The old Eastern Europe had many informers, people who spied on their neighbours for the state. Everyone knew who they were and after a while, even a foreigner could pick them out. It was their demeanour, something about their presence that you picked up. Did they have a dress code? I remember overcoats. Anyway, you couldn’t get rid of them and it was unwise to confront, so you simply circled around them: there would be a glance from a companion, a lowered voice… They filled the secret service archives with endless reports, most of them useless, but they did pick up and marginalise the recalcitrant.

Surveillance in a modern Western ‘democracy’ is more subtle and more pervasive.  Glances, lowered voices, recognition of presence was a primitive game. Now, ‘they’ track your movements through your cell phone, through your eftpos transactions, emails and web searches, your journeys along motorways; managers can access your computer and can immobilise vehicles if they think an employee is up to no good. The television can spy on you, your computer may well have a chip in it for that purpose, every street has a CCTV camera, every shop, and there are facial recognition programmes to quickly identify. As schools digitalise their learning, the training in obedience starts early. The lessons are emailed to students and the teacher can check on what a student is doing at any moment, even if not in the classroom. The lesson plans are sort of cute but there is also an irritability present, the irritation of being under surveillance, the knowledge that the students are in some sort of prison being constantly watched and monitored. But presumably, if it starts when they’re young, they get used to it and accept. But schools are suddenly places where nobody sings.

And the recalcitrant? In the old Eastern Europe, if the rebel escaped the labour camp, they could often be forced, or chose, to live quietly away from the main centres, performing some menial task to earn a living. If they wrote, they either smuggled out the manuscript or it circulated locally, with each reader typing a copy, so that the readership grew. It was an amazing way to publish, requiring real reader devotion. It was the very opposite of commodification.

In current society publication is ridiculously easy and at the same time, a little meaningless, with a constant reduction in quality: from posts to tweets to instagrams.

Solzhenitsyn once stated that despite the parody of revolutionary society represented by the USSR state, at street level, socialism existed – relationships among ordinary people (other than the informers), were characterised by equality. I’m not sure that a similar, street level ‘goodness’ currently exists in the West, although there are isolated pockets, some ‘monastic’ centres. For instance, the City of Joy in the Congo; a centre where brutally violated women, victims of the warfare generated as various militia battle to gain control of the sources of precious metals vital for cellphone and computer manufacture, are healed and then go back to their communities to educate and to develop awareness and resilience.

In these monastic pockets, informers are irrelevant. The people have nothing to lose. The information to be gained would be information the inherently corrupt system doesn’t want to know.

The 10 Guiding Principles of the City of Joy are:

  1. TELL THE TRUTH
  2. STOP WAITING TO BE RESCUED; TAKE INITIATIVE
  3. KNOW YOUR RIGHTS
  4. RAISE YOUR VOICE
  5. SHARE WHAT YOU’VE LEARNED
  6. GIVE WHAT YOU WANT THE MOST
  7. FEEL AND TELL THE TRUTH ABOUT WHAT YOU’VE BEEN THROUGH
  8. USE IT TO FUEL A REVOLUTION
  9. PRACTICE KINDNESS
  10. TREAT YOUR SISTERS’ LIFE AS IF IT WERE YOUR OWN

Let me finish with a quote from Solzhenitsyn: Not everything has a name. Some things lead us into a realm beyond words.

city of joy

A class in the City of Joy

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