1984: looking backward at Orwell's novel of the 1940s.
Title and book are among the most influential of our time, with steady sales and persuasive powers comparable to those enjoyed, just five decades ago, by the rosier, sunnier, future fictions of H.G. Wells and Edward Bellamy. Even among non-readers 1984 is a ready reference, an authoritative myth--an attack on Russia for some, on "totalitarianism" for others, and more popularly on centralized control of any kind, be it that of computer banks or federal cops. And yet, Orwell's linguistic prescience and horrific intuitions aside, how much can we depend on his potent book as equipment for living in the real 1984? A great deal, though less than is sometimes believed, and often in ways that Orwell never envisioned or admitted.
To begin with, 1984 is less a portrait of totalitarianism than a satire of its "ideal type," to use Max Weber's term. Like all utopian novelists, Orwell starts from the mental concept of a society and pushes certain features to their logical extreme. Real Stalinist practices (not German fascist ones) and Trotsky's fiery prose furnished him with the raw material. Much of Orwell's broad theoretical framework, however, came from James Burnham's The Managerial Revolution, discredited now, but in the 1940s a bestselling work of pop-sociology that foresaw an emerging world order of "three primary super-states" (emphasis in Burnham) governed by collectivist oligarchies engaged in protracted, open-ended geopolitical struggles and holding continued sway over the non-white "backward peoples" of the globe. With the super-states rechristened Eurasia (i.e., Russia and Europe), Eastasia (not specified), and Oceania (U.S.A. and U.K.), Burnham's is indeed the world order reimagined by Orwell. His narrative gifts having flowered during the ugliest days of Stalinism and soared at a time when such ideas were in the air, he thereupon extrapolated Stalin's system and Burnham's schemes--worldwide and into eternity.
Behind 1984 was the ongoing debate between democractic-socialist Orwell and his friendly foes on teh Communist left in England, with their heavy jargon, party line zig-zags, general ineffectiveness, and "stupid cult of Russia," as Orwell put it. Set in London, it is very much an English book, with English proper names (Winston Smith!), twisted English socialism (Ingsoc), and an English target (unstated, but more crucial than the Russian one). And the fact is that Orwell, for all his experience as a policeman in Asia, odd-jobber in France, and freedom-fighter in Civil War Spain, remained to the end a classically insular Englishman. That of course is his strength; it made possible the plain-speaking voice of the great essayist, the sympathetic and fruitful observer of English popular culture, and the dogged anti-theorist who, in The Road to Wigan Pier and Down and Out in Paris and London, sought knowledge from real miners and tramps rather than from academic books or party pamphlets.
Orwell's insularity is also a weakness, however, as demonstrated by the virtual absence, in his entire oeuvre, of essays on non-English authors, or the almost genteel astonishment with which he conveys (in "Raffles and Miss Blandish") the violence in U.S. pulp fiction, or his apparent obliviousness to the historical legacy and political patterns of other peoples. Orwell admits to ignorance of Russia at one point in Wigan Pier; he also displayed a somewhat abstract understanding of the United States, a country which, though he never visited it, became the Stalinist "Oceania" of 1984. How the archcapitalist nation is supposed to have reached that pass is any reader's guess.
Orwell's insularity was chronological as well. Himself a child of Empire (born in India), his lifetime was one during which Britain ruled the globe and even expanded its dominions in 1918, while his death in 1950 coincided with Empire's twilight. Sincerely abhorring colonialism and favoring its imminent demise, he nonetheless found it hard to envision a world order that wasn't worse. Hence one gets, in 1984, both totalitarianism and surviving blood-stained Empire--the two most evil of possibilities. In his private notebooks Orwell thought of the future as "catastrophic," and in 1984 he articulated his notorious vivid image of the human prospect: a boot stamping on a man's face, "forever!" Doubtless the last two decades of Orwell's life were also modern Europe's most catastrophic, with crimes more horrible than boots trampling faces. But the times were too much with him, and his millenarian despair presupposes a perpetual present. John Wain points out that the missiles in 1984 are of 1944 vintage. The occasional A-bombs alluded to, he might have added, are of the 1945 kind.
