Proxy Meets Criminology

A Scripted 'What if' Book Talk

Photo courtesy of The Twins Read

Rather than my usual essays, this piece is structured as a script intended to simulate what a conversation between myself and four criminologists across the decades might have looked like in the modern day concerning the young adult novel Proxy by Alex London. All thoughts and applications of theory are my own. Please be wary of major spoilers.

Milica: I invite Cesare Beccaria, Emile Durkheim, Michel Foucault and Karl Marx to discuss Alex London’s novel Proxy from a criminological perspective. Thank you all for agreeing to participate in this rather otherworldly discussion. We'll begin with Beccaria by focusing on Knox’s rationality in the book. Beccaria, how does Knox rationalize his actions based on situations and interactions he’s faced with?

Beccaria: We have seen him make many decisions up until his death at the end, and this can be explained with my notion of heathenism. People are rational beings who aim for pleasure and thus choose their actions based on their consequences relative to the pleasure achieved. One instance can be found at the beginning when Knox chose to take Marie out on a date in a stolen vehicle to annoy Mr. Brindle, wanting to have fun and knowing he can get away with it. There is no criminal intent behind this decision, save the fact that he was speeding, and the advantages are that Syd takes his punishments for him and he, theoretically, anyway, gets the girl (London, 4-6). However, he ended up in a near-fatal crash with Marie’s death faked, as Mr. Brindle set up the accident to discipline him and to target Syd for his system-deteriorating virus (153).

Marx: You cannot honestly believe that is a rational choice! It’s simply law being used as an instrument. Capitalists, who are the patrons in this case, use law to oppress the proletarians, who are the proxies, in order to maintain order, so that the Upper City can continue living off of the proxies’ debts and impose sentences on them for elitist crimes and deviances. Knox knew he will not get punished for his acts since he’s an Upper City resident, and while I would agree he was acting out merely to amuse himself, he was certainly not actively thinking about what affect his actions have. Rather, he was clearly concerned about his own interests alone.

Foucault: I agree that Knox had choice, but this was on the grounds of exercising power strategically and had nothing to do with rationality. You see, people cannot make choices entirely on their own that are apart from external social factors, and since Knox had the knowledge to hack the access code to Mr. Brindle’s car that he could only acquire on his own, he had the power to rebel against Mr. Brindle. Marx, what you fail to realise is that he did not have power solely because he was an elitist. Although he did have economic power due to his status, he was also subjected to power in that he conformed to the contract like everyone else. Not to mention, he was not the one enforcing the laws. So, we see power relations fluctuating regardless of what laws are implemented by particular institutions at that point in time.

Durkheim: All of that aside, I believe Mr. Brindle’s setup was very much necessary in this context. I advocate for moral education, and this is achieved precisely through the very thing we are trying to prevent–crime. It is essential for the revision of moral values to inform the public on what is just and unjust, and this in turn re-establishes the collective conscience by helping society advance with new moral boundaries. By arranging Knox’s accident, Mr. Brindle was deterring him from any further offense.

Milica: An interesting point you made there, Durkheim. Do you care to elaborate on this significance of moral education in the novel and your overall argument?

Durkheim: What I am trying to say is that since punishments are shown to patrons, Mr. Brindle was using a formal public sanction to remind Knox of moral boundaries and that he should not take the system for granted. After all, they still pay for the damages and risk their reputation in the market, even though this was secondary to his plans concerning Syd.

Foucault: This type of punishment you are referring to is actually normalization through surveillance. It is a technique of disciplinary power, and it is used by the few–specifically the patrons, as their data streams are confidential and are generally unseen by proxies–to observe the many–the proxies–to have both the patrons and their proxies control their actions more carefully.

Milica: You bring up a crucial aspect of the book, Foucault. Please explain how surveillance is important in understanding this totalitarian society.

Foucault: In this environment, the proxies have everything revealed about them through their data streams, as these track information such as their purchase histories. This is how their privacy is monitored and controlled, so that they always have the feeling they are being watched and suspected at any moment. As a result, they will correct their own behaviour to meet the standard and avoid confrontation with the law. We can see this as part of Syd’s lifestyle; he consumes as little as possible so that he neither raises his debt nor reveals too much about his character, in order to convince the patrons that he is not deviant in any way. He is law-abiding in the eyes of the patrons so that he can pay off his debts faster (14).

Milica: And with that, what do you all have to say regarding whether or not this system is fair and actually benefits anyone–if at all? Beccaria, begin the discussion.

