By Andrew Stone
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Orwell Centenary: From 2003 to 1984

This article is over 20 years, 11 months old
George Orwell was one of the most influential writers of the 20th century. On the hundredth anniversary of his birth we examine the controversy around his work and his legacy for today. Andrew Stone assesses the relevance of Orwell's most famous novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Issue 276

Whenever a politician says one thing but means another, we think of ‘Newspeak’. Whenever we need shorthand for the intrusive power of the state, the media or big business – such as the RMT’s dispute with PPP contractor Metronet over a CCTV camera at Baker Street – the spectre of Big Brother is raised. George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four is ensconced in our political (and – in the case of the facile gameshow Big Brother – not so political) vocabulary, synonymous with rampant authoritarianism and oppression.

Orwell’s cautionary tale, following the efforts of ‘thought criminal’ Winston Smith to subvert the dictatorial rule of the Party and its icon Big Brother, retains immense rhetorical power. But how relevant is it to the modern world? A world which is not divided into three superstates (Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia), where the free market not autarky reigns, where a newspaper article of a few years hence is more likely to be found on a web search than be doctored out of all recognition? Clearly, being free to read about such an extreme dystopia is a pretty good disproof of its existence. Nevertheless, there is much in Nineteen Eighty-Four which is recognisable, albeit in a much less exaggerated form, in the world today.

Many see Oceania (where the book is set) as a Stalinist state, an immediately distancing factor for British readers. This wasn’t quite Orwell’s intention. The book within the book, Emmanuel Goldstein’s The Theory and Practice of Oligarchic Collectivism, describes the superstates as having been foreshadowed by totalitarian systems – a problematic categorisation of Stalinism alongside fascism much favoured by the right in the Cold War. But Orwell’s cautionary tale also reflected his fear that the ‘official left’ (into which he bracketed the Labour Party) was becoming seduced by the power it had had to curtail civil liberties since entering the wartime coalition government. Big Brother rules in the name of ‘Ingsoc’ (English Socialism), which Orwell was clear was not an imported phenomenon.

The Britain of Nineteen Eighty-Four has been subsumed within Oceania – blocked with the Americas (plus Australasia and South Africa) and designated Airstrip One. At the time of the book’s publication, in 1949, the British ruling class was still coming to terms with its increasing dependence on the US. If Orwell seems prescient in seeing Britain as an outpost for an empire centred on the Americas, then it is mainly relative to contemporaries who clung onto unsustainable imperial illusions until the Suez Crisis of 1956. But whereas Britain’s primary use within Oceania is geographical, in the modern world the US has a range of options should its military and intelligence outposts in Britain be closed. It is the political fig leaf of support the British government provides as part of an ‘international coalition’ in highly disputed ventures, such as the invasion of Iraq, which Washington ultimately prizes.

If the superstates described by Orwell are reminiscent of the Cold War blocs that inspired them, they have less obvious relevance to a world with a single military superpower like the US. But one of the striking features of the book is the continuing state of war which society is kept in. This brings to mind the amorphous ‘war on terror’, used to justify the attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq, both of which were being considered by the influential Project for the New American Century long before 11 September 2001. Their vision extends much further than Kabul and Baghdad – to Iran, Syria, North Korea and other ‘rogue states’. Former CIA director James Woolsey has described this as the ‘fourth world war’, one which could take decades to complete.

War in Nineteen Eighty-Four is, in some ways, more like that of today than when Orwell wrote it. It doesn’t take place in ‘the centres of civilisation’ (for which read the major powers, rather than major sources of civilisation such as Iraq), but at the periphery. Relatively small numbers of people in these centres are active combatants, who use specialised equipment. Warfare follows the same logic as any other industry – it tends over time to become more capital intensive (ie it uses more technology relative to human labour), meaning that conscription has become less common, and better trained armed forces more of a necessity. This overall tendency is despite warfare’s unique ability to destroy much of what the military industry provides for it (bombs, munitions, etc). This wasteful imperative, by slowing the proportional increase of ‘dead labour’ (eg machinery) compared to living labour, offset the destructive effects of what Marx called ‘the tendency of the rate of profit to fall’ and sustained the long post Second World War boom. In Nineteen Eighty-Four war also confers stability, but in Orwell’s world it is the distribution of products, and the challenge to authority which would result from greater access to goods and education, which is the source of instability a war economy negates.

Methods of war

Orwell also makes some telling predictions about the development of the methods of war, with Goldstein reporting that ‘bombing planes have been largely superseded by self-propelled projectiles’ and describing ‘almost unsinkable Floating Fortress[es]’ which sound like modern aircraft carriers. In a world where ‘science’ only exists as a series of discrete investigations, Goldstein tells us that ‘various devices, always in some way connected with warfare and police espionage, have been developed, but experiment and invention have largely stopped’. This is both like and unlike our world. On the one hand, capitalists are constantly hungry to create new needs, and thus new markets, and technology plays an important role in this (witness biotech companies trying to convince us that world hunger can only be solved by genetically engineering crops to be sterile!). But most of the technological developments of the past half century – from the home computer to the mobile phone – have only been possible because of long term research and development by the military.

