June 8 marks the 72nd anniversary of George Orwell’s book Nineteen Eighty-Four, a work he took three years to complete, and effected three title changes The Last Man in Europe, 1980 and 1982—before settling on the present one. The work, which emits the ozone smell of fear, has drilled deep into the public consciousness everywhere and has been published in 62 languages so far.
Significant still, many Orwellian terminologies Newspeak, Thought Police, doublethink, Big Brother etc are widely used in our political discourses even today. It has also been adopted for TV, cinema, radio, theatre and advertisements. For example, when Apple introduced the Macintosh Computer in 1984, its advertisement read, “And you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like 1984”. T-shirts came out with the words, “1984, Doublethink About It”.
At the other end, the book has been the butt of criticism and has found acclaim among people belonging to different political shades—from communists to liberals. For communists, it’s ‘filth written on the orders of Wall Street’, and for liberals it’s an indictment against communism. But the truth lies elsewhere. It’s actually a warning against all variants of totalitarianism, a ‘novelistic essay’ on untamed power and its consequences for human life and civilisation.
The novel unfolds in the form of a cat-and-mouse game between two central characters—O’Brien, the protagonist of the Party, and Winston Smith, the vanquished rebel. The reader is introduced to the system and its ‘pointless cruelties’—to quote Dostoevsky—from the dialogue between the two, the reminiscences of Winston and from a book supposed to be written by Emmanuel Goldstein, an enemy of the Party.
The State is personified in the persona of an imaginary figure, Big Brother, who never appears in public but has a larger-than-life presence everywhere, in hoardings and telescreens. No aspect of human life is left uninfected by the system he represents. Power is the sole arbiter of reality. The metaphor Orwell uses to depict this is “history stopped”. Interestingly, history is stopped by changing it continuously—the State changes the past to suit its everyday needs and justify its everyday lies.
Language is another means through which the reality is controlled justifying the Confucian saying that tyranny begins with language. And in the Orwellian State, this is done by the systematic modification of the language, interestingly not by adding new words but by “destroying words... cutting the language down to the bone”. The aim is to restrict the range of thought so much so that one can’t not think beyond what is officially permitted. This, to Orwell, is colonisation of the brains of the people to eliminate what he describes as thoughtcrime. Man is reduced to a mere hole in the air. He believed that this reality control was the greatest danger of totalitarianism than its torture chambers and gulags as it makes opposition to the system totally untenable.
Paradoxically, even when rebellion is untenable, totalitarianism never wants dissidence to end. On the contrary, it seeks salvation in creating occasional rebels. For, it helps the system to make even the most loyal of its adherents to live under the penumbra of suspicion and hence under the perpetual fear of the “boot crashing down on the face”, a metaphor for State violence. Orwell believed that it was through the spectacle of violence that totalitarianism renewed itself. Malcolm Muggeridge calls this “continued performance of power”.
Looking back it’s clear that 1984, as Erich Fromm writes, depicts a completely bureaucratised society, in which man is a number without any sense of individuality. It’s an argument not merely against Stalin, Hitler and those of their ilk, but also one against modern democratic supremos like Trump, Putin, Modi, Bolsonaro et al. In short it is a warning against the lust for untamed power in US as well as THEM. Orwell tells us, in as many words, that liberal values are not indestructible, and they have to be kept alive by conscious efforts.
Seventy-two years after the publication of 1984, the fact remains that we still live under the lengthening shadow of totalitarianism. Half of the world, including our own country, is governed by Godfather-like politicians behind whom lurks the Big Brother. They believe that truth and politics are on bad terms, despise criticisms and want people to be human gramophones. Further, with digital technology in hand they could control a vast sphere of human activity. It’s against this desolating pestilence of arbitrary power that Orwell warns us.
Former Professor of Political Science, University of Kerala