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Today’s Orwellian State?

Sam O’Leary

Abbott Gleason, Jack Goldsmith and Martha C. Nussbaum (eds.)
On Nineteen Eighty-Four: Orwell and Our Future
Princeton University Press, 2005
336 pages
ISBN 0691113610

George Orwell famously wrote in Nineteen Eighty-Four that ‘who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past.’ State control of public consciousness is as much an issue as ever as the Ari Fleischers and Alastair Campbells of the world tell us that black is white and up is down; that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq; that we should love our country unquestioningly and despise the enemy though it may change every few years from Iraq to Iran to Afghanistan to al-Qaeda. But it is also interesting to note that Orwell’s own work has become a site of contest for those in the present who would control the past with a view to controlling the future.

For the second half of the twentieth century, Orwell was a hero as much of the libertarian right as the democratic socialist left. He not only unpicked the dangers of totalitarianism but he also showed that apparently liberalising revolutionary socialist movements could easily give way to corrupt autocratic regimes. On the other hand, he was a great defender of workers and the oppressed, openly espoused a belief in democratic socialism, and clearly distrusted big business as much as government.

As political debates following the resolution of the Cold War have moved beyond the ‘communist’ versus ‘free world’ dichotomy, so too has our treatment of Orwell. Although the manipulation of public consciousness, political spin, and continuous war remain worrying features of contemporary Western government, we are more likely to hear Orwell invoked in the context of technology and public intrusion into private life. To what extent, then, does Ninteteen Eighty-Four, which Orwell initially wanted to call The Last Man in Europe, have any continuing relevance for the Last Man, who emerges from The End of History (to borrow Fukuyama’s Hegelian terminology)?

Such is the broad question asked by the editors of On Nineteen Eighty-Four: Orwell and Our Future. The contributors’ reflections on the novel are grouped into five categories: Politics and the Literary Imagination; Truth, Objectivity, and Propaganda; Political Coercion; Technology and Privacy; and Sex and Politics. But one of the most interesting themes that emerges—and it is a theme that transcends the editors’ categories—is the extent to which Orwell stands as authority for anything at all. Indeed, should we expect a writer of fiction to stand as an authority for something in the first place?

The issue of the legitimacy of literature as social science comes to the fore in the essays of Richard Epstein and Richard Posner. According to Epstein, we should be sceptical about accepting literature as a source of knowledge about social problems and issues; and it was Orwell’s weakness that he relied so heavily on personal experience to make his claims about society. Understanding social issues is best done through the study of facts and statistics. ‘A literary rendition,’ he suggests, ‘may well teach someone to be sensitive to the ravages of poverty, but it will not indicate whether poverty is in decline or on the increase. It will not give comparative figures across different cities, states or nations.’

This is a bit like reviewing an economic textbook and commenting that: ‘it might well describe current demographic trends but it hardly tells us what it is like to live in poverty in sub-Saharan Africa.’ Literature fulfils a different role from social science but is no less worthy in its ability to make social comment for its lack of empirical data or pseudo-scientific methodology. We do not need to enter the difficult terrain of truth claims in the social sciences to realise that the human experience we find in literature is sometimes the forest obscured by too many statistical trees. And Epstein himself is happy to slip into the sample of one when it suits him; pointing out, for instance, that his experiences with his own children did not match up with Orwell’s account of his schoolmates in ‘Such, Such Were the Joys …’

Epstein’s ulterior complaint is that Orwell didn’t like capitalism enough. Orwell committed the sin of criticising markets for their monopolistic tendencies. Epstein compares Orwell to Friedrich Hayek and decides that he prefers Hayek. He concludes that while Nineteen Eighty-Four will continue to be read, it will be as a period piece devoid of relevance except as a reminder of the now-defunct Soviet threat. Posner is more subtle, but his characterisation of Nineteen Eighty-Four and Huxley’s Brave New World as satire rather than prediction is a conscious statement that they reflect an age now past and that neither has much to teach us. Like Epstein, Posner attempts to depoliticise these books by arguing for an aesthetic approach to literature and against treating works of literature as works of moral or political philosophy.