One of the most memorable such developments in Nineteen Eighty-Four is the omnipresent telescreens, the Party’s means of constant surveillance over its members. The ubiquity of TVs in our homes is not quite analogous to this – the crucial differences being that they are one-way and we can turn them off without penalty. But the erosion of privacy is a major concern, with CCTV cameras spreading (with Transport for London assuring us that they make us ‘secure beneath the watchful eyes’) and the government passing ‘anti-terrorist’ legislation to vastly increase the scope and scale of e-mail monitoring and phone bugs. The Civil Contingencies Bill, among other worrying powers it would confer on the police in the event of a terrorist attack, would allow them to control internet provision.

Vast amounts of data are held about every individual already – about shopping habits from loyalty cards, on location from mobile phone use. Our main protection from misuse is not the benevolence of departments of state or corporations that have this information, but its diffuseness among multiple agencies. David Blunkett’s plans for compulsory ‘entitlement cards’ would weaken this safeguard, with much personal information centralised for the benefit of state agencies and to the detriment of personal liberty.

Perhaps the parallels which people feel most keenly with Orwell’s dystopia are the mind games – the abuse of memory and language. They see in the ‘two minutes hate’ the mindless invocation of ‘the new Hitler’ whenever a war is to be fought. They recognise the shifting alliances of the war which alternates between Eurasia and Eastasia, in a superpower which has armed, trained or supported Saddam Hussein, the Taliban and Osama Bin Laden to various degrees, then sought to expunge the memory. So just as Winston Smith rewrites old newspaper reports to fit the needs of present Party policy, Republican hawks can blithely cite the Halabja massacre – which they disputed the veracity of when committed by their then ally – as a reason for war. Added to this the supposedly imminent threat of Iraqi WMD has been the subject of extensive governmental revisionism.


Then there is ‘Newspeak’. Whereas the central tenet of Orwell’s fictional language was to destroy as many words as possible – and thus take away the means of dissent – it is in the ideological euphemisms that today’s reader feels at home. The Ministry of Peace wages war for Oceania, the Ministry of Defence does for Britain. Tony Blair spun his quest to justify war against Iraq as a ‘final push for peace’, which France was accused of sabotaging by not wishing to vote for war! And the abuse of language is never starker than in the heat of war itself, with civilian deaths described as ‘collateral damage’, with occupation masquerading as ‘liberation’, and with ‘democracy’ amounting to the freedom of US-based multinationals to loot Iraqi oil.

There are many other features of Nineteen Eighty-Four which should give the modern reader pause for thought. Winston Smith describes a propaganda film celebrating the bombing of refugees in the Mediterranean. In June, after 60 to 70 would-be immigrants drowned off the coast of Sicily, Umberto Bossi, a minister in the Italian government about to take the rotating presidency of Fortress Europe, said, ‘I want to hear the roar of the cannon. The immigrants must be hunted down, for better or worse… At the second or third warning – boom! Fire the cannons at them!’

Big Brother’s glorification of spying and mistrust is not a million miles from hotlines to ‘shop benefit cheats’. The use of torture in a legal vacuum should remind us of the plight of ‘enemy combatants’ held indefinitely and in legal limbo by the US at Guantanamo and Bagram, as well as the ‘terrorist suspects’ denied due process in Britain. Even the promotion of chastity finds a modern parallel in the ‘True love waits’ cult in the US. This is a richly detailed vision of a society we should all want to avoid.

But although Orwell feared this was one possible future, he was not without some hope – the notion expressed by Winston Smith that ‘all hope lies in the proles’. It wasn’t a vision which Orwell spelled out – his brief experience of workers’ power in Spain convinced him that workers could control their own destiny, but this was weakened by the patronising conviction that workers were stirred by emotion, and only the middle class by socialist theory.

And yet the Newspeak notion of ‘doublethink’ is quite useful for explaining why periods of working class passivity punctuate those of rebellion. Essentially it describes the conflict of fact with ideology, a similar process to what Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci called ‘contradictory consciousness’. He argued that in any society the dominant ideas would be those of the class in power, reflecting their own interests, but that the experience of the working class under capitalism also created the potential for rejecting that ideology – not abstractly but through practical needs and organisation. The unprecedented mobilisations against the war in Iraq showed that no matter how slick the propaganda, collective resistance can flourish.

Orwell may have been too pessimistic to see exactly how this could happen. Or perhaps he just didn’t want to dilute the power of the dystopia with a cathartic happy ending. But the appendix, innocuous as it seems, suggests he did remain hopeful that tyranny was defeatable. For in describing the principles of Newspeak (in standard English) it uses the past tense throughout, suggesting that sometime in the future Big Brother was deposed and history reclaimed.

We may not live in bureaucratically controlled economies, but under modern capitalism billions suffer ongoing war, poverty, oppression and injustice. The minority who benefit from the system find they can only maintain their privilege by extending the means of separation, surveillance and control. This is why Nineteen Eighty-Four continues to resonate with readers, and will do until we realise the potential we have to run the world on a completely different basis.

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