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  1. The Weekend Essay
8 June 2024

What Orwell got right

The more the world in which Nineteen Eighty-Four was written has changed, the more it has stayed the same.

By Robert Colls

“If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever”
— O’Brien, Nineteen Eighty-Four

George Orwell didn’t get everything right. Contrary to popular myth, he often got things wrong. In “Old George’s Almanac” (Tribune, December 1945) for instance, he predicted that the US and Soviet Russia would do a postwar deal at Britain’s expense, that the Americans would suffer a postwar depression, that Germany would fall into banditry, and that Asia would turn xenophobic. He started the war thinking the British people wouldn’t fight and ended it expecting a collapse in the birth rate. He once argued that you could show your solidarity with people by killing them.

He didn’t get everything right in his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, either. There wasn’t a nuclear war or revolution, and whatever system we live under now, it is not a paranoid left-fascist dictatorship. We’ve never had anyone or anything remotely resembling Big Brother. There is no “terror”. We have not been looted of our law or language. Our institutions haven’t been wiped out – they creak on. Some of this happened in other places – Nagasaki and Hiroshima took the bomb, and foul tyrannies took over in eastern Europe and elsewhere – but not all at once and not all in the same way. The Marshall Plan stabilised western Europe and Nato defended it. If you see a Big Brother in the sky above London, it’s more likely to be a rap star.

Then there are those things that have happened but not in the way Orwell imagined. It’s possible to see the novel’s three great global formations in the post-1945 settlement – Oceania in the West, Eurasia in Russia, and Eastasia in China. But the world we live in now is a messier, more volatile place than Orwell’s power blocs, and although proxy wars across continents have never stopped, no wars have been fought directly between the three great civilisations (call them what you will). Decolonisation of the old European empires complicated the world order even more, and the rise of a fourth geopolitical formation, the European Union, has yet to register.

We all have TV, but not like Winston’s TV, which receives as well as transmits information and instruction. We have mobile phones instead, billions of them, one in every back pocket, but what they receive and transmit goes first and foremost to capitalist corporations in God knows where, not a vast central state apparatus in London. Pens have become scarce in our world as well as in Winston’s, but not because everyone now uses dictaphones; and no one makes a phone call in Nineteen Eighty-Four. We have a national lottery like the world of the novel has a national lottery, but ours is not a fraud because people do occasionally win. Nothing works properly in their world, and little seems to work properly in ours, but the reasons are different. In Oceania, the problem is state centralisation and for us the problem is market diffusion.

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I could make a long list of all our travails compared with all their travails but whatever they are, they are not comparable. Vape lounges are everywhere, but they are not where you go to get vapourised. Pornography is easily available but how much is self-generated? Horrible histories are what middle-class people buy for their children at Waterstones, not what kids are forced to read at school (“In the old days, before the glorious Revolution, London was not the beautiful city we know today”). Gay love, if that is what Winston shares with O’Brien, is no longer hidden. Capitalism, if that is what we have, has been transformed, not abolished. Communism has fallen but, according to the BBC’s Steve Rosenberg, Russian security services still appear to be spooked by a shabby little building in Ivanovo calling itself the George Orwell Library. No one talks any more of the Laws of Motion of Capital, and those who do don’t believe it. We are so much richer now (UK GDP is six times more than it was in 1948) but not, as Orwell argued, by holding on to the empire.

All these features of a world Orwell did not imagine have brought their own quandaries that he would have recognised. With a camera computer in every pocket, we have become our own watchers of the watched. Orwell’s newspeak had teams of people employed to reduce language beneath the threshold of everything that makes us human, but this isn’t Twitter, and it can’t be squared with the imminent quantum leap that world media is about to take with AI. Nobody is in control. Since 1949, far from seeing the submergence of the individual by the state, we have seen the rise of mass narcissism regardless of the state. The US saw an attack on its seat of government on 6 January 2020 by a rabble holding mobile phones to their faces. Everything is there to be selfied; and everything selfied is all there is. Orwell feared “fellow travellers” who kept their influence secret. Now we have “influencers” who do it in the daylight.

In Nineteen Eighty-Four, the Party seeks to control all speech and therefore all thought. Our elites also prefer their own ways of speaking and thinking, but they monitor our language by their control of public and business institutions, not party edict. We live in a society increasingly policed by graduates. Come, comrade, show me your language and I will show you how to free your mind. FREEDOM IS SLAVERY.

Orwell never set out to predict. He merely set out the problem and the problem was not the accuracy of his warnings but the hell he unleashed in a book.

