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George Orwell’s Letter on Why He Wrote ‘1984’
August 15, 2013 12:14 PM   Subscribe

A wise man with a deep understanding of world and eerily prescient and accurate thoughts. Post-NSA revelations, 1984 seems even more real and possible. Reading this letter gives a view into George Orwell's thought process and he really impresses.

"Everywhere the world movement seems to be in the direction of centralised economies which can be made to ‘work’ in an economic sense but which are not democratically organised and which tend to establish a caste system."

"But one must remember that Britain and the USA haven’t been really tried, they haven’t known defeat or severe suffering, and there are some bad symptoms to balance the good ones."

"On the whole the English intelligentsia have opposed Hitler, but only at the price of accepting Stalin. Most of them are perfectly ready for dictatorial methods, secret police, systematic falsification of history etc. so long as they feel that it is on ‘our’ side."

Everything he says is applicable and true even today.
posted by TheLittlePrince (128 comments total) 63 users marked this as a favorite

 
Double-plus good post.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four in 1984, while in high school. What surprises me most isn't that all of this is happening as Orwell imagined, but how very, very little we, as a society, resist it.
posted by MoxieProxy at 12:25 PM on August 15, 2013 [5 favorites]


That last sentence is essential for avoiding the creep into totalitarianism: "I think, and have thought ever since the war began, in 1936 or thereabouts, that our cause is the better, but we have to keep on making it the better, which involves constant criticism."

It's even more poignant that Orwell says it while also making a pragmatic harm reduction argument given how often, in American politics at least, the center(-left) treats criticism from positions further left as some sort of impediment to pragmatic action rather than a spur to futher action.
posted by audi alteram partem at 12:28 PM on August 15, 2013 [13 favorites]


And here, for the decades, I had thought things were shaping up in a distinctly Huxleyan way. Ah, me.
posted by sandettie light vessel automatic at 12:28 PM on August 15, 2013 [7 favorites]


Since mankind are not yet prepared for socialism and democracy, they must go through a period of discipline under state capitalism and fascism. Hence, state capitalism and fascism are inevitable. And because they are inevitable, history is entirely on the side of state capitalism and fascism. History speaks a language so clear and distinct that only the intellectually blind and the morally degenerate can fail to see the signs of the times.--Harry Waton
posted by No Robots at 12:29 PM on August 15, 2013 [2 favorites]


When I read it, 1984 made me feel like being tied on railroad tracks ... you know whats gonna happens .. you can see it coming and there is not much you can do.

I can understand why so many intelligent people I know are so depressed.
posted by TheLittlePrince at 12:30 PM on August 15, 2013 [10 favorites]


Everything he says is applicable and true even today.

None of the quotes you pull are particularly relevant to today, unless you do a lot of violence to Orwell's meaning. We don't have "centralised economies" for example (he is talking about command economies, heavily under central government direction; most Mefites would wish that there was more, not less government control over the economy). There is no longer any vogue for Stalinist politics in the West, no thirst for "dictatorial" government (no one could look at the fiasco in Washington at the moment--the place where policy initiatives go to die--and suggest that US government is "dictatorial" in any meaningful sense). There is no centralized, government directed "falsification of history" of the kind Orwell is writing about (no, he doesn't mean that whatever version of history you like isn't the popular one--he means deliberate, state-imposed "disappearing" of certain individuals, actions, events from the historical record).

I'm never really sure why it is that people are so desperate to believe that they're living in the Worst Time Ever, but it takes a pretty determined refusal to even glance cursorily at the history books to sustain it.
posted by yoink at 12:31 PM on August 15, 2013 [40 favorites]


Post-NSA revelations, 1984 seems even more real and possible.

/rolls eyes do hard they fall out of head and have to be hastily recovered.
posted by Artw at 12:32 PM on August 15, 2013 [12 favorites]


sandettie, it's not like it has to be one or other way.
posted by lbebber at 12:34 PM on August 15, 2013


It's interesting that the anti-imperial Orwell is critical of Gandhi and De Valera for leading "non-democratic" movements as "superhuman fuhrers" (presumably meaning leadership based on charismatic cults of personality) while he (at least by 1947-8) had become a fan of the imperialist Winston Churchill:

The last thing George Orwell published was a May 1949 review of Volume Two of Winston Churchill’s memoirs of the Second World War, Their Finest Hour. You might expect him to have been allergic to its chest-thumping patriotism, its flights of empurpled rhetoric; but not a bit of it. Churchill’s writings, Orwell observed, bestowing the most meaningful accolade he could manage, were “more like those of a human being than of a public figure.” Though in 1939 Orwell had been suspicious of Churchill’s belligerent rhetoric and ominous potential for a personality cult of his own, by the time he came to write 1984, it was not Big Brother who would be baptized Winston but the doomed renegade, “the last man.”
posted by Bwithh at 12:34 PM on August 15, 2013 [3 favorites]


yoink: "None of the quotes you pull are particularly relevant to today, unless you do a lot of violence to Orwell's meaning."

The key idea that Orwell had was the conception of increasing loss of control over their own lives. Many being guided by a few. That remains true now. Unless its ok to be controlled by any other amorphous entity rather than government.
posted by TheLittlePrince at 12:38 PM on August 15, 2013 [2 favorites]


All in all, I think H.G. Wells spoke a lot better about the future, and with less hypocrisy, too. Much more of a democratic socialist.
posted by zombieflanders at 12:39 PM on August 15, 2013


it's not like it has to be one or other way

No, I know. I don't like either of them, to say nothing of this buffet-style selection from both that we seem to be experiencing.
posted by sandettie light vessel automatic at 12:41 PM on August 15, 2013 [3 favorites]


Because he read Zamyatin's 'We' and thought it was really neat-o?
posted by nerdler at 12:43 PM on August 15, 2013


yoink: At least in my case, it's not that I think we're living in the worst times ever -- it's that I think we're living in a golden age which is passing away back to what has been pretty much THE standard way of being a society since the advent of agriculture. That is: plutocracy.

I fear what we're living in is the end of a 200 hundred year blip in history where, because of the industrial revolution and the wide open ability to expand into the Americas, we actually managed to become something like a democracy.
posted by Trochanter at 12:45 PM on August 15, 2013 [3 favorites]


It's actually a mix of Huxley, Orwell, Atwood and a few authors who never made the Best Seller lists, and none of it fully realized... yet. It's the sociological equivalent of physics' "Observer Effect". Having widely read books written about future threats to freedom and humanity, the bad actors will use parts of them as blueprints while changing some tactics to avoid resembling them TOO much. That's why "we don't have "centralised economies" for example, we have megabanks and megacorporations that tell national governments what to do. And "no one could look at the fiasco in Washington at the moment--the place where policy initiatives go to die--and suggest that US government is "dictatorial" in any meaningful sense". No, you have to go to the state governments to see much of the repression the 'do-nothing government' is enabling. STATES RIGHTS, not human rights.
posted by oneswellfoop at 12:47 PM on August 15, 2013 [12 favorites]


This was written in 1944 - before Animal Farm and before a disiilusioned Orwell understood socialism to be only another system of governance where some people are more equal than others.
posted by three blind mice at 12:47 PM on August 15, 2013 [4 favorites]


yoink: "desperate to believe that they're living in the Worst Time Ever"

Its not about being in the worst times. There is nothing like "worst times" as it can always get worse.

Its more about things not improving much from where they were during Orwell's times. We still face the same challenges about loss of privacy, loss of control, jingoistic nationalism and everything else.

The problem is not that its gotten worse, the problem is that it hasn't improved.
posted by TheLittlePrince at 12:49 PM on August 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


I've always wanted a Doomsday Clock-style visualization that measured how close we are to 1984's future.

My worry is that somewhere there's a future federal judge reading the last page of this book in school and wondering why Winston's such a goddamn troublemaker.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 12:50 PM on August 15, 2013 [3 favorites]


This was written in 1944 - before Animal Farm and before a disiilusioned Orwell understood socialism to be only another system of governance where some people are more equal than others.

Um, no.

"On the whole the English intelligentsia have opposed Hitler, but only at the price of accepting Stalin. Most of them are perfectly ready for dictatorial methods, secret police, systematic falsification of history etc. so long as they feel that it is on ‘our’ side."

Unless you feel Animal Farm expanded his disdain for big-C Communism to everything small-s socialist. In which case, if he were alive today he would be among those rallying against the injustice of Obamacare.
posted by oneswellfoop at 12:51 PM on August 15, 2013 [5 favorites]


Artw: "/rolls eyes do hard they fall out of head and have to be hastily recovered."

You believe that in spite of having similar capabilities, today's power centers will have a different intent when it comes to controlling population?
posted by TheLittlePrince at 12:51 PM on August 15, 2013


We don't have "centralised economies" for example (he is talking about command economies, heavily under central government direction; most Mefites would wish that there was more, not less government control over the economy).

Well there is the Federal Reserve, which for eons was run by Randian Alan Greenspan.

There is no longer any vogue for Stalinist politics in the West, no thirst for "dictatorial" government (no one could look at the fiasco in Washington at the moment--the place where policy initiatives go to die--and suggest that US government is "dictatorial" in any meaningful sense).

Well the police is part of government, and police reactions to even minor crimes have ramped up lately, which is part of the trappings of dictatorship even if the core is missing. Let us not forget that "Free Speech Zones" are still in memory. And under Bush and Obama the Executive has increased in power. That is a vector that is pointing towards dictatorship, however slowly, and when/if the argument for dictatorship is made, it will be an argument for overcoming the gridlock that stifles Congress.

