Blog Post

Orwell Today

“Freedom is the right to tell people what they do not want to hear”  —George Orwell

Learning from Orwell is maybe even more important today than it was 70 years ago.  Here I will try to tell why.  I will use just facts from one country that is ruled by a neoliberal autocratic regime.

I remember growing up in the Soviet Empire and my father always warning me not to talk too much against the authorities on the phone.  “They are constantly listening to us and we may be arrested”—he used to tell me and we would cover our phones with the pillows before talking about politics.  Many people were arrested, jailed or killed because they have said ‘unpatriotic things’ during their private conversations. This was the reason that people in the Stoviet Empire where afraid to talk, because Soviet “Big Brother” was always watching.  We were always reminded that the “Enemies of Soviet State” are always waiting to come over and kill all of us.  So if we wanted national security, we needed to endure Soviet State terror.  

It is obvious that the Marxist-Leninist system did not work. Former members of the Eastern Block became some of the most fierce protagonists of wild capitalism and ironically many of the “new bourgeoisie” are former communist party apparatchiks and high nomenklatura. Today, divisions of the cold war merged into one discourse—that of 21st century Social Darwinism – the strongest survives. In many cases in the former Soviet Union those strongest are mostly criminals or representatives of former elites – communist party elite or KGB or Military Intelligence. These people control almost entire economies and sustain militaries that ensure that this “new bourgeoisie” of Eastern block keep the power from their own people. Exploitation, hunger, economic inequality, inequality in opportunities, cultural imperialism coupled with militaristic policies contribute to the formation of contemporary conflict between North and South. But at the same time in this new postmodern time the new type of system has emerged, we could call this system postmodern electoral autocracy.   

It is also ironic that Marxist-Leninist and other dogmatic communist regimes after the collapse of the Eastern Block have embraced new neoliberal materialism and a new type of imperialism. While the “liberal-democratic” Russia was committing war crimes in Chechnya, Georgians together with the old Liberal democracies were busy torturing people in Iraq. There was nothing dialectical left in the new system, which is trying to impose careerist and consumerist dreams upon the population of the former Soviet States.  It is a direct system of Neoliberal Electoral Autocracy.  Maybe lessons were learned from Peru’s Alberto Fujimori or Kenyan ruler Daniel Arap Moi.  

The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power. Not wealth or luxury or long life or happiness: only power, pure power. What pure power means you will understand presently. We are different from all the oligarchies of the past, in that we know what we are doing. All the others, even those who resembled ourselves, were cowards and hypocrites. The German Nazis and the Russian Communists came very close to us in their methods, but they never had the courage to recognize their own motives. They pretended, perhaps they even believed, that they had seized power unwillingly and for a limited time, and that just round the corner there lay a paradise where human beings would be free and equal. We are not like that. We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means; it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power. 1984

There is a new kind of Orwellian system in Georgia, where everyone is afraid to speak once again.  But this time they are threatened with different dangers.  Not just their own imprisonment or accidental death, but material deprivation, being blacklisted or your relatives paying for your own free expression.  Surveillance is omnipresent in the new, neoliberal state system, it is just operating in more sophisticated form.

In today's Georgia writer and independent businessman Bakur Kighuradze was arrested on a hot summer day of 2010 under charges of 'Spying'.  He and his family were absolutely astonished at the charges.  Kighuradze did not even work at any state agencies and was an independent writer who published books about globalization.  He was also a patron of many young authors who practiced freedom of expression in arts and literature.  And suddenly Kighuradze and 15 other were arrested and charged with "giving very confidential information' to Russian intelligence.  According to his lawyer, Sandro Baramidze, his representatives were not given a chance to see the documents that are charging him. The Georgian court has quickly sentenced Bakur Kighuradze and 15 others for spying charges.  All other courts denied the family the chance to contest the charges in an open trial.  Finally the family was forced to take Kighuradze's case to European Human Rights Court in Strasbourg.