Beccaria: There is a literal social contract that everyone in each level of the City, including the Valve, complies with in this story. Theoretically, humans necessarily enter a social contract in order to avoid resorting to a state of warfare where everyone acts in self-interest. In order to have benefits, they give up some of their freedom to one sovereign who will ensure peace and security among people by setting laws and compulsorily punishing unruly behaviour. The people of the lower classes become proxies that take punishments for the crimes of the upper classes as the tradeoff for getting loans and paying for goods and services, which is what their debts are accumulated by. I would say that this is fair, since the Upper City benefitted from owning debt and the lower classes benefit from programs that they could pay off later. We see utilitarianism, where the greatest good is achieved for the greatest number of people, as even the lower classes would be greatly impoverished had it not been for this system.

Marx: You have completely overlooked conflict in society. First of all, laws do not reflect the morals of the majority but rather the few in society who control the definitions of right and wrong. These few have great influence because of their power and wealth. Do you really think the proxies were satisfied with the patrons’ decision to have them serve or volunteer their time for crimes they were not responsible for, assuming the patrons actually committed them? Second of all, there are class struggles due to this tension between the affluent and the disadvantaged, who feel isolated from full participation and knowledge and are discriminately oppressed through susceptibility to punishment and the severity of it. Patrons kept proxies ignorant of crucial information–for example, there was an aid station bot that would not explain why Syd had to give blood to Knox and threatened that it is a debt he must be obliged to pay (19). You do also realise that Mr. Brindle wanted to impose the death penalty on Syd upon learning of his virus (159)? And here I thought you were against capital punishment.

Durkheim: You both assume that society will remain unchanged, but there is a sense of anomie that you ignore, where societies experience lawlessness due to the lack of criminal activity and social solidarity needed to establish what is acceptable and unacceptable. This usually occurs when society is in transition or when there are too many divided opinions in an industrialised society. We have to remember that we have characters like Marie in the story who disagrees with the current system, despite being an elitist, and tried to rebel against her father by going with Knox and Syd to the Rebooters to upload Syd’s virus and overthrow the entire system. Marx, just because Marie was part of the Upper City doesn’t mean that she had to share their values, and it is absurd to assume that your economic status always determines your moral preferences in the first place. Besides, laws are put in place to affect everyone that comes into contact with them, so the affluent will not always feel advantageous when factors such as regulatory practices and price fixing come into play.

Foucault: I largely agree with you, Durkheim, except that power relations, rather than anomie, cause societal change. We do not have to wait for a crime to be committed or for individualistic perspectives to arise to decide on moral principles, when everyday disputes on a broader social context are made regarding how power is exercised and what effect is has on an outcome.

Milica: But then how do you explain the Upper City’s influence on the lower cities?

Foucault: Although it looks like the Upper City is a centralised institution that holds all the power, this is because no one prior to Syd’s quest had the capabilities or persuasiveness to challenge the system. Marie could not sway her father to spare Syd and her proxy’s own life, because he dismissed her causes (164). Mr. Baram, however, is a good example of someone who demonstrated power-knowledge at a local level when trying to help Syd understand his role in freeing everyone from debt and getting to the Rebooters. He is a well-read shopkeeper who worries about youth intellect, especially Syd’s past. He also gathers information from children who play games in his shop about security companies looking for clients (33). With his knowledge, he informs Syd of his revolutionist father who wanted to overthrow the system by sabotaging the market. Before he died, he passed on the virus that would erase all system records to Syd. Baram then used his power to direct Syd and his companions to the Rebooters (200). Although this is not a direct move against the Upper City, Baram still facilitated the journey the teenagers' embark on to eventually eradicate debt.

Milica: Thank you for clarifying, Foucault. We have time for one more question. Durkheim, is social evolution the framework of this type of society?

Durkheim: Yes; it is advanced and self-correcting, and all it needs is to punish or replace proxies in order to reaffirm social order. It only needs one structure to determine its moral framework for the public to be aware and accepting of.

Marx: Society is structurally determined, but a revolution is necessary for a complete overhaul of provisions that can address the inequality gaps in society. This is what was strived for in the novel, and deleting an entire network that shapes a society signifies starting anew. Society does not just change its morals based on each situational crime. We are trying to investigate social issues that potentially lead to criminal and unethical behaviour among classes.

Foucault: I agree that change is necessary, but it is rather extreme to make a revolution the first priority. We did not see a revolution take place until after Knox sacrificed himself in Syd’s place. Before that, the party underwent quite the feat, escaping and combating against enemies, and gathering information along the way about the cause. We cannot expect to change an entire system without a strategy or considering our opponents.

Beccaria: There is no need to change the system because people know their rights as a given, and they have entrusted power in a sovereign that will insure these rights. As long as the crimes themselves are sentenced proportionately, people will be deterred from crime. They will see the repercussions, like Marie and Knox did with their proxies, when they realise crime does not pay relative to how expensive and time-consuming charges can be. Peace is then guaranteed; if this is not the case, then the people have not rationally chosen their sovereign and do not know their rights.

Milica: And what about the way labour is divided up in this society? Durkheim, tell us about how Proxy’s society is organised to reflect its values.