Winston and Julia live in a sealed space that has no beginning or end. I say “space” but what I mean is “mind”. As in a nightmare, everything in Nineteen Eighty-Four is about not knowing who or where you are. There is no God. There are no morals. There is no politics. There is no culture. There is no trust. There can be no friends. Soon there will be no thought, only conformity. In the name of redeeming everyone, the state is devoted to destroying everyone. If you transgress, you will surely die. If you don’t transgress, you have lost your mind. Losing your mind, after all, is the point. O’Brien the chief inquisitor is a lunatic, a liar and a psychopath but he knows everything because he has the power to contain everyone. “Nothing exists except through human consciousness,” he says. The Party has abolished objective truth. It has almost abolished the family; the orgasm is next. O’Brien says he could identify as a soap bubble if he wanted to, and float in the air, and as his mind “contained Winston’s mind”, we can see how it works. Gravity only matters when the Party is forced to deal with the real world. “Doublethink”, a sort of dialectical method of thinking treacherously in opposites, allows all this to be true and untrue at the same time. IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH.

Winston is insane as well, remember. Not as mad as his interlocutor, still holding on to an idea of the world as it is, but sick enough in ordinary circumstances to imagine raping and murdering Julia only minutes after meeting her. It is Julia, the anti-intellectual in a system of mindless hate run by intellectuals, who is the true hero of Nineteen Eighty-Four. Not Winston, and not O’Brien, even though he gets all the best lines.

In such circumstances we assume that self-surveillance is normal and self-censorship rife. Julia had been self-censoring for years. Winston is learning how, and for a time we think O’Brien and the Brotherhood were (must have been) masters of it. In other words, we feel there must be widespread self-censorship in their world just as we feel there must be in ours. But it’s hard to tell. I’m doing it now. Either way, nobody wants the Two-Minute Hate – “an abstract, undirected emotion which could be switched from one object to another like the flame of a blowtorch”. WAR IS PEACE.

There are two refrains. One is, “We are the dead” – to which Julia dryly responds, “We’re not dead yet.” And the other is, “If there is hope, it lies in the proles” – a statement Orwell notes as a “mystical truth” and a “palpable absurdity”.

Yet he believed it. In so far as he had a politics, Orwell believed in the common decency and good sense of the English people. He spent the first half of the Second World War working for the BBC’s Eastern Service, broadcasting to the Indian subcontinent. He spent the second half writing about how ordinary people in England saw themselves and their country – not in books and theories, not in newspaper editorials, not in political parties or great leaders, but in each other, out there on the street, in the garden, in the four-ale bar, at work and at home and in the armed forces. What Gramsci rather abstractly called the “national popular”, Orwell cleverly called “My Country Right or Left” (Folios of New Writing, 1940).

If there was hope it could only be with the proles, and yet right from the start in his notes for Nineteen Eighty-Four Orwell recognised their “equivocal” position in the resistance movement (if there is a resistance movement). Big Brother fell but we don’t know who to (although Sandra Newman’s 2023 novel Julia makes a good stab at it). At first his publisher saw Nineteen Eighty-Four as Orwell’s “final breach” with socialism, worth a “cool million votes to the Conservatives”. Orwell was quick to reject this, but he was never slow to identify that mixture of condescension and distaste in left intellectual circles towards working-class people. As for now, our elites still prefer their own hierarchy of virtue to the democracy of other people, and no one pretends that Labour is a working-class party. For the people, maybe. By the people, not. As the American writer Thomas Meaney has remarked in these pages, the globalisation that was wished upon them now feels like a putsch.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was written in the Hebrides between 1946 and 1948 and published by Secker & Warburg on 8 June 1949. Orwell died seven months later in University College Hospital off Euston Road in London. Since then we have all learned to live with “Big Brother”, and “Orwellian” has joined “Shakespearian” and “Dickensian” in an elite company of adjectives. Even the Staggers’ best writers do it. Bruno Maçães’s recent Orwellism – “The globalisation of conflict ultimately means that the only universal principle is conflict itself” – is so good it could be a fake.

We are not talking here about ways of getting things wrong. We are not talking either of “Old George’s Almanac”. Nineteen Eighty-Four is a literary work before it is a political work, taking its cue from a wide range of fiction including, for example, novels as different as Katharine Burdekin’s Swastika Night (1937) and CS Lewis’s That Hideous Strength (1945). It was never meant to be a prophecy. Orwell caught what he offered as a last moment in our history and bound it to what was certainly the last moment in his own, to create a hell on Earth that, once born, could never be unborn.

Tortured and beaten and looking in the mirror on legs that look like sticks, Winston is horrified to see that it is him and we are horrified to see that it is Belsen. Orwell once called the work of Salvador Dalí a “direct, unmistakable assault on sanity and decency; and even… life itself”. Reading Nineteen Eighty-Four is not being raped and murdered. It is what being raped and murdered might feel like. It is a work of art stamping on the human imagination forever.

Robert Colls is the author of “George Orwell: English Rebel” (OUP)

[See also: Salman Rushdie’s warning bell]

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This article appears in the 12 Jun 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The hard-right insurgency