George Orwell's 1984 has a good claim to be one of the most famous books of all time. It is certainly one of the most famous books about politics, and has given us terms such as Thought Police, Big Brother and Orwellian. 1984 is frequently referenced in political discourse, but I am curious as to how many people who quote the infamous line about ‘a boot stamping on a human face – forever’ have actually read the rest of the book. Until recently, I had not read 1984; I knew the story, set up and characters, and I have read many of Orwell's non-fiction books, but I had never actually read his seminal text. So I decided to read the often-referenced indictment of tyranny and oppression.
1984 lived up to the hype. As well as being a terrifying vision of the future of humanity, where individualism, free thought and emotions are crushed by a cruel one-party super-state, I found it to be brilliantly written. I also found the book to be strangely old-fashioned in its thinking. Not conservative or even suffering from having an outdated vision of the future, many of Orwell's ideas about constant surveillance, entertainment machines that monitor you, and a fearful population constantly policing each other have come true. The key difference is that it is Google and Facebook who are constantly watching us, not the government. It is not a political party that wants to crush any dissenting thought, but hundreds of angry middle aged men on Twitter sending abuse to any woman who dares to question patriarchy. 1984 brilliant predicts 21st century life, but behind the scrutiny is not a not a shadowy political elite but large companies and ordinary human beings.
Our political debate has moved on from 1984. On the surface, Orwell's novel is an argument against the power of the state and for individual freedom. Orwell lived through the rise of Fascism and Stalinism in the 1930s and saw the USSR stretch its influence across Europe after the Second World War. He joined a Trotskyist brigade in the Spanish Civil War and fought against Fascism, but was appalled at how Stalinism was crushing alternative political movements on the left. Orwell believed in democratic socialism and individual freedom, and was against the naked tyranny of Stalinism. He wrote 1984 as a left-wing criticism of Stalinism, and not as a blanket condemnation of Communism - which unthinking readers often assume that it is.
Today, the threat of a specifically Stalinist dictatorship conquering the world through its subversion of the worker's struggle for emancipation is a distant memory. However, individual freedom does not reign worldwide. We are still watched over by a unknown elite, but now it is the masters of big data, not big government. Our thoughts and actions are still policed, not by political officers but by each other. Stalinism is dead, but we are still as frightened and as alienated as we were during Orwell's lifetime.
From our contemporary point of view, 1984 reads like a vision of the future from the past. It seem as a strange as the view in 1975 that we would be living on the moon in 1999. As I was reading the book, I kept asking myself, who supports this system? Who passionately believes in it, in the way that men on Twitter defend patriarchy and capitalism? Does everyone only support it out of terror? The political system of 1984 is so mercilessly awful that I felt that someone needs to gain from it or feel more secure through its existence to create the social cohesion that holds the system together. There are a few inner-party people who gain from the system, but what does the majority of the population get from it? Neoliberal capitalism benefits mainly a tiny group of the ultra-rich and oppresses billions worldwide, however the power of the ultra-rich is built on a comfortable middle class, who are supportive of the system because of their fear and superiority over the poor. The middle class lose out under neoliberalism (how many middle class people can afford to buy a property in London any more?), but they support it because they benefit enough from it not to cause a fuss.
In 1984, everyone suffers but no one questions. I do not see a political system like this surviving today, not with our ability to self-organise through social networks. Look at the Arab Spring and how the cruel dictatorships were swept aside by popular resentment (unfortunately to be replaced by war, chaos and more dictatorships). A system like that shown in 1984 could have conceivably existed the 1940s, 1950s or 1960s, but not today. Social control still exists, but not in such as an aggressive and heavy-handed way.
Orwell was a member of a Trotskyist Party in the Spanish Civil War and a Marxist critique of class and capitalism runs through his writing. However, 1984 does not take into account the work of the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci on cultural hegemony. The totalitarianism of 1984 is heavy-handed and unstable. Culture is used to protect the party's power; the character of Julia works writing novels for the Ministry of Truth, but these are also blunt instruments of state control. Today social control still exists, but without taking away our individual freedom. It exists through subtly convincing us all that an artificial economic system - which only really benefits the very rich - is natural, inevitable and in all our best interests. If Orwell was writing 1984 today, it would reflect a similarly bleak future, but it would also reflect how individual freedom is co-opted by cultural hegemony to suppress dissent against the economic and political elites. The nature of Marxist critiques of society have changed.
One of the most positive things that happened during the second half of the 20th century was the decline of totalitarianism and the expansion of democracy. The Berlin Wall fell and the dictatorships of Eastern Europe transitioned to democracy. China has liberalised, apartheid has ended in South Africa, and totalitarian in regimes in Chile, Argentina, Indonesia, Burma and many other countries have ended or are currently embracing democracy. The Arab Spring showed how the oppressed people of the world hunger for freedom and democracy. However, we are still not free. We are not free from class when social mobility is declining, we are not free from patriarchy when 1 in 4 women will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime, we are not free from racism when Donald Trump can glide his way to the Republican nomination on a platform of Islamophobia and anti-Hispanic racism. Russia transitioned from a communist dictatorship to a capitalist one. The far right and neo-Nazi parties are growing in popularity across Europe and Fundamentalist Islam is spreading in the Middle East across Iraq and Syria. With the fall of Communism, it looked like freedom had won, but freedom is as much under threat today as it looked when Stalin might roll his tanks from Berlin to Lisbon.
Tyranny is still real, but it's face has changed since Orwell wrote 1984. It has become subtler and more appealing to our fears and insecurities. In the 1930s and 1940s, Stalinism and Fascism wanted aggressively to take away our rights and suppress our individualism; now, it is our rights and our individualism that is used to police us. There is no Big Brother, no Party, no Thought Police, but we are constantly watching each other and any deviation from the dominant ideology is swiftly punished - ask anyone who stands up for women's rights on Twitter. The ways in which a shadowy elite control society and politics for their own interest have become much subtler since 1984 was written, but they are still just as present. If you want a vision of the future, just imagine a voice whispering that this is natural and in our best interest into your ear, forever.