There is no centralized, government directed "falsification of history" of the kind Orwell is writing about (no, he doesn't mean that whatever version of history you like isn't the popular one--he means deliberate, state-imposed "disappearing" of certain individuals, actions, events from the historical record).

That is the ultimate end of Orwell's thought process, but you ignore the intermediate steps. The recent NSA revelations, especially the mass surveillance of the citizenry, those are things Orwell would have recognized. What is more, all the things the United States classifies is a version of the falsification of history -- keeping information from people gives them an incorrect perception of the world, and prevents them from challenging your authority to decide what information is right or wrong, and that's the same sort of thing. How would people in the 50s react to the contents of all those FBI files on people that have been FOIA'd? Would that have limited the impact of McCarthyism?
posted by JHarris at 12:52 PM on August 15, 2013 [8 favorites]


I don't think 1984 is a particularly prescient novel if you consider the fact he was writing an allegory about the human condition in 1948.
posted by KokuRyu at 12:57 PM on August 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


We don't have "centralised economies" for example

Agreed. Unless you count the de facto centralized economic planning (tax breaks, import tariffs and subsidies) made possible / necessary by our dreadful federal campaign finance system.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 12:59 PM on August 15, 2013


I think Orwell gets read too broadly. He was writing in response to specific trends he saw (inaccurately, to my mind - he had a real paranoia about the Rest Of The Left, and really needed to see himself as the only real socialist in Britain) as threatening the post-war social democratic/English-style-socialist project. He was always complaining about how everyone else was a bunch of Stalinists, or pansies, or vegetarians, or how no one had yet pointed out that virtually all feminists are ugly, etc.

I really enjoy Orwell's writing and have read quite a few of his letters, shorter pieces, etc. He wasn't a prophet. He was a deeply unhappy guy who was in terrible health for much of his life and who endured what we'd now consider an emotionally abusive childhood. In my opinion, his isolation in childhood and as a young man in the imperial police (not to mention his first wife's tragic and unexpected death) ruined his ability to be genuinely in community with anyone but a very few trusted insiders, and it was this failure of community which led to the awful actions of his later years - including his enthusiasm for Churchill and his attempts to sic MI5 on Jewish radicals and radicals of color because he saw their political commitments as a threat to postwar socialism. (He was also dying of TB for much of this time and I think that confusion and pain may have impaired his judgment.)

He gets held up as a deep thinker when he wasn't, really, and the contradictions in his behavior (that he could call out anti-semitism and racism sometimes and aggressively commit them at other times, for instance) get papered over. Also, the nationalism of his work - whether for tactical reasons or out of a desire for a homeland, he relentlessly roots his politics in an "Englishness" which ultimately, I think, becomes racialized and abusive even though it started out quite different.

I think he's a great person to contemplate precisely because he was someone who really, really tried to lead a life consistent with his ethics, and sometimes this led him to do well and sometimes it led him to do very badly, without much change in the actual ethics involved.
posted by Frowner at 1:01 PM on August 15, 2013 [36 favorites]


On a related tangent, I remember reading a blurb about Brave New World which implied that Huxley got some of his ideas for the book from conversations he'd had with individuals in the upper echelons of the government about their plans to actually implement some of the practices he described in the novel. Wikipedia is not backing me up on this. Does this ring a bell for anyone?
posted by Atom Eyes at 1:02 PM on August 15, 2013


This was written in 1944 - before Animal Farm and before a disiilusioned Orwell understood socialism to be only another system of governance where some people are more equal than others.

He wasn't talking about democratic socialism in Animal Farm, he was talking about communism and Stalinism, which he had experienced first-hand in Spain. Immediately after the war, the communists tried very, very hard to take over Europe, either by force or by rigging elections, or by infiltrating government. You had public intellectuals like Satre championing communism.

And it's not about "state control." Stalism was a totalitarian ideology as bad as Nazism, yet for some reason was very popular in Britain and France (and to some extent the US) after the war.
posted by KokuRyu at 1:03 PM on August 15, 2013 [7 favorites]


Or what Frowner said (better than me).
posted by KokuRyu at 1:04 PM on August 15, 2013


It would be really nice if more people had an actual understanding of the Soviet Union under Stalin to compare the latest outrage of the day against rather than some vaguely metaphorical and infinitely-malleable reading of a single book.
posted by kiltedtaco at 1:05 PM on August 15, 2013 [4 favorites]


1984's essential ... but it serves Western democracies as more of a warning than a critique. The essential critique (which far too few seem to have read) is Brave New World.
posted by philip-random at 1:07 PM on August 15, 2013 [5 favorites]


One of the things that stuck with me about 1984 is that Oceania (or Airstrip One; but I like to imagine that Oceania is limited to Airstrip One, and just propagandizes itself as controlling a third of the planet) is basically North Korea--an isolated, crumbling totalitarian quagmire state built on explicit slave labor and essentially hostaging its own citizens who toil themselves to death for the sake of briefly extending mere physiological survival. Cracks have already appeared all over the system and Winston and Julia both make observations about the state's own failings at the various things it claims.

Everyone remembers the novel being about a high tech dystopia where an elite few have absolute control, but it's really about stretching a failing state as thin as it can get before actual collapse; no one in Oceania "wins," no one is happy, no one benefits from the system anymore and it's obviously falling apart only a few generations in. Oceania is not an extravagant, high tech society; it is poor, scientifically and technologically backwards, economically bankrupt and politically volatile. Despite being one of the most harrowing dystopias to date, it's an optimistic book--Ingsoc is self-evidently not a sustainable system for human living.
posted by byanyothername at 1:11 PM on August 15, 2013 [8 favorites]


What I get the most out of 1984 is that the book, and a lot of Orwell's other writings (notably Coming Up for Air), have a modernist, Edwardian nostalgia for pastoral England before the First World War.

Winston Smith escapes to the countryside, where he regains some of his health and humanity, while Coming Up for Air has plenty of nostalgia for the English countryside. Kind of like EM Forester's Howard's End, or JRR Tolkien's description of The Shire (read his description of how Saruman "modernizes" The Shire, and it's right out of Orwell, really).
posted by KokuRyu at 1:14 PM on August 15, 2013 [2 favorites]


It's also pretty amusing that Orwell's books have been re-purposed by western government (1984 is taught in high school for example) and others ("Hitch") to achieve political or professional ends.
posted by KokuRyu at 1:20 PM on August 15, 2013


Lest we forget,

"Despite his lifelong socialist views, in 1949, a year before his death at 46, Orwell gave the government a list of people he thought were Stalinist sympathizers or "fellow travelers.""
posted by whyareyouatriangle at 1:22 PM on August 15, 2013


How was the Gulf of Tonkin Incident (which we now know was a sham justification for escalating military operations in Vietnam), for one, not precisely an example of the "falsification of history" as Orwell described it? Or the (fortunately, blunderingly) transparent attempts (via the infamous yellow cake memo) to falsify intelligence to justify the Iraq invasion?

That's just one of any number of such incidents--and the FBI's COINTELPRO program blatantly and actively worked to falsify history by infiltrating activist groups in order to discredit them. And arguably, the entire aim of Fox News is to revise current events and history to suit the political and economic aims of a small elite.

The practice of politics in contemporary America--and much of American culture in general--is almost obsessively concerned with constructing and promoting false realities these days. The lack of obvious centralization of the formal power mechanisms of our government doesn't imply that real sociopolitical power hasn't become more concentrated. In fact, because our system despite all its pretenses of egalitarianism blatantly allows wealth to confer disproportionate political power (through political contributions, greater ability to pay fines and civil penalties, and greater ability to navigate the court systems), its only natural that increasing consolidation of wealth would lead to greater de facto centralization of political power in a system like ours (without sufficient popular resistance and activism to hold those tendencies in check).

That said, agreeing with the consensus that Orwell was problematic and not without some blind-spots of his own.
posted by saulgoodman at 1:22 PM on August 15, 2013 [12 favorites]


"Despite his lifelong socialist views, in 1949, a year before his death at 46, Orwell gave the government a list of people he thought were Stalinist sympathizers or "fellow travelers.""

I think he was justified, for reasons I outlined above. The Soviet bloc didn't just happen because the Russians occupied eastern Europe. Take a look at the history of Hungary after the war, for example, to see how those bastards rolled. Why risk something similar happening in Britain?
posted by KokuRyu at 1:26 PM on August 15, 2013 [2 favorites]


It's kind of interesting, how central state capabilities are to the conceptions of power and where it goes wrong, articulated here by Orwell, and elsewhere by Republicans currently in America. The state's (potential) power is immense, but it has significant limitations: states must structure their endeavors in orientation to legitimacy and/or purity, they must represent (either materially or culturally) the interests of some important plurality of citizens, states are expected to ensure justice, etc.

People who obsess over the negative potential of state power always strike me as insufficiently cognizant of the power of capital to colonize state functions, build inter- and extra-statal coalitions, and generally get away with things during times of peace that states can only do during war.
posted by clockzero at 1:30 PM on August 15, 2013 [4 favorites]


Poor Orwell. It would probably annoy him more than anyone else how his words and and 1984 are tortured and misused to fit's someone's political goals. He was a master at writing clearly. He hated obfuscation and spin. And yet he is abused in every direction by hacks.

It would be a joy to read a rejoinder from him if he was alive to see how he has been abused so.
posted by dios at 1:31 PM on August 15, 2013 [2 favorites]


Meanwhile, The Grapes of Wrath will soon celebrate its 75th year of continual relevance to the now.
posted by jason_steakums at 1:32 PM on August 15, 2013 [11 favorites]



I think he was justified, for reasons I outlined above. The Soviet bloc didn't just happen because the Russians occupied eastern Europe. Take a look at the history of Hungary after the war, for example, to see how those bastards rolled. Why risk something similar happening in Britain?


