George Orwell’s seminal work 1984 was published in June, 1949. As the world observes the 70th year of its publication, the world is waking up to the Orwellian nightmare that is coming true from the US to India. The state, a handful of companies and individuals are controlling live
War is Peace.
Freedom is Slavery.
Ignorance is Strength… His eyes refocused on the page. He
discovered that while he sat helpless
musing he had also been writing, as
though by automatic action. And it was
not the same crumpled awkward
handwriting as before. Hi pen had slid
voluptuously over the smooth paper,
printing in large capitals…
DOWN WITH BIG BROTHER
DOWN WITH BIGH BROTHER
-George Orwell, 1984
George Orwell’s dark, prophetic and epic novel, 1984, written in 1949, turned 70 in June, 2019. The world might have changed drastically since he wrote this time-present as time-future classic, but every sentence and its hidden nuance or stated evil in the novel speaks of a terrible inheritance which has stood the test of time.
The Deep State, or the Surveillance State, has marked a paradigm shift, surely. Perhaps the corporate-media-arms industry-war, fake news and propaganda empire have taken over the political unconscious rapidly with all the technological forces unleashed across the planet, especially in late capitalism, or post-modernism. Perhaps the private is no more the private and the public is no more the public.
However, the diabolical, tacit and transparent alliance between the repressive state apparatus and the corporate empire of unbridled greed and the quest for infinite profit, keeps unfolding each day with new contours and connections, like a mechanical, robotic, self-automated octopus with all its tentacles in constant camouflage.
Indeed, in the contemporary era, there is so much to hide, but there is nowhere to hide. Everything stands exposed like a movie whose end is the beginning and the beginning the end. Everything is predictable. Everything is ephemeral and permanent at the same time. No one can escape anymore the scrutiny of the well-oiled, Great Surveillance Machine. Yes, Big Brother is Watching You!
Indeed, it is like Franz Kafka’s Joseph K in The Trial, or Charlie Chaplin’s jobless, homeless, perennially hungry drop-out in post-depression Europe as depicted in Modern Times. You are being watched, profiled, monitored, controlled and manipulated constantly – you can’t even have a smoke in peace in a moment of pause after a hard stint of labour, you can’t love, protest, criticise, search for truth, walk in freedom, seek friendship, read a book, watch a film, read or write poetry or prose, or jot down private notes, join communities and collectivises, think about liberation or utopias – you can’t even truly love, as in 1984.
In Kafka, the protagonist moves through endless labyrinths of judicial injustice and cold-blooded bureaucratic inhumanity, in what is clearly the Ministry of Injustice, etc, looking for a correct procedure, a legal truth, a moment of redemption, a sign of rationality or optimism. He finds none. All he finds is an infinite circle of despair, going round and round in multiple spirals and semi-circles of blind irrationality and ghettoisation, where the only new normal is the old normal of abnormality.
In Chaplin, the drop-out character proves that laughter is actually great tragedy, that falling is normal, that hunger is satisfaction, that dreams are a thatched tottering hut, that food is rotten bread after a long queue of great patience, that happiness is as illusory as hope. There is no redemption, as Fyodor Dostoevsky would write in Crime and Punishment.
Chaplin’s Modern Times during and after the great depression anticipates Orwell’s 1984. Orwell’s classic depicts the stark reality of a totalitarian state – clearly showcasing the Stalinist State of those fascist times, whereby thousands disappeared including Lenin’s comrades, politburo members, Red Army commanders, victorious Soviet soldiers who conquered Berlin and defeated Adolf Hitler’s fascist army, apart from poets, writers, comrades and academics.
However, Chaplin tells you the starkness of decadent capitalism and its inherent crisis and exploitation, trapped in its own labyrinth of its times with early automation and mechanical reproduction of labour, with big brother constantly watching underpaid, semi-starved workers. In contrast, Orwell’s dark prophecy moves beyond the repressive Stalinist state into all forms of post-cold war surveillance and control, from capitalism to Marxism.
