The relevance of George Orwell to Today

Orwell’s 1984 (along with Animal Farm) are subject to a misunderstanding  that they ‘predict’ the future, whereas really they should be seen more as statements of commonly-held present-day ideas and the dangers inherent in these ideas.


It is ironic that these works have been subject to the same forces that they warn against. For example the statement that “All animals are equal but some are more equal than others” was intended by Orwell to be a satire on the American Declaration of Independence and the way it used a similar phrase about equality while simultaneously forming the basis for a slave-owning state. This was a part of the moral of the fable itself that there is little difference between Capitalism and Stalinism. Soon after Orwell’s death, the CIA purchased the film rights and produced a cartoon  that changed the message completely. To make matters worse, both books have been widely banned in America.


The primary characteristic being criticized in  1984 is what Orwell christens ‘Doublethink’ – the ability to have two contradictory viewpoints and agree with both of them simultaneously.  A commonly-met form of Doublethink encountered in Britain is the belief that can be summarized so : ”Nationalized industries are inefficient but nationalized industries like the Armed Forces and the Police Force are so totally 100% super-efficient that no-one can criticize them”. Try pointing this contradiction out to people who espouse it and see for yourself how justified Orwell was in attacking the consequences of Doublethink.   


Another example is: “In 1917, Russia was a backward third-world country with 75% illiteracy, and it converted itself into a major military ‘threat’ to the West because it had a economic system which was incapable of converting the country into such a ‘threat’ ”. Try attacking that type of Doublethink and all doubts about Orwell’s relevance to our present-day world must surely be removed.


Orwell pressed home his ideas on human gullibility and desire to conform by stating that Big Brother had the power to make the population believe that ‘2 plus 2 equals 5’. This might appear to be a bit facile but as a mathematician myself, I have been surprised (and depressed) at  how easily  people who should know better can delude themselves into believing that black is white. To quote one example, I have been claiming that certain exams were ‘fiddled’ – fiddled because questions similar to questions in a second-year exam re-appeared in the next year’s third-year exam.  The negative response I have received to my claims mirror Orwell’s 1984 attitudes. Orwell probably doesn’t state it too well in 1984 because it might seem unlikely that people would believe that 2 and 2 equals 5, but the general attitude is relevant – people will support a stance which is wrong, and which is verifiably wrong by virtue of the fact that we are talking about Mathematics, if that is the only respectable option..


Yet another example of Doublethink is held by supporters of the monarchy. When questioned about democracy, they will no doubt express support for the basic democratic principle of ‘Worth not Birth’ while simultaneously supporting the  monarchy, which rests on the idea of ‘Birth not Worth’.  All media reports of the monarchy remind me of Big Brother – if you were to rely solely on the mass media you would believe that there is not a single critic of the monarchy in the entire country.


An understanding of Orwell has helped me relieve some of my frustration at the obvious contradictions in the current world. How do you put up with American claims to be supporting democracy when the same country has tried to overthrown many democracies (sometimes successfully), e.g. Guatemala (1954), Chile (1971) as part of a continent-wide effort, Nicaragua (1980s) as part of a terrorist effort throughout Central America. In 2003, the democratic government in Venezuala was overthrown – America officially recognized the new military junta within 24 hours.  I have come to realize Orwell would have explained it :”You can have democracy just so long as we agree with the result of the elections”.


And how to explain America’s belief in freedom while they simultaneously shoot non-violent protesters dead (Jackson and Kent State Universities), bar Americans from leaving the country because of their beliefs (e.g. Paul Robeson), slam people in prison for their beliefs – again  I think of how Orwell would have satirized it: “You can have freedom of speech just so long as we agree with what you say”.


What does all this mean for the future ? To explain that in a meaningful (but non-respectable) way, we have to resort to the maxim “All history is class struggle”. What this actually means is  – in 20 years time what will be the relative strengths of those who possess the attitudes attacked by Orwell and those who oppose these attitudes. As recent history has shown this ‘struggle’ relies more than anything else on economic conditions – and who can confidently give a definite prediction about how these will develop in the near future.


A useful ‘hand-waving’ guide would to examine the recent ‘Thatcherite’ period when economic conditions (high unemployment et al) allowed Orwellian attitudes to intensify. Will  the population become more aware of these attitudes as time progresses and, if so, is this a healthy sign that these attitudes can be resisted in  future?


Note that war is a permanent feature of 1984 – something that works to the advantage of Big Brother. The comparison with events since 1982 is obvious. Also note how Big Brother’s Ministry of Peace has been widely imitated such that war and armaments. are governed by an organization called the Ministry of Defence. This wasn’t really an Orwellian invention – it was immediately preceded by the Wehrmacht of Nazi Germany.


Now, Nazi Germany – that was a capitalist regime where all the Orwellian features would be relevant. But any ‘expose’ in that direction has already been ‘sabotaged’ by Orwellian techniques - for starters, how many people are even aware that Nazi Germany was a capitalist regime ?