Yes, but they were people like Paul Robeson and Charlie Chaplin, who were not threats to Britain. And he kept a little list of people who should be watched because they were Jewish (and hence loyal to Israel, he thought) or black, like Robeson and hence not loyal to...er..Britain, because that would be exactly where you'd expect Robeson's loyalties to lie? He did pick out one spy, but that was pretty much coincidence. His notes on this matter are distasteful in the extreme.
posted by Frowner at 1:33 PM on August 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


The NSA surveillance of internet usage and cell-phone communications is a Bad Thing. Yes. I am not defending it. But here we are, discussing, openly, that it is a Bad Thing. But it has jack diddly squat to do with what Orwell was writing about in 1984.

The existence of the internet and cell-phones precludes incipient "Orwellianism". Remember: Winston wasn't afraid that his txt messages and emails to Julia would be read by Big Brother. Rather, he risked his life and freedom to purchase a blank diary and pen to write down his private thoughts out of sight of the telescreen in his apartment. Anything resembling private telephones or internet usage would just be unthinkable in 1984. This was a society in which children turned their parents in ostensibly for talking in their sleep. IRL 2013 USA, I know personally a half-dozen people who have put a great deal of effort into getting themselves arrested for acts of civil disobedience because they so strongly disagreed with what the government was doing, and had to announce loudly and publicly that that was their plan in order to get enough attention to get arrested. So much for "thoughtcrime".

When asked what fascism meant, Orwell said the word had become meaningless, because people were simply using it to mean "that which is undesirable." That is exactly what is happening to the concept of "Orwellianism", which would probably have George Orwell turning over in his grave.
posted by Cookiebastard at 1:34 PM on August 15, 2013 [10 favorites]


Is the state working to help me and my neighbors achieve our ends, or are we working to help the state achieve its ends?
posted by philip-random at 1:35 PM on August 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


If you look at it from a purely predictive point of view, America does skew more toward Huxley's vision, with a society placated by mindless entertainment and delta drones working in low-wage service jobs.

But if you combine the surveillance state mentality that has been in effect in Britain the past decade or so with the American SWAT/militarist style of policing, it doesn't mean we couldn't easily go in that direction.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 1:35 PM on August 15, 2013


His notes on this matter are distasteful in the extreme.

I read most of his Collected Letters about 10 years ago, but I don't think I got to this part of his life. I will have to check them out.

Thanks for the comments. It's pretty interesting in light of how Ken Loach is being accused of "whitewashing" socialist history in Britain.
posted by KokuRyu at 1:36 PM on August 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


That last sentence is essential for avoiding the creep into totalitarianism: "I think, and have thought ever since the war began, in 1936 or thereabouts, that our cause is the better, but we have to keep on making it the better, which involves constant criticism."

I was about to post the same. During the Bush years I was mindboggled by how often criticism of specific policies was equated with treason or "America hating." I see the same thing to a lesser extent from many who feel Obama can do no wrong (for example, a recent exchange with a leftist friend about the "net good" of the surveillance state).

It's even more poignant that Orwell says it while also making a pragmatic harm reduction argument given how often, in American politics at least, the center(-left) treats criticism from positions further left as some sort of impediment to pragmatic action rather than a spur to futher action.

Wouldn't Orwell's political position, located in its historical context, be center(-left) though? In the letter he cautiously supports the war against the "greater evils" of Nazism and Japanese imperialism and pushes back against "pacifists" who believe England is already a totalitarian state. He comes off as a practical but principled man taking a nuanced stance given two unappealing courses of action (war or totalitarianism). Is there something fundamentally incompatible between pragmatism and political criticism that I'm missing that makes his position especially poignant?
posted by echocollate at 1:36 PM on August 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


He was a master at writing clearly.

And ironically (in the context of your quote), his Politics and the English Language has also been pretty badly misused. It was never intended for undergrads, but instead for technical/mass comms scenarios, as a way to determine if a politician or functionary was telling the truth.
posted by KokuRyu at 1:38 PM on August 15, 2013


And I add that if you stood in London in 1946 and thought for one minute that the UK was going to go the way of Hungary after the war, then you were fucking delusional. You might as well have said that the US was going to go over to Stalin. Orwell himself wrote in, I think, 1943, that he could already see the old status quo being restablished and the elites returning to power, which at the time he thought was a bad thing.

Even in France, for example, where it was far more likely that a seriously communist government could have been established after the war...well, it never seemed very likely. Societies have histories, and this business of saying that because the radical left in Italy or France or even England had a few people who sort of thought that Stalin was quite good really (and Stalin was a British ally for part of the war, remember, and there was positive propaganda about him that didn't actually make much of an impression either) that the regular sorts of socialists and communists who had a prayer of coming to power were ever, ever going to practice Stalinist collectivization...or that the popular will would have made it possible, or that the USSR could have steamrollered Western Europe after they'd lost so many people and so much military materiel - that's mere Cold War rightist propaganda nonsense.

Nevermind saying that this justifies behavior that would have been at home under Stalin - shopping people to the state because you think that they're insufficiently loyal!!
posted by Frowner at 1:40 PM on August 15, 2013 [2 favorites]


Thanks for this post.
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 1:40 PM on August 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


I've always wanted a Doomsday Clock-style visualization that measured how close we are to 1984's future.

It should be a calendar: "Today is December 27, 1983. We are five days away from 1984."
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 1:42 PM on August 15, 2013 [2 favorites]


I read most of his Collected Letters about 10 years ago, but I don't think I got to this part of his life. I will have to check them out.

I don't think these are in the collected letters (or at least not the old four volume set, with As I Please and so on). I read them online a few years ago when that Hitchens book came out. It was all pretty short stuff just basically attributing people's dodginess to their race or religion. Which is just bizarre given how sympathetic he was to the Indians who were reluctant to participate in the war on the side of the UK - he wrote several times about how he thought it was quite reasonable not to want to come in on the side of your colonizers.

I just feel like he was a really stubborn person who didn't understand others very well on the personal level, even though he was very sharp about many other things.
posted by Frowner at 1:44 PM on August 15, 2013


It should be a calendar: "Today is December 27, 1983. We are five days away from 1984."

OMG I HAD NO IDEA MY 9TH BIRTHDAY WAS SUCH A BIG DEAL
posted by COBRA! at 1:44 PM on August 15, 2013 [2 favorites]


Which is just bizarre given how sympathetic he was to the Indians

He seemed pretty sympathetic towards anti-imperialism (if not necessarily racism):

"What we always forget is that the overwhelming bulk of the British proletariat does not live in Britain, but in Asia and Africa."

I found that link in this recent Guardian essay (the one that criticizes Ken Loach): People of colour like me have been painted out of working-class history
posted by KokuRyu at 1:51 PM on August 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


zombieflanders:
All in all, I think H.G. Wells spoke a lot better about the future, and with less hypocrisy, too. Much more of a democratic socialist.
Ah, you might want to read "Anticipations of the Reaction of Mechanical and Scientific Progress Upon Human Life and Thought" then. Especially his expectations of the men of the New Republic. Dark stories could be cast in that eugenic world.
They will have an ideal that will make killing worth the while; like Abraham, they will have the faith to kill, and they will have no superstitions about death. They will naturally regard the modest suicide of incurably melancholy, or diseased or helpless persons as a high and courageous act of duty rather than a crime. [Chapter IX, The Faith, Morals, and Public Policy of the New Republic]
It's a good read, though. And available on Gutenberg.
posted by bouvin at 1:52 PM on August 15, 2013 [3 favorites]


Is there something fundamentally incompatible between pragmatism and political criticism that I'm missing that makes his position especially poignant?

Only that some presume the two are incompatible when they aren't and use that mistaken belief to minimize or silence criticism. To wit, those who condemn others for making the perfect the enemy of the good (i.e. the argument that radical criticism undermines or limits the abilities of pragmatists to make progress). I wasn't speaking to Orwell's positions themselves (troubled as they were) as I was the applicability of the quote to our political context today.
posted by audi alteram partem at 1:54 PM on August 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


Cookiebastard: "The existence of the internet and cell-phones precludes incipient "Orwellianism"."

Internet, specifically in its ability to spread groupthink and watch over you, is not much different from telescreen which he mentioned.

Cookiebastard: "So much for "thoughtcrime"."

Pre-emptive strike is basically a response to "thoughtcrime".
posted by TheLittlePrince at 1:54 PM on August 15, 2013


When asked what fascism meant, Orwell said the word had become meaningless, because people were simply using it to mean "that which is undesirable."

Oh, dear, fetch George the smelling salts and direct his rapidly-crumpling form to the fainting couch. It's a good thing he didn't, say, improve that discourse by interpreting the widespread revilement at the unholy fusion of capital and state power in modernity as evidence of the necessity for all forms of power to be equitably distributed in functional, just modern societies or else he might have accidentally become a political theorist.

That is exactly what is happening to the concept of "Orwellianism", which would probably have George Orwell turning over in his grave.

The problem here is that domination doesn't happen all at once; the Nazis-marching-through-Paris type of thing is not the only way. It happens incrementally, and when you assume that any increment which falls below "secret police disappearing dissidents" or "extrajudicial executions in the streets" simply doesn't count, and deserves no answer from civil society, the likelihood that things will become truly monstrous in the future increases. Don't think it can't happen here.
posted by clockzero at 1:57 PM on August 15, 2013 [2 favorites]


It couldn't happen here
posted by KokuRyu at 2:00 PM on August 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


The existence of the internet and cell-phones precludes incipient "Orwellianism".

