What is the real ‘Orwellian nightmare’ now?
On the 70th anniversary of Nineteen Eighty-Four.
In the 70 years since George Orwell wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four, the word ‘Orwellian’ has become a form of lazy political shorthand. It is used to condemn anything deemed to smack of the sort of Big Brother system of authoritarian control Orwell described in his last and greatest novel. The irony is that many of those who use it today might also have a touch of the ‘Orwellian’ about their views.
As the Guardian’s Dorian Lynskey outlines in his widely acclaimed new book, The Ministry of Truth: A Biography of George Orwell’s 1984, published to mark the 70th anniversary, the meaning of Orwell’s masterwork has often been reinterpreted over the years to suit the prevailing fears of the age. Thus in the 1950s and 1960s, at the height of the Cold War between the West and the Soviet Union, the focus was on the threat of Stalinist totalitarianism. In the 1980s, concerns were more likely to be expressed about the ‘Orwellian’ potential of hi-tech surveillance systems and CCTV cameras. When the actual year 1984 came around, many of us young radicals imagined plenty that was ‘Orwellian’ about the British state’s year-long war to defeat the striking miners.
When Lynskey comes to now, however, he does the same thing and reinterprets Nineteen Eighty-Four to fit the prejudices of the present. Almost predictably, he begins his book by linking the dystopian world described by Orwell with Donald Trump’s America. He quotes Trump’s adviser, Kellyanne Conway, who claimed – in the row over the true size of the crowd at his presidential inauguration – that she was using ‘alternative facts’. This is why, Lynskey tells BBC News, people are now turning to Orwell’s novel again, ‘for what it says about truth. And flagrant lies. And the nature of exerting power by distorting reality.’
Thus a discussion of the importance of a 70-year-old classic can become yet another exercise in blaming lies – and, implicitly, the stupidity/gullibility of voters – for Trump’s victory over the liberal establishment. Many try to claim that similar propaganda lies were behind the mass vote to leave the EU – effectively blaming Big Brother tactics for the Brexit revolt.
In its near universal display of contempt for the masses, the liberal intelligentsia is exhibiting a particularly ‘Orwellian’ trait: uncritical political conformism, and an intolerance of alternative or heretical views. Today that conformism is not imposed by any Big Brother-style regime of either the right or left. Indeed, when the state intervenes to suppress free speech for heretics, it is often at the behest of the illiberal liberals of the Twittermob. For Orwell’s ‘two-minute hate’, we might substitute their 240-character bile-filled tweets.
The future may not have turned out to look like, as O’Brien the secret police torturer predicts to Orwell’s protagonist, Winston Smith, ‘a boot stamping on a human face – forever’. But the liberal Thought Police are nonetheless a powerful force in contemporary society, enforcing the conformist culture of ‘You can’t say that’ by using the less violent methods of language control that Orwell described – yet which are often ignored by modern critics of the ‘Orwellian’.
Orwell based his projection of Big Brother’s regime on real trends he had witnessed and experienced before, during and after the Second World War. As Lynskey observes, ‘the texture of the Ministry of Truth comes from his time working for the BBC’. In 1946, a couple years before he wrote Nineteen-Eighty-Four, Orwell published his powerful essay ‘Politics and the English language’.
In its near universal display of contempt for the masses, the liberal intelligentsia is exhibiting a particularly ‘Orwellian’ trait: uncritical political conformism
Political language, Orwell wrote, ‘is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind’. As I noted on spiked earlier this year, ‘More than 70 years later, political language is being redesigned to make killing off Brexit appear respectable’. The Remainers have taken over the language of the debate, so that ‘Brexit’ can rarely be allowed out into public debate unless escorted by ‘disaster’ or ‘catastrophic’, and no ‘Brexiteer’ is fit to be seen in the mainstream media unless preceded by ‘hardline’ ‘extremist’ or even ‘mad’. The BBC’s use of Remainer-speak to police the terms of the Brexit debate would certainly be recognised by the apparatchiks of Orwell’s fictional Ministry of Truth.
There are other ways in which the non-boot-stamping methods Orwell described have been deployed by our liberal establishment to police speech and thought. One of the least-read but most important sections of Nineteen Eighty-Four is the appendix which outlines ‘The principles of Newspeak’ – how the regime rewrote and redefined the English language to suit its ends.
Take the priceless word ‘free’. This word, writes Orwell, ‘still existed in Newspeak, but could only be used in such statements as “The dog is free from lice” or “This field is free from weeds.” It could not be used in its old sense of “politically free” or “intellectually free”, since political and intellectual freedom no longer existed even as concepts.’
That redefinition of free to mean the restrictive ‘freedom from’ rather than the liberating ‘freedom to’ is a feature of modern political discourse. A few years ago, when the UK authorities were pushing for the ban on smoking in public places, I wrote about the public-health crusaders’ new slogan ‘smokefree’ as a classic example of Orwell’s Newspeak – a made-up word that turns the concept of freedom into a real denial of the freedom to smoke. A ban on public smoking might be good for public health, I noted then, but the twisting of language being used to justify it would prove unhealthy for public debate.
Now we can see that problem writ large in the campaigns by student activists and other radicals to restrict the right of others to express opinions they find offensive, justified in the name of safety. Instead of demanding and defending free speech, as previous generations of young campaigners did, the demand of these zealots is for freedom from speech. Newspeak has become the language of the university campus.