Brave New World and 1984: that constant pair. And yet Orwell took exception to Huxley (who, by purest chance, was his teacher for a brief spell at Eton). In a letter to a Tribune reader Orwell said:
I think you overestimate the danger of a "Brave New World." . . . I would say that the danger of that kind of thing is past and that we are in danger of quite a different kind of world, the centralized slave state, ruled over by a small clique. . . . Such a state would not be hedonistic; on the contrary, its dynamic would come from rabid nationalism . . . and . . . literally continuous war. (Emphasis added)
Orwell's prophecy seems naive now, in view of the relentless hedonism and coolly numbing depoliticization of what became the "consumer culture." The telescreens in real-life 1984 are more seductive than threatening; they promote not fear but suburban paradise; and Americans watch them (not vice-versa) six hours a dayand "voluntarily." Also, rather than the fanatical puritanism and anti-sexualism of 1984, where physical pleasure is a state offense, modern media society conjures up a highly-charged ambience of glitzy eroticism--though one nearly as loveless in its ways as Oceania's. According to Anthony Smith, even Soviet television, in conscious imitation of U.S. models, has become more entertainment-oriented and less ideological.
The political and economic hell of 1984, by contrast, has no history--its origins obscure, its future unchanging. Our real world has worked out differently. Though no model democracy, in three decades the quality of life in the Soviet Union has markedly improved--gotten less harsh, if you will--with large-scale terror a thing of the past, and with demonstrable socio-economic advances. Drowned out by the din of Reaganite scribes--who miraculously portray Russia as somehow collapsing and expanding at the same time--is the sober, balanced work of Sovietologists like Stephen Cohen or Seweryn Bialer who note such incremental gains as a GNP four times that of 1950, greater economic egalitarianism, housing expanded by the tens of millions, a doubled percentage of citizens attending high school, increased intakes of meat, and cradle-to-grave welfarism.
Neither has Orwell's image of an aggressive totalitarian Russia, gambling for global conquest, been borne out by events. The Soviet leaders, while perfectly ruthless when dealing with countries on their immediate borders, have proved to be cautious actors on the world scene, with but a handful of bases on other continents, no direct combat actions overseas, a marine-landing force on sixth the size of the American, and two aircraft carriers to our thirteen. With the Second World War and 20 million dead still fresh in their memories, their armed forces are geared primarily toward land war and internal defense. It is no wonder that George Kennan, who himself has no love for the Soviet system or Marxist dialectics, steadfastly rejects the idea of the USSR as a Nazi variant, poised for a worldwide blitz.
There are, furthermore, signs that Muscovite totalitarianism is neither monolithic nor eternal. The Yugoslav case shows that a Marxist regime need not be Stalinist, and indeed can be relatively open, creative, and benign. The Dubcek experiment and Solidarity movement point to other possibilities, crushed only because of the accident of a common border with the Soviets. O'Brien, the high Party dogmatist in 1984, solemnly informs Winston Smith that "the proletarians will never revolt, not in a thousand years. . . . They cannot. . . . The rule of the Party is forever." Not having reckoned with Polish proletarians, O'Brien is at least half wrong. Even something as unglamorous as economic reforms in Hungary suggest that absolute Party rule is not forever. However powerful Orwell's eschatology, the temptation to use 1984 as a surrogate for reality should now be resisted.