More and more I think that far from exploding our ability to live a lie, the internet has supercharged it.
posted by George_Spiggott at 2:01 PM on August 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


One of the things that occurs to me: there are things that would strike us today as insanely paternalistic or far-right that even a lot of anti-fascist people in the forties would have been at home with - the arrest of homosexuals, for instance, and all kinds of things about sexual behavior. And an awful lot of people at the time thought that it was just fine for a man to hit his wife (see Orwell's essay on beach postcards for a glancing and uncritical reference to this).

Some times are definitely worse than others in general; some times are worse than others along specific axes while being better in other ways. (ie, we've lost a lot of union jobs and what little welfare state we had in the eighties, but the life I live now as a queer and gender non-conforming person who actually holds an okay job and has some recourse if I'm threatened - that life would have been impossible then.) I'm not trying to say that because we have less homophobia now, drone strikes are a wash. What I am trying to say is that it's important to understand Orwell in his own context and not try to create some kind of Forer effect universal futurism out of his work. Which is, after all, what the right did when they had us all reading Animal Farm and 1984 in school in the eighties.
posted by Frowner at 2:09 PM on August 15, 2013 [7 favorites]


...when/if the argument for dictatorship is made, it will be an argument for overcoming the gridlock that stifles Congress.

Exactly.

I even find myself sometimes wishing for a good emperor or two--someone who can Get Shit Done. And if I've entertained it, I won't be surprised if some day someone pulls that dusty old idea off the shelf, runs with it, and is met with thunderous applause.
posted by General Tonic at 2:12 PM on August 15, 2013


Internet, specifically in its ability to spread groupthink and watch over you, is not much different from telescreen which he mentioned.
Pre-emptive strike is basically a response to "thoughtcrime".
posted by TheLittlePrince at 3:54 PM on August 15


Did you just get finished reading 1984 on your summer reading list? Your comments remind me of my 17 year old nephew who just "discovered" Pink Floyd and wants to share the remarkable life-changing insight he just learned.

No, the internet is nothing like the telescreen. "Pre-emptive strike is basically a response to "thoughtcrime"---huh?
posted by dios at 2:13 PM on August 15, 2013 [2 favorites]


I read "Politics and the English Language" when I was like 10 or 11 years old because it was published as a forward to my copy of 1984. And while 1984 was and is a seminal work of science fiction, it is the shorter essay that has stuck with me harder over the years and informed my personal (quite left wing) politics.
posted by vibrotronica at 2:20 PM on August 15, 2013 [4 favorites]


This was written in 1944 - before Animal Farm and before a disiilusioned Orwell understood socialism to be only another system of governance where some people are more equal than others.

Despite his lifelong socialist views, in 1949, a year before his death at 46, Orwell gave the government a list of people he thought were Stalinist sympathizers or "fellow travelers."

Despite?

Orwell was disillusioned by Communism as of Homage to Catalonia (1938), his memoir of what it was like to fight for democracy in Republican Spain. Or rather, it's about what it was like to try to fight for a democracy that was being squeezed between fascist armies and Stalinist infiltrators. We're used to thinking of Communist subversion as a paranoid fantasy of the American John Birch Society, but in Spain it was a real phenomenon. Communists/Stalinists slowly took over key positions in the Republican government and military. Once they reached critical mass they purged like crazy. In the end Orwell had to flee the country for his life.

Orwell never rejected socialism. There's a rather large difference between socialism and Stalinism. It's possible to enthusiastically support one and hate the other.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 2:21 PM on August 15, 2013 [8 favorites]


But if the sort of world that I am afraid of arrives, a world of two or three great superstates which are unable to conquer one another, two and two could become five if the fuhrer wished it.

We're closer to the truth being rendered impotent regardless of the sum.

I think Philip K. Dick was more prophetic than Huxley or Orwell.
posted by Smedleyman at 2:25 PM on August 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


Your comments remind me of my 17 year old nephew...

posted by dios(!!!!!) at 2:13 PM

Ahhhh.... I just can't. Way too easy.

On the other hand, I do agree- it'd be neat to have a couple of paragraphs of Orwell from beyond the grave demolishing opportunistic word-slug Christopher Hitchens' constant invocations of his writing in service of a completely-fabricated imperialistically motivated war-of-choice against those uncivilized Moooslim hordes. Hope the two have had a chance to catch up since then.
posted by hap_hazard at 2:27 PM on August 15, 2013 [2 favorites]


dios: "No, the internet is nothing like the telescreen. "Pre-emptive strike is basically a response to "thoughtcrime"---huh?"

And I say it is. The situation becomes a bit like "yes it is. no it isn't" argument right? (Something very familiar to 17 yr old ppl)

Unless you can elaborate on why you think the "Internet, specifically in its ability to spread groupthink and watch over you," is not like a telescreen, there cant really be a conversation.

Or did you not want to have a conversation? It was just a patronizing ... "you think like a 17 yr old. what do you know of real world" throwaway from a superior intellect who cant be bothered to join the discussion in a thread?

So, instead of making such patronizing remarks, why don't you tell me why internet doesn't facilitate and encourage groupthink while making it a lot easier for govt to watch what you are up to?
posted by TheLittlePrince at 2:35 PM on August 15, 2013



Everything he says is applicable and true even today.


Editorialize much ?
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 2:40 PM on August 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


Pogo_Fuzzybutt: "Editorialize much ?"

:) guilty! Didn't think a lot about it then and, after posting, when i reviewed and questioned if it should be there, I thought may be its not so bad and could act as a starting point of the discussion.
posted by TheLittlePrince at 2:44 PM on August 15, 2013


With all due respect, TheLittlePrince, that's a load of malarkey.

And, once again, I'm not defending government surveillance here. I'm asserting that it does not currently match anything resembling an "Orwellian" model relevant to the novel 1984.

Remember: In 1984 there was only one allowable thought: the supremacy of The Party and Big Brother. IRL USA 2013, there are television networks providing us with (at least the illusion of) many points of view. Heck, there's a cable news outlet that has been extremely popular for years that has been dedicated primarily to criticizing the President. 1984 telescreens had one channel. The I Love Big Brother channel.

The Internet is, really, this fantastic network for communications that lets you and I and all these other cool people discuss oppressive governments on Metafilter, more than it is a tool of oppression preventing people from expressing their opinions, I think.

And clockzero, I think that's that's a mighty slippery slope you're suggesting there. But maybe I'm a sheeple that needs to wake up.
posted by Cookiebastard at 2:47 PM on August 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


Did you just get finished reading 1984 on your summer reading list? Your comments remind me of my 17 year old nephew who just "discovered" Pink Floyd and wants to share the remarkable life-changing insight he just learned.

That's not a very good way to call out the immaturity of another person's comments.
posted by Atom Eyes at 2:47 PM on August 15, 2013 [5 favorites]


Unless you can elaborate on why you think the "Internet, specifically in its ability to spread groupthink and watch over you," is not like a telescreen, there cant really be a conversation.

Is context completely meaningless to you?

I suppose an XboX is just like a telescreen because it is in your house and can recieve input to you. So is a microwave. They are both square and run off electricity. So is a window because they have glass and people can see you through them. The telephone is as much of a telescreen as the internet is.

We could go on and on like this.

Or, you know, we could look at the two essential elements of why the trope was used by Orwell: (1) it allowed the Thought Police to passively watch and listen to all Party members to avoid conspiracies and make political arrests; and (2) it functioned as a TV in which people were forced to watch the Two Minute of Hate and be disgusted with Emmanuel Goldstein. The Internet does not passively watch over you. I can sit in my house all day long and the internet cannot recieve any data from me. I could have Pro-Goldstein meetings in my house day or night and the Internet would never know, much less the ThoughtPolice. Moreover, I am not forced to watch anything on the Internet every day. Nor am I forced to watch something with a particular slant. I can go to an Anti-Goldstein hate site. I can go to a pro-Goldstein love site.

The point of the telescreen is that the government has the capability to control what you think and punish free thought. The internet does neither of those things in any sense in which Orwell was writing.

And you didn't bother to explain the other complete nonsense about "preemptive strike being a response to thoughtcrime" so I'm not sure how to even address it.
posted by dios at 2:55 PM on August 15, 2013 [4 favorites]


Everything he says is applicable and true even today

Perhaps, but perhaps not for the reason you have in mind.

I strongly recommend Orwell's non-fiction. For most of his career he was working as a gonzo journalist, and those experiences are the foundation of his political views and later fiction. Try The Road to Wiggan Pier. He spends the first half of the book documenting what life was like for the working class in the industrial north of England. (hint: bad) It's on the basis of those facts on the ground that Orwell spends the second half of the book arguing for socialism. Observing society as it is forms the basis of his politics. Again, if you want to understand why Orwell's anti-totalitarianism was both anti-fascist and anti-communist you really need to read his autobiographical Homage to Catalonia.

