Consider three characters in The Shawshank Redemption: Andy Dufresne, the innocent inmate; Ellis ‘Red’ Redding, the convicted murderer; Brooks Halten, the longest-serving inmate.
Andy is innocent and wants to be free. During his long escape, he suffers a lot of brutality, but he submits to it in the service of his long-term goal (as well as trying to preserve his own sense of humanity).
Red is guilty and has served a long while, but he would like to be paroled and go free again. He very dutifully recites his confession of remorse at each parole hearing and is always rejected, except for the last one.
Brooks is guilty of something, but it was a long time ago, and at this point, he has known the inside of the prison far more than anything outside the prison. He does not want to be paroled. He would much rather live in the prison for the rest of his life. When he is paroled, he commits suicide rather than face a life on the outside.
Now, this may be a strange question to ask, but bear with me. Is Brooks actually in prison at all in the film? I don’t mean, is he physically inside of a prison building. Obviously, he is. But if a prison is a coercive institution, one that exerts control over people and prevents them from leaving, then Brooks is not in a prison. He would never try to leave. No one would ever be called upon to forcefully keep him there. It’s a completely irrelevant consideration. So, if that’s what prison is, he’s not in one.
On the other hand, maybe prison shouldn’t be understood in terms of coercion. Maybe we’ve been suckered into thinking of it that way because of the clever propaganda of libertarians over the years who point out all the bars and guards and fences and razor wire, and so on. But really, all that is secondary. A prison, like society in general, does not rely on coercion. Prisoners are not routinely trying to escape. Guards are not routinely gunning them down or tackling them as they try to scale the fences. It happens, but it’s very rare and can’t be the underlying cause of what makes a prison function. What really makes a prison function is authority. Prisoners respect authority. They have buy-in. They see that their lives function better when they don’t cause disruptions. When they cooperate, they don’t even have to worry about being stuck in solitary.
So on that account, Brooks is actually in prison, and that makes a whole lot more sense, doesn’t it? And similarly, we can say that Andy and Red are in prison, too, because they largely cooperate and voluntarily submit to authority. There were a couple misunderstandings that occurred here and there, but those were clearly the exceptions, not the rule.
Do you find any of that remotely convincing? Well, you shouldn’t because clearly prisons are coercive institutions by design. And anyone who says otherwise is making an elaborate joke or they’ve gone down a very weird philosophical path.
And there’s nothing different conceptually about how society at large operates than a prison. It may be a very low-security prison, one with a tremendous amount of freedom compared to Guantanamo. But if political authority is at the base of each, then it means the only difference between the two is the likelihood of coming to the attention of those coercive authorities.
The reasons for people giving their consent to such institutions, whether it’s a literal prison facility or a fairly liberal country with an unreviewable presidential kill list, is a combination of what Orwell and Huxley taught. People are conditioned in ways that make certain concepts literally inconceivable and to face the threat of punishment if they disobey (the stick), and they’re also conditioned to gain pleasure from feeling part of a larger project and feeling that they can pursue their own meaningful goals if they stay mentally dulled in the process. Both aspects are a part of the social conditioning that makes hundreds of millions of people here and billions around the world ‘buy-in’ to the idea that submitting to others is in their own best interest.