George Orwell’s 1984 has come back to me twice in the last couple of months, in that way that nags and prods until you accept that you need to respond. I first read 1984 in that very year – at the age of seventeen. That same year I was studying for the Oxford entrance exams, and was reading Karl Popper (The Open Society and its Enemies) on ideology, the Cold War was still far from thawing, and it all seemed very clear that this was a cautionary tale about communism. As indeed it was. And in any case, there were girls to be pursued, which provided a highly effective regulator to over-intellectualisation.
Thirty years later, I read it again. On a sad visit back to my parents’ house; now just my father’s house, following my mother’s death last year, as we prepared for her funeral. And 1984 popped off the shelf at me. I couldn’t really swear it was the very same physical book I had read 30 years ago – but it might have been. And it gripped me and engrossed me in the long hours of the night as I battled jet lag and sadness.
Then, a week or two ago, I was led to bdhesse’s excellent blog and her piece on The Problem with Dystopians https://bdhesse.wordpress.com/2014/05/22/the-problem-with-dystopians/
She makes an interesting argument, namely that claims of how closely our world now resembles Orwell’s 1984 are grossly overblown, and that we need not worry that literary dystopias will come to pass in the real world. Indeed, just as history does not, in fact, repeat itself exactly, naturally neither will science fiction dystopias manifest themselves anywhere near word for word. I should say, though, that I am less convinced by her argument that this is because “That world is never going to happen because there is no benefit in it for anyone.” Sadly, in all the real dsytopias we have managed to create in this world, there has never been a shortage of those who find a way to benefit.
As I re-read 1984 last year, far from home, and in the altered state of grief and fatigue, I noticed a very important thing. Something I really had no memory of from my first reading, thirty years earlier. That was Orwell’s book within the book – The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism, by the thought criminal Emmanuel Goldstein. To quote from Chapter 1 (“Ignorance is Strength”):
“Throughout recorded time, and probably since the end of the Neolithic Age, there have been three kinds of people in the world, the High, the Middle, and the Low…The aims of these groups are entirely irreconcilable. The aim of the High is to remain where they are. The aim of the Middle is to change places with the High. The aim of the Low, when they have an aim – for it is an abiding characteristic of the Low that they are too much crushed by drudgery to be more than intermittently conscious of anything outside their daily lives – is to abolish all distinctions and create a society in which all men shall be equal.”
So don’t worry as to whether the Ministry of Truth has manifested itself in the form of the Murdoch press and the instant news cycle. Don’t worry about whether your webcam and your other devices serve the same function as a tele screen, to monitor your every word and action. Rather let us address that part of the dystopia which is well and truly alive and uncannily accurate. The real question, as 21st century capitalism dives ever deeper into inequality, economic and ecological crisis, is for each of us to ask ourselves where we fit in Orwell and Goldstein’s hierarchy. Where that might take us. And whether there is anything at all we can do about that…