Anniversaries are the base for many a column, and surely 30 years after 1984, the world’s most memorable dystopia is a solid foundation for this one. Orwell derived many of the ideas for Nineteen Eighty-Four from his observations of wartime London and the geopolitics of the Second World War. This year is also the 70th anniversary of 1944, a turning point of war which provided fodder for many of the essays of Tribune’s most illustrious literary contributor. There were unlikely to be any memory holes in Tribune’s office, but he certainly saw the equivalent in the BBC where he worked, and while Tribune could not run to a canteen, the Beeb’s seems to have “inspired” him with the colour (grey) for the Ministry of Truth’s equivalent, as did the University of London’s brutalist Senate Tower looming over Bloomsbury in which he located the Ministry.
Orwell saw how prototype technologies could be applied to tyranny. The ominous potential of helicopters was later demonstrated in places such as Chile, Vietnam and Afghanistan. In many parts of the world, drones drop their bomb loads with enough frequency of inaccuracy to be almost random, like the rockets that hit Airstrip One – and Orwell’s wartime London. He noted that newspapers did not report the V1 hits then. If alive now, he might notice that their contemporary equivalents go almost as unreported in the country that sends them.
The ubiquity of remote cameras and concealed microphones on the British streetscape has now been surpassed by the National Security Agency and its British comrades in scrutiny, whose surveillance exceeds the most fevered dreams of the Thought Police. And Fox News, with its braying 24 hours of hate, makes Big Brother’s two-minute hate sessions as inconsequential as quinquennial party political broadcasts.
It was perhaps a singular omission on Orwell’s part to miss water boarding from the repertoire of Room 101, but then maybe it was illiteracy on the part of the American torturers that they had not read Orwell and so missed out on the rat thing. But one supposes that setting dogs to lunge at named prisoners is almost as ghoulishly imaginative.
However, a successful dystopia conveys an atmosphere, a pervasive miasma of discomfort and fear, rather than a technological blueprint for the future, and none does as well as Nineteen Eighty-Four. Sadly, it is that aspect which Orwell got so right.
It has now become almost thoughtcrime to voice the self-evident truths that between the end of the Second World War and the advent of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher gave the West in general and even the United States the highest rate of economic growth and general prosperity in history. Although far from perfect, governmental involvement in economic planning, engineered equalisation of earnings, the rich paying proportionately more taxes, public provision of social goods, culture, health, education, even power and transport. Now, across the West, mesmerised elites ignore the results of this massive real time experiment, in which redistributive policies led to increasing prosperity for the majority for a quarter of a century.
That was when refugees from the McCarthy purges could come to Britain and continue to work and write, and a little later Harold Wilson could keep Britain out of the Vietnam War. Now the draft dodgers and witch hunt victims would probably be lucky to be extradited back to the US, but equally likely to be “renditioned” to torturers in regimes until recently expedient allies but now tyrants whom, of course, we now have always opposed.
Since Tony Blair went into Iraq in pursuit of an abstraction – international terrorism that was not there, and ignored the popular vote for an end to Thatcherism, the state of Airstrip One makes one almost long for the halcyon days of the 1960s. That Labour victory was a huge opportunity to exorcise the immiserating ghosts of Gradgrind from our political discourse.
It would have Orwell coughing and spluttering in his English churchyard to see how his dystopia has come so close to realisation, while the society that he critically supported at its inception with the Labour victory has, in retrospect, become almost utopian.
Happy 1984 + 30.