The Soft Cage: Surveillance in America: From Slave Passes to The War on Terror

Buy this book from Amazon.comChristian Parenti
Basic Books ($24.95)

by Jim Feast

The pass that Brother Ezekiel had written read, This nigger is my slave. He has my consent to go to town. John Morris Dutton. — Margaret Walker, Jubilee

In Margaret Walker's novel Jubilee, a tracing of Gone with the Wind themes from a subaltern perspective, the Georgia slaves have a very dicey notion of the outside world. They know nothing of politics or abolitionists. But they do know on what side their bread is buttered (or, more often, not buttered), and have developed strategies, including forging passes, to undermine the peculiar institution.

This general point also comes up in Christian Parenti's The Soft Cage, a near panoptic survey of the place of surveillance techniques in American life (and the fight against them), which he ingeniously and plausibly finds to have originated in attempts to keep tabs on the Antebellum work force. What he describes in this early chapter on the old South does not resemble a forced march, though the masters employ pattie rollers (roving patrols that apprehended slaves violating curfew), passes, and even slave hire badges (dog tags worn by urban workers). Rather, the system resembles a ballet, in which attempts to spy on and police the slaves were met and countermanded by the slaves' resistance. Parenti chronicles such subversive activities as "re-expropriation of the master's stores, fencing pilfered goods, trading produce, and fraternizing with Native Americans, poor whites, and the fugitive slaves who lived as social bandits on the edge of the plantation world." Naturally, all of this had to be done by getting around the owners' spies.

Such fighting back was no historical exception, which can be shown simply by turning to The Soft Cage's powerful chapter on 19th-century Chinese immigration. This section begins with a paradox: by 1882, almost all Chinese were barred from entrance to the U.S., yet nonetheless, they kept flooding in. Parenti points out the Chinese already had practice back home dealing with a corrupt bureaucracy, and so quickly evolved methods to reach the gold mountain. For example, since Chinese merchants were allowed visas, mercantile firms would develop a side trade in adding (for a fee) new business partners to their papers of incorporation. Even more outrageously, when a legal Chinese immigrant decided to retire back to China, an enterprising Chinese merchant in San Francisco would pay a customs agent to steal that immigrant's file and "replace the existing identification photo with the image of the alleged 'returnee,'" actually a picture sent from China of a new immigrant. The picture was even suitably weathered to make it look old.

Ultimately, this book provides a cautionary tale, with Parenti warning against the step-by-step infringement on public and private life by the interrogatory machinery of the state and businesses. On this note, some of his most unsettling pages are those where he examines prying at the workplace. Here he looks not only at such well-known ways of monitoring productivity as counting the key-strokes of supermarket cashiers and typists, but also at newer developments such as the Pokky System, by which restaurant wait staff take orders on mini-computers and then electronically transmit them to the kitchen, saving time and barring them from fraternizing with the cooks. Also mentioned is the use of global positioning system hardware in UPS trucks, useful in "controlling drivers and getting them to work harder," since they realize their locations and speeds are continually broadcast to management. Parenti underlines that these last systems have not only been used to nail goof-offs, but to harass union activists who can be pestered about petty errors.

If this isn't frightening enough, Parenti's conclusion about the threat growing surveillance makes on our civil liberties is downright chilling, for he argues that the upshot of all this watching and being watched will be a stifling of dissent. After all, giving these institutions the right to monitor us makes sense only if they are benevolent, only if their surveillance is not used to harass union organizers or break up groups involved in legitimate protest. I think most will agree that relying on the state and corporations' good intentions is not a happy prospect.

Likewise, comparing Parenti's historical and contemporary sections, one notes a disturbing difference: where the slaves, Chinese immigrants, and other dispossessed groups elaborated a subculture-wide, underground, anti-surveillance technology to evade attempts to monitor them, present day crusaders against the soft cage seem to work alone or in small progressive groups, without being able to inculcate any section of the disadvantaged with an anti-snooping ethic and practice. If a book can be an activist tool, then The Soft Cage would certainly be a good one for alerting and mobilizing a desperately-needed resistance to the current promulgation and acceptance of omnipresent institutional eyes and ears.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2004 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2004