Durkheim: There is a social type in each society based on how it evolves. Proxy’s environment seems to fit the description of an urban, industrial society in the sense that the upper and lower classes have specialized jobs. We already know that the patrons own the proxies’ debts and create as well as enforce the laws of the society using the Guardians as their legal tools, but they are also corporate owners and designers who shape and serve the market. We also know that the proxies take punishments for patron crimes, and they work towards paying off their debt from loans and purchases through jobs such as giving repairs in Syd’s case (33). This society, though, can also be seen as mixed with elements of a single-celled organism and an advanced society in that there is the one law to repress behaviors deviating from the norm, and this law is contractual between proxies and patrons to ensure both sides uphold their conditions for the law to operate.

Marx: Social relations are bound by economic structures, so I can see how your interpretation of this division of labour works, but we need to specifically examine production itself. You have essentially explained the modes of production by the way in which the patrons and proxies earn income depending on what they produce for society, but there is also a means of production where materials are extracted for goods and services. We can use the idea that scarcity creates value from the book, which can be witnessed when Valve civilians are charged for their drinking water (29). You also brought up social relations in production, where we see an owner-worker relationship between the patrons and proxies based on differences in class. My only issue with your argument is your idea of the contract between the two parties and how it is consensual. This is essentially capitalism, and it causes conflict between the proxies and patrons because the patrons want to maintain their power over the patrons and maximise their profits in the market, while the proxies want to maximise their wages in order to pay off their debts in the shortest time span possible so that they become their own persons.

Milica: We raised the notion of deterrence earlier but never actually took the discussion further. Beccaria, would you say that the way it is used in the context of this society is effective in reducing crime?

Beccaria: I focus primarily on the offense, and not the offender themselves. Having said that, rehabilitation and retribution are not viable options, nor are they present in the book itself, as these apply to offenders and not the actual offences. We are trying to prevent crimes, and we see both specific and general deterrence at play where all patrons are made aware of what happens when they commit crimes, while each individual patron who commits crimes must watch their proxy get punished.

Milica: So you feel that Syd’s punishment was proportional to Knox’s crimes, not including the ones prior to the events of Proxy?

Beccaria: Severe punishments, especially in the case Marx mentioned where Mr. Brindle wanted to eliminate Syd in order to prevent his virus from deleting the system, are ones I do not condone because while they can result in short-lived deterrence for potential offenders, they do not address the root cause of crime. As Marx also pointed out earlier, I prefer that capital punishment is not an option and that the highest level of punishment be incarceration. Regardless of whether Knox’s accident was a setup, the fact that Marie was actually hurt or could have been legitimately killed makes the offense proportionate to a prison sentence.

Marx: I appreciate your credits, but I must say I cannot believe you are still even interpreting the issue in this context, as if you cannot give your personal opinion on the system itself. This framework simply should not exist! May we remind ourselves that Syd was being punished for crimes that someone else committed, not to mention it is a patron who would benefit by not having to pay for his irresponsibility and continuing on with life without any burdens? And what would happen when all the proxies are gone from continuously being replaced? How can the capitalists maintain their system when they do not have labourers to profit off of?

Foucault: You know elitists can compete with each other as well, and do not solely rely on the working class for their profits, right? And do not forget that systems are always susceptible to change, so power relations will inevitably shift between social groups. Also, at the end of the day, this is a book. London intended for the system to operate in the manner that it does, likely for the purpose of social commentary. So, do calm yourself.

Milica: Ah, Foucault, we have not heard from you in quite some time. Would you like to talk about how truth and discourse are used by various characters in the novel? This will be the last question to wrap up our discussion.

Foucault: All three of you respectively believe there is a single, universal truth that is the goal society as a whole wants to achieve. This is simply not the case, for there are small visible and hidden truths in society that cannot account for one overarching ideology, but rather for various ones instead. Mr. Brindle knew about the virus even though Syd did not in the beginning, and used this to his advantage to try and get rid of him so that he may protect the system from threats. Mr. Baram, also knowing about the virus, planned for Syd to find the Rebooters and destroy the system with it by contrast. Marie agreed with this ideology, being a Causegirl, and used her skills learned such as self-defense (284) to help Syd and Knox progress to the Rebooters. Knox is an example of a human subject changing perspectives and adopting different ideologies as he became supportive of Syd by the end, because he genuinely cared about the cause. We also see different levels of discourse, with a notable example of Mr. Brindle alluding to the past; referencing societal norms we still have today and explaining Mr. Carton’s legacy to Syd due to his knowledge and abundance of texts.

Milica: And that concludes our session. I thank all of you once again for participating in the discussion and contributing thought-provoking points that shed light on this piece of dystopian literature of our current generation. 

With files from Proxy by Alex London.

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