In the current scenario, the new normal is clearly reflected in the ‘between the lines’ doublespeak syndrome of Orwellian. All the infamous and eternal Orwellian terms: the Ministry of Truth, Newspeak, Old speak, Double Speak, Double Think, Thought Crime, the Enemy of the People, Thought Police, fear as terror, obsessive, compulsive censorship as voluntary and a priori, the anti-national, the traitor, the ‘illegal immigrant’ or the ‘condemned outsider’, the minorities, the unfree man and the unfree woman, freedom as slavery, lies as truth, war as peace, hate politics as eternal love; the margin and the voiceless, the chant of patriotism – they have yet again come back. Like fake news and half-truth, and ‘good days are coming’.
During those days there was no mob-lynching. You just disappeared as in totalitarian China or Saudi Arabia. Or you are shot in cold blood in some dingy basement where your blood will rot along with the rats in the gutter.
Indeed, as in 1984, “It was always at night – the arrests invariably happened at night. The sudden jerk out of sleep, the rough hand shaking your shoulder, the lights glaring in your eyes, the ring of hard faces around the bed. In the vast majority of cases there was no trial, no report of the arrest. People simply disappear, always during the night. Your name was removed from the registers, every record of everything you had ever done was wiped out, your one-time existence was denied and forgotten. You were abolished, annihilated: vaporized was the usual word.”
There are many such resemblances of this form of vaporisation. Jean Paul Sartre wrote in the preface to an eclectic, slim book written by his Sorbonne friend and Marxist intellectual, Paul Nizan, Aden Arabia. It’s how the Stalinists of his time not only killed him but tried to completely eliminate his memory.
During the spontaneous and heady Naxalite movement, with all its glaring faults and mindless mistakes, scores of young people were picked up in the night and they simply disappeared. The narrative would be like this: the cops would pick up the young men, stop the police jeep in a dark and distant lane, tell them to run, and then shoot them in the back on the ploy that they were escaping. Great Bengali actor Uttam Kumar actually saw a Naxalite intellectual Saroj Dutta being shot like this during an early morning walk. It is on record, among several unrecorded and gory tales. Others were tortured and driven mad, as depicted in Mahasweta Devi’s tragic novel, Hajaar Churashir Maa.
Dissident Czech leader Vaclav Havel, a great writer and intellectual who took on the leadership of the struggle against the totalitarian state apparatus in Czechoslovakia during one of those pseudo velvet revolutions which dismantled the post-perestroika and glasnost Soviet Russia and East European regimes, became president of his country after the liberation. He wrote that it is quite possible that any of these nights when you are in deep sleep, dreaming good things in rainbow colours, you are taken by surprise the next day. You might actually find that the next morning you are in a sunless prison cell with no window trapped amidst cold, impersonal walls.
Indeed, 1984, or Kafka, keep returning like eternal ghosts of a macabre bitter realism, visiting us night after night, like the midnight knock, or the call bell which shall ring in a shrill tone, or perhaps it will never ring, and yet you are in a dark prison hole and no one knows that you have disappeared from the face of the earth. You do not exist. You never existed.
As the protagonist writes in 1984, in a hurried, untidy scrawl in his secret notebook: “…they’ll shoot me I don’t care they’ll shoot me in the back of the neck I don’t care down with big brother they always shoot you in the back of the neck I don’t care down with big brother…”
SO HOW IS 1984, IN THIS SUMMER HEAT IN INDIA, AND ACROSS THE GLOBE AND WESTERN WORLD, RELEVANT TO US?
A recent article in Forbes magazine points to the contrasting reality between 1949 and 2019 in simple and stark contradictions as much as bitter realism: • “In 1984, it was the state that determined what constituted acceptable speech in keeping society orderly. In 2019, it is a small cadre of private companies in Silicon Valley and their executives that wield absolute power over what we are permitted to see and say online.
• In 1984, there were just a few countries to which most of the world’s citizens belonged.
In 2019, there are just a few social media empires to which most of the world’s netizens belong.
• In 1984, it was the state that conducted surveillance and censored speech.
In 2019, social media companies deploy vast armies of human and algorithmic moderators that surveil their users 24/7, flagging those that commit ‘thought crimes’ and deleting their violations from existence. Those that commit too many ‘thought crimes’ are banished to “unperson” status by these same private companies, without any intervention or even in contradiction with the will of the state and without any right to appeal…
• In 1984, those who committed particularly egregious thought crimes or had histories of them were banished into nonexistence, all traces of them deleted.