In short, it's a mistake to try to interpret the metaphors of 1984 and Animal Farm outside the context of the real-world circumstances that motivated them. They were not intended as abstractions. The best tribute we can pay to Orwell is to follow his example: carefully observe how politics and economics actually affect how people live and respond accordingly.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 2:56 PM on August 15, 2013 [7 favorites]


I, and probably most of us here, carry in my pocket a device that is close enough to a telescreen for the FBI and NSA's purposes (see also). I'm right now sitting in front of a laptop computer that has a camera pointed directly at me. A couple of years ago a school district in Pennsylvania got sued for surreptitiously using laptop cameras for improperly surveilling its high school students.
posted by no relation at 3:00 PM on August 15, 2013 [3 favorites]


Artw: "/rolls eyes do hard they fall out of head and have to be hastily recovered.
"

Good thing it's being filmed, eh brother?
posted by iamabot at 3:01 PM on August 15, 2013


I, and probably most of us here, carry in my pocket a device that is close enough to a telescreen for the FBI and NSA's purposes (see also). I'm right now sitting in front of a laptop computer that has a camera pointed directly at me. A couple of years ago a school district in Pennsylvania got sued for surreptitiously using laptop cameras for improperly surveilling its high school students.
posted by no relation at 5:00 PM on August 15


Ok! Well, then let us prove your thesis. Do this: without pushing any buttons, stare straight into that laptop or cell phone and say the following: "Screw the President. He is wrong about everything. I am voting against him and his party in the next election and I mean it."

If you can report back to us tomorrow, then the comparison is moronic. If you can't because you have been arrested, then I stand totally corrected.
posted by dios at 3:06 PM on August 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


Maybe the proles are okay with stop and frisk, random drug tests, keystroke recording, performance reviews, insurance evaluations. Maybe this really is a kinder, gentler Big Brother who really does deserve our love. All the same, I live for the day when it is overthrown.
posted by No Robots at 3:08 PM on August 15, 2013


A couple of years ago a school district in Pennsylvania got sued for surreptitiously using laptop cameras for improperly surveilling its high school students.

Yeah, but it's kind of missing the point to focus on the "prophesies" of the book. From Orwell's life experience, which included working for the BBC, state media (and other media) had a profound influence on shaping the national narrative, on "how people think." Everyone had a radio, so everyone was getting their information from a centralized resource. What if you could never turn off the radio?

Plus, "Big Brother" was modelled on the extreme image management Winston Churchill employed during the war.
posted by KokuRyu at 3:09 PM on August 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


And clockzero, I think that's that's a mighty slippery slope you're suggesting there. But maybe I'm a sheeple that needs to wake up.

But I wasn't suggesting the existence of a slippery slope, nor was I imputing a conspiratorial teleology to things like the NSA spying on everyone without warrants. It's possible to talk about negative changes in the exercise of power without either saying that everything is fine right now or that disaster is imminent: I was merely noting that the emergence of brutal and oppressive regimes rarely happens immediately, and that when institutional safeguards on the security, dignity, and liberty of citizens are removed, political actors who might not even have been involved in those undoings can nonetheless make use of extant institutional characteristics in service of their agendas. Do you disagree with any of that?
posted by clockzero at 3:10 PM on August 15, 2013 [2 favorites]


I, and probably most of us here, carry in my pocket a device that is close enough to a telescreen for the FBI and NSA's purposes

Ah yes, I too remember reading George Orwell's powerful novel about the horror of living in a state where the Thought Police recorded metadata of your telephone calls and had to apply to a court showing cause in order to obtain a warrant should they wish to inspect any of that metadata. Truly, which of us can forget his harrowing message: "Big Brother is Sometimes Watching the Metadata of Your Phonecalls But Only With The Approval of the FISA court and with a Court Approved Warrant." Chilling.
posted by yoink at 3:12 PM on August 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


Cookiebastard: "The Internet is, really, this fantastic network for communications"

Cookiebastard, I hear what you are saying but my comment is about a very specific capability of internet, i.e. which facilitates groupthink and big brother intrusion.

Real life is never going to be as simple as 1984 with 1 channel being broadcast continuously and people being used to watch through your tele-screen about what you are doing.

And we are not in a 1984 scenario.

The point is that we are in that direction which if taken to extremes will lead to a 1984 like situation.

Further, Internet is multiple things and it is just a tool. whether we will use it as a big brother or as a universal communicator depends on us. And, in my opinion, we (or our elite/powerful) are more likely to use it as big brother than a universal communicator.

1984 is just a simplified version of what reality could be if the system was left unchecked to proceed. It will not BE the reality.
posted by TheLittlePrince at 3:14 PM on August 15, 2013


I even find myself sometimes wishing for a good emperor or two--someone who can Get Shit Done. And if I've entertained it, I won't be surprised if some day someone pulls that dusty old idea off the shelf, runs with it, and is met with thunderous applause.

This is, incidentally, precisely why George Washington thought a two-party system was a terrible idea.
posted by mstokes650 at 3:15 PM on August 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


Ah yes, I too remember reading George Orwells powerful novel about the horror of living in a state where the Thought Police recorded metadata of your telephone calls and had to apply to a court showing cause in order to obtain a warrant should they wish to inspect any of that metadata. Truly, which of us can forget his harrowing message: "Big Brother is Sometimes Watching the Metadata of Your Phonecalls But Only With The Approval of the FISA court and with a Court Approved Warrant." Chilling.

There's really no need for this incredibly condescending rhetoric, yoink. A few months ago you didn't even know this was going on, none of us did. Why should we be so utterly confident that any concerns about this development and where it might lead are not only foolish, but naive?
posted by clockzero at 3:19 PM on August 15, 2013 [2 favorites]


dios: " If you can't because you have been arrested, then I stand totally corrected."

I was about to write a big response about how internet and telescreen share the same essential capabilities and hence are similar in that regard but I see you are looking to be "technically correct" (which i guess is the best and most useless type of correct).

Hence, I stand corrected: Internet is not "technically" like telescreen. They use completely different technologies and internet doesn't have the exact same capabilities of telescreen.
posted by TheLittlePrince at 3:19 PM on August 15, 2013 [4 favorites]


Ok! Well, then let us prove your thesis. Do this: without pushing any buttons, stare straight into that laptop or cell phone and say the following: "Screw the President. He is wrong about everything. I am voting against him and his party in the next election and I mean it."

If you can report back to us tomorrow, then the comparison is moronic. If you can't because you have been arrested, then I stand totally corrected.


This is a rather histrionic way to construct a false dichotomy.
posted by clockzero at 3:22 PM on August 15, 2013 [5 favorites]


Remember: In 1984 there was only one allowable thought: the supremacy of The Party and Big Brother. IRL USA 2013, there are television networks providing us with (at least the illusion of) many points of view.

Illusion of is the important thing here. Of course there's many smaller websites with all kinds of views, but neither of the major parties seem to have a problem with the NSA's activities, and if fixing something is not part of a major party platform it's unlikely to happen. Meanwhile as we've seen, those smaller sites and organizations tend to get Officially Looked At by spooks in very chilling-effect kinds of ways, and the influence from that takes the form of a thousand little invisible nudges, which we should always be wary of. So no, we're not at Big Brother yet, but the path there has never been clearer.

The Internet is, really, this fantastic network for communications that lets you and I and all these other cool people discuss oppressive governments on Metafilter, more than it is a tool of oppression preventing people from expressing their opinions, I think.

In some ways, but if you look at it by sheer numbers of users then Facebook and Twitter are a lot bigger than Metafilter, and political discussion there tends to be mostly empty sloganeering, pleas to sign this or that online petition, and talking past each other. At its worst that culture leads to things like KONY 2012. If some annoying private group could manipulate so many Facebookers, a government could do a lot more.

Ok! Well, then let us prove your thesis. Do this: without pushing any buttons, stare straight into that laptop or cell phone and say the following: "Screw the President. He is wrong about everything. I am voting against him and his party in the next election and I mean it." If you can report back to us tomorrow, then the comparison is moronic.

Oh come on now dios, you're better than that. No one here, that I see at least, is arguing that we're IN the age of Big Brother, but it is creepy that the world is slowly coming to resemble that vision more and more. It's probably a case of the superficials growing closer while the underlying basis isn't so bad. But I remember how the direction of the country changed basically overnight on a certain September day 12 years ago, and I haven't seen anything to suggest that couldn't happen again, maybe this time through an entirely invented danger, and if it does, some of the apparatus will already be in place. I mean, the NSA had a system in place where they required companies to lie to their users about their backdoors. I, at least, found that infuriating.

Ah yes, I too remember reading George Orwell's powerful novel about the horror of living in a state where the Thought Police recorded metadata of your telephone calls and had to apply to a court showing cause in order to obtain a warrant should they wish to inspect any of that metadata.

A secret court, that functions mostly as a rubber stamp.
posted by JHarris at 3:22 PM on August 15, 2013 [8 favorites]


Shorter TheLittlePrince: there exists technology today which can perform functions which are similar to certain functions of things that were in 1984 and used for bad purposes in the book, so if we get rid of all the laws we have and totally give into totalitarianism, then it is theoretically possible that a totalitarian government could use those technologies to do something that is kind of like what BigBrother did in 1984.

(and then the "The More You Know" graphic runs across the background)
posted by dios at 3:25 PM on August 15, 2013 [2 favorites]


Ah yes, I too remember reading George Orwells powerful novel about the horror of living in a state where the Thought Police recorded metadata of your telephone calls and had to apply to a court showing cause in order to obtain a warrant should they wish to inspect any of that metadata.

It's not "just metadata," it's the social graph that is being analyzed. Think of PDK's "Precog" crimes unit, or the Tuttle/Buttle mixup in Brazil.
posted by KokuRyu at 3:26 PM on August 15, 2013


A few months ago you didn't even know this was going on, none of us did.

A few months ago I had never read a single speculative piece about the activities of the NSA that didn't assume that far, far worse things were going on. I am still a little amazed that the main response to the Snowden revelations hasn't been a collective sigh of relief. Just a week or so before Snowden's revelations there was a thread about the NSA on metafilter in which the dominant opinion (and everyone who argued against it was railed at for their infantile naivete) was that the NSA records every. single. conversation that takes place in the US phone network. Not the metadata: the entire conversation. And there was absolutely no shred of a thought that they might seek warrants to inspect these recordings!

