Sunday, February 26, 2017

Dystopia and Dissolution: Totalitarian Fragility in Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four

(Spoilers ahead, in case you were wondering.)

For all its reputation as a masterpiece of dystopian horror, a vision of an endless and immutable nightmare future, George Orwell’s 1984 presents the reader with a remarkably fragile totalitarian society. Earlier dystopias, like Zamyatin’s We and Huxley’s Brave New World, posited a future of gleaming, hard-edged cities and humanity enslaved by super-science. Orwell instead set his novel in a rubble-strewn future London, a grubby half-ruin of decaying buildings and clogged drains, its people worn down by long working hours and bad food. The main character, Winston Smith, reflects that

In any time he could accurately remember, there had never been quite enough to eat, one had never had socks or underclothes that were not full of holes, furniture had always been battered and rickety, rooms under-heated, Tube trains crowded, houses falling to pieces, bread dark-colored, tea a rarity, coffee filthy-tasting, cigarettes insufficient - nothing cheap and plentiful except synthetic gin. (Folio Society edition, 2014, pp. 56-57).

Scientific progress, meanwhile, had halted at a 1945 level, with a few exceptions (like the telescreen) that support the state’s surveillance regime. One expects, when Smith finally falls into the clutches of the Ministry of Love, that Oceania will turn out to have some advanced interrogation and brainwashing techniques, but no such luck. Lenins Cheka would have found the Thought Police’s methods familiar: the ever-burning electric light, the rubber truncheon, the use of pain and disorientation to break the victim. Even the most fearsome dungeons of Orwell's dystopia are worn and old.

Critics have suggested that Orwell based much of 1984 on his real-life experiences, modeling Winston Smith’s London after the fraying, rubble-strewn city of the 1940s. I suspect G.O. found it easier to set his novel in a copy of WWII-era London than to imagine something closer to Metropolis. Nonetheless, Orwell’s experiences and memories of England predated the war, and if he had not wanted to envision a more “futuristic” setting he could still have given Oceania the same standard of living, or at least the same aesthetics, as Britain in the 1920s or ‘30s. He chose instead to create a decrepit dystopia, one fully capable of tormenting its subjects but perhaps running out of time to do so.

Orwell’s decision to make Oceania a stagnant wreck provides some insight into his actual thinking about contemporary totalitarian states: they could not last. The two essays he included in the text, “The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism” and “The Principles of Newspeak,” comprise additional clues. Thomas Pynchon once observed that 1984 ended not with Winston Smith’s final conversion but with the Newspeak essay, which Orwell’s dispassionate narrator wrote in the past tense and the subjunctive mood. Newspeak, s/he tells us, “would have superseded Oldspeak [pre-Revolutionary English]” by 2050 - not “did supersede” or “will supersede.” The essayist does not use Newspeak and thus writes to us from a non- or post-Oceanian future, perhaps a worse one in some ways but at least a future in which independent thought is possible.

“Oligarchical Collectivism” paints a darker picture, describing a world of ingenious totalitarian bureaucrats and stable super-states. We learn during Smith’s interrogation, however, that the Inner Party actually wrote the whole thing, and thus most or all of it consists of lies and propaganda. Moreover, the essay borrows heavily from James Burnham, a twentieth-century political scientist whom Orwell once admired and later severely criticized. Burnham, like the authors of “Oligarchical Collectivism,” argued that twentieth-century slave states like Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia enjoyed a degree of strength, cohesion, and dynamism unavailable to democracies. Orwell, in his essay on “James Burnham and the Managerial Revolution," strongly disagreed:

It is too early to say in just what way the Russian regime will destroy itself…but at any rate, [it]…will either democratize itself, or it will perish. The huge, invincible, everlasting slave empire of which Burnham appears to dream will not be established, or…will not endure, because slavery is no longer a stable basis for human society. (Collected Essays, Journalism, and Letters (Nonpareil Books, 1968/2000), 4: 180.)

Orwell gave the Soviet Union until 1960 to liberalize or collapse. Indeed, the communists did both: the USSR liberalized slightly under Khrushchev, and decayed rapidly under Brezhnev. Soviet citizens of the 1980s would have found Winston Smith’s milieu oddly familiar, if rather more repressive than their own society.

George Orwell died shortly after finishing his last novel, and had no plans for a sequel to 1984. He did leave hints about how the people of a post-Ingsoc Britain would live. Julia, one of the few young characters in the novel, pursues material pleasures like real coffee and illicit sex, along with the anarchic joy that comes from breaking the law. The working-class “proles,” the group in whom Smith sees the only chance for a better future, share Julia’s desire for humble amusements: cheap beer, the lottery, child-rearing, singing. They also recall the common decencies of the old world, protecting Smith from an incoming rocket and toasting his health when he buys one of them a drink. Winston and Julia forsake these decencies when they join the alleged resistance movement, which eventually turns out to be a trap. One can read 1984 not only as a warning about the future but a moral fable, urging us to hold on to those things that keep us human, rather than forsaking them for power or some imagined greater good. Preserving brotherhood, good manners, and the happiness of small pleasures, are more effective ways to resist a totalitarian nightmare than the bomb and the gun. 


(London photo above via

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