There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time. But at any rate they could plug in your wire whenever they wanted to. You had to live—did live, from habit that became instinct—in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized. 1984

What has changed in contemporary Georgia?  Since 2005 state surveillance programs are as obvious as they were during Soviet regime.  Contemporary Georgian authorities do not even hide that they are conducting policies of State Surveillance on their political opponents.  During the arrests of popular TV host Shalva Ramishvili and dissident Philosopher Irakli Batiashvili State displayed their recorded conversations within hours of their arrest on National TV.  Opponents of the current regime, like TV star, Beso Sarjveladze were jailed on TV for different ‘Offenses’ that pre-recorded and then displayed on national TV.   State Surveillance is not just conducted by Saaakashvili regime, but even used for propaganda reasons.  Several leaders of the opposition like Koko Gamsakhurdia, Goga Khaindrava, Levan Berdzenishvili and Shalva Natelashvili were charged with ‘collaborating with the enemy’ in November, 2007.  A TV show was made displaying their ‘collaboration’ with Russians, but in the end government had dropped charges, since there was no evidence.

Never again will you be capable of ordinary human feeling. Everything will be dead inside you. Never again will you be capable of love, or friendship, or joy of living, or laughter, or curiosity, or courage, or integrity. You will be hollow. We shall squeeze you empty and then we shall fill you with ourselves.  1984

In 2009-2010, a new wave of arrests and political persecution has started.  Members of the opposition movement Mamuka Tsereteli, Kahka Tabatadze, Nodar Kedelidze, David Chkhaidze and dozens of others were charged with different crimes, mostly unsubstantiated arms and drugs charges and put to prison.  Members of the opposition Republican Party of Georgia Tamaz Tlashadze, Mikheil Gabunia and Zaal Gudadze were also victims of political persecution. Former General in Georgian Army, Koba Kobaladze was charged with organizing mutiny with no evidence, except fabricated recording that were aired on Government-run TV stations.

Publisher Merab Katamadze was arrested and charged with arms possession.  In the summer of 2011 President Saakashvilis photographer, Giorgi Abdaladze was also arrested under the similar charges together with his two other colleagues, Irakli Gedenidze and Zurab Kurtsikidze.  They were pressured to sing confessions.  This list goes on and on.

Do you begin to see, then, what kind of world we are creating? It is the exact opposite of the stupid hedonistic Utopias that the old reformers imagined. A world of fear and treachery and torment, a world of trampling and being trampled upon, a world which will grow not less but more merciless as it refines itself.  Progress in our world will be progress toward more pain. 1984

Nino Petriashvili was actively voicing her protest against Saakashvili regime.  As a result her mother was arrested on tax evasion charges.  The government has charged a small business owner with not paying money.  She was charged with evading under a million dollars—a sum that is a lot bigger than her business ever made.  One of the leading journalists, who asked us not to identify her, has seen her son charged with the crime and sentenced to more than 10 years in prison.  The government is holding her hostage and the price to pay is her silence on most important issues of contemporary politics.  This list also goes on and on.

Independent TV channels are facing the problem of commercial censorship.  While government allows them to broadcast the news, businesses are not approaching them with commercials, fearing government actions against them.  Business could not cooperate with opposition parties or independent media.  Businessman Bidzina Ivanishvili decided to enter politics and with his own money tried to help the population of Georgian provinces to receive the signal from more or less independent TV Channels.  He purchased antennas for villagers who were not able to afford those antennas.  What is most Orwellian, the Georgian government went on to arrest even all of those individual antennas. This is laughable if it was not tragic, as Ilya Chavchavadze would say. 

Never again will you be capable of ordinary human feeling. Everything will be dead inside you. Never again will you be capable of love, or friendship, or joy of living, or laughter, or curiosity, or courage, or integrity. You will be hollow. We shall squeeze you empty and then we shall fill you with ourselves. 1984

This Orwellian ‘big brother’ practices are widespread in contemporary Georgia.  Of course, Georgia is not the only case of “Manufacturing Consent’, but it is one of the most sophisticated ones..  People are still under constant surveillance—many of them being punished for saying something that is not entirely pleasing the government.

This is one more reminder how important it is to re-read some classics, in this case George Orwell in our brave, new world.

Irakli Kakabadze has been a leading figure in the nonviolent movement for social change in Georgia for more than two decades. 

A member of the Civic Disobedience Committee in 1989 and during the Rose Revolution in 2003, he has since been harassed and detained repeatedly by authorities. 

He is the author of five books and hundreds of essays in English, Georgian, and Russian. His play Candidate Jokola controversially depicted a love story between a Georgian presidential candidate and an Abkhaz woman. He is also an author of lyrics for “Postindustrial Boys,” and, together with Zurab Rtveliashvili, practices a literary performance style called Polyphonic Discourse. 

He taught art and peacebuilding at Cornell University from 2008-2012 and currently teach at the Georgian-American University in Tbilisi, Georgia..