I can only assume that the people who used to so earnestly make these claims BS (before Snowden) did so entirely unseriously--just spinning idle fairy tales for their own amusement. But now, why should I take them seriously when they profess to be so Shocked and Appalled at the infinitely more restrained and legally-constrained practices that Snowden revealed to be going on?
posted by yoink at 3:35 PM on August 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


Here, by the way, is the thread I mentioned above.
posted by yoink at 3:36 PM on August 15, 2013


[Comment removed. Folks, the sneery comments need to ease up. TheLittlePrince you may want to threadsit a little less.]
posted by jessamyn at 3:43 PM on August 15, 2013


I am still a little amazed that the main response to the Snowden revelations hasn't been a collective sigh of relief.

Out of curiosity, how do you know there aren't worse things going on? We know little beyond what Snowden's leaked and I see no reason to believe a low level functionary like him was aware of everything currently happening at the NSA. Is it unreasonable to assume that what has now been confirmed is not the full extent of it?

Furthermore, why would you think that the secret court order system now in place won't be even more broadly abused in future?
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 3:44 PM on August 15, 2013 [2 favorites]




I am still a little amazed that the main response to the Snowden revelations hasn't been a collective sigh of relief. Just a week or so before Snowden's revelations there was a thread about the NSA on metafilter in which the dominant opinion (and everyone who argued against it was railed at for their infantile naivete) was that the NSA records every. single. conversation that takes place in the US phone network.

That was a Metafilter thread, which is ultimately a bunch of us internet layabouts blabbing. Now everyone is talking about the NSA and speculating about the things they may or may not be doing but now seem awfully goddamn plausible. Relief, schmelief.
posted by JHarris at 3:47 PM on August 15, 2013


But now, why should I take them seriously when they profess to be so Shocked and Appalled at the infinitely more restrained and legally-constrained practices that Snowden revealed to be going on?

Please bear in mind that I'm not trying to argue gratuitously or put you down.

You're framing this as contention about the strength of claims made on this website vis-a-vis the posting history of the claims-makers, which is not at all what I was talking about, so I think we're having two different discussions here. My point was, your characterization of concern about what ends the technological capabilities of various government agencies might be put to as risibly foolish and naive was baseless and perhaps naive itself. Why are you so confident that the rule of law is being scrupulously respected, and that it will be forever? Isn't it kind of specious to argue that because there existed in the public speculation that turned out to be false, that speculation was clearly misguided in retrospect? You yourself admitted that you didn't know that speculation was false until recently, but now all of a sudden you have total confidence that you know what's going on?
posted by clockzero at 3:53 PM on August 15, 2013 [3 favorites]


clockzero, I think we're pretty much on the same page, actually, w/r/t the horrors of the potential for abuse inherent in the current surveillance state. I just don't see it as being extremely relevant (I will concede for sure that it is partially relevant) to Orwell's 1984.

What Orwell (I don't want to use the word "failed" here, but...) did not predict was the massive influence of corporate power in society.

What's going on IRL USA 2013 is horrible in a different way than what's outlined in 1984. Now we have 40,000 people protesting the Keystone XL pipeline outside the White House getting flat-out ignored, for instance, rather than being imprisoned as dissidents before they even show up to protest. How's that for dystopian? You can yell and scream right outside of the President's house and he'll pay a minor amount of lip-service to it in a speech or two and then keep signing off on fracking for natural gas as the cornerstone of our clean-energy future.

I guess my point is mainly that 1984 was a product of the context of its time, and as a literary work and a vague warning about "totalitarianism" it's still very relevant, but as a "watch out - we're heading in that direction" type warning, I disagree. I think we're headed in a different, possibly worse direction. And chalking it up as "Orwellianism" poses the threat of ignoring the facets of our current situation that Orwell was unable to predict.
posted by Cookiebastard at 4:00 PM on August 15, 2013 [6 favorites]


yoink: "infinitely more restrained and legally-constrained practices"

Is it really? I mean all we know about the restraint is from government officials going on about how restrained and legally constrained they are (with a "trust me", "cross my heart and hope to die" as the proof).
posted by TheLittlePrince at 4:02 PM on August 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


I even find myself sometimes wishing for a good emperor or two--someone who can Get Shit Done.

Here you are: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/aug/13/eastern-europe-autocrats-return-test-democracy
posted by binturong at 4:43 PM on August 15, 2013


What's going on IRL USA 2013 is horrible in a different way than what's outlined in 1984. Now we have 40,000 people protesting the Keystone XL pipeline outside the White House getting flat-out ignored, for instance, rather than being imprisoned as dissidents before they even show up to protest. How's that for dystopian?

It's actually pretty bad for dystopian. Forty-thousand people showing up outside the President's house to protest on one issue in a country of 300 million makes a pretty poor indicator of how the remaining 299,960,000 people feel about that issue.

You could've chosen a much better example of corporate influence...like, say, financial regulations? Most Americans support regulations on banks far stronger than anything that has been proposed in Congress (at least to the full Congress), let alone the watered-down version of Dodd-Frank that actually passed.

(Yeah, I'm being nitpicky. But there are many, many excellent examples of the outsize influence of corporate power in the US; the Keystone XL pipeline isn't really one of them.)
posted by breakin' the law at 4:44 PM on August 15, 2013


Interesting read - it's just as interesting to read the different contextualizations of 1984 here. For me, the book was written at a time when there was much debate about the merits of command economies vs. free markets. But instead of that, this letter in particular highlights Orwell's qualms about the rise of various undemocratic national movements, which he believes will give rise to more totalitarian movements (whether fascist or communist). I think many people have a difficult time disassociating "Orwellian" with his criticism of a totalitarian state, since this state was the background and object of the novel.

But his pro-democracy leanings are heavily rooted in a democracy's ability to respond to it's citizens. Most forms of democracy are capable of this - specifically those designed to allow many varied voices a seat at the table, rather than allowing decisions to be made by a few pigs (yeah, wrong book).

But I don't think Orwell could have anticipated the power and influence that capitalism has over a democracy. In the United States, you can't vote for a candidate who will reduce military spending or stop fracking or ban secret courts. Instead, that power, which was once the domain of the state, is controlled by unaccountable capitalists. And to me, that lack of accountability is the tie that binds modern "democratic" society and totalitarianism.

I'd love to travel back in time and give Orwell a copy of The End of History and hear his interpretation of it. Many people view that book as evidence of the triumph of liberal democracy over despots and dictators, but I think it better illustrates the triumph of capitalism over all forms of governance. As to whether this outlook is "Orwellian" is open to interpretation.
posted by antonymous at 5:04 PM on August 15, 2013 [4 favorites]


clockzero, I think we're pretty much on the same page, actually, w/r/t the horrors of the potential for abuse inherent in the current surveillance state. I just don't see it as being extremely relevant (I will concede for sure that it is partially relevant) to Orwell's 1984.

What Orwell (I don't want to use the word "failed" here, but...) did not predict was the massive influence of corporate power in society.


I think you're absolutely right, and we are on the same page. I tried to make the same point somewhere above, actually, but I think you put it better.

I guess my point is mainly that 1984 was a product of the context of its time, and as a literary work and a vague warning about "totalitarianism" it's still very relevant, but as a "watch out - we're heading in that direction" type warning, I disagree. I think we're headed in a different, possibly worse direction.

Yes, your point is well-taken: Orwell was less a visionary of what would come to pass than an unusually clairvoyant observer of what was already taking place.

Our future seems likely to involve more corporate exercise of power than Orwell's dystopian vision, but remember that corporations and corporate coalitions still rely on states in important ways. They'd be more than happy to let states slowly devolve into mere security and wealth-extraction apparatuses, which is basically all the state appeared to do in 1984, though the focus of the novel was on the subjectivity of citizens in the process of being crushed rather than a dry description of the underlying political economy of course.
posted by clockzero at 5:06 PM on August 15, 2013 [2 favorites]


Orwell was less a visionary of what would come to pass than an unusually clairvoyant observer of what was already taking place.

Yup. A caricaturist. A satirist. A maker of allegories.

I happen to think as well that he was talking about things that are always true. That could fool you into thinking he was a prophet.
posted by Trochanter at 5:23 PM on August 15, 2013


> And here, for the decades, I had thought things were shaping up in a distinctly Huxleyan way. Ah, me.

The Huxleyan flavor sheeple are making it easy for the Orwellian flavor overlords.
posted by jfuller at 5:44 PM on August 15, 2013 [2 favorites]


"Big Brother is Sometimes Watching the Metadata of Your Phonecalls But Only With The Approval of the FISA court and with a Court Approved Warrant." Chilling.

The movie screwed it up though.

The details may have changed from Orwell's time, there are many things science fiction writers can't envision in detail, but the themes remain the same (although again, PK Dick, jeez, the guy had a thematic crystal ball).
Fred Pohl's Space Merchants f'instance still makes a good point about consumerism and corporatism despite no terraforming of Venus going on.

Certainly 1984 is more technologically possible now.
The problems with the abuse of power remains the same whatever the apparatus.
The DOJ seizing the AP's phone records as an example. Hassling (or attempting to kill) reporters has gone on for a while. Not much has changed.

The reality is most people aren't important enough to be surveilled (unless you're in a peacenik group or something). And that was true of the proles in 1984 (with some exceptions). The tools have changed but the challenges haven't. We interred innocent Japanese-Americans in 1942. We've got Gitmo now.

