Robert Važan

Totalitarian islands in modern society

Today's society, even if we focus exclusively on democratic countries, is not as free as it is often presented. The absence of individual freedom is invisible to us only because we have become accustomed to modern forms of oppression. Just like people before '89 were used to the absence of freedom at the time.

Freedom is not an abstract invention of university professors. Freedom is a daily practical necessity. After '89, elections were one disaster after another (this is Slovakia, but I imagine it's the same everywhere), but the situation was nevertheless improving, because people began to use individual freedom to solve accumulated problems. They switched jobs, relocated, sent their children to a better school, bought what they needed. All this while the government stole and broke what it could. We owe virtually all the progress since '89 to individual freedom.

This is not to say that all government intervention is bad. There is nothing wrong with banning the sale of food that is a health hazard. Some paper "rights" and "freedoms" are just rhetoric tricks and actually rob people of real everyday freedom. After all, no one is interested in "freedom" to take out a usurious loan, which turns the debtor into a de facto slave. I explain all of this because the definition of totality, which this article is about, relies on definition of freedom, so I want to make sure we're talking about the same freedom.

Totalitarianism is not the same as dictatorship. Dictatorship can exist without totalitarianism, if the dictator lets people live their lives as long as they don't threaten his position. Totalitarianism is about deep intervention in citizens' private lifes. It severely limits practical everyday freedom. Ubiquitous totalitarian power is unusual in a democracy, because it gets on the nerves of the majority, which votes to lessen it in the next elections. However, severe totalitarian restrictions on individual freedom can also be found in democracy, especially if they affect minorities or if they are strongly religiously or ideologically motivated.

Religiously motivated restriction of freedom is interesting, because it often affects the majority and the majority tolerates it or even supports it for ideological reasons. As an example, I will mention the dysfunctional and therefore very painful divorce process. This process can be improved, but attempts to improve it have long been blocked for religious reasons. As a result, details of citizens' private lives are publicly discussed in the courts. State employees evaluate private lives of citizens and punish them for perceived personal shortcomings and they do so not by fine or imprisonment, but by separation from one's own children. Divorces are artificially dragged out to make them as painful as possible for everyone involved. Government subsequently claims the right to decide what will happen to the children, while their parents, especially fathers, are just helpless spectators in the whole process.

Speaking of children. For how long is one a child? And since when is one an adult? Physical, intellectual, and emotional maturity is reached in puberty, certainly before turning 15. The law defines adulthood as reaching 18 years of age. But the "children" remain financially dependent on their parents until the end of university, that is, almost until the age of 25. And parents often take advantage of this dependency to keep an eye on their children's private lives. "Who were you with? What were you doing together? What do you need money for?" This example shows that the restriction of freedom does not have to be explicitly defined in the law. It may be implicit in the nature of the system. And it can have serious consequences.

It is probably not surprising that majority decision-making in democracy can easily lead to persecution of minorities. Homosexuals are a popular example. Since attitudes towards homosexuals are heavily ideologically loaded on both sides, I remind you once again that I am talking about practical everyday freedom. Of course, after '89, homosexuals began to use freedom to solve their everyday problems like everyone else. They started organizations and support groups, spread the word, and opened clubs. The essence of today's dispute about registered partnerships (in Slovakia, situation varies by country) is that the current laws do not allow them to solve some problems. If a gay man has a sick partner in hospital, he does not have the rights of a close relative. If lesbians take care of a child and the one who is the biological mother dies, the other mother does not automatically have the right to continue raising of the child.

I could go on with other examples: loss of practical freedom as a result of extreme poverty, suffocating debts, power relations in the family (as a result of dysfunctional divorces), the reality of schools, firing employees for reasons unrelated to the job, social pressure and ostracization, ideologically motivated crimes, ubiquitous discrimination, ... I hope I have listed enough examples to make it clear what I mean by totalitarian islands in modern society.

What can be done about it? Probably not much if anything. These problems cannot be solved through personal initiative, because lack of individual freedom is at their core. They can only be partially ameliorated. Privacy, if well protected, can provide space for freedom, which society otherwise does not tolerate. It pays to be flexible and creative and consider every solution, however unusual. Restrictive laws can sometimes be circumvented. Other times they can be broken with impunity. Sometimes a short trip to another country or formal registration of stay abroad is enough. It pays to understand the system and know its loopholes. You are probably asking, why do we have to do all this? Why can't we just live our lives the way we want? Because we are at war. And it's a war we are losing, because the enemy is far more powerful than us. Hence the partisan methods.