In 2019, social media companies can ban anyone at any time for any reason. Those banished from social’s walled gardens can have every post they’ve ever written wiped away, every record of their existence banished into the memory hole. Those that dare to mention the name of the digitally departed or criticise their banishment can themselves face being banished and their concerns deleted, ensuring the “unperson” truly ceases to exist…”
In contemporary times, three young whistle blowers, broke the threshold of classified official information and have paid severely for their struggle to tell the truth: Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden.
Chelsea Manning, working for the US marines in Iraq, discovered mines of information in classified and unlisted documents specifying the fact that the war and occupation in Iraq by George Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz was based on totally fabricated stories about Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs). And the fake theory of the Clash of Civilisations by Samuel Hintington.
She also found out that scores of killings of innocents were done from unknown locations, such as helicopters etc, as target practice, as depicted by legendary journalist John Pilger in his extraordinary investigative documentary films on Iraq.
Julian Assange is now facing deportation to the US on alleged and cooked up charges, the most telling being that he disclosed state secrets which were reported in The Guardian, London, and all over the world, including in India.
He proved that the Americans had killed too many innocents, that the WMDs were a hoax, that the occupation of Iraq and the civil war which ravaged the country killing tens of thousands was basically for capturing oil – blood for oil.
No wonder, the companies which were almost the private fiefdom of Cheny and Rumsfeld were the main beneficiaries. This also proves that the seductive public relations exercise and combination of war, fake news, propaganda and arms industry works in tandem. Between Halliburton and Brechtel, the multinational oil companies which called the shots in post-occupation Iraq, it was a win-win game. And the massive arms industry, along with the huge sex-trafficking, rebuilding and reconstruction industry, the ancillary industries, ruled the roost in the days after with puppet regimes installed as puppet democracies.
Assange was holed up in a sunless room in the Ecuadorian embassy in London for years while hounded by the US, including the regimes of Barack Obama and Donald Trump. He was picked up recently because a rogue Right-wing regime in Ecuador did a billion dollor trade off with the US, unlike the Left government of the past which gave protection to him. Between the Democrats and Republicans, truly, the authoritarian instinct finds a similar cathartic and vicious unity. That is the price you pay for both 1984 and the current times.
One of the few good things Obama did in his final days of presidency is to release Manning. But, then, she was again put in jail. The truth is that she is not ready to succumb so easily to the Big Brother. Hence, she must suffer.
Edward Snowden, a professional and nameless contractor in the intelligence unit of the USA (like Channing), broke the entire might of the National Security Agency by exposing how the American Deep State has been undertaking a virtual full-scale war against its own citizens’ right to privacy, including of those across the world and in so-called ‘enemy states’. He too had to pay a heavy price, holed up as he is in Russia currently.
In June 2013, he said in a Q&A to The Guardian, London: “Journalists should ask a specific question: since these programmes began operation shortly after September 11th, how many terrorist attacks were prevented SOLELY by information derived from this suspicion less surveillance that could not be gained via any other source? Then ask how many individual communications were ingested to achieve that, and ask yourself if it was worth it. Bathtub falls and police officers kill more Americans than terrorism, yet we've been asked to sacrifice our most sacred rights for fear of falling victim to it.”
Snowden also said, “It's important to bear in mind I'm being called a traitor by men like former Vice President Dick Cheney. This is a man who gave us the warrantless wiretapping scheme as a kind of atrocity warm-up on the way to deceitfully engineering a conflict that has killed over 4,400 and maimed nearly 32,000 Americans, as well as leaving over 100,000 Iraqis dead. Being called a traitor by Dick Cheney is the highest honor you can give an American, and the more panicked talk we hear from people like him, [Democratic Senator Dianne] Feinstein, and [Republican Senator PeterKing], the better off we all are. If they had taught a class on how to be the kind of citizen Dick Cheney worries about, I would have finished high school.”
In India of the mob-lynching times and hate politics as officially sanctioned doctrine, there are apparently scores of functionaries documenting and reporting about your social media posts and other writings and activities. Both party cadre and the intelligence machinery operate in tandem, it seems. Even non-conformist industrialists are not spared.
