Saturday, January 26, 2013


What would George Orwell have made of 2013? Who knows, he's dead. Move on now ... oh no, we don't get away with it that easily. There's still a couple of thousand words to get through yet. Gawd.

More questions are raised. Lots of them. And then we play a new game.
Indeed, there's a better game to play with Orwell than "What would he be writing about were he alive?". It's called "What did he get right?". To be sure, Orwell said that what he wrote in his dystopian novels were warnings rather than predictions, but let's forget about that for a moment. 
In other words, let's ignore about what he actually wrote and make something up. So, if Nineteen Eighty-Four was a prediction, even if it wasn't, what did it get right? The answer's simple. Nothing. No? Of course not, you have a column to fill. And so we get a few examples of egregious practices and then more make believe.
We don't have public executions, you might retort. Yes, but given how much we like spectacle of others suffering, that might only be a matter of time – hangings downloadable to your funky new Google glasses.
"Might be only a matter of time," eh? Anything, just anything so that we can conclude:
Perhaps 2013 isn't so different from Nineteen Eighty-Four.
I don't know about you, but I reckon I can tell them apart. A single (or even multiple) illiberality does not a totalitarianism make.

The problem with this type of writing is that it uses the work of a long dead author as a cypher for its own prejudices, in this case those of a rampant Guardianista, stamping them with the moral authority of the blessed Orwell.

So what about Orwell's novel itself? I have written before about it not being my favourite. But I think that we have to place it in its historical context. The fears it reflected were far more real then. Nazism had been defeated at horrendous cost, but Stalinism was triumphant. Of the two vastly destructive dystopias that had wreaked havoc, one, together with its apologists, remained, carrying with it the status of victor and ally. Orwell feared its attractions as a model to a ruling class.

If you want a companion piece to Nineteen Eighty-Four, I would suggest a book that would not instantly spring to mind.  Hayek's The Road to Serfdom may come from a different perspective, his classic liberalism was utterly different from Orwell's democratic socialism, but the impulse behind the two was the same. Hayek feared that central planning in a social democratic state would be in danger of replicating the very fascism that it had been employed to defeat:
...many who think themselves infinitely superior to the aberrations of Nazism and sincerely hate all its manifestations, work at the same time for ideals whose realisation would lead straight to the abhorred tyranny.
Similarly, Orwell thought that the national security state and an increasingly threatened elite were perfectly capable of adopting Stalinism for their own purposes. Neither saw this as inevitable. Both wrote as a warning, sounding the alarm as to the possibility, calling for watchful and determined opposition to any moves in that direction. And they were both wrong.

It was much more understandable at the time they wrote, but their pessimism was unfounded. They had underestimated both the stability of liberal democracy and its openness to reform. We took a different road and live in far more liberal societies today than we did in the nineteen forties. That is not to be complacent about the injustices and inequities of our times, far from it. We should just remain grateful that these earlier literary warnings remain only as a device to allow privileged Guardian columnists to have what they desire most; membership of the oppressed without all the inconveniences of the real thing.


Anonymous said...

Brilliant stuff.

Anonymous said...

The worst abuse of Orwell's name that I can recall has to go to the late Richard Webster. He published his postmodernist anti-free expression tract, A Brief History of Blasphemy, under his own Orwell Press imprint. The disconnect feels like a defilement.

I also recall him as the first person I ever noticed trying to newspeak the term 'antisemitism'. In the New Statesman c. 2002-3, he trotted out the 'Arabs are semites' racial trope to delegitimise the work for hatred and prejudice against Jews. His motive will come as no surprise.

Anyway, I enjoy your blog very much, Victoria.

Anton Deque said...

Thomas Pynchon interviewed in the Guardian (oh, dear, this is becoming a trend!) last century was of the opinion that Orwell thought Britain under Labour was becoming a fascist state. Of course, Orwell thought no such thing and one of his final letters to an American trades unionist concerned about the parallels between Nineteen Eighty Four and socialism (reproduced in the Collected Essays etc.) was a dignified rebuttal of that interpretation from his death bed.

Plenty of people drag Orwell along by the scruff of his reputation or intone his name; few seem to have read him and fewer still understood him. Ill for the last years of his life and finally too ill to do very much at all Nineteen Eighty Four appeared just as he died. It was money for old rope (as he once wrote of deceitful criticisms of socialism) to recruit his novel to the growing Cold War.

His guiding lights in writing NEF were not as it happens Stalinism as such but HG Wells and then Swift. It is a satire announced in it's very first sentence "The clock struck thirteen ..." It could not be clearer. Yet, missed by most.

I do not think highly of any of the novels; Homage to Catalonia is not a novel but it is the highest expression of his ideas.

Orwell wrote an article on Heyak and his book The Road to Serfdom. It's in the Collected Essays.