Last week marked 70 years of the release of George Orwell’s classic dystopian novel 1984. Written during the beginning of the Cold War, and much before the world got to know about the crimes of the communists, Orwell remains ever relevant, with his piercing pessimism, unforgiving political analysis, his cold contrarian thinking and of course, his rustic wit.
Orwell began his essay on Gandhi, writing, “saints should always be judged guilty until they are proven innocent”, which is emblematic of how he sees politicians and people in general, and of his serious mistrust, especially of ‘good people doing terrible things in the name of the good’. Orwell, throughout his career was obsessed with political hypocrisy and with unmasking the truth, although he would confessedly write that it is naïve to ask or even fight for truth in politics because the very nature of truth is at stake when it comes to politics.
In Orwell, we had a deeply disappointed idealist, a communist during his early days in Burma, to being the strongest pen against communism at the end of his life, someone who was very early disenchanted with communism and someone who understood how history would judge communism unlike the many liberal intellectuals of his time, who supported it right until reports of Stalinist horror came to light.
But there have been few intellectuals since him, excepting Hannah Arendt at that point of time, who took an uncompromising and an astutely objective view of power and who understood that as intellectuals, their work was to criticize power despite their ideological leanings, and hence, he is today considered a prophet of his age, an ‘I-told-you-so’ guy for every revolution gone bad, for every nefarious governmental activities, and more than anything, the surveillance of the private by the public.
1984 provided us with a view of a society and of a future which is very bleak, a state where the government spies on its people round the clock, tells people what to do and what to think, and keeps people at the constant edge of their minds with the constant war propaganda. The protagonist, Winston Smith, was named after Winston Churchill, Prime Minister of Britain when Orwell finished the book, hinting at Orwell’s expectations from Churchill to save liberal democracies and also his admiration for his conduct during the war. Orwell provided a well structured vision of his society, a mechanism for control and abuse of power. Societies as such still do exist today, for example, in North Korea, which has had an extended run over its crimes since the Soviet Union, on which Orwell based both his classics, Animal Farm and 1984.
However, Orwell’s detailed vision fails, in the light of recent developments such as social media and political correctness. His overlying idea still stands strong nonetheless and can be applied to such developments. But today we live in a society where the private is still surveilled by the public but only with the very voluntary consent of the private. Would Orwell have imagined an era where people spy on themselves all the time, posting updates about their lives constantly, for the world to see and of course for the state to take stock of? Would Orwell have imagined an era where people control what other people are to think and say? I think not.
And that is probably because Orwell wrote in a time which was still seeing the transition from monarchies to democracies around the world. Orwell didn’t get to see much of democracy by the time he was dead, and hence he was always of the firm belief that if there was any abuse of power possible, it would be by the power itself. Orwell imagined a highly centralised system of information for the abuse of power enabled by the constant duping of a people. He wrote in 1984, “who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past”, indicating towards the vitality of information in our lives and how its control can help control the world. Information today is more centralised than ever, with a private company Facebook literally controlling how more than 4 billion people receive news everyday but on the other hand, the very same platform has brought in the heavy democratisation of information in our daily lives. Orwell’s vision of the control of information has somewhat become a misfit in today’s age of social media, which is anarchic in contrast to the heavily controlled information system seen in 1984. Social media is peak democracy first and majoritarianism second.
But it does substantiate the effervescent nature of truth as envisioned by Orwell, that people would be fooled by the ‘alternative facts’ by the state in order to subdue them into total submission. “War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength.” As Jeremy Waldron writes in the London Review of Books:
“If by some ‘big lie’ we manage to eradicate knowledge of some of the laws of physics or some piece of philosophy, it is possible that at a later date it can be recovered; the objective truth will be there waiting for us and we can reason our way back to it. But if we seek to eradicate from the world knowledge or memory of what happened in human affairs or knowledge of what someone did, if we suppress all witness and evidence of what happened, as (say) Stalin tried to suppress from Soviet history texts all witness and evidence of the fact that there once was a man by the name of Trotsky who played an important role in the Russian Revolution, then there is no reasoning back to such knowledge. That is the thing about human freedom and human action – it need not have happened, but it did. Brute, contingent, unreasonable fact. Unless we keep alive the memory that it happened – that this contingency actually occurred – then it can be lost for ever.”
A fierce free speech activist, Orwell understood free speech as the liberty to say things which even people didn’t want to hear, a repository of a right reserved for the minority, the powerless, the speechless and also, the controversial, a right necessary to conserve a society while also calling for change. Little did Orwell realise that liberal democracies in the future would have people policing their fellow citizens in the name of ‘political correctness’, which is the last remnant of Stalinism, and which unfortunately has taken a much convenient place in our society today. Speech for a democracy is like an oxygen for a human being, as Orwell understood it, and a society which polices speech not just polices words, but also thoughts, which he thought of as a dangerous threat to democracy.
Orwell remains relevant more than ever, both as a political analyst and a philosopher, a brand he would dissociate himself from, for his strong dislike of intellectuals. His philosophy can be blamed for generalisations but his generalisations are hardly ever anything one can disagree on, even 70 years after 1984 came out. Orwell believed in these general truths, certain ‘laws of physics’ about politics and the human nature, and he strongly believed that power, exercised by the fascist and the idealist alike, would be subject to abuse. He was heavily obsessed with the malleable nature of power and all the Cromwellian hypocrisy that it revealed and also took, to assume it. His main lesson? Question everyone and everything, and majorly the people who justify their terrible politics in the name of the ‘general good’.
Swagat Baruah is the founding editor of Catharsis Magazine.