Surveillance Society: From Communist Czechoslovakia to Contemporary Western Democracies

In: East Central Europe
Muriel BlaiveUniversity of Graz, Graz, Austria,

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Surveillance was long considered one of the main characteristics of communist rule. The ubiquitous presence of the secret police and its informants, citizens who would spy on their own family, friends, and colleagues, was one trait that was considered almost consubstantial to the exercise of communist repression. The regimes paralyzed the people by mobilizing fear: fear of repression, but also fear of the West, and fear of capitalism. But the participation of large chunks of society to this control culture, as well as its high level of conformism, progressively led to the postulate that the communist domination is no more than one particular avatar of modern society. Such an approach revives the notion of individual choice and that of social actors. As dissident thinkers underlined it, it would have been enough for people to question the official dogma, by refusing to live in a lie, for the regimes to collapse. However, surveillance practices have been studied also in Western countries in the past decades. And the recent coronavirus crisis shows yet again that the use of fear in politics is not a prerogative of communist regimes only. We can observe how potent fear is, also in our democracies, as a motivator of individual behavior and extractor of conformism. The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has increased the visibility of state and corporate surveillance, yet this new reality has garnered the massive support of the wider public. In fact, it has largely been a demand on the part of a fearful citizenry, who has voluntarily complied to this new surveillance and self-surveillance model. The communist experience should warn us that surveillance leads to censorship and, even more importantly, to a change of behavior. But the current Covid situation should also lead us to reinterpret the degree of sincerity of social actors under communism: we now see that fear can lead to curtailing freedoms with the willing participation of a large part of society.

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