A good friend and economist reminded me this morning that today is the 70th anniversary of the publication of “1984” by George Orwell. The book was written in 1948, in the aftermath of the Second World War. A war which saw two totalitarian regimes and one set of democratic allies fight each other, killing millions. Orwell wrote the first draft in 1944 – at a time when it was clear that the Allies were winning, and the Western democratic world lead by Churchill and Roosevelt agreed to a division of the spoils with the Communist dictatorship lead by Joseph Stalin.
Orwell envisioned a dystopian, totalitarian world where an unknown global power tells us what to think, what to feel and who to love and hate. It is a follow on from his other analysis of how authoritarian societies behave – the pig farm in “Animal Farm”. Both these books arose from his fear of authoritarianism sweeping through the world, a communist menace replacing the fascist monster.
So many of the terms coined by Orwell have made it to general usage without us thinking of its origins: “Double-Speak”. “Double-Think”, “Big Brother Is Watching You”. And many more. The propaganda and manipulation techniques described in the book are part of any dictator’s playbook to this day. It is astonishing how prescient the book was, and why it is still so relevant today.
Orwell was not the first to imagine this kind of dystopian world. The prophesy of doom was also echoed by Arthur Koestler in his masterpiece “Darkness At Noon”, which largely describes the Stalinist purges of 1939. Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” was written in the aftermath of the Great Depression. It was a cry for stability that generates a response in the form of an over-engineered world of genetic modifications and thought control. The origins are different but the implications are the same. A messy world that will be controlled by a greater power that uses technology to control how people think, behave, reproduce and live, to reduce the entropy to a point where all we have is dull uniformity.
And who can blame them for thinking so? The first half of the 20th century, for Europe, was one long period of instability and disorder, punctuated by a very brief period of wild prosperity and creativity. The forces of fascism and communism had reared their heads in response to the destruction of the existing political order in WW1. Fascism blamed the lack of racial uniformity for the ills of society. Communism put the blame on the dialectic between capital and labour. At least Communism had a body of thought behind it. Fascism was prejudice, pure and simple. Yet both of them used the tools of history to diagnose the ills of society and to promise a brighter future if the correct historical path was followed. In the case of Communism – a complete and total dictatorship of the working classes, and in the case of fascism, a continuous war on racial and ethnic impurity.
These historical pathways for the future – or historicism – was notably attacked by Karl Popper in his masterpiece “The Open Society and its enemies”. Popper opens the book with an attack on the forces of historicism. When we look at society not from the ground level view of the ordinary man, but rather as an interplay of great forces and great actors that determine human progress. This view implies that there is a historical destiny that needs to be fulfilled. The doctrine of historicism states that “history is controlled by specific historical or evolutionary laws whose discovery would enable us to prophesy the destiny of man”.
One of the oldest forms of historicism is the doctrine of the chosen people – that God has chosen one set of people to function as the instrument of his will and these people will hence inherit the earth. Popper says this grew out of tribalism. Tribalism sometimes becomes collectivism – in which the individual is smaller than the society – this being something it shares with tribalism. The path for the chosen people is going to be long and hard, with twists and turns. But to believers there is certainty of outcome.
Popper classifies both fascism and communism as modern forms of historicism. Fascism uses race as the mechanism to select the chosen people, Marxism uses class. Both forms of historicism interpret history to derive a law of development that guides the evolution of the chosen people. In the case of Racialism it is biological superiority of a race. In the case of Marxism it is an economic law of struggle for economic supremacy of a particular class.
The forces we have to fear are the forces of fascism. Fascist forces live. As the world lurches towards majoritarianism as a reaction to the liberal values that have prevailed over the last 70 years since the War, it is entirely possible that this self-correction may give shelter those who believe in concepts such as manifest destiny of a people – which is the basis for most historicist thinking. This is not to say that all majoritarianism is fascism – fascists are majoritarians by definition.
Is this a conflation? We do see identity politics now given full flow all over the world, using democratic means to gain power. We do see a certain narrow, thin-skinned view of the world that sees everyone in terms of their affiliation than their intentions. Citizenship is undergoing a re-definition. What kind of “Brave New World” awaits our children – the Huxleyan or the Shakespearean?
2 thoughts on “Orwellian Thoughts”
Superb post as always. Trust you to write on the 70th anniversary of 1984. I haven’t read anybody even mentioning this in the press that I read.
Orwell and all the others that you have mentioned wrote about dystopian words created by force. What is saddening to me is that some aspects of such a world are being welcomed by many people by choice. That is depressing.
One of the most saddening developments is in China of how the state controls its people. Yes, it has been done by force, but there is enormous public support for this. That is truly saddening.
The other is how voluntarily we are blithely allowing “Big Brother” in our lives by allowing intrusive technology to enter , without a thought to the consequences.
Interestingly, lots of people are buying the book now. Its all over the bookshelves in the few book stores that still exist. Wonder why !
By the way, a certain young lady admonished you to inject humour into your posts. And then you write this 🙂