Jerry Hough, the distinguished Sovietologist, has all but advocated scrapping the "totalitarian" model as a less than useful concept. Admittedly, from Orwell's and Hannah Arendt's rich if skewed insights, the idea itself has of late degenerated into the crass casuistries of Dr. Kirkpatrick and her employers. What the Englishman and his American constructionists seem unready to accept is that even totalitarian governments have prehistories. The Kirkpatrick doctrine has it that no totalitarian regime, once installed, has ever yielded to democratic rule. She has it backward. What is basic in the origins of "totalitarian" systems (be it the Nazi-capitalist or soveit state-socialist variety) is that Czechoslovakia excepted, they have arisen exclusively in nations burdened with long-standing autocratic pasts. The Romanovs, Hapsburgs, Hohenzollerns--these ancient absolute monarchies, strained by irreconcilable internal divisions and foreign wars, collapsed, only to be followed in their stead by the absolute dictatorships of Hitler, Stalin, Horthy, et al. Seweryn Bialer has noted the old-Russian roots and values surviving in mature Stalinism, and Richard Pipes (of all people) explains the lack of liberal ideas in Tsarist Russia by the absence of a large, vigorous, politically active, and independent bourgeoisie. What Orwell envisioned as a universal system, and what Dr. Kirkpatrick ritually conjures up as a universal threat, is more of a locally based phenomenon than either of them was capable of imagining.
Changing times have thus caught up with and quietly superseded much of Orwell's futurist myth. The question that today troubles us on our New World shores, however, is: Can 1984 happen here? Perhaps, but with a difference. In the West, or the Americas at least, Orwell's nightmare seems more likely to come from the libertarian-capitalist right than from the Stalinist-socialist left. The Chilean and Argentine militares have already proved as much; and the extent of U.S. domestic surveillance, revealed during Watergate, is "Orwellian" enough in its implications. But these horrors, while media-worthy, can also obscure certain significant if less dramatic conditions in other, duller realms. Orwell imagines an economy largely centralized under Party control, yet with a rundown private sector of dreary shops and pubs persisting in sad brown slums north of London. Those slums bring to mind, if anything, the inner core of our own cities, abandoned by a highly centralized corporate economy, those private conglomerates whose interlocking interests include telecommunications, hotels, publishers, bakeries, baseball teams, parking lots, and insurance. It's an open secret in the business press that the biggest rewards today are in buying up and selling of other firms. Another less obvious fact is a centralized global marketplace in which U.S. investments abroad add up to the fourth largest aggregate economy on the planet.
In his climactic confrontation with Winston Smith, O'Brien preaches a kind of collective solipsism that denies objective truth and places reality "in the human mind, and nowhere else. Not in the individual mind, which can make mistakes . . .; only in the mind of the Party, which is . . . immortal." For a common-sense empiricist like Orwell this clearly represents madness in high places. Alas, intellectual history has played him a trick. Real party Marxism has remained obstinately nineteenth-century materialist, even positivist, in outlook, whereas solipsist notions are now commonplace in the liberal West and the United States in particular. "Reality" as something shadowy and irrelevant, vague, insubstantial, something malleable to human manipulation--this is the worldview of public relations whiz kids and Advertising Age editorialists, who believe less in truth than in "creative approaches," "stories" to be attractively packaged and marketed. It is the ideology of center-right post-modernist authors like Nabokov, for whom "reality" was a word that belonged in quotation marks. It is the doctrine of infinite pluralism, taught by virtuoso humanists at Yale and Johns Hopkins universities, whose baroque ahistoricism and over-wrought relativism pay highest respects to believing in nothing at all. History is a fiction, reality is a fiction: these are the fashionable buzzwords today in upper academe and vanguard lit. crit. Orwell's O'Brien and Professor Faurisson couldn't have done better.
Painfully conscious of good language, clear thinking, and political malpractices, Orwell in 1984 invented and diagnosed two now-proverbial psycho-linguistic disorders, Doublethink and Newspeak. Earlier, in 1946, he had examined the malady in his lucid and renowed essay "Politics and the English Language." Today he has an entire new set of patients on the libertarian right, with their peacemaker MX missiles, and their attacks on big government, a tangled code meaning () big business gets carte blanche, (2) "small" government builds vast weaponry, and (3) the army and spies get enlarged assignments. Liberty and free choice are principles evoked in defense of polluters, sweatshop operators, and the statecraft of General Pinochet. Traditionally positive adjectives have become drastically narrowed in actual semantic practice: Balanced, flexible, and open-minded now usually signify a readiness to honor the ideas of the right, while pejoratives such as dogmatic, one-sided, and fanatical are invariably applied to any group opposing racism, militarism, or age-old injustices. Genocidal nuclear war planners think thoughts and formulate strategy, but peace activists are emotional and whip up hysterical crusades. And then there's Herman Kahn's lovely phrase: environmental fascists.
