A rainy day at Wigan Pier. Photo: Getty Images.
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Wigan Pier and beyond: “So who is Orwell for?”

Written on the cusp of 1984, the feminist writer Beatrix Campbell argues that we needn't fear for Orwell's "common decency".

It's an odd thought that Britain's best-selling modern writer and, according to recent polls, the most highly esteemed, was a socialist who was best known for his anti-socialism. Though a friend of mine has pointed out that George Orwell is a best-seller because his books are set texts for thousands of children, nonetheless 1984 is Orwell's year and we are going to see some unseemly body snatching, with the Right and Left both claiming his satires as prophecies, and as prophecies belonging to them. It tells us something about the state of England.

On the side of the Right are Orwell's anti-Sovietism, his conservative anti-modernism and his celebration of English common sense. The Left also has its anti-Sovietism, but, more importantly, Orwell articulates Left paranoia about the use of power and about popular discontent with the State. For still few on the Left can conceive of a socialism which isn't about State power and thus Orwell utters a scepticism about the popularity of socialism which the Left itself cannot own to. In this second term of Thatcherism, of populism grounded in the common sense of decency, domesticity and anti-democracy, Orwell has gained a new meaning.

We will be seeing young men from the generation of 1968 who marched against the invasion of Cambodia and against the internment of Republicans in Northern Ireland saying “we must claim patriotism for the Left”, as Orwell did. We'll be hearing veteran libertarians repeating calls for a new morality and taking seriously, as does his biographer Bernard Crick, his notions of “common decency”.

What then does Orwell's present-day “meaning” tell us about the state of England? He is popular because he is conservative, because he is a pessimist who doesn't much like women and who knows little about the working class. That fits with the spirit of our times. If there is anything the Right and the Left share it is a pessimism about the people and their political proclivities.

Perhaps Orwell is also popular because you don't have to have read him to know what he is on about. I've just spent a year or so living with The Road to Wigan Pier. I couldn't remember having read it when Virago publishers suggested that I make the return journey up the road. But I thought I must have. Throughout the journey I would ask if people had read Wigan Pier and most who said “yes” also said “but I can't remember when — it must have been at school”. (Only a few remembered what it said and most of them had the original Left Rook Club edition on their shelves. Typically they remembered the first half of the book, the documentary account of his travel through the unemployed North, and ignored the second half — a rash rant about socialism. I imagine many of his re-visitors are going to enjoy the second half and forget the first.

When I did get round to reading Orwell — and today you can't admit to not having read his work — it was a disturbing experience. That is mainly because he wasn't talking to me, the daughter of working-class parents in the North, though a journalist now; or to people like me. Although much of his work is about “the masses”, we, the masses, are the objects in his narrative. He is the subject. That's the case in Wigan Pier and again in 1984. Some of the best material in Wigan Pier is his personal-political stream of consciousness about being an upper-class gent finding himself on the same side as the lower orders. It is a good record of his outrage, not of what life felt like for the working-class people he appears to describe.

Yet part of Orwell's outrage is that he sees the working class as a class without a voice, without an idea, without resources. It's a class without consciousness; it's a degenerate class.

There might seem little in this view of the working class that a compassionate, upper-class Tory would not share; and indeed both Right and Left do share the myth, most clearly articulated in Orwell's critique of modern socialism, of the working class as both corrupt and unconscious. Raymond Williams, in his unsurpassed little book Orwell, traces the depiction of the working class in Animal Farm and 1984 as “powerful but stupid” and an “apathetic mass”, people who “have never learned to think”. Those expressions come from the pens of Orwell's apostles and from the mouth of every pious activist complaining that people don't come to meetings these days because they are too busy watching videos; that, unlike the middle class, they are corrupted by consumer goods.

Orwell's understanding of power — the actual theme of most of his works — depends on his view of the masses. And in 1984 our first meeting with the “proles” demonstrates his view. Three men are standing reading a newspaper, two others are studying it over their shoulders. “Winston could see absorption in every line of their bodies. It was obviously some serious bit of news they were reading.” But what was it? The lottery! The proles are a rabble of Daily Star readers and Rangers supporters (all men, of course).

If these men are socialist at all, their vision is merely of a “society with the worst abuses left out”. Orwell warns us in Wigan Pier that socialism can't be reduced to economic justice and reform, but he never “imagines” what a non-reductionist socialism would look like. He has a problem there because the interest groups which have challenged modern economic reductionism are precisely those for whom Orwell reserves his vintage vitriol: “that dreary tribe of high-minded women and sandal-wearers and bearded fruit juice drinkers”.

