Ever since the Snowden leaks – and even before them – we've been hearing the word ‘Orwellian’ to describe the state of surveillance we're living under. But what exactly does the word ‘Orwellian’ mean? What was George Orwell so afraid of and that he cautioned us against?
Reading two of his definitive books – ‘Nineteen Eighty-four’ and ‘Animal Farm’ – I cannot believe that Orwell was afraid of increasing surveillance. I believe that Orwell was afraid of something more. In the world described in ‘Nineteen Eighty-four’, constant, never-ending surveillance is only tiny part – a means to an end. The end what is scarier.
Moreover, I refuse to believe that the word ‘Orwellian’ should be used to describe just one tiny component of one novel written. No, I believe that the description should apply to a broader concept.
I believe that to understand the term ‘Orwellian’, one must look to the earlier story – ‘Animal Farm’. Indeed, I think that ‘Animal Farm’ really sets the stage for the ideas that Orwell wanted to convey – a totalitarian state where people lost their identity and individualism, and the exploitation and perpetuation of the class system.
In ‘Animal Farm’, Orwell distances the human metaphor by describing animals that overthrow their human overlords (owners), and run the farm themselves. In no time, the smarter pigs emerge as a ruling class, ruling over the other animals with lesser intelligence, actively pursuing a propaganda, changing history, and relying on the non-existent memories of the foolish animals. The allegorical tale shown as animals enacting the animal-like instincts present in humans serves to distance the reader from any human emotion, pointing out the ridiculousness of the totalitarian state – something Orwell was afraid would happen to the UK after World War II.
A number of people much smarter than me have pointed out the parallels between Orwell's books and the Soviet revolution. I'm not going to repeat the parallels. I am, however going to point out the parallels between ‘Animal Farm’ and ‘Nineteen Eighty-four’; to show that Orwell was battling a common foe in both the books, thereby that the word ‘Orwellian’ should refer to something more than a state of surveillance.
In ‘Nineteen Eighty-four’, Orwell shows the human condition set in a state of total surveillance, lack of individualism and memory, and official propaganda. By putting a human face to the nameless animals in ‘Animal Farm’, Orwell seeks to show the world in ‘Animal Farm’ from the perspective of someone stuck inside the system. Winston Smith is that face, and he is guilty of CRIMETHINK by falling in love.
In all aspects, the world described in ‘Nineteen Eighty-four’ is similar to the world in ‘Animal Farm’. Big Brother stands in for Napoleon, Goldstein for Snowball. In a similar way, Napoleon's spies become the THINKPOL; the same way history is changed in ‘Animal Farm’, it is done in MINITRUE. Finally, as the old animals of the revolution die, any remaining memories of life before the revolution are lost except in stories, which are heavily falsified to be in favour of the government. Who controls the past controls the future, who controls the present controls the past. Winston cannot recollect anything about life before the revolution, except in sporadic memories. Julia, born after the revolution cannot even think of a world without the Party, instead finding satisfaction in smaller digressions from the Party narrative; not in the grand ideas of overthrowing the Party like Winston does.
In a sense, Orwell is critical of not only the totalitarian state that exists, but also of the people living in the state. He accuses them of being guilty of DOUBLETHINK, and the Party (or the pigs, remember Julia refers to them as ‘swine’) forcing them to live that way.
How does the Party ensure that the people remain subservient to its interests? By enforcing a policy of persistent surveillance, by ensuring that it can provide the illusion of not tolerating any independent thought, so that anyone with any independent thought will no longer be able to share his or her thoughts with anyone else without fear of being persecuted. Why do I say ‘illusion’? Because the Party can only do this on the Outer Party members, the proles are human, whereas the Party workers are not. However, the proles are too dumb to realise their true power, and do not pose a threat to the Party. It is clear that surveillance is a means to and end, but not the end itself.
Orwell's dystopia is closer to real life than other depictions of dystopia in fiction. It has been pointed out that his stories are thinly veiled allegories of the Soviet Union, and that the political reason for writing these stories down was a warning based on his fear that socialism would take over the United Kingdom. So, do the dangers of which he warned still exist?
The answer to such a loaded question must necessarily be complex, but I lean towards a ‘Yes’. More and more, we've become less and less. We get distracted by shiny objects. We cannot digest nuanced argument, or indeed any argument more than a few words long. Twitter, with its 140 character limit must certainly be to blame. Our politicians rely on us forgetting every one of their mistakes, twisting the truth, and relying on our DOUBLETHINK and lack of memory to serve their interests. We prop up enemies like Goldstein, and direct our hate towards them. We have a fairly rigid class hierarchy although it isn't forced upon us, but just a product of capitalism. And of course, we have never-ending surveillance, just that we have accepted it ourselves for little rewards.
What truly scares me is that our narrative is becoming increasingly Orwellian, that we want our politicians to engage in THINKPOL as long as it it against perceived enemies, that we like DUCKSPEAK in our news and our narratives, and that anything else is boring. We are more than willing to give up our freedom for tiny rewards, not directly to the government, but to our corporate overlords, who then promptly hand it over to the government. Reading ‘Nineteen Eighty-four’, I could not help but think that such a book could easily be written in contemporary time, on in any other time, and still hold as a cautionary tale. Therein I think lies its appeal.
On a lighter note, I would have loved to see Winston respond to O'Brien like Picard resisted Madred…