What made 1984 interesting is it made the object of oppression personal. I think that was what was necessary to bring the point home. Otherwise ... I mean hell, we KNOW our government tortures, abducts, surveils, detains (at airports, as material witnesses, etc. etc) illegally searches and seizes, I mean the Patriot Act alone is a cornucopia.

We're just fine with the stuff if it's someone else. Humans. And you see that in 1984. Even in Winston (who early on casually kicks a severed hand into a gutter). The fight is between that callousness and the empathy we feel and the humanity we hold.
That's why saying "Do it to Julia" is such a betrayal. Whenever we ignore these things because, hey, it's not us, that's exactly what we're doing.
1984 is an exhortation to continue striving against that inhumanity more than a polemic of a given flavor.
posted by Smedleyman at 6:01 PM on August 15, 2013 [8 favorites]


This is, incidentally, precisely why George Washington thought a two-party system was a terrible idea.

No it wasn't. It was because he thought parties would engender internal partisanship that would promote disunion and make the political process more susceptible to the influence of foreign interests (who might seek to influence them with, for example, campaign funding in return for consideration). It's a lot easier for people to hide what they're doing when they're working in the context if a party organization, where funding sources and influences can be harder to parse out.

Frankly, I think this thread is kind of silly. All most people mean by casual comparisons to 1984 is that all the various forms of surveillance we find ourselves subjected to now is chilling and anti-Democratic. And that's true, regardless of how Orwell personally felt about state power, and acknowledging it doesn't require lionizing Orwell as a prophet.
posted by saulgoodman at 6:12 PM on August 15, 2013 [4 favorites]


You yourself admitted that you didn't know that speculation was false until recently, but now all of a sudden you have total confidence that you know what's going on?

No, I didn't admit any such thing. If you look at my contributions to that thread I linked, I was one of the skeptics about the widespread paranoia about what the NSA was actually doing. And no, of course I can't have "total confidence that I know what's going on." But I can't see how Snowden's "revelations"--which are all to the effect that the NSA is doing much less and with much more oversight than was commonly asserted to be the case are supposed to somehow make me more worried about NSA overreach than I was before. I certainly can't see why a bunch of people (and I'm not talking just about people on this website but virtually any commentator on the NSA's activities not actually privy to the real scope of those activities prior to Snowden's revelations) who were routinely proclaiming that "of course" the NSA is monitoring every single phonecall inside the US as well as between the US and other countries--along with other such genuinely Orwellian claims--now suddenly declare themselves to be "Shocked! Shocked!" not when they discover that there is gambling going on in the casino but when they discover that there's a little game of parcheesi being played between two old coots at the back table.

Now, it may conceivably be that Snowden is actually a deliberate NSA stooge, let loose on the world to persuade us that their activities are much less draconian than we had feared. Maybe they are even hoping that he'll do a little spying in Russia while he's there (although God only knows the Russians would have to be the worlds greatest morons ever if they were to trust him with anything more secret than the whereabouts of the mens room). Maybe the long game strategy is to get him to infiltrate Wikileaks or something. But while that is all (very, very, very remotely) possible it does not explain the "OMG, we are living in a dystopian nightmare" reception that Snowden's revelations have been getting from people who routinely asserted that the NSA did far worse things than Snowden has revealed before those "revelations" broke upon us.
posted by yoink at 6:16 PM on August 15, 2013


No it wasn't.

"The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of public liberty."

--George Washington's farewell address, 1796
posted by mstokes650 at 6:17 PM on August 15, 2013


Frankly, I think this thread is kind of silly. All most people mean by casual comparisons to 1984 is that all the various forms of surveillance we find ourselves subjected to now is chilling and anti-Democratic. And that's true, regardless of how Orwell personally felt about state power, and acknowledging it doesn't require lionizing Orwell as a prophet.

Yes it's been pretty stupid, and mostly a venue for the crypto proponents of state surveillance to lie about what has actually been revealed by the leaks. Well that and to belittle anyone who thinks that 1984 might, just might, be relevant today.
posted by AElfwine Evenstar at 7:17 PM on August 15, 2013 [2 favorites]


Washington's Farewell address also includes this passage, a couple of paragraphs after the one you cited:

Without looking forward to an extremity of this kind (which nevertheless ought not to be entirely out of sight), the common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party are sufficient to make it the interest and duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it.

It serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which finds a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions.

Which supports my take on it, but I'll grant, it's all very complicated. But this is probably not the best time to suss out the finer points.

At any rate, the thing that troubles people isn't that we have the capabilities and are abusing them now in the same specific ways as in the world described in 1984: it's that we the state essentially does have those capabilities now, period--regardless of whatever theoretical limits executive policies or jurisprudence might impose, if we're assuming the executive branch is occupied by sticklers for law and order (unlike the previous administration).

We all know, implicitly, that state power can change hands unpredictably and suddenly, with civil wars, coups, revolutions, popular political movements, unstable economic conditions, etc. And once a particular technological capability for consolidating power exists, if history is any guide, it will eventually be turned to the purpose of consolidating power. Nuclear, chemical, biological--wherever technology goes, so too goes the tendency to apply the technology in service to state and/or private sector power.

The current administration might not be the one to grossly abuse its surveillance capabilities to further a dictatorial agenda or otherwise as a political weapon, but if the capability exists, someone less pure of heart will eventually come along and put these systems to the kinds of creative uses a J. Edgar Hoover or Joseph Stalin might dream up. That's the fear. That's what scares people and gives rise to some of the more specious attempts to connect current events to 1984. It's not so much about the current reality, but about the likelihood of something as bad or worse coming down in the future. And realistically, that likelihood really has increased at least slightly, no matter where you fall on this security versus liberty debate, given that these capabilities do now exist, and we all know that now.
posted by saulgoodman at 7:18 PM on August 15, 2013


Apparently the movie adaptation of 1984 that used to be in my Netflix streaming queue has gone down the memory hole.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 7:44 PM on August 15, 2013


But while that is all (very, very, very remotely) possible it does not explain the "OMG, we are living in a dystopian nightmare" reception that Snowden's revelations have been getting from people who routinely asserted that the NSA did far worse things than Snowden has revealed before those "revelations" broke upon us.

You use a lot of blanket statements and blind assertions, yoink.
posted by JHarris at 7:49 PM on August 15, 2013


The important part of 1984 is Winston's transformation and betrayal of Julia, and hers of him. Everyone has their price:

Under the spreading chestnut tree
I sold you and you sold me—


The political landscape of 1984 is just set design, and a distraction from the human story.
posted by klanawa at 9:47 PM on August 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


"But I can't see how Snowden's "revelations"--which are all to the effect that the NSA is doing much less and with much more oversight than was commonly asserted to be the case are supposed to somehow make me more worried about NSA overreach than I was before"

A couple of things about this... First - I don't think that even 100 documents of the 10,000-15,000 that Greenwald supposedly has have been released. So it's a bit premature to assume that we have anything close to the full picture.

Second, when you speak of oversight... Are you speaking of congressional oversight? Because there are lot of congresspeople that would disagree with you. And with all due respect to the FISC judges, I would argue that the members of the secret court do not have the technical prowess to fully grasp the capabilities that they are judging.

The non-Snowden revelations regarding the DEA's apparent access to information gleaned from the NSA programs would seem to indicate that they the NSA is targeting criminal behavior from ordinary Americans.

Finally, The air quotes around 'revelations' seems inappropriate.
posted by el io at 11:08 PM on August 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


klanawa: "and a distraction from the human story."

I would respectfully disagree. Winston's love and subsequent betrayal is deeply tied to the his sense of self fighting against the oppressive social norms and structure around him and these norms and structure come from the political landscape.

If you look at the story itself basically, its about Winston's loss of control over self-identity and independence. Winston's love with Julia is his way to resist and rebel against the control over his life. And his final capitulation is not when facing the rats but when he starts loving big brother.

The love story is a way to portray this transformation.
posted by TheLittlePrince at 12:56 AM on August 16, 2013 [2 favorites]


which are all to the effect that the NSA is doing much less and with much more oversight than was commonly asserted to be the case are supposed to somehow make me more worried about NSA overreach than I was before

FISA Court Chief Judge: Ability to police U.S. spying program limited
posted by AElfwine Evenstar at 1:17 AM on August 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


breakin' the law, sure I could have come up with better examples of corporate influence. But corporate influence wasn't my main point there. My main point was that 40,000 protesters outside the White House being ignored (no matter how many of the rest of the USA population they represent) is creepy and disturbing in a away that contrasts with dissidents being preemptively silenced in 1984. Because it was a very vocal and public display which included many people who supported the election and re-election of Barack Obama.

I could have chosen financial regulations as an example, but the rank and file haven't been outside the White House with torches and pitchforks about that issue in the same numbers as the anti-Keystone protesters.

The contractor who performed the environmental review that the State Department's approval of the pipeline will be based on was financially tied to TransCanada, who are to backing the pipeline. So I'd say that's an excellent example of the outsize influence of corporate power in the US.
posted by Cookiebastard at 6:17 AM on August 16, 2013




There's a (apparently brand new) paywall for that link, jeffburdges, but this link goes to the same or a similar article.
posted by Cookiebastard at 8:20 AM on August 16, 2013


If you look at the story itself basically, its about Winston's loss of control over self-identity and independence. Winston's love with Julia is his way to resist and rebel against the control over his life. And his final capitulation is not when facing the rats but when he starts loving big brother.

You're not disagreeing with me, respectfully or otherwise. The particulars of the state apparatus (and whether they resemble the present times, and how prescient Orwell was or was not) are irrelevant to this narrative.
posted by klanawa at 3:03 PM on August 16, 2013


You use a lot of blanket statements and blind assertions, yoink.

