Barely a week goes by these days without some pundit citing George Orwell, and with good reason. Among the unhappy effects of 9/11 has been the explosion of the surveillance state; private companies like Google have scarcely been restrained by governments in their hoovering up of our personal data, while governments themselves have become ever more intrusive in our lives. Meanwhile, fuelled by fashionable doctrines such as critical race theory, and by the increasingly tortuous debate over gender, public discourse has become ever fuller of the kind of empty jargon and ideological abstractions Orwell abhorred. He may have got his date wrong when he named his futuristic novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, but he was certainly on to something. See below.
All good wishes,
Why does Orwell matter?
He’s the independent radical who saw through communist lies during the Spanish Civil War and opened our eyes to how totalitarian regimes tick. He also racked up some serious sales: Nineteen Eighty-Four has shifted more than 30 million copies and shoots up Amazon’s bestseller list whenever the US does anything mildly undemocratic. Orwell was “a libertarian before the word had gained currency”, wrote Christopher Hitchens, who also credited him with coining the phrase “Cold War”. “The three great subjects of the 20th century were imperialism, fascism and Stalinism,” said Hitchens – and Orwell got all three right.
What was he most right about?
Nineteen Eighty-Four. Orwell bashed out his “wretched book” – 4,000 words a day, seven days a week – on the barren Scottish island of Jura in 1948, smoking his tuberculosis-scarred lungs into oblivion. “It’s a ghastly mess now,” he moaned to a friend, “a good idea ruined.” He died in 1950, aged 46, yet that ruined idea became his most influential work thanks to its omnipresent totalitarian, Big Brother; children who spy on their parents; telescreens in every home; three “superstates” locked in perpetual war; and the total destruction of culture. “I do not believe that the kind of society I describe necessarily will arrive,” Orwell wrote – but he thought it could.
Are we living in Nineteen Eighty-Four?
The pandemic has certainly put the author’s name on everyone’s lips. “In Orwellian Britain, lockdown is perpetual and sickness is health,” said Tim Stanley in the Telegraph back in June. If that was stretching it a bit, there’s undoubtedly something Orwellian about China. President Xi Jinping wants to construct an all-seeing digital system of social control, policed by algorithms that identify potential dissenters in real time. Eight of the 10 most surveilled cities in the world are in China. But third on the list is London.
Was Orwell worried about China?
No. Big Brother, “black-haired, black-moustachio’d, full of power and mysterious calm”, was a stand-in for Stalin. Orwell was no Americanophile, either. Convinced that capitalism was doomed, he could only imagine the US becoming some sort of totalitarian regime. In the Partisan Review in 1947, Orwell said he’d rather be bombed back to the Bronze Age than live in a stalemate between the two atrophying atomic states. But it was the horrors of communism that really kept him up at night. “Totalitarian ideas have taken root in the minds of intellectuals everywhere, and I have tried to draw these ideas out to their logical consequences,” he wrote of Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Wasn’t Orwell a bit of a leftie himself?
Orwell hated class – he was born Eric Blair in British India in 1903, then won scholarships to two English boarding schools, St Cyprian’s and Eton. But little Eric hated being posh, slacked off at Eton and joined the imperial police in Burma rather than applying for university. He used his pen name largely to graft a new identity, wore the same beaten-up tweed jacket and vaguely French moustache, and kept a goat in his backyard. He even spent four years living as a tramp to churn out his first book, Down and Out in Paris and London – then went to war. He spent the first half of 1937 fighting with the loyalists in Spain, was shot in the throat by a fascist sniper, then witnessed the brutal communist purges of the other revolutionary parties in the Republican alliance.
What would he have made of today’s discourse?
He would not have been impressed, says the American commentator Andrew Sullivan. One of Orwell’s mantras was: “Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful.” He’d have hated phrases such as “systemic racism”, “racial inequity”, “lived experience” and “heteronormativity”. He argued for originality, simplicity, brevity, active verbs, everyday language and “decency” – as opposed to repetition, complexity, length and endless jargon. A mass of ideological abstractions, in Orwell’s words, “falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outlines and covering up all the details”.
So was Orwell a regular Nostradamus?
He didn’t get everything right, says novelist Robert Harris. He was wrong, for example, about religion. “What makes your version [of the future] spurious to me is the disappearance of the church,” Evelyn Waugh wrote to him after reading Nineteen Eighty-Four in July 1948. Waugh considered religion “inextinguishable”. Certainly, the idea that oil supplies might be threatened by fundamentalist Islam “lies far outside the materialist logic” of the novel, says Harris.
Did he miss anything else?
More than governments, it’s the overreach of big companies that has changed the 21st century. Facebook and Google weren’t on Orwell’s radar (although he was way ahead of his time with the telescreen). Shoshana Zuboff, author of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, says: “Rather than an intimate Big Brother that uses murder and terror to possess each soul from the inside out, these digital networks are a Big Other: impersonal systems trained to monitor and shape our actions remotely, unimpeded by law.”
What was the year 1984 actually like?
Not so bad. Instead of Ingsoc Party members’ uniform blue overalls, we had leggings, jean jackets and parachute pants. Rather than the telescreen, we had the Apple Macintosh personal computer. The year’s biggest event was the Los Angeles Olympics (not, fortunately, the Party’s Hate Week). If pulpy novels were produced by machines in the Ministry of Truth, they lost out to The Hunt for Red October and The Unbearable Lightness of Being. But Orwell urged us to practise “constant criticism”, warning that any “immunity” to totalitarianism must not be taken for granted. And now, more than 70 years later, his prophetic vision chills us to our jegging-clad, iPhone-toting bones.
The legacy of 9/11
The 9/11 attacks ushered in a new era of surveillance, says Jacob Siegel in UnHerd. Before 2001 the US government had tried to regulate the internet and protect users’ privacy. That came to an “abrupt end” when it began amassing vast amounts of data “to detect patterns identified with criminals and terrorists”. An age of “total information” had begun.
The “true heirs” to the government’s efforts are companies such as Google and Facebook, which lure people in with free services in order to extract their user data. As Shoshana Zuboff says in The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, “the elective affinity between public intelligence agencies and the fledgling surveillance capitalist Google blossomed in the heat of emergency to produce a unique historical deformity” – surveillance everywhere, all of the time.