27 October 2010

Big Brothers and Surveillance

The other day, we watched a rather very good movie entitled The Lives of Others (German: Das Leben der Anderen). I liked it because even though it was set in the 1980s, it was a movie in which the themes were relatable. It was set in East Berlin, where a prominent playwright was put into surveillance by the East German Stasi. It soon turns out that the real reason for this was that the playwright's girlfriend is also fancied by a high member of the party, and the party member has been using his power to eliminate a rival.

Without revealing too much here, I like the fact that the movie had complex characters, and the allegiances of the characters change which make the movie unpredictable. I actually liked that.

Also, given the fact that self-determination is a big thing for me, I liked the way the movie explored the theme of surveillance. Potential dissidents of the government are watched, allowing the government to control the thoughts of the people. I never would want to live in a society like that. I have a brain, I know how to use it. I don't need a government to watch over me and my every move.

See, the thing is, I don't understand why systems like Communism and other forms of totalitarian control work the way they did. They think they are the best thing in the world, and yet they are so afraid of criticism, that they resort to surveillance and other methods of control. If Communism is the best thing in the world, then why be paranoid? Why not defend how good it is?

I guess the movie also reinforced in me the notion that humans are inherently selfish. Even politicians in the Communist regime want to be better than the rest. They want the girl that someone else has, they want the better pay, they want the information that would allow them to put others down. So Communism is just an illusion. It is just the illusion that everyone will be equal and treated the same. Because really, even Communists are selfish.

I remembered when I was still in undergrad. I had to take a course that was supposed to be about the Philippine national hero. It was required for every undergrad in the Philippines, but when I took it, my professor was an activist, and instead of teaching us about Jose Rizal, he taught us about how Communism was awesome.

Obviously, I didn't buy it. As my final paper, I argued how Communism actually doesn't work, citing examples of Communist breakdown in Romania and in other parts of Eastern Europe.

Seriously, people just need to accept that humans are inherently selfish, and not pretend that it is not the case. I want to be better than my neighbor, and I am not afraid to admit that.

(Giants, from my Saqsayhuaman Series)


  1. I think we've had a conversation on an offshoot of this theme before. We must all strive for our own excellence and raising our standards. This doesn't have to depend on how good or bad others are doing. Education is a good example, its a very selfish and independent quest and rightfully so. However, when this self-growth happens by forcibly lowering the standards of others or by suppression or exploitation of the neighbour, that's when problems arise and I have a hard time accepting it.

    Both communism and capitalism fail to have enough checks and balances to ensure that one's development doesn't come at the cost of others - could be other humans or nature. I admit I do have problems with the 'survival of the fittest' approach to growth since it doesn't happen in a level playing field. Tigers haven't killed all deers despite having lived here for centuries; unfortunately humans are not that disciplined. Everyone (even a tiger) is selfish, but human selfishness comes at the cost of others.

    So the conclusion of your post seems somewhat transactional - perhaps you could write another post discussing this in philosophical terms. :)

  2. Priyank,

    You have raised very interesting points. I agree that striving for excellence does not have to depend on how good or bad others do. However, it is easier to let it depend on others' weakness and destruction: several cultures have this, even the Filipinos have what is called the crab mentality. Students plagiarize for their own benefit.

    I agree that capitalism also has its own set of problems. Given my bias favoring self-determination and free choice, I favor capitalism as the lesser evil, though.

    And yes, I like your tigers/deer analogy. One can say that the reproduction rate of deer is such that even though tigers kill plenty of deer, they don't get obliterated. And yes, "survival of the fittest" does not happen on a level playing field, but that is just an idealism. Some of us are born handicapped, some of us are born with a lower IQ, the human playing field isn't level either. And that is just the reality of things.

    You're right that I should put up another entry on this; maybe I'll sleep over it and see the philosophical aspect this better.

  3. As much as I like early communist theories (early, like pre-Stalin!) I'm afraid it will never work for the reason you pointed out: people are selfish.

  4. Zhu,

    Yes, and that just defeats the whole purpose of things!