Only loyal, parasitic, pliant, complicit and opportunist editors are being appointed for top jobs in the media. You toe their line, you flourish. You do doctored videos, mindless propaganda, hate politics, rumours and fake news, and you are the most successful in the media and in academics. If you question, a certain case will be dug up, an old file will resurface and you can go to jail for long periods without trial. Check out Sanjeev Bhatt’s case, or that of lawyer Sudha Bhardhwaj, for instance.
Independent journalists or academics can’t get jobs, are hounded out, their writings are blocked, and organised censorship has become the ‘new normal’.
Both doublespeak and double think has become newspeak and thought crime. If you don’t praise the Big Brother and his best buddies, who don’t really have an unblemished record, including a history of crime and complicity, you can face harassment and hounding unprecedented in India since we discovered a multi-cultural, plural, secular democracy after the freedom movement against the British in which the ruling regime and its ancestors did not participate.
If this is not an unannounced Emergency of yet another 1984 redux, what is it?
That is why Vaclav Havel is right. Today it is a dream. Tomorrow the nightmare might become a reality. It already has. Ask young ‘Bicycle Thief ’ Tabrez Ansari, or the 13 others lynched in Jharkhand, as a public spectacle.
As Kalev Leetaru writes in the Forbes:
“In 1984, the ultimate goal of the massive surveillance empire is to sustain and entrench the power of the state.
In 2019, the ultimate goal of the online world’s massive surveillance empire is to sustain and entrench the power of social media companies. Indeed, the similarities are nearly as endless as the words of the book.
Putting this all together, 70 years after 1984’s publication, it seems nearly every aspect of Orwell’s commentary on the surveillance state has come true.
The only difference is that Orwell saw surveillance and control as the domain of the state, whereas in reality the surveillance world we have come to know is one of private companies monitoring, monetising and manipulating society for nothing more than commercial gain.
In the end, as we rush towards an ever more Orwellian world of surveillance and censorship, perhaps we might all take the time to reread 1984 in order to better understand the world we are rushing towards.”
“If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear”.
That is the inscription below the eight-foot bronze statue installed outside the New Broadcasting House, headquarters of the BBC in central London, where George Orwell (Eric Arthur Blair) worked as a producer during the second world war. The statue, installed less than two years ago in November, 2017, is a timely reminder of the times, when freedom and free speech are under threat, that Orwell anticipated seven decades back.
Remembered for both Animal Farm, a searing satire on Stalinist Soviet Union, and 1984, the dystopian and in hindsight futuristic novel published in 1949, Orwell is also remembered for his brilliant essays. Many of them are freely available on the Internet and are rich in details. Down A Mine, his essay on an underground coalmine in England those days, and ‘Down and Out in Parish & London’ in which he describes his first-hand experience of penury, continue to fascinate readers.
Orwell was born in Motihari (East Champaran) in Bihar, where his father was a civil servant and looked after opium plantations for export to China. But he was barely one year old when his mother moved back to England with the children.
His father stayed back in India and he was a lonely child. "I had the lonely child's habit of making up stories and holding conversations with imaginary persons, and I think from the very start my literary ambitions were mixed up with the feeling of being isolated and undervalued,” he reflected later in life.
Curiously, Orwell never went back to Motihari though he served the Imperial Police in Burma (Myanmar) for five, long years. The house he was born in has been turned into a museum and a heritage building by the Bihar Government to honour the writer, who despite being an Englishman opposed imperialism and fascism.
Orwell missed going to university because the family could not afford the fees. This was partly the reason why he joined the Imperial Police Service, a job that he hated. In 1936, he travelled to Spain and joined one of the groups fighting General Franco in the Spanish Civil War. He sustained a bullet injury in his throat and arm and was unable to speak for a long time.
Unable to continue fighting and disillusioned by the betrayal of the fighters by Russia, he left Spain and narrowly escaped getting arrested on the charge of treason. In 1941 Orwell landed a job with the BBC as a producer. He developed news commentary and drew literary greats such as T.S. Eliot and E.M. Forster to appear on his programmes.
He hated acting as a propagandist to advance the country's national interest. He loathed this part of his job, describing the company's atmosphere in his diary as "something halfway between a girls’ school and a lunatic asylum, and all we are doing at present is useless, or slightly worse than useless.”
A chain smoker, he suffered from Tuberculosis and died before he had turned 47, barely six months after 1984 was published