoritarian control systems

It has always been the ambition of governments that seek dramatic changes in society to try to shape the mindset of their citizens with a view to controlling their behavior.  This they typically do through the deployment of a system of penalties and incentives aimed at stamping out deviant behavior and promoting “good” behavior, as officially defined.

A key tool in this control system is the production of lists usually drawn in a non-transparent manner, and not amenable to careful scrutiny. Such are the drug lists that have been drawn by the Duterte administration at the national and local levels.

The names found in these lists may have been culled from various sources, but, outside of the Philippine National Police and the state drug agencies, no one knows exactly who and how they were produced.  At the local level, people believe that most of the names were taken from the roster of those who voluntarily “surrendered” in the early phase of the antidrug campaign.  They identified themselves to the police because they were made to believe that doing so would spare them from being arrested or, worse, killed in drug raids.

Because President Duterte now and then likes to wave reams of paper ostensibly representing his own narcolist, it has become commonplace for media to ask if some of the prominent individuals killed in drug raids are on that list.  Indeed, Mr. Duterte is not above revealing some of the names on his list whenever he feels like it.  The publication of these names is tantamount to a kiss of death.  Intimidated and fearful of what may happen to them, they have little recourse but to deny their involvement in the drug trade, even as they quietly beg people close to the President to have their names removed from the list.

They would give or pay anything to achieve this, even if, technically speaking, these lists have no legal value.  Under the rule of law, if these lists have any basis at all, the individuals so named as “drug personalities” ought to be charged in court and be given the chance to disprove the allegations against them.  But we are not talking here of the legal use of these lists, but of their weaponization in the political domain.

The assessment of citizens’ social worth for the purpose of determining who should be rewarded and who should be punished is currently being undertaken on a massive scale by the Chinese state.  China’s National Development and Reform Commission in 2014 launched a “social credit” scheme expressly for the purpose of improving the behavior of its citizens.  Citizens who land in the commission’s blacklists are routinely prevented from buying airplane tickets, buying homes or insurance, or denied access to a hundred and one public services.  The title of a report put out in March this year by the National Public Credit Information Center summed it up well in this Orwellian dictum: “Once discredited, limited everywhere.”

You could earn demerits for taking a reserved seat in a train without the proper ticket, or for jaywalking, or littering, or selling defective products, or cheating customers. The central idea is to promote “trustworthiness” among citizens—something that is already being done by internet-based services like Uber or eBay or Amazon, where sellers and buyers rate each other.  Even financial institutions collect records to determine their clients’ creditworthiness.  Except that, in these cases, the participants opt in.  They have nothing to fear if they don’t partake of these services.

It’s quite a different matter when it is the state itself that assembles the data to produce blacklists or honor lists, as the case may be.  The Chinese state has such power to collect records of behavior from many available sources, and to distill these to produce lists based on certain algorithms.  Heavily tech-enabled, China’s social credit system is not much more transparent or reliable just because it draws raw data from a myriad of sources.  Gross errors are likely to be committed.  Yet citizens would have no way of disputing every item in the mass of information collected about them, which forms the basis of their social credit rating.

The entire process would require a gargantuan bureaucracy to make it work at a society-wide scale.  At present, the scheme is being piloted at the local level in different regions of China, preparatory to its full implementation nationwide in 2020.  There has been no reliable account of how exactly it works, or, more to the point, whether it has yielded any significant changes in the behavior of citizens.  Have the latter become more trustworthy, to the point that the exercise of virtue has become second nature to them and no longer requires monitoring?

The engineering of the trustworthy citizen is such a complex enterprise that only a state that imagines itself armed with unlimited access to information and coercive means will dare to attempt it.   No one has succeeded in doing it on a society-wide level.  Some clever individuals, already enjoying the advantages of wealth and political connection, are bound sooner or later to find ways of gaming the system.

Studies have shown that the trajectory of societal evolution is toward the differentiation of human society into bounded functional domains that operate autonomously of one another.   The trend, most certainly, is not toward tighter societal integration based on the needs of one controlling subsystem like politics.  This is not to say that some rulers will not try it.  Drunk with power, they most likely will—but always at the cost of distorting the promise of politics and at the risk of destroying all of society itself.