All-Knowing State: 2015 Isn’t Very Different from Orwell’s 1984
On this day, 115 years ago, George Orwell was born. On this special occasion, The Quint is reposting this piece from its archives, first published on 8 June 2015.
“It was a bright cold day in April, and theclocks were striking thirteen.”
With these words, George Orwell began perhapsone of the most compelling masterpieces of the 20th century. 1984,published this day 66 years ago, has remained a definitive icon of the adjective, ‘Orwellian’, which universally captures any system – social, political andeconomic – that is repressive or totalitarian.
Writing in the aftermath of the Second WorldWar, a terribly sick Orwell (he died in 1950, a year after 1984hit the stands and propelled him as a genius) – who had previously worked forThe Observer – settled himself in a bleak Scottish village amidst Spartansurroundings, far from a colonial Burmese outpost.
It was here that he gave words to hisdystopic imagination which tells the story of Winston Smith battling theall-pervasive Big Brother in an imaginary country called Oceania. By the time1984 was out, Orwell had done an Orwellian twist on himself:not many people know that Eric Arthur Blair’s nom de plume was George Orwell.
Did the Orwellian Universe Foreshadow Future Realities?
When I read the novel while in college inthe ‘80s, the first thought that crossed my mind – as it surely did others ofmy generation and those before mine – was that Orwell’s Oceania was the SovietUnion.
The reference to the moustached Big Brother could easily be to JosephStalin and the Party to the Communist Party with the KGB as the Thought Policethat watched every move of every citizen. The Party’s slogans – War is Peace,Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength – could be identified with the liespropagated by the Stalinist era that transformed the way people thought abouteach other, ratted on each other, denounced their near and dear ones in anatmosphere of fear created and perpetuated by the machineries of the tyrannicalstate.
But when I read 1984 a secondtime in the early years of the last decade, when the internet had touched allcountries across the globe, Orwell’s Oceania could be any country.
The SovietUnion had “vapourised”, but Orwell’s expressions – doublespeak, doublethink,newspeak, unperson, Ministry of Truth, Ministry of Love, Ministry of Peace andMinistry of Plenty – could be as easily associated with Stalin’s brutal regimeas with the so-called benign democracies.
The omnipresent and omniscient BigBrother is as dominant in Russia under Vladimir Putin as it was in George Bush’sand now in Barack Obama’s America – where, throughrepression, censorship and surveillance the government continues to see all andknow all.
Winston Smith to Edward Snowden: Fiction Mirrors Reality
As a title, 1984 continues to beenveloped in mystery, though the novel was prophetic.
A left liberal wholoathed communism, Orwell – Margaret Atwood wrote in 2013 – taught that it isn’tso much the various labels – socialism, democracy, Islam, Christianity – “thatare definitive, but the acts done in their names” are.
Orwell’s Winston Smithcould be today’s Edward Snowden – wiry, bespectacled, fearful of theall-knowing state. Snowden has claimed that the US and Britain’s electronicmonitoring (Orwell’s “telescreen”?) of their citizens, which he exposed beforegoing into exile in Putin’s Russia, surpasses anything imagined by Orwell in1984. Orwell has much to say to people suffering underautocracy and bigotry, whether in West Asia or India.
Long after 1984 was conceived,successive American presidents – Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George BushJr – have resorted to “doublespeak” and “newspeak”.
They eroded the veryvirtues of democracy while defending it and its export by force to the Islamicheartland. Nixon and Bush in particular, pursued pointless wars (in Vietnam andAfghanistan and Iraq, respectively) and destroyed civil liberties, bringingeerily to life Oceania’s slogan of “War is Peace.” Bush made torture and spyingofficial instruments of government policy and eviscerated any domestic law hedid not feel comfortable with.
A World of Doublespeak, Even Today...
But beyond 1984’s morbidity,Orwell saw hope through his protagonist whose diary (which in the imaginedfuture begins on April 4, 1984), promised: “To the future or to the past, to atime when thought is free, when men are different from one another and do notlive alone – to a time when truth exists and what is done cannot be undone.”
Andyet it is hard to imagine that in today’s world of Google there is no “doublespeak” or “newspeak”.Because Google, and by extension current governments, now make it sound that “whocontrols the past, controls the future: who controls the present, controls thepast.”
Like Winston Smith, we all desire findingsomeone to connect to even in the worlds of Big Brothers and the Thought Policeand Doublespeak. To this person perhaps, we shall be able to say with hope – “we shall meet in a place wherethere is no darkness.”