We Are (Still) Living in an Orwellian World
Surveillance, drones, and never-ending wars have given new global resonance to the works of George Orwell.
Some critics speculated that George Orwell’s relevance would fade after the year 1984. Harold Bloom wrote in 1987 that Orwell’s great novel of totalitarianism, 1984, threatened to become a period piece, such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Even the literary critic Irving Howe, a longtime supporter of Orwell, had thought it possible that 1984 would have “little more than ‘historic interest” for future generations.
Yet instead of fading away, Orwell has enjoyed a new surge of global popularity. The passing of the historical context of 1984 seems to have liberated the novel, its message speaking to a universal problem of modern humankind.
In recent years, a new post-Cold War generation has found resonance in his words. “I’m sure George Orwell didn’t think: ‘I must write an instructive tale for a boy from Iraq,’ when he wrote 1984,” Iraqi writer Hassan Abdulrazzak remarked in 2014. “But that book explained Iraq under Saddam for me better than anything else before or since.”
The following year, 1984 was listed as one of the 10 best-selling books in Russia. In 2014, 1984 became such a popular symbol among anti-government protesters in Thailand that the in-flight magazine of Philippine Airlines, according to reports, took to warning passengers that carrying a copy of the novel could cause trouble with customs officials and other authorities.
Since the year 1984, at least 13 Chinese translations of 1984 have been published. Both it and Orwell’s Animal Farm also have been translated into Tibetan. Explaining the relevance of Orwell to China, one of his translators, Dong Leshan, wrote, “The twentieth century will soon be over, but political terror still survives and this is why Nineteen Eighty-four remains valid today.”
Orwell’s earlier meditations on the abuses of political power also found unexpected audiences. While imprisoned in Egypt, then-Islamic radical Maajid Nawaz realized that Animal Farm spoke to his private doubts. “I began to join the dots and think, ‘My God, if these guys that I’m here with ever came to power, they would be the Islamist equivalent of Animal Farm,’” he said. In Zimbabwe, an opposition newspaper ran a serialized version of Animal Farm — after someone destroyed the newspaper’s press with an anti-tank mine — with illustrations showing Napoleon the pig wearing the big-rimmed eyeglasses favored by Zimbabwe’s president-for-life, Robert Mugabe. A Cuban artist was jailed without trial for planning to stage a version of Animal Farm in 2014. To make sure the authorities got the point, he had painted the names “Fidel” and “Raul” on two pigs.
But 1984 in particular is experiencing a new relevance among Western readers because of three interlocking aspects.
For present-day Americans, 1984’s background of permanent warfare carries a chilling warning. In the book, as in life in the United States today, the conflict is offstage, heard only as occasional rocket impacts. “Winston could not definitely remember a time when his country has not been at war,” Orwell wrote in 1984. (The same is true of all Americans now in their late teens or younger.)
In an era when U.S. wars are waged with drones firing precision-guided missiles, and with small numbers of special operations forces on the ground in remote parts of the Middle East, with infrequent attacks in cities such as London, Paris, Madrid, and New York, this passage from the novel is eerily prescient:
It is a warfare of limited aims between combatants who are unable to destroy one another, [and] have no material cause for fighting.… [It] involves very small numbers of people, mostly highly trained specialists, and causes comparatively few casualties. The fighting, when there is any, takes place on the vague frontiers whose whereabouts the average man can only guess at.… In the centres of civilization war means no more than … the occasional crash of a rocket bomb which may cause a few scores of deaths.
The second driver of the current Orwell boom is the post-9/11 rise of the intelligence state. We live in an intrusive, overweening state in both the East and the West. In the early 2000s, the U.S. government regularly killed people in nations with which it was not officially at war by using remote-controlled aircraft. This tactic became known as “signature strikes,” which target men of military age showing a threatening pattern of behavior associated with terrorists, such as talking to known terrorists by telephone or attending a meeting with them. Several hundred of these strikes have been carried out in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. And now metadata collection — the gathering of trillions of bits of information that the intelligence community analyzes in order to recognize previously unseen patterns — allows governments to quietly compile dossiers on the behavior of millions of individuals.
Of course, the American government acted in those lethal and intrusive ways in response to the 9/11 attacks. Orwell probably would have roundly denounced those assaults as well as the panicky response of the U.S. government. His guiding light was freedom of conscience — both from government control and from extremists, whether religious or ideological. As he put it, “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” In that vein, it is significant that the greatest threat to freedom that Orwell’s Winston sees in 1984 is not from overseas, but from his own government.
Third, and perhaps most shocking, is the way the use of torture in 1984 foreshadows how today’s state uses it in an endless “war on terror.” After 9/11, for the first time in American history, torture became official policy. (Before then it had been used occasionally but always in disregard of the law, and sometimes it was prosecuted.)
To better understand 2017, return to Orwell’s three best books. First, Homage to Catalonia, in which he shows that the left can lie just as much as the right, and becomes skeptical of all exercise of power. Second, Animal Farm, which he called a fairy tale — an adult version of a tale of disenchantment. Finally, 1984, in which Orwell updates the horror story. His monster is not Frankenstein, but the modern state.
This column was adapted from Ricks’ most recent book, Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom. It appeared in the July/August issue of FP magazine.
Illustration by Matthew Hollister