1984: A critique

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 Not conservative or even suffering from having an outdated vision of the future, many of Orwell's ideas about constant surveillance, entertainment machines that monitor you, and a fearful population constantly policing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.

The politics of Iain Banks novels

On Wednesday the 3rd of April, best-selling Scottish author Iain Banks announced that he was dying of cancer and that his next novel, The Quarry, will be his last. In light of the news, many fans must be looking back over his oeuvre, considering what conclusions can be drawn while he is still alive.

Iain Banks was famously described as “two of Scotland's best authors” because he writes both science fiction and literary fiction (the former as Iain M. Banks). Despite the different genres, the same broad political and social themes come up in all his novels and a lot of common ground can be found.

Iain Banks is amongst the most popular writers of today who is clearly left wing. He is outspoken on subjects as varied as Scottish independence and Israel’s military intervention in Gaza. Politics infiltrate his novels to varying degrees, but it is ever-present in the themes, characters and settings he explores. One recurring theme is the idea that political opinions are a manifestation of peoples’ deepest values, such as in The Steep Approach to Garbadale. The difference between left and right wing people, according to main character Alban Wopuld, all comes “down to imagination. Conservative people don’t have very much so they find it hard to imagine what life is like for people who aren’t just like them... empathy and imagination are almost the same thing, and it’s why artists, creative people, are almost all liberals, left leaning.”

Allegory is often used to convey these ideas. 1986’s The Bridge presents a strange coma-world which symbolises the crumbling of Britain’s post-war consensus and the onset of Thatcherism. The part of the Iron Lady herself is filled uncompromisingly by a sadistic Field Marshall, who indulges his pigs with luxury accommodation on his captured train whilst enjoying such activities as forcing tethered prisoners to run to exhaustion in front of the slowly driven locomotive. But it is, perhaps, the puzzling allegory of his Culture series which pose the most interesting political questions.

These novels mainly explore the question of “how perfect is the Culture?” Is this anarchistic, socialist, post-scarcity collective really a utopia? It caters for every possible human need and removes the need for sickness, death, money, want and intolerance. No one works as society is administer but hyper intelligent computers known as Minds for the benefit of humanity. Who would not want to live in the Culture where literally anything is possible? The subtle question asked by most of the Culture novels is: “is the Culture so perfect that they feel the need to meddle in the affairs of the less perfect?” Banks’s reaction to real-world military interventions perhaps suggests an answer: on the 2003 invasion of Iraq, he returned his torn-up passport to 10 Downing Street in protest (after abandoning his original idea of “crashing my Land Rover through the gates of Fife dockyard, after spotting the guys armed with machine guns”).

Many of the early books provide simple comparisons between the Culture and other civilisations. In Consider Phlebas, the Culture is at war with the Idirans who seek to aggressively conquer other species because they believe themselves to be superior. In The Player of Games, the Culture encounters the Azad who have a suppressive hierarchical society, repressive gender politics and the material problems of scarcity. Compared to these societies, the Culture appears utopian and the reader feels that they are justified in intervening to improve the lot of their citizens. Similarly, in Excession the Culture face the Affront, who are so disgustingly violent towards every other living creature that the reader has sympathy for the Culture in declaring all-out war against such an insult to sentience.

However in later books, perhaps as a reaction to the cultural imperialism of neo-con foreign policy such as the Iraq war, the Culture's well-meaning interference has disastrous consequences. In Look To Windward, the Culture unbalances the fiercely cast-based Chelgrian society in an attempt to make it more egalitarian. This results in a bloody civil war for which many Chelgrians feel the Culture is responsible. The Culture's belief in their own perfection and how to better others ultimately leads to more death than the Idirans or the Affront could create deliberately.

Whereas the Culture novels show us how great the future could be, Banks’s non-Culture novels show us how awful the future could be. In Against A Dark Background, the Huhsz cult is allowed to hunt and kill people in order for their messiah to be born. In The Algebraist the future is divided between the overbearing Mercatoria and the sadistic Starveling Cult. In these nightmarish vision of the future, technology is turned against humanity to repress and cause suffering. Banks has scorn reserved for our own world too, from the cruelty of Thatcher’s Britain in The Bridge to money-grubbing US businesses in The Steep Approach to Garbadale.