Jharris, I linked to a perfect example of exactly the kind of pre-Snowden discussion I was describing right in this very thread (one in which you, actually, participated). Are you seriously questioning my claim that prior to Snowden's "revelations" speculations about the NSA's activities usually imputed to them more intrusive and less legally constrained activities than Snowden actually revealed? Because that seems obviously true to me. But if you actually doubt that as a matter of fact I'll be happy to see if I can find some further examples of the kinds of speculations I'm recalling--in addition, that is, to the one I already linked to.
posted by yoink at 3:17 PM on August 16, 2013


The contractor who performed the environmental review that the State Department's approval of the pipeline will be based on was financially tied to TransCanada, who are to backing the pipeline. So I'd say that's an excellent example of the outsize influence of corporate power in the US.

Undercover agents spied on Keystone protestors: TransCanada and Department of Homeland Security keep close eye on activists, FOIA documents reveal
posted by homunculus at 6:24 PM on August 16, 2013 [2 favorites]




But while that is all (very, very, very remotely) possible it does not explain the "OMG, we are living in a dystopian nightmare" reception that Snowden's revelations have been getting from people who routinely asserted that the NSA did far worse things than Snowden has revealed before those "revelations" broke upon us.

My comment was aimed at the fact that you seem to be hyperbolically casting your aspersions over everyone who is shocked and dismayed at the extent of the NSA's spying over citizens. There are plenty of people who disliked the NSA before but saw it as kind of a necessary evil. One of those people was me. Further, lots of people these people still don't think we're living in a "dystopian nightmare," but do see that potential in the future.

It is true, you might have just aimed it at those people who have gone a bit overboard. But I would say that category is smaller than you think, at least judging from the comment I quoted.

I made that comment because of a phenomenon I've noticed in a lot of online discussions, where some people make a sweeping hyperbolic category statements in a dismissive or argumentative manner, referring to "people." The word people is tricky though; you can say almost anything about people and have it be true, so long as it describes more than one person. This usage is commonly seen making groups seem larger than they are, but the thing is, "people" is vague but common enough that I think many do this, probably even myself included, without noticing. I'm really just asking you to rein it in a little, or trying to.

Are you seriously questioning my claim that prior to Snowden's "revelations" speculations about the NSA's activities usually imputed to them more intrusive and less legally constrained activities than Snowden actually revealed?

It depends on what you mean by intrusive and legally constrained. Intrusive: well they're not intrusive if they're damn near invisible, are they? Legally constrained: the FISA court is a rubber stamp. But those meanings are so wiggly so as to be rhetorically void, I don't think you could be meaning those things, so yes, I do seriously question, and would like to see your response.
posted by JHarris at 6:28 PM on August 16, 2013


(Yes I admit, it is a bit awkward of me to ask these things of users. But I think it is useful to take statements from the realm of airy, handwavy "oh it's so obvious" comments, and ask to settle them down into something hard that can be critiqued, and, possibly, have a chance of convincing people. People like me, maybe. Well anyway: please?)
posted by JHarris at 10:54 PM on August 16, 2013


KokuRyi the link on limitations of George Orwells language
Was very poor, there were no citations or references in the
Essay. George Orwell is telling us that the manipulation of
Language is the manipulation of truth. We see this manipulation
Everyday.
There is so much to discuss about George Orwell his writing is
So clear and easy to understand.
Thanks for the initial post it gave historical context to how
Orwell was thinking when he wrote 1984 (1948)
posted by Narrative_Historian at 2:31 AM on August 17, 2013


Scary thought for all old people: Orwell was closer in time to 1984 than we are. Carumba.
posted by Trochanter at 3:10 PM on August 17, 2013


But it was published in 1949, which was 35 years before the title year. It's only been 29 years since 1984.
posted by JHarris at 4:35 PM on August 17, 2013


Hmph. counting on my fingers let me down. Pretty close though. I'll remind y'all in seven years.
posted by Trochanter at 7:09 AM on August 18, 2013


We're not headed to Orwell's dystopia for the very simple reason that you don't end up at Orwell's dystopia except by accident.

A couple of different people have pointed out upthread that the common reading of Oceania as a functional technologically advanced technological state is dead wrong: a key point about the world Winston lives in is that it is deeply dysfunctional in ways that are clearly obvious to anyone who lives in them: massive economic failure, social isolation and psychological misery. This is not a society that even the leadership wanted, in the same way that the Soviet Union was not the society that its elite wished to build: if you look at the apparatchiks and party members who helped form the society, hell if you look even at Stalin's personal journals, it was quite clear that they did, to differing degrees and with differing levels of ideological committedness, at least hope and in many ways enthusiastically believe that they were undertaking labor that would create a society that would function effectively.

Once that ideal died, they settled for ruling the ruins, as did similar elites in North Korea, Cuba, and the satellite states, since that was obviously better than the alternative of relinquishing power. And when opportunities seemed to arise where they could alter the system in beneficial ways without risking their own control, they took them - in the Chinese Communist Party's case, radically and (thus far) successfully, and in the case of the USSR under Gorbachev and his fellow reformers, moderately and unsuccessfully. The line between the origins of the 30th centuries great totalitarian societies - and you could include in this right-wing dictatorships in Spain, Portugal, Greece and Latin America, and possibly Iran today - begins with impoverished and often war-devastated societies facing powerful external foes and an idea based on completely unrealistic economic and social goals (centralized state communism in the Bloc, revamped mercantilism and Catholic fundamentalism in fascist Iberia, an ultimately impossible mix of nationalist economic autarky and American corporate involvement in South America), with the dystopia of 1984 marking the place at which they fell at the wayside and stagnated.

And it makes perfect sense that Orwell would see this as a perfectly reasonable image of future Britain because Britain was also a war-ravaged, devastated society characterized by rationing, scarcity, a population inured to wartime social and political controls and with an odd mix of Fabian socialism and Tory paternalism determining the policy models of the postwar governmental elite. It's a very similar line.

If you try to draw a direct line between the United States, or the West generally, and dystopia you have to start at a different place. And you will also naturally end in a different place, because the elites, when they look for a model for what society should look like, have only half in common with their totalitarian counterparts (it features them in a controlling position). They are the rulers of affluent societies with moderately free democratic systems and populations who have a widely varying but always limited tolerance for governmental interference in the economic and social realm. Their ideal image of the future tends to involve somewhat more functional models of economic and social life, and integrates different aspirations for themselves.

That last is an important point, because it is so often and obviously missed when people start howling over how Bush (or Obama) is looking to make himself dictator for life, abolish elections, whatever. No one in the elite actually wants that. They aren't drawn to the notion of being a totalitarian tyrant, because being a totalitarian tyrant sucks. Your regime constantly in danger from coups from within or popular revolt from without, your freedom of movement is limited, everyone hates or fears you or both, even those closest to you. It's better than being dead or a prole under someone else's bootheel, but that's it. The West's elites aspire to better than that, and they are unlikely to be forced into a position where they need limit those aspirations. They want to spend their time running things and then retire to the lecture circuit, the golf course, the round of charitable foundations or academic appointments. They want their children to have a privileged shot at the same. Their methods of constraining threats will be different, their tools will be different, and the result will be something quite different than 1984.

Huxley's dystopia is closer to our world for the very simple reason that it is a functional dystopia: it is a place that satisfies its inhabitants to a degree that radically limits (importantly, not so much by eradicating but channeling) dissent. There's little or no evidence that the system is breaking down or is likely to start in future. Likewise, despite all the hoopla about the (one more time!) final crisis of capitalism supposedly unleashed in 2007, the fact of the matter is that capitalism in America has survived this sort of thing before. It knows how to survive this sort of thing, and its worst case scenario involve some sort of retrenchment in the direction of New Deal/social democratic policies that will get the juices flowing, moderate radical dissent, and inject some fresh blood into the vampire of Zizek (or the vampire squid of Taibbi.

Means of social control are more subtle, and mainly focused on leveraging areas which Americans generally don't think of as rights (such as the nebulous and technical realm of not having someone look at your 'metadata'), or that affect a relatively small number of Americans (being executed by the state is still mainly the province of the urban poor, the occasional Randy Weaver-style militia nut, or radical Islamic clerics). Effort is based on finding more such examples and pushing hard there, while leaving the pleasures and attentions of citizens be re-directed elsewhere. But a core element of the latter is having a broader system in place that enables those pleasures and attentions to be satisfied - as they are in Brave New World, and as they most certainly are not in 1984. That needs to be maintained. Discarding it would entail massive losses not only to the population but also to the quality of life and personal security of the elite themselves.

We're not going to look up one day and see jackboots because who the fuck needs jackboots? You might as well expect the Federal Reserve and Wall Street to jointly declare a new age of centralized industrial planning. The tool isn't one that fits the job.

Is it possible that something might change this state of affairs? The only thing that could knock us down hard enough - create a devastating enough situation to make the line to 1984 viable again - would probably be global environmental collapse which, hey, might happen. Outside of that, there's really nothing else that would snap us back in that direction. Capitalism can, absent exhaustion of resources, continue shifting back and forth between the policies required to prime the pump (a moderate welfare state apparatus and socioeconomic legislation targeted towards growing the middle class) and feasting-locust-style free-market strip mining once generational turnover and political apathy allow it.
posted by AdamCSnider at 3:11 AM on August 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


Damn it, missed the edit button. As far as I am aware, there are no personal journals written by Stalin. Not sure what I was thinking there. Early morning hallucinations?
posted by AdamCSnider at 3:22 AM on August 19, 2013


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