What lessons can we learn from George Orwell’s 1984?

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George Orwell's 1984

1984, the classic dystopian novel by George Orwell, has enjoyed a resurgence in sales over the six years. Why? And do the themes of the book continue to resonate in today’s world?

George Orwell’s classic novel was first published in 1949. The British author, born on the 25th of June, wrote it on the Scottish island of Jura while dying from tuberculosis. Seventy years later, in 2019, 1984 was back in the best-seller lists. Readers found its dystopian vision spoke loudly to the present.

In some ways, 1984 is very much a novel of its time. In 1949, Britain was recovering from World War II and this can be felt in the book’s grey and broken landscapes of a London reeling from perpetual war. The political ideologies tackled by Orwell in the book are clearly rooted in the fascism of Nazi Germany and the ideologies of communism as manifested by the Soviet Union and, especially, the Spanish Civil War.

Yet, at the same time, the central themes of 1984 are strikingly prescient and modern.

In the USA, sales of George Orwell’s 1984 surged after people searched for a way to make sense of the Trump’s administration “alternative facts”. Following Kellyanne Conway’s representation of the size of the crowd at the incoming president’s inauguration, sales of 1984 pushed it to number six on Amazon’s best-seller charts.

While not an Orwellian turn of phrase, the notion of “alternative facts” speaks directly to two central themes of the novel: the rewriting of history and the destruction of language for political ends.

In 1984, the term is “newspeak” – summed up by the slogans on the Ministry of Truth: War is Peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength. The systematic stripping of meaning from language makes understanding the real world – and, therefore, dissent – impossible.

While Winston still struggles to remember the truth, the daily saturation of newspeak has inured the younger generation to it: “In the end he succeeded in forcing her memory back until she did dimly recall that atone time Eastasia and not Eurasia had been the enemy. But the issue still struck her as unimportant. ‘Who cares?’ she said impatiently. ‘It’s always one bloody war after another, and one knows the news is all lies anyway.’”

It is a criticism often used to explain the media and communication tactics of the Trump administration. By creating an environment in which the truth becomes unreliable, people are free to believe whatever they wish to believe.

Such dystopian misinformation practices offer those who control the narrative ultimate control; an idea that is shown to us again in Winston’s eventual detention by the Thought Police: “The fallacy was obvious. It presupposed that somewhere or other, outside oneself, there was a ‘real’ world where ‘real’ things happened. But how could there be such a world?”

Echoes of this can be found in British politician Michael Gove’s assertion during the UK’s 2016 EU membership referendum that the public had “had enough of experts”.  Such parallels led one UK commentator to suggest that 1984 warned us about Brexit! But commentators tend to use the book like that; others have suggested 1984 is a warning against the surveillance state.

Professor Jean Seaton suggests that the novel offers a warning about social media. “In 1984 it is the television screens that watch you and everyone spies on everyone else. Today, it is social media that collects every gesture, purchase, comment we make online and feeds an omnipresent presence in our lives that can predict our every preference… the harvesting of those preferences for political campaigns is now distorting democracy.” Further, she argues, “in his description of the Two Minutes Hate, he also foresaw the way in which online mobs work.”

However, to posit 1984 as a foreshadowing of aspects of modern life we perceive to be malign is to undercut its power. Perhaps there are many aspects of today’s society that achieve the ends set out in the book – but the “how” is less important than the “what”.

In the wake of reviewers from America’s conservative right concluding that the book was a criticism of the left generally, Orwell himself was at pains to point out that the book is intended as a satire of all the authoritarian tendencies of the West.

“The moral to be draw from this dangerous nightmare situation is a simple one,” he wrote, “Don’t let it happen. It depends on you.”

If the “what” is the disinformation, the manipulation of the past, the othering of others as an object of hate and the use of that hate to shore up power around a central authoritarian rule, perhaps even more important than the “what” is the “why”. It is a conundrum never really resolved by the book’s narrator.

In 1984, the main protagonist, Winston, fully understands the “how” – even before he reads “the book” – but not the “why”. At best, he considers it to be about the pursuit of power for its own sake. War is undertaken simply to shore up the existing regimes. Can we say that is what motivates today’s “strongmen” leaders?

Authoritarian leaders are flourishing in the world. They are doing so by using hate speech and “alternative facts” to pollute our politics and hide the truth from us. But the question remains as to why. From what are they distracting us?

The single biggest crisis facing humanity is the destruction of our planet and its delicate ecosystems. For as long as conflict and hatred and disunity reign, we cannot exercise the necessary global response to the crisis. But there remains a window for action – if we act with urgency.

Early in 1984, Winston describes the audiences’ delight at a film showing the bombing of a boat of refugees in the Mediterranean. The incident is one of several that prompt Winston to question the regime. Yet, back in the real world of today, leaders are also stoking anti-refugee sentiments for their own political ends.

Have global leaders come to accept global warming as an inevitability? Is the move to authoritarian rule a preparation for the subsequent world destabilised by environmental disaster? In a world full of people on the move, does hatred towards refugees become a necessity?

In a world disrupted by rising sea levels, unprecedented high temperatures and catastrophic weather events, Winston’s reality of violence, destruction and food shortages begins to look familiar. And in those circumstances, how do you keep populations under control? 1984 tells us that you rally around a central identity – and authoritarian leader or “Big Brother” – who gives those hardships and privations meaning.

Winston believed that the key to resistance lay with the “proles” – the 85 percent of the population that Big Brother considered so intellectually inferior they didn’t require subjecting to the mind control extended over party workers. Could “people power” be the solution to today’s authoritarian leaders?

Critic Dorian Lynskey argues that this is a key difference between the parable and today’s reality. Orwell didn’t foresee that “the common man and woman would embrace doublethink as enthusiastically as the intellectuals and, without the need for terror or torture, would choose to believe that two plus two was whatever they wanted it to be.” Yet, scarily, the combination of social media and Trumpism has made this true.

Perhaps the lesson here is found in the subsequent words of George Orwell, “Don’t let it happen. It depends on you.”