In his Culture set novella The State of the Art, Banks turns his lenses directly to Earth as we know it. Set in the 1970s, it deals with the Culture's first contact with humans. The Culture citizens, with their perfect existence, are horrified by how cruel life on Earth is. However, one Culture citizen decides to stay on Earth, smitten by the concept of Christianity (reaching the opposite conclusion, co-incidentally, to The Crow Road’s Prentice McHoan, who eventually finds happiness by rejecting religion). Banks explores the idea of whether happiness is truly possible without experiencing suffering, and thus can anyone in Culture be happy? He poses the idea that the Culture's meddling in the affairs of others may just be a means to justify its own existence.

At its best, sci-fi tells us something about our own world – as Banks once said, “no-body who reads science fiction comes out with this crap about the end of history.” The Culture is more than just an aspiration of what lefties believe that a future society could be like, free from binding social roles, repressive leadership hierarchies and scarcity of resources. It is also an allegory for how westerners feel enlightened compared to poorer nations, and our need to meddle in their affairs – much as the West has done over the course of Banks’s career. We want to live in the Culture as much as we realise that we would rather live under western liberal democracy than under most other governments on Earth. The Culture reminds of the need to be critical of ourselves to see what effect we have on other societies.

Why you should not lend Ayn Rand your car

Recently I had to face the prospect of moving a large amount of house hold waste to the dump without access to a car or van of any sort. I do not have a driving licence so renting one was out of the question. The solution to this problem was evident; find an obliging friend who would happily drive my broken old furniture to the dump. This was easily done but a second problem quickly emerged, how best to pay my friend for his time and the use of his car. A simple cash payment between friends seemed crass, more akin to a business relationship than an honest friendship, so I was left with a dilemma.

What I actually wanted to acquire from my friend was use of his vehicle and his skills as a driver. Obtaining these for myself had been options in the past, but I deemed the cost of learning to drive and purchasing a car too high and thus declined. This afforded me more money to indulge in my other interests such as buying minimalistic furniture, however the keen investor is usually proved right and thus when some large items of furniture were broken beyond repair I needed to find some means of economic exchange to secure the removal of a broken wardrobe from my living room.

If hard currency was out of the question, what could I offer in exchange for my friend’s Sunday afternoon and his driving skills? Eventually I settled on the idea of a goods exchange. I would use some of my current wealth to purchase goods, which could be given to my friend in exchange for the use of his car and driving skills, which he had invested past wealth in. Both of us being fans of real ale I bought a selection from a local microbrewery for him to enjoy after he had driven home. I made it clear that I was not offering an incentive to violate drink-driving laws.

After our exchange of goods and labour was completed, the whole process made me think. How could I be sure my friend had received a fair price for his labour and the investment he had made in the car? The wardrobe was quite a problem for me and I might have valued the use of the car more highly than the payment I offered. In a competitive market place, where there are no restrictions of friendship then the use the car might have fetched a far higher price in terms of bottles of ale.

The whole situation reminded me of Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged in which Midas Mulligan insists his friend charges him for the use of his car rather than simply borrowing it for free. Rand being a believer in the virtues of selfishness saw it as socialism to lend goods for free.

Perhaps this is an extreme interpretation of what she thought but the economics behind her ideas were simple. Someone invests time and money in learning to drive and buying a car. Those who choose otherwise should have to sacrifice some form of economic gain in order to get the benefit of what they have not invested time and money into.

I think Rand is missing a truth to this situation, which played out through my own experiences this weekend. On some level I was offering goods I purchased in exchange for the use of skills and equipment but there was another transaction taking place. My friend was sacrificing his Sunday afternoon to help me out of a situation, a choice which carried with it an opportunity cost. As part of this exchange he was building up good favour with myself which is in turn an investment which will yield fruit later, perhaps in the form of me fixing his computer or helping him clean up after a party. This relationship is not quantified by a direct exchange of goods and labour, but it is still taking place.

In short there is a human exchange taking place as well as an economic one. This human exchange can lead to an economic benefit in the future and the good relationships human exchanges foster can form the basis of strong long term economic alliances of the variety that really benefit communities and the wider economy. Not short term valuation aiming to get the maximum value for minimum input.

In Rand’s world we are all selfish machines, doing what is best for ourselves in the hope that this will somehow make human society richer as a whole. As the economic crash of the 2000s shows unbridled selfishness ultimately makes us all poorer. Human trust is an important commodity and good relations make as much sense economically as they do socially. I am very pleased that my friend gave up his Sunday afternoon to help me and I feel that it brought us closer together in a spirit of co-operation, a closeness that can help us overcome economic hardships.

Rand’s bleak view of humanity misses our real strengths; our willingness to sacrifice for each other that helps us collectively overcome great hurdles. What this all boils down to is that in the future, if I owned a car and Ayn Rand asked to borrow it, the price would not simply be economic and I doubt she could afford it.