1984 revisited

Sunday 29 January 2017


According to various news media, sales of George Orwell’s 1984 have soared amazingly (see the Guardian’s report). This coincides with the first week of the Trump Presidency. The connection appears to be based on Trump’s preference for ‘alternative facts’ – a term used by one of Trump’s advisers, Kellyanne Conway, to rebut claims that Trump’s Press Secretary had lied about the turnout for the Trump Inauguration Ceremony (you can view the relevant extract of the Conway interview here).

So, have we finally arrived in the dystopia of 1984? Has Orwell’s grim prediction been proved correct? Are we now submitted to ruthless control of thought by an all-powerful Big Brother clone? By a happy coincidence, I am currently writing a new page about Newspeak (now published as Newspeak ), and so have been re-reading the novel. I would suggest that the world of 1984 is indeed relevant to 2017, but what is really useful to think about are the differences between what we are experiencing and what Orwell imagined.

Above all, 1984 depicts a totalitarian society, based principally but not exclusively on Stalinist Russia. Such totalitarianism involves the imposition of a single ideological view of the world through fear, intrusive surveillance, total control of available knowledge, and even an imposed re-structuring of the language itself. Well, yes, one can certainly see connections between the last two and Kellyanne Conway's "alternative facts" replacing the useful word 'lies'. But surely the degree of control is radically different in 2017 - Conway achieved her 15 minutes of fame with "alternative facts" precisely because there was an immediate and very public response of laughter and ridicule. Nobody, but nobody, laughs at the Party in the world of 1984. While it is certainly true that Trump apparently wants facts to be edited to suit his view of the world, he remains laughably unable to control knowledge about the real world (at least, to date...).

In addition, that word 'ideology' seems rooted in the Twentieth Century, and virtually invisible in the Twenty-First. Notice the word 'invisible' - there is still plenty of ideology about, but it is concealed behind supposedly pragmatic and practical policy decisions (such as 'budget austerity'), which are based on 'objective and scientific' economic theories. Governments reluctantly cut public services because this is 'best for everyone', but conceal the fact that 'best' has been defined by right-wing neoliberal dogma. But today's ideology is fundamentally different from the kind of ideology that Orwell was concerned with. The dominant ideologies of most of the Twentieth Century, Communism and Fascism, were collective - whereas what we have in 2017, after years of consumerist indoctrination, is an ideology that is deeply individualist. Although... I am not even sure that 'Consumerism' really deserves the term 'ideology', since what it boils down to is 'satisfy your desires, so buy now (and push up profits for businesses)'. At least both Fascism and Communism took an overview of History, whereas for Consumerism the past and the future are supremely irrelevant: "Buy NOW!".

There are, then, profound differences between 1984 and 2017 in terms of control and ideology - and these are reinforced by radical changes in technology. Indeed, perhaps technology is the crucial difference. Orwell was visionary in some of the details of 1984 - given that television was barely invented in 1948, it is remarkable that he conceived a 'telescreen' ... and that it was two-way, hinting at modern surveillance cameras and even Skype video conferences. But again, the differences are crucial. The fundamental nature of the technology of 2017 is much more complex than that of 1984, and how the technology is used enables a much wider range of possibilities.

But that needs another blog ... see 1984 revisited (again)


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