Dystopia Now! Orwell Lost His Mind, Just Like We are Losing It Today
1984 is the #1 top seller on Amazon as I write this. It is a book that comes back in surprising times and the millions of high schoolers forced to read it since haven’t rendered it obsolete.
As we look to the past try to understand what‘s happening now, the word ‘Orwellian’ is still difficult to define. Its not that Orwell got so much right, but the fundamental questions of the book are important
Orwell grew up poor, educated in Eton a wealthy private school (in England that’s public) on a scholarship. All his life, Orwell’s pen single mindedly defended his principles and the welfare of the people, especially the poor. Until the end of his career where he wrote the two books he’s entirely remembered for today (Animal Farm and 1984).
These books are thinly veiled memoirs of how the Communists in England became entirely pawns of the Russian Communist party and lost their way. Orwell‘s clearest thoughts on this period his essay “the Prevention of Literature”.
I became consumed with the darkness and well pessimism of the books. After a lifetime of activism and political commentary, Orwell had gave up the ghost so to speak, writing in such a dark tone about our future its hard to even hear. Famously, the Party Official O’Brien’s sums up the future of government and nations:
If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever.
Orwell had come to a conclusion: Government had an incentive and the means to put one over on the general populace and control them rather than serve them.
Orwells novels traverse a series of solutions to this problem as Winston struggles against the Party. Like Winston, ultimately seems to have felt that the Party can never be defeated. More than Winston selling Julia out or Room 101, I think that there is a moment in 1984 that is really more “Orwellian”, the moment that is most damning about the future and most true to the present.
In Chapter 7, Winston came to the conclusion that the only solution to the Party is the Proletariat (Proles). The vast majority of the people:
If there is hope, wrote Winston, it lies in the proles.
If there was hope, it must lie in the proles, because only there in those swarming disregarded masses, 85 per cent of the population of Oceania, could the force to destroy the Party ever be generated. The Party could not be overthrown from within.
Before he even fails, Winston thinks that he will fail. The Brotherhood, and the struggles of the Party from within are too thin, too feeble to really make a difference. Only the body of the people, defining of the republic could force the government to change.
Then, Winston is attracted to the sound of angry voices, hoping they were crying out against Big Brother and the Party, rising up to take what is theirs:
When he had reached the spot it was to see a mob of two or three hundred women crowding round the stalls of a street market, with faces as tragic as though they had been the doomed passengers on a sinking ship. But at this moment the general despair broke down into a multitude of individual quarrels. It appeared that one of the stalls had been selling tin saucepans. They were wretched, flimsy things, but cooking-pots of any kind were always difficult to get. Now the supply had unexpectedly given out.
Instead, they are arguing over a sale of pans in the market. The Proles will never become enlightened, realize their oppression and oppose the Party. Winston withers to a husk at this point. Instead of demanding what they need — education, jobs, food, freedom — they will squabble about pots.
Orwell didn’t get everything right but on this point though, I say he’s some sort of future-predicting mutant.
Orwell and Aldous Huxley both felt that governments would not be able to resist technology that would help control the citizenry — constant monitoring, genetics and cognitive psychological tools. In the end the politicians had little need — for the most part talking and exaggeration work well enough. But the main source of their pessimism lies in their idea that the public themselves will not wake up and come to a consensus, they will fight over short term needs over their own future enfranchisement.
Will the the Americans stop arguing about how there aren’t enough pans to buy and think about what we really need? Can we talk back to the internet? Will the People own our own future?