So who is Orwell for, in this jamboree year, when both Right and Left will be slugging it out to claim him for themselves as if, like the Bible or Capital his books were necessary to their litany? I can see why he has been recruited for the Right. But what is the Left doing trying to reclaim his “common sense”, his elevation of moral clichés which make up our common sense? Today's commonsense politics, which Orwell appears to represent so neatly, are the consensus politics that reproduce passivity and dependence in the working class. They are not about producing politics — as ideas or action — but about managing politics.

In the end Orwell abandons socialist politics for a kind of southern suburban consensus in which many of his characters face a hopeless future because the only political processes that Orwell can imagine (outside war) can neither touch the exercise of power nor can they change “consensus man” himself. This politics about what is good and valuable in life depends on nostalgia, in which the past is always better than the future. It is thus a politics of pessimism. Orwell's writing in fact, as Williams shows, creates “the conditions for defeat and despair”.

It is odd that Orwell should see so little about how people can change, since he himself was transformed by his own contact with the oppressed. Yet there remains a gap between his feeling for the people and his thought about political action by the people. This is all the more ironic since in Wigan Pier and, later, in The Lion and the Unicorn, Orwell is prescient enough to put “everyday life” on to the political agenda and to demand a cultural revolution. He does not see how, if changing everyday life and pursuing a cultural revolution do become prime political objectives, this in itself will expand the parameters of politics in ways that will necessarily disturb the eternal verities of his common sense.

For what, in his common sense, would Orwell have made of the Greenham Common women, the kind he loved to hate, who have maintained a majority against nuclear missiles despite the state machine, the blunders of the Labour Party at the last election and the “normal” lapse into apathy of the masses? It took all those bearded and bright ecologists to alert the nation to the pollution of the planet — when Orwell just thought, like much of the macho Left, that such types were naive and silly.

As for women generally, Orwell either sees them as disturbing sexual magnets with whom pleasure promises peace but produces punishment; or they are crazy, woolly, ugly old crackpots whose radicalism takes them to the edge of society. He must, of course, reject feminism for in his time too it offered a critique of all those “decent” suburban values he holds dear. Feminism is Orwell's Achilles' heel, and he pays dearly for it. For he is left without those ingredients which do transform limited economic objectives into radical aspirations precisely for the reasons that he has rejected them (they are nakedly emotional and vulgarly unsophisticated). What Orwell offers instead is a radical re-possession of key words in consensus politics — patriotism, decency and justice.

In Orwell’s future, there is no opposition that succeeds, there is only surrender. After all, Winston Smith embraces his own defeat. His “completion” as a character comes with his embrace of Big Brother. His self-hatred has no resolution in the present, nor in politics or in protest; it only finds peace in the past. Throughout his work, Orwell mobilises nostalgia for an Edwardian England when a pint was a full pint and vehicles went on four legs and domestic life was decent. It's a forgetful kind of memory which is constantly recruited to serve conservatism. Childhood memories are falsified memories which bury the pain of the past, but they make up so much of the substance of Orwell's critique, his bad temper about the present and his panic about the future.

In 1984 and in Wigan Pier, Orwell's polemic is less about history than about accommodating flight from modern life. We find it again in Coming Up for Air. It's a commonplace and popular theme in English culture: Englishness is the rustic village where every season is summer, everybody's mum makes jam, everybody's dad does the pools and neighbours look after the old folks.

Typically, both Right and Left are susceptible to this myth. The Right draws on Victorian truths and the Left on a do-it-yourself ideology of community and craft. Not surprisingly, Orwell's commonsense Englishness finds force with both. But the trouble I have with these traditions is that they are conservative and that they lie about the condition of most people then — an exhausted, insanitary and subordinate condition — by turning it into a romantic myth.

What's in that way of life for a woman like me? What was ever in it for working-class women? Come to think of it, there wasn't much to it for working-class men either. Modern life may feature all those things Orwell doesn't like — electronics, state surveillance, mass media, birth control. But it is also about greater mass participation in politics than ever before. Women of my age and class — mid '30s — have skills to sell, sexual pleasure to seek and satisfy and a vote. As like as not we have a trade union card as well, children, our own name on the rent book. We haven't had that before, not all at the same time.

