I once lived in a socialist country—or at least a country that was on the "road to socialism." This country changed its name from Rhodesia to Zimbabwe in 1980, after a brutal war between those who had everything (white Africans) and those who had almost nothing (black Africans). The revolutionaries who took power in 1981 were educated and committed to building a utopia for all workers. The rising sun was bright in the sky of this socialist experiment called "The House of Stones" (what "Zimbabwe" means in Shona).
The experiment was dead by 1987. All of the revolution's noble principles and ideas were sent to prison for life or simply executed. The revolutionary president, Robert Mugabe, became a dictator and never looked back. My family began leaving the country in 1988, and at the time, nothing could convince me that socialism was in any way better than capitalism. There was a TV show, Road to Socialism, that aired every week and featured a black African Marxist debating a black African businessman, a capitalist. I never sided with the former, who was clearly not talking about reality but only his party's ideology and program.
Under the socialists, the Zimbabwe economy collapsed, and blame for everything that went wrong was placed on capitalists and their network of local spies and international allies. Socialism could not be achieved as long as these conspirators were around. But the only spies people ever found were working for the government. And they were not looking for enemies of the people, but the party. This socialism wasn't about the economy, education, or raising living standards (actual socialism), but the control of the population and the concentration of political power (a police state).
Karl Marx City, a hip little documentary by Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker, examines another failed socialist project, the German Democratic Republic. The project began after the Second World War and ended soon after the fall of the Berlin Wall, in 1989. Whereas I saw the dawn of a socialist project, Epperlein, the film's narrator and subject, as a girl saw the twilight years of one. Eight or so years after East Germany reunited with capitalist West Germany, her father committed suicide and left her a strange final note. The film investigates this death, which seems more and more connected with the massive surveillance apparatus once operated by the Stasi, a secret department of the former "socialist" government.
This organization filmed everyone and everything. People walking down the street, entering factories, stepping out of cars, sitting in parks, taking a family trip, finding things on the street (like a sharp knife). The Stasi had 90,000 official agents and enough secret informants to pack a city, 200,000. The organization collected thousands upon thousands of hours of film footage and amased millions upon millions of files on ordinary citizens. What you will find in all of these records is mostly nothing. The people behind the Iron Curtain were as dull as those in the Free World.
But, clearly, the Stasi was not trying to find traitors or capitalist agents. The organization itself was the reason for being itself. It was there to let people know they were being watched. If no one knew of it and its doings, then it would have been ineffectual. In East Germany, you had to watch yourself simply because you knew you were being watched. This is not an Orwellian state of things (the eye of the state always on you), but more Foucault's panopticon (you can't tell if you are being watched or not, so you always behave as if you are being watched).
Epperlein walks into this miserable past with cold eyes, a smileless mouth, thick headphones, and a massive mic. She is spying on the spies, spying on her father's life, spying on her childhood, spying on the ruins of a police state. In one moment, she raises the mic up to a statue of Karl Marx (whose ideas and books had nothing to do with Karl Marx City, which was renamed Chemnitz, or the Stasi, or that awful statue), which is still in the city because it was too heavy to move. She also explains big German words or expressions that describe states of memory or remembering.
The documentary is mostly good, but it does make one big mistake. This happens when Epperlein speculates that the Stasi might have found Facebook useful. But this is wrong. They would have hated this and other forms of social media. There is too much fun on Facebook and Instagram. There is no fear, no worry in these digital streams of posts and pictures. It would be like an East German inviting an agent into their home and giving them cookies and coffee with lots of milk, and chatting and showing them baby pics and photos of a marriage, a trip to the country, a brand-new car, or a knife discovered while walking home from the grocery store.