George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 has been in the news recently, and back on the bestseller lists, because of how it chimes with the Trumpian politics of ‘alternative facts’. 1984 has rarely been out of favour – its neologisms have served western culture since it was published. The novel’s central concepts (turned into catchphrases) constantly resurface, as often as not, with their initial impact annulled. The ‘Big Brother’ of 1984, to take an obvious example, is a very different concept in the novel than its tame recurrence as an inanely voyeuristic tv show. The distance which the ideas in Orwell’s 1984 travel, and how they are reinterpreted, often tells us more about the time in which they are resurrected than about the original novel’s intentions. For instance, the movie version of 1984 (released in, appropriately enough, 1984) was very much a Thatcher-era vision of Orwell’s text – its post-industrial British landscape combined with a lament for the death of socialism; and in that it was a perceptive account of the Britain of the 1980s.
If each generation since the publication of Orwell’s novel gets the 1984 it deserves, then what does 1984 say to us now, in this year of ‘populism’, alternative facts and neo-fascism? Utopian and dystopian novels (they are usually both at the same time) are often measured by their Nostradamus qualities – whether they were able to correctly predict the future. So 1984’s telescreens, which watch over citizens’ movements and effectively police their thoughts, could or could not be compared to our own contemporary screen-obsessed digital culture. But anticipating the technology of the future is not what 1984 is about. As Orwell’s inversion of 1948 (the year, more or less, when he wrote the book) in his title suggests, the novel is anxious about the future of its own time, just as our reading of it now tells us about our worries about our future. Orwell’s broad obsessions in 1984 were two-fold: firstly, he was intervening in a long-running argument within the left in western Europe and the USA on how to understand Stalin’s Russia, just as he had done in Animal Farm; secondly, he was trying to understand how the new dynamics of the Cold War would unfold and encapsulate the totalitarian trajectories of the 1930s. It is these broad attempts at political re-orientation in a time of chaos that we should think about now when reading 1984, rather than what piece of cultural tat we’d put in our own Room 101.
Writing in The Partisan Review, in the middle of 1947, Orwell contemplated the future of Europe: “a socialist United States of Europe seems to me the only worthwhile political objective today”, Orwell wrote. For true prescience in Orwell, we should look here, to these broad political prophecies. While the EU can hardly, in its current, predominantly right-of-centre austerity mode, fit Orwell’s model of a “socialist United States of Europe”, the EU’s existence and development, in compromised ways, at least aspires, or aspired, to a democratic socialist ideal. In this 1947 article Orwell realized that European unity would be the subject of hostility from both the Russians and the Americans, while within Europe such a project would be vulnerable to cohorts who clung to the vestiges of European triumphalist imperialism.
In 2017 we might well see the concatenation of geopolitical forces similarly arranged. Russian hostility to the unity of the EU is clear, both at its borders and because of the EU’s expansionism to the east in the post-Cold War period. The United States of America, under Trump, has abruptly turned on the EU and embraced Brexiting Britain as a soulmate. In ‘Toward European Unity’ Orwell wrote: “There is always the danger that the United States will break up any European coalition by drawing Britain out of it.” The sequence of EU fragmentation may not exactly match Orwell’s prediction (though history may see it otherwise and link Brexit more causally to the rise of Trump), but the sudden cloying alliance between the Brexiting Tories and Trump’s xenophobic nationalism suggests exactly the alignment of forces (in which a declining Britain willingly turns away from Europe and kowtows to a dominant United States) which Orwell foresaw.
Even more acutely, Orwell’s 1947 essay identifies that European unity will be threatened by a sense of British decline. The economic and political fading of Britain’s empire, he suggests, will coalesce with the trick played continually on the British working classes which convinces them that it is best to be inside an imperialist power and live at an elevated standard of living via de facto exploitation of the poor of the colonies. The European empires as Orwell understood them in 1947 (the year of Partition and independence in the Indian subcontinent, where Orwell himself had worked as a colonial policeman) have transformed, though Western colonial economic exploitation has persisted. The psychological effects of imperialism on the populous of western Europe, and particularly Britain, remain, and in recent years their always tinder-dry race memory has been re-lit. Brexit, with its odious mixture of jingoism and nostalgia, has led to a recent attempt to re-boot the disintegrating UK as ‘Global Britain’, a euphemism for the Commonwealth, which is a euphemism for the Empire, which is a euphemism for the tautology of “Brexit means Brexit”.
Orwell was writing 1984 while thinking about these larger global forces. And while his essay ‘Toward European Unity’ proposes the idea of something like the EU (and then largely dismisses its prospects of coming in to being), 1984 unfolds a narrative in which malign versions of these large-scale state blocs have come to global dominance. Oceania, which includes what was once Britain, shifts alliances in Winston Smith’s lifetime, but pretends never to have been at war with Eastasia and always to have been at war with Eurasia. These global post-war superstates in 1984 are best understood via Orwell’s fear that the Second World War would not have killed off fascism but merely displaced it into new forms of far-reaching totalitarianism. The events of the 1930s, the rise of populist politics mixing race and a near-religious belief in the nation as the prima causa of all else, could not just disappear. They would, in Orwell’s thought, exist in a continuum refracted but not eliminated by the war. And, remember, in 1948 Stalin still ruled the Soviet Union, Franco still ruled Spain, Salazar still ruled Portugal – fascism’s legacy was alive and in power in Europe.
State totalitarianism then, something that is dependent on the eugenicist and nationalist thinking of 1930s fascism but which has also started to transcend such thinking and insert the state itself as causa sui, was Orwell’s fear in 1984. It is from this that the insanity of doublethink (the ability to fool oneself for a wider ‘good’), newspeak (the reduction of language), and the consensual self-policing of Big Brother, all derive.
It is no accident that one of Orwell’s other obsessions in 1947, in the midst of writing 1984, was the idea of a free press. The Royal Commission on the Press had been established in 1947 to enquire into journalistic standards and newspaper bias, in turn predicated on anxiety about the politics of newspaper proprietors. Orwell, in an article in The Tribune in 1947, advocated nationalization of newspapers on the grounds that it was better for the state to be trusted to run a monopoly than private capitalists and that small media outlets should be left to express alternative views. To us this is perhaps a slightly unpalatable view of the media – though it roughly matches the position of, say, the BBC and RTÉ in broadcast media until the digital age. Inside this argument lies the true value of Orwell’s 1984. Its central fear is of the emergence of militarized global powers in deadlock, with the model of 1930s fascism as their progenitor and that such a combination of politics, geo-politics and history will bring about states which normalize and feed off cruelty and hatred (the ritualized “Two Minutes Hate” in 1984), and which, above all, deny, distort and control the very concept of truth. It is this psychological and political totalitarianism which is on the rise in parts of the western world today – drawing on fascism, but not quite replicating it, seeping into the thought patterns of as many citizens as it can reach, altering facts for its own ends until its truth is a truth, or ‘the truth’. Orwell’s 1984 might be seen to warn us about not letting the state see inside our mobile phones or internet search records. But its most profound warning is that we must resist the totalitarianisation of truth, society, and compassion.