Cold War theory builds its premises on a chronic condition of Doublethink: Communist Russia, laughable and pathetically inefficient, can't get anything done right; but Communist Russia is also capable of, and is embarked on, world conquest. The suffering peoples of Warsaw, Prague, etc., hate their oppressor, Muscovy; but the Warsaw Pact, comprising those very same people of Warsaw, Prague, etc., is a might juggernaut soon to storm across Europe, all for Muscovy. Russians are brainwashed by Marxist thought control, but they're also cynical, disbelieve everything their government tells them, and are ripe for revolt. Polish workers should have their own free labor unions, but (says Milton Friedman) American unions should stop messing things up for everyone, including American labor.
It is not idle to speculate on a fully "Orwellian" situation imposed by the libertarian right. Looking backward from our 1984, one finds a consistent record largely exorcised from the textbooks--such as a favorable and "open-minded" attitude toward European fascim during the 1930s, anti-left repression in the 1940s and 1950s, staunch opposition to Civil Rights laws as tyrannical threats to individual "freedom" in the 1960s, expansion of surveillance here and abroad, vocal defense of military dictatorships in Greece and Central America, and active aid and advice for the most murderous regime in Chile's history. Looking to the future, the libertarian right has ample cultural support from Evangelical anti-eroticism and creationist neo-lysenkoism. And though our nuclear-war propagandists ever and always conjure up dark visions of Soviet "first strikes," the pattern of nuclear policy since August 1945 and the "better-dead-than-red" chiliastics coming from Washington all suggest the greater likelihood of a first U.S. attempt at big-bang solutions someday. Meanwhile the mega-apparatus of consumerism, with its infinite array of manufactured sounds, colors, and pretty faces watching you, and its constant production of fantasy wishes and dreams--fast thrills and cool sex for one market, smiling nuclear families for another, and a multitude of special-interest images in stock--serves as a perfect substitute for Big Brother, enticing and seemingly gratifying rather than terrorizing the individual imagination.
Though not really dealt with in 1984, its author did make special provision for the emergence of a distinctively American brand of Orwellianism. In his statement to Frederick Warburg, Orwell noted that "in the U.S.A., the phrase 'Americanism' or 'hundred percent Americanism' is suitable, and the qualifying adjective is as totalitarian as anyone would wish." Speaking at a time when the American anti-left purges were heating up, Orwell anticipated a sui generis totalitarianism whereby "the Anglo-Americans will not take the name of their opponents and will not dramatize themselves . . . as Communists. Thus they will have to find a new name for themselves." And so the thing, as Orwell saw it, already exists, in certain ways.
What he didn't reckon with and indeed discounted was the spectacular rise of massified, commercially induced hedonism. And though government repression, atavistic puritanism, and a dazed consumerism may seem logically at odds, in late capitalist society they have a way of coexisting and performing their respective jobs, as Daniel Bell has suggested. Just how far these cultural contradictions might go can be seen in Chile and Argentina, where harsh military dictatorship and free-trade policies have helped keep the shop windows brimful with the latest haute couture, sports-car models, and high-tech toys--thereby creating the illusion of great public wealth. Chile and Argentina may not be our future, but something of the sort seems far more likely than Orwell's pure and indivisible monolith. There's more than one way to efficient mind control, and the wondrous crudity and primitive prose of the Soviet ministries simply can't compete, can't hold a candle to the multitudinous dreams of our Madison Avenue fantasy machine. It's 1984, and we've got conglomerates, big media, overseas empire, rampant solipsism, and doublethink from the new right. There's no Big Brother, but who needs him? and after all, what's in a name?