Or take ‘memory holes’. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, one of Winston Smith’s tasks at the Ministry of Truth is constantly to help rewrite history, by destroying any past evidence that might contradict the orthodoxy of the present. Awkward documents or photographs are disposed of via ‘memory holes’, which send them to the incinerator. Today, as Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales and others have pointed out, the supposedly liberal EU authorities have made memory holes a reality through their law on the ‘right to be forgotten’. As Wikipedia Foundation executive Lila Tretikov pointed out at a London conference five years ago, these rules risk the web becoming ‘riddled with memory holes – places where inconvenient information simply disappears’. Who needs Big Brother if the civilised judges of the European Court of Justice are prepared to dig memory holes in the name of protection and freedom from harm?
And then there is the most important aim of Big Brother’s Thought Police – to use the all-seeing telescreen and other methods to erase the line between the private and the public, and control people’s inner thoughts. ‘They can’t get inside you’, Winston’s secret lover Julia assures him in Nineteen Eighty-Four. But they do, seeking to abolish privacy along with passion and get Winston and other heretics to internalise Big Brother’s neutering conformist creed.
Today’s alleged liberals often appear equally suspicious of privacy – at least the privacy of other people. ‘Behind closed doors’ has become a pejorative phrase, and their demands – often taken up by the official police – are to punish people for heretical words they have used in private emails, text messages or social-media groups.
The dangerous trend towards policing private words and thoughts brings to mind the all-seeing telescreens, Thought Police and thoughtcrime of Nineteen Eighty-Four. One element of Big Brother’s system of surveillance is that people are encouraged to spy on one another and inform on what their colleagues, neighbours and even their parents say and do in private. That is echoed in the way that those who leak private information can now be hailed as heroes.
Today’s alleged liberals often appear as suspicious of privacy as Big Brother does
The purpose of Orwell’s Thought Police is not simply to punish those found guilty of mentally straying from the correct state diktat. It is also to encourage the rest to practise ‘crimestop’ – described by Big Brother’s public enemy number one, Emmanuel Goldstein, as ‘the faculty of stopping short, as though by instinct, at the threshold of any dangerous thought… Crimestop, in short, means protective stupidity.’ That is where we have come to in the drive to ‘free’ society from offensive ideas: a point where alleged liberals promote ‘protective stupidity’ over risky free-thinking.
Much that is ‘Orwellian’, then, passes without criticism in our society. So does Nineteen Eighty-Four offer a bleak view of the future, which is now our present? Not quite. Another element ignored in all the talk of an ‘Orwellian nightmare’ is that the human spirit is still there, notably in the person of Julia, trying to resist the crushing weight of conformism and fatalism. When Winston reflects that ‘We are the dead’, she chides him that ‘We’re not dead yet’. By the end, of course, they are both among the walking dead. Yet Orwell, as Lynskey’s book concludes, was clear that this was a cry for resistance, not resignation. Dying in a sanatorium after finishing the book, he wrote that ‘the moral to be drawn from this dangerous nightmare is a simple one. Don’t let it happen – it depends on you.’
In the book, Winston seems clear that it depends on the masses – that the intellectuals and middle-class party cadres are a lost cause, and that the supposed conspiracy of The Brotherhood among Party insiders was hopeless:
‘If there was hope, it must lie in the proles, because only there in those swarming disregarded masses, 85 per cent of the population of Oceania, could the force to destroy the Party ever be generated… But the proles, if only they could somehow become conscious of their own strength. would have no need to conspire. They needed only to rise up and shake themselves like a horse shaking off flies. If they chose they could blow the Party to pieces tomorrow morning. Surely sooner or later it must occur to them to do it? And yet—!’
Although Orwell was often accused of public-school snobbery towards the lower orders, he recognised that they were not under the same neo-Stalinist thumb as the intellectual classes of his time. There was hope there, however stymied.
Yet who is now the target of those who talk about an Orwellian nightmare? Essentially, it is the proles, for believing the lies and backing Brexit and Trump. So Lynskey whines that Orwell did not foresee ‘that the common man and woman would embrace doublethink as enthusiastically as the intellectuals and, without the need for terror or torture, would choose to believe that two plus two equals whatever they want it to be’.
Ignoring the dodgy arithmetic, this last point rather gives the game away. Their real objection is that the mass of ‘common’ people ‘choose to believe’ what they think is true, rather than what their betters in the intellectual and liberal elite tell them to believe. The revolting upstarts! Where Big Brother uses the ‘prolefeed’ of mass entertainment and gossipy newspapers to try to control the proles, today’s elitists believe that the proles have been brainwashed into backing Brexit by tabloid lies and Russian bloggers.
Yet that democratic revolt is far more meaningful for the future than the sort of failed petit-bourgeois protest staged by Winston, which the ‘Orwellian’-watchers want to celebrate. Above all, it is the democratic surge for Brexit, in the face of the establishment’s demand for obedience, which means that we are not quite living in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Seventy years on, contrary to the claim of the infamous Party slogan, who controls the past does not control the future. That stage of our history is still to be written, by those who refuse to conform to the ‘Orwellian’ demands of the liberal Thought Police for crimestop and unfreedom. We are still not dead yet.
Mick Hume is a spiked columnist. His latest book, Revolting! How the Establishment is Undermining Democracy – and what they’re afraid of, is published by William Collins.
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