It seems that the Right is disowning Orwell now that it is more difficult to pretend that socialism and totalitarianism are inextricably connected. When libertarianism was at the core of Tory/Republican ideology, Orwell was an inspiration. But perhaps in a political context where liberties are eroded under the pretext of constant war, where the Republican Party allies of neoclassical economists are moralising evangelists, and where governments proclaim truths that evaporate moments later, that is no longer the case. Posner and Epstein consign Orwell to historical stasis: stuck as an anti-Soviet with no message for us about the dangers of other sorts of power.

We should not, however, be too ready to consign Nineteen Eighty-Four to courses on early twentieth-century literature. For what Orwell best exposed was the rhetoric of totalitarianism and the way in which states take control of public consciousness through manipulating public vocabularies. Newspeak was designed to remove the capability of individuals to conceptualise revolution or even dissent. At the time of Nineteen Eighty-Four’s publication, this was seen to reflect Orwell’s concern with state propaganda in Eastern Europe and the way in which this could be a more insidious form of thought control than other more violent and directly interventionist means. But several of the essays in this volume discuss the idea that state manipulation of public consciousness through the control of grammar and vocabulary has for some time been a troubling phenomenon in Western liberal democracies as well.

Homi Bhaba explores the way in which Orwell himself sought to purge language of all that is unnecessary in order to achieve truth and clarity. Epstein mistakenly views that goal as a slip (typical of socialists) from collectivism to control. But Bhaba shows that Winston’s search for truth relies on O’Brien’s denial of truth as a counterpoint. The struggle to represent reality can, in the end, only be achieved by dialogic discourse.

Edward Herman and Martha Nussbaum both bring this theme back to the landscape of contemporary American politics. Herman explores the language of social thought control in the United States; in particular the way in which the language of freedom represents only market freedom and not democratic freedom. When US politicians and journalists defended their support for Branco in Brazil and Pinochet in Chile, for instance, they argued that the freer markets they were to introduce would deliver democracy ‘in the long run.’ We see the manipulative use of language, too, in how US politicians and military figures speak of war. Civilian deaths caused by American bombs, in Yugoslavia, Iraq and Afghanistan (and earlier, in Indochina) are invariably described as ‘collateral damage.’ And, as Herman reveals in his essay, no mainstream journalist during the Vietnam War ever referred to a US ‘invasion’ of the country, or to US ‘aggression’ there. That the US can commit acts of aggression has now become grammatically and thus conceptually impossible; outside the pale of comprehensible thought in the same way that the statement ‘Big Brother is ungood’ was ‘a self-evident absurdity’ in Nineteen Eighty-Four.

The continuing timeliness of Nineteen Eighty-Four is brought home by Nussbaum’s concluding essay on politics and compassion. Her exploration of Oceanian politics in the novel highlights compassion and respect for otherness as central components of liberalism. Nussbaum sees the culture of individualism and narcissism that has transformed the US since the 1980s as a complete break with traditions of compassion, civil liberties, and respect for the worth and dignity of each person. She suggests that this trend is escalating, encouraged by government rhetoric through phrases like ‘Axis of Evil,’ ‘America’s New War,’ and Bush’s comment, ‘They started it; we’ll finish it.’

The lesson Nussbaum takes from Nineteen Eighty-Four is that we need to replace this trend with a culture that fosters argument and counterargument, where those who are different are respected, where the arts are encouraged, and where extreme wealth is seen as a source of public shame, not personal virtue. It is here that the apparent conflicts of Orwell’s politics are revealed as consistent. Narcissism is compatible with the thought control, global hegemony and repression of diversity in the United States. Conversely, collectivism and individual self-actualisation are equally compatible within a context of deliberative debate and respect for difference. As David Cameron said recently, there is such a thing as society; it’s just not the same thing as the State.

Though at times disjointed, these debates about Nineteen Eighty-Four reveal a point through their synthesis that no single essay could make. Through their contested interpretations of Orwell’s continued relevance, they illustrate that very relevance. State power and state intervention in the lives of individuals remain salient concerns, as much as they were in 1948. Each of these essays has something important to say about issues that, though inspired by a reading of Nineteen Eighty-Four, remain alive today. They also transcend a discussion about Orwell the author and contribute new insights into the way that we order society and personal relations. The result is very engaging and those who are interested in real rather than rhetorical threats to our freedom will enjoy this book tremendously.

Sam O’Leary is a Bachelor of Civil Law student at St. Peter’s College, Oxford. His interests include the regulatory state and relationships between business organisations and governments