That's a function of politics of course. It's also an expression of a new form of resolution of the historic settlement between men and women. It is less and less at women's expense while more and more it demands not only the transformation of the female condition but of the masculine way of life too.

Just as Orwell's future ascribes an un-changed role to the sexes, so it is for the different classes. He imagines a prole class forever sad and subordinate, doomed to drink and gambling, gossip and superstition. The working class is, of course, in the image of its men, its apparently degenerate sex. In Orwell, the future is always worse, and always brings the consummation of coercive power. And his new vocabulary of absolute state power is his great contribution to the torture. There is in Orwell's projection no future for democracy, for all his artful celebrations of our democratic way of life. In foreseeing the future of power he only saw negative force, not power mediated or modified by a countervailing popular force. In foreseeing the future, he didn't see us.

16 December 1983

Beatrix Campbell is a writer, broadcaster, campaigner and playwright.
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In Snowden, Joseph Gordon-Levitt seems to absorb the spirit of the whistleblower

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard. It is reassuring that a film in which people are spied can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable.

Laura Poitras’s Oscar-winning 2014 documentary Citizenfour captured the precise moment at which Edward Snowden turned whistleblower after quitting his job at the NSA. Is there room for another film on the same subject? Oliver Stone’s fictionalised account, Snowden, would suggest not. In effect, it admits defeat from the get-go by using the making of Citizenfour as a framing device, incorporating flashbacks to show what led Snowden to commit the security breach that exposed the extent of US government surveillance. Cooped up in a Hong Kong hotel room with him as he spills the beans are Poitras (Melissa Leo) and the Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson), who put on their best ­listening faces and try to forget that all of the most interesting scenes are happening in other parts of the film.

What Snowden has in its favour is an economical performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt which is mysterious without being aloof, cool but never cold. The actor gets the voice right (it’s a benign rumble) and though he is physically dissimilar to the real Snowden, that need be no barrier to success: look at Anthony Hopkins in Stone’s Nixon. Gordon-Levitt is absorbed by the role like water vanishing into a sponge. When the real Snowden pops up to stare wistfully off into the distance (there’s a lot of that here), it can’t help but be a let-down. People are so bad at playing themselves, don’t you find?

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard, and it is reassuring that a film in which people are spied on through the webcams of dormant laptops can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable. The script, written by Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald, pulls in the opposite direction, allowing every character to deliver a remark of nudging innuendo. When Snowden is discharged from the army after injuring himself, a doctor tells him: “There are plenty of other ways to serve your country.” When he is approved for a job at the CIA, Snowden tells his employer: “You won’t regret this.” What we have here, give or take the strip club scene in which a pole dancer is filmed from an ungallantly low angle, is a more sober Stone than the one who made JFK and Natural Born Killers but he still can’t resist giving us a few deafening blasts of the old irony klaxon.

Though we know by now not to expect subtlety, Stone’s storytelling techniques are still surprisingly crude. When Snowden’s girlfriend, Lindsay (Shailene Woodley), complains that he has become distant, that he doesn’t touch her any more, the viewer is likely to wonder why that point had to be expressed in soap-opera dialogue rather than, say, action or camera angles. After all, the film was more than happy to throw in a superfluous sex scene when their love life was hunky-dory.

But when Stone does make his points visually, the cringe factor is even higher. He used carnivorous imagery in Nixon – a bloody steak stood in for murder – and the new film doesn’t take the vegetarian option either. Snowden is already starting to be alarmed by surveillance tactics when he goes hunting with his boss, Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans). The pheasants they kill are barbecued in sizzling close-up, providing a buffet of symbolism. Snowden is going to be grilled. His goose is cooked. He’s dead meat.

An early scene showing him establishing contact with Poitras and Greenwald by an exchange of coded phrases (“What time does the restaurant open?” “Noon. But the food is a little spicy”) suggests that Stone intends to have fun with the story’s espionage trappings. The movie falls between two stools, however, lacking either the irreverence of satire or the tautness of a well-tooled thriller. At its most effective moments, it floats free of irony and captures a quaint, tactile innocence. We see Snowden communicating in sign language with an NSA colleague to avoid being eavesdropped on, or sitting in bed with a blanket over him as he taps away at his laptop. He is only hiding his passwords but he looks for all the world like a kid reading comics by torchlight after